Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Liberal Theology and Its Naturalizing Tendency

Close to a month ago I wrote about Liberal Theology and Its Pantheizing Tendency.  I included this important quotation from J. Gresham Machen's book Christianity and Liberalism:
In the Christian view of God as set forth in the Bible, there are many elements. But one attribute of God is absolutely fundamental in the Bible; one attribute is absolutely necessary in order to render intelligible all the rest. That attribute is the awful transcendence of God. From beginning to end the Bible is concerned to set forth the awful gulf that separates the creature from the Creator. It is true, indeed, that according to the Bible God is immanent in the world. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without Him. But he is immanent in the world not because He is identified with the world, but because He is the free Creator and Upholder of it. Between the creature and the Creator a great gulf is fixed. In modern liberalism, on the other hand, this sharp distinction between God and the world is broken down, and the name “God” is applied to the mighty world process itself. We find ourselves in the midst of a mighty process, which manifests itself in the indefinitely small and in the indefinitely great − in the infinitesimal life which is revealed through the microscope and in the vast movements of the heavenly spheres. To this world-process, of which we ourselves form a part, we apply the dread name of “God.” God, therefore, it is said in effect, is not a person distinct from ourselves; on the contrary our life is a part of His. Thus the Gospel story of the Incarnation, according to modern liberalism, is sometimes thought of as a symbol of the general truth that man at his best is one with God. It is strange how such a representation can be regarded as anything new, for as a matter of fact, pantheism is a very ancient phenomenon. It has always been with us, to blight the religious life of man. And modern liberalism, even when it is not consistently pantheistic, is at any rate pantheizing. It tends everywhere to break down the separateness between God and the world, and the sharp personal distinction between God and man. (pp 62-63)
This "pantheizing" tendency also results in certain forms of naturalism.  This is borne out by the debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan which is contained in the book Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? edited by Paul Copan (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998).  Dr. Craig develops his arguments for the resurrection of Jesus in space and time.  For Dr. Crossan the resurrection is a metaphor.  There are no supernatural interventions in the space-time world.  Dr. Crossan articulates his view in this manner:
"In my view the supernatural always (at least till this is disproved for me) operates through the screen of the natural.  The supernatural is like the beating heart of the natural.  It does not come seeping through cracks every now and then, so we can see it.  It is always there--but we seldom see it." (p. 45)
In his concluding statement for the book Dr. Craig notes that this view entails naturalism with its attendant claim that miracles are impossible.
"He at first emphatically declares that he absolutely rejects naturalism.  But then in his rebuttal he takes back with the left hand what the right has given: 'The supernatural always (at least till this is disproved for me) operates through the screen of the natural.'  But that is naturalism.  Naturalism holds that every event in the space-time order has a cause which is also part of the space-time order.  There are no events which are the immediate products of supernatural causes.  Naturalists need not be atheists.  The deists, for example, were theistic natualists: God acts in the world only mediately through natural causes.  Now this is exactly Dr. Crossan's position." (p. 169)
It is important to understand why Dr. Crossan believes this about the natural/supernatural.  For Dr. Crossan, not only is it the case that the resurrection of Jesus is a metaphor, God himself is a mere metaphor.  He does not have any objective existence apart from the human mind.  God is a metaphorical construct.  Consider this exchange between Craig and Crossan:
Craig: During the Jurassic age, when there were no human beings, did God exist?
Crossan: Meaningless question.
Craig: But surely that's not a meaningless question.  It's a factual question.  Was there a being was the Creator and Sustainer of the universe during that period of time when no human beings existed?  It seems to me that in your view you'd have to say no.
Crossan: Well, I would probably prefer to say no because what you're doing is trying to put yourself in the position of God and ask, "How is God apart from revelation?  How is God apart from faith?"  I don't know if you can do that.  You can do it, I suppose, but I don't know if it really has any point. (p. 51) 
In his concluding statement for the book Dr. Craig marks this interchange as the "turning point in the debate":
"The turning point in the debate came, in my opinion, during the dialogue portion, when I pressed Dr. Crossan on whether the theological statement 'God exists' is a statement of fact or a statement of faith (an interpretation).  Reread that section closely.  In affirming that 'God exists' is a statement of faith, Dr. Crossan implies that this is just an interpretation which a believer puts on reality; from a factual point of view, God does not exist.  Dr. Crossan struggles valiantly to elude this implication by stating that is meaningless to ask how God would be if no humans existed.  But this question is grammatically well formed and clearly meaningful, as is his question, 'Would I be annoyed if I hadn't been conceived?'  (That is what my kids call a 'no-duh' question; obviously if you hadn't been conceived, you wouldn't be annoyed, since you wouldn't exist!)
"So did God exist during the Jurassic age?  Was there a Creator and Sustainer of the universe at that time?  Dr. Crossan finally comes clean and says he'd prefer to say no.  Now if God does not exist independently of the human imagination, if God is just a projection of human consciousness, if it is we who create God rather than God who creates us, then how is this any different from what my atheist friends believe?  What this exchange revealed is that on a factual level Dr. Crossan's view is, as I suspected, atheism.  'God' is just an interpretive construct which human beings put on the universe in the same way that 'Christ' is an interpretive construct which Christian believers put on the purely human Jesus.  In this light, it is no surprise at all that Dr. Crossan believes neither in miracles nor in the resurrection of Jesus as events of history.  For, from a factual perspective, there really is no such person or being as God to bring about these events." (pp. 173-174)
Machen is thus vindicated in his insight regarding liberal theology's pantheizing tendency.  For the liberal theologian "God" is so correlated with the world process that all that is left is the evolutionary world process which evolved humans come to call "God."  "God" is simply the linguistic token by which we designate "the ultimate mystery" of existence.  Granting this view of reality there can, of course, be no miracles nor any authoritative revelation from "outside" the world process.  All is in a state of evolving flux.  Liberal theology is simply naturalism that continues to use the traditional language of Christian theism (ex., "God", "Christ", etc.).   

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Homosexuality: Letter to a Fellow Believer

I wrote the following letter last year (2/2013) to a fellow Christian who was articulating a certain view on homosexual marriage and what the church's response should be.  


I read your blog post on homosexuality and I thought I would offer some thoughts in response.  I enjoyed our conversation on this issue.  It’s good to have good, critical interaction.  So many today don’t want to engage in reasoned discourse so I’m glad you are open to it.  I’m going to offer mostly critical comments on your post.  I hope you see this as a sign of respect as I think your ideas are worthy of rational analysis.  Also, I’ll be mentioning some source materials in quotations and footnotes.  I’ve been reading and writing on this issue of marriage and homosexuality for a number of months and I’ve also spent some time engaging with others who take a view very similar to the one you articulate in your blog post.  I’m trying to assess the arguments as well as develop my articulation in defense of what I think is the proper view on this important theological and ethical issue.  So I hope you will indulge the length of this letter.  And one more thing…I want to convince you that I’m right!

First, let me say that the position articulated in your post was very courageous.  You uncompromisingly held to the sinfulness of homosexuality even knowing that this would potentially draw disagreement and, perhaps, even anger from friends who disagreed.  You also, however, affirm your support for same-sex marriage and this probably causes you to be put in a position where you “draw fire” from both sides!  I was also impressed with your strong focus on Jesus and his gospel of grace which all of us sinners so desperately need.

Let me begin my interaction with your thoughts.  You write:

It’s time to accept something. We cannot, do not, must not try to control the state of the world. We cannot force a moral code or view onto others. We are not called to force the world to be “right”, we are called to love others, and to share the gospel.

I don’t think Christians who oppose homosexual “marriage” are trying to force anything.  We are recognizing what has been recognized for thousands of years in various cultural contexts—including recognition in our own culture and enshrined in American law—that marriage is between a man and a woman.  Recognizing this is not an attempt to “control the state of the world.”  It is a desire to reflect the moral realities latent within the world.  Seeking to stand for this time-honored and reasonable moral principle ought not to be considered a form of “control.”  This use of “force” seems to be prejudicial language. 

You didn’t use the language of “discrimination” but since some who hold positions similar to yours do I think it’s important to recognize that any law about marriage will of necessity discriminate against some other conception.[1]
Any legal system that distinguishes marriage from other, non-marital forms of association, romantic or not, will justly exclude some kinds of union from recognition.  So before we can conclude that some marriage policy violates the Equal Protection Clause, or any other moral or constitutional principle, we have to determine what marriage actually is and why is should be recognized legally in the first place.[2]
To enact any law is thus to discriminate.  The question revolves around whether the discrimination is lawful or unlawful.  For the state to uphold the definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman is not unlawful discrimination.  The state is recognizing what the nature of marriage is.  Those who favor same-sex marriage are arguing for a new and fundamentally different understanding of marriage.  It is no “disrespect” to a triangle to say that it is not a circle.  It is not “disrespect” to homosexuals to argue that their relationship is not one that falls under the definition of marriage.
You write:
What you are doing by denying homosexuals the right to marry is trying to force the country under a law that only supports the moral code recognized by (the majority of) Christians.
You, again, use the language of “force.”  The irony in this is that this is what the promoters of same-sex marriage are trying to do!  They are attempting to use the courts to by-pass the will of the people so as to “force” their agenda upon the mass of Americans who disagree with their views. 
You write:
Also, homosexuality, particularly homosexuals in a committed, loving relationship and wanting to publicly declare that sentiment to the world, is NOT our biggest threat or enemy.
Are you thinking of long-term effects or only of what effects take place immediately?  What if the large scale acceptance of homosexuality is indicative of God’s judgment on a culture—does that not constitute a significant threat?  Of course, homosexuality may not be the “biggest threat” but if marriage is redefined there will be profound negative consequences for people.  The attempt to hold on to traditional view of marriage can and should be seen as an attempt to “love our neighbor” in seeking the good of the culture.  Consider these words of Maggie Gallagher:
Every human society has recognized that there is something special about the union of husband and wife. Amid the spectacular myriad of relationships that human beings create, marriage is unique for a reason: these are the only unions that can create life and connect those new young lives to the mother and father who made them.
For same-sex marriage advocates to make good on their promise of marriage equality, the very idea that children need a mom and dad must be delegitimized, rendered unspeakable in polite company. Same-sex marriage represents an intellectual and moral repudiation of the idea that marriage is grounded in any human reality outside of government, that government is obligated to respect and protect. Marriage is becoming an idea at the mercy of changing fashion, without deep roots in human nature.
And our current marriage culture is in serious trouble. According to a new Brookings Institution report by two major family scholars (Brad Wilcox and Andrew Cherlin), “the sexual disorder that marked the underclass in the sixties has moved up the class ladder well into Middle America.”
The study discovered that by the late 2000s, “moderately educated American women were more than seven times as likely to bear a child outside of marriage as compared with their college-educated peers.” While college-educated mothers showed a six-percent rate of nonmarital births, the rate of nonmarital births for moderately educated mothers was closer to the rate for mothers that do not have high school degrees—44 percent and 54 percent, respectively.
Add to these statistics that 43 percent of moderately educated young adults between ages 25 and 44 report that “marriage has not worked out for most people they know,” while only 17 percent of highly educated young adults report this.
The collapse of our marriage culture has economic costs. The cost to taxpayers of our rising rates of fatherlessness and fragmentation is at least $112 billion each year, as government expands to meet the needs of children in broken families. (For more statistics, see Benjamin Scafidi’s economic analysis, “The Tax Payer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing: First-Ever Estimates for the Nation and All Fifty States.”)
All of these children in fatherless homes are casualties of the deepest idea of the sexual revolution: human institutions that limit sexual desire must be remade in order to achieve “maximum feasible accommodation” with adult sexual desire.
Same-sex marriage will contribute further to the erosion of our marriage culture by making it unacceptable to say that children need married moms and dads. Our goal should not be to strengthen Americans’ commitment to good romances, but to strengthen our commitment to marriage as a social institution dedicated to bringing together male and female so that children have mothers and fathers. In that institution, the government clearly has a stake because it is so vital to the common good.
Far from being a neutral or pro-liberty position, same-sex marriage amounts to a government takeover of an ancient and honorable institution. Here, there are deep similarities philosophically between the abortion and gay marriage movements. At the heart of each movement is the belief that by re-jiggering words, elites change reality itself. A human life can be redefined as a cluster of cells. Marriage can be remade to mean whatever the government decides. Reality itself can be re-mastered to accommodate sexual desires.
But in truth, government cannot create life, and did not create marriage, and government has no business redefining either.[3]
The state is interested in the public good and should recognize that which is morally right and beneficial to the larger society.  Good laws reflect that which is morally right and also contribute to creating a culture of goodness. 
Law and culture exhibit a dynamic relationship: Changes in one ultimately yield changes in the other, and together law and culture structure the choices that individuals see as available, acceptable, and choice-worthy. Given the clear benefits of marriage, we believe that the state should not remain politically neutral, either in procedure or outcome, between marriage and various alternative family structures. Some have sought to redefine civil marriage as a private contract between two individuals regardless of sex, others as a binding union of any number of individuals, and still others as any kind of contractual arrangement for any length of time that is agreeable to any number of consenting adult parties. But in doing so a state would nec­essarily undermine the social norm which encourages marriage as historically understood—i.e., the sexually faithful union, intended for life, between one man and one woman, open to the begetting and rearing of children. The public goods uniquely provided by marriage are recognizable by reasonable persons, regardless of religious or secular worldview, and thus provide compelling reasons for reinforcing the existing marriage norm in law and public policy.[4]
You bring up the issue of the ranking of sins.  You write:
If we were going to rank sins by gravity (which we really shouldn’t, because all are equal in the eyes of the Lord)…
This is a common idea but it doesn’t seem to be true.  Theologian Robert Gagnon has addressed this issue in great detail in response to Alan Chambers who argues for this claim.[5]  I will quote a few sections from Gagnon’s essay (page numbers refer to the PDF version mention in footnote #5).
The fact that all sin is equal in one respect—any one sin can disqualify one from the kingdom of God if one doesn’t receive Christ—does not infer that all sin is equal in all respects—some sins provoke God to bring judgment upon his people more than others.  (p. 16)
Nobody actually lives in the belief that all sins are equally severe on a moral plane.  Indeed, it is often those who argue in connection with homosexual practice that all sin is equal that get particularly upset if one compares homosexual unions to (adult) incest, bestiality, or pedophilia.  They do so precisely because they regard incest, bestiality, and pedophilia as “really bad” and don’t want homosexual behavior to be associated with them.  Such a reaction, however, is already a concession to the obvious principle that some sins are worse than others.  (p. 18)
Gagnon goes on to list a dozen scriptural texts that teach that some sins are worse than others (see pages 18-20).  Then on pages 22-24 Gagnon demonstrates that homosexual practice is one of the more severe sexual sins in scripture.  I would encourage you to read Gagnon’s arguments since his arguments call into question any notion that homosexual practice is a “surface sin.” 
I will stop here.  This is a big topic and it has many facets.  Again, I hope you see my thoughts as an attempt to take seriously your arguments.  I also hope we can keep the discussion going.  Our common bond is ultimately in our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.  Let me know what you think—I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


[1] Discrimination is not necessarily bad.  We are accustomed to thinking that any use of the word “discrimination” is bad due to certain connotations but this is not the case.  When a day-care facility refuses to hire someone who has been convicted of child sexual molestation we consider this prudential discrimination.  Laws against theft “discriminate” against those who feel that thievery is a valid pursuit.
[2] “What is Marriage?”  Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, & Ryan T. Anderson Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy vol. 34, no. 1 (Winter, 2010), p. 251. http://www.harvard-jlpp.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/GeorgeFinal.pdf
[3] Maggie Gallagher, “Defend Marriage: Moms and Dads Matter” http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2011/08/3761
[4] “Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles” The Witherspoon Institute (August, 2008), p. 7. http://www.winst.org/family_marriage_and_democracy/WI_Marriage.pdf
[5] See Gagnon’s essay “Time for a Change of Leadership at Exodus?” available here: http://www.robgagnon.net/articles/homosexAlanChambersAtlanticInterview.pdf .  Pages 15-25 are especially focused on this particular issue.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Animal Rights: Some Quotations and Resources

For Christmas I received Wesley Smith's book A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement (New York: Encounter, 2010).  

Having recently taught on the doctrine of creation and humanity as created in the image of God I pulled a number of quotations from Smith's book to share with my class.  The study of systematic theology is not an abstraction.  Rather, there are very real and concrete ideas and actions that flow from our understanding of God and humanity.  Here is the list of quotations I shared with my class today:

1.     “…the term ‘animal rights’ actually denotes a belief system, an ideology, even a quasi religion, which both implicitly and explicitly seeks to create a moral equivalence between the value of human lives and those of animals.” (p. 3)

2.     Ingrid Newkirk (the head of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—PETA) in 1986: “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.  They are all mammals.” (p. 3)

3.     Alex Pacheco (cofounder with Newkirk of PETA): “The time will come when we will look upon the murder of animals as we now look on the murder of men.” (p. 36)

4.     Peter Singer in his 1976 book Animal Liberation speaks of “speciesism” as: “a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.” (p. 19)

5.     “To avoid speciesism we must allow that beings who are similar in all relevant respects have a similar right to life—and mere membership in our own biological species cannot be a morally relevant criterion for this right…. We may legitimately hold that there are some features of certain beings that make their lives more valuable than those of other beings; but there will surely be some nonhuman animals, whose lives, by any standards, are more valuable than the lives of some humans.  A chimpanzee, dog, or pig, for instance, will have a higher degree of self-awareness and a greater capacity for meaningful relations with others than a severely retarded infant or someone in a state of senility.  So, if we base the right to life on these characteristics we must grant these animals a right to life as good as, or better than, such retarded or senile human beings.”  Peter Singer (p. 27)

6.     R. G. Frey (bioethicist at Bowling Green University):

“I know of nothing that cedes human life of any quality, however low, greater value than animal life of any quality, however high.  If, therefore, we are going to justify medical/scientific uses of animals by appeal to the value of their lives, we open up directly the possibility of our having to envisage the use of humans of lower quality of life in preference to animals of higher quality of life.” (p. 29)

“If ... not all human life has the same value, then the possibility arises that the quality of life of a perfectly healthy baboon can exceed that of a human.  So, if one is going to appeal to human benefit to justify animal research, and if the benefit in this case can be realized either through experimenting on the baboon or the human, then why use the baboon in preference to the human?  A quality-of-life view of the value of a life gives a consistent answer over taking a life and saving a life; so, if either the baboon or the human has to be used in order to realize the benefit, the human must, all other things being equal, be used.  Clearly, my view on the value of life is not speciesist.” (p. 30)

7.     “[I]n 1991, David Larson, the co-director of the Center for Christian Ethics at Loma Linda University, suggested taking the hearts of disabled children to keep monkeys alive.  Asked about the ethics of the Baby Fae case, the first human to receive a heart transplant from a baboon, Larson replied, ‘If a primate’s capability was higher than that of the human—say a severely mentally handicapped child—I think it would be appropriate to support the opposite approach of a Baby Fae, a transplant from a child to save the life of a healthy baboon or chimpanzee.’”  (p. 30)

8.     Animals bringing lawsuits?  Don’t laugh.  Granting animals the right to sue—known as ‘legal standing’—is a major long-term goal of the animal rights movement.  (Of course, it would be the liberationists who would bring the cases on behalf of the oblivious animals as their ‘guardians.’)  Moreover, there is a dedicated cadre of lawyers and law students eagerly working toward achieving this and other legal goals of animal rights through the courts.  (At last count there were nearly a hundred law schools offering animal law classes or programs, often at the behest of animal rights groups such as the Animal Legal Defense Fund.)”

“And the first steps toward obtaining legal standing for animals have already been taken.  As you read these words, activists are crafting the intellectual hooks—articles in professional journals and sample legal briefs complete with bounteous citations—upon which future judges or legislatures could hang their policy hats in granting legal standing to animals.”  (p. 66)

* See the following articles that discuss a recent attempt to grant chimpanzees personhood rights: 

1.     “Animal-Rights Group Sues to Secure Freedom for Chimps” (December 3, 2013) http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn24687-animalrights-group-sues-to-secure-freedom-for-chimps.html#.UsuCryj_Tao

2.     “Will Chimps Soon Have Human Rights?” (December 4, 2013) http://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2013/dec/03/chimpanzees-human-rights-us-lawyer
9.     “Bringing animals, and perhaps even plants, into the moral community with human beings would break the spine of Judeo-Christian ethics, which hang on the belief that all humans are entitled to equal moral worth regardless of individual capacities, age, or state of health—that all have ‘intrinsic human dignity.’”  (p. 246)

Here a few links to material about the Bible and animals:

1.     “Animal Rights and the Bible” http://lavistachurchofchrist.org/LVarticles/AnimalRightsandtheBible.htm

2.     “The Bible Speaks on Animal Rights” http://www.fbbc.com/messages/kohl_political_science_animalrights.htm

3.     “The Bible and the Ethical Treatment of Animals” http://www.gospelway.com/religiousgroups/animal_liberation.php

A few items I've written that are related:

1.     “’After-birth Abortion’: Political Correct Infanticide” http://whiterosereview.blogspot.com/2012/02/after-birth-abortion-political-correct.html

2.     “Evolution and Infanticide—The Deep Connection” http://whiterosereview.blogspot.com/2012/03/evolution-and-infanticide-deep.html

3.     “Habakkuk and God’s Concern for the Environment” http://whiterosereview.blogspot.com/2011/11/habakkuk-and-gods-concern-for.html

4.     “Francis Schaeffer on Humanity as Fellow-Creature” http://whiterosereview.blogspot.com/2013/11/francis-schaeffer-on-humanity-as-fellow.html