Tag Archives: human dignity

“Rules in a Knife Fight?” Or, the Roots of Today’s Moral Chaos

Reason is dead! Requiescat in pace! Or, at least it’s on life support when it comes to morality. Civil discussions of social or individual morality in the public square, in the workplace, in public schools and universities, in social media, and even in church have become impossible in contemporary culture. Moral chaos reigns not only between Christians and secularists but among secular people themselves and among people who claim to be Christian. People don’t discuss moral issues anymore, they fight about them. Discussions are about searching for truth and presuppose people’s desire to know and conform to the truth. Fights are about power, domination, and forced submission of one party’s preferences to another’s.

Believers in truth and reason could gather around reason’s grave and lament its death. We could withdraw into our homes, houses of worship and homeschools and wait for a miracle or for Jesus’s return. And any regular reader of this blog knows that I am not opposed to a strategic withdrawal, especially in contrast to assimilation to dominant culture. On that theme see my May 12, 2017 review of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. But I do not believe we ought to acquiesce just yet. To the contrary, I believe Christians should speak up for reason and truth. But speaking up for reason and truth won’t be as easy as asserting that reason is a necessary instrument for finding truth and truth is the way things are whether we like it or not. As true as this assertion is, to our culture it sounds like fighting words designed to exert power and demand submission. How do you reason with people for whom reason is dead, and how do you urge people to submit to truth when for them truth is just another word for preference?

First, I do not believe reason can ever truly die. Nor can anyone ever really abandon the assumption of truth. So, our first task is to probe the contemporary mind, seeking its most basic presuppositions and beliefs, which serve as the hidden foundations of its incoherent moral rhetoric. Where shall we look for these foundations? Every moral theory or rhetorical style of talking about morality presupposes beliefs about basic human nature and the nature and will of God. It is guided by beliefs about what constitutes human dignity, how happiness can be achieved, and what are the greatest threats to human dignity and the most sinister roadblocks to achieving happiness.

Here are three presuppositions that guide the modern mind, which is shared to one extent or another by everyone touched by the western worldview:

  1. Human dignity is grounded in human freedom. And human freedom is the power of the self to decide what it will do and become. Maximum dignity requires maximum freedom. Maximum freedom is achieved when we possess total control over ourselves, our situation, and our destiny. Any limit on freedom is a limit on dignity. And any limit on dignity is an insult.
  2. Happiness is achieved by exercising our maximum freedom to do and become whatever pleases us. What counts as a happy state is determined totally by the preferences of each individual. The modern mind acknowledges no general rules, such as “love God and your neighbor,” for achieving happiness.
  3. The greatest threats to human dignity, freedom, and the prospect of happiness are God and belief in natural law or traditional morality enshrined in law. Since the modern mind links maximum dignity to maximum freedom, the idea of being dependent on and responsible to God, the Creator of all things, is the most serious threat to dignity and freedom. Even people who say they believe in God will not accept any view of God that limits their maximum freedom. They assimilate God to their preferences. The second most serious threat to dignity, freedom and the prospect of happiness arises from other people who are inspired by their belief in God or moral law or traditional morality to impose their morality on others, whether through social pressure or state power.

The history of the last 350 years can be written as the struggle of modern people to free themselves from the “oppressive” forces of God and institutions that support traditional morality. One institution, social practice and philosophy after another has been exposed as “oppressive”. And indoctrination into this ideology has been so effective that the majority of our society can make no persuasive response even to the most radical and total rejection of all limits on the freedom of individuals to do and become whatever they want. We are close to becoming a nihilistic society, that is, of surrendering to the ideology that “all things are possible,” that there is no moral law and nothing real; there is nothing that cannot be or ought not to be changed and shaped according to our collective or individual preferences. This is the relentless logic at work in the hearts and minds of our neighbors and friends, and even in our own; and this is the pernicious logic that makes it inevitable that rational discussions will be replaced by knife fights. Our situation is captured by Harvey Logan’s famous line from the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: “rules in a knife fight?”

That famous scene is a parable of contemporary moral discourse:

Hence the first step to addressing the moral chaos that dominates contemporary moral discussions is digging down to the ancient foundational beliefs that led to this chaos. The next step is to demonstrate the absurdity of these foundational beliefs. And the third step is to argue for, proclaim, and live on an alternative foundation, one that secures authentic human dignity, freedom, and hope for happiness. And that foundation is God, the creator and savior revealed in Jesus Christ.

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The Debate Continues: Evangelical Versus Secular Feminism

Speakers:

Gloria (Secular Feminist)

Sarah (Evangelical Egalitarian)

Abraham (Neo-Patriarch)

Moderator (Neutral)

Moderator: We now have before us three views of the relationship between men and women in society, church and family. It’s time to listen to what each of our speakers thinks of the others’ presentations. This evening evangelical egalitarian Sarah will respond to Gloria’s presentation of secular feminism.

Note: Gloria’s original statement was posted on Ron Highfield’s blog on December 3, 2016. You may wish to refer to the original as you read the critiques.

Three Points of Agreement Between Sarah and Gloria

Sarah: Thank you, Moderator, for the opportunity to reply to Gloria from an evangelical egalitarian perspective. I will begin with the places where I agree with Gloria’s presentation.

(1) In her opening paragraph, Gloria asserts the following principle:

 It is wrong everywhere, always, and for everyone to forbid a woman to do something she wants to do simply because she is a woman.

I agree wholeheartedly with Gloria. What motivation other than irrational prejudice could anyone have for disagreeing with this principle?

(2) I also agree that women’s experience serves as an important source of truth for constructing the ethics of gender relations. Because of their experience of oppression and abuse, women can see oppressive structures and abusive relationships to which men are blind. Even if men come to agree with the principle of equality, they need women to help them see specific areas where they are privileged.

(3) If male privilege is morally wrong, it stands to reason that any theory that justifies it is also wrong. Hence, for the most part evangelical egalitarians agree with Gloria’s call for reform:

Secular feminists demand that every tradition, ideology, theology, or philosophy that justifies male privilege be rejected as false, anti-human, and evil.

In sum, as an evangelical equalitarian, I agree with secular feminists when they stand against male privilege, assert the equality of women, and call for reform that institutionalizes equality.

Moderator: Thank you for this precise statement of agreement. It will help us achieve our goal of getting as clear as possible on the most basic agreements and disagreements between these two philosophies and facilitate our making an informed decision between them.

Sarah Critiques Secular Feminism

Sarah: Clarity is also my goal. So, let me state this clearly: I am not secular feminist. And I am grateful for the opportunity to explain why. I am an evangelical Christian. I believe that God is the creator and ruler of all things and that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. I don’t know whether or not Gloria is an atheist, but it’s clear that she leaves God completely out of her theory. She grounds all her principles and values in human existence and experience. My specific disagreements with her arise from this fundamental difference. In the following I will address five places where this fundamental disagreement comes to the surface in what Gloria says.

(1) As I admitted above I agree with Gloria on the injustice of rules that keep women from doing what they want to do just because they are women. But Gloria goes on to make a much more radical and deeply troubling statement. She says,

Anything that is possible [to a woman] should be permissible. Secular feminists recognize as legitimate no law of nature, no social custom, no political legislation, and no divine law that forbids a woman to do what is possible for her.

I understand why Gloria would make this argument. Patriarchal society forbade women to do many things they were perfectly capable of doing: vote, run marathons, become doctors, serve as police officers, soldiers and fire personal, preach in churches, and many others. But she goes too far when she equates the permissible with the possible. Many things are possible that are immoral, unjust and illegal; they should not be permitted for women or men. In order to free women from rules that derive from the false idea of male superiority, Gloria denies the legitimacy of any rule that does not derive from her own will. In effect, she denies the objective distinction between right and wrong. This move makes as much sense as slitting your throat to cure a headache. It’s effective, but the side effects make it impossible to enjoy the cure. For if there is no objective distinction between right and wrong, then male domination of women is not objectively wrong either! In contrast to secular feminists, evangelical egalitarians believe in a God-given moral law that roots justice, love and the equality of men and women in the eternal divine being and will.

(2) My second objection is closely related to the first. It concerns the source and nature of the dignity of women. In an astounding claim, Gloria declares,

The dignity of the [woman’s] self does not derive from any value system outside the self, from nature or God or society. Its dignity is self-grounded. That is to say, I am related to myself and I am worth something to myself. I value myself more than I value the whole world. Given the power of the self to create its own identity and establish its own dignity, it makes sense for the self to assert its right to determine itself and liberate itself from all external frameworks and forces.

This statement contains so many extraordinary claims I hardly know where to begin with my critique. Gloria rejects being created or loved by God as relevant to the dignity of woman. Instead of finding her dignity in her relationship to God, she grounds it in her subjective feelings of self-worth. And then she demands that other people make way for her to act as she pleases and become what she wishes. The problem with this view is that our subjective feelings of importance and desires to live and act as we please cannot legitimize making objective moral claims on others. For other people have their own feelings and desires that they may assert against our claims. And in Gloria’s system there is no objective law or arbiter to adjudicate competing claims. Unless human dignity has an objective and universal foundation, it can found no rights or claims against the state, social institutions or individual human beings. Because there is no universal authority to which all parties can appeal and are willing to submit, efforts at persuasion are doomed to fail and coercive power becomes the final arbiter between competing wills.

(3) I said above that I agreed substantially with Gloria about the role and importance of women’s experience in this discussion. However she seems to view men wholly negatively. As a Christian I do not view men as irredeemably evil. Men too are made in the image of God. They can repent and learn how to treat women as equals.

(4) My fourth critical observation concerns Gloria’s statements about the practical program of secular feminism. She says,

Secular feminists demand that every tradition, ideology, theology, or philosophy that justifies male privilege be rejected as false, anti-human, and evil. We also demand that every framework, order, institution, and structure that blocks or inhibits the realization of women’s potential be reformed or abolished…And since these institutions are heirs of a long history of oppression, they cannot be left to reform themselves. There must be an aggressive public policy of affirmative action to move rapidly toward equality.

While I agree that institutions need to be reformed in an egalitarian direction, I think Gloria’s rhetoric labeling patriarchal ideas “false, anti-human and evil” crosses a line. Such rhetoric arises from deep anger and fuels the fires of hatred. And her obvious willingness to use government coercion and possibly violence to compel the recalcitrant shows that her philosophy of self-assertion, outlined in objection (2) above, is at bottom a will to power that sets itself above the distinctions between good and evil and right and wrong. In its secret heart it harbors the kind of metaphysical and moral nihilism that would be willing to destroy itself and the whole world to taste one second of revenge on its enemies.

(5) Gloria’s assessment of the Bible is distinctly uncharitable:

Bible, that ancient patriarchal and misogynous text that ought to have been relegated to the dustbin of failed mythologies long ago but is still revered by uneducated men and the women deceived by them.

Gloria’s disparagement of the Bible and those who love it betrays a striking lack of empathy for past cultures and an appalling ignorance of the central message of the Bible. Evangelical egalitarians do not believe the patriarchal aspects of the Bible are essential to the its ethics. There is even an internal dialogue within the Bible in which patriarchy is overcome and replaced by equality. We can see this most clearly in Jesus’ teaching and in Galatians 2:26-28, which I quoted in my original talk:

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

This text shows that evangelical egalitarians have a great advantage over secular feminists in criticizing male superiority and advocating the equal dignity of women. We can ground our program of equality in divine authority. We can challenge Christian men (There are hundreds of millions of them!) to live up to the ethical demands of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Secular feminists’ assertions of dignity and demands for respect, once you see through their deceptive rhetorical form, boil down to expressions of subjective feelings and wishes with no authority at all.

Moderator: Thank you Sarah for this analysis and critique of secular feminism. Next time we will hear from Abraham who will speak from a neo-patriarchal perspective.

SEX, LOVE, AND THE WAY OF THE WORLD

In the post made on October 16, 2016, I defined “the world” as “sin in its organizing mode.” The world is the way our lives individually, socially, and in culture become organized when sin is given space to work out its chaotic logic.  First John 2:15-17 lists “the lust of the flesh” as one of the three organizing principles of “the world.” Today I want to ask how the lust of the flesh orders, that is, disorders, the world. The lust of the flesh refers to any desire to experience pleasure by means of one of the five senses, though usually we narrow it to taste and touch. Specifically, we will deal with the lust for sexual intercourse, which is the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the term “lust.”

Every human society from the most primitive to the most civilized legislates rules for who may have sex with whom and under what conditions. Such acts as incest, child molestation, adultery, and rape may be defined differently than modern western societies define them, but properly defined they are forbidden in all societies. Warrior societies may permit engaging in forced sex with slaves or conquered enemies. In some tribal societies, giving your wife for sex with a male visitor of the same status is understood not as facilitating adultery but as an act of hospitality. Prostitution is permitted or overlooked in many societies, ancient and modern. And in many cultures the rules for men are much looser that those governing daughters and wives.

As we can see, even “the world” regulates sex. Why? Because sex is a powerful and irrational force! And unregulated by reason it can destroy individuals, families, and societies. It often provokes jealously, inflicts emotional wounds, evokes anger, and sometimes ends in violence. But the world is not stupid and suicidal. It insists on some order. It will not allow individuals to pursue their lusts without restraint.

Why then does John criticize the world for ordering itself according to “the lust of the flesh”? Clearly, John is not implying that “the lust of the flesh” is the only ordering principle the world uses. He lists two others, “the lust of the eye and the pride of life.” And we should not take John’s list of three ordering principles as exclusive of others. Everyone wants to live, be safe, and have friends. Nor is John saying that there is no light and nothing good in the world. The flickering light of reason keeps the world from falling into complete moral chaos. But as John looks at the world from the perspective of the bright light of Jesus Christ, he can see that the world orders itself to accommodate “the lust of the flesh” as much as it can without destroying the social fabric.

In other words, the dominant restraining principle that sets limits on the two lusts and pride is social survival, that is, the traditional and legal order that enables a society to function economically, culturally, and militarily. What makes a social order “the world” in John’s sense is that its principles of order have validity only for this life. Everything is organized to provide maximum pleasure, comfort, and safety in this world. A society can exist and thrive economically, culturally, and militarily, even if it allows individuals to engage in prostitution, promiscuous sex, homosexuality, adultery, pornography or any other avenue of sexual pleasure, as long as these activities do not lead to violence or in other obvious ways threaten the integrity of society. This is the bottom line of the world. And it is this order that John rejects.

But John—and the New Testament as a whole—insists that Christians must order their lives by a higher principle. The Christian rules for who can have sex with whom and under what conditions are not designed simply to enable the social and political order to function culturally, economically, and militarily in ways that provide maximum pleasure, comfort, and safety in this world. That higher principle is love of neighbor enlightened by God’s self-giving love as shown in Jesus Christ. When we see how much God loved our neighbors and us, we will love God in return. And we will love our neighbors in the same way God loved us. Who is our neighbor? Every human being we meet! Love gives only what is good for the beloved, and we learn what is good for our neighbors from God.

Sex is powerful, and, if it is not ordered and disciplined by a higher principle, it is destructive, very destructive. Christianity insists that the drive for sex be subordinated to the principle of love of neighbor, as defined by the quality of God’s love.  In this light, you can see why Christianity limits sexual union to marriage. Marriage in the Christian sense is a life-long bond, made before God and human witnesses. It surrounds sexual union with promises of exclusive love and loyalty. It welcomes children and provides stability for them. Marriage is not merely contract agreeing to keep each other satisfied sexually. It is a multidimensional partnership for all of life. The marriage promises to protect husband and wife from the pains of jealously and insecurity. Sex becomes more than a means of pleasure or pride or power. In marriage, the power of sex is turned to a constructive use. It becomes a means of reinforcing and deepening the bond of love and of giving us the emotional certainty that we are loved and will never willingly be abandoned. It protects each person from superficial physical attractions to other people.

Perhaps a society that allows prostitution, promiscuous sex, adultery, pornography or other avenues of sexual pleasure can continue to perform its basic functions. Perhaps it can function even if it aborts (kills) millions of unborn children every year. Perhaps it can deal with diseases spread by promiscuous sex. I don’t deny it. But such societies and the individuals within them follow the way of “the world.” “The love of the Father is not in them.” No one who has sex with a prostitute seeks her highest good. You don’t have sex with a prostitute because she needs the money or love. You cannot be seeking to love people as God has loved you if you “hook up” with them for mutual exploitation. Nor do you love yourself as God’s has loved you when you do such things. You have to disengage sex from love to engage in promiscuous relationships. Instead of expressing deep and lasting love, sex becomes an occasion for hurt, jealously, cruelty, emptiness, and insecurity. Society may survive, but many individuals will not.

Christianity is much stricter than the world in its rules for sex. And it is often ridiculed as being sexually repressed or obsessed or both at the same time. The next time you hear this tired refrain, you will know how to respond. Christianity has a “stricter” view of sex because has a higher view of sex, and of human beings and their dignity. The world expects less because it thinks less of us. We are valued only as means to the survival of the society. Beyond that, we can live as self-destructively as we please and pursue our irrational lusts as we wish. The world doesn’t care. But Jesus teaches us that we should not use each other as mere occasions for pleasure or pride or power. We are to love others in the way God loved us. You should not toy with the most tender and vulnerable sphere of  another person’s heart with the powerful and dangerous force of sex unless you love them truly and they love you truly and you have made this known in formal, binding promises.

Am I Really Worth It? God and the Modern Self #15

How much are human beings worth and why? In the late 18th century, Immanuel Kant answered that basis of human dignity (or worth) resides in the mysterious core of our being where we create ourselves by ourselves. Other answers have been given: our dignity lies in our rational nature, which excels all other creatures. Or, our worth must result from achieving moral excellence, military glory, or some other accomplishment that marks us for distinction. Recently, the answer has become that I deserve respect from others simply because I want it, assert it and demand it. But even as I assert my dignity, I could still ask in my heart, “Am I really worth it?”

There is something unsatisfying about these answers. I may wish for the mysterious power of self-determination and self-creation that Kant postulates but I can’t conceive it clearly or feel it intensely. But my inherited characteristics, my limits and my unworthy qualities press in on me from a much closer range. If I attempt to feel my worth by contrasting my intelligence with unreasoning creatures or counting my accomplishments, I could achieve only a relative worth. Others possess greater intelligence and have achieved greater glory. And even if I managed to convince myself that I am greater than all other creatures, I would know in my heart that my worth is still limited. I could imagine being greater and better than I am. In that knowledge, I could still feel unworthy and unhappy. And I can’t help but notice that asserting my worth and demanding respect, though it expresses my desire for worth and respect, does not make them real. Shouting at the world does not change it. I could still ask, “Am I really worth it?”

When asked about the basis of human dignity Christians usually refer to our creation “in the image of God.” And that is a good answer. At least, it’s a good first answer. The problem, however, is that it is unclear exactly what that means. Does the “image” refer to our rational nature? Does it point to our assignment to rule over creation? Or is it a moral quality that can be lost and regained? Each of these answers has found brilliant defenders throughout Christian history. Hence merely asserting that we are created “in the image of God” still leaves us with questions. And each of the proposed explanations of the “image” refers to a quality or a role that never escapes the realm of the comparative and the limited. I could still ask, “Am I really worth it?”

There is another theme in the Bible that touches on human worth. And its meaning is much clearer than the image of God theme. Perhaps you have noticed that I have been using the words “dignity” and “worth” interchangeably in this essay. This is because the word dignity is derived from the Latin word for worth. The word dignity does not resonate with the English language as well as the word “worth.” Dignity is vague but worth is clear. We know that something is worth something if it is worth something to someone. The word dignity sounds mysterious and even vacuous.

Hence the question “How much is a human being worth and why?” can be answered only by specifying who values human beings and how much. Does this mean, then, that if no other human being values me I am worth nothing? Does my dignity rise and fall with others’ attitudes toward me? No, it does not.  And here is why.

That other theme in the Bible and Christian history is that we are worth something because we are worth something to God. God loves us! God does not love us because we possess certain excellent qualities or that we have achieved something admirable. Everything excellent and admirable in us is caused by God’s love. God’s love for us has no cause outside God. God’s love is the beginning, the explanation and the cause of everything worth loving in us. So, “Am I really worth it?” Yes, you really are because God’s love is the cause of everything real. God’s love for you is real and eternal. It cannot change.

But how much does God love me? Perhaps God loves me more than human beings love me, but is there a limit to God’s love? If God’s love is finite, is my worth is finite as well? And if my worth is finite won’t I still dream of greater dignity and hence experience unhappiness? No, God’s love for you is infinite!

In the New Testament, the proof of God’s love for us is that he gave his Son for us (John 3:16; Romans 5:8; Ephesians 5:1-2; Galatians 2:20; 1 John 4:9-11, and so many more). How much does the Father love Jesus his eternal Son? The Father loves his Son as much as he loves himself! How much does the Father love us? Since he gave his Son for us–and he loves his Son as much as he loves himself–we know the Father loves us as much as he loves himself!

“Am I really worth it?” According the New Testament, God thinks you are! Don’t look at yourself for evidence that you are loved, that you are worth it. Look to God and know that the giving love of the Father and the self-giving love of the Son demonstrate how much God thinks you are worth.

As a post script, listen to the words of the 12th Century theologian and spiritual writer Bernard of Clairvaux:

“Could any title be greater than this, that He gave Himself for us unworthy wretches? And being God, what better gift could He offer than Himself? Hence, if one seeks for God’s claim upon our love here is the chiefest: Because He first loved us (I John 4.19). Ought He not to be loved in return, when we think who loved, whom He loved, and how much He loved?… In the first creation He gave me myself; but in His new creation He gave me Himself, and by that gift restored to me the self that I had lost. Created first and then restored, I owe Him myself twice over in return for myself. But what have I to offer Him for the gift of Himself? Could I multiply myself a thousand-fold and then give Him all, what would that be in comparison with God?” (On Loving God)

Note: This installment can be read as a companion to chapter 15 of God, Freedom and Human Dignity (“God’s Love as the Ground and Measure of Human Dignity”).

Questions for Discussion

1. Discuss the Kantian and modern-self views of human dignity. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each?

2. What is your view of the biblical theme of “the image of God”? Do you agree that its meaning is rather vague?

3. What are the implications of thinking of the word “dignity” as “worth”? What is gained and what is lost by this interpretation?

4. Discuss the shift to grounding human dignity in God’s love and away from grounding it in qualities we possess.

5. Discuss the idea that God’s loves us as much as God loves himself?

6. Reflect on how we may appropriate the secure foundation and magnitude of our worth advocated in this essay? How would internalizing this view of our worth affect our joy and confidence in life? And how would it affect the way we treat other people?

 

Next week: The conclusion to the series!