Posts tagged ‘New York Times’

Temporary Peace and Perfect Peace

In a story that has largely flown under the radar, a week ago Saturday, the United States signed a deal with the Taliban that begins the process of ending the war in Afghanistan. The process of withdrawing our troops will be a protracted one, and the end of this war is anything but certain. Mujib Mashal reports for The New York Times:

The agreement signed in Doha, Qatar, which followed more than a year of stop-and-start negotiations and conspicuously excluded the American-backed Afghanistan government, is not a final peace deal, is filled with ambiguity, and could still unravel … 

The withdrawal of American troops – about 12,000 are still in Afghanistan – is dependent on the Taliban’s fulfillment of major commitments that have been obstacles for years, including its severance of ties with international terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda. 

The agreement also hinges on more difficult negotiations to come between the Taliban and the Afghan government over the country’s future. Officials hope those talks will produce a power-sharing arrangement and lasting cease-fire, but both ideas have been anathema to the Taliban in the past.

This war may finally end – but only maybe. What’s more, the lack of American presence in the region could lead to the re-oppression of historically marginalized groups there:

The United States, which struggled to help secure better rights for women and minorities and instill a democratic system and institutions in Afghanistan, has struck a deal with an insurgency that has never clearly renounced its desire for a government and justice system rooted in a severe interpretation of Islam.

Though the Taliban get their primary wish under this agreement – the withdrawal of American troops – they have remained vague in commitments to protect the civil rights that they had brutally repressed when in power.

In short, the peace agreement that is being forged in this region is a very tenuous one and comes with a price that include the loss of some civil rights.

The prophet Isaiah famously prophesies the coming of the Messiah as One who will be the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). What is sometimes missed in Isaiah’s description of the Messiah, however, is how this Prince of Peace will establish His peace:

He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. (Isaiah 9:7)

The Prince of Peace will bring His peace by establishing “justice and righteousness.” An enduring peace cannot be accomplished by overlooking injustice and righteousness – by looking past sin – but only by dealing directly with sin. This is why human peace treaties – no matter how noble – always seem to be temporary. For as long as there is sin in this world, there can be no perfect peace.

Thus, though we may wait expectantly for and even celebrate a peace treaty for Afghanistan, we rest assuredly in the perfect peace our Prince of Peace will bring on the Last Day when He will:

…judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)

That’s perfect peace. And it’s coming – no matter what happens in Afghanistan.

March 9, 2020 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Faith on Trial

A few weeks ago, Ross Douthat of The New York Times argued that those who are portending the collapse of American Christianity are vastly overstating their case:

Lukewarm Christianity may be declining much more dramatically than intense religiosity … Recent Gallup numbers indicate that reported weekly and almost-weekly church attendance has only “edged down” lately, falling to 38 percent in 2017 from 42 percent in 2008 … And long-term Gallup data suggest that any recent dip in churchgoing is milder than the steep decline in the 1960s – and that today’s churchgoing rate isn’t that different from the rate in the 1930s and 1940s, before the postwar religious boom.

Mr. Douthat argues that though there is a definite statistical decline in those who have marginal faith, those who have committed faith remain strong and steady in their faith.  The Christian faith, when it actually shapes one’s life, is incredibly durable.

But now, this past week, Timothy Beal makes the contrary case in The Wall Street Journal when he asks: “Can Religion Still Speak to Younger Americans?” Mr. Beal opens:

The fastest-growing population on the American religious landscape today is “Nones” – people who don’t identify with any religion. Recent data from the American Family Survey indicates that their numbers increased from 16% in 2007 to 35% in 2018. Over the same period, there has been a dramatic decline in the share of the population who identify as Christian, from 78% of Americans in 2007 to 65% in 2018-19, according to a report by the Pew Research Center released this month. The rise of Nones is even more dramatic among younger people: 44% of Americans aged 18 to 29 are Nones.

Mr. Beal argues that the decline in the numbers of Christian faithful is acute. Nevertheless, he does suggest that this trend may be reversible. His prescription for revitalizing faith, however, is interesting, to say the least:

Questioning religious teachings and positions has always been an essential part of religion. No faith is fixed or changeless. On the contrary, reinterpreting inherited scriptures and traditions in light of new horizons of meaning is critical to the life of any religion. Think of Jesus or the Buddha; think of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of Hasidic Judaism, or Dorothy Day, who helped to create the Catholic Worker Movement. Religion’s ongoing vitality depends on those who question and challenge inherited teachings and positions. Without such engagement, any religious tradition will die from the inside long before it begins to lose adherents.

Mr. Beal argues that in order to revitalize the Christian tradition, we must begin by questioning it. And he is is partially correct. There have indeed been those “who question and challenge inherited teachings and positions,” sometimes with great success and to the great benefit and betterment of humanity. But it is also important to note that, according to an orthodox Christian worldview, “inherited teachings and positions” are not so much questioned in order to change the Christian faith as they are in order to rediscover it.  The message of Christ, properly understood, does need to change, for it is the revelation of a perfect God who does not need to change. Instead, the message of Christ is meant to change us. This is why people who once held slaves in 18th and 19th century America were called to let these people go, even as God once called a pharaoh to let His people go. This is why a society steeped in legislatively enshrined racism as recently as a few short decades ago was called to love its neighbors instead of separating from them. This is why a world that is plagued by violence today is called to long for a day when swords and spears will be beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks. These calls are thousands of years old. But they still challenge us to change to this day.

Mr. Beal is a professor of religion at Case Western University where he recently, according to his column, “conducted a ‘trial’ of the Bible on the charge of being responsible for our environmental crisis.” Maybe it would have been useful, if, after this trial where his students questioned the Bible, Mr. Beal put his class in a trial where the Bible could have questioned them. After all, it may just be that our questions of the Bible aren’t the only ones that need to be asked. It may also just be that the Bible has even better questions of us than we do of it, such as, “Who can say, ‘I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin’” (Proverbs 20:9)?

Mr. Beal concludes his column by revisiting those who have left and lost their faith – the Nones. He writes of them: “When it comes to religion, Nones are almost never nothing at all.” About this much he is certainly correct. The Nones believe something. They have some faith, even if it is an ad hoc faith. The question is: Is it the true faith?

Maybe before we ask questions of faith, we ought to first ask this question of ourselves.

November 18, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Problem With The New York Times’ God Problem

The polemical can sometimes become the enemy of the thoughtful.  This seems to be what has happened in an opinion piece penned by Peter Atterton for The New York Times titled, “A God Problem.”

Mr. Atterton is a professor of philosophy at San Diego State University who spends his piece trotting out well-worn and, if I may be frank, tired arguments against the logical integrity of Theism.  He begins with this classic:

Can God create a stone that cannot be lifted?  If God can create such a stone, then He is not all powerful, since He Himself cannot lift it.  On the other hand, if He cannot create a stone that cannot be lifted, then He is not all powerful, since He cannot create the unliftable stone.  Either way, God is not all powerful.

This is popularly known as the “omnipotence paradox.”  God either cannot create an unliftable stone or He can create an unliftable stone, but then He cannot lift it.  Either way, there is something God cannot do, which, the argument goes, means His omnipotence is rendered impotent.  C.S. Lewis’ classic rejoinder to this paradox remains the most cogent:

God’s omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible.  You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense.  This is no limit to His power.  If you choose to say, ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,’ you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words, ‘God can’ … Nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.

Lewis’ position is the position the Bible itself takes when speaking of God.  Logically, there are some things Scripture says God cannot do – not because He lacks power, but simply because to pose even their possibility is to traffic in utter nonsense.  The apostle Paul, for instance, writes, “If we are faithless, God remains faithful, for He cannot disown Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).  In other words, God cannot not be God.  He also cannot create liftable unliftable stones – again, not because He lacks power, but because liftable unliftable stones aren’t about exercising power over some theoretical state of nature.  They’re about the law of noncontradiction.  And to try to break the law of noncontradiction doesn’t mean you have unlimited power.  It just means you’re incoherent and incompetent.  And God is neither.  To insist that God use His power to perform senseless and silly acts so that we may be properly impressed seems to be worthy of the kind of rebuke Jesus once gave to the religious leaders who demanded from Him a powerful sign: “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign” (Matthew 12:39)!

Ultimately, the omnipotence paradox strips God’s power of any purpose by demanding a brute cracking of an irrational and useless quandary.  And to have power without purpose only results in disaster.  For instance, uncontrolled explosions are powerful, but they are also, paradoxically, powerless, because they cannot exercise any ordered power over their chaotic power.  Omnipotence requires that there is power over uncontrolled power that directs and contains it toward generative ends.  This is how God’s power is classically conceived.  Just look at the creation story.  God’s power needs purpose to be omnipotence, which is precisely what God’s power has, and precisely what the omnipotence paradox does not care to address.

For his second objection against God, Mr. Atterton turns to the problem of evil:

Can God create a world in which evil does not exist? This does appear to be logically possible.  Presumably God could have created such a world without contradiction.  It evidently would be a world very different from the one we currently inhabit, but a possible world all the same.  Indeed, if God is morally perfect, it is difficult to see why He wouldn’t have created such a world.  So why didn’t He? 

According to the Bible, God did create a world where evil did not exist.  It was called Eden.  And God will re-create a world where evil will not exist.  It will be called the New Jerusalem.  As for the evil that Adam and Eve brought into the world, this much is sure:  God is more than up to the task of dealing with the evil that they, and we, have welcomed.  He has conquered and is conquering it in Christ.

With this being said, a common objection remains: Why did and does God allow evil to remain in this time – in our time?  Or, to take the objection back to evil’s initial entry into creation: Why would God allow for the possibility of evil by putting a tree in the center of Eden if He knew Adam and Eve were going to eat from it and bring sin into the world?  This objection, however, misses the true locus of evil.  The true locus of evil was not the tree.  It was Adam and Eve, who wanted to usurp God’s authority.  They were tempted not by a tree, but by a futile aspiration: “You can be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).  If Adam and Eve wouldn’t have had a tree around to use to try to usurp God’s prerogative, they almost assuredly would have tried to use something else.  The tree was only an incidental means for them to indulge the evil pride they harbored in their hearts.  If God wanted to create a world where evil most assuredly would never exist, then, He would have had to create a world without us.

Thus, I’m not quite sure what there’s to object to here.  The story of evil’s entrance into creation doesn’t sound like the story of a feckless God who can’t get things right. It sounds like the story of a loving God who willingly sacrifices to make right the things He already knows we will get wrong even before He puts us here.  God decides from eternity that we are worth His Son’s suffering.

The final objection to God leveled by Mr. Atterton has to do with God’s omniscience:

If God knows all there is to know, then He knows at least as much as we know.  But if He knows what we know, then this would appear to detract from His perfection.  Why?

There are some things that we know that, if they were also known to God, would automatically make Him a sinner, which of course is in contradiction with the concept of God.  As the late American philosopher Michael Martin has already pointed out, if God knows all that is knowable, then God must know things that we do, like lust and envy.  But one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them.  But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect.

This is the weakest of Mr. Atterton’s three objections.  One can have knowledge without experience.  I know about murder even though I have never taken a knife or gun to someone.  God can know about lust and envy even if He has not lusted and envied.  The preacher of Hebrews explains well how God can know sin and yet not commit sin as he describes Jesus’ struggles under temptation: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet He did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15).  Jesus was confronted with every sinful temptation, so He knows what sin is, but He also refused to swim to sin’s siren songs.  The difference, then, is not in what He knows and we know.  The difference is in how He responds to what He knows and how we respond to what we know.

One additional point is in order.  Though I believe Mr. Atterton’s assertion that one cannot know certain things “unless one has experienced them” is questionable, it can nevertheless be addressed on its own terms by Christianity.  On the cross, Christians believe that every sin was laid upon Christ, who thereby became sin for us.  In other words, Christ, on the cross, became the chief of sinners, suffering the penalty that every sinner deserved, while, in exchange, giving us the righteous life that only He could live (see 2 Corinthians 5:21).  In this way, then, Christ has experienced every sin on the cross because He has borne every sin on the cross.  Thus, even according to Mr. Atterton’s own rules for knowing, in Christ, God can know everything through Christ, including every sin.

I should conclude with a confession about a hunch.  I am a little suspicious whether or not this 1,140-word opinion piece in The New York Times decrying faith in God as illogical was written in, ahem, good faith.  This piece and its arguments feel a little too meandering and scattershot and seem a little too clickbait-y to be serious.  Nevertheless, this is a piece that has gained a lot of traction and talk.  I’m not sure that the traction and talk, rather than the arguments, weren’t the point.

Whatever the case, Theism has certainly seen more compelling and interesting interlocutions than this piece.  God, blessedly, is still safely on His throne.

April 1, 2019 at 5:15 am 2 comments

All You Need Is the Sermon on the Mount

Sermon on the Mount

In what has become a kind of tradition for him, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof published an op-ed piece a couple of days before Christmas with this question: “Am I a Christian?”  This time, he asked the question to Cardinal Joseph Tobin, but he has posed the same question to President Jimmy Carter and Pastor Timothy Keller in past columns.

Mr. Kristof is an admitted skeptic of many of the claims of Christianity.  He opens his conversation with Cardinal Tobin like this:

Merry Christmas! Let me start with respectful skepticism. I revere Jesus’ teachings, but I have trouble with the miracles – including, since this is Christmas, the virgin birth. In Jesus’ time people believed that Athena was born from Zeus’ head, so it seemed natural to accept a great man walking on water or multiplying loaves and fishes; in 2017, not so much. Can’t we take the Sermon on the Mount but leave the supernatural?

Mr. Kristof holds a view of Christianity that sees Jesus as a talented and even a uniquely enlightened teacher.  Believing that He was a worker of supernatural feats, however, is a bridge too far.  Mr. Kristof’s Christianity is one that would prefer to, in his own words, “take the Sermon on the Mount but leave the supernatural” behind.

Mr. Kristof, of course, is not the only one who stumps for this kind of Christianity.  President Obama, when he was making a case for same-sex unions back when he was campaigning for the presidency in 2008, stated:

If people find that controversial, then I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which I think is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an obscure passage in Romans.

Instead of pitting against the miracles of Christ against the Sermon on the Mount, as does Mr. Kristof, President Obama pits the letters of Paul against the Sermon on the Mount, but the net effect is the same:  if one wants a Christianity that is palatable, passable, and practical for the 21st century, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the place to go.

Really?

Surely Mr. Kristoff can’t be talking about the Sermon on the Mount.  He must have some other sermon in mind.  For in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says all sorts of things that are unmistakably contrary to our enlightened and modern sensibilities.

If Mr. Kristof finds a virgin birth impossible, what can he possibly find plausible about Jesus’ claim in the Sermon on the Mount to fulfill all of Scripture?

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  (Matthew 5:17)

It should be pointed out that Jesus’ claim to fulfill “the Prophets” would include a prophecy about a virgin who will give birth, as Matthew so aptly notes at the beginning of his Gospel:

An angel of the Lord appeared to [Joseph] in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call Him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). (Matthew 1:20-23)

To hold to what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount would be to hold to who Jesus claims to be: the perfect fulfillment of around 1,000-years-worth of ancient literature.  Is this really what Mr. Kristof believes?

Of course, Jesus says lots of other things in His Sermon on the Mount too, like:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  (Matthew 5:27-28)

And:

It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.  (Matthew 5:31-32)

And:

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  (Matthew 5:48)

And:

Seek first [God’s] kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)

And:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.  (Matthew 7:13-14)

Do people who want to take Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount while leaving behind other portions of the Scriptures take Jesus at His word in all these matters?

I have a suspicion that when people argue for the primacy of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, they are arguing for the primacy of a very abridged version of the sermon, which usually amounts to some nice thoughts about loving your enemies, except, of course, if they are our political enemies, along with some other nice thoughts about not judging others, except, of course, when someone holds a position we deem worthy of mockery.  It turns out that a Christianity that strips away the rest of the Scriptures in favor of the Sermon on the Mount only winds up stripping away the Sermon on the Mount itself.

So, allow me to make a suggestion.  If you think all of Christianity can be competently considered using Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, fine.  But then take the whole Sermon on the Mount seriously.  Believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of every jot and tittle of the Old Testament.  Decry lust and divorce.  Aim not just for respectable goodness, but for perfect righteousness.  Put God’s kingdom first in every decision. Learn to love all those who hate you in a way that you are willing even to sacrifice for them.  Guard against being judgmental, even of those you find intolerable.  See Jesus as your narrow road to salvation.

Live like that.

But be warned:  if you do live like that, you might just find yourself in agreement not only with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but with the rest of the Scriptures as well, which means that perhaps Jesus’ sermon was actually what a sermon was always meant to be:  not some stand-alone speech that can be divorced from everything around it, but a testimony to all of God’s truth as contained in the Scriptures.

Try as you might, to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously, you must take the rest of the Scriptures seriously.  And if you take the rest of the Scriptures seriously, you will take Jesus seriously, for the Scriptures testify to Him.  And if you take Jesus seriously, you may find out that He was not just another teacher, but One who has perfect authority over us, insight into us, and salvation for us.

Now, if you’re willing to believe all that about Jesus, which is what the Sermon on the Mount calls us to believe, is a virgin birth really all that difficult to fathom?

January 8, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Against Our Better Judgment

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Credit: Dan Mason

Yesterday, in the Bible class I teach at the church where I serve, I made the point that we can be very bad at making appropriate judgments.  We can, at times, judge incorrectly, inconsistently, or even incoherently.  This is why Jesus warns us, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1), and the apostle Paul echoes, “Judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes” (1 Corinthians 4:5).

I also mentioned in my Bible class that hardly better examples of our struggle with making appropriate judgments can be found than in the realm of politics.  When an elected official is not a member of whatever party we prefer, we can sometimes treat them as if they can do no right, even if they have some noble achievements or proposals.  But if a person is a member of our preferred party, we can sometimes treat them as if they can do no wrong, even if they have acted wickedly and inexcusably.  We minimize what they have done simply by pointing to an opposing political ideology that, in our minds, is “even worse.”

In his daily news briefing, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Albert Mohler, brought to my attention two op-ed pieces, both published a week ago Sunday across from each other in the opinion pages of The New York Times.  One was by the left-leaning Jennifer Weiner and titled “The Flagrant Sexual Hypocrisy of Conservative Men.”  The other was by the right-leaning Ross Douthat and titled “The Pigs of Liberalism.”  Here, conveniently divided by the fold in the newspaper, is our political divide laid bare, nestled neatly in newsprint.  Ms. Weiner decried the breathtaking schizophrenia of Representative Tim Murphy, a Republican from Pennsylvania, who, while taking a consistently pro-life stance as a politician and voting for pro-life legislation, quietly encouraged his mistress to get an abortion when she found out she was pregnant.  Mr. Douthat’s piece chronicled the all-around sliminess of Hollywood mogul and liberal icon Harvey Weinstein, who, in a bombshell piece of investigative reporting in The New York Times, was revealed to have harassed and, perhaps, even sexually assaulted dozens of women over the course of decades.

Though both Mr. Murphy and Mr. Weinstein’s actions, because of the egregiousness of their offenses, have been, thankfully, broadly and forcefully denounced regardless of their political commitments, oftentimes, excusing the inexcusable has become par for the course in many of our political debates, particularly, interestingly enough, when it comes to sexual misdeeds.  A desire to see a political ideology defeated can often eclipse a commitment to get some basic ethical principles right.

In one way, this is not surprising.  The Pew Research Center published a report earlier this month on the widening political divides in American life.  Most striking is this chart, which shows just how far apart Republicans and Democrats have drifted – or, as the case may be, run – away from each other ideologically since 1994.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 5.34.29 PMWhen political ideologies become this disparate, it is not surprising that a desire to promote your preferred ideology generally can trump and excuse the public proponents of your ideological stripe when they do not practice your ideological commitments specifically.

So, what is the way through all of our excuses, minimizations, and rationalizations of people who tout a particular political ideology publicly while, at the same time, shirking it personally?  First, we must understand that such instances of hypocrisy are not, at their root, political.  They are spiritual.  A particular political ideology that we don’t like is not our ultimate problem.  Sin is our ultimate problem.  This is why both conservatives and liberals can fall prey to vile sinfulness, as the cases of Mr. Murphy and Mr. Weinstein illustrate.  The titles of the recent op-ed pieces in The New York Times could have just as easily, and perhaps more accurately, been titled “The Flagrant Sexual Hypocrisy of Sinful Men” and “The Pigs of Depravity.”  As long as we pretend that a particular political ideology is a categorical evil to be defeated, we will only fall prey to more evil.  Political ideologies certainly have problems, but they are not, in and of themselves, the ultimate problem.  We are.

Second, we must also be careful not to conclude that because someone espouses a certain ideology while not living up to it, their ideology is ipso facto wrong.  There are many factors that can make an ideology – or an aspect of an ideology – wrong, but a failure to live up to the ideology in question is not necessarily one of them.  A pro-life ideology is still morally right in principle even if Mr. Murphy was wrong in is his actions.  A strong ideology against sexual assault and harassment is still morally right in principle even if Mr. Weinstein was wrong in his failure to live up to this strong ideology.

Third, in a culture that regularly falls short of its values, we must not fall prey to the temptation to indiscriminately shift values to excuse behavior.  Instead, we must call those who espouse certain ideological values to actually live according to them.  In other words, we need to learn how to lovingly judge people’s actions according to rigorous ethical commitments and call people to repentance instead of downplaying and downgrading ethical commitments because we’re desperate to gain or to retain some kind of power.  After all, power without ethical commitments can never be exercised well, no matter which side of the political divide exercises it, because power that is not subject to a higher moral power can, if not held accountable, quickly degenerate into tyranny.

Jesus famously said, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24).  It is time for us to look beyond the surface of our political divides and peer into the character of our culture.  What we find there will probably unsettle us, but it will also call us to some sober reflection and compel us to want something better for ourselves and for our society.  I pray we have the wherewithal for such reflection.

October 16, 2017 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Believing and Acting

bible-and-praying

Last week in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof penned a column calling on his readers to rethink Christianity.  His thoughts are based on a new book by famed former Evangelical, professional provocateur, and author Brian McLaren.  Mr. Kristof summarizes the thrust of Mr. McLaren’s book by quoting a few lines:

“What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion?” McLaren asks in “The Great Spiritual Migration.” “Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?”[1]

What is being argued for here is a wresting away of Christianity from a prescribed set of beliefs and a reinventing or a recapturing (depending on your perspective) of Christianity as a call to action.

Except, that’s not what’s really being argued for at all.

The reader is clued into this fact by the way in which Mr. McLaren describes traditional Christian beliefs.  He asks, “What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs?”  It turns out that the trouble with traditional Christianity is not that it espouses beliefs, but that it espouses beliefs that are, in Mr. McLaren’s words, “problematic.”  Mr. Kristof notes a couple of these “problematic” beliefs in the opening of his column:

Jesus never mentioned gays or abortion but focused on the sick and the poor, yet some Christian leaders have prospered by demonizing gays.

This is only the second sentence of his article, but Christian beliefs concerning human sexuality and abortion have already made an appearance.  I should note that it is indisputably a problem – both theologically and humanitarianly – to, as Mr. Kristof puts it, “demonize gays.”  But I can’t help but wonder what he means by “demonizing gays.”  Does he mean treating a whole group of people as sub-human?  Or does he mean calling sexual activity outside of a marriage between a husband and a wife sin?  To do the first is to be vicious and wrong.  The do the second is to tell the truth.

Ultimately, any attempt to portray Christianity as a series of actions as opposed to a set of beliefs is bound to fail because such an attempt simply does not reflect the way of Jesus.  Jesus was committed both to doing and to doctrine. This is why Jesus taught on a whole host of doctrinal issues such as moneyworshipthe nature and character of Scripturethe end times, His divinity, and yes, even human sexuality.

There is an old phrase, coined by Prosper of Aquitaine in the fifth century, that has long been used to describe much of the worship life of the Church: Lex orandi, lex credendi.  “The law of praying is the law of believing.”  The idea behind this phrase is that a person learns how and what to believe in worship.  In other words, the worship life of the Church is meant to form and inform the faith life of Christians.

But there is a second part to this slogan: Lex credendi, lex vivendi.  “The law of believing is the law of living.”  That is, what a person believes necessarily forms and informs what a person does.  This is why the apostle Paul can exhort a young pastor named Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16).  Paul knows that doctrine and doing go hand in hand.

Mr. Kristof and Mr. McLaren know that doctrine and doing are, in reality, inseparable. This is why, even as they issue a call to action while wryly downplaying the value of doctrinal standards, they cannot help but point to and act on their own theological commitments.  Their beef, even if it is presented otherwise, is not with the fact that Christians believe, but with what Christians believe.  I would simply remind them that, eventually, if we act on what we believe as Christians, people will want to know why we do what we do.  And we should have an answer to give to them even as Scripture has given an answer to us.  And for that, doctrine still matters.

_______________________________

[1] Nicholas Kristof, “What Religion Would Jesus Belong To?The New York Times (9.3.2016).

September 12, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

It’s Not About Gay Rights Versus Religious Freedom

Same-Sex Marriage

Frank Bruni, columnist for The New York Times, has written a refreshingly honest, even if somewhat frightening, piece in response to the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana, which was signed into law last month by Governor Mike Pence.  The Act prohibits “a governmental entity [from] substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion.”[1]  LGBT groups are furious, arguing that this Act will open the door for Christian business owners to discriminate against LGBT people by refusing to offer them certain services because these business owners will be able to claim that offering these services, particularly services that have to do with same-sex weddings, would violate their religious tenets.

Mr. Bruni offers the following take:

The drama in Indiana last week and the larger debate over so-called religious freedom laws in other states portray homosexuality and devout Christianity as forces in fierce collision.

They’re not – at least not in several prominent denominations, which have come to a new understanding of what the Bible does and doesn’t decree, of what people can and cannot divine in regard to God’s will …

In the end, the continued view of gays, lesbians and bisexuals as sinners is a decision. It’s a choice. It prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since — as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing …

So our debate about religious freedom should include a conversation about freeing religions and religious people from prejudices that they needn’t cling to and can indeed jettison, much as they’ve jettisoned other aspects of their faith’s history, rightly bowing to the enlightenments of modernity.[2]

Mr. Bruni is not only interested in whether a Christian small business owner should be forced to, let’s say, bake a cake for a gay wedding, he also launches into a critique of traditional Christian theology as a whole, stating that the faith should be “rightly bowing to the enlightenments of modernity.”  This assumes, of course, that modernity is, in fact, enlightened – an assertion that Mr. Bruni seems to feel little need to defend.  This also assumes that the Western version of modernity that embraces LGBT beliefs about human sexuality is the rightful moral pacesetter of our world, something with which many modernized Eastern nations may take issue.  This also assumes that Christians should not only love LGBT individuals, but endorse LGBT lifestyles as morally acceptable.

The irony is not lost on me that although Mr. Bruni does address “the florists and bakers who want to turn [LGBT customers] away” because of the owners’ moral convictions, he is silent concerning the many businesses that are jettisoning the state of Indiana in light of its religious freedom law because of their owners’ moral convictions.  Why the inconsistency?  Because, for Mr. Bruni, this is not an issue of religious freedom or even of gay rights.  This is an issue of what version of morality should hold sway in our society.  In Mr. Bruni’s worldview, for a Christian to try to avoid baking a cake for a gay wedding is morally reprehensible.  For a business to avoid a state because of a religious freedom act is morally commendable.  Thus, it is not inconsistent that one business, whose owners are working out of a set of traditional Christian moral convictions, should not be able to avoid providing services for a same-sex wedding while another business, whose owners have more secularized moral convictions, should be able to dump a whole state.  After all, the Christian set of moral convictions is, for Mr. Bruni, immoral!  And immorality must be squelched.

Pastor Timothy Keller explains the necessary moral entailments of the debate over gay marriage using a brilliant analogy:

Imagine an Anglo-Saxon warrior in Britain in AD 800. He has two very strong inner impulses and feelings. One is aggression. He loves to smash and kill people when they show him disrespect. Living in a shame-and-honor culture with its warrior ethic, he will identify with that feeling. He will say to himself, That’s me! That’s who I am! I will express that. The other feeling he senses is same-sex attraction. To that he will say, That’s not me. I will control and suppress that impulse. Now imagine a young man walking around Manhattan today. He has the same two inward impulses, both equally strong, both difficult to control. What will he say? He will look at the aggression and think, This is not who I want to be, and will seek deliverance in therapy and anger-management programs. He will look at his sexual desire, however, and conclude, That is who I am.

What does this thought experiment show us? Primarily it reveals that we do not get our identity simply from within. Rather, we receive some interpretive moral grid, lay it down over our various feelings and impulses, and sift them through it. This grid helps us decide which feelings are “me” and should be expressed – and which are not and should not be.[3]

Being LGBT has often been cast in terms of identity.  Pastor Keller argues that the issue at hand is really about morality.  Is it acceptable or unacceptable to be a violent aggressor?  Is it noble or troublesome to be in a same-sex relationship?  Feelings and impulses do not give us the answers to these questions.  Only moral grids do.

Frank Bruni offers some refreshing candor in his column.  He knows that, ultimately, the fight over gay rights and religious freedom isn’t a fight over gay rights and religious freedom.  It is a fight over what’s moral.  And his conclusion bears witness to his moral conviction:

Creech and Mitchell Gold, a prominent furniture maker and gay philanthropist, founded an advocacy group, Faith in America, which aims to mitigate the damage done to LGBT people by what it calls “religion-based bigotry.”

Gold told me that church leaders must be made “to take homosexuality off the sin list.”

His commandment is worthy – and warranted.

Mr. Bruni is clear.  Christians must be made to accept homosexuality.  To settle for anything less would be unworthy and unwarranted.  In other words, it would be immoral.

I would beg to differ.

But at least we know where he stands.

__________________________

[1] S.B. 101, 119th Leg., 1st sess. (Indiana 2015)

[2] Frank Bruni, “Bigotry, the Bible and the Lessons of Indiana,” The New York Times (4.3.2016).

[3] Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking, 2015), 135-136.

April 18, 2016 at 5:15 am 2 comments

The Art of Manliness

Victorian Men“I see some men that are men in mind and body and a great many that are only men in body.”[1]  So said a Union soldier who fought in the Civil War.

In her book, The Gentlemen and the Roughs, Lorien Foote, professor of history of Texas A&M University, outlines two distinct types of masculinity prevalent during the Civil War.  One was a gentlemanly type of masculinity, centered on self-control, character, and faithfulness.  This type of masculinity embodied what we might think of today as “the family man.”  The other type of masculinity was that of the “roughs” – those who are “rough around the edges,” so to speak.  This type of masculinity focused on physical domination and sexual exploitation.

Writing for The New York Times, David Brooks outlines these same two types of masculinities when he writes:

The ideal man, at least in polite society, gracefully achieves a series of balances. He is steady and strong, but also verbal and vulnerable. He is emotionally open and willing to cry, but also restrained and resilient. He is physical, and also intellectual.

Today’s ideal man honors the women in his life in whatever they want to do. He treats them with respect in the workplace and romance in the bedroom. He is successful in the competitive world of the marketplace but enthusiastic in the kitchen and gentle during kids’ bath time.

This new masculine ideal is an unalloyed improvement on all the earlier masculine ideals. It’s a great achievement of our culture. But it is demanding and involves reconciling a difficult series of tensions. And it has sparked a bad-boy protest movement and counterculture.[2]

Brooks’ “new masculine ideal” is not really all that new.  It shares much in common with the older masculine ideal of what it means to be a gentleman.  Foote, in her book, writes about Francis Lieber, a nineteenth century political philosopher who outlined some rules for warfare that eventually came to serve as the basis for the Geneva Convention.  Along with rules for warfare, Lieber also outlined traits essential to being a gentleman that included “self-possession,” “calmness of mind,” “a studious avoidance of giving offense to others,” and a refusal to indulge “in careless vulgarity, unmanly exaggeration, or violent coarseness.”  The New York Illustrated News, in a fawning review of Lieber’s gentlemanly characteristics, wrote, “Let us have a new chivalry instituted – a new order of intellectual and moral knighthood.”[3]  Lieber’s ideal masculinity was nothing short of a perfectly balanced chivalry that shares much, though not everything, in common with Brooks’ “new masculine ideal.”

There is much for us, as Christians, to learn from these two types of masculinity.  Although neither comports perfectly with what it means to be a Christian man, one certainly comports better.  A masculinity that is crude, sexually exploitive, and ostentatious not only does not make a man, it hurts a man because it is flatly sinful.  On the other hand, masculinity cannot simply be reduced to a list of traits, as Lieber and Brooks attempt to do, no matter how virtuous those traits may be.  After all, not every man is the same, so different men will inevitably display different traits, and not every life situation calls for the same masculine characteristics.  Ultimately, to be a Christian man is much more about living out a vocation – a divine calling – than it is about living up to a checklist of virtues that inevitably changes, both in content and in emphasis, with each successive generation.  To be a Christian man means to reflect Christ.  To hearken back to the Union solider quoted at the beginning of this blog, being a man is not about only your body biologically, it is also about your mind.  You can be a man in body without being a man whose mind has been renewed by Christ (cf. Romans 12:2).

In his column, David Brooks’ concern lies in how faulty masculinities affect the political arena.  He notes that in this election cycle, there has been “a revolution in manners, a rejection of the civility codes.”  This is certainly true and it is certainly troublesome.  But what is even more troublesome is not how faulty masculinities affect our politics, but how they affect our families.  Study after study has shown how men who reject their vocation to reflect Christ adversely affect their families.  Faulty masculinities do not just plague national elections, they plague your neighbors down the street.  And, if you’re really honest, they may even plague you.

So gentlemen – and I hope you do fashion yourself as and aspire to be gentlemen – the next time are tempted toward a masculinity that does not reflect your Savior, remember, to quote one more time from David Brooks, “This is the world your daughters are going to grow up in.”

That alone should be enough to make you stop and think.

__________________________

[1] Cited in Lorien Foote, The Gentlemen and the Roughs:  Violence, Honor, and Manhood in the Union Army (New York:  New York University Press, 2010), 3.

[2] David Brooks, “The Sexual Politics of 2016,” The New York Times (3.29.2016).

[3] Lorien Foote, The Gentlemen and the Roughs, 55.

April 4, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Death of the Hegelian Dialectic

Angry ManThe Hegelian dialectic is dead.  And I, for one, am not altogether happy about it.

Don’t misunderstand me.  In seminary, I was taught to be suspicious of the Hegelian dialectic as it is popularly explained.  The idea that a thesis and antithesis should somehow always be reconciled and, ultimately, compromised to form a synthesis spelled death for Christian orthodoxy, my professors warned me.  And I agree.  I cannot endure a Hegelian dialectic that synthesizes away the truth claims of Christianity.  Nor can I tolerate a Hegelian dialectic that undermines the very nature of God, as Hegel himself was prone to do, believing that God was a thesis who had need of an antithesis to form a new synthesis.  Hegel saw God not as a concrete Being, but as an ever-evolving process, always on the road of becoming.  I should also register my utter revulsion for how the dialectic was used by men such as Karl Marx in the promotion of Communist tyranny.  Furthermore, I would also disagree with the Hegelian dialectic’s contention that its outcomes should ultimately be devoid of any real resolution as a synthesis immediately becomes the next thesis in need of antithesis – a never-ending tension to an anxious nowhere.  But, with its dangers duly noted, I also believe that Hegel’s dialectic has some usefulness for the moral conversations of our day.  The ability to clearly lay out a moral thesis is important.  And listening to another’s antithesis – working to understand both its reasoning and its merits, even while noting its deficiencies – is generous.  And working toward a synthesis that actually lasts rather than just becoming the next thesis – provided such a synthesis serves to clarify rather than to compromise important moral principles – is noble and needed.  In this specific and admittedly somewhat idiosyncratic understanding of Hegel’s dialectic, while still keeping my eyes wide open to its problems and pitfalls, I find it useful.  But Hegel’s dialectic seems all but dead in 2016.

Writing for The New York Times, Thomas Friedman puts his finger squarely on the moral mood of our age in his article, “The Age of Protest.”  Mr. Friedman, quoting Dov Seidman who is the author of the book How, explains:

“People everywhere seem to be morally aroused,” said Seidman. “The philosopher David Hume argued that ‘the moral imagination diminishes with distance.’ It would follow that the opposite is also true: As distance decreases, the moral imagination increases. Now that we have no distance – it’s like we’re all in a crowded theater, making everything personal – we are experiencing the aspirations, hopes, frustrations, plights of others in direct and visceral ways.”[1]

Moral arousal has become ubiquitous, says Seidman.  Everyone everywhere seems to be commenting on some morally significant issue.

Now, on the one hand, as Seidman notes elsewhere in his comments, moral arousal can be a good thing.  When we see evil in the world, we need to be willing to confront it.  Indeed, this is what the Christus Victor theory of atonement, for all its problems, explains well – that God in Christ has confronted and conquered sin, death, and the devil.  On the other hand, there is a shadowy underbelly to our constant state of moral arousal, which Seidman goes on to pinpoint as moral outrage:

When moral arousal manifests as moral outrage … “it can result in a vicious cycle of moral outrage being met with equal outrage, as opposed to a virtuous cycle of dialogue and the hard work of forging real understanding and enduring agreements.”

Furthermore, “when moral outrage skips over moral conversation, then the outcome is likely going to be acquiescence, not inspired solutions.”

This strikes me as profoundly true.  Rather than looking at one moral thesis, another antithesis, and then, when appropriate, forming a helpful synthesis that engages a more morally comprehensive reality, the goal has become to bludgeon into submission anyone who disagrees with or has a concern about a given moral thesis.

In his interview with Seidman, Friedman notes:

There is surely a connection between the explosion of political correctness on college campuses – including Yale students demanding the resignation of an administrator whose wife defended free speech norms that might make some students uncomfortable – and the ovations Donald Trump is getting for being crudely politically incorrect.

Both in the case of the Yale protesters as well as in the case of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the anger and bluster of moral outrage has nearly drowned out the sobriety and thoughtfulness of moral conversation.  In an article for Commentary, John Podhoretz notes that the rise of both Donald Trump among Republicans and Bernie Sanders among Democrats has much to do with the raw anger in both parties: “Trump said in the last debate that he was content to be a ‘vessel for anger.’ Sanders yells a lot in debate, thus signaling anger.”[2]  These days, moral outrage appears to be non-partisan.  But it doesn’t mean it is particularly helpful.

Sober and thoughtful moral conversation on complicated issues requires, as Seidman notes in The New York Times, “perspective, fuller context, and the ability to make meaningful distinctions.”  The problem is that many of the people who howl the loudest with moral outrage do not seem to be too interested in the hard work it takes to have moral conversation.  Instead, they want only tendentious and raucous stump speeches that buttress their angry biases.

So what is the way out of this culture of moral outrage?  I hesitate to wax prophetic – because predicting the future is a dangerous and, if you get it wrong, an embarrassing business – but I have at least a hunch that the answer may simply be “time.”  Our bout with fury may simply need to burn white hot until it burns out and we are left confronting the truth about which James, the brother of Jesus, wrote so long ago: “Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:20).  In other words, nothing is really solved by our constant outrage.

Eventually, we’re going to have calm down and thoughtfully figure out what is right instead of thoughtlessly diving headlong into the kind of angry tirades that feel right right now.  Because of this, I am confident in the return of a cautious version of the Hegelian dialectic.  And I am also confident that we can become a little wiser if we, once again, learn to use it a little oftener in our moral conversations – not to compromise on principle, but to clarify what is true and good instead of just being angry at what is wrong and bad.

___________________________

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, “The Age of Protest,” The New York Times (1.13.2016).

[2] John Podhoretz, “Trump and Sanders: ‘Apocalypse Now,’Commentary (1.21.2016).

January 25, 2016 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Family Is Good, Even If It’s Not Good For You

New research from Northwestern University indicates that an intact family structure is important for the wellbeing of all children, but especially for boys. The New York Times reports:

Boys are more sensitive than girls to disadvantage. Any disadvantage, like growing up in poverty, in a bad neighborhood or without a father, takes more of a toll on boys than on their sisters. That realization could be a starting point for educators, parents and policy makers who are trying to figure out how to help boys – particularly those from black, Latino and immigrant families.[1]

This, of course, is not to say that girls do not suffer when a family is not in tact. Sara McLanahan and Isabel Sawhill, writing for Princeton and Brookings, talk about the effects of broken families and children in general:

Marriage is on the decline. Men and women of the youngest generation are either marrying in their late twenties or not marrying at all. Childbearing has also been postponed, but not as much as marriage. The result is that a growing proportion of children are born to unmarried parents – roughly 40 percent in recent years, and over 50 percent for children born to women under 30 …

The consequences of this instability for children are not good. Research increasingly shows that family instability undermines parents’ investments in their children, affecting the children’s cognitive and social-emotional development in ways that constrain their life chances.[2]

Families are falling apart. And the results are not good.

Certainly there is a theological argument to be made for the necessity of the family. Adam, Eve, and their command from God to “be fruitful and increase in number” (Genesis 1:28) speaks to the divine origin and order of the family and points to it as a gift from God to humanity. But there is also a teleological argument to be made for the necessity of the family. For instance, an article in National Review notes, “Married parenthood was a stronger predictor of economic mobility than was a state’s racial composition or the share of its population that is college-educated.”[3] If you want your children to grow up to be economically secure tomorrow, offer them a healthy family structure today. This applies, of course, not only to future economic mobility, but to future emotional, relational, and vocational stability as well.

So if this is the case, why is there no rush to trade the cohabitation, permissive divorce laws, and broken families of today for the nuclear Leave It To Beaver-style families of yesterday? The answer is, once again, teleology. The teleological argument for the family that focuses on kids assumes that the primary goal of parents is to want what is best for their kids. And many times, even in broken families, parents do want what is best for their kids. I know many single parents, for instance, who will sacrifice in any way they can right now to try to give their children the best possible shot at stability later.

But sometimes, among some people, the teleology of personal desire and pleasure trumps the teleology of the thriving of children. “Even if a traditional family is better for my kids,” some may say, “I don’t want to be tied down by the traditional accouterments and commitments of marriage.” “Even if a traditional family is better for my kids,” others may say, “I don’t like the sexual restraints that traditional family structures demand.” Though I doubt many people would be so bold as to outright say such things (although some have), the enticement of the teleology of personal desire and pleasure is powerful, even if subconsciously.

So as we talk about why the traditional family structure is good and why it should be promoted and protected, we also need to ask the question, “Good for whom?” If we mean a traditional family structure is good for children, we could not be more correct. If we mean it is good for selfish desire and pleasure, we could not be more wrong. Having a family of your own, much like being in the family of Christ, is a lesson in dying to oneself (cf. Matthew 16:25). And though this is good transcendently, it’s not easy practically. Nor is it always desirable personally. This is why for some, the demands of a traditional family structure are simply a bridge too far. They will not sacrifice themselves for the sake of another. But for those who do, even if their traditional family structure has been broken through no fault of their own, allow me to say “thank you.” You have discovered what matters most in life: others. And because you have discovered that, who comes after you will be better because of you.

____________________________________

[1] Claire Cain Miller, “A Disadvantaged Start Hurts Boys More Than Girls,” The New York Times (10.22.2015).

[2] Sara McLanahan & Isabel Sawhill, “Marriage and Child Wellbeing Revisited: Introducing the Issue,” Marriage and Child Wellbeing Revisited 25, no. 2 (Fall 2015): 3-9.

[3] W. Bradford Wilcox, “Family Structure Matters – Science Proves It,” National Review (10.23.2015).

November 2, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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