Saturday, January 26, 2008

Guess Who?

Here are two statements about the reality of human evil/sinfulness/fallenness. Any guesses on who penned them? (And no searching with Google or the "Search Inside" feature of; that's cheating!)

Quote #1:
Perhaps the most alarming feature of this low-level but endemic evil, the one that brings it close to the conception of original sin, is that it is unforced and spontaneous. No one requires people to commit it. In the worst dictatorships, some of the evil that ordinary men and women do, they do out of fear of not committing it. There, goodness requires heroism. [...] But in modern Britain, no such conditions exist: the government does not require citizens to behave as I have described and punish them if they do not. The evil is freely chosen.

Not that the government is blameless in the matter--far from it. Intellectuals propounded the idea that man should be freed from the shackles of social convention and self-control, and the government, without any demand from below, enacted laws that promoted unrestrained behavior and created a welfare system that protected people from some of its economic consequences. When the barriers to evil are brought down, it flourishes; and never again will I be tempted to believe in the fundamental goodness of man, or that evil is something exceptional or alien to human nature.

Quote #2:
I think Christianity is spot on about original sin--how could one think otherwise, when the world’s most civilized and advanced people (the people of Beethoven, Goethe, Kant) embraced that slime-ball Hitler and participated in the Holocaust? I think Saint Paul and the great Christian philosophers had real insights into sin and freedom and responsibility, and I want to build on this rather than turn from it.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Recommended for Martin Luther King Day

Justin Taylor has posted King's "I Have a Dream" speech (courtesy of YouTube; a great use of the technology in this case, BTW) and Rev. John Piper has some good thoughts as well , in particular, an excerpt from King's writings that expresses so well what it must have been like to be a victim of racism. Well worth reading. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is also thought by some to be a good example of Natural Law reasoning.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Liberating Faith, Part I

In his New York Times best-selling book, god is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens rails against religion and Christianity in particular as a principle factor in motivating and sustaining, if not outright establishing, the appalling cultural institution of black slavery in the antebellum South. He paints a picture of a useless and hypocritical Christian church -- on the one hand immobile, asleep at the wheel, while great injustices were taking place; on the other, passionately quoting Scripture and preaching in support of subjugation of blacks, all while presenting the outward signs of Christianity. "This huge and terrible industry was blessed by all churches and for a long time aroused absolutely no religious protest," he writes. [p. 176] Regarding the use of Scripture, "Christian preachers of all kinds had justified slavery until the American Civil War and even afterwards, on the supposed biblical warrant that of the three sons of Noah (Shem, Ham, and Jephet), had been cursed and cast into servitude." [166] Hitchens became even more explicit about his personal views on Scripture and slavery in an interview with the Times Online:
My point is therefore that religion is optional and if you say, "Well I think we should free the slaves because Jesus wants it", I think it is a fatuous thing to say but it is not a wrong thing to say. It ought to be enough to say "I think we should free the slaves." There is no scriptural authority of any kind for freeing the slaves, none, but there's a good deal of scriptural warrant for slavery, which is why it lasted as long as it did and why it persists, especially in the Muslim world. Because it is indeed warranted by the text, which emancipation is not. It is a very important question. In my book there is a good deal of material about the conditions under which Jews can have slaves and what they are allowed to do to them. A lot of it is in Leviticus and Exodus, I believe.

Coming from his book again, of the abolitionists and slavery supporters, he recalls the following disturbing fact: "As Lincoln pointed out in his highly ambivalent second inaugural address, both sides in the quarrel made that claim [that God was on their side], at least in their pulpits, just as both were addicted to loud, confident quotations from holy writ." [178] In light of this assessment, does religious/Christian belief really make a difference in people's behavior? Does it, on the whole, make them better? Hitchens answer is a resounding "NO." After briefly considering the role of a few actors in the drama at the time, he sums up with the following words of condemnation:
Even a glance at the whole record will show, first, that person for person, American freethinkers and agnostics and atheists come out the best. The chance that someone's secular or freethinking opinion would cause him or her to denounce the whole injustice was extremely high. The chance that someone's religious belief would cause him or her to take a stand against slavery and racism was statistically quite small. But the chance that someone's religious belief would cause him or her to uphold slavery and racism was statistically extremely high, and the latter fact helps us to understand why the victory of simple justice took so long to bring about. [180-181]

Although some of this account will be challenged in subsequent posts, it must be soberly admitted that Hitchens is not entirely off the mark. Tragically, many claiming the name of Christ at the time did argue for slavery's legitimacy, and some were even slave owners. Frederick Douglass, one-time slave turned articulate abolitionist had similar stinging criticisms to make from his personal experience. The following account demonstrates the offense in spades:
I have said my master found religious sanction for his cruelty. As an example, I will state one of many facts going to prove the charge. I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and, in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture—”He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” Master would keep this lacerated young woman tied up in this horrid situation four or five hours at a time. I have known him to tie her up early in the morning, and whip her before breakfast; leave her, go to his store, return at dinner, and whip her again, cutting her in the places already made raw with his cruel lash. The secret of master’s cruelty toward “Henny” is found in the fact of her being almost helpless. When quite a child, she fell into the fire, and burned herself horribly. Her hands were so burnt that she never got the use of them. She could do very little but bear heavy burdens. She was to master a bill of expense; and as he was a mean man, she was a constant offence to him. He seemed desirous of getting the poor girl out of existence. He gave her away once to his sister; but, being a poor gift, she was not disposed to keep her. Finally, my benevolent master, to use his own words, “set her adrift to take care of herself.” Here was a recently-converted man, holding on upon the mother, and at the same time turning out her helpless child, to starve and die! Master Thomas was one of the many pious slaveholders who hold slaves for the very charitable purpose of taking care of them.

[Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, pp. 82-83.]

Hitchens is right on this much: what happened to Douglass and other victims of slavery in the name of religion was unconscionable. But this is not the whole picture; there is much more to be said on the subject of Christianity and slavery, as the rest of this series will attempt to argue.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Pitting Truth Against Beauty

The pastor of our local church spoke this past Sunday on Philippians 4:8, in which the Apostle Paul is exhorting his readers to dwell on "higher things":
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

The pastor then went into a discussion of temptations that (especially) men face in being confronted with the images of our culture (e.g. the magazine rack at the convenience store, the checkout display at the grocery store, and so on). And he brought up the fact that the images are often doctored. They are the result of, not only hours of hair and makeup work, but also extensive image retouching via Photoshop or other software. In effect, they are pictures of nobody at all - images of people who do not exist. And his point was that we are tempted to trade the real life beauty that is often right before us for something fake, fabricated, false. To highlight the point, he showed this video during the service (well worth a look):

Of course, the point can be expanded, as the video indicates. Young girls are repeatedly exposed to these unrealistic images, and meant to feel self-conscious for their realistic features - features often beautiful in their own right. As a father of three girls, I made the point of showing it to my girls myself, and reinforcing the fact that they are being fed lies by our culture.

There is a strong classical tradition that calls people to seek after the triad of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful (bonum, verum, pulchrum). They were seen as being in relationship to one another; indeed, the Judeo-Christian tradition sees the three culminating in the Most High God. In this case, however, truth is sacrificed for the sake of beauty, and the results are as might be expected: the happiness of real human beings is affected - impaired - by the commercially-driven aesthetic quest unbridled by the truth.

Liberal feminist author Naomi Wolf commented on a similar situation in her New York Magazine article of 2003, "The Porn Myth" (warning: contains some explicit language). Commenting on anti-porn activist Andrea Dworkin's predictions, she argues that Dworkin
...was right about the warning, wrong about the outcome. As she foretold, pornography did breach the dike that separated a marginal, adult, private pursuit from the mainstream public arena. The whole world, post-Internet, did become pornographized. Young men and women are indeed being taught what sex is, how it looks, what its etiquette and expectations are, by pornographic training—and this is having a huge effect on how they interact.

But the effect is not making men into raving beasts. On the contrary: The onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as “porn-worthy.” Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention.

Interestingly, looking at the tragic effects of pornography has given Wolf a measure of respect for traditional religious belief and practice. She writes
I am not advocating a return to the days of hiding female sexuality, but I am noting that the power and charge of sex are maintained when there is some sacredness to it, when it is not on tap all the time. In many more traditional cultures, it is not prudery that leads them to discourage men from looking at pornography. It is, rather, because these cultures understand male sexuality and what it takes to keep men and women turned on to one another over time—to help men, in particular, to, as the Old Testament puts it, “rejoice with the wife of thy youth; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times.” These cultures urge men not to look at porn because they know that a powerful erotic bond between parents is a key element of a strong family.

"And feminists," she continues, "have misunderstood many of these prohibitions." She goes on to describe a very different approach to sexuality inspiring "a feeling of erotic intensity deeper than any I have ever picked up between secular couples in the liberated West." If we hold up sex as something sacred, and allow that to inform our practices - the way we dress and otherwise present ourselves (I think there can be different manifestations of this, not restricted to the particulars of Wolf's story) - it can be transforming to our relationships. Wendy Shalit came to the same conclusions in her excellent book A Return to Modesty.

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. If we are willing to re-unite these old friends, and are willing to call upon the views of traditions that pay them tribute when it comes to the human form and countenance, then perhaps we can avoid some of the perils of modern culture. We may be surprised to find out just how satified we can be with what is real and right in front of us.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The Compass and the Fall

In recent days, renewed interest in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series of books has provided some skeptics an opportunity to opine on the Biblical story of the Fall, in which Adam and Eve disobey God and partake of the tree of knowledge. Primordial Blogger Brian Larnder writes

It makes no sense that Adam and Eve were punished for acquiring knowledge and if god was trying to keep humanity trapped in ignorance then maybe he's not really the good guy after all. As I've written before, today's fundamentalists thrive on ignorance - it's apparent in every stand they take whether it be sex education or stem cells, science or history. Ignorance is the leading cause of many of the world's biggest problems and much of human suffering, but christians and other religious people would prefer to take us back to the good old days of the dark ages.

Similarly, Mary Elizabeth Williams of, puts forward her interpretation:

At the end of "The Golden Compass," the witch Serafina foretells of a coming war, one that will affect everyone. The stakes, she says, are nothing less than our free will. Coincidentally, not long ago Lucy came home from Sunday school, bursting to tell me the story of Adam and Eve. "The snake made the woman eat an apple," she said cheerfully, "and that's why it hurts when we have babies."

"Yeah, maybe," I replied, with all the restraint in my arsenal. "But maybe the story is about something else." Maybe, I told her, it's about the point in our evolution when we got our souls. When we started using reason as well as instinct. Because you know what makes us human? Our ability to make our own choices. I told her that I don't believe in a God who kicked us out of paradise to punish us. I believe in one who put us in a world of wonders, to challenge us to figure it out.

I admit that I find the secular perspective on this passage both puzzling and superficial. I understand that these authors have disdain for the source material, but fear that it has made them blind to better interpretations. Genesis can't be handled so flippantly. It really is an amazing piece of literature: the more one considers it seriously, delving into its historico-poetic literary structure, the interaction with Ancient Near Eastern religions, the unique overlap with modern science (e.g. Big Bang theory), and the way it connects with other portions of Scripture and theology, the more one appreciates its genius. In light of this, perhaps there is a more charitable way to approach this text.

Was God unwilling to challenge humanity to think and to make our own choices, as Ms. Williams suggests? That's an odd reading simply because the forbidden Tree was placed within the garden, affording Adam and Eve the opportunity to make their own choice about whether to obey their Creator or not. We even get a glimpse of Eve's deliberations in Genesis 3:6. The whole story of the Fall of Man depends upon this opportunity; the first couple did, after all, make their own choice, and had to face the consequences. But if they had refrained from eating the forbidden fruit, it would have been their choice as well.

And with regard to Mr. Larnder's assertions that God "was trying to keep humanity trapped in ignorance" and that He "punished [them] for acquiring knowledge", the thoughts of Irenaeus (2nd century theologian, disciple of Polycarp, disciple of John the Apostle) and those of contemporary theologian Don Carson will be helpful.

To begin, God's omnipotence does, in fact, have reasonable logical and metaphysical limits. God cannot make a square circle, or a married bachelor. And He cannot create an uncreated thing. Similarly, argues Irenaeus in Book IV of his Against Heresies, God cannot create a rational creature with a mature character from the moment of its creation (ab initio). Maturity requires the actual subjective experience of living and reasoning through moral choices, experiences which such a creature -- man in this case -- cannot have had in the newness of his existence. As such, when God created the first human beings, they necessarily were immature. (See Carl Mosser's related paper on this subject.)

In light of Irenaeus' adept reasoning, God's prohibition was for the good of humanity, a temporary measure providing an opportunity for moral formation with greater enlightenment on the horizon. The tree might well have been made available to them after such formation had been realized, once they were ready to handle it. Jack Nicholson's stunning line from A Few Good Men, "You can't handle the truth!" is sometimes correct.

One aspect of the disjunction between maturity of character and knowledge of good and evil is the fact that we are sometimes haunted by knowing the mere possibilities of evil. We know of the wrongs we could do, we know of the fear of what might happen, and we suffer in significant ways from it. In particular, loss of community and unnecessary anxiety come to mind. A woman in our "civilized society", walking to her car at night and being followed by a man, knows full well that the man might attack her and attempt to rape and kill her. She justifiably worries about this. The man, in many cases, just happens to be going the same way. But he, too, knows the evil men have done in situations like these (one need only tune into the 11 o'clock news), knows by reason that he could do the same (even if repulsed by it), and knows that the woman will be glad to reach her car (and home) safely simply because of his presence coupled with the possibilities of evil. How sad that we are plagued with this burden! This knowledge of evil haunts them and robs them of the peace and security that could be theirs.

If moral maturity had been reached when our first parents took and ate of the Tree, the knowledge of what could be done for evil would not haunt us because we would know for sure that it wouldn't be done. Instead, we would experience the depth of peace and community that the Hebrew shalom is meant to signify. As a result of the Fall, we became aware of those possibilities and took it upon ourselves to explore them, whatever the consequences. It is to those consequences, in relation to knowledge, that we now turn.

Carson's understanding (mp3) of the "knowledge of good and evil" relies on exegesis of the phrase as it is found in other passages in the Old Testament. His argument is that it has the connotation of man as arbiter over good and evil; that is, self-appointment to be the sole and final judges over what is right and wrong -- something which is God's prerogative. When Adam and Eve took of the fruit in opposition to God's prohibition, they made themselves like God in this sense. "Playing God" (e.g., the scientifically-conducted Tuskegee experiments) is something we still rail against today, with good reason.

Importantly, Carson also points out that humanity came to acquire knowledge of good and evil in a disordered way. Specifically, we came to know evil from the inside: subjectively, experientially. God's knowledge of sin is not like that. He knows its seriousness, its self-destructiveness, its folly, and its tragedy. But we, unlike God, are the perpetrators of sin and suffer its effects. It is one thing to know that X is wrong. It is another to know it intimately by committing that wrong and suffering from its effects first-hand. Had humanity obeyed God, we could have had the former knowledge without the latter. We might have known that men and women could be unfaithful; instead, men and women know what it is to be unfaithful to one another, know what it is to be lied to and cheated on, know what it is like to split up families and divide the hearts of their children. Similarly, we might only have known that tissue growth could go terribly wrong; instead, we endure cancer and know the pain and even death it causes.

It seems to me that our secular friends have dismissed the Genesis story of the Fall without plumbing its depths. They write as if knowledge -- no matter how it is secured, or what character one brings to the table in achieving it -- is all that matters. But a little reflection indicates that the details can make all the difference.