Monthly Archives: July 2015

Same-Sex Unions, Gender and Abortion: How to Talk About Them and How Not

It is time to address some specific objections to the Christian moral vision. However, I do not plan to develop an extensive theological framework here. I did that in chapters 23-33 (Pages 82-126) of my book The Thoughtful Christian Life: Essays on Living as a Christian in a Post-Christian Culture. You can read earlier versions of these essays in the April-June 2014 archives of this blog. I want to make only two points in this essay. But first…

Note: This essay has to do with answering moral objections to the Christian moral vision. It contains no advice about what the secular state ought to adopt as policy. In this essay I care only about what Christians should say to defend and explain Christianity’s moral stance. This is apologetics, not politics.

. “The whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19)

First, it is of utmost importance to distinguish between what is right and what is lawful. For Christianity, what is morally right is determined solely by God, the Creator and Lord of the world. Whatever contradicts the will of God is morally wrong even if the whole world should make it legal and declare it right. And whatever the Creator declares to be right will stand even if all nations condemn it. You may be nodding your head in agreement. Good. But we should not underestimate the persuasive and coercive power of law, its ability to confuse the mind and deaden the conscience. The legalization of abortion is a case is point. When the legal authorities solemnly pronounce a law to be in force or strike down a law previously held to be just we begin to doubt our previous judgment. And the cry of the people begins to sound like the voice of God.

To maintain a clear head in such situations we must keep the difference between the world and the kingdom of God clearly in mind. A nation’s legislatures and courts sooner or later will make laws that reflect the moral condition of the people in that land. If the people are corrupt they will demand equally corrupt laws. And though the world is not completely evil—by God’s grace there is a little light and a little good left—it is now, always been and always will be corrupt. This fact should not surprise us. Have we read 1 John lately?

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.  For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.  The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17).

“We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear Children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:19-20).

If we look at our world through John’s eyes, we will not be so surprised or moved by the solemn pronouncements of human authorities that permit sin and condemn righteousness. “The whole world is under the control of the evil one.” What do we expect?

Let God Judge the World

Allow me to make a related distinction. We are obligated to “obey God rather than human beings,” as Peter declared boldly to the legislating authorities that were attempting to intimidate him (Acts 5:29).When it comes to a choice between obeying a human authority and obeying God, we must obey God and disobey human law. But there is a huge difference between a situation in which a human authority permits sin but does not obligate us to sin and a situation where a human authority mandates sin or makes it illegal to obey God. The authorities of the world have always permitted sin to one degree or another and often celebrated it.

Understandably, Christians would like to live in a world where justice and holiness reign. And because we don’t live in such a world, we may sometimes feel the way Peter describes the Old Testament character Lot as feeling: “a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless–for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard” (2 Peter 2:7-8).  But it would be a tragic mistake to think that we are obligated as Christians to force others to obey God. Nor is it fitting for a Christian to coerce by force, intimidation or manipulation obedience to God’s laws. Obedience to God must be voluntary. We are not obligated as Christians to spend our energies in futile efforts to clean up the world’s moral corruption. Keeping our own house clean may be more than we can accomplish! Paul gave some sage advice to the Corinthian church on this topic:

“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?  God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you” (1 Cor 5: 9-13).

When Arguments Are Counterproductive

The second point I wish to make may strike you as odd, but I think it contains a very important correction to the way Christians sometimes respond to external challenges to the Christian moral vision. We should take care to observe the following rule: never try to prove something that is self-evident. If someone denies that the tree in front of you really exists or that 1 + 1 = 2 or that you have a mind, don’t argue with them. Don’t attempt to give evidence for the obvious! Attempting to support something self-evident with evidence implies that the self-evident thing is not so self-evident after all. You will be making room for doubt where there was no room before you began arguing. You will be providing an excuse for people to act contrary to obvious truth. If someone denies the self-evident it is best to assume they are driven by an irrational commitment of some kind. We should respond with clear assertions, not with piles of evidence. Arguments and evidence move only those willing to be guided by reason.

Abortion

Do not be drawn into an argument about whether or not an unborn human baby is really a human being. The humanity of an unborn human being is an analytical truth. It is self-evident. Any evidence you could offer that an unborn child is a human being will only make that obvious truth less obvious. By entering the argument, you tacitly agree that evidence is needed and hence admit that the humanity of this little human being is not self-evident and that this truth is debatable. By obscuring the self-evident truth, you make plausible the notion that each individual has a right to make a judgment and a choice for themselves about the humanity of another human being. But this notion is false because the humanity of a human being is not an obscure and difficult question. It is self-evident. The only real question is whether or not we will honor the humanity of this human being. The only real choice people have is whether to do right or to do wrong. And if we want to critique the notion that abortion is morally permissible we can make no better argument that to assert tirelessly the self-evident truth and articulate a clear demand for a choice between right and wrong.

Gender

Do not be drawn into an argument about whether or not there are profound differences between male and female and what they are or whether or not these differences will be and must be manifested in the family, society and church. These facts are self-evident. It is as absurd to argue for the obvious as it is to argue against it. Members of families, societies and churches must converse continually on just how the obvious differences between the sexes should be reflected in the order and operation of these institutions. And particular arrangements must emerge from the conversation and not be dictated by an abstract theory, whether an anti-creation theory of disembodied equality or a natural law theory of fixed roles.

Same-Sex Unions

Do not be drawn into an argument about whether or not man was made for woman and woman for man. What argument could add to the self-evidence manifested in our very existence? Arguments that attempt to provide evidence that men are not meant to have sex with other men or women with women only obscure the obvious, create doubt, stir emotions and evoke refutations. It is to admit that there is a real question when there is none. Additionally, in contemporary culture the subjective always trumps the objective. Presenting evidence—other than asserting what is self-evident—from the objective features of men and women for the conclusion that same-sex unions are morally wrong will always be dismissed by a culture that values subjective feelings above objective reality. Indeed for most of our contemporaries, the subjective is the truly real and deserves our utmost respect, but the objective, that is, the body and our material conditions, is merely plastic that we may shape according to our wishes and use according to our desires. Hence, as in the previous issues, the most reasonable argument is not really an argument at all but an assertion of what is self-evident, obvious and objectively factual over subjective obscurity and confusion. We have to insist that the only question to be decided is whether or not we will accept our created existence and thereby honor our Creator. The only choice is between right and wrong.  But remember Paul’s words quoted above: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?  God will judge those outside.”

Why the Irrationality?

But if these things are self-evident why do some people argue as if they were not? And why do Christianity’s critics accuse it of hatred for affirming things so self-evident? I addressed the second question in my recent post, “Is Christianity Morally Offensive.” Critics of Christian morality assume that each individual owns their own body and has the autonomous right to do as they please with that body. But Christianity denies this. From within the de-Christianized progressive framework, this denial looms as a threat of violence and oppression. It feels like an attack on human dignity and a mean-spirited effort to deprive people of happiness. Now the first question: how can people deny what is in fact self-evidently true? Because their moral philosophy of individual autonomy demands it, and they wish that philosophy  to be true so much that it drives them to deny plain facts when those facts undermine their cherished wishes. Augustine of Hippo speaks about this human tendency in words that I must quote:

“But why is it that “truth engenders hatred”? Why does your man who preaches what is true become to them an enemy (Gal 4:16) when they love the happy life which is simply joy grounded in truth? The answer must be this: their love for truth takes the form that they love something else and want this object of their love to be the truth; and because they do not which to be deceived, they do not wish to be persuaded that they are mistaken. And so they hate the truth for the sake of the object which they love instead of the truth” (Confessions 10. 24; trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford, 1991).

The Bible

No, I have not forgotten that the Bible’s moral teaching on these subjects is clear, and for Christians the Bible’s authority is decisive and persuasive.  But people without faith can simply dismiss the Bible’s commands, which apart from faith in Jesus Christ seem unreasonably strict and lacking in human compassion. In relating to outsider critics we can avail ourselves of the self-evidence of many moral principles and morally relevant facts, such as those I discussed above. Of course some people will even deny self-evident truths and manifest facts, but they cannot really evade the power of that self-evidence and facticity. In the end, reality wins! The conscience can be hardened but it cannot be erased. Hence a strategy of clear assertion rather than of self-obscuring argumentation holds the best promise of awakening deadened consciences.

I repeat:

This essay has to do with answering moral objections to the Christian moral vision. It contains no advice about what the secular state ought to adopt as policy. In this essay I care only about what Christians should say to defend and explain Christianity’s moral stance. This is apologetics, not politics.

Next Week: What about liberal Christianity?

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The Sins of Christians: Evidence for Christianity’s Immorality?

In this week’s post I want to continue the theme of moral objections to Christianity. Last week I argued that most moral objections to Christianity can be reduced to fundamental disagreements about the final authority for moral truth and the ends moral behavior should seek. The specific issues discussed by the culture at any particular time are merely occasions for the clash of contradictory fundamental perspectives. The view I called “de-Christianized progressivism” rejects all moral authority beyond the individual’s sense of fittingness and any goal other than individual happiness as understood by the individual. In contrast, Christianity affirms the ultimate moral authority of the Creator, who is the absolute standard of right and good, and views the goal of human action and relationships as the creature’s correspondence in character and life to the Creator as revealed in Jesus Christ.

De-Christianized progressivism appeals to a different source of moral knowledge than that to which Christianity appeals. It cannot accept that individuals need any moral guidance other than their own experience and feeling. After all, if the goal of human life is to maintain a feeling of wellbeing and happiness in the present moment, who knows better than I when I am happy and what makes me happy? But Christianity mistrusts untrained and immediate human impulses. Human beings are sinners in need of forgiveness and spiritual transformation. It asserts that individuals’ consciences need divine revelation, community discipline and tradition as sources of moral guidance.

If people holding opposite sides of these contradictory moral visions clash over issues such as those that excite our culture today without clarifying their deeper disagreements, they cannot possibly understand each other and will simply talk past each other. And since they cannot appeal to the same authority and do not seek the same goal, they cannot even reason with each other. Instead of asking why they cannot reason together about an issue and letting this question drive them to their deeper disagreements—and perhaps agreements on another level—they shift from reasoning to fighting. Opponents begin to view each other as irrational, insincere and evil. Words become weapons instead of vehicles for ideas. Carl von Clausewitz (1790-1831) observed in his book On War, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Unhappily, von Clausewitz’s aphorism describes only too well the current debate about morality. Christians as well as non- or post-Christians are often guilty of shifting too quickly from reasoning to fighting. And I will have something to say about this in future posts. But here I am dealing with objections to the moral vision of Christianity from its critics.

Many critics illegitimately confuse Christianity with the thought and behavior of churches and individuals who claim to be Christian. Clearly, there is a conceptual difference between the essential teaching and moral vision of the original Christian faith and the practice of individual Christians and institutions that call themselves churches. Lay Christians and clergy have done and do bad things. Bishops acted like secular lords, amassing wealth and building magnificent palaces at the expense of the people while neglecting their duty to care for and teach the people. “Christian” princes conducted wars against other “Christian” princes. So-called “witches” and heretics were burned alive. Christian churches sought power in alliance with the political order. Clergy abused and still abuse their trusted positions by molesting children, living in luxury and seeking honor. Indeed, Christians and so-called “churches” do bad things, horrendous things, and they deserve to be exposed and denounced.

And it is precisely by the teaching and example of Jesus Christ and the original Christian faith that they are most decisively exposed and denounced! De-Christianized progressivism cannot possibly be as radical in its criticism. For it possesses no coherent principles by which to criticize such abuses. Non- or post-Christians also seek wealth, desire power and work to satisfy their lusts. And why not? They cannot appeal to moral law or divine judgment or the teaching and example of Jesus to redirect their lives toward the truly good and right. This life is all there is, and it is precarious and short. Carpe diem! Hence their criticism of the behavior of Christians and Christian institutions boils down to criticizing them for not living up to the teaching of Jesus and the original Christian faith, that is, it boils down to an accusation of hypocrisy. They don’t raise any independent criticisms. So, it cannot escape notice that an argument from hypocrisy to the falsehood of the ideals by which hypocrisy is exposed and denounced is self-contradictory. If the Christian moral vision is false, the charge of hypocrisy is evacuated of its moral content. How can hypocrisy be a moral failing if the system within which hypocrisy is condemned is itself false?

Surely it is obvious that failure to live up to an ideal does not disprove the ideal. A bad Stoic does not prove that Stoicism is bad. A bad math student does not prove that mathematics is bad. Nor does a bad Christian prove that Christianity is bad. Hence merely rehearsing the sins of Christians and so-called “Christian” institutions does not constitute a good argument against Christianity’s moral vision. A good argument, that is, a rational argument, against Christianity’s moral vision would, first, need fairly and accurately to describe that vision. Second, it would need to judge Christianity’s moral vision defective according to an alternative moral vision, which as a system can claim as good or better grounding in moral truth. I do not accept expressions of emotion or sentences that begin with “I feel” or “everyone knows” or “we have discovered” or “history will show” as rational arguments.

I challenge the critics of the Christian moral vision to make an argument that meets these two requirements. Only then can we even have an argument. I predict I will be waiting a long time.

Is Christianity Morally Offensive?

I find it so interesting that many of the most strident opponents of Christianity attack it for its moral teachings. If you didn’t know better, you’d expect these opponents to oppose the Christian moral vision with a coherent and profound moral philosophy based on an altogether different and better foundation. After all, to oppose and replace the religious and moral tradition that created the western world and shaped its moral intuition for over a thousand years is a pretty ambitious agenda. And since the objections I have in mine come from contemporary western people, you would think they would have given serious consideration to how they could escape the influence of the system they now criticize. Do you return to pre-Christian sources? Do you draw on non-western traditions? Do you attempt to derive a new morality from modern natural science? Only Friedrich Nietzsche and a few other adventuresome thinkers attempted to return to pre-Christian paganism. And most modern objections to Christian morality would apply doubly to pagan morality. Nietzsche criticized Christianity for its compassion for the weak, hardly politically correct today. Most non-western moral traditions are as conservative as or more so than the Christian tradition. And science can only describe the way things are. It cannot tell you how they should be. No, there is no alternative for modern progressives who think they have advanced beyond Christianity.

Self-conscious secularists and progressives and throngs of thoughtless people who echo them decry Christianity’s prohibition of sexual activity outside of a marriage between one man and one woman, divorce, suicide, abortion, and homosexual activity. There have always been people who practice these things and who justify them in various ways. But lately we see a new hostility toward Christian moral teachings that views them, not just as backward, but as evil.  What accounts for this new hostility toward Christianity for its teaching on these subjects? The most obvious reason for the new aggression is political. The Christian moral vision dominated western society for many centuries.  In the United States it has only recently become feasible for de-Christianized progressivism to turn the tables and become the dominant philosophy of culture. Christian churches and the Christian moral vision are what stand in the way of this transfer of power. Hence much contemporary criticism of Christianity can be explained by its political aims. But a deeper issue concerns me more than the struggle for political domination.

Why do secular progressives hate Christianity for its views of marriage, divorce, suicide, abortion, and homosexual activity? I do not believe that it is simply because of what Christianity permits or forbids. In truth, it is Christianity’s denial that individual human beings have the right to decide for themselves what is good and right. Christianity teaches that we do not own ourselves and we must give an account to our Creator for what we do and how we use our lives as well as how we treat others. For de-Christianized progressives, Christianity’s denial of their autonomy is deeply offensive. But instead of challenging the Christian moral vision with a coherent and profound moral philosophy, progressives appeal to the flattering but obviously false notion that individual human beings can be their own gods, determining good and evil for themselves. Perhaps Christianity’s exposure of this fiction explains the intensity of progressives’ hatred.

Does Evolution of the Species Defeat Christian Belief?

In this 45th essay in our series on “Is Christianity True?” I want to address the most popular “scientific” objection to Christianity. It is based on an inference from the theory of biological evolution.  I am not a biologist, so I cannot and will not speak to the scientific soundness of contemporary theories of biological evolution. I am sure that my hesitation may provoke some readers to become suspicious of my motives or my “hidden” beliefs. But let me explain. In academic circles there are certain accepted marks of intellectual integrity and moral rectitude. I call them “politically correct confessions of faith.” And even if you have no expertise in an area—perhaps you are even appallingly ignorant!—you are supposed to defend vociferously the accepted consensus of the experts and denounce equally vociferously non-conformists. Failure to do so may result in “excommunication.”

Many of those confessions of faith deal with topics of gender, race and class. But they also include opinions about climate change, Big Bang cosmology, and biological evolution. If you say the wrong thing on these topics, you will be dismissed even by people who know nothing about science simply because you contradict the politically correct statement of faith. Hence I intend to speak only about what I know. I care very little for the politically correct creed. I care about the proper use of reason in seeking truth. And I know the difference between persuasion and coercion. And I know the difference between an ideology–a theory created to serve a pragmatic end–and a proposal motivated by a desire for truth and grounded in evidence.

Allow me to make another distinction. Objections to Christian belief that make use of evolutionary biology come in two distinct types. The first type objects to God’s action in the world in a way similar to those who use Big Bang cosmology object. Opponents of this type argue that successfully accounting for a natural event by prior natural events makes divine action unnecessary. In other words discovering the natural causes of events fully describes and accounts for them. It assumes that if God were to act in the world in creation and providence, God’s action would have to replace natural causes and create gaps in the network of natural causes. As science fills in those gaps, belief in God’s action and even God’s existence becomes less and less plausible. My response to this type of objection from evolutionary biology is exactly the same as my response to the Big Bang objections. Allow me to quote that response with the term “evolutionary biology” in brackets:

“There is absolutely nothing in the Big Bang [evolutionary biology] theory that explains away or rules out the action of God in calling the universe into existence, giving it the form it has, guiding it to the place it is, or leading it on to the destination God has in mind. The Big Bang [evolutionary biology] cannot explain or rule out the reality of the qualities we experience or the mind we possess or the freedom we exercise. It cannot explain or rule out meaning, truth, beauty or moral law. It cannot tell you who you are or why you are here. If you have other grounds on which to believe in the reality of God, our minds, the intelligibility of nature, the moral law, human freedom and creativity, and the meaning of cosmic history, the Big Bang [evolutionary biology] theory of cosmological [biological] development poses no rational threat at all to those beliefs. It’s simply a non sequitur, irrelevant, beside the point. As a cosmological [biological] theory, it’s elegant. As an objection to Christian belief, it’s lame.”

A second type of objection to belief deriving from evolutionary biology focuses not on God or God’s action but on the Bible. Some objectors to Christian belief realize that the argument from empirical science’s explanations of natural events to atheism is less than convincing; or at least they would like to employ additional arguments to make their case stronger. The Bible seems to describe the origin and development of the physical cosmos and of all the species of biological world in ways irreconcilable with modern cosmology and evolutionary biology. Much of traditional theology (not all!) and many contemporary Christians take the creation narratives of Bible (Genesis 1-2) as divinely revealed history whose intention is at least partly to describe quite literally what happened at the beginning of creation. A person wishing to use the conclusions of evolutionary biology to undermine Christian belief would reason something like this:

“Christians base the truth of the Christian faith on the complete trustworthiness of the Bible. That is to say, they believe what the Bible teaches because it teaches it, and they believe they should believe what the Bible teaches because the church told them to do so. And they believe in the church because the Bible told them to do so–a vicious circle! The Bible teaches that the universe began a few thousand years ago and was created in one instant or in seven days. All the species of the biological world were created separately. But scientists now know that the present cosmos has existed for 15 to 20 billion years and has undergone vast evolutionary changes. We also know that life has existed on earth for many millions of years, that millions of species lived, thrived and are now extinct, and that human beings are relatively latecomers to the biological world. Hence, contrary to the assertions of Christians for hundreds of years, the Bible is not scientifically or historically accurate in cosmological or biological matters. And if what it says about science is not reliable, traditional claims for the authority of the Bible, and therefore for all Christian beliefs, fall to the ground.”

As you can see, the objection from evolution turns on two issues: (1) does the Genesis really intend to describe “quite literally what happened at the beginning of creation” and (2) is the entire Christian faith founded on belief in the authority of the Bible? Interestingly, some believers agree with the first half of atheist objections, that is, the Bible teaches as literal history a view of origins incompatible with Big Bang cosmology and evolutionary biology; and, because they agree that acceptance of basic Christian beliefs is based on prior acceptance of the authority of the Bible, they agree that if the adherents of these sciences are correct, the entire Christian faith is defeated. Given these agreements, these believers have only one way out: to deny Big Bang cosmology and evolutionary biology. But how can you achieve this if you have no expertise in physics or biology? Other Christian believers do not believe that the first two chapters of Genesis were written to describe literally what happened at the beginning of creation. Instead, they were written as statements of faith in God as the Creator and Ruler of the world, constructed in dramatic form, which was the style of the day. Hence scientific objections to the biblical creation drama are completely misplaced.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I am not a biologist (or a physicist!). Is climate change real? Is contemporary evolutionary theory sound science? Is Big Bang cosmology sound science? These are questions for scientists to debate. I have devoted my life’s energy to thinking about Christian faith and theology and about how we may make reasonable judgments about Christianity’s truth and responsible decisions to take up the Christian way of life. In my view, the way into Christian faith from unbelief does not begin with accepting the authority of the Bible. It does not involve forming an opinion about evolution or the Big Bang or climate change! It begins with coming to believe that God exists and accepting the testimony of Paul, Peter and other original Christians to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only after these two reasonable judgments does the Bible have any claim to authority. Only then does the debate over the interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 have any relevance. It is an intramural debate about how believers should best appropriate the message of these great texts. I addressed the issue of the Bible in January 2015 (“This I Know For the Bible Tells Me So”) and in February 2015 (“What About The Bible? An Autobiographical Reflection”). You can find these essays in the archives under those dates. I highly recommend you read them in connection to this post.

Next time: We will examine the next set of objections to Christian faith: the moral objections. Contemporary critics of Christianity find certain of its moral teachings objectionable. On what basis do they make this judgment? What should our answer be?