How does God accommodate himself to us? How do we know when he has accommodated himself to us, or when we are projecting ourselves back on him? In this episode, we take up what has traditionally been called the doctrine of ‘divine accommodation,’ and consider its limits and its abuses.
I have a roundup on Amazon’s latest innovation over at Mere O Notes so if you’re wanting to learn more about Kindle Unlimited, start there.
I. Our Technocratic Libertarianism
While Mark Lilla is basically correct in saying that we live in a libertarian era, that term is not without its problems. (Ross Douthat made this point quite well in a recent blog post.) Despite our libertarian tendencies, we are still creatures bearing the image of God and living in a world as creatures made by that God. So both the essence of our humanity and the nature of our creaturely existence constrains our ability to function as completely autonomous beings. But when you have a society dedicated to such stark libertarianism to the cost of all non-coercive forms of community, this necessarily leaves only the coercive forces of big business and big government as the coherent social bodies able to shape communal life.
Thus we have services like Netflix and now Kindle Unlimited, both of which are premised on giving the user a seemingly infinite amount of choice, yet all of the choices available are defined by the business providing the service. So our experience of the service might seem libertarian because there are so many choices and there’s nothing stopping us from choosing anything on offer.
Yet the choices available to our libertarian will are themselves defined and handed down by the only viable social bodies left to us. We just don’t notice them as much these days because Amazon and Netflix have so completely blended into the fabric of our lives that we seldom look beyond them when looking for a movie or book. This is particularly troubling with Amazon given their current spat with Hachette and their history of questionable behavior regarding Kindle books. Continue reading
This week’s conversation continues through our reading of Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made? with a conversation about the ways in which the possibility of gamete-donation by third parties to married couples has reshaped our understanding of marriage and its goods.
We take as our launching point this meaty bit from O’Donovan:
“For such a thesis forces the sharpest of dividing lines between the procreative and the relational goods of marriage. It invites us to think that if the relational good is fulfilled in an exclusive communion of sexual love, then the procreative good may be fulfilled in any way at all, not necessarily by an exclusive communion of procreational power.
It must follow from this, firstly, that the procreative good of marriage ceases to be the natural fulfillment of the relational good. As I argued in Chapter 2, when procreation is divorced from its context in man-woman relationship, it becomes a project of marriage rather than its intrinsic good; the means to procreation becomes the instrumental means chosen by the will, rather than themselves being of the goods of marriage.
Correspondingly, sexual union itself is deprived of the features that give it its importance in human affairs. It can no longer be the case that the mingling of life in sexual union is a mingling that has both relational and procreative implications. It is no longer the case that the gift of self in sexual communion is at the same time a gift to the other of the possibility of parenthood. The divine blessing of children is no longer a blessing conferred upon this relational union of bodies with its promise of permanent affection and affinity. Children are now to be given (if the verb is still appropriate) by quite a different route.
It would seem to me that those who insist that [artificial insemination by a donor] should be available only to married couples, do not value the direct contribution of sexual communion to procreation, but only the indirect contribution which it makes by establishing a secure and stable domestic context for a child to grow up in. That is what gives this insistence its slightly ‘moralistic’ flavour. It defends the link between married love and procreation only at the level of social order, while abandoning the underlying conception of that link as part of the ontology of marriage, the conception which originally made that form of social order seem necessary and right.”
Special thanks to Christopher Hutton editing the audio.
This week’s show follows up on the conversation about NT Wright and locates him among his Reformed critics. Who’s right, who’s wrong, and are there paths between that can learn from both?
Various links from topics that came up during the show.
1. N.T. Wright on Penal substitution.
2. Wright’s most recent stand-alone summary article on justification.
3. D.A. Carson’s The Vindication of Imputation on the difference between exegetical and theological levels of discourse.
4. Michael Horton’s Review of Wright’s Justification.
5. Michael Bird’s comparison of John Piper and N.T. Wright.
Special thanks to Christopher Hutton editing the audio.
This week’s conversation continues through our reading of Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made? with a discussion of the questions that have come to the fore in recent weeks about transgender people.
We take the following excerpt from O’Donovan as our way in to the subject.
The sex into which we have been born (assuming that it is physiologically unambiguous) is given to us to be welcomed as a gift of God. The task of psychological maturity–for it is a moral task, and not merely an event which may or may not transpire–involves accepting this gift and learning to love it, even though we may have to acknowledge that it does not come to us without problems. Our task is to discern the possibilities for personal relationship which are given to us with this biological sex, and to seek to develop them in accordance with our individual vocations.
Those for whom this task has been comparatively unproblematic (though I suppose that no human being alive has been without some sexual problems) are in no position to pronounce any judgment on those for whom accepting their sex has been a task so difficult that they have fled from it into denial. No one can say with any confidence what factors have made these pressures so severe.
Nevertheless, we cannot and must not conceive of physical sexuality as a mere raw material with which we can construct a form of psychosexual self-expression which is determined only by the free impulse of our spirits. Responsibility in sexual development implies a responsibility to nature–to the ordered good of the bodily form which we have been given. And that implies that we must make the necessary distinction between the good of the bodily form as such and the various problems that it poses to us personally in our individual experience. This is a comment that applies not only to this very striking and unusually distressing problem, but to a whole range of other sexual problems too.
My personal apologies for cutting out during part of this quote, and for the clicks during my talking. That’s totally my fault.
Special thanks to Christopher Hutton editing the audio.
Christianity Today’s new cover story is a list of 33 “young believers who [they] think are leading today’s church in key ways—and who embody what it will look like in the years to come.” Or, as my good friend Eric Teetsel humorously put it on Twitter, a list of 32 “incredible folks”….and me.
There are, indeed, some fantastic people on the list. Eric himself has done incredible work taking up the mantle of a new social conservatism and Peter Blair has made Fare Forward one of the best places in the conservative intellectual pantheon. I had the good fortune of meeting Brannon McAllister recently, and walked away awed by both his work and his character. Trevin Wax is well known to readers of Mere-O, and Wesley Hill’s unquestionably one of the best writers and most astute theological minds of the younger crop of thinkers.
And those are just the people that I know. The rest seem to be similarly impressive. You can read the whole thing here today for free. After that, it goes behind the paywall.
Since I am (somehow) on the list, let me offer a few further thoughts about it.
My photo: Yes, that photo is taken in Oxford. Yes, I am very lucky. But what you can’t see on the website is that my shirt is untucked.
Like, one side is sticking out. I’m serious. I noticed it when I got home and uploaded the pictures and, frankly, find this particular detail amusing. And maybe a metaphor for something. I feel like you, the internets, need to know these things, especially when I show up on a list like this.
My heading: Just to clarify things, I am not a historian by profession. I just happen to think that history matters and that a core part of my vocation is to function as something of a pointer toward those who not only came before me, but have more depths to offer than I do. Like Oliver O’Donovan, who is thankfully still living but who models far better than I what a mind saturated in Scripture and tradition looks like.
Gratitude: It’s neat to have my (mostly underserving) work recognized for this sort of thing. I try not to put too much weight on these sorts of things, as youth is a fickle thing and the real meaning of my life will not be known until the end of it (and even then, it will only be known to those like my wife who know whether this kind of attention is truly deserved). But it would be a disservice to those who have formed me if I did not extend the commendation where it properly belongs: to my parents and family, to the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola who gave me such a great education and who continues to support me, to my many friends and interlocutors who I have learned so much from, and to all of you readers here at Mere-O for sharpening my thoughts along the way. There’s a “we” that stands behind the “I,” which is never to blame but which invariably sets the conditions for success and so necessarily shares in the reward.
Also, I got asked a few questions in preparation for the piece about Mere-O and my take on “millennials.” So for the sake of posterity, here are the answers to those questions.
What’s the inspiration behind Mere Orthodoxy? What do you hope readers take away from the site?
I set up the site a decade ago to carry on in my own way the kind of cheerful, thoughtful, culturally astute observations that made both C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton such important figures in 20th century Christianity. But I can’t escape a strong self-consciousness about the gap between us and them, which is why one of my main hopes is to always function as something of a signpost for other readers. There aren’t many people among the living who can think and write with the depth that previous generations of Christians had, so if my only legacy is introducing a few people into that tradition then I’ll be a relatively happy man.
As a writer and a student of Christian ethics, you’re aware of the unique cultural setting today’s Christians find themselves in. What gives you hope about this generation and the future of our faith?
The ground for hope that I have been able to stand on without hesitation is the promise that Christ will not depart from his church and that the gates of hell shall never prevail against it. If we step beyond this to evaluate whether we should have hope based on a particular generation’s or society’s qualities, and stay there for too long, we will be prone to overinflate both our virtues and our vices. If I am cheerful about the future of Christianity, it is only because I am aware that Christianity has been dying in every age….and being reborn in the same, even if not in the same spot. We have a faith that takes the same shape as our Savior’s life: It is new in every generation, yet still (and must be) the “same old thing.” If I am hopeful for my own generation, I am so because the whole business is true–really, deeply, down-to-the-molecules-true, and whether in this lifetime or five hence the truth will always win out. Many of my peers have demonstrated a heightened desire to inquire into that truth and understand it, and as long as we do so from within the community that has been authorized to proclaim it then our future will be secure.
This week, we take up the subject of…N.T. Wright. Widely regarded as one of the most influential and best New Testament theologians of our day, we consider how best to read him and his impact on Christianity in the English speaking world.
The NT Wright Page is the single best place online for more of his work. You might also consider looking at one of his many books (we mentioned a few in the show).
Additionally, this NT Wright interview came up, as did Sarah Over the Moon’s dismayed response to it. Consider as well Alastair’s examination of Wright’s views on marriage for more.
Special thanks to Christopher Hutton editing the audio.
We’ve been through this once already, but since my friend Jonathan Merritt’s latest piece dredging up the charge of hypocrisy against the Greens because they do business in China has been sent around, so I thought I’d say one or two things about it.
Before that, though, it’s worth pointing out that this has nothing to do with any of the legal arguments that Hobby Lobby has pursued the last few years. Hypocrites still have their right to religious liberty, after all, and thank the Lord for it. Additionally, I’d note that whatever else I end up saying about this that I think there are real questions to be answered here about how we entangle ourselves in environments where injustice is being done. It’s obvious that evangelicals need to do a lot more thinking about dirty hands, and Jamie Smith’s recent essay is a great place to start.
But can I gently suggest that Jonathan’s essay is not how such thinking should be done? The gist of the piece is that China does lots of bad stuff, and Hobby Lobby buys and sells goods there…ergo Hobby Lobby are hypocrites for defending the integrity of their consciences against the intrusiveness of the government. If they aren’t conflicted about their complicity in China, then why do they care about their complicity in the States?
Now, put that way, Merritt’s piece highlights why everyone should be rooting for Hobby Lobby before the Supreme Court. If the alternative is having their consciences broken by the heels of the government, then the US environment is really no better than China. Merritt’s critique (ironically) highlights whats at stake here: do we want a US government that is as demanding and intrusive to individual consciences as he alleges the Chinese government is, or not? Even if we grant his point about hypocrisy, then our appropriate response should be to exhort the Green’s to revisit their business practices in China while praying they win before the Court. Something tells me that’s not quite the conclusion Jonathan was hoping for.*
But let’s take a look at his….well, I’d call it an argument but I’m not sure it rises to that level. It gets all of its rhetorical energy on obfuscations and generalizations, which allow for the rhetorical point to go but in the olden days would have been called sophistry. There’s a lot of handwaving here meant to make you readers feel bad about China, and doing business with China, but not very many specifics about what Hobby Lobby actually does there. So here are some additional questions that I would want answered before making a moral judgment about Hobby Lobby’s gross hypocrisy:
- Does Hobby Lobby pay their workers in China the $9.77 a day that Merritt says is the average wage, or more?
- Where are they buying their products in China, and what does kind of quality of life does what they pay their vendors earn their employees?
- What kind of due diligence did they do on their vendors to ensure that their vendors are providing the kind of working conditions we would all want to support?
- Is Hobby Lobby’s China branch leaning on and petitioning the Chinese government to the extent that it is able to ensure better working conditions for laborers?
- Is the free trade that Hobby Lobby undertaken helpful, harmful, or indifferent for establishing Western leverage with the Chinese with respect to human rights? To put the question differently, if Hobby Lobby pulled out and trade died, would conditions in China improve or not? Is interdependence important for social improvement, even if China currently has abusive practices in places? (Thanks to Jonathan Chan for this point, and for this West Wing clip.)
- Does Jonathan have any evidence at all that allows him to make the rhetorical leap from (a) Hobby Lobby does business in a country where child labor happens to (b) Hobby Lobby supports underage labor? (See his question “Can you call yourself a “Christian business” when you support underage labor?”
- Given what we know about Hobby Lobby’s conscientiousness in other facets of their business, is there any reason to think that the Green’s have not been as conscientious with the above questions, other than by prima facie assuming that “doing business” (as a vague abstraction) in China means that they are complicit in everything happening in China?
I could probably keep going, but you get my point.
Jonathan wraps things up with this fun little gotcha:
“The most glaring inconsistency between Hobby Lobby’s ethical proclamations and its business decisions concerns the matter of religious liberty. The craft store chain is hailed by conservatives as standing up to Uncle Sam and fighting for religious freedom. Yet Hobby Lobby imports billions of dollars worth of bric-a-brac from a nation that denies 1.35 billion citizens freedom of worship.”
There’s lots to be said about China and its rhetorical function in American culture. (Go ahead, name me three positive things about the Chinese people or society without using the internet.) But with respect to religious liberty, Jonathan’s statement that the Chinese government are denying their citizens “freedom of worship” is a simplistic caricature of a massively complicated subject. China as a society is more religiously open now than it has been in a long time. Among other things, the Chinese government is funding theological research in China. Even when they are tearing down churches, the situation is much more complicated than the American press generally indicates.
Is China perfect on religious liberty? Of course not. To quote a line that we all know well, it’s complicated. But one-sided portrayals of the sort that are popular within the US actually matter for US-Chinese relations, as they perpetuate a vague hostility toward China when we should be encouraged about the gains in religious liberty we have seen there the past thirty years while continuing to push for more.
Is there an irony there, then, for Hobby Lobby? I don’t think so. They could very well argue that by entangling themselves in a society that is trying to navigate the delicate balance of opening themselves slowly to new ideas (China) they are trying to be instrumental in that society for the slow, messy, often painful advancement of the good and the freedom of its citizens. Those would be, I’d note, the very same freedoms they are seeking to protect here at home, and for which they have done so at great personal cost. They are not martyrs, and their practices deserve scrutiny. But if Merritt is going to dismiss them as hypocrites, he ought at least do them the justice of making an argument that’s more than the smoke and mirrors he has given us here.
*Jonathan tells me that I wrongfully assume that he is opposed to the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case. I’ve asked for further clarification on whether this means he actually supports Hobby Lobby’s case.
This week, we take up the nature of “nature.” We take the opening chapter to Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made? as our starting point, particularly this passage:
When every activity is understood as making, then every situation into which we act is seen as raw material, waiting to have something made out of it. If there is no category in thought for an action which is not artifactual, then there is no restraint in action which can preserve phenomena which are not artificial. This imperils not only, or even primarily, the ‘environment’ (as we patronizingly describe the world of things which are not human); it imperils what it is to be human, for it deprives human existence itself of certain spontaneities of being and doing, spontaneities which depend upon the reality of a world which we have not made or imagined, but which simply confronts us to evoke our love, fear, and worship. Human life, then, becomes mechanized because we cannot comprehend what it means that some human activity is ‘natural’. Politics becomes controlled by media of mass communication, love by analytical or counseling techniques. And begetting children becomes subject to the medical and surgical interventions which are the theme of this book.
Special thanks to Christopher Hutton for editing work.
Chances are that, if you’re reading this blog, you’ve heard of William Lane Craig. But Joe Gorra is the hardest working genius you’ve never heard of in evangelicalism. Among other things, Gorra has worked with Craig as a research assistant for a long time now, and together they have produced a really excellent book, A Reasonable Response: Answers to Tough Questions on God, Christianity, and the Bible (Moody Publishers, 2013), that goes beyond the traditional handbook of Christian apologetics in important and interesting ways.
A Reasonable Response has three interdependent parts that work together to create a book that is more than their sum. There is, first, the selection of questions that people have submitted to Craig’s website for a number of years. Together with Craig’s answers to them–that’s the second interdependent part–these questions have been reprinted in the book. The third essential part is Gorra’s editorial work in organizing the book, drawing attention to important features of Craig’s answers, and writing a substantial introduction and appendices. Gorra’s introduction is worth the price of the book alone and worth discussing in some detail.
More than anything, I believe Gorra’s introduction provides a blueprint for taking twentieth-century Christian apologetics into the future at the levels of both the pastor/scholar and the layman. A paradigm work of Christian apologetics in the twentieth century is Josh McDowell’s More Than a Carpenter, and it is tempting to think that twenty-first century evangelicalism has outgrown the need for such things, especially in its more cultured circles. Gorra’s introduction not only suggests otherwise but also shows how the work of the traditional apologist will always be central to serving the kingdom of God.
The title of the introduction is “A Meditation on the Practice and Ministry of Answering Questions,” which summarizes how Gorra thinks about the central task of the Christian apologist. The apologist ministers to others primarily by answering questions well. There are, of course, other types of Christian ministers needed today; one thinks in particular of the ministry of Christian counselors, therapists, and spiritual directors. But the need to provide clear answers to pressing questions about the nature of God and his kingdom remains. Is God real? Can I trust the Bible? Any serious investigation of the Christian faith has to address those central questions, and the answers have to be fairly deep and clear if they’re going to sustain a lifetime of Christian commitment.
We are, of course, thankful to Matt Anderson for his book on the questioning life, to which Gorra refers. In particular, Anderson’s final chapter is a contemplative and poetic reflection on how to live now with the questions we have about all that is important in life. One way to think of Gorra’s introduction is as the practical correlate of Anderson’s more contemplative conclusion. In particular, Gorra argues that it is possible–even necessary!–for an apologist to be a genuine, authentic Christian who can clearly and directly respond to important and specific questions about the Christian faith. If Anderson has shown us what the questioning life looks like, Gorra has outlined what the answering life looks like.
If the latter seems difficult to conceive, it’s important to be clear about what an answer is: it is an informative reply to a question. It is not, as both Anderson and Gorra point out, a conversation stopper. A good answer provides opportunity for more questions. A vague or otherwise bad answer often stops conversations more than a clear and direct one. Indeed, as readers of A Reasonable Response can see, Craig’s clear and direct answers are often invitations for further questions.
Gorra also points out that becoming a genuine, authentic minister of answers is only possible if one’s entire life is devoted to Christ. Gorra points out that Craig, whatever one thinks of his theological and philosophical views, “believes that by virtue of the witness of his work . . . can bring the name of God either praise or blame by how he conducts himself.” The answers Craig provides in the book demonstrate his attention to and care for the questioner. To have a ministry of answers is not to be a minister of glib responses.
After the introduction, the book is organized into six main parts, not counting the three appendices. The six parts are “Questions on Knowing and Believing What Is Real,” “Questions about God,” “Questions about the Origins and the Meaning of Life,” “Questions about the Afterlife and Evil,” “Questions about Jesus Christ and Being His Disciple,” and “Questions about Issues of Christian Practice.” If you have followed Craig’s work over the years, most of the material in these six parts will be familiar. There are, for example, questions and answers concerning the reliability of the New Testament gospels, the orthodoxy of Trinity monotheism, the kalam cosmological argument, and the problem of evil.
To take one example of a question-answer exchange from the book, consider the question about the justification of one of the premises in the moral argument for the existence of God. The question, from someone named Corey, runs to about a page, and this is both typical and helpful: The questions that Craig answers are from real people who couch their questions in all sorts of assumptions and idiosyncrasies. Craig demonstrates real patience in understanding what the questioner is asking, answering the question, and then, usually, reformulating the question more precisely and answering it more thoroughly. The question and answer about the moral argument concerns the second premise:
1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.
The questioner wants to know what the justification for the second premise is. Craig’s answer, developed at length, is, in brief, that our moral experience provides the justification for the second premise. What follows in the chapter is a clear account of this.
Throughout the book, Gorra has included notes that draw attention to important aspects of Craig’s answers. In this chapter, Gorra highlights Craig’s point that “moral skepticism fails to attend to our direct acquaintance with reality even though this is how our moral experience encounters objective moral values and duties.” A thoughtful reader would, I think, find a lot to ruminate on in that insight. The remainder of the book is similarly helpful, and this is due to the combination of Craig’s experience in answering questions and Gorra’s editorial skill.
If you’d like to read a sample of the book, Moody is graciously offering samples right now.