The Self-Contradictory Nature of Godlessness

I recently read a blog post on Godless in Dixie regarding the supposed anti-human theology that is part of the Christian worldview.  The gentleman writing makes the argument that Christianity inspires self-loathing and that Jesus of Nazareth engaged in what amounts to psychological torture.  You can read the post for yourself.

First, I’m saddened by his story, because while the whole thing seems like a straw-man, I don’t think it is necessarily a straw-man of his own creation.  The word Christian is rarely used in the Bible.  We throw it around now in a way that means very little.  It is often seen only as some sort of cultural heritage.  As such, people calling themselves Christians, but failing to actually follow Christ in thought or action in any meaningful way can do great damage.  Still, one cannot look to the worst representatives of an enterprise to build a case against the values of that enterprise.  I fear people who have this perception that Christianity encourages self-hatred have had some very poor examples of people in their lives who call themselves Christians.

What does the Biblical narrative teach about people though?  Are we fundamentally garbage?  Should we regard ourselves with guilt and shame?  Do we invent special types of crimes for ourselves?  Can we do no good?  Well, the only way to know what the Bible teaches about such a thing, is to actually look at the Bible in context.

This fellow seems to base his objection to Christianity on a false understanding of who people are, and what they’re relationship is to God according to Biblical teaching.  He says, “Rather than affirming what is good within humanity, it begins with a condemnation of all that is bad”.  This is patently false though.  In the beginning, God created.  The creation included people, who were designed in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).  He blessed them, and saw EVERYTHING that had been made, and it was VERY good (Genesis 1:31).  That is the fundamental teaching about people.  Everything that follows (ie the history of the universe) must be understood in this context.

God did not create robots though.  He created free moral agents.  This sort of freedom is fundamentally necessary for the expression of love.  It cannot be achieved through coercion.  We can choose good, or we can reject it and choose otherwise.  God has left this choice to us.  What is good, really, though?  Jesus said that only God is good (Mark 10:18).  What did he mean by that?  I think he meant a couple of things.

First, I think he meant to subtly suggest, as he did many other times, that he was, in fact, God.  He was being addressed as good, so he pointed out that only God embodies the foundation of goodness.

Second, he meant that God alone is the foundation of all that is good.  Without God, real good and evil simply just do not exist.  We can try to base our understanding of good in ourselves, but the fact of the matter is that this sort of relativism only leaves us with no foundation at all.  It leaves us with mere opinions and confusion.  In the video embedded in this post, the fellow there says, emphatically, that “you are not a sinner!”  He goes on to say though, that he hopes you make “good” decisions and you don’t have free license to be a jerk.  Well, why not? He seems to think that there is some standard of “good” that I ought to be following.  Who’s though?  His?  On one hand these confused ideas say there is nothing wrong with me, while on the other they seem to affirm there is a certain way the universe should be, and I shouldn’t violate that.  Sounds familiar!

Sin is, simply put, the violation of this ordained state of affairs.  It’s straying from Good.  While Biblical teaching says we’re fundamentally God’s creation, it also teaches we have a selfish streak that seems to want to go it alone.  If we deny God’s goodness, we end up following the desire to be our own god by defining “good” in any way we see fit.  Allowing such a thing is, again, a necessary feature of free-will.  God would prefer for us to return to the very good state of affairs in Genesis 1, but he doesn’t do it by asking us to despise ourselves.  I’m not even quite sure how somebody calling themselves a follower of Christ would come to this conclusion, and worse, how they would teach it.

The most cited part of the Bible seems to be John 3:16.  As important are John 3:17-18.  It’s quite clear that Jesus didn’t come to condemn, but to pardon.  It seems pretty clear to me (NIV):

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

Now, the fact is that there does seem to need to be some steps taken to right our course, but does that necessitate self-hatred?  I’m not sure how you even come to that conclusion.  If it does, and Godless is suggesting that I need to right my course and come to his way of thinking, then he also must be suggesting that I ought to hate myself for my mistaken thinking because there is something wrong with me.  That’s a silly conclusion that does not follow.  People can be well-aware of things about themselves they’d like to change, without hating themselves.  People can even suggest things about other people that might need changing and have only the best of intentions.

You might be able to blame the teaching of your parents or your “Christian” community for your self-loathing, but if you want to build a case that the teaching by Jesus of Nazareth is to blame it will be quite flimsy, since he placed free grace on the table if you’d like it.  The alternative is to willing drift away from true Good.  It’s your choice.


WWHD: What Would Hitler Do?

Cheeky.  I know.  Most Christians like to operate on the WWJD premise.  However, a favorite apologist of mine, Greg Koukl, would argue that in order to know what Jesus would do in any given situation, you’d have to know what Jesus did in history.  He’s right.  It seems a lot of the time we prefer to operate on slogans and emotional appeals to make our cases, rather than doing the hard work of being students of theology or history.  I’ve decided since Jesus seems to be something of an enigma to a lot of people, including a lot of Christians, that using the motto WWHD can be a lot easier than WWJD.  It turns out most folks over the age of 20, regardless of political or religious affiliation, have a pretty good grasp of what Hitler was all about (although it seems even this significantly more recent objective history is losing traction these days).  After giving it some thought, I’ve decided Hitler can be used much more easily than Jesus to make some points.  Sometimes rather than trying to convince somebody of who they should be like, it might be easier to convince them of who they shouldn’t be like.  This seems to work best with people who generally subscribe to some sort of relativism.

I often hear people say things like, “I have my truth and you have your truth.”  However, although we may have differing perspectives, there is only one truth to be sought.  For example, Joe may say he thinks Mike is a hard worker, but Mary may say she thinks Mike is not a hard worker.  Can it be true that Mike is both a hard worker and not a hard worker?  I think not.  It may be true that Joe thinks Mike is hard worker, and it may also be true that Mary thinks Mike is not a hard worker.  These are just two opinions though, probably based on different experiences with Mike.  Saying “Joe thinks” a thing, or “Mary thinks” a thing though, is vastly different from saying “Mike is” a thing.  I can say, “Mike is a hard worker,” and there is an objective truth value to that statement that is independent of any observer.  The logical law of non-contradiction makes it an impossibility that a statement can be both true and false at the same time.  Mike is either a hard worker, or he is not a hard worker.  You may need to flesh out context and what is meant by “hard worker”, but it is impossible that, in the same context, Mike both is a hard worker and is not a hard worker.  Given an adequate definition, the objective truth of the statement “Mike is a hard worker” can be known.  Further, in the absence of objective truth values, can we say that Hitler wasn’t justified in his actions?  If multiple truths are possible, you can say it is your opinion that it was unfashionable for him to take such actions, but not that it was objectively wrong.  You may think it was wrong, but that’s just your own version of the truth.  Hitler’s truth was that he was improving the world, and his truth is every bit as valid as your truth.  This is an untennable position if you ask me.

The other day I had another friend explain that we should just say that Monday is now Saturday and go home.  He asserted this is mere social convention.  We’re just nature and nature has no need of such social constructs.  His claim, as I understood it, was that we can re-define any truth we want as we see fit by getting the majority to agree to it.  There’s actually some truth to this as it pertains to labels, but while I can certainly appreciate his disdain for Mondays, it seems to me that the “Monday” being referred to is a certain kind of thing.  Certainly we could take the thing “Monday” and call it “Saturday”, but if what we mean by “Monday” in this case is that it is the first day of the work week, then call it what you will, it is still the first day of the work week.  Calling it something different doesn’t change the truth of the matter.  I can call it “hamburger” if I want, but I still need to punch in at 8:00.  Perception may be able to be overcome by appealing to popularity, but unfortunately truth cannot.  Changing perception does not change the truth.  Just ask any magician.  Hitler changed perception by appealing to the ferocity of German nationalism.  Simply changing popular public opinion though, never did change the true fact that handicapped and Jewish folks are people, and unjustly taking people’s lives is murder.

The next time you encounter someone who argues that something is true or permissible simply because different people have different truths, or because all truth is only defined by what is most popular, just ask them to consider carefully…WWHD?

I Make Myself Barf (but only the dry heaves)

I’ve had my non-Christian friends tell me that the Doctrine of Original Sin is a myth.  We’re capable of good on our own.  I just can’t buy it.  I think people are only capable of good because some of God has rubbed off on them.  I mostly make a mess of that, but maybe there is just enough good left over that I don’t manage to completely destroy everything around me.  Every once in a while I get lulled into believing I really am a good person, but God reminds me this isn’t the case.

Yesterday I was running a half-marathon.  This is 13.1 miles of putting one foot in front of the other.  It’s fairly painful.  Less than 1% of people in the US will ever finish a half-marathon, so I think it is a significant challenge both mentally and physically.  Apparently some people still take it up a notch though.  On about mile two I was passed by a gentleman wearing an orange and white shirt that said “13.1 for Africa”.  Clearly some sort of fund-raising goal.  This fellow was pushing a stroller.  Now, I’ve seen people out running with their kids in strollers, and I have a lot of respect for that brand of madness, but this was different.  This was a large stroller, and this guy was pushing a fully grown, maybe 20 year old man, who apparently had muscular dystrophy or some other type of degenerative muscle disease.  Like I said, running 13.1 miles is difficult, but I can only imagine adding an additional 175 lbs or so, especially when it comes to climbing hills.

This ambitious fellow stayed at a slightly faster pace than me for a good deal of the way, but at about mile 9 there was a short but steep hill.  I noticed this was visibly painful for him as I passed by.  I had the sudden urge to help him up the hill, but I ignored it.  I was on a pace that had the potential to be a personal best time for a half marathon, and it has been a few years now since I have bested any of my own times.  I think I’m getting old.  Anyway, as I passed by, ignoring the appeal from my soul to offer help to this guy, I then immediately felt disgrace.  I had no cause for this though, I knew that this guy knew what he was getting into when he signed up.  Every participant signed the waiver.  Why the guilt then?  This is the sort of situation where my mind starts to spin.

You’ll likely never find me claiming, “God told me…”  Quite honestly, God has never spoken to me in a way that I’d be convinced for sure it wasn’t just my own mind.  Maybe it’s God, maybe it’s me, maybe it’s some combination.  I don’t think I’d ever emphatically claim it were God, because it scares me to think I might be labeled as a false prophet by the creator of the universe, but I don’t think it is really necessary anyway.  If God has spoken via inspired scripture, then I can already know His opinion on these things.  I’m forced to take everything, try to discern whether it has any basis in scripture, and then willfully decide whether to act on it or not.  Maybe this is God’s sense of humor as a result of my generally subscribing to the concept of libertarian free will rather than some sort of Calvinism or compatiblism.  In any case, I thought maybe it was God’s intention that I should offer this fellow some help, but I rejected the suggestion because it would slow me down.

Initially the remorse of the decision led me to be irritated with God.  Why after all, if he’s all-powerful, should he not be able to be more clear?  This is the wrong question though.  The real question is not why is He not able, because a omnimpotent God would have no trouble getting through clearly if He wanted to.  The real question is why does He not choose to be more clear.  I think it’s generally because He wants us to make the choice.  He’s willing to give me a hint that I ought to do a thing, but as a free moral agent, He doesn’t want to have to tell me what to do.  He would have been perfectly capable of creating robots after all, but that isn’t what He wanted.

After rolling it over for about 1.5 miles weighing what I know about God, the Bible, running, other people, and myself, I decided I’d messed up.  How?  John 13:34-35 came to mind.  Shortly before being arrested by the Romans, Jesus gave his disciples a new command to love one another in the way that he loved them, and by doing so, other people would know they were his disciples.  To love like Jesus seems impossible to me, but what I do know is it involves a great deal of sacrifice, and I’m worried about a minute or two added to my half-marathon time?  I decided if I couldn’t sacrifice some stupid race time for this poor guy struggling in pain for a noble cause, clearly loving sacrificially himself, then I certainly wasn’t loving anywhere close to the way Jesus commanded his disciples to love.

I knew at about mile 11 there was a much more significant hill, so I slowed my pace enough that hopefully the guy wouldn’t be too far behind.  When I hit the bottom of the hill, I stopped and waited about 30 seconds for him to catch up, then I said to him, “Can you accept help, man?” “No,” he said, “I have to do it on my own.”  “So you can’t take any help up this hill?” I said.  “Nope.”  At this point I realized I’d waited and worried about giving this guy help for nothing, but I slapped him on the back and said, “You’re doing a great job, man!”  What I got back was the most sincere, “Thank you soooo much!”  that I think I’ve ever heard anybody exclaim, like he’d just been waiting for somebody to tell him that.  Perhaps it wasn’t for nothing after all.

Was it God’s direct intention that I give the guy that encouragement?  I don’t know.  Was it Biblical?  Absolutely.  So, do I care whose idea it was?  Not really.  All I know is that I chose a clear Jesus approved option, and corrected an error in my own character on the fly based on the already clear direction to love one another sacrificially.  God has already spoken (Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21), all we need to do is listen.  We can wait around to for him to speak clearly to us again before we take decisive action, but as for me, I know I hate having to repeat myself to my children.

I finished in 1:49:54, about 2 minutes off of my best half-marathon time.

Fideism Makes Me Barf

It’s been a while.  I guess the weather has just been too nice or something.  There’s nothing like learning a new word to give me something to write.  My wife thinks these words make me sound arrogant, but I’ve read that most congresspersons have only a 10th grade vocabulary, so I’ll take the risk.  Apparently our lack of vocabulary isn’t getting us anywhere!

The word “fideism” is only interesting to me because this past week I had a couple of conversations about the role of evidence as it pertains to Christianity.  One was with a group of adults who had a lot to say over 1.5 hours about evidence and how it builds trust/faith.  It was a fun conversation.  The other was with a group of mostly Jr High kids, who seemed to meet the question with mostly blank stares.  They’re the ones that concern me the most, since this is about the age of my own kids now.  I’m concerned we’re letting our kids down, teaching them to be fideists, because that’s what we are.

The word fideism comes from the Greek word fides, which simply means “faith”.  So fideism is simply faithism.  In short, it is the idea that faith and reason are contrary to one another, and that faith is the better mechanism for arriving at real truths.  I find this absurd.  It seems clear to me that Christian faith and reason are complimentary.  In fact, Christianity in general has a long tradition of appealing to both physical and spiritual evidence.  Personally, I cringe when I hear Christians say that we just need “simple” faith.  I don’t think classical Christianity has ever been a simple faith other than the fact that aligns itself nicely with the reality we observe around us.  Doctrines of other religions (including anti-theism in my opinion) require you shut off your mind and ignore evidence in order to accept them.  Somewhere along the way after the Enlightenment, Christians got the idea that reason was at war with faith, so it was best to “just have faith”.  This certainly wasn’t true for the Jesus, the Apostles, or early church leaders.  They spent vast amounts of time reasoning with people and defending the rationality of their faith.  We should be no different.

I love evidence, and I love that Christianity, in my opinion, is reasonable and evidential.  History, archaeology, theology, science, philosophy…it can all be leveraged to support the claims of the Biblical narrative God->Man->Fall->Jesus->Resurrection = Salvation.  This gives me proper justification for my belief, rather than just having blind faith, or faith based primarily on certain feelings like LDS missionaries have encouraged me to put over external evidence rather than in combination with external evidence.  On the contrary, I think belief without evidence is foolishness!  If a person says they know something, but can’t say why they know it, I can’t see why I would believe them.  I’d guess pretty much every worldview out there can present a membership who “feel” that they’re correct.  I can no more accept that fideism is a proper epistemological theory than is the scientism professed by today’s new atheists.  Both views are deficient.  Faith needs evidence, and evidence, or rather the conclusions drawn from evidence, need faith.  Any scientist that tells me this isn’t so, must prove to me scientifically that science works!

We all have faith in something, it’s merely a matter of whose faith is more rational.  If you can’t explain to somebody why you’ve placed your faith in something, whether it is Jesus, Buddha, Allah, science, etc, then you can’t actually claim to know anything.  We must get to know God, and teach our kids to know God .  We need to renew our minds(Romans 12:2), not shut them off.  We need to be prepared to give a reason for our hope (1 Peter 3:15)!  Blind belief is just fideism.  This is why kids are walking away from the Church in droves when friends and college professors present their arguments for why all religions are the same…simple fairytales to explain former gaps in science.  We’ve got to train ourselves and our kids why it is we have good reason to believe Christianity is true.  Fideism isn’t acceptable.  If you think it is, don’t be surprised if you, your kids, or your grandkids end up buying ocean front property in Arizona (or some magic golden tablets in upstate New York).  Fideism makes me barf.

“Bad” Words Make Me Barf

Imagine for a moment that ‘barf’, is the filthiness four letter word in the English language. Now imagine you’re a native person in the middle of a jungle somewhere, and you’ve never heard English. Say you’re out in the woods and for whatever reason you randomly shout, “BAAAAAAAARF!” at the top of your lungs.  Did you just say a bad word?

This position gets me in trouble with Christians (including my own wife) sometimes, but I don’t think bad words are actually bad. It seems to me that when talking about objective morality, as I continue to contend for, that we’re sometimes basing our moral decisions on half-truths. Jesus said the two greatest commandments were to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love your neighbor. He said all the law, and all the prophets, hang on these two commands. What these two commands guide us in, is intent, not specific actions.  They’re a benchmark for every action. I think language is a good example of how we get this wrong.

I think that usually Christians believe there is some set list of words to avoid using. I would disagree. Language is just composition of sounds.  The symbols and sounds that make up language in and of themselves are nothing. They’re just symbols and sounds. People ascribe meanings to them. The sounds and symbols themselves do not have any moral properties. If you sincerely curse me out in Russian I’ll have no idea what you just said, because those sounds mean nothing to me. What I’ll likely know if you do it in person though, is what your intention was. If you do it in writing I may not even know what your intention was. It will be as benign to me a the scribblings of a two year old. However, the generator of the language always knows what the intent was, even if the reciever dosn’t understand it.

You see, the objective morality with regards to language is not the language itself, it’s the intention of the language. I believe that I could say (remembering barf is a “bad” word), “have a barfing nice day!” and I’ve not violated any moral laws by the particular language I’ve used. The intent is much different from angrily saying, “barf you!” Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing that Christians should start using this sketchy list of words that we may or may not agree on in their everyday conversations. What I’m arguing for is that regardless of the words used, it is always the intent that should be considered. Real cursing is any language that carries the intent to harm somebody with your language, regardless of the particular sounds you make.

We’ve also got to be careful because there are a couple of other things to consider here. Just because I may not know certain words themselves to be bad, that doesn’t mean everybody is going to hold that same view. Even if I think I’m using some “bad” word with good intentions, it may still not be right to use it even though the word doesn’t carry the weight of any morality on its own. Paul found this same sort of debate happening over food in Romans 14 and encouraged his audience to stop passing judgement over disputable matters. He goes on to say that people should not put stumbling blocks in their brother’s way. This sounds a lot like love your neighbor! Perhaps I find a particular word to be benign, but the people around me don’t. Is it very loving to impose that language on them even if I mean no harm by it?

There is one other caveat to this discussion. Scripture does make it clear that the name of God is not to be used without good reason. This though, still clearly does not imply that use of the word itself is bad, since using God’s name in discussions of Him or with Him would not be morally wrong. In fact, this goes to prove the point.  Since the name of God can be used both rightly and wrongly, it is clear that the rightness or wrongness isn’t in the utterance of the word itself, but in the way it is used. It is the intent behind the use of God’s names that provides the foundation for the morality. Using the name of the One who created you flippantly, and against His direction, isn’t very loving to Him.

This then, is what makes “bad” words wrong. To really determine the objective moral sense of the words I’m about to use, I need to ask myself what the intention of my language is, and how will it affect my neighbors. Does it violate the two greatest commandments to love my Creator or love other people? I assert that no particular string of sounds is morally wrong in and of itself, but also that any string of sounds can potentially be morally wrong, depending how it is used!

Finally, if you disagree with me on this point, and hold to the idea that “bad” words are determined by each culture and what they understand, consider how easily I will pin moral relativism you!

The Greatest Goods

I kind of like to bother people. More accurately I guess, I like them to be bothered. Not just because I want them to experience irritation, but because I want them to think, and then believe things for themselves, rather than absorbing and regurgitating whatever they’ve been taught without critically considering if what they’ve accepted is true or not. This is bothersome to folks of all worldviews.

It’s fun to do to Christians because they’ve already accepted a worldview that includes objective truth so they can’t get off the hook from having an opinion. One thing I’ve challenged Christian friends with lately is their traditional views of some things that are typically considered “good” or “bad”. The more I’ve tried to think critically about what makes a thing good or bad, the more I think we often attach goodness or badness to the wrong thing. I was thinking about this recently while I was running, and because of it, I think I suddenly had an epiphany about what Jesus called the two greatest commandments.

All three of the synoptic gospels record Jesus’ response when questioned about what the greatest commandment is (Matt 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 10:25-28). He says it is to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. The second greatest commandment is like it he says; to love your neighbor as yourself. These directives seem simple, but at the same time terribly complex. In order to take them seriously, one must first understand what it looks like to love something. I think generally, most people know what this looks like. The next task is to figure out what Jesus could mean by each of heart, soul, mind, and strength. For instance, I’m fairly sure that by strength Jesus isn’t interested how much I can bench press, and by mind I don’t think he means we should just think about God a lot. While I think a detailed discussion of what each of those things means is too lengthy for this space, what can be concluded from the complete set is that what is under this umbrella is your entire being. The very nature of all you are, everything you do, everything you say, everything you desire, and everything you think, should express love to God primarily, and then to other people. Quite often the two are intertwined. Really, it isn’t that profound, since Jesus says all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. It should be obvious, but it’s funny what can be missed.  It seems simple enough, but its actually an impossible task given that by his very nature, mankind is deeply selfish.

Although it is impossible to fully achieve, it seems to me the more I think about it, that attempting to follow these two “greatest” commandments will offer a morally right decision in all cases where a decision must be made. Ideally, no other instruction would even be necessary. Because we need to overcome our own selfish inclination though, and because sometimes we’re faced with competing moral choices, we need (and have been given) more detailed instruction. Generally speaking though, if the decision maker is to first ask, “How will this decision express my love for my Creator and Savior?” and then, secondarily, ask, “How will this express my love for other people?” then coming to the decision that best accomplishes those goals will always be the morally correct one. In other words, the moral value of something, seems to me to be exclusively tied to intent, rather than directly any action itself. In fact, it occurs to me that any decision that doesn’t take these questions into consideration may actually lead to what seems to be a right conclusion, but is actually a wrong conclusion, or vice versa. I believe we also get some things right or wrong some of the time by accident due to tradition and mistakenly tying morality to specific actions, rather than intents. Because we’ve switched off our minds, it leads us to generalizations that leave out final intent or consequence, and ultimately end up being incorrect.

In the following couple of posts I want to look at some examples where I think this happens. In the meantime, if you want a sobering look at how you actually go about using your heart, soul, mind, and strength, just try asking yourself how what you’re doing, thinking or saying shows love to God, or anybody but yourself. You’ll be surprised how far off you are! I know I am. I’m usually asking these questions after a decision to act a certain way, so instead of seaching for love based guidance, I end up seeking love based forgiveness.