Category Archives: Christianity

Broad is the Road to Moral Insanity

Slacktivist recently posted a very insightful series called Unlearning the Lies We Learned from the Theologians of Slavery. Briefly, he points out that many of the great Protestant theologians who are America’s spiritual Founding Fathers supported slavery or even owned slaves — men like Jonathan Edwards (yes, even in the North!), Patrick Henry and George Whitefield. Slacktivist shows that this disturbing truth ought to challenge us in many ways. Do read his whole series, but I’d like to focus on one sentence from Part 4:

You have to get a host of other things wrong in order to arrive at the place where you get that one thing [slavery] wrong.

What wrong steps did Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield take that made that final step of justifying slavery seem perfectly sensible and even godly? Might we have already taken some of those steps?

As a former conservative Christian who walked the same path as Edwards et al, I suggest the road to moral insanity can go something like this…

  1. You believe that you are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and this gives you a supernatural edge in deciding moral questions: you can understand scripture and hear God’s voice more reliably than people who do not “know God.”
  2. In fact, you are taught to distrust non-believers’ ideas as non-spiritual “worldly wisdom” or worse.
  3. From that privileged position, you allow yourself a moral epistemology that you deny to others. When a fundamentalist Muslim arrives at obviously inhuman morality based on the Koran, you wonder how he can be so blind. “Why don’t his conclusions lead him do question his scriptures?” you ask. But when the same hermeneutic is applied to the Bible to arrive at positions that the rest of society has come to agree are harmful (e.g., the condemnation of homosexuality), you defend the process as being “faithful to God’s Word.”
  4. Having fully embraced an epistemology that has, by your own account, failed everywhere else it has been tried, you are well-prepared for final steps to moral insanity.
  5. You encounter passages in the Bible about, in this case, slavery. Although you are a good person, the plain reading of the text is that God not only tolerates slavery, but actually commanded his people to enslave whole cities full of people that were at a distance, minding their own business. The New Testament provides not a glimmer of relief for slaves, with Jesus’ parables casting God himself as a harsh slave-owner, and Paul teaching that slaves should obey their masters, rather than teaching masters to free their slaves.
  6. Although you are a kind person and would never in a thousand years have tried to justify slavery on your own, far be it from you to deny the authority of God’s Word. You come up with excuses for it. If you are Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield, living in a culture where a consensus against slavery has not yet emerged, you positively endorse it as part of God’s Order.
  7. As I outlined in my last post, you are now mired in the same moral insanity as ISIS, for exactly the same reasons.

Maybe you think, “I’m quite sane, thank you very much. I don’t support slavery at all. I’m completely against it.”

Really? Have you repudiated God’s commands to enslave in the Bible, or do you justify them with one lame excuse or another?

When your Bible tells you that God commanded genocide, do you blame the victims, or do you say that genocide is wrong, period, therefore the Bible is wrong?

When the Bible commands a man to stone his own wife to death if she expresses the slightest desire for religious freedom, what is your reaction? Do you justify this command as “God forming his people” or do you say that no amount of historical context can justify stoning one’s wife?

These are all markers of moral sanity.

Although slavery, genocide and religious freedom are no longer a sources of controversy in America, we are fighting other battles in the culture wars, with same-sex marriage and abortion rights being the most active and long-running. More lately, a flare-up has started over contraception. In each case, the spiritual heirs of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield appear to be on the wrong side of history.

Jesus said, “The gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. The gate is small and the way narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

As we consider the questions that stand where the slavery question stood 150 years ago, I would add, “Be careful. The gate to moral insanity can look a lot like the gate to God’s Kingdom, and the road can appear to be the road of faith.”

ISIS, Evangelicals, and the Mantle of Moral Leadership

Even if you’re reading this ten years from now, I doubt you’ll have forgotten the horrifying events of the summer of 2014.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have, among other atrocities, besieged members of the Yazidi religious sect at the Sinjar mountain, where children have died of thirst; they have captured and enslaved hundreds of Yazidi women after killing their male relatives; and they have issued “convert or die” ultimatums to hundreds of other members of this often-persecuted minority, slaughtering at least one entire village that refused. ISIS have not been kind to anyone, but they seem to have an especially large ax to grind with the Yazidis, holding them to be polytheistic devil-worshipers who should not be allowed to live.

How can this happen in the 21st century? Haven’t we arrived at the point where every person on the planet knows it’s wrong to besiege a religious minority, to enslave and rape its women, and to kill its men? Have we not learned that nothing can possibly justify this behavior — not even even the demands of the One True Religion?

Apparently not. But at least we Americans have gotten the memo, right?

Again, apparently not. I have heard more than one such American use the same thinking as ISIS to justify the same behavior as ISIS and defend a tribalistic morality that is just like ISIS’. I have heard this from Americans who are nice people and whom I otherwise respect. Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be; there are tens of millions of Americans who hold these views.

I am thinking, of course, of American evangelicals. Before you close your browser, hear me out.

Consider Bible passages like Deuteronomy 20:10-15, in which the God evangelicals worship commands his people (verse 15) to besiege (verse 12) members of other religions, and enslave them (verse 11), treating women as “plunder” to be “used” (verse 14) after killing their male relatives (verse 13).

10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

As Christians who believe the Bible is God’s Word, evangelicals must defend God’s commands in this passage as “good” — and they do. As a member of that group for 40 years, I heard all the reasons.

“Those nations were evil and deserved what they got” is the primary one. “He had to drive the infidels out of the Promised Land” is another. “He was forming his people” is a third.

That sounds a lot like “This is where the Islamic State belongs and these Yazidi devils who are in it now don’t deserve to live,” doesn’t it?

But what if evangelicals are right? What if God really did have good reasons for ordering genocide, enslavement, and the plundering of women? Is that possible?

The thought is not as crazy as it sounds. Ironically, the idea that some entities are justly privileged to do things that others may not is what the rule of law is all about. Think about it. The State gets to put criminals in jail, but if a private citizen does the same thing, it’s called kidnapping. The State may impose a fine, to be paid to itself, but if a person does that it’s called stealing.

So is God like the State, meting out justice in ways for which the rest of us are not qualified? Not in the case we are considering. The claim that God is perfectly just, coupled with the claim that he is omnipotent, implies that whatever he is up to in Deuteronomy 20 is the best of all possible worlds. What we call atrocities are, in fact, the highest good. His plan could not possibly be any better.

Is that true? Presumably a state of affairs in which everyone, including God, is at least as well-off would be a better one. Can we think of such an outcome?

It’s easy. Here’s one modest improvement. Surely there were children in these cities who had not yet reached the age of reason. If they worshiped another god, it was only because their parents dragged them to church, so to speak. They did not deserve to become slaves. God could have tucked in a verse along the lines of “…but every child under the age of ten, you are to raise as your own, lovingly teaching them all I have commanded.” To kill the parents and steal the children would still be barbaric, but it would be better than calling the kids “plunder” to be “used”.

And don’t even get me started on what it meant to “use” the women as plunder. Are we seriously saying that such explicit permission brought about the highest possible good?

And let’s not forget that God could have sent his Holy Spirit on these distant cities, converting them into worshipers of himself, or at least giving them the chance. He would supposedly do exactly that in a few hundred years. Why wait?

The argument that God was doing the very best that could be done, given his broader purposes, just doesn’t hold up. The hard reality is that the God of the Bible ordered the same atrocities that ISIS has committed, for much the same reasons, with just as little justification. And tens of millions of evangelicals in America continue to defend him for it.

I believe that most evangelicals have good hearts and want what’s right. I believe that if all the passages like Deuteronomy 20:10-15 were in a book other than the Bible, Christians would believe that book to be inspired by the devil himself. Yet there they are in the Bible. Christians now must choose between defending and repudiating them. As long as they continue to defend, it will be hard for some of us to believe that Christians are in touch with moral reality.

Christians who stick by those passages have the same moral epistemology as ISIS: consult an ancient text and justify whatever you find there. Why should such an epistemology, which has led to moral and humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq, be trusted in our churches?

American evangelicals want to wear the mantle of moral leadership. That’s fine, but to qualify they must stand up and thoroughly repudiate the moral philosophy of ISIS.

Countering Our Own Prejudice

One of my kids asked me today, “How can a person prevent herself from being prejudiced? I have a bad impression of the culture of [a certain country], and when I meet someone from there, it’s very hard not to assume he’s like that.”

One strategy that arose in our conversation was to remember what “bad” groups we are members of, and how we don’t conform to the stereotypes.

We’re American and I imagine the picture the rest of the world has of us. Compared to most developed countries, we have far more crime, yet we insist on having permissive gun-ownership laws; we have more people in prison than any country on Earth, yet we style ourselves as the moral beacon of the world; our government is incredibly dysfunctional when it comes to caring for the poor, but we always seem to have enough money to invade other countries; we want the world to trust our leadership, but we spy even on our friends; we like to tell other countries to respect their citizens’ rights and the rights of their neighbors, yet it was not all that long ago that we stole the bulk of our continent from Native Americans and Mexico; we are the only country ever to have have used a nuclear weapon in war, and we have done it twice; our academic scores are well behind many less-developed countries’ and we seem determined to remain ignorant, with large numbers of us denying climate change and evolution. I could go on and on.

Yet, if you meet an American on the street, chances are he’s a normal, nice person with a decent moral core.

Sometimes, our prejudice toward someone arises from assuming he will live up to the dangerous implications of his ideology. But most people don’t. Most people quietly ignore those parts of their belief system that are particularly bad.

They have learned to do so because they are carried along by a civilization that has moved on from the early days of their ideologies. You won’t find Jews today in favor of slavery or genocide even though God commanded both in the Hebrew Bible. Christians don’t torture people into professing orthodox faith anymore even though they once thought it a good idea since an eternity in heaven or hell was in the balance.

If we are open to the possibility that other people don’t conform to their stereotypes any more than we do to ours, I think most people will pleasantly surprise us.

Polite Abhorrence

This is what discrimination and hatred look like in polite society.

When considering the possibility of a ministry to these people [in same-sex unions], a distinction must be made between those who have made a personal, and often painful, choice and live that choice discreetly so as not to give scandal to others, and those whose behaviour promotes and actively – often aggressively – calls attention to it.

That was from paragraph 116 of the Instrumentum Laboris recently published by the Vatican. I read about it on CNN’s Belief Blog, where the headline was Vatican softens tone toward gays and lesbians. CNN says the Vatican was softening its tone. So why do I call this discrimination and hatred?

We are so acculturated to this sort of polite abhorrence that we don’t notice it. Allow me to recast the sleepy, pastoral language more plainly. The boldfaced words draw directly from the Vatican’s statement.

We prefer to minister to homosexuals who are ashamed of themselves — those whose choice has been painful. Ideally, they will stay discreetly in the closet. If they were to make their same-sex union known, we would be scandalized. It is important that they avoid causing us pain, but it is entirely good and appropriate if they feel pain. Our pain is bad; theirs is good.

In case there’s any doubt about the continuing second-class status of homosexuals in the Catholic church, we have this four paragraphs later:

Should a reasonable doubt exist in the capability of persons in a same sex union to instruct the child in the Christian faith, proper support is to be secured in the same manner as for any other couple seeking the baptism of their children. In this regard, other people in their family and social surroundings could also provide assistance. In these cases, the pastor is carefully to oversee the preparation for the possible baptism of the child, with particular attention given to the choice of the godfather and godmother.

Again, very polite and very condescending. There’s the tight-lipped, smiling nod in the direction of treating same-sex couples “in the same manner” as heterosexual ones. But does anyone think that a heterosexual couple would be scrutinized to the extent that baptism — the rite without which a soul is doomed (paragraph 1250 of the Catechism here) — would be called “the possible baptism of their child”? Or that there would be nervous fidgeting about other people providing assistance? Or that particular attention would be given to the choice of godparents?

The whole world loves the new pope and the changes he is bringing to the church. Even I love him. I hope that the current trend toward welcoming everyone continues and in 10 years homosexuals will be neither living scandals nor second-class parents.

Are We Happier Lying to Ourselves?

I’m not lying to you: scientific experiments have shown that people who lie to themselves are happier than people who tell themselves the truth:

Radiolab: Lying to Ourselves

To begin, it’s interesting to note how the experimenters distinguished the truth-tellers from the liars. There were two ways.

In one experiment, people were asked to pick out their own voice from recordings of 10 different voices saying the same thing. While they tried to do this, electrodes measured bodily signs such as perspiration. Many subjects were not to give reliable answers orally, but the electrodes detected that their bodies could identify their own voice. In other words, their conscious minds were not able to access a truth that they knew deep-down.

In a more amusing experiment, the subjects were asked embarrassing questions, the answers to which are well-known, but which people won’t admit. The most mild was, “Have you ever enjoyed your bowel movements?” Of course everyone has, but not everyone will admit it.

It turns out that the same people who would not admit the truth in the second experiment were the ones who had the hardest time accessing the truth in the first. OK, so now we know who is most able to lie, even to themselves.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that these people are better at some things. For example, competitive athletes pump themselves up before the big contest by telling themselves, “I’m invincible.” The Radiolab show reported that swimmers who lied in response to the embarrassing questions were more likely to qualify for the big race at the end of the year.

What did surprise me is that people who lie even to themselves are happier. I can recall times when I attempted to hide the truth from myself, and I was not happy.

I recall an episode at Christian retreat when I was young. We were supposed to “spend time with God” by going to a quiet place and meditating on the scriptures. Then, we would meet as a group and share what we had learned. The scripture I chose pertained to God creating the world. During my meditation, I realized that God as ultimate creator must be the source of all love. When I shared this with the group, everyone thought that was wonderful.

But I was lying to myself, for even as I shared my supposed truth, I realized that the same logic would demonstrate that God is the source of all hate. With the help of groupthink and my desire to think godly thoughts, it only took a half-conscious effort to suppress the unpleasant inconsistency. Still, I was uncomfortable.

That was a lie that I caught myself in, but how many did I not notice? Regular readers of this blog know that I have reversed many of my deepest convictions over the last few years. To what extent was I ignorant in my earlier years, and to what extent was I just lying to myself? Sometimes, as at the retreat, I was aware of half-conscious lies. I suspect they were the tip of the iceberg.

The scientists on Radiolab said that people who see the world as it is tend to be more depressed. The show’s closing line was, “We’re so vulnerable to being hurt that we’re given the capacity to distort … as a gift.”

Maybe so, but I do know this: I tell myself the truth more often now and am happier for it. I have become a big fan of reality. The lies one tells oneself become a burden. I didn’t realize how heavy the burden was until I crawled out from under it. I suspect that even unconscious lies drain the body of energy.

Even unpleasant reality can hold amusing ironies. Or at least they can be amusing if one cultivates a sort of Buddhist detachment. Maybe that’s the key. Maybe we can only stand the truth if we can stand apart from it sometimes.

What do you think? Are we happier with a little dose of self-deception, or is clear-eyed truth-telling the only way?

How Did We Get to Igtheism?

I learned a new word this week: igtheism. Wikipedia defines it as

…the view that any religious term or theological concept presented must be accompanied by a coherent definition…

So far, so good, right? A “coherent definition” just means a definition that does not contradict itself. This would seem to be a necessary place to start. But Wikipedia continues, and we start to see why igtheism might press our buttons:

… For example, if the term “God” does not refer to anything reasonably defined then there is no conceivable method to test against the existence of god. Therefore the term “God” has no literal significance and need not be debated or discussed.

So is our Western concept of God coherent?

Well, what is the Western concept of God? To start with the basics, the Bible says, “God is love.” But what does this mean? Does it mean that God cares for all his children as we care for ours? Evidently not; he allows horrible things to happen to many of them — things that he can easily prevent and that, if a human parent stood passively by and allowed to happen to his children, we would call evidence of criminal neglect.

I suggest that the word “love” in that sentence has no coherent definition, at least in the context of orthodox, Western religion. (If you can come up with one that takes into account God being omnipotent yet allowing most people to suffer in everlasting fire, you’re more clever than I am. Please leave a comment!)

Believers in the God of the Bible freely admit that their faith embraces paradoxes. After all, why should we expect our finite minds to comprehend an infinite God? As the Bible says,

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!

Still, I would draw a contrast between unfathomable and incoherent. I can’t think of any verse in the Bible that boasts, “How incoherent Thou art!”

I think incoherence in religion has arisen because of a sort of arms race. In the beginning, gods were tribal in scope and had limited powers. They controlled the weather, prospered the crops, and helped in battle, but nobody claimed they were the supreme embodiment of Good. Even the Greek gods were capricious, licentious, and not very nice at all. If you could stay out of their way, you were doing well.

Over time, people wanted their gods to be better than everyone else’s. Naturally, a better, more powerful god is more compelling. Over the centuries, the gods that were said to have more superpowers won the battle for hearts and minds. Even within Christianity, the denominations that preach a more high-stakes message (e.g., evangelical denominations) are doing better than their more relaxed, main-line brethren.

As with other arms races, the people involved are so busy upping the ante that they don’t realize what they’re getting themselves into.

We exalt God higher and higher until he is “outside of time and space.” (This is a relatively recent upping of the ante. The Bible never makes this claim; it only claims that God is eternal, which is a completely different thing.) But we also want God to listen to our prayers, so we say he “changes his mind” over time (Exodus 32:14). Putting those two propositions together is incoherent, as far as I can tell.

We give God the superpower to know and control the future: “I [God] make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.'” (Isaiah 46:10.) However, we don’t want bad things to be God’s fault (after all, we have just said he is omnipotent) so, later in the same speech, we have him lament that things didn’t turn out as he had wished: “If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your well-being like the waves of the sea.” (Isaiah 48:18.) If he knows the future and does all that he pleases how can he say, “If only…”? To me, that’s incoherent.

We escalate our view of the Bible until it is the Inerrant Word of God. Unfortunately, it consistently describes the Earth as flat. Inerrantly preaching a flat Earth? Sorry; that’s as incoherent as drawing a square circle.

What do you think? Has Western theology become incoherent?

For more on this subject, here’s the video that got me thinking about it:

Christianity’s Gift to Western Civilization

This just in from Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writing in support of the death penalty:

In a world of violence, the death penalty is understood as a necessary firewall against the spread of further deadly violence.

Seen in this light, the problem we face today is not with the death penalty, but with society at large.

American society is quickly conforming to a secular worldview, and the clear sense of right and wrong that was Christianity’s gift to Western civilization is being replaced with a much more ambiguous morality. [emphasis mine]

If I still believed in God, I would thank him that “the clear sense of right and wrong that was Christianity’s gift to Western civilization” — a moral clarity that brought us

– I would thank him that all this had been replaced with almost anything else.

And how ironic is it that Albert Mohler’s own denomination was founded to support the right to own slaves? And he’s scolding us secularists because we don’t have “a clear sense of right and wrong”!?

I was once a Southern Baptist myself, so I know where Mohler is coming from, but from my current perch it’s pretty hard to take. If I were to give full vent to my feelings on this subject, I would say something I’d regret. Therefore, I’ll give the floor to the endlessly forbearing Richard Dawkins. A transcript follows the video in case you’re in a hurry.

QUESTIONER: Considering that atheism cannot possibly have any sense of absolute morality, would it not then be an irrational leap of faith, which atheists themselves so harshly condemn, for an atheist to decide between right and wrong?

DAWKINS: Absolute morality — the absolute morality that a religious person might profess — would include what? Stoning people for adultery? Death for apostasy? Punishment for breaking the sabbath? These are all things which are religiously based absolute moralities.

I don’t think I want an absolute morality. I think I want a morality that is thought out, reasoned, argued, discussed, and based upon — you could almost say — intelligent design.

Can we not design our society which has the sort of morality — the sort of society that we want to live in? If you actually look at the moralities that are accepted among modern people, among 21st-century people, we don’t believe in slavery anymore; we believe in equality of women; we believe in being gentle; we believe in being kind to animals. These are all things which are entirely recent. They have very little basis in biblical or quranic scripture. They are things which have developed over historical time through a consensus of reasoning, sober discussion, argument, legal theory, political and moral philosophy. These do not come from religion.

To the extent that you can find the good bits in religious scriptures, you have to cherry-pick. You search your way through the Bible or the Quran and you find the occasional verse that is an acceptable profession of morality and you say, “Look at that! That’s religion!” And you leave out all the horrible bits. And you say, “Oh, we don’t believe that anymore. We’ve grown out of that.” Well of course we’ve grown out of it. We’ve grown out of it because of secular moral philosophy and rational discussion.