Friday, March 16, 2007

Misusing God

So I've still be poking around looking at what other thinkers have to say about my questions of morality and social justice (in relationship to Christianity). I found some thought-provoking passages by a theologian named Kenneth Cauthen. I didn't agree with everything he had on his site (for example, I don't think he gives the Bible enough credit for helping some people radically changes their attitudes towards their fellow human beings), but I do think he has a great point about the tragedy that occurs when many Christians use the Bible merely to confirm their own interests. It's part of our sinful nature to try to use God to our own advantage, but we need to be aware that we're doing it because it's a very dangerous practice. Here are some of his thoughts that struck me the most:

A key conviction of mine for a long time has been that the crucial dimension of religion is ethics. I do not mean at all that religion can be reduced to ethics. Religion has many dimensions. The two that have interested me most are that it provides a framework of meaning and a guide to morality. Religion includes a conception of and a relationship to whatever is regarded as Ultimate. Faith means, as H. Richard Niebuhr taught, trust in and loyalty to God. It includes gratitude for the gift of life and its opportunities, its joys, and its potential for enjoyment. Religion, then, provides an ultimate grounding for the meaning of life, and it has implications for morality. According to Jesus the two great commandments are love of God and love of neighbor. Both are essential, and they are dependent on each other. Without love of neighbor, love of God is incomplete and defective. Without love of God, love of neighbor lacks ultimate grounding. I do not imply that atheists cannot act morally in any sense. They may often have higher ideals and live more virtuously than many believers. I only imply that their analysis of the total context of the ethical life is incomplete. In practical terms, how we relate to other human beings, value them, treat them, and include their good in the good that we seek for ourselves is the gist of the matter for me. Religion that does not lead to equal regard for others is fundamentally deficient, no matter how much meaning and satisfaction it may provide for believers themselves. Jesus said, "you will know them by their fruits." When the ethical fruits of religion are wanting, it is usually because the community of those with whom we identify, suffer with, and for whom we are willing to sacrifice is too small, excluding those outside it who may be neglected or opposed, even hated. Growth in love of neighbor occurs when the circle of those whose good is included in the good we seek is expanded. Religion that is inward and vertical may provide purpose, inspiration, joy security, hope, comfort, and happiness for believers as individuals and groups, but if it does not express itself in service of the neighbor inside and outside the religious community itself, it is woefully inadequate and close to being false. The best of the Bible agrees with me on this point.

However, it is a bit more complicated than that. One may love God with all ones heart and diligently seek to love the neighbor, but the understanding of what it means to count the good of others equal to our own may be sadly flawed. Our understanding of justice and love is mediated through our historical, social, and cultural location and is thus limited by that environment. Ethical insight cannot be purified and perfected by religious devotion alone in some ahistorical, transcendent fashion except perhaps in rare (I'd argue it's more prevalent than he thinks, though perhaps not in the type of Church he attends which is a hardline Southern Baptist one) and remarkable circumstances. The Baptist Christians I grew up with saw no contradiction between love of neighbor and racial segregation and responded with anger to anyone who suggested the incompatibility. I experienced this when I suggested such an incongruity in a sermon. Yet I would not doubt the reality, the depth, and the sincerity of the religious faith of the best of them. Earnest study of the Bible in most cases merely confirms existing convictions, although transforming breakthroughs do sometimes occur. Moreover, equally dedicated Christians have diverse and contrary notions of what service of the neighbor requires of us, particular with regard to complicated questions of social justice. My point is that depth of religious commitment is no guarantee of moral insight. Intense devotion to God connected to tragically defective moral insight and practice is a fact of the human condition that we have to live with (again, we shouldn't have to live with it, instead we should fight to change it, as Jesus commanded us to!). The problem is that when we have blind spots, we are not aware of them, even when we honestly want to know what is right, just, and best. The only resolution of this tragic condition is found in Psalm 103:8-14 and in the Christian doctrine of salvation by grace though faith and not by righteous behavior.

My experience has been - with some notable exceptions - that the higher the authority attributed to the Bible, the more perverse the ethical views associated with it. That is overstated, but it reflects my pain and disappointment over many years in hearing people quote the Bible in favor of moral views that I find abhorrent. With all the high and noble morality taught in the Bible urging love for neighbor, compassion for the poor, and demanding justice for all, it is a mystery to me why so many who claim to be obedient to the Word focus on the parts of Scripture that are used and misused to oppress women, children, and racial and sexual minorities. Seldom do I hear in sermons the radical demands for the reordering of society that will bring the powerful down and exalt the poor and helpless. That would be far more biblical in the deepest sense than crusades against homosexuals, the suppression of the ambitions for women for a full and equal place in church and society, and resistance to the just aspirations of people of color.

That's just some of what he had to say about these topics. And I think he hits on some good points that are often ignored by the Church. But the picture he paints needn't be so grim. After all, Jesus claimed that he would break us free from the bondage of our sinful nature, and that if we ask he will strengthen us to live righteous, loving lives. All we have to do is ask for help! If we'd stop being so prideful and admit that we can't live right on our own. So yet again, something more for us to think about.

And in case you were curious, this is the passage in psalms that he refers to:

The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,

nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve

or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,

so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,

so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,

he remembers that we are dust.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Christianity and Social Justice

This entry stems from a recent awakening I’ve had. When I was growing up, I was unofficially taught that Christianity only aligned with conservative politics. With a few exceptions, the Christians I knew feared the political left because they felt threatened by some liberals’ anti-God attitude. Only the GOP will protect your God, I was told. It is more important, they said, to protect marriage and outlaw abortion than worry about the poor. The poor can wait, because, after all, you earned your money. It’s about hard work. Each person has what they’ve earned. Those who don’t work hard enough, well, that’s not your problem. You deserve to keep what you earned. So conveniently enough, conservative policies protected “morality” along with wealth. It’s a win-win for suburban Christians, the best of both worlds.

Thankfully, I didn’t completely buy into this logic. I always considered myself a moderate, someone who despised both political parties. I was alienated from the left because so many of them (or at least the most vocal ones) were clearly opposed to religion, to God. Why would I want to be a part of a party that thinks I’m ignorant, that denies the most important part of my life? The left was out. But the right wasn’t much better. They may not deny God, but they do worse. They use God for their own advantage. Parade your materialist-driven, selfish policies under the banner of Christianity and you can win the hearts of mainstream America. Not cool. So there goes the right. And unfortunately, my moderate-I-hate-all-politics stance doesn't do much in the way of feeding the hungry or sheltering the poor.

And then there's socialism. What is it exactly? How does it fit in with Christianity? Why don’t more Christian’s embrace it? In response to the latter question, Christians feel alienated by the left. They sense (as I often do) the prevalent anti-God sentiments voiced by so many liberals. Christians are human, and it’s hard for us to find common ground with people we feel threatened by. Despite this, I have a feeling that more Christians would agree with socialist policies if someone explained to them what it really meant. One of the main stumbling blocks to socialism is the word itself, which is loaded with connotations and misconceptions preventing a lot of people from accepting it.

So what is socialism exactly, and why would so many Christians embrace it if they understood it better…. Well, for starters, socialism aims to undo the harms and injustices found in capitalist systems which can include a redistribution of wealth that is subject to social control. Social democrats want to establish a society where people have a more or less equality of opportunity to flourish. Everyone should have access to the means necessary to live meaningful lives. This can include, but is not limited to, access to quality health care and education. Why would Christians be opposed to everyone having an equal opportunity to flourish? I don’t think they would be opposed, if they saw socialism in that way. After realizing this, they may very well take up the socialist banner.

So what is it about Christianity that lends itself to promoting social justice? If you take a look at the early Church, you’ll see that the first Christians not only valued social justice, but they lived it. These Christians often lived in communes where wealth was shared, and you made sure you took care of your neighbors. These Christians didn't value wealth. They knew that if you served the things of this world, there wouldn’t be any place for God in your life.

We were commanded to feed the poor, support widows and orphans, and look after the sick. The wealth we are given on earth is not our own. It belongs to God. He entrusted us with it so that we would put it to good use, to glorify Him. Luke 12:48 says, “To whom much is given, much will be required.” The more wealth you are blessed with, the greater responsibility you have to use that wealth to serve those in need. It’s not a hard concept to preach, but it’s a hard lesson to live. Why do we gripe about taxes being too high when we live in luxury and those around us don’t have enough to eat or a place to sleep?? We are a selfish lot, and the world knows it. Why would you want to become a Christian when the only Christians you see hoard their wealth while children live in poverty? It is in part because we have been taught to fear those who would join with us in the fight for social justice. The right-wing has exploited faith, and used people’s sense of morality to keep them from doing the morally right thing.

In the book of Matthew Jesus says, “If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away…Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…. No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

And as for non-economic justice, well Jesus came to level the playing field. Galations 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” When Christ came, he made us all equal in God’s eyes. So if Jesus doesn’t see our race, sex, or class, then we shouldn’t see them in each other either. This means we need to take care of everyone, not just ourselves and those like us.

Here's a quote from Rev. Roden Noel: "Surely that man or woman is no Christian at all, except in name, in so far as he or she remains indifferent to the awful abyss that yarns between rich and poor; to the insufficiency of the share in our immense wealth which falls to the lot of those who produce it."

So what would Jesus think about conservative economic policies? Would Jesus care if the poor were marginalized? Or would Jesus want his sons and daughters to take care of those in need? I think the answer is pretty obvious. Loving God’s children is the best way we can glorify Him, and it’s the best way to show them God’s love. If they don’t experience God’s love, then why would they want to love Him in return? The best testimony we can have is through our actions, not our words. Would Jesus be a socialist? Maybe he would, but that’s not the point. The point is that what we’re doing right now isn’t working. We aren’t taking care of each other, so we need to change the way we do things. Let’s not make a mockery of God. Instead, let us start being the salt and light of the earth, as Jesus called us to be.

Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:6)

Something to think about.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Thoughts on Kierkegaard

I recently finished reading two (short) works written by Soren Kierkegaard, and what I'm about to do is exactly what he wouldn't have wanted. I'm reflecting on brilliant ideas, and I don't have any plan for putting them into practice. But I will sit here and write about how doing that very thing is horrible, and how Kierkegaard was brilliant for pointing that out. So, vive les contradictions. I can't help myself; Kierkegaard is too interesting to read and not comment on. Though I will mercilessly rip quotes out of context because I like them, I am at least admitting that I'm doing this (without a proper understanding of what he really meant, because his works were sufficiently over my head). The works I read were The Present Age and a Genius and an Apostle.

Kierk offers an impressing diatribe of the culture he lived in (mid 1800's), and if I didn't know any better I would have thought he was talking about today. In the spirit of not sounding like the blurb on the back of a book, I'll just share some quotes that made the biggest impression on me...

“However well-meaning and strong the individual man may be (if he could only use his strength), he still has not the passion to be able to tear himself from the coils and seductive uncertainty of reflection.” Over thinking? Really? I never do that.

“Formerly it was agreed that a man stood or fell by his actions; nowadays, on the contrary, everyone idles about and comes off brilliantly with the help of a little reflection, knowing perfectly well what ought to be done…If some one were to overhear what people said ought to be done, and then in a spirit of irony, and for no other reason, proceeded to act accordingly every one would be amazed.” I think this one is self-explanatory. The sad part is, this is direct commentary on my discipline of choice. Few philosophers take their theories and act upon them accordingly. To those who do (and there are a noble few), you have my respect. I'm working on doing this myself.

“The distinction between good and evil is enervated by a superficial, superior and theoretical knowledge of evil, and by a supercilious cleverness which is aware that goodness is neither appreciated nor worth while in this world, that it is tantamount to stupidity. No one is any longer carried away by the desire for the good to perform great things, no one is precipitated by evil into atrocious sins, and so there is nothing for either the good or bad to talk about, and yet for that very reason people gossip all the more, since ambiguity is tremendously stimulating and much more verbose than rejoicing over goodness or repentance over evil.” How controversial this is. There really are things that are good or bad?? Relativism may not be taken seriously by philosophers (for obvious reasons), but it is all too prevalent in today's society (pop philo if you will).

“Only some one who knows how to remain essentially silent can really talk –and act essentially. Silence is the essence of inwardness, of the inner life. Mere gossip anticipates real talk, and to express what is still in thought weakens action by forestalling it…Talkativeness is afraid of the silence which reveals its emptiness.” For those who know me, this one hurts. But again, it's so true. If only we would stop talking just to talk. It's like we keep going and going because we're afraid of the void that comes when it's silent. But it's okay to be quiet, and it's better to talk only when you have something meaningful to say. Imagine how that would change things...

"'Leap, then, into the arms of God'...[but others] must make the leap themselves, for God's love is not a second-hand gift." We can't force people to believe, because faith is a choice.
We can plant seeds, and we can open ourselves up to be used by God. But ultimately, each person must choose for themselves. Forcing your faith on someone, well that's like making them wear your "faith" hand-me-downs. It's just not the same if they don't take the leap on their own.

"You who hear me must consider within yourselves whether you will bow before [Christ's] authority or not, accept and believe the words or not. But if you do not wish to do so, then for heaven's sake do not go and accept the words because they are clever or profound or wonderfully beautiful, for that is a mockery of God." This is in response to the "defenders" of the faith who wanted to make the authors of the Bible literary geniuses, and at the same time they wanted to rob them of divine authority. Kierk fought against those who thought that Paul should be appreciated for his wonderful metaphors, for the aesthetic content of what he said, not because he had any authority. He distinguishes between the genius and the Apostle. The first is great because of his natural talents, and his work should be appreciated for its content. Kierk says this of Plato: "what Plato says on immortality really is profound, reached after deep study; but then poor Plato has no authority whatsoever." The Apostle, on the other hand, is not great because of any natural talents he has. In fact, his message is great often in spite of his lack of natural endowments. His message should be revered because it is backed by divine authority, not because it is incredibly clever. Now the question remains: how does the Apostle prove that he was given divine authority? He can't, not decisively anyways... and it would be counterproductive if he could, because the telos of his message is to cultivate faith. A king, according to Kierk, can provide physical proof that the messenger was his, but God can't do this and won't, because that wouldn't allow room for people to believe in anything. So by no means should the genius and the Apostle be compared, because the are on completely different playing fields. This is what I think Kierk meant, but I could be completely wrong.

What did I take away from the readings? Well, what struck me the most was Kierk's critique of intellectuals (or at least the contemplative atmosphere that remains passionless). We spend all this time thinking, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. But we think and discern all of these principles of what we ought to do, and then we do nothing. We would rather think ourselves out of existence then bother to put our ideas into practice. Think of the ideal theorist. She has wonderful intentions, but she puts none of her theories into practical use. So what has she really contributed? Isn't this why most people don't like philosophers??

I was also struck by Kierk's condemnation of apologists. We try to fit God into a box that we can comprehend. When a skeptic makes a claim, we try to squeeze this infinite being into our own ideas and conceptions of what is right and true in order to defeat them. But with our limited abilities we can only know so much. Why do we insist on watering God down to the point where He isn't even a god at all? Let us admit that some things we will not understand, and let us not be ashamed to have faith. After all, even the non-believer has faith, though it's a faith in God's non-existence. We must humbly admit the limits of our reason. Only then will we cease to prostitute our God.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Further Info on Moral Authority

So I did some digging and found some more essays on my moral authority dilemma. The first website I found was by Mark Vuletic. His discussion was interesting, but not very compelling in the end. His refutations were weak at best, and his arguments took too many unfounded leaps in judgement. A response to his paper was written by Tom Wanchick, and I think Tom did an excellent job of addressing the issues raised by Mark. Although neither article settles my question, Tom does express some of my sentiments in a much more elegant manor. The "heat emanating from fire" analogy comes close to my intuition that God's moral character just is, and He projects it to us. But anyways, just thought I'd give you further reading if you want. Do read both if you can, otherwise read just the second because it talks about both arguments. You may think the website itself ( is an interesting choice on my part, and I'll have you know I didn't expect to find what I did. If you do get a chance to read them, let me know what you think!

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Justice vs. Virtue

This post is a response to one of my lectures this week. The issue at hand isn't one I have ever considered before, and I doubt you have either. The problem is whether the government's responsibility to promote justice is lexically prior to its responsibility to promote virtuous citizens. Lexically prior (for those who are unfamiliar with the term) means that no matter what, justice always trumps virtue. The problem with lexical priority is that you are not allowed to sacrifice even the smallest amount of justice in order to gain a momentous amount of virtue. That, to me, seems plainly unreasonable. In class, however, it was clear that not a few students stood by justice's lexical priority. In other words, a society where everyone is equally well-off (materially) but where all the members are total jerks is preferable to one where there is slight injustice in wealth but everyone is virtuous.

At first, I was completely confused as to why anyone would hold that view. It just seems plainly obvious that virtue is important. But then I realized two possible reasons they stood by justice's LP. The first reason involves urgency. It's easy for someone in my (privileged) position to preach integrity when I am not a victim of injustice. If I were living in poverty, my opinion would probably be very different. I acknowledge this objection whole-heartily. And I agree that right now, justice is the issue du jour. If we must implement knave-promoting policies to bring people out of poverty and up to some basic threshold of flourishing (think Nussbaum, for example), then that should be the order of the day. Conceding this does not entail the LP of justice, however. After some point (of which, I'm not about to draw the line of distinction), it seems irresponsible to promote knave-like citizens in return for some small improvement in justice. Instead, at the expensive of perfect justice, the government should revamp its policies to promote more virtuous citizens. So the objection of urgency doesn't fly, because I'm not trying to defend the LP of virtue...I just think virtue, like justice, is an inherent good that should be given due consideration.

The second objection, one which I think was the real culprit during discussion, was how to define the scope of responsibility the government has. Without delving into political theory I'm unfamiliar with, I'll try to flesh this objection out a bit. The government is responsible (in the post-Rawls era at least), in the opinion of most people I've encountered, for trying to establish a just society. That may include some form of redistribution, or social welfare, that would ensure that most (or as many as possible) citizens have the capability to live a flourishing life. Material goods are a crucial resource for most people to accomplish this. So...policies are needed that will more equally distribute material wealth. These policies, unfortunately, may have the negative effect of promoting self-interest (because they are shaped in such a way that the system is benefited more when people are more self-interested...and then the system harnesses the fruits of said self-interest...or something like that). I'll agree that the government is responsible for promoting justice, because I think justice is a public (and private) good that can not be achieved without some coordinated action, and the government is the best tool we have.

Where I depart from my comrades, unfortunately, is my support of virtue. I believe that at some point the government is responsible for promoting virtuous citizens, and I'll tell you why. If the policies of the government had no effect on the members of society, I'd be hard pressed to make my case. In fact, if the government didn't have any effect on the integrity of it's citizens, then I'll concede that the government can stay out of it. Instead, the family, religious organizations, and such can do the hard work. But in reality, the government has a profound effect on the American ethos. For example, the Jim Crow laws were not merely a by-product of racism, but they also promoted and reinforced racism among citizens. If the government is responsible for enforcing and breeding racism, and if we agree that racism is bad enough that it is morally reprehensible for the government to promote it, then I would argue that the government has a responsibility to fix (as far is it is capable) the problem. In the same way, if the government turns people into materialistic, self-interested jerks, then the government is responsible (once justice is no longer an urgent issue) for promoting more virtuous qualities, in so far as it doesn't have too high a cost for justice. If the government played a role in making knaves, then it should help change them back into knights. This rests on the assumption that virtue is an inherent good worth protecting, and it benefits both the individual and society (in the same way that justice does). Some may deny this claim, but before they do they should seriously imagine living in the world they would allow the government to create. Would you honestly prefer an equal share if you had to live amongst horribly mean, selfish people (and you would probably be one of them!)? Doubtful. Why? Because virtue is valuable, whether or not you are willing to admit it...

This issue touches on the difference between the communitarian and libertarian political views. The former promotes the good of the community, the latter promotes the good of the individual. What is the place of the government? Probably somewhere between the two views, though I'd lean towards a more communitarian responsibility (as a way to combat the horrid individualism that has consumed our society). Unfortunately the individual is defended by our society so fiercely that it is almost bringing about its own downfall. Protecting an individual seems worthwhile when the people we want to protect are worth protecting, but it may come to the point where we produce such terrible citizens that its not even worth protecting them (yeah that's mean, and kind of controversial...I'll admit it). The worst part of that scenario is that once you produce such a horrible lot of people, they'll be so terrible that their own character's won't possess the capacity to want or be able to become more virtuous. So at some point, it may be too late. Don't think it couldn't happen, because we seem to be well on our way.

On another note, I'm starting to read Kirkegaard. So look forward to a post on that soon.
And, I read an interesting blog the other day by a guy who was an atheist, but after studying philosophy in college he became a Christian. It was really interesting because you usually hear that people deny God after studying philosophy. His testimony is cool because he admits that there wasn’t one knock-em down argument. He just gradually grew to accept God (first the possibility, then the reality). It shows that reason only goes so far, and after a point it’s up to faith (and this is for both the atheist and the believer). So if you want to, you should check it out.