Playful, Passionate, Principled, but never Putrid Polemics (Or, Don’t Forget Jesus in an Argument)

If you’ve ever had an “intensely engaged” discussion with a friend in class, a Facebook thread, blog, or a Twitter-battle, you’ve engaged in polemics. Now, you needn’t worry that this is a particularly un-Christian activity. A friend of mine recently pointed out that Christians have always argued and always will—for good reason. Thinking through history, some of the greats in the Church have been polemecists: Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and many others were willing to throw down over truth. They were great precisely because they could argue, not despite it.Athanasius

That said, it’s wise to think through our basic attitudes and approaches to polemics as a people, especially within the body. We should regularly ask ourselves “How am I going about this discussion? Is my attitude consistent with Christian virtue? Are my words in conformity with Jesus’ command to love neighbor as self?” Here are three qualities or attitudes that should define our approach to whatever discussion we engage in, and one that shouldn’t.

Playful- One quality in short supply in our polemics today is playfulness, a certain amount of mirth and good humor. It’s that kind of light-hearted reasonableness that G.K. Chesterton embodies in his works like Orthodoxy and Heretics. To say that his arguments are playful is not to admit they aren’t “serious”, dealing with significant issues. No, it is to recognize they are clearly not driven by fear or pride, but rather a humble self-forgetfulness and joy deeply rooted in the Gospel. His ability to sport and laugh at, and with, his interlocutors managed to communicate both disagreement with and real fondness for them. Continue reading

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Because Telling Another Person They’re Just Wrong Usually Isn’t Helpful

From what I hear, there was a presidential election recently. I’ve also heard that it highlighted (again) some fundamental differences about moral issues that divide the citizenry. Just in case those things are true, and even if they’re not, I thought it would be good to briefly outline a procedure for discussing moral issues with people with whom you might disagree. What I’m about to describe is not a moral theory per se but a way to open and continue a conversation about disputed moral issues.

Let’s start with a basic point of moral philosophy: Good is to be pursued and done, and evil is to be avoided. It’s a really simple statement once you think about it for a minute, and I find that there is hardly ever any dissent about it. Most everyone agrees that we ought to do good and avoid evil.

Careful readers will, of course, note two things about this statement that aren’t straightforwardly clear. First, doesn’t this statement fail to distinguish between “ought” and “is”? Second, what do you mean by “good” and “evil”?

On the first point, the answer is “sort of,” and I’ve been careful to formulate it—actually, I’ve borrowed the formulation from Aquinas—as I have in order to avoid making a commitment about whether you can get an ought from an is. For one, I think that in our everyday conversations about morality, this point isn’t really important. For another, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to not draw a sharp distinction between ought and is. The verb “to be” in Aquinas’s formulation, for example, is stated as a gerund, which suggests that what goodness is means that one oughtto pursue it. But even here, I’ve gone further afield than is usually necessary. In my experience, most people just understand the statement to be true.

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sa...

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the second point, aye, there’s the rub. What things do you think are good? What things do you think are evil? These questions will raise some hearty disputes, but the disputes that arise from them are important ones. If we are talking to someone with whom we disagree, we should expect disagreement. There may not be a silver bullet way of persuading our interlocutors that they’re wrong, but we cannot lose sight of the point that we must understand what precisely we agree and disagree about.

Here’s a good exercise related to this point (perhaps you can do it in the combox): Set down a short list of kinds of things you think are basically good. Try to keep your list as short as you can, but not too short. It’s not helpful to be Plato in this case. His list of things that are basically good consists of one item: the good itself. Well, thanks, Plato. In like manner, it’s also not helpful, for present purposes, to put down “God.” You’re looking for things that fall between the specificity of “the smell of pizza baking in a wood-fired oven” and the generality of “the good itself.” A traditional list would include some of the following: life, knowledge, friendship, aesthetic experience, and maybe a few others. Really try to keep your list to a manageable size, and don’t simply let it trail off with an “etcetera.” I’ll just mention that one thing that’s often disputed—should it go on the list or not?—is pleasure. Some people treat it as a basic good; others don’t. We should all think about whether it is or not, but not right now.

Suppose you have life on your list. At this point you can go back to the first point—that good is to be pursued and done, and evil avoided—and see how it comes out now that you’ve given it some content: Life is to be pursued and done, and death avoided. You can see that it makes sense to say that life is to be pursued, but what about saying that life is to be done? It’s best to reword that in something like the following way: life-preserving (or life-promoting) actions are to be done. And death-promoting or -dealing actions are to be avoided. Similarly for friendship: Friendship is to be pursued, friendship-promoting and -preserving actions are to be done, and actions that go against or undermine friendship are to be avoided.

From these examples, you might anticipate some complications, and you’d be right. Continue reading

Essay Prizes, the Problem of Evil, and Philosophy of Religion: An Interview with Michael Rea

Notre Dame’s Center for the Philosophy of Religion has just announced a unique opportunity for an academic community:  they are offering 10 $3000 prizes to people who publish essays in non-academic publications that expound upon the philosophical work that’s been done on the problem of evil.

One need not be an academic to apply, though familiarity with the academic literature (and an ability to responsibly rearticulate it) is clearly a must.  But the deadline is far enough out that some more enterprising and energetic Mere-O readers may want to do some reading and give it a shot.  After all, it’s called the “C.S. Lewis Essay Prize,” which means someone around these parts should give it a go.

When I was told about the prizes, I wanted to hear more.  So I invited Dr. Michael Rea, Director of the Center, to answer a few questions.

1) It seems unusual for an academic center to offer to publish in a non-academic venue. Why’d you all set up this project?

It probably is unusual; but our reasons for doing this directly relate to the mission of the Center for Philosophy of Religion. One of the Center’s main goals is to promote not just abstract research in the philosophy of religion, but distinctively Christian philosophy in particular. There’s a lot that might go under the heading of “Christian Philosophy”, but most of the academic research done on that topic is done with an eye to explaining central Christian doctrines and solving puzzles or dealing with other sorts of tensions and difficulties that arise out of a broadly Christian worldview.

Work like this is of intrinsic interest, of course; but it also has a lot of potential for serving the Church by helping ministers and lay people outside the academy to better understand, discuss, and live out the faith that they profess. The trick is making it accessible; and (believe it or not) this is very difficult work for which there aren’t many incentives within the academy. So the purpose of the essay prize is to provide some financial incentive to people working on the problem of evil to take some time away from their ordinary research to make their ideas accessible to a wider audience.

2) The topic (evil) is a perennial one, yet the website suggests that the modern period was particularly fertile for constructing theodicies. Do you think that there’s a particular urgency around the subject today?

As anyone familiar with the popular writings of folks like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and other “New Atheists” knows, atheists have, in recent years, become increasingly “evangelical”. Religious belief is now being openly mocked in books and lectures that are engaging, persuasive, and widely marketed (in print and on the internet). And the problem of evil in various forms lies at the very center of all of it.

The problem of evil is has always been the most powerful and important argument against God’s existence; but its most vivid and persuasive formulations have not always been placed at the fore of everyone’s consciousness in the ongoing way that they are today. So yes, it is an urgent and important topic nowadays. Believers in God cannot sensibly ignore it, and so there is need for accessible resources to help them to think through the issue carefully.

I should add, too, that it is not just religious believers who need these sorts of resources, nor are “defenses of the faith” the only resources that are needed. As a Christian myself, I would very much like to see a growing body of literature providing new and interesting responses to the problem of evil.

But all of us–religious believers and unbelievers alike–would also benefit from the development of more careful expressions of the problem. This is an important point to notice. If you’re an atheist and you care about convincing people that the existence of evil gives us good reason to disbelieve in God, you should (obviously!) want to make the case as carefully and strongly as you can. But you should also want to see the case made carefully and strongly if you are a Christian who cares about solving the problem, or an agnostic who is still trying to sort out the evidence, or whatever. For it is only by seeing the case presented in its strongest and most careful form that we can see clearly just what sort of evidence the existence of evil provides and just how Christians can most sensibly respond.

3) Part of The Center’s mission is bridging theology and philosophy of religion. It seems like–and correct me if I’m wrong–most of the recent energy on the problem of evil has been among philosophers. Is the chasm crossable on this issue, or does the problem pose unique challenges for theology?

Yes, I think that most of the energy has lately be spent by philosophers. Of course, some theologians–especially those who have taken an interest in responding to the New Atheists–are working on the problem of evil. But my impression is that contemporary theologians are, for the most part, taking one of two other reactions to the problem.

Some think that it is crass to try to provide responses to the problem of evil (because they think that doing so will inevitably involve explaining why horrendous evils, like the holocaust or the brutal torture of children) are somehow “okay” or (worse) contribute to great human goods.

Others think that philosophical reflection on the problem of evil diverts us from the more important task of addressing evil itself. So, for example, N.T. Wright, in Evil and the Justice of God, says that the problem of evil is just that evil is bad, and something needs to be done about it. He then goes on to devote the bulk of his book to explaining what God has done about evil.

Now, I can sympathize with both of these reactions. Nobody in the midst of suffering wants to hear that their suffering is “all for the best”–especially when it involves horrible things like excessive pain and suffering or tragic personal loss. And all of us, I should hope, would place a premium on doing something about evil, as opposed to just sitting around and thinking about evil.

Still, the fact is that quite a lot of people lose their faith or are prevented ever from coming to faith as a result of reflection (and often rather careless reflection) on the problem of evil as it is typically discussed by philosophers. So, although I think that there is an interesting discussion to be had about why we might wish to turn our attention away from discussing the problem of evil, I think that there are also good reasons for thinking that we should not turn our attention away from it.

To get to your last question, then: No, I don’t think that the problem poses unique challenges for theology; and I do think that the chasm (such as it is) is crossable. Crossing it is just a matter of having these interesting conversations that I just mentioned, so that the philosophers and the theologians can together get clear on just what is valuable about trying to address the problem of evil and on ways in which some of our past efforts may have gone awry.

4)  Anything else that you’ve been itching to tell people about The Center or this prize?

Only this: Your readers may wish to keep an eye on our website. We have recently been trying to develop and expand our “resources” page so as to make ourselves more useful to the wider public. In particular, we hope eventually to have a lot of resources (both video and print) that might be of genuine help to ministers and lay people who are trying to think through difficult questions about the Christian faith. We also welcome suggestions as to what might be helpful.

Thomas Says: Scandal, It’s So Special

This is the third in my intermittent series on Aquinas on the topic of scandal, which is covered in question 43 of the second part of the second part of his Summa Theologiae. In the first two posts I covered the main contours of his thinking on the issue. First, scandal is defined as “something less rightly said or done that occasions spiritual downfall.” Second, there are two aspects of scandal: active and passive. Active scandal occurs when a person sins (or even has a strong appearance of sinning) and thereby causes another to sin. Passive scandal occurs when a person is enticed to commit a sin after observing the actions of another—regardless of whether those actions are sinful. The upshot of this is that there can be cases of active without passive scandal, or passive without active scandal.

In the third article of his question on scandal, Thomas raises the question of whether scandal is a special sin. A strange question, until you understand what he means by “special.” He’s not asking whether it is unique. By asking whether scandal is a special sin, he’s asking whether it is a specific kind of sin—like murder, theft, gossip, which are all opposed to some specific kind of virtue or good. As he mentions in the first objection to his claim that scandal is a special sin, scandal is defined as something less rightly said or done, but that applies to every sin. So, it would seem that scandal is not a special sin.

Thomas’s first point is that the idea that scandal is a special sin is supported by scripture, specifically, Romans 14:15: “If, because of thy meat, thy brother be grieved, thou walkest not now according to charity.” Hence, scandal is specifically opposed to charity (love).

Beyond this point, however, Thomas makes distinctions (as is his wont). First, passive scandal is not a special sin, because you might fall into any kind of sin through the words or actions of others. Second, some kinds of active scandal are special. In particular, accidental active scandal is not a special sin because someone who commits such a sin does not intend to lead others astray. But direct active scandal is a special sin because a person intends to draw others into sin through his own sinful words or actions—or at least through words or actions have the appearance of sinfulness. To summarize: all scandal is sinful, but only direct active scandal is specially opposed to charity.

Here’s an example from everybody’s favorite recent topic: Newt Gingrich. Was (from what we can tell) Gingrich guilty of the sin of scandal in committing adultery with Callista? Clearly, Gingrich’s actions were “something less rightly done,” so they qualify as active scandal if they occasioned the spiritual downfall of someone else. And, to be clear, “occasion spiritual downfall” means “encourage toward sin.” Notice that scandal does not mean that Gingrich caused someone else to sin; it only means that his actions encouraged others toward any kind of sin (lust, adultery, covetousness, hatred, etc.). We can’t know whether anyone else was encouraged to sin by Gingrich’s actions, but I’d say that, with the number of people who know about it, it’s likely that someone was led to sin after hearing about Gingrich’s infidelity. Perhaps a warning to those in the limelight.

Thomas Says: So Scandalous It’s a Sin

In the first post in this series on Aquinas’s account of scandal, we saw that Aquinas defines scandal as “something less rightly said or done that occasions spiritual downfall” and that he distinguishes between active and passive scandal. In this post, I want to cover his argument that scandal is a sin. Of course, we always have to keep in mind the distinction between active and passive scandal, so the question to answer is twofold: Is active scandal sinful? Is passive scandal sinful? But even these aren’t adequately formulated. We should ask instead: Is active scandal always sinful? Is passive scandal always sinful?

The answer to both questions is yes.

The reason the first answer is affirmative is that the person who causes scandal either does so in virtue of sinning or of doing something that only has the appearance of sin. Thomas says that anyone who does something that only has the appearance of sin is guilty of active scandal (and has thus, ironically, really sinned) because actions that have the appearance of sin “should always be left undone out of that love for our neighbor which binds each one to be solicitous for his neighbor’s spiritual welfare.”

Now, it’s true that a person’s good deed might be the occasion for someone else’s downfall. Suppose, for example, that I perform a manfully courageous deed that arouses jealousy and resentment in others who might hold their manhoods cheap. I have done nothing wrong even though my action has become the occasion for another’s downfall. But here we have a case of passive scandal without active scandal, not a case of an active scandal that is not sinful.

The reason the second answer is affirmative is that passive scandal means that someone has acceded to his own spiritual downfall. Someone who is scandalized in this sense has always sinned. (It’s important to remember that Aquinas is not using the current sense of “scandal.” The pious grandmother who says she was scandalized by seeing the girls wearing their skirts up to here is not saying that she sinned.)

Lastly, it’s encouraging (in some way) to see that bad hermeneutics has been with us since at least the thirteenth century. It’s nothing new. In the first objection to Thomas’s claim, he summarizes the following (unsound) argument:

(1) All sin is voluntary.
(2) Jesus says, “It must needs be that scandals come” (i.e., Scandal is necessary).
(3) What is voluntary cannot be necessary.
(4) So, scandal cannot be a sin.

I won’t get into Thomas’s response to this argument, but it’s interesting that he provides not one but three possible interpretations of Jesus’s words that are consistent with his position. On this point, he isn’t concerned to establish a single true interpretation but to simply show that there are interpretations that are reasonable and (importantly) consistent with his account of scandal.

Thomas Says: So Scandalous!

Because you can never have too much Aquinas, I’ve decided to reboot my blogging here with another series on the thought of the Angelic Doctor. The first topic in the series was Thomas’s thoughts on killing. For no particular reason, this time I’ll take up the topic of scandal.

We often hear about various scandals in the news. Right now, if you search for “scandal” in Google News, you get about 22,000 hits. In this context one reads articles about Herman Cain or Penn State or at least scans headlines such as “Solyndra Scandal”  or “Judge Rejects Arguments for Separate Trials in Alabama Bingo Scandal.”

Christians also encounter a slightly different use of “scandal” in their local congregations when one congregant is offended by the actions of another. In such cases, one is apt to recall, if one was raised on the King James, Paul’s admonition from Romans 14:21: “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.” Paul’s use of “stumbleth”—he was a good Elizabethan, after all—here never fails to raise questions about what it means to make another stumble. These are the kinds of questions Thomas wants to provide clarity about. (By the way, if you weren’t raised on the King James, then you probably don’t recall the uses of “offended” and “made weak” because it wasn’t in your Bible. The critical text just has the Greek for “stumbleth,” “proskoptei.” Thomas states (in the “I answer that” section to article 1) that in the Vulgate, Jerome is simply explaining the possible meanings of the Greek “skandalon” by adding the other two words.)

Thomas is, unsurprisingly, concerned more with the latter kinds of scandal than with the contemporary, thinned-out notion expressed in news headlines. Being a good thinker, Thomas starts the section on scandal (which is question forty-three of the second part of the second part of the Summa Theologica) by stating what kind of thing he’s talking about and giving a clear definition of what he is talking about. In the first place, scandal is a vice that is contrary to “beneficence,” which is simply doing good to someone. Beneficence is an act of charity (love), and so scandal is contrary to love. People characterized by love of God and neighbor do not scandalize others. This means that they are not the occasion for scandal, which is “something less rightly said or done that occasions spiritual downfall.”

Now, the main question that most of us have about this sense of  “scandal” is whether a person who causes another to stumble has done something wrong, perhaps even sinned. Thomas, like the good philosopher-theologian he is, says, “It depends.” And then he makes a distinction. (If I ever write a book about Aquinas, that will be the title: And Then He Makes a Distinction.)

The distinction he makes is between active and passive scandal. First, active scandal = an action that is sinful in itself that also leads (or could lead) another person into sin. A person who commits active scandal always sins. Not all sinful actions lead others into sin as well, but those that do are scandalous in addition to whatever other kind of sin they are (lustful, greedy, hateful, etc.).

Secondly, passive scandal = an action in which a person succumbs to a spiritual downfall. This is done by a person who “stumbleth.” It’s important to realize that by “passive,” Thomas does not mean that a person is not responsible for sinning. Quite the opposite. Sin can only come about through an act of the will. A person cannot be forced to sin. Any sin involves a choice on the part of the sinner to sin.

This distinction between active and passive scandal does not mean that they always go together. It is possible for there to be active scandal without passive (e.g., if I do something sinful in public, but no one chooses to sin after seeing it), passive without active (e.g., if I do something good, which becomes an occasion for you to envy me), or active and passive together (e.g., I sin, and you choose to sin (in part) because you witnessed my action).

On the question of “eating meat offered to idols,” Thomas says that “since it has a certain appearance of evil, and a semblance of worshipping the idol, it might occasion another man’s spiritual downfall.” Notice how careful he is in wording this: “a certain appearance,” “a semblance,” “might occasion.” But this careful wording is not to excuse someone who might eat meat offered to idols. Thomas doesn’t say this explicitly, but he seems to hold that someone who ate meat offered to idols was guilty of active scandal even if no one was thereby guilty of passive scandal. Why? Because a person is guilty of active scandal by doing either something sinful or something that appears to be sinful. In the next article, Thomas will explain more why giving the appearance of sinning is sufficient to count as scandal, and therefore sin.

We should note that eating meat offered to idols has the appearance of sin because it is closely connected with the worship of idols, which is sinful. Thomas, and the apostle Paul by extension, is not discussing situations in which a person does something morally neutral (or good) only to have another succumb to passive scandal. No. In order to qualify as an act of active scandal, a person must do something that is either a sin or closely connected with something sinful.

In later posts, I’ll take up the rest of the article on scandal and apply it to a number of related contemporary issues such as drinking alcohol, dressing modestly, and so forth.

Postmodernism Can’t Be.

Theologian John Caputo, quoted at my friend Christopher Benson’s blog, with a rather unsatisfying explanation of “postmodernism.”

“Postmodernism thus is not relativism or scepticism, as its uncomprehending critics almost daily charge, but minutely close attention to detail, a sense for the complexity and multiplicity of things, for close readings, for detailed histories, for sensitivity to differences.”

We used to have another name for this besides “postmodernism.”  It was called thinking.  You don’t have to read very far in, say, the Summa Theologiae to find out that Tommy Aquinas paid “minutely close attention to detail, etc.”

But Caputo goes on with his description:

“For are not the modernists rather like the Shemites, furiously at work on the tower of Babel, on the “system,” as Kierkegaard would say with biting irony, and are not the postmodernists following the lead of God, who in deconstructing the tower clearly favors a multiplicity of languages, frameworks, paradigms, perspectives, angles? From a religious point of view, does not postmodernism argue that God’s point of view is reserved for God, while the human standpoint is immersed in the multiplicity of angles?”

Thanks for playing, Aquinas, but your construction of a “system” disqualifies you from the distinctly human activity of smashing things up.

Or is it distinctly human?  In a breathtaking moment, Caputo claims for the postmodernists that they are “following the lead of God” in tearing down the tower.  They very well may be.

Is it possible that the deconstruction (like the construction) might perhaps be better left to God himself?  The divine sanction that Caputo claims for the project potentially undermines his critique, if only because it turns into a project (“postmodernism“) akin to any other sort of totalizing human project.  The self-consciousness of the effort of deconstruction potentially borders on the sort of hubris that the moderns get so often accused of.

All this to say, the task of deconstruction is a valuable tool to have the in the intellectual toolbox.  It serves an important heuristic function, chastening and cautioning us against the pretensions of certainty.

But when it is turned against itself, it reveals the fundamental paradox of our late modern world:  postmodernism simply cannot be, at least not without preserving the substructure of modernity.

Knowledge Spackle

So, we had a hole in the wall. I don’t mean the tiny urban apartment we shared in the first year of marriage, but a literal gap in the plaster. We had to call maintenance to patch it up. (I could try to do it myself, but then we have to pay for my goofs. If maintenance goofs, management pays the bill. Or so I’m told.) One of their workers came over with some spackle and patched it up nicely. Now, if it were a deeper or larger hole, then the use of that same spackle would have been sloppy and ineffective. You need to use the materials that the job demands.

There is a similar problem in the world of evangelicalism. Really, it is the whole problem of modernity and postmodernity. With apologies to Babylon 5, “There is a hole in our mind.” Specifically, there is a knowledge gap. Faced with philosophies that question the possibility of religious knowledge—or any certain knowledge at all—the Christian often reaches for any spackle at hand to fill the gap. And too often, we are tempted to use the concept of authority to shore up—or shut up—our anxieties about knowledge and certainty. But that distorts the actual purpose and role of authority in the framework of Christian faith and practice. And if we use the doctrine of Scripture (or the Magisterium for our Catholic friends, or the Fathers for the Eastern Orthodox) simply as a bulwark against critical epistemology, we misuse it to our overall harm.

The authority of Scripture is an important doctrine for a great many reasons. The same is true with the distinct-but-related doctrines of inerrancy and inspiration. But there is one thing they are not: a theory of knowledge. They have implications for epistemology. Different accounts of knowledge and its basis can be more or less compatible with these doctrines. The divine authority, origin, and reliability of the scriptures mean that the Bible gives us a true and certain hope in the promises of God.  Faith is not just a good feeling or a desperate scramble; Christian faith is a gift of grace that lets us know and trust what God has revealed. But the doctrine of scripture does not tell us how we have certainty, or even a general account of what “certainty” means. It is not spackle for the hole in your mind.

Neither does that other favored recourse of young evangelicals, namely the flight to Rome or to Eastern Orthodoxy. But pointing at the Holy See or an ecumenical council is no better an answer to the critics than pointing at a book. Whatever promises the Magisterium or the Great Church may seem to offer, they can’t spackle the holes in the truth-wall any better than the doctrine of scripture.

Because that is not the main purpose of authority and revelation. God did not forge covenantal bonds between Himself and us, send us prophets and apostles, and finally come personally to reveal Himself and open the door to salvation, in order to answer the problem of the criterion. For the great work of salvation and restoration, God does not leave us at the mercy of liver quivers and guesswork, or even rigorous reasoning from first principles. He sends messengers, including the Son and the Spirit, to publicly proclaim the message. The work of the whole Trinity also starts to correct the damage to our faculties that worsen the limits of our finite nature. He works with and within our human limitations to lead us into His truth. But the epistemic implications of that work are, in the scheme of salvation, at best second or third level implications.

So, the fullest answer to the critic’s doubts about Christianity is the proclamation of the Word, the illumination of the Spirit in the faithful reading of the Word, and above all the gracious workings of God’s effectual call. The answers to the skeptic’s questions about truth in general, or about religious knowledge in general, come from the philosopher’s corner. They are questions of natural reason, and natural reason can settle honest questions within its scope and competence. God’s gracious revelation certainly has something to offer in that field; the distinction is not absolute. But it is the difference between using the right material to fix your wall, or a material that’s not made for that purpose.

When we use the authority of Scripture (or the authority of the Church, or modern prophetic voices, etc.) to cover the gaps in our epistemology, our knowledge about knowledge, we ironically end up breeding more of the same cynicism and doubt. Our answers, our ideas, our confidence start to bubble up and crumble like bad wall plaster. (Alas!)

So, we had a hole in the wall. I don’t mean the tiny urban apartment we shared in the first year of marriage, but a literal gap in the plaster. We had to call maintenance to patch it up. (I could try to do it myself, but then we have to pay for my goofs. If maintenance goofs, management pays the bill. Or so I’m told.) One of their workers came over with some spackle and patched it up nicely. Now, if it were a deeper or larger hole, then the use of that same spackle would have been sloppy and ineffective. You need to use the materials that the job demands.

There is a similar problem in the world of evangelicalism. Really, it is the whole problem of modernity and postmodernity. With apologies to Babylon 5, “There is a hole in our mind.” Specifically, there is a knowledge gap. Faced with philosophies that question the possibility of religious knowledge—or any certain knowledge at all—the Christian often reaches for any spackle at hand to fill the gap. And too often, we are tempted to use the concept of authority to shore up—or shut up—our anxieties about knowledge and certainty. But that distorts the actual purpose and role of authority in the framework of Christian faith and practice. And if we use the doctrine of Scripture (or the Magisterium for our Catholic friends, or the Fathers for the Eastern Orthodox) simply as a bulwark against critical epistemology, we misuse it to our overall harm.

The authority of Scripture is an important doctrine for a great many reasons. The same is true with the distinct-but-related doctrines of inerrancy and inspiration. But there is one thing they are not: a theory of knowledge. They have implications for epistemology. Different accounts of knowledge and its basis can be more or less compatible with these doctrines. The divine authority, origin, and reliability of the scriptures mean that the Bible gives us a true and certain hope in the promises of God. Faith is not just a good feeling or a desperate scramble; Christian faith is a gift of grace that lets us know and trust what God has revealed. But the doctrine of scripture does not tell us how we have certainty, or even a general account of what “certainty” means. It is not spackle for the hole in your mind.

Neither does that other favored recourse of young evangelicals, namely the flight to Rome or to Eastern Orthodoxy. But pointing at the Holy See or an ecumenical council is no better an answer to the critics than pointing at a book. Whatever promises the Magisterium or the Great Church may seem to offer, they can’t spackle the holes in the truth-wall any better than the doctrine of scripture.

Because that is not the main purpose of authority and revelation. God did not forge covenantal bonds between Himself and us, send us prophets and apostles, and finally come personally to reveal Himself and open the door to salvation, in order to answer the problem of the criterion. For the great work of salvation and restoration, God does not leave us at the mercy of liver quivers and guesswork, or even rigorous reasoning from first principles. He sends messengers, including the Son and the Spirit, to publicly proclaim the message. The work of the whole Trinity also starts to correct the damage to our faculties that worsen the limits of our finite nature. He works with and within our human limitations to lead us into His truth. But the epistemic implications of that work are, in the scheme of salvation, at best second or third level implications.

So, the fullest answer to the critic’s doubts about Christianity is the proclamation of the Word, the illumination of the Spirit in the faithful reading of the Word, and above all the gracious workings of God’s effectual call. The answers to the skeptic’s questions about truth in general, or about religious knowledge in general, come from the philosopher’s corner. They are questions of natural reason, and natural reason can settle honest questions within its scope and competence. God’s gracious revelation certainly has something to offer in that field; the distinction is not absolute. But it is the difference between using the right material to fix your wall, or a material that’s not made for that purpose.

When we use the authority of Scripture (or the authority of the Church, or modern prophetic voices, etc.) to cover the gaps in our epistemology, our knowledge about knowledge, we ironically end up breeding more of the same cynicism and doubt. Our answers, our ideas, our confidence start to bubble up and crumble like bad wall plaster. (Alas!)

Natural Law at Christianity Today

My conclusion:

But influence goes both ways, and evangelicals may have something to offer the natural law thinkers as well. Specifically, the evangelical emphasis on the brokenness of our rational faculties because of sin may serve as a reminder that truthful accounts of the goods of traditional marriage are not enough for moral or social transformation—those interested in preserving traditional marriage need beauty as well, beauty that comes in the form of lives and marriages that reflect the beauty of the cross.

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was hinting at something along these lines when he remarked at the end of a recent conversation with Robert George: “I’m thankful that he’s making [these arguments] better than just about anyone else is making them. And as an evangelical, we have every reason to use natural law arguments; we just don’t believe that in the end they’re going to be enough.”

If you’ve got feedback, I’d love to hear it.

Christianity and Hellenism, Part 3 of 3: On Human Nature

One of the theological areas most likely to raise questions about the relationship between historical Christian teaching and Greek (especially Platonic) thought is that of human nature. Especially with regard to two related subjects:  the relationship between body and soul, and just how good or evil either part is. Most of this topic is Matthew’s bailiwick, what with his current book project. But I can’t rightly conclude this series without addressing it.

Plato gives a very stirring account of human nature and the challenge of human existence in the Phaedrus. He gives the following description of the human soul:

To describe what the soul actually is would require a very long account, altogether a task for a god in every way; but to say what it is like is humanly possible and takes less time… Let us then liken the soul to the natural union of a team of winged horses and their charioteer. The gods have horses and charioteers that are themselves all good and come from good stock besides, while everyone else has a mixture. To begin with, our driver is in charge of a pair of horses; second, one of his horses is beautiful and good and from stock of the same sort, while the other is the opposite and has the opposite sort of bloodline. This means that chariot-driving in our case is inevitably a painfully difficult business. (Phaedrus 246a-b) Continue reading