Tag Archives: secularity

“It Takes a University to Produce Ideas this Dumb”

One day last week as I was reading my local newspaper and drinking my morning coffee I came upon a story lamenting a recent series of incidents of some type of bad behavior, a sort of secular jeremiad. Whether they were cases of racism, sexism, bullying, physical and verbal violence against women or LGBTQ people, I don’t recall. What struck me as worthy of note was not the particular list of sins condemned but the author’s diagnosis of the root problem and the response advocated: ignorance remediated by more education!

What’s wrong with that? Nothing per se. Every parent knows and all ancient moralists understood that human beings need to be taught the difference between right and wrong; they need discipline, training and practice. But everything depends on what you teach! Secular approaches to moral education, such as the one advocated by the author I read, leave out the most important part of morality. They assert moral rules without foundations or inner coherence. Of course the moral training of a small child, a two-year old for example, must begin with parents laying down rules backed up only by parental say-so. A young child cannot understand moral theology or philosophy. But at some point in our lives we need more than arbitrary rules backed up by threat of punishment to sustain a moral life worthy of mature human beings.

Here is what struck me about the story: the secular moral educator cannot get beyond two-year old morality. That is to say, the secular moralist can only make assertions backed up by implicit or explicit threats. If students ask a secular moral educator why they are obligated to follow the asserted rules, sooner or later they will be confronted by a humanly legislated law or an administrative regulation that has the force of law. This is the adult form of “Because I said so!” (Those who have had to complete institutionally required workplace sexual harassment training understand what I am saying.) The secular moralist may assert certain rights or invoke the concept of justice. And what if you ask for the basis of those asserted rights and claims of justice? You will receive one of two answers. Either the original assertion will be repeated at a higher decibel level or you will be directed again to legislated law.

By definition, secular morality cannot appeal to any moral standard that transcends human desires, wishes or assertions of power. Such appeals would have to mention the will and purpose of God or some spiritual reality that determines the meaning and end of human life. It cannot successfully appeal to natural science to ground its moral assertions, because science only describes things and cannot tell you what ought to be.

And because secular morality possesses no unifying philosophical or theological vision of the world and human life, it cannot bring unity to its asserted rules. Sometimes it invokes principles such as individual liberty or community solidarity to give its rules a semblance of coherence. But as you can see, these two principles often come into conflict and call for a higher principle to harmonize them. And apart from a higher unifying principle, individual liberty and community solidarity are just as much arbitrary assertions as is the incoherent list of secular rules.

Moreover, secular moral education is as weak psychologically as it is philosophically. Why would you expect racists, sexists and bullies to change their minds and reform their ways simply because a teacher, professor, supervisor or celebrity asks them to do so? It’s laughable. Such changes of heart require something more persuasive than appeals for niceness. Genuine moral convictions must be grounded in a clear vision of truth. Moral reformation must arise out of a powerful perception that one is out of tune and out of touch with what is truly good and right, misaligned with the way things ought to be. And for most people moral reformation must be accompanied by religious conversion; for God is the creator and lawgiver of human nature and of the whole world. You can’t get right with your neighbors unless you get right with the Creator of your neighbors.

Christianity’s moral vision acknowledges the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ to be the unifying center of all reality, metaphysical, physical and moral. The scriptures teach us that to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves are our highest duties. And Jesus Christ has set us a perfect example of what it means to love God and neighbor. This vision of the good and right is not an empty and arbitrary assertion. It is grounded in the eternal being of God and revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the perfect image of God. And those who see it don’t need a secular educator’s special pleading or threats to motivate them to not to do violence to their neighbors. They are already way beyond that stage.

 

 

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Is the Bible Irretrievably Misogynous?

Speakers:

Gloria (Secular Feminist)

Sarah (Evangelical Egalitarian)

Abraham (Neo-Patriarch)

Moderator (Neutral)

 

Moderator: Welcome to the ninth session of our dialogue on the relationship between men and women in society, church and family. This evening Gloria will reply to Sarah’s defense of evangelical egalitarianism from a secular feminist perspective.

Gloria: Thank you Moderator for this opportunity to present my evaluation of evangelical egalitarianism. I am a secular feminist. I am skeptical about the existence of God or anything like God. On the whole, I don’t think being religious on an individual or a social level supports humanistic values or enhances human life. Indeed, I think religion is a dangerous force. It has on rare occasions been harnessed for good, but for the most part it has not been good for women. This is not the right occasion to make an argument supporting my negative view of religion. I just want the audience to be clear about the position from which I shall evaluate Sarah.

Sarah claims to agree with the feminist principle I stated in my original talk, that is, “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.” And she seems to agree with the practical program of secular feminism as well, that is, of reforming every practice that falls short of full equality between men and women. Sarah does not make any rational arguments for the feminist principle and program. She seems to accept as them as self-evident to any right-thinking and fair-minded person. But then she supplements and supports the feminist principle and program with arguments from the Bible. Why drag the Bible in to support something that is self-evident on the basis of reason and experience? I find this move unnecessary and actually detrimental to the cause of feminism for several reasons I shall explain below.

(1) The Bible itself is an object of disagreement and controversy. If the principle and the program of feminism are self-evident to any right-thinking and fair-minded person, why attempt to support them with arguments from a source that is not universally held to be authoritative? Sarah claims that the Bible gives evangelical feminism moral truth that is not available from reason and experience. As examples of these new truths she mentions two ideas, that human beings are created in God’s image and that they will be raised from the dead to eternal life. It’s true that the Bible makes these claims, but they seem to secular feminists unlikely and unknowable. Only someone who accepts the Bible as a divine revelation can take these arguments seriously. What a leap of faith that is! It’s not only redundant but introduces unnecessary ambiguity. It takes the focus off the self-evidence of the moral principle of feminism and places it on the complicated and doubtful process of exegesis and interpretation of the Bible. Sarah’s appeal to the Bible actually weakens the case for women’s equality! It makes it seem dependent on the improbable theory of divine inspiration.

(2) The Bible doesn’t really teach feminism. When we secular feminists read the Bible we don’t hear a message of equality. We hear a message of male privilege and superiority. The Bible is obviously male centered. I actually think Abraham is more realistic and honest about what the Bible actually says than Sarah is. Sarah attempts to reinterpret the anti-woman texts in ways that subordinate them to the (few) texts that affirm women in some way. But such interpretative maneuvers seem artificial, complicated and sophistical. They are unconvincing and give the impression of arising from wishful thinking. Sarah forces the texts to say what she already knows to be true on some other basis. Hence working so hard to reinterpret the Bible in a feminist direction turns out to be as implausible as it is unnecessary. So what if the Bible teaches male superiority! Even if it were possible, it’s not worth the trouble to retrieve the Bible for feminism. Let it go, Sarah.

(3) Using the Bible to support feminism gives the appearance of cynicism. Now I don’t wish to question the religious sincerity or conscious motives of all evangelical egalitarians, but I admit that I am somewhat suspicious of their strategy. Why strain so hard to make the Bible into a feminist text? Is it merely because so many people hold it in such high esteem? Is it that Bible believers will never accept feminism unless they can be made to think the Bible supports it…even if it doesn’t? Or, is evangelical egalitarianism merely a cynical strategy with a purely pragmatic goal? Well, for my part I am fine with that as an interim strategy. Whatever it takes! But in the long run people will have to make a choice between the Bible and egalitarianism. They are not compatible.

(4) Evangelical egalitarianism accepts many moral teachings that are incompatible with the feminist principle and program. Sarah claims to accept the feminist principle. But her view of the Bible forces her to argue that some things ought to be forbidden simply because the Bible teaches that they are immoral. Evangelicals hold that non-marital sexual relationships, abortion, homosexual relationships, divorce, gay marriage, and gender fluidity are immoral and ought to be forbidden. Many of these moral rules target women and prevent them from exercising moral autonomy to the same degree as men. Again, we see how anti-progressive the Bible is.

Secular feminism is a much more efficient route to gender equality than evangelical egalitarianism. It doesn’t need to apologize for the Bible’s retrograde teachings or spend its energy attempting to make the Bible say something it plainly doesn’t say.

Moderator: Thank you Gloria for this succinct statement critiquing evangelical feminism. Next time we will hear Abraham’s take on Sarah’s defense of evangelical egalitarianism.

 

On Being Worldly in a Secular Age (Part Two)

As a young person, when I heard older people sermonize against worldliness I got the impression that worldliness consisted in the practice of certain vices. I won’t compile a list of those forbidden acts because your list might differ from mine. And vice lists differ from generation to generation. This variability is an indication that such lists do not get at the essence of worldliness. What, then, does the New Testament mean by worldliness? Let’s think about the classic text on the subject, 1 John 2:15-17:

“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).

First John speaks incessantly about love of God and others. Your true self is revealed and your life is ordered by what you love. God is the highest and best. God loved us first and best, and if we know this we will love God in return as our first and best. To love something is to value it and seek it above other things. Only if we love God best can we love other things rightly. The essence of worldliness is loving something else more than we love God. Let’s explore this thought.

John uses the standard Greek word for world. It means “the order”, the order we see with our eyes and perceive with our minds. But he puts a negative connotation on “the order”. He does not deny the beauty and goodness of creation; that’s not his point. By “the order” John means the distorted, fallen cosmic and social order that opposes God and God’s arriving kingdom. And how is the world ordered? By the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye and the pride of life! Lust is distorted love. It seeks gratification in physical stimulation without moderation or order. It refuses guidance from moral law, the law of love or leading of the Spirit.

What does John mean by the “lust of the eye”? Perhaps something like the following: The flesh can take in only so much. You can’t eat all the time or enjoy erotic pleasures continuously. There is a limit to how much you can stimulate your skin with finery or your nostrils with perfumes. But the eyes! The eyes can survey the whole universe and take in unlimited sights. They can look with envy, lust or morbid curiosity on an infinite number and variety of things. The lustful eye serves the insatiable imagination wherein the fleshly mind can enjoy what the fleshly body cannot embrace. Still, the lustful eye does not see what it ought to see. It cannot see the true order of things because it is blinded by the disordered mind that controls it.

And the pride of life? It is noteworthy that John uses a Greek term that means not so much life itself as the stuff that supports life. We want some things for their utility or for the pleasure they give. But we also enjoy having “stuff” (things and money) for what it says about us to other people. We can enjoy our bodies, natural talents and acquired skills for the good we can do with them; or we can credit them to ourselves as marks of worth and inflate our egos by imagining we are better than others. The pride of life is a kind of distorted love of ourselves in which we try to base our sense of dignity and worth on our qualities, powers and possessions.

To “love the world” is to be caught up in a disordered order that seeks from creation what only the Creator can provide. It is to treat the temporal as eternal, the corruptible as never dying and the creature as the Creator. Self-evidently, to love the world is to exclude “the love of the Father”; for the world is “the (disordered) order” precisely because it does not love the Father first and best.

It is unlikely that the worldly person John has in mind could be classified as “secular” in the modern sense, that is, someone who has “ceased to feel religious feelings and ask religious questions.” People can be worldly even though they are religious; they simply love the world more than they love God. They relate to God only when there is a worldly advantage in doing so. But one cannot be secular without being worldly. For someone who “feels no religious feelings and ask no religious questions,” the world with its lusts and pride is all there is. Since we are not God and do not possess within ourselves the means of life and happiness, we will seek, love and worship something outside of ourselves. Apart from its Creator, creation is just “the world”. Hence, when our love and worship are directed to “the world” apart from the Father, they degenerate into “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.”