Thursday, November 29, 2007

Future Hope

Professor Moltmann lives in Germany. His childhood was spent in the era of atheism shortly before and during Hitler's reign. Only as a prisoner at the end of the war did he begin to seriously study about God. Since then, he has been a professor of theology at several universities.

He explains the change in terms of time: his early years of atheism and Nazism were focused on the past and the present, he says, but had no clear vision for the future. Yes, Hitler's plans for an empire gave a notion for the short-term future, but the questions which all humans ask were left unanswered: What happens after I die? What happens after the universe ends? An physicists from Newton to Einstein to Hawking tell us that the physical universe will indeed end.

Atheism, says Moltmann, may provide a basis for Hitler's plans of racial supremacy, but it does not provide a foundation for thinking rationally about the distant future. So Moltmann began to think about God.

Moltmann's vision of the next life is that God will "answer the cries of human victims for justice, without simply meting out vengeance on the perpetrators of injustice," as Peter Steinfels summarizes in the New York Times (January 20, 2007). Moltmann's "eschatological vision would not involve the retributive justice of human courts, but" a creative form of justice "which can heal and restore the victims and transform the perpetrators."

Moltmann's view of the end of this universe, and the beginning of the afterlife, "is not reward and punishment, but victory over all that is" evil; it will be "a great day of reconciliation."

According to Moltmann, God is not primarily an angry judge, as he is sometimes depicted, but rather motivated by love for humans, and a desire to forgive them, and to fix the problems of the universe.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The History of Hospitals

Care-giving is rooted in a desire to enhance the well-being of our fellow man. Whether it is through our own need to be cared for or a loved one’s need, at some point in each of our lives we can benefit from this practice.

The art of care-giving began as a family effort and over time became institutionalized. In pre-Christian societies, the infirm were watched over by their family in their own home or they were expelled from the city. The first modern hospital, including a teaching and research department, was documented at the Academy of Gundishapur, and operated by the Persian Christian Church, around A.D. 300-600.

The expansion of the hospital system in Medieval Europe was driven in large part by Christianity. Before Christianity the Romans might care for each other as part of family-based obligations. The Greeks did the same. The First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. ordered the construction of a hospital in every cathedral town in the Roman Empire to care for the poor, sick, widows, and strangers. They were staffed by religious orders and volunteers and were funded by the same.

Although the first hospital in the United States was constructed much later in Philadelphia, Christianity was still the motivating force. Philadelphia grew into the fastest populated city in the 13 colonies and became a melting pot for diseases because of its ports and constant stream of immigrants. With the increasing number of poor suffering from physical illnesses as well as the number of people from all classes suffering from mental illness, Philadelphia became the perfect place for the nation's first hospital.

The Pennsylvania Hospital was established in May 1751, the result of a collaborative effort of Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Thomas Bond, a hometown physician who studied medicine in England and France and became inspired by the thriving hospital system overseas. Franklin was emerging from his youthful flirtation with deism into a text-based spirituality; he authored and published a hymnbook of liturgies and prayers. Out of this mature world-view, he understood the necessity of helping the helpless with no expectation of repayment or reward; hence the desire to found a hospital.

The charter was granted to establish the Pennsylvania Hospital “to care for the sick, poor and the insane,” and the first patient was admitted in February of 1753. The hospital’s seal, the image of the Good Samaritan, was inscribed on the plaque outside as well as the phrase, “Take care of him and I will repay you.”

Although the hospital was created to benefit the community, it was not readily accepted, nor was any subsequent hospital that was built. In fact, most people found them unfamiliar and even frightening. People were used to caring for their sick relatives in their homes, and it wasn't until the “Spanish flu” epidemic in 1918 that people began to realize the appeal that mass care hospitals provided. Further promotion for the cause of hospitals came in 1921 when the editor for a Chicago magazine proposed that hospitals open their doors to the public for one day so the community could come inside and see them. After becoming more familiar with the medical advances employed by hospitals, people accepted them, and on May 12, 1921 America celebrated its first National Hospital Day.

The majority of hospitals serve only medical needs, and lack the philosophical guidance of a larger world-view. Since the late 20th century, more and more hospitals have been funded by the state, health insurances, health organizations, and charities rather than religious orders. Today nearly 6,000 hospitals are in operation with over five million staff members across the United States. According to Hospital Statistics, these hospitals admit almost 37 million patients each year, treat another 117 million in emergency departments, and see another 545 million for other outpatient needs. On any given day, 658,000 patients fill U.S. hospital beds.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Defining Virtue

We have seen that virtue is subject to changing definitions in history: among the Greeks, virtue was based on superiority, and often no attempt was made to disguise ruthless oppression, because precisely that was seen as virtuous - and so Thucydides reports the Athenian delegation speaking to islanders of Melos and threatening them with destruction if they fail to give in to Athenian demands, and so Alexander builds an empire by attacking, without provocation, neighboring countries, causing the deaths of thousands - such behavior was seen by more than a few as virtuous.

Some Romans likewise embraced harshness as virtue - Marcus Aurelius, whose calm Stoic aphorisms tempt one to picture him as a even-tempered sage, spent almost his entire career as emperor, not on a throne, but engaged in bloody and vicious battles, and penned orders for the executions of thousands of innocent men, women, and children, whose only crime was participating the new religion known as Christianity.

After Constantine's example of tolerance, by which he legalized Christianity, and declined to seek revenge by persecuting the pagans who had been persecuting the Christians, we seen a shift in ideas of virtue - respect for human life becomes a central ingredient in the common European notion of virtue.

Yet hints of the old warlike virtue of competitive superiority remain: certainly in the half-Christian, half-pagan epics like Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied, but even in much more modern and post-modern examples: Nietzsche praises the virtue of a man who cruelly exploits any form of weakness in his fellow humans.

In our own time, Hillary Clinton has been praised for "her opportunism, her triangulation, her ethical corner-cutting, her shifting convictions, her secrecy, her ruthlessness." These words, which would be perceived as insults according to the common notion of virtue, are conceived as praise by Maureen Dowd, a supporter of Hillary Clinton, who uttered them. In announcing what she considers to be Clinton's virtues, she describes what most people would call vices: "She is cold-eyed about wanting power and raising money and turning everything about her life into a commodity."

Perhaps Maureen Dowd and Hillary Clinton would be more comfortable with Octavian and Themistocles.