Friday, February 29, 2008

Newbigin on The Gospel in a Pluralist Society

Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society:

The Christian believer is using the same faculty of reason as his unbelieving neighbor and he is using it in dealing with the same realities, which are those which every human being has to deal. But he is seeing them in a new light, in a new perspective. They fall for him into a different pattern. He cannot justify the new pattern in terms of the old; he can only say to his unbelieving neighbor, stand here with me and see if you don’t see the same pattern as I do. (pg. 11)

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Christian Carnival 213

Thanks to Henry Neufeld for hosting this week's Christian Carnival at Jevlir Caravansary! It includes my post on Inclusivism and the Atonement.

Do Muslims Worship the True God?

James’ last post in the our inclusivism bloggersation focused especially on the case of Muslims and whether their view of Jesus is comparable to that of the early Church. I haven’t commented on it because I don’t really feel qualified to do so, but I wanted to point out that John Piper and Rick Love have been debating almost the same subject recently. Rick argues that Muslims do indeed worship the true God (though, “in ignorance”), Piper claims that they worship a false one. Justin Taylor lists their contributions (and defends Piper’s view) at Between Two Worlds.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

In Praise of Free Love

The following was first posted here (part of a different blogologue), and is tangential to the present discussion of inclusivism, so I wont add it to the list, but since free will is important to my position on these issues, I think it's relevant:

In the comments on my post about free will, doctor(logic) made a statement that I don’t want to fall off the main page unnoticed. Arguing that accepting determinism would not adversely affect our experience, he provides the following example:

If we could explain the details of a love affair in terms of chemistry, that wouldn't really make much difference to the experience. We still "feel free" to weigh our options and decide according to how we feel.

I think this example itself illustrates the danger of deterministic thinking. What is “love” anyway? Is it a rush of emotions? Attraction? If that’s all it is, then I could make his statement even stronger: we already know that this is essentially a chemical phenomena. Truly, the fact that we can tie our emotions to certain hormones doesn't change our enjoyment of the sensations they cause. In that sense, determinism does not impact the experience.

But note that we have now redefined love in terms of chemistry. In the process, we have lost the very thing that makes it valuable: choice. Love is not infatuation, though such emotions can strengthen it. Love is the choice to treat another “as you would treat yourself,” to “consider another more important than yourself,” to “put someone else first.” It is the choice that makes it love, not the chemically induced emotions sometimes associated with it, nor even the actions it produces. Selfless action without choice isn’t love, it’s slavery -- whether chemically or socially induced.

In love as in life, choice is inherent to our experience. To leave it out is to leave love out, and that seems a poor trade for determinism.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Inclusivism and Universalism - To Hell With Sin?

In Michael’s latest contribution to the present conversation, he accused James of being “on the fringe of universalism.” James has denied the charge, though continued to maintain a strong form of inclusivism, which makes this a good time to fulfill my promise to explain how I both affirm inclusivism (though not as strongly as James), and yet deny universalism. The problem is this: If we accept that it is possible for a person who did not know Jesus in this life, to nonetheless be saved by Jesus, how can we expect that anyone will fail to be saved?

Surely, it will be argued, if it is in any sense possible to come to Jesus after death, everyone can be expected to do so. If God really is all good and loving, surely everyone, upon reaching his throne, will see that and believe. Doesn’t Paul say that “every knee will bow… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11)? Does he not say that “just as through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] the many [oi polloi] were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man [Jesus] the many [oi polloi] will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19)? If we interpret the first “many” to mean all people, should we not interpret the second in the same way? If so, then Christ’s death is sufficient to save everyone, so how can it fail to do so?

This is an attractive argument, but taking it all the way to universalism means ignoring Jesus’ own comments about hell, his parables about the final judgment (e.g. Matthew 25:31-46), his claim that “wide is the gate and broad the road that leads to destruction, and many [polloi] enter through it” (Matthew 7:13), and the Bible’s ever-present distinction between the righteous and the unrighteous. Thus, while Paul’s universalistic sounding comments can perhaps be used to support inclusivism, they cannot easily prove full universalism - unless we conclude that Paul disagreed with Jesus (and/or the Gospel writers) on this point.

Some might suggest, however, that Jesus’ comments are only meant to scare us into being good – like a parent that tells their toddler that if they don’t stay in bed the boogie monster will get them. Maybe God only threatens hell so we’ll follow him more readily, not because he actually intends to send us there.

Leaving aside the fact that this is actually a very disturbing picture of God, it simply cannot be maintained. The problem lies in free will: If God has any need at all to convince us to follow him, that must mean that we have a choice in the matter. But if human beings truly have a choice whether to accept God or reject him, then the possibility that some will in fact reject him can never be denied.

If it is true, as it seems to be, that our sins can become so entrenched that it becomes impossible for us to root them out ourselves, then ultimately we are all faced with an inescapable choice to either seek God’s aid, or remain in our sin. But that’s a problem, because it also seems to be the case that many people (and indeed, all of us are in danger of this) have embraced particular sins so thoroughly that not only are they unwilling to seek help in overcoming them, but they take offense at any suggestion that they need help. Unless we propose that God completely override their will, then such people might well condemn themselves to hell (which really means: choose to separate themselves from God). In such a tragic case, even God cannot help them.

For if God cannot justly override a person’s will to damn them (as any inclusivist must affirm), can he justly override a person’s will to save them? No matter how many chances God gives a human to repent, the possibility can never be denied that some, through pride, will still reject his offers. As usual, C.S. Lewis sums this up it best, in The Problem of Pain (the whole of this book, by the way, is directly applicable to our topic):

There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, especially, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason. If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts ‘Without their will, or with it?’ If I say, ‘Without their will’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say ‘With their will,’ my reason replies, ‘How if they will not give in?’ (pgs. 119-20)

This post is part of a continuing conversation.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Inclusivism Bloggersation

The present discussion of Christianity, inclusivism and related issues has grown quite extensive, crossing (at least) four seven eight blogs, so that I find myself unsure how to introduce the subject at the beginning of each post. For the sake of readers who might drop in on a post (or the blog) unaware of where we have been, it seems a good idea to compile in one place a full accounting of the discussion so far. Michael has helpfully been keeping such a list at the beginning of each of his posts, but this will give me a single place to direct people. The participants (so far) include Michael Halcomb, James McGrath, Drew Tatusko and myself (Ken Brown) - plus several additional commenters [UPDATE: and now Quixie, R.T. Jones, Owen Weddle, and prophets and popstars]. Since Michael and James started this, however, I’ll give their posts pride of place:

The debate started at Michael’s blog: When Politicians Say They're Christian
James posted his first entry: Take the Flaming Meteorite Challenge (Starting a Bloggersation)
~Ken responded: The Flaming Meteor Challenge Revisited
~Drew responded: Who benefits from Salvation?
Michael posted his first entry: A Response to James McGrath
~Ken added: Inclusivism and the Atonement
James posted his second entry: Community of the Saved or Salvation of the Community
~Drew responded: Who Benefits from Salvation? II
~Ken responded: More Inclusivism and Salvation – Response to James McGrath
Michael posted his second entry: A Rejoinder To James McGrath
James posted his third entry: Continuing Diablogue About Salvation and Christianity
~Ken added: C.S. Lewis on Inclusivism
Michael posted his third entry: The Ensuing Riposte with James McGrath
James posted his fourth entry: A Brief Reply to Michael Halcomb
Michael offered (his fourth entry): A Humorous Reply to James
~After first embracing Michael’s response, Ken added: Inclusivism and the New Perspective on Paul
James posted his fifth entry: Paul and Pluralism (A Reply to Ken Brown, Continuing the Bloggersation)
Michael posted his fifth entry: On the Fringe of Universalism? McGrath Blurring the Lines
James posted his sixth entry: Relegated to the Fringe (The Bloggersation Continues)
~Ken responded: Inclusivism and Universalism - To Hell With Sin?
~Drew responded: Who Benefits From Salvation? III
~Quixie responded: monitoring a blogologue...
~R.T. Jones has been following the conversation: The Soteriology Bloggersation
Michael posted his sixth entry: Michael Halcomb Clarified
James posted his seventh entry: A Muslim Who Loves Jesus (Part Of A Continuing Bloggersation)
~Owen responded: Regarding the inclusive/exclusive debate
~Ken pointed to a related conversation in: Do Muslims Worship the True God?
Michael posted his seventh entry: Is Confessing Christ Necessary: Restarting the Conversation
~prophets and popstars responded: a response: who benefits from salvation?

There now, that wasn’t so complicated, was it? ;)

I'll keep this page up to date, and add links to my other posts pointing here. Now, let's keep it going!

Quote - Salvation and Selflessness

O my Lord, if I worship you from fear of hell, burn me in hell. If I worship you from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates. But if I worship you for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face.
Who said it?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Inclusivism and the New Perspective on Paul

Ok, I lied. I told myself I'd take the weekend off from blogging. Then I thought I'd just get on for a minute and see if anything new had been posted. Before long I was posting a long reply. Now I'm reposting it here. Hello, my name is Ken and I have a problem.

The following is a modified version of the comment I just added to James’ latest offering in the present discussion of inclusivism and salvation (all I’ve changed are the pronouns). The topic is “the new perspective on Paul,” which essentially says that Paul is not writing against those who think we can earn our salvation through “good works,” but rather against those who think that Jewish ethnic boundary markers are what delimit the people of God. Paul is not worried about people trying to earn their salvation, but rather that some people thought that Gentiles could not come to Christ unless they first became Jews. [UPDATE: see here for a fuller introduction to the new perspective]

This post is more technical than my usual (this is why I don’t normally post on Biblical Studies issues!), but the subject is important to the present discussion. So if it’s helpful to you, read on; if not, that’s ok too (go enjoy your weekend!):

I think that more still needs to be said about the new perspective than merely that James and Michael (and I as well) both accept it. Granted that Paul was not opposing works-righteousness legalism, there remains a vital question within the new perspective on which James and Michael (and I) seem to disagree: why did Paul think that those traditional ethnic markers were no longer the distinguishing feature of the people of God? I think James is right in saying that Paul had seen uncircumcised Gentiles experience God's spirit, and therefore concluded that such Jewish boundary markers no longer applied. Such explains his anger at those who would continue to try and exclude such believers, of whom God had already displayed his acceptance (Gal 3:1-5 makes this explicit, and 2:11-16 and 5:1-15 fill out the picture). But when James goes the next step and says that the same is true of the distinction between Christian and non-Christian, I think he ignores Paul's own line of argument. Paul makes clear (e.g. in 2:15-21 and 3:10-14, and even in 3:1-5 itself) that it is precisely because of "Christ in me" (2:20) that these things are true.

Paul's point in Galatians, as I understand it, is not that all barriers have been broken down, but that for those in Christ, the curse of the law, which previously hung over the Gentiles (and indeed, assuming N.T. Wright’s reading of Deuteronomic theology is correct, the Jews too), has been exhausted. The problem was precisely those who, by continuing to insist on the necessity of Jewish boundary markers, were in essence denying that Christ's death had accomplished anything (cf. 2:21).

James is right that this has little to do with opposing works-righteousness, but it has even less to do with abolishing the line between Christian and non-Christian (admitting that such terms are anachronistic), for it was precisely because of their acceptance of Jesus that the Galatians experienced the Spirit at all (going back to 3:1-5). It was because the were “in Christ” that the curse of the Law held no danger to them, even though they remained uncircumcised. Thus, when 5:6 says “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love,” it must not be ignored how Paul introduces this: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision…” (emphasis added). The same is true of Paul’s striking claim in 3:28 that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” for he immediately completes the thought like this: “for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (3:28-29; emphasis added).

Perhaps more than Michael is, I’m willing to concede that it is possible to “belong to Christ” without knowing it, but it seems to me that, to claim that this in any way abolishes the distinction between Christian and non-Christian is not just to go beyond Paul, but to contradict his clear intent.

UPDATE 2: Be sure to read the comments on this post; Michael has highlighted an important point on which I should have written more clearly!

UPDATE 3: This post is part of a continuing conversation.

That Pretty Much Sums It Up

Finally, a post my wife could appreciate. Michael posted the following cartoon as his latest contribution to the conversation on inclusivism and salvation (HT: Locusts&Honey):

On that note, I think I'll take the rest of the weekend off. See you Monday, and God bless!

UPDATE: This post is part of a continuing conversation.

Friday, February 22, 2008

C.S. Lewis on Inclusivism

Carmen mentioned the character of Emeth, from C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle (cf. especially chapter 15), who served a false god, but in such a way that Aslan (the Christ-figure) nevertheless recognized him as a true follower of his. Of course, this is fiction, merely a thought experiment like the rest, but it might be helpful to supplement it with one of Lewis' more explicit statements on the subject. This is from Mere Christianity, and I agree with it completely:

Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him. But in the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is remain outside yourself. Christians are Christ's body, the organism through which He works. Every addition to that body enables Him to do more. If you want to help those outside you must add your little cell to the body of Christ who alone can help them. Cutting off a man's fingers would be an odd way of getting him to do more. (pg. 64)

UPDATE: This post is part of a continuing conversation.

More Inclusivism and Salvation - Response to James McGrath

James has posted his second contribution to the present discussion of salvation and inclusivism (see also here, here, and here, and my previous responses here and here). I was going to reply directly on his blog, but since my comment grew rather long, I’m going to put it here as a separate post instead. This will also be somewhat applicable to Alex's excellent comment on my previous post. James said:

Is the Christian community to understand itself as a community that seeks to ensure that those within it have the characteristics of salvation and a genuine relationship with God? Or are those who have salvation and a genuine relationship with God those who are part of the Christian community?...

If we take the former view (as I do), then it is not that Christianity is a group that one enters because only therein one can find salvation, but one enters it either because it offers a community of those who have had a particular experience of God and are united by it, and invite others to have it....

I think that Paul would have been the first to recognize in those outside the Christian community who showed the defining features of true faith in God (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control...) individuals who knew God and stood in a right relationship to God.

I may have to take a page from Michael’s book and say I don’t know how well either position fits with mine. The second option in particular is ambiguous, because I think defining “who is part of the Christian community” is a bit precarious – does it include all denominations, or just a few, or just those people within (a/any) denomination who truly follow Jesus, etc. If “the Christian community” simply means, “every true follower of Christ, no matter where they are” then I would probably agree with the second option, but with a large qualifier that one can be “a follower of Christ” without, perhaps, knowing much of anything about Jesus (as James says, like Abraham). But that seems a little tautological to me, rather like saying “you’re a Christian if you’re a Christian.”

So that leaves me with the first option, which again I can agree with, but only with qualification: Yes the Christian community is seeking “to ensure that those within it have the characteristics of salvation and a genuine relationship with God,” but that sounds rather like the Christian community is, in essence, no different than any other devout religious community, except that they might perhaps have a few more of the right answers, or might follow “the important rules” a bit better. Again, hopefully both those things are true of the Christian community (though they are not always, even among the genuinely saved), but they don’t seem to really get at the heart of the matter. The Church isn’t just a fan-club; it is a kind of union or mutual abiding with Christ (according to Paul and John respectively). Spelling out exactly what that entails would take a lot of exegetical discussion, and to be honest I don’t have it all figured out myself, but I do think the New Testament conception of being “in Christ” involves more than simply adhering to his teaching, or even trusting and following him.

Thus, while I agree with much of what James says, especially that biblical “faith” has as much to do with trust and faithfulness as it does with “belief” (as many today would define it), I don’t think we can so easily evaporate the dividing line between Christian and non-Christian, even if we maintain that God can rescue even those on the wrong side (for at one time, we all were so). It seems to me that Paul is not abolishing all such boundaries, but rather shifting them from membership in Israel, to “membership” in Christ. If I may be permitted to wander into the Deutero-Pauline Epistles, it is noteworthy that the New Testament’s strongest affirmation that “the dividing wall of hostility” has been broken down, appears precisely in the midst of a discussion of our essential oneness with Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22). It is precisely because we are one in Christ that the barrier has been destroyed.

In the end, I don't know if I am disagreeing with James, or merely seeking to clarify what he has said, but I look forward to further conversation.

UPDATE: This post is part of a continuing conversation.

Inclusivism and the Atonement

I’m still eagerly awaiting the next round in James’ and Michael’s conversation, but my post from yesterday raised some questions about God’s judgment and what it takes to be saved from it, which I have so far only briefly addressed. I mentioned that I am an “inclusivist,” in the sense that I believe it is possible for God to save non-Christians, but I am not a “universalist” in the sense that I still think that at least some people (perhaps a great many) will not be saved. It seems worthwhile to explain and defend each of those claims, so this post will deal with my acceptance of inclusivism. The next one (which I may post tomorrow) A later post will focus on my denial of universalism.

I think the New Testament is clear that “salvation is found in no one else” but Jesus. It is only because God himself took on human form, died and rose again, that humanity has any ultimate hope. Explaining how I reconcile that with inclusivism will require discussing the nature of the atonement, but I don’t want to get bogged down with complicated theories right now. Thankfully, there is a relatively easy way to remember the big three (moral influence, substitution, and Christus victor): Prophet, Priest and King.

This is a very old distinction, but I owe the reference to my former professor, Hans Boersma, whose outstanding book on the atonement is a must read: As Prophet, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection reveal what it is to be truly human; their example teaches us how to love and sacrifice and hope. As Priest, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have, in some sense, allowed him to bear our sins in our place, and so cleanse us from them. As King, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have actively defeated evil, not just on a personal level, but on a cosmic one. Though debates rage over the precise nature and interrelation of these elements, I believe that all three are essential to the significance of Jesus’ incarnation.

So I do not in any way deny that Jesus is the only means of salvation, but neither am I convinced that God’s justice requires that a person must have heard or embraced this truth before death. And yet, as my previous post indicates, I think we should nevertheless live as though this were a requirement. How can I say this? The answer goes right back to my understanding of the nature of the atonement: If Jesus really is the victorious King who defeated evil once and for all, then that effects everyone, not just those who hear about it. By the same token, if Jesus really is “our great High Priest,” his death was sufficient to cover all sins, even those of people who never hear of him. To give an illustration: A prisoner released from the gulags might not understand the political changes that made his freedom possible, but he is free nonetheless. Yet at the same time, a foolish man may refuse freedom and remain in his cell, or accepting this freedom but refusing to change (i.e. accepting Jesus’ victory, but not his cleansing) he might quickly find himself re-imprisoned.

That’s where the third aspect of the atonement comes in: Jesus didn’t just rescue and cleanse us; he also showed us how to live. His example is not tangential to salvation, but essential to it. It is only as we follow his road of sacrifice and service that we can share in its goal – resurrection. Since Jesus has already won the victory and borne the cost, this doesn’t imply that we can earn our salvation, yet neither is it enough to simply “believe the right things.” This truth cuts both ways: it means both that a person is only truly a Christian if they are a follower of Christ, yet it also means that the road of self-sacrifice and service is the road to Christ, and can lead to him even if the person following it doesn’t know the destination.

But that is a hard road, and the chance that someone will choose to follow it without the hope that Jesus offers is tenuous, at best. Therefore, it is possible to follow Jesus without knowing it, and thus it is possible to be saved without hearing his name. But we can by no means assume that the average person will do so, any more than we could stand by and do nothing as a flaming meteor plunges towards our neighbor’s home. Perhaps they won’t listen to our cries (“What? You want me to go outside? But American Idol is on!”), or perhaps they might recognize the danger themselves and be wise enough to flee it; but if we’re not willing to risk ourselves to warn them, we’re not following Jesus either.

UPDATE: This post is part of a continuing conversation.

Once Again, Hope and Sacrifice

Have you seen Once? I watched it this week (actually, I watched it twice), and it truly is an excellent film. Made on a shoe-string budget, this refreshingly unconventional love story boasts some good acting and a lot of fantastic music (which you can listen to here; nearly the whole amazing soundtrack was written by the two leads – Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová). It does include some very salty language, but otherwise it’s clean and has a great message. The story takes place in Dublin and centers on a street musician and a piano-playing single mother (they don’t have names, just “guy” and “girl” in the credits) who are both struggling with their pasts and unsure of their futures, but find common ground in their music.

It’s an engaging story with some unexpected twists, but what I really appreciate is the moral undercurrent to the film. It stresses not only real unconditional love (not mere romantic infatuation), but also the tensions between courage and responsibility, desire and commitment. The essential choice faced by each of these characters is well summed up by the Academy Award nominated song “Falling Slowly,” which frames their relationship (again, you can listen to it here):

Falling slowly, eyes that know me
And I can't go back
Moods that take me and erase me
And I'm painted black
You have suffered enough
And warred with yourself
It's time that you won

Take this sinking boat and point it home
We've still got time
Raise your hopeful voice you have a choice
You've made it now

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but I will mention one particular scene that I only understood the second time through: At one point they take a motorcycle ride on his dad’s bike. The conversation that follows is the turning point of the film, but immediately afterwards they get into this seemingly meaningless argument – she wants to drive the bike, but he doesn’t think she should. She begs, but he refuses since it’s not his and he’s not even sure he should have taken it out in the first place. The scene ends without letting us know whether he gave in or not.

At first, this argument just seemed awkward and unnecessary, but now I think it actually symbolizes the center around which the whole film turns. These characters have found life and joy again, and given each other a glimpse of hope and a way forward, but here they are reminded of their past obligations. This leaves them with a crucial decision to make: either to toss aside their commitments for the sake of the moment, or to do the right thing, even if it means sacrificing something they both want.

I won’t spoil anything more, but if you have seen it, I’d love to hear your reactions. If you haven’t, I highly recommend it!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hell Abolished, God Adopts Gold Sticker System

Since we're on the subject, there's a humorous article at The Wittenburg Door that relates to the previous post… well, sort of. Here's an excerpt:

HEAVEN—One week after beginning His new Self-Esteem Initiative, God reports mixed responses to the biggest change in Human-Divine interaction since the Incarnation.

“We’ve seen gains in both behavior and morale,” the Almighty said during a press conference in Chattanooga, Tenn., “but it’s not conclusive whether these trends will hold.”

Last week’s policy change came as a surprise to many. “It took a few days to get used to receiving a sticker whenever I did a good deed,” said Roberta Davenport of New York City, showing off three stickers on her coat that say “Good Job,” “Well Done,” and “You’re A Star!”

As reported at last week’s press conference, after reading a book on self-esteem in children, the Lord realized that all “Children of God” could benefit from immediate positive reinforcement.

“As it turned out,” the Lord said, “tossing sinners into Hell was seriously damaging their self-esteem.”

Don’t we all feel better now.

The Flaming Meteor Challenge Revisited

James McGrath, of Exploring Our Matrix, has begun a “blogversation” with Michael Halcomb on Christianity, salvation, pluralism and related issues, all of which are relevant to my interests here at C.Orthodoxy. James begins with an intriguing thought-experiment that can be used to determine whether you are an “inclusivist” or an “exclusivist” when it comes to salvation (i.e. whether you think that belief in Jesus is necessary to salvation). He calls it “the flaming meteorite test”:

Basically, it involves a reenactment of the story from Acts 10 about Peter being sent to communicate the Gospel to Cornelius, a non-Jew who has nonetheless been righteous enough to be noticed by God.

Now, imagine that, as Peter is on his way to tell Cornelius about Jesus, a flaming meteorite appears in the sky, heading towards Cornelius' house. BAM! It is levelled and all inside are killed.

So, the question is, how do you view Cornelius? On the one hand, he had already through his righteous life achieved recognition in God's eyes. On the other hand, he had still not been told about Jesus. If you think that God can have a place for Cornelius in his kingdom, then you are an inclusivist. If you think that Cornelius came close, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades but not salvation, then you are an exclusivist.

He admits that, like all thought-experiments, this is a simplification. For instance, one could believe that folks like Cornelius could be saved without hearing about Jesus, but still believe that not everyone will be. Or one could believe that ultimately everyone will be saved, but might disagree about how this will happen (perhaps they will turn to Jesus after death). I tend to think that it is possible, though not certain, that people can be saved by Jesus without hearing his name before they die (just consider the Old Testament patriarchs), and so I think Cornelius would be safe.* I guess that makes me an inclusivist, but I have a somewhat different take on James’ thought experiment:

Let’s imagine that Peter knew that this meteor was bearing down on Cornelius’ house, and knew that if he hurried, he would have time to warn Cornelius and save him from death. Do you think the possibility that Cornelius might see the meteor himself, and so escape without Peter’s help, would justify Peter in leaving him to his own devices?

I ask this because I think sometimes inclusivistic thinking tends to short-circuit evangelism – since we conclude that it is possible to be saved without ever hearing about Jesus, we feel less motivated to go and tell people. But that is a dangerous game to play with other people’s souls. Granted it is entirely possible that they might find God without ever reading a Bible or meeting a Christian, we can no more assume that, than we could assume that since Cornelius might see the meteor himself, we have no need to warn him about it.

*Note: I don’t deny that salvation is found only in Christ, merely that one needs to know that to be saved by him. Neither am I affirming universalism; I believe no matter how many "chances" God gives, some people will still choose to reject him.

UPDATE: This post is part of a continuing conversation.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Hooked on Sex

Mere Comments links to a long but interesting (and distressing) interview with Kathleen A. Bogle, author of the book Hooking Up: Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus:

Q: Can traditional dating survive alongside “hooking up"? Should the two paradigms coexist, or are they merging into a single overall “script” that students follow?

A: I think traditional dating is surviving alongside of hooking up in the larger culture, but on campus hooking up has replaced dating as the primary means for students to meet and form sexual and romantic relationships. This does not mean that students never go out for dinner and a movie. The “date” still exists among college students, but it is couples who are already in an exclusive relationship who do it. In other words, the pathway to a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship where a couple might go on a date begins with hooking up. In the dating era, students would go on a date, which might lead to something sexual happening; in the hookup era, students hook up, which might lead to dating. This is a reversal of the traditional order of things. The problem is that many college men are pleased with the status quo; they can hook up and if they want to pursue an ongoing relationship they can, but they are under no obligation to do so. Women, on the other hand, get increasingly frustrated after freshman year with how often it seems that hooking up leads to “nothing.”

To put a human face on what she's talking about, I'll repost some excerpts from a heartbreaking article that appeared in Rolling Stone in 2006:

I've come to Durham, like hundreds of journalists, to report on the [lacrosse rape] scandal enveloping this campus. But in talking to women at Duke, particularly those who know or run in the same social circles as the lacrosse team, I've begun to see the story as not a ''he said/she said'' tale, nor a story about sexual violence, but rather a story about sex itself. Not sex in its nitty-gritty, anatomical sense, but more in the collective sense: sex as a sport, as a way of life, as a source of constant self-scrutiny and self-analysis....

These women, who had won admission to one of America's most selective universities, had grown up in an age of triumphant feminism, but as they talked about the rape case -- as well as their own sex lives -- there seemed to be a disconnect of sorts. Feminism, which most women saw as a throwback, a "past social inequality," as one girl phrased it, has very little relevance to their lives. It was as if the endless discussion about sexual equality these women had been subjected to growing up had resulted in an almost abstract view of the topic.

Today's female college students are the impressionable middle-schoolers of the late 1990s -- the ones who made Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera icons of sexy, powerful young-womanhood. Now, these girls, too, can have sex -- with whomever they choose and whenever they might want it, in a number of ways, without even thinking about what it all means. And they do, says a sophomore I'll call Naomi (like several of the other women interviewed for the story, she asked that her real name not be used). "Sometimes, girls will be like, 'I'm just horny and I want to have sex,'"....

Much to the disappointment of many students, female and male, there's no real dating scene at Duke -- true for a lot of colleges. ''I've never been asked out on a date in my entire life -- not once,'' says one stunning brunette. Nor has a guy ever bought her a drink. "I think that if anybody ever did that, I would ask him if he were on drugs," she says. Rather, there's the casual one-night stand, usually bolstered by heavy drinking and followed the next morning by -- well, nothing, usually. "You'll hook up with a guy, and you know that nothing will come out of it," says Anna. The best thing you can hope for, she says, "is that you'll get to hook up with him again." Some girls they know have managed to score a regular hookup -- meaning consistent sex -- but others play the field, bouncing from one guy to the next....

The women laugh. But it's part of an overall trend that worries professors like [director of Duke University's women's center Donna] Lisker. "Our undergraduate women at Duke are the best of the best," she says. "They're so smart, so driven, top of their class, student-government presidents, lettered in every sport." But when it comes to their personal lives, men set the social rules. "They throw the parties, they create the expectations, they create the standards, and these women -- these incredibly smart women -- on some level, being accepted by their peers is so important that they put aside their own values and standards. They dumb it down."...

"They've gotten this message from the media and other places that part of being a modern woman is sort of playing with your sexuality. But you get in this situation where they think at this party that they're exercising control. They think that they're showing these boys how it's done by pouring grain alcohol down their throats, by dressing in a sexy way. What they don't necessarily get," she adds, "is that you put on that Playboy-bunny outfit and you're stepping into a history of objectification."

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Compassion and Coercion

The following is a slightly revised version of a post I wrote for the original, and now defunct, Signs of the Times. It was first posted in October 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina, and relates to my post from earlier today. Google Cache has a copy of the original, which is otherwise no longer available:

Matt Kaufman has written an interesting article at Boundless discussing our compassion in responding to tragedy, and the way it gets abused in politics. He argues that to politicize compassion is to destroy it, for real compassion comes from caring individuals, not government programs. He writes:

You can argue for some government programs on the grounds that they're necessary, and that no other alternatives will do: The argument may be wrong in many cases, but it's not inherently dishonest. You can't, however, seriously claim that any government programs are driven by compassion. Compassion, as I'm wont to point out, is voluntary by definition; coerced compassion is a contradiction in terms.
This is all true, of course. A forced gift is no gift at all. But perhaps Kaufman is a bit too hard on the role of government. We can complain all we want about how a government agency botched its response to this or that disaster, how it failed to protect such-and-such group of people, or how it wastes billions on bureaucracy. These are no doubt valid criticisms that should be addressed. But in spite of all those deficiencies, government programs can serve an important and sometimes unrecognized role.

The fact is, we individuals may have big hearts and we may be far more compassionate than any government agency ever could be, but we also have shorter memories. When a tragedy strikes, we admirably pinch our pockets and rush to help, but what about the rest of the time? Once the novelty of the situation wears off, few of us continue to give. Who among us are still giving aid to the tsunami survivors? Not me, I admit. Need doesn’t end when the news gets old, but our interest usually does.

This isn’t an indictment; it’s simply a fact of human nature. Our brains are wired to pay attention to what’s new, and our giving reflects that. That’s why even voluntary aid organizations suggest scheduling monthly payments – on our own, we forget. When World Vision takes 30 bucks from my checking account each month, it may feel like a little of the humanity of giving has been lost; but it’s better that, then that my sponsored child gets forgotten when I’m busy. It’s for this reason that we need programs, even forced programs, to ensure that our concern with the needy isn’t forever bound to the latest heart-wrenching news. Sometimes, we need a little coercion to keep things happening when our minds shift to other issues.

Of course, needed or not, programs can be run well or poorly, and compassion cannot be reduced to a government subsidy. So by all means, criticize the government when it is inefficient, misguided or poorly managed (better yet, work to improve it). Certainly, heap praise on those who don’t wait for a program to kick in, but come out in droves to support the latest victims of tragedy. But don’t forget the ongoing needs, the silent and unnoticed victims of poverty. Bureaucracy can be an evil, but it can also help keep aid going to all the little tragedies that don’t make the news. Whether through government agencies or private organizations, compassion and coercion don’t have to be enemies.

Christian Carnival 212

It seems the carnival came early this week, and you can find it over at The Evangelical Ecologist. It includes my post on Knocked Up and Juno, and plenty of other good stuff. In particular, check out this post by Nick at Crossinator, which begs perspective on the Evangelical obsession with abortion:

94% of Evangelical voters think abortion is the most important issue facing America today. Poverty doesn't even make the top 5. That angers me beyond belief. What do you think a major cause of abortion is? Yup, poverty! We should focus more on reducing poverty and not legislating morality. Why have the Evangelicals lost sight of what the Bible so clearly states? We are so focused on "saving the unborn" we don't care how the born actually live. It makes me irate to think that we spend millions of dollars on preventing an abortion and then sit back and do nothing when the "teenage mom" isn't able to adequately support her child. Where is the love in that?
I completely agree that, if we truly claim to be "pro-life," we should care as much about ending poverty as we do about ending abortion (after all, life doesn't end at birth! heh). It truly is shameful that poverty doesn't even appear among many Evangelicals' top five political concerns. That said, I don't really understand how Nick can be "irate" over those who focus primary attention on abortion, which has cost over 40 million lives in this country alone. The two issues are not mutually exclusive.

I might also add that part of the disconnect Nick identifies stems not from a lack of concern for the poor (though this is sometimes the problem), but rather from a feeling that caring for them best occurs on a personal level, rather than on a government one. Nick's objection to "legislating morality" cuts both ways.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Tolstoy on the Gospel and Hypocrisy

Attack me, I do this myself, but attack me rather than the path I follow and which I point out to anyone who asks me where I think it lies. If I know the way home and am walking along it drunkenly, is it any less the right way because I am staggering from side to side! If it is not the right way, then show me another way; but if I stagger and lose my way, you must help me, you must keep me on the true path, just as I am ready to support you. Do not mislead me, do not be glad that I have got lost, do not shout out joyfully: “Look at him! He said he was going home, but there he is crawling into a bog!” No, do not gloat, but give me your help and support. (Leo Tolstoy)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Knocked Up and Juno, “Pro-Life” or Pro-Family?

Carmen has an interesting post on Knocked Up and the other “pro-life” movies that have come out lately, over at In the Open Space. I hope she is right that they indicate a growing feeling that we as a culture have treated life too cheaply. I do think this is true in some ways – just consider the widespread concern over the death-toll in Iraq – but we still have a long way to go.

Of the movies she mentions, I’ve only seen Knocked Up and Juno, and while I can’t really recommend the first one (it is extremely crude), it does make some good points about the pain and beauty of childbirth, the value of love, and the importance of growing up. Best of all, it is marketed to the very people who need to be reminded of those things (see my review here). Juno is also a bit crude at times, but nothing like Knocked Up, and I would heartily recommend it. It is quirky and fun, and not only presents a good story about growing up and learning to love, but it also leaves you pondering the decisions the characters made. Not too many comedies manage to leave you thinking afterwards, and Juno succeeds admirably.

I think both movies could teach the pro-life community something, as well. Though both films are decidedly “pro-life” in the sense that abortion is rejected, I think their popularity even outside pro-life circles lies precisely in the fact that they are not focused on getting that message across. Knocked Up barely even considers abortion; the woman simply chooses to have her baby, and though Juno does make that decision more explicite, it doesn't dwell on it. In other words, both films are more concerned with telling a story than with pushing an agenda, which is why they work.

That much is obvious, but I think there is another reason these films have done better than others: They are more concerned with showing the value of love and family in a broken world than they are with criticizing abortion. People don't want to be lectured about how evil abortion is, but they are open to seeing how a child can foster love and bring people together, even when the circunstances are not ideal. In their own ways, both Knocked Up and Juno accomplish that very well, and those who would like to see the prevalence of abortion diminish would do well to follow their example.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Chesterton on Courage

G.K. Chesterton has an interesting discussion of courage which relates to a lot of what I have been dicussing lately: hope and sacrifice especially, but also what it means to find balance:

All sane men can see that sanity is some kind of equilibrium; that one may be mad and eat too much, or mad and eat too little. Some moderns have indeed appeared with vague versions of progress and evolution which seeks to destroy the MESON or balance of Aristotle. They seem to suggest that we are meant to starve progressively, or to go on eating larger and larger breakfasts every morning for ever. But the great truism of the MESON remains for all thinking men, and these people have not upset any balance except their own. But granted that we have all to keep a balance, the real interest comes in with the question of how that balance can be kept. That was the problem which Paganism tried to solve: that was the problem which I think Christianity solved and solved in a very strange way.

Paganism declared that virtue was in a balance; Christianity declared it was in a conflict: the collision of two passions apparently opposite. Of course they were not really inconsistent; but they were such that it was hard to hold simultaneously. Let us follow for a moment the clue of the martyr and the suicide; and take the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. “He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,” is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice.

He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying. And it has held up ever since above the European lances the banner of the mystery of chivalry: the Christian courage, which is a disdain of death; not the Chinese courage, which is a disdain of life.

And now I began to find that this duplex passion was the Christian key to ethics everywhere. Everywhere the creed made a moderation out of the still crash of two impetuous emotions. (Orthodoxy, from chapter 6, the whole of which is well worth reading)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Hope of a Jesus Freak

The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable. (Brennan Manning)

In a fit of nostalgia, I’ve recently been listening to some of the CDs I loved back in Junior High. One of them is Jesus Freak by dc Talk (the above quote appears as a voicover on the fourth song), which I fondly remember belting out at the top of my lungs. Such reminiscences, however, have got me thinking about how my faith has changed since then. I’d like to think that I’m more mature now than I was, but I wonder what that means, and whether it’s really a good thing or not. I know a lot more now – about God, and life, and how the two interact – and in some ways my faith is stronger for having weathered a few storms, but it is also more cautious and understated. There was a time when I was proud to call myself a “Jesus freak,” when I couldn’t imagine any other future than being a missionary; today I’d rather fit in than stand out, and I’ve long since embraced the middle-class lifestyle. I may have been naïve before, but I was passionate, and it’s a shame to have lost that.

I often write about hope and sacrifice (e.g. here, here and here) because I think these are the two primary poles around which human nature turns: Hope is what gets us out of bed in the morning, what gives us direction and urges us forward. Sacrifice is necessary when the road inevitably grows rough. Perhaps that’s why new converts seem so alive, why my younger self could belt out Jesus Freak without embarrassment – they’re filled with indescribable hope, and they’re willing to make almost any sacrifice for its sake (the hysteria surrounding Obama is an ironic reflection of this principle, which isn’t restricted to Christianity). In time, the cares of life crowd that enthusiasm out; we’re less willing to sacrifice, and so we in turn grow a little less hopeful, which makes us still less willing to give up what good we currently have in hope of something better. Pretty soon we’ve become those “Christians” that make the unbelieving world wonder what good our faith is, anyway.

Perhaps that’s why my favorite books and movies are always those that celebrate hope in the midst of despair, stories of ultimate sacrifice and resurrection. I read about Jean Valjean in Les Misérables or watch William Wallace in Braveheart and they remind me what it means to hope; they make me more willing to sacrifice. But sometimes I think those stories are too big for me. I’ve never faced death or imprisonment; I’ve never had to choose between my integrity and my life. I enjoy those stories, but I don’t often live differently because of them. It’s easy to dream of a grand sacrifice that I’m unlikely to ever face, but it’s also easy to ignore the countless smaller sacrifices I face on a daily basis: Turn off the TV and do something nice for my wife, skip that new CD and send the money to those who really need it, give up a Friday evening to help at a soup kitchen. If I’m not even willing to make those sacrifices, what makes me think I’d truly give my life to save another, even if faced with the need?

What’s the good of being a “Jesus freak,” unless you’re actually living your life for others?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Life is More than What's Measurable

Alex's comment about naturalists ignoring what is right before their eyes reminded me of another excellent quote (yes I do like quotes; they remind me that 99% of what I know, I owe to someone else):

Failing the possibility of measuring that which you desire, the lust for measurement may result in measuring something else - and perhaps forgetting the difference - or in ignoring some things because they cannot be measured.
G. Udney Yule, as quoted by Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek

Monday, February 11, 2008

Is Barack Obama the Messiah?

That's the name of hilarious new blog that has been documenting the over-the-top reactions Obama has been getting lately (HT: Mark Shea). Apparently, this kind of thing has become rather common:

SEATTLE–The Key Arena doors opened just before 11 a.m. and Cynthia Keze was one of the thousands hoping to see Barack Obama.

When she did not get in, she was determined to wait out in the rain just in case she got a glimpse of the man she says has brought her new hope for the future of the United States.

"The rest of us, we were in this huge crowd outside in the rain and he came out in the rain and talked to us," said Keze, her voice still raw from cheering. "I was 10 feet away from him, 10 feet away," she repeated another two times in awe.

"The only time I felt like that was when I saw Pope John Paul II." (cited in The Toronto Star)

And then there's this:

The Image of God

The main reason I reposted yesterday's piece on naturalism and morality was so that I could post its follow-up. Though it builds on the previous one in various ways, this remains one of my all time favorite posts:

I hope I have not been disingenuous. It occurs to me that I have not yet mentioned that the core of the argument I made in my last post (though not its form) is drawn from C.S. Lewis, particularly his books The Abolition of Man, Mere Christianity, and Miracles. I did not hide this intentionally, but since this is my own synthesis, the source simply slipped my mind. That said, I was reading Mere Christianity again this weekend, and one particular line caught me off guard. On page 24 Lewis writes: “If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house.” Lewis goes on to make the argument I have been making (that it is the “inside” knowledge we have from the moral law that points to such a controlling power), but that is not what caught my attention.

When I read that line, my first reaction was skeptical. I thought: “Well, sure, the architect couldn’t be a wall, but couldn't he hang his picture on one so that we would all know it was he who built the house? Couldn’t God have hung his portrait somewhere in the universe (somewhere obvious) so that we couldn’t miss him?” Perhaps, I thought, God could have painted his picture across the stars, or written his name across the moon, or something.

Sure, if God’s name really were written across the moon (in what language would it be?), we would probably just conclude that our own alphabet had its origin in that very writing and then dismiss it as a chance occurrence. More problematic would be God’s “portrait” in the stars; for what would God look like, a nice old man? But, obviously, God is not an elderly man; he is not a man at all; he is not even physical but Spirit (if you accept John 4:24). So any such physical likeness would be impossible and misleading. Still, I thought, he could have done something.

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: God did hang his picture in the universe; indeed, he hung it in the most obvious place of all, on us. We have been debating whether Naturalism is capable of grounding our moral awareness (I also made the same point with regard to rationality in my comments here), and I have concluded that it is not. Our moral awareness that certain things are unequivocally right and wrong points to something beyond the laws of nature; for by it we judge those laws (more specifically, we judge the different ways that the laws of nature interact in the actions of individual human beings). Our moral compass tells us that ultimate reality is in some sense fully good in a way that physical nature itself is not. Therefore, it is we ourselves, and our awareness of the moral law, that is the primary evidence of a something above and behind nature – the primary evidence of God.

We are the picture God hung in the universe to prove that it was he who built it. Put another way, we are the image of God. But that is a startling conclusion, because neither Lewis nor I had even considered Genesis 1 when making this argument. And yet by this entirely different route, one I am sure that the author of Genesis never considered (Naturalists weren’t exactly his primary concern!), we have found ourselves led back to the very same conclusion that he made: that in humanity, male and female, God created something “in his own image” (Genesis 1:27). Our moral and rational awareness are the finishing touches on God’s master project – the universe – and the portrait of himself that God hung to mark it as his own.

Tom Clark and the others at the Center for Naturalism maintain that the acceptance of Naturalism would be good for society because it would remind us that we are not self-made and thus increase our compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves [I address Richard Dawkins' similar claim here]. But this is backwards – if Naturalism is true, our moral awareness is an illusion, and we have no more reason to feel obligated to help those whom nature has not favored than to dispose of them in favor of natural selection. Our moral awareness would be an illusion that does not represent anything real and thus could be ignored at will. But once we realize that we are the image of God, we see that this argument I’ve been making is really not negative at all: an awareness of our true nature is the real basis for the compassionate ethic that both Tom Clark and I desire.

If we are created in the image of God, then obviously we are not “self-made”; but more than that, each and every one of us, no matter what mistakes we have made, possesses an irrevocable dignity. Just as a great piece of art retains its value even as it cracks and fades, so human beings retain their value even if nature has not been kind to them – they are still a beautiful creation of the master craftsman. But unlike Naturalism, which cannot give any real basis to such a sentiment (since we are all accidents), this creational view is realistic: it does not shrug its shoulders at evil behavior but recognizes that there is a real standard of good and evil that is binding on all of us. But it also recognizes that the dividing line is not between “good” and “evil” people but runs straight through each and every one of us.

All of us (even the worst) retain a moral awareness, even if dimmed by misuse, and none of us fully lives it out. In Biblical language: all of us are created in the image of God, and all of us have sinned and fallen short of that glory (Romans 3:23). Thus, we are all in the same position, and none of us, no matter how good we may appear relative to other humans, has any grounds for arrogance or selfishness. Everything we have is a gift, and those who have more are not any more deserving of it than those who have less. Indeed: “from he who is given much, much will be expected” (Luke 12:48).

The true antidote to a judgmental and vindictive attitude is not Naturalism but the Judeo-Christian claim that we are created in the image of God.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Logical Fallacies of Materialist Morality

This was first posted in April 2005, the Internet Archive retains a copy here, including some important discussion in the comments. This is by no means my favorite post (I include it mainly for the sake of its follow-up), but it does make some important points about Christianity, Naturalism, and the possibility of objective morality:

I’ve got nothing but respect for Tom Clark’s willingness to engage in open debate on the merits of Naturalism in forums like this, which are so obviously hostile to his viewpoint, but his position is simply untenable. In his response to Denyse O’Leary’s brief criticism of the Center for Naturalism, Clark attempts to defend Naturalism’s (or Materialism’s) ability to preserve a full-blooded morality apart from “controversial and unverifiable metaphysical facts about the nature of human action,” apparently not noticing that Naturalism itself fits into that category just as easily as any form of theism. In support, he points to two articles from the aforementioned Center (“Materialism and Morality: The Problem with Pinker” and “The Moral Levitation of David Brooks”) and an external article by Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen [Sorry! the article is no longer available – such is the transitory nature of the internet!].

All three articles make approximately the same point, though the first and especially the third in far greater detail than the second. The point he seems to be trying to draw from them is summarized nicely at the end of “The Moral Levitation”: “if we can demonstrate that moral responsibility survives determinism, and moreover requires it, then perhaps the fear-based objections to a naturalistic understanding of ourselves can be overcome” (emphasis original). In other words, his argument is:

1. Materialism implies hard determinism,
2. Hard determinism is consistent with (or even required for) moral responsibility,
3. Therefore, Materialism is consistent with moral responsibility.

Put in this way, it is not hard to see that this argument violates a basic rule of logic known as "Affirming the Consequent." Consider a similar example [note: I regret this example and would prefer to remove it, but the point I draw from it is valid and important to what follows, so I'll retain it.]:

1. Tom Clark is a human being,
2. Humanity is consistent with (or even required for) femininity,
3. Therefore, Tom Clark is a woman.

Both arguments fail for exactly the same reason: just as Tom can be a human being without being a woman, so Materialism can imply hard determinism without being consistent with moral responsibility. Why? Because there is more to being Tom Clark than there is to being human, and there is more to Materialism than just hard determinism. Moreover, hard determinism, even if true, does not require Materialism, for it is also consistent with Supernaturalism (just ask any Calvinist!). Thus, even if it is true that hard determinism is consistent with, or even required by, moral responsibility, it still would not follow that Materialism is consistent with moral responsibility. (And obviously it would do nothing at all to prove whether or not Materialism is actually true; though, to be fair, this is not what Clark is trying to prove at the moment!)

In reality, this entire argument is a red herring. The real argument has nothing to do with free will and determinism but with the possibility of a binding Moral Law, yet neither Clark nor the articles he links even attempt to justify how Naturalism can provide such a thing. They only attempt to show that, given a moral law, hard determinism (unfairly equated with Materialism) does not prevent us from holding those who break it responsible. Yet if Naturalism is true, then it needs to do more than just maintain a morality that has been handed down to it by the traditional religions it has debunked; it needs to provide its own morality without appealing to any supernatural authority.

Clark does not attempt to do this, but the articles he links do imply Naturalism’s only possible response: In “Materialism and Morality” we read: “Our basic, neurally-embodied desires and preferences, bequeathed us by nature and fine-tuned by culture, constitute us as moral creatures; they determine what we hold to be right and wrong” (emphasis original). In other words, our understanding of right and wrong (our “moral compass”) is, like everything else, a product of our environmental and social conditioning, inherited through our genes and society (for a similar conclusion, see the end of Greene and Cohen’s article [again, sorry!]). And truly, no other answer is available to the Naturalist, for Naturalism denies a priori that anything beyond those proximate causes exists---Nature is all there is.

But it should come as no surprise that this description of the origin of morality is identical with his description of what causes immoral behavior: “The killing of a child, for instance, would be no less bad or wrong in a world in which actions were the natural falling out of various circumstances rather than the result of free will.” So, the killer’s actions are “wrong” despite the fact that they are the natural result of his circumstances, and our moral outrage is “right” despite the fact that it is the natural result of our circumstances! But if naturalism is true, then such distinctions are entirely meaningless, for the very definition of Naturalism is that “Nothing about us escapes being included in the physical universe, or escapes being shaped by the various processes---physical, biological, psychological, and social---that science describes,” and if nothing escapes that influence, then all judgments of right and wrong are equally dependent upon our environment and therefore indistinguishable.

Why should my belief that killing a child is “wrong” have any more authority than the killer’s belief that it is acceptable? Unless there is some standard---something above both of us to tell us what we should value (whether we actually do or not)---then we are at an impasse. I can say: “more people agree with me than with you, and if you don’t stop, we will force you to,” but I can’t say: “I’m right and you’re wrong, and therefore I am justified in forcing you to stop.” No human can be justified that their view of right and wrong is itself right or wrong, unless there is something above all humans against which those judgments can be compared. If Naturalism is true, no such thing exists, for nothing exists beyond nature.

The point is simple---either there is a standard of right and wrong that stands above nature and therefore has the right to judge between the different ways that nature is (e.g., the different ways that we are), or there is not. If there is not, as Naturalism unabashedly declares, then all morality is relative; if there is, then Naturalism is false. That is why Naturalism is “inconsistent with morality” (a better way to put it would be “incapable of providing a standard of morality”), and the debate over free will and determinism is a separate issue altogether.

Out with the Old?

The wonderful thing about the Internet is that it is constantly growing and remaking itself. The terrible thing about the Internet is that nothing lasts. Even the best posts quickly slip from the main page and are rarely ever seen again. Worse, entire sites disappear, and take all their content with them. (In fact, I’ve written about this before). That’s why I’ve tried to transfer here a few of the better posts I wrote at Salvo’s blog.

Unfortunately, it seems that the old Crux Project blogs have recently, and without notice, been taken down (Crux was the previous incarnation of Salvo, and where I got my start blogging). Thankfully, the Internet Archive retains a copy of the site, but I don’t know how long that will remain the case (like I said, nothing is certain online). Because I would prefer not to lose all record of the posts I wrote there (ok, some of them, I’d just assume forget!), I’m going to ramp up my habit of reposting them, so bear with me in the coming weeks as I post those I care to save (I wont do them all at once, maybe one every day or two).

Unlike the ones I have already reposted, many of these reflect conversations that were occurring at the time and may seem a bit awkward on their own. Many were supplemented by discussions in the comments, but at least I’ll be able to retain something of what I have written. I may perhaps update and correct the more egregious errors in these posts (and update outdated web-addresses), but not so much as to change their original point. But this is my blog, so I can do what I want, right? ;)

Saturday, February 9, 2008

So That Explains US Politics...

"Opposite evils, far from balancing, aggravate each other." - C.S. Lewis, cited by Mark Shea. The quote is from the Afterword to The Pilgrim's Regress and continues:

'The heresies that men leave are hated most'; widespread drunkennes is father of Prohibition and Prohibition of widespread drunkenness. Nature, outraged by one extreme, avenges herself by flying to the other.

Friday, February 8, 2008

N.T. Wright on Heaven

TIME Magazine has a brief but good interview with N.T. Wright on the subject of heaven (HT: Between Two Worlds). The interview is informal, but Wright does a good job correcting some common misconceptions about the biblical understanding of the afterlife. In short, the common belief that we will spend eternity in some disembodied heaven derives more from Greek Platonism than the Bible, which actually anticipates the restoration of this earth. Our hope is not to escape from the physical to the heavenly, but to see the renewal of the physical as it is finally and fully united with the heavenly. Paul describes it like this in Romans 8:19-23:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Christian Carnival 210

Christian Carnival 210 is up at Imago Dei, and includes my post on Hope, Sacrifice and Moral Discourse. It also includes several other posts on the same subject, the best of which are:

Frank on Moral Perspectives: Meaning and Free Will.
Jason on Goodness.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Quote - Christian Identity and the Crucified God

Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God:

In Christianity the cross is the test of everything which deserves to be called Christian… The Christian life of theologians, churches and human beings is faced more than ever today with a double crisis: the crisis of relevance and the crisis of identity. These two crises are complementary. The more theology and the church attempt to become relevant to the problems of the present day, the more deeply they are drawn into the crisis of their own Christian identity....

Christian identity can be understood only as an act of identification with the crucified Christ, to the extent to which one has accepted that in him God has identified himself with the godless and those abandoned by God, to whom one belongs oneself. [pgs. 7, 19]

Monday, February 4, 2008

Hope, Sacrifice and Moral Discourse

Over at Matt’s blog, Paul Wright (who describes himself as a “weak atheist”) suggests this “ultimate fallback position” on the value of human beings:

Humans are valuable because I say so. If you agree, we'd better convince others of that, work to bring about a society which believes that, and oppose (by force if necessary, as it was in World War II, to use your example) those who want to treat people as things.
Matt himself provides a good response, noting particularly the contradiction inherent in any attempt to “convince” others of a mere preference. If “humans are valuable” only says something about Paul Wright, and nothing about humanity itself, then there is nothing to convince anyone of – they either agree or they don’t. You might as well try and convince them that they "should" adopt your taste in food – maybe they’ll listen and change their minds, maybe they wont, but you can’t say they should do so; your moral system doesn’t allow it.

This is a good point, but I think there is even more at stake in this debate. The difference between Christian and atheistic worldviews does not just influence whether real moral debate is possible, but also how it can be conducted. There is nothing stopping an atheist from adopting the position Paul outlines, and choosing to work with those who happen to agree with him, while (if necessary) fighting against those who do not. But Christianity allows, indeed calls for, something more.

Since it assumes, first that there is a real and ultimate difference between good and evil, and second that deep down everyone knows it, Christianity calls us not just to fight against those who do evil, but to seek their redemption. Philip Yancey’s excellent book The Jesus I Never Knew provides a discussion of the “Beatitudes” (Matthew 5:3-12, cf. also 5:38-45 and Luke 6:20-31), which helps explain what I mean:
Blessed are the peacemakers... Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.... [Matt. 5:9, 10] The movie Gandhi contains a fine scene in which Gandhi tries to explain his philosophy to the Presbyterian missionary Charlie Andrews. Walking together in a South African city, the two suddenly find their way blocked by young thugs. The Reverend Andrews takes one look at the menacing gangsters and decides to run for it. Gandhi stops him. “Doesn’t the New Testament say if an enemy strikes you on the right cheek you should offer him the left?” [Matt. 5:39] Andrews mumbles that he thought the phrase was used metaphorically. “I’m not so sure,” Gandhi replies. “I suspect he meant you must show courage – be willing to take a blow, several blows, to show you will not strike back nor will you be turned aside. And when you do that it calls on something in human nature, something that makes his hatred decrease and his respect increase. I think Christ grasped that and I have seen it work.”

Years later an American minister, Martin Luther King Jr., studied Gandhi’s tactics and decided to put them into practice in the United States.... As riots broke out in places like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Harlem, King traveled from city to city trying to cool tempers, forcefully reminding demonstrators that moral change is not accomplished through immoral means....

The real goal, King used to say, was not to defeat the white man, but “to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority.... The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.” (pgs. 121-122)
Men like Gandhi and King were willing to put their lives in jeopardy not only to free their own people from injustice, but to do so in a way that also facilitated the repentance and restoration of their oppressors. This kind of moral fortitude is possible only if you believe in a moral order that transcends oppressor and oppressed alike. This kind of sacrifice is possible only if you believe that the state of a person’s soul is infinitely more important than the state of his body. Only then is a person willing to give up their own life in the hope that it might save others – not only the lives of their friends, but perhaps even the souls of their enemies. Yancey continues:
King, like Gandhi before him, died a martyr. After his death, more and more people began adopting the principle of nonviolent protest as a way to demand justice. In the Philippines, after Benigno Aquino's martyrdom, ordinary people brought down a government by gathering in the streets to pray; army tanks rolled to a stop before the kneeling Filipinos as if blocked by an invisible force. Later, in the remarkable year of 1989, in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Romania, Mongolia, Albania, the Soviet Union, Nepal, and Chili, more than half a billion people threw off the yoke of oppression through nonviolent means. In many of these places, especially the nations of Eastern Europe, the Christian church led the way. Protesters marched through the streets carrying candles, singing hymns, and praying. As in Joshua's day, the walls came tumbling down. (pgs. 122-123)

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Why Sports?

The following is a modified version of a post I wrote two years ago at the old Signs of the Times.

Tomorrow is the Super Bowl (yeah, like I needed to remind you!), and I’ve got a confession to make: I’m a sports fanatic. It all began when the Mariners had their miracle season in ’95, coming back from a 13 game deficit to win their first division title, then beating the hated Yankees in the division championship. Then Gonzaga had their own Cinderella season in ’99, rising from obscurity to reach the Elite Eight. Then even the Seahawks reached the Super Bowl in 2005 (good thing they lost or I might have had to find a new underdog to back)! Before long I had become one of those wackos I never understood, spending my weekends watching golf and tennis, checking far more often than I'd like to admit, even watching SportsCenter on occasion.

Yet, for all my enthusiasm, I have a hard time pinpointing exactly what it is about sports that I find so exciting. I mean, my life is filled with blessings – I have a good job, a great church, a wonderful wife and daughter. I’ve never jumped to my feet or pumped my fist in excitement over those things, yet I hardly give it a second thought while watching my favorite teams. Heck, I’m not even that picky – I’ll root for any underdog, in any sport, except maybe Curling. I can even set aside my hatred for all New York sports to root for the Giants tomorrow!

What is it about sports that connects to our emotions so powerfully? Perhaps it’s the skill--we cheer for the athletes at the top of their game because we wish we ourselves were so talented. Perhaps it’s the distraction--sports are just “real” enough to seem important, while just distant enough to provide an escape from the everyday. Or perhaps it’s only our “mirror neurons” playing tricks on us--our brains are wired to pretend we ourselves were performing the great feats we watch.

Probably it’s all of those things, but I wonder if it’s also something more. In cheering on our favorite teams, we aren’t just living vicariously; we are turning our attention away from ourselves. As spectators, it is always someone else we are cheering for, someone else we are excited for. Thus, whatever it is that draws us to cheer, we find that in doing so we become a little less selfish, a little less self-focused. And the same seems to be true of the athletes themselves--victory is always sweeter when it’s “for the team” (or the Gipper) than it is when it’s just for yourself.

In sports, then, our emotions are freed to reach their maximum because they are freed from the self. In a society that is so often focused on the autonomous individual, sports give us a glimpse (however small) of transcendence. Our emotions can run wild and free precisely because here, as in too few other places, they are focused outward. Perhaps our love for sports actually offers us a glimpse into our fundamental nature: we are made to live for each other.

Book Meme

Charlie tagged me with the Book Meme that's been going around:

  • Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
  • Open the book to page 123.
  • Find the fifth sentence.
  • Post the next three sentences.
  • Tag five people.

He says he chose five bloggers "who always have interesting books within reach," but I'm sorry to disappoint. He caught me sitting on the couch with my two year old daughter, and the closest book happens to be the one she is reading--ok not reading, pointing at the pictures and saying "boy," "there," "this" (the last of which sounds like "dis," apparently she doesn't think much of the boy ;).

The book is The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes, and pg. 123 includes three comics. Replacing "sentences" with "text-boxes," the sixth one begins the second comic, but I wont be mean enough to give only the first three lines! Here is the whole thing (uncommonly, this one works without the pictures, and is curiously applicable):

Dad: 'Once upon a time there was....'
Calvin: Hold it.
Dad: What's the matter?
Calvin: Has this book been a best seller? Has the author won a Pulitzer? Did the New York Times like it? I only want stories that come highly recommended. Are there any laudatory quotes on the dust jacket?
Dad: Ahem... 'Once upon a time there was a noisy kid going to bed without a story.'
Calvin: Has this book been made into a movie? Could we be watching this on video?

If you want a more serious response, I've previously answered this meme here. I tag:

Matt: Raskolnikov, Lost in the Cosmos
Alex: Abandon All Fear
Carmen: In the Open Space: God & Culture
Henry: Threads from Henry's Web
James: Exploring Our Matrix

Friday, February 1, 2008

Swear No Oaths?

I've never known what to make of Matthew 5:33-37, in which Jesus forbids the taking of oaths. Frankly, I've never made any attempt to follow it literally, nor am I willing to give up my US citizenship to do so (mea cupla?). Given the generally hyperbolic nature of the Sermon on the Mount, I've been content to take it as a warning rather than a command.

That said, I do understand the danger of rash oaths and the importance of standing by your word. Because of this, I'm faced with a quandary. My state's constitution was recently changed so that voting in the Presidential primary requires you to sign an oath to either the Democratic or Republican party. According to the ballot, your vote is invalid unless you mark either "I declare that I consider myself to be a DEMOCRAT and I will not participate in the nomination process of any other political party for the 2008 Presidential election" or "I declare that I am a member of the Republican Party and have not participated and will not participate in the 2008 precinct caucus or convention system of any other party."

Now I don't consider myself a Democrat or a Republican, nor am I absolutely certain that I will vote the same way in the general election as I would now--it all depends on who become the nominees! I do, however, know who I want to vote for in the primary (sorry, I wont say who), so do I swollow my pride (and independence, and perhaps honesty) and check the party to which they belong, or am I barred from voting? Am I crazy, or have they really made it illegal for an Independent to vote honestly?

I realize this is not the end of the world--at least we have free elections at all, right?--but it really bothers me. Has anyone else struggled with this?