Friday, January 31, 2014

Sex on the Screen

Would it be wrong to sneak into the bedroom of a husband and wife you know and watch them having sex, or even to watch them undress as they get ready to have sex?

Of course that would be wrong.

Now let’s modify the question a little. If a couple you know gave you permission to come into their house and watch them have sex, or even to watch lesser forms of erotic contact, would it still be wrong for you to view it?

Again, I am assuming that most Christians would agree with me that this too would be wrong. (If you don’t think this would be wrong, then you need to review some of the Scriptures I brought up in part 1 of this series.)

Now let’s modify the question still further. If the same couple made a video of themselves having sex, or even just undressing each other, and then sent you the video, would it be wrong for you to watch either all or some of it? Again, I am assuming that most Christians would have no hesitation saying that the only acceptable thing to do would be to throw the video in the trash.

You can probably guess where I’m heading with this thought experiment, which has one further modification. Suppose the same couple were videoed having sex or being naked in an erotic context, but it occurred within a movie? Would that be wrong to watch?

I would argue that this too would be wrong for the same reasons, but suddenly I find myself in a minority, because millions of American Christians are completely comfortable viewing such content, for they do it all the time when they sit down to watch television and movies. Indeed, the only difference between the sexual content that is routine in movies, on the one hand, and the final stage of my thought experiment, on the other, is that the actors are not married and we do not know them. But if anything, the fact that they are not married merely adds another layer of wrongness to the activity.

In short, if it’s wrong to watch people having sexual contact in the real world, then it is equally wrong to watch the same actions on television or in a movie.

Keep reading...

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Run-down of Recent Publications

Things have been so busy that I've fallen behind with posting links to articles I've recently published elsewhere. To catch up on all the backlog, I'm going to post all my recent articles right here in this blog post, instead of (as I would normally do) separate posts.

Colson Center
  • A Very Big View of Redemption. It is easy to get overly preoccupied with what we have been saved from and forget what we have been saved for. In this article I explain that by focusing on the positive aspects of redemption, we see that the scope of redemption is a lot bigger than we often allow.
  • Moral Order, and Wisdom.  This article is the 6th installment in my ongoing series on nominalism. In this article I explore the important role that prayer and holy living play in helping us to see the wisdom and order inherent in God's commands.


World Magazine

  • The War on the Word 'Marriage'. This article looks at the sophistry in the gay rights' movement when they ingenuously claimed that they had no intention of changing the word marriage. (You have to be a subscriber of World to read this article, or agree to their free trial.)

Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy
Christian Voice

Below are some key points from some of these articles.

Redemption For the World

When we talk about redemption, a lot of the time we focus entirely on what we are redeemed from, which is sin and death. If this is our main emphasis, then our focus is often on not sinning and we may even tend to think that anything that isn’t a sin is an open playing field.

However, we should also give attention to what we have been redeemed for.  But that involves taking an expansive view of redemption. Our view of redemption should stretch as far as the curse is found, which is to all of creation. That means that redemption and New Creation do not just cover our moral lives, as if the goal of Christianity were simply not sinning; rather, New Creation needs to be allowed to stretch into all the little nooks and crannies of existence, to change literally everything. (From 'A Very Big View of Redemption.')

The Omnipresent State

The normalization of the modern surveillance state in the West arises from the universal human temptation to surrender liberties for the promise of increased security, and to impute maternal characteristics to the state as a result.  As Christians we recognize that some degree of public watchfulness is necessary if law-makers are to fulfill their God-given vocation of punishing evil-doers (Rom 13:4). However, what tends to happen when a society turns away from Christianity is that the state displaces God and begins ascribing to itself God-like attributes, including the attribute of omnipresence. Until the digital revolution, the impulse for the state to achieve omnipresence was limited by the natural constraints of time and place. However, what modern computer technology has brought has been an almost horizon-less vista of opportunities to achieve a God-like omnipresence. (From Government To Defend Surveillance Measures in UK Court.)

"Sexting" and Personhood
Data is showing that women are sexting more than men. On one level, this is surprising, seeing that sexting makes women more vulnerable. After all, a man who has no scruples when it comes to receiving or asking for explicit pictures is probably going to have no scruples when it comes to forwarding those pictures to his mates. A woman who engages in sexting thus sets herself up for the worst sort of public exploitation and is forever under the power of the man she trusted. In another sense, however, sexting makes women less vulnerable since a girl can experience the excitement of giving her body to a man without ever having to do business with him as an embodied person, without having to approach him in all her vulnerability, fragility and humanness. For many women, this is precisely the appeal of sexting.

Sexting is thus seen as liberating sex from the problem that has dogged it from the beginning, namely having to deal with real people. An article in Sans Magazine was exuberant about sexting’s potential to free sexual relationships from the constraints that come with physical presence: "No longer do we actually have to commit to a single task of actually physically undressing, warming up our partner and then engaging in the carnal act of intercourse…. Plus, we don’t ever have to actually see the person."

This quote demonstrates how sexting is the culmination of the dehumanizing principles behind the sexual revolution. The promise of the sexual revolution was that intimacy could be fulfilling outside the obligations of marriage, a promise that researchers have now discovered to be false. The lie of the 21st century is that sex can be fulfilling without actual intimacy. This too will be found to be a lie. In the meantime, the problem is that by coupling sexual pathologies with extremely addictive digital technologies, that brain is being rewired to think differently about sex, relationships and what it means to be human.

Theology and Prayer
To be a theologian one must give extended loving reflection to God’s laws, like a musician aiming to know a certain composer’s music inside and out. But to achieve that type of depth of knowledge, the theologian must make God’s laws part of himself on every level: head, heart, hands and body. Hence, a true theologian must also be a mystic. The true theologian is the man whose life is devoted to contemplation, prayer, and ascetic disciplines like fasting, almsgiving, prayer vigils and sacrificial love. In short, the true theologian is one whose life is devoted so completely to loving the Lord that the workings of his intellect proceed out of an entire life of spiritual devotion. That is why
Saint Thomas Aquinas’s “16 Precepts for Acquiring Knowledge” are almost entirely concerned with practical external matters, and only secondarily with what we might think of us intellectual concerns.

One of the benefits of prayerfully meditating on God’s commands within the context of a life of obedience, is that we begin to see the fittingness of His laws instead of viewing them as arbitrary impositions on a neutral world understood separately from the Trinitarian God revealed in Jesus Christ. We begin to appreciate how God’s laws are the natural correlates to the is-ness of Christian. As a consequence, we are better able to take what the Bible says in one area, and apply the principles to other areas not directly addressed in scripture. This is because we are no longer simply looking at raw commands, but appreciating the moral order reflected in God’s commandments. This is essentially the task of wisdom as it has been practiced by saints and Christian mystics throughout history. (From
'Moral Order, and Wisdom.')
From Feminism to Lesbianism
In the thought of many modern feminists, romantic love is a sexist hangover from our misogynist past. Romance patronizes women by objectifying them. On street level, this creates real problems for girls who still cherish romantic ideals. In her book A Return to Modesty, Wendy Shalit showed that romantic desire is one of the last castles that modern feminists are out to conquer. “In a different time,” Shalit ironically observed, “a young woman had to avoid giving public evidence of sexual desire by living with someone out of wedlock, today she must avoid giving evidence of romantic desire.”

The sad thing is that by taking romance out of sex, women are left vulnerable to sexual exploitation. It is here that the real irony of modern feminism emerges. Feminists used to be content to attack things like men opening doors for women or men who offered to pay on dates. According to popular feminist narratives, these gestures are misogynist since they “objectify” women. However, this mistaken logic has now extended itself to the point whereby those things that really do objectify women (i.e., sleeping with a woman without any thought of her as a person, pursuing romance-free sexual relationships, etc.) are considered healthy and affirming.
Evacuating sex of relationship, love, romance, personhood and procreation promised to usher us into a feminist utopia, ridding the bedroom of the scepter of womanliness. A remaining problem, however, is that even impersonal sex outside of marriage can entrench gender roles by encouraging certain womanly attributes. Thus, some feminists have argued that in order for female sexuality to be truly liberated from the systemic patriarchy of our culture, men must be removed from the equation completely. In other words, the true feminist must be a lesbian. The notion that only lesbianism is truly liberating has found expression in a voluminous corpus of “Women’s Studies” literature. (From The Massacre of Valentine's Day: Feminism's V-Day Eliminates Men, Marriage and Romance)

The Problem with Predestination is Christ
Was Christ’s human will predestined to obey the Father, or was His human will exempt from the predestination applied to the rest of the human race? If we say that Christ’s human will was exempt from divine predestination, then it is hard to avoid the implication that there must have been true non-monergistic synergy and co-operation between the divine and the human wills of Christ. But if so, then it is equally hard to see why it would be problematic to assert a similar non-monergistic synergy and co-operation between the divine and the human wills when dealing with the rest of humanity, especially since Christ typified the appropriate relation between humanity and divinity. Saying that Christ is exempt from Divine predestination also seems to suggest, at least by implication, that some version of libertarian freedom may not be an intrinsically incoherent concept as Calvinists will frequently assert.
On the other hand, if we say that Christ’s human will was not exempt from divine predestination, then the results are just as equally problematic for a Calvinist. I do not refer merely to the problem that we would then have Christ predestining Himself, although that creates a host of thorny problems in itself. Rather, I refer to the fact that if Christ’s human will was “irresistibly” moved by the divine will, then it follows that there must have been only one energy operative in Christ—a divine energy, not a human energy—since on this scheme Christ’s humanity becomes little more than a passive tool. The reason we can say that Christ’s humanity is reduced to little more than a passive tool is because the human energy of Christ is then subsumed into, overcome by, subordinated to the divine energy, not because the human will genuinely surrenders to the divine in an act of co-operation or synergy, but because such subordination is required by the terms of predestination itself. However, such a position was condemned early on in the Christian era as a species of Monothelitism, though few Calvinists today are aware of the fact. (From  Why I Stopped Being a Calvinist, part 5)

Learning From Muslims

Even when Muslim children go to the state schools, their parents make sure that they get a solidly Muslim education. By contrast, Christian parents in Britain can often be incredibly ambivalent about the formative role that education plays, sometimes even completely denying that it has any relation to how successfully the faith is perpetuated from one generation to the next.

In addition to this, there is the strong role that community plays in keeping children Islamic religion is very totalizing, affecting every area of life. It is woven into the fabric of every level of the culture in which a child grows up. British Muslims have been careful to preserve this culture within their communities and to prevent it being neutralized through Westernization. This too has something to do with the strong retention rate. To grow up and leave the faith would be to grow up and turn one’s back on one’s culture.

Muslims are raised to think in very communal and corporate terms, so that to grow up and abandon the faith is equivalent to abandoning one’s own people. By contrast, Christians within Britain (and sadly throughout much of the Western world) tend to think very individualistically. Even when faith is perceived to be about more than one’s own spiritual interiority, it is still thought to be primarily an individualistic experience. Consequently, a Christian child can grow up and abandon the faith without feeling that he or she is also abandoning his or her own people. This makes apostasy a lot easier.
Are we doing as good of a job as the Muslims in proclaiming
the totalizing nature of our religion, showing that
the Christian faith affects every department of life?
Here are some questions we should be asking:
  • Are we doing as good a job as the Muslims in showing the communal nature of the Christian faith?
  • Do we also prioritize evangelism?
  • Are we doing as good of a job as the Muslims in proclaiming the totalizing nature of our religion, showing that the Christian faith affects every department of life?
  • Are we showing our young people that the faith is not just true, but lovely, so that when our children grow up they do not want to walk away from it?
  • Is there a noticeable difference between the lifestyle of Christians and those in the world, so that young people see the Christian faith as being an escape route from pagan decadence? (From The Islamisation of Britain (Part 2): retention and conversion.)

Friday, January 24, 2014

Gender Discrimination is Sometimes Good

Things like racism, agism and sexism all hinge on the axiom that it is wrong to discriminate. However, Anthony Browne has written an interesting little book about political correctness in which he argues that discrimination is sometimes not only necessary but positively good. The book is titled The Retreat of Reason and is reviewed by me here. Browne showed that gender discrimination is not only accepted in many instances, but many times is necessary, laudable and defensible. Gender discrimination simply means treating a person differently than you would if that person were a different sex. For example, when a man dates a woman he is, in a sense, ‘discriminating’ since he would not offer the same treatment to members of his own gender category, assuming he is a heterosexual. In short, there are many cases where men and women are unequal, and these are diversities to be celebrated rather than inequalities to be lamented. The real question, therefore, is not whether something is a case of sex discrimination, but whether it is a case of justifiable sex discrimination. Browne writes:
“Young men pay higher rates for car insurance than young women and older men, because young men are, on average, more dangerous drivers than young women and older men. A young man who is a safe driver is thus discriminated against because of the characteristics of other people in his age and sex group….Anti-discrimination campaigners may publicly declare that all discrimination on the grounds of sex should be outlawed, but they are unlikely to agree that all men should have the right to use women’s toilets, that men should be allowed to go to women’s gyms, or to demand overturning the right of women’s clothes shops to refuse to employ men….Men pay smaller pension contributions than women for a given level of private pension, for the simple reason that, on average, they have shorter lives and so on average claim less….The various forms of rational discrimination that are widely accepted are not often called discrimination – although that is clearly what they are – because accepting that some discrimination is actually essential to the working of a society would undermine the public acceptance of a ‘zero tolerance of all forms of discrimination’. The war on discrimination would become meaningless if there were general public awareness that actually some forms of discrimination are needed.”

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

How Good Manners Help to Preserve Civilization

The second installment in my series on manners is now available online at the Colson Center.

In my earlier article on manners, I shared how one of Edmund Burke’s critiques of the French Revolution was that it was the fruit of a society that had lost its manners. Surveying the events that led to the revolution, Burke argued that chivalry, refined sentiment and good manners were crucial in preserving our humanity and keeping us from lapsing into a purely functional barbarism.

My latest installment in this series seeks to unpack some of Burke reasons for suggesting that good manners help to fortify civilization from decay and collapse. Manners help to preserve civilization by keeping us from collapsing into a purely functional barbarism. Moreover, manners enable a society to collectively navigate between the extremes of chaos and totalitarian control. To find out how click on the link below:

Monday, January 20, 2014

Building for God's Kingdom

One of the interesting things about Saint Paul’s great defense of bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 is that his tightly reasoned argument ends with a practical exhortation: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58)

The key word here is the “therefore.” Paul realized that what we think about the future effects (or ought to effect) how we live in the present. This is why, following his lengthy discussion of the Christian hope, Paul basically says, “Therefore get on with your job.”

It’s easy to slip into the Gnostic assumption that our spiritual work is purely personal and private, or that it relates merely to securing a heavenly future for ourselves and others. Now personal salvation is crucially important, and that is why we should never neglect the work of evangelism. However, the Christian hope involves more than simply the renewal of individuals: God is also working to renew the earth itself (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).

Just as belief in our own personal resurrection should spur us to righteous living in the present (1 Corinthians 15:29-34), so belief in the future renewal of the whole earth (Revelation 21:1) should act as a catalyst for us to work to make the world a better place in the present. The doctrine of new creation therefore has cultural, economic, ecological and political consequences.
At least, that is what I argued in my Colson Center article 'Building for God's Kingdom.'  To read the article, click on the following link:

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Worldview Education and Christian Pragmatism

I am delighted that Touchstone: a Journal of Mere Christianity has now put online the article about education that I wrote for their Sept/Oct 2013 issue. My article, titled 'More than Schooling: The Perils of Pragmatism in Christian Attitudes Toward the Liberal Arts' arose out of observations on some of the ways the idol of pragmatism has infected Christian approaches to the liberal arts, often in the name of 'worldview education.'

The pragmatic approach to the liberal arts sees their value as deriving primarily from specific quantifiable ends, such as winning the culture war. According to this mentality, when a Christian is taught the liberal arts from a Christian worldview, he is essentially being equipped with a set of tools. These tools can be defensive (helping the student shore up his faith against the challenge of false worldviews) or offensive (giving the student the intellectual equipment to make gains in the ongoing fight to claim our culture for Christ), but in both cases, they are valued for their usefulness.

According to this approach, we need to study the great thinkers and writers of the past, not so much because the things they said are valuable in and of themselves, but because studying them will give us the brain-power to better defend our beliefs and convince others that the Christian worldview is true.

In my Touchstone article I try to show that there is an alternative to this pragmatic approach which is still explicitly rooted in the Biblical worldview.
Here are some teasers from the article:

"Appreciating that some artifacts are good in themselves, and not merely because of what they do for us, is the first step towards a proper appropriation of the liberal arts. The best argument for teaching children to love Aeschylus, Shakespeare, and Hopkins is simply that these authors wrote things that are beautiful. Just as the best reason for smelling a rose is that it has a lovely fragrance, so the best reason for learning Latin is that Virgil's Aeneid is beautiful. Again, the template for this approach is creation itself.

Christian worldview education is in danger of being hijacked by pragmatists who think that non-utilitarian approaches somehow depart from the imperative to bring all things under Christ....
"The exclusively pragmatic approach does a particularly great disservice to the teaching of literature since it orients us to adopt a didactic and utilitarian approach to texts. We may start to think that the value of a text lies in the worldview lessons we are able to draw out of it and completely overlook the aesthetic considerations. Many, for instance, have the idea that the primary purpose of learning Shakespeare is to understand allusions and figures of speech, or that memorizing poems is mainly good as an exercise to develop memory skills, or that the value of learning Latin is to understand word origins, and so forth. The idea that learning Virgil in the original Latin has a value not tied to any practical benefit strikes them as odd.

When students are trained to think in strictly pragmatic ways, they will find it difficult to enjoy, say, a Shakespeare play if they can't derive a specific worldview lesson from it. They may become so over-active in finding worldview lessons that they discern some Shakespeare never intended. How much better it would be to get them to enjoy Shakespeare plays simply for their masterly use of language and compelling plots and characters. How much better for students to come to love things that are noble and praiseworthy even when they do not have a specific use. As Flannery O'Connor put it in Mystery and Manners, "The fact is, people don't know what they are expected to do with a novel, believing, as so many do, that art must be utilitarian, that it must do something, rather than be something...."
"Being able to just be in the presence of beauty is central to coming to know God and to participate in the sacramental life. As students come to appreciate beauty for its own sake—independent of utilitarian goals—their souls are prepared to receive God at a deep, pre-cognitive level. As Oscar Wilde understood, sensitivity to the beauty of material things prepares one's soul to become sensitive to the beauty of spiritual things. To learn to be still and silent in the presence of great beauty prepares one to be still and silent in the presence of great holiness.
To read my entire article, click on the link below:

'More than Schooling: The Perils of Pragmatism in Christian Attitudes Toward the Liberal Arts'


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Changing our Brains

In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr makes a point that echoes some of the observations I made in my Salvo feature 'The Neuro Transformers.' He writes,
“Through what we do and how we do it—moment by moment, day by day, consciously or unconsciously—we alter the chemical flows in our synapses and change our brains. And when we hand down our habits of thought to our children, through the examples we set, the schooling we provide, and the media we use, we hand down as well the modifications in the structure of our brains.” P. 49

Monday, January 13, 2014

Relationships and Presence

In my Colson Center article 'Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (part 3)', I suggested that the temptation with online relationships—or even real-world relationships in which the majority of communication occurs through texting—is that we can act as if we were disembodied and thereby suspend the vulnerability and fragility connected to our body.

Michael Heim warned about these types of disembodied relationships back in his 1994 book The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality,
“Today’s computer communication cuts the physical face out of the communication process. Computers stick the windows of the soul behind monitors, headsets and datasuits… The living non-representable face is the primal source of reasonability, the direct, warm link between private bodies. Without directly meeting others physically, our ethics languishes. Face-to-face communication, the fleshly bond between people, supports a long-term warmth and loyalty, a sense of obligation for which the computer-mediated communities have not yet been tested.”
In its most extreme manifestation, the preference for disembodied relationships finds expression in men who do not even want to have sex since virtual girlfriends can satisfy all their needs. Even in less extreme forms, however, the ubiquity of virtual communication is making it hard to be attentive to real flesh-and-blood relationships.

The really scary thing is that the more time we spend in front of the computer, the more our brain structures change so that we become unable to relate to real flesh-and-blood people. As Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan explain in their book iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind,
“As the brain evolves and shifts its focus toward new technological skills, it drifts away from fundamental social skills, such as reading facial expressions during conversation or grasping the emotional context of a subtle gesture. A Standford University study found that for every hour we spend on our computers, traditional face-to-face interaction time with other people drops by nearly thirty minutes. With the weakening of the brain's neural circuitry controlling human contact, our social interactions may become awkward, and we tend to misinterpret, and even miss subtle, nonverbal messages."

Friday, January 10, 2014

Liberty vs. Liberty

In a lecture urging us to use discrimination in the type of Great Books we elevate, Patrick J. Deneen contrasts two competing visions of liberty that have been given in the literature of the Western tradition. There is first what he calls the 'older conception' of liberty, which focused around self-government and the limitation of boundless desire. This is contrasted with a newer understanding which asserts that liberty gives us the right to pursue our desires ceaselessly. Deneen comments,
The older conception of liberty held that liberty was ultimately a form of self-government; in a constrained world, the human propensity to desire without limit and end inclined people toward a condition of slavery, understood to be enslavement to the base desires. This older conception of liberty as self-government was displaced by our regnant conception of liberty, the liberty to pursue our desires ceaselessly with growing prospects of ongoing fulfillment through the conquest of nature, accompanied by the constant generation of new desires that demand ever greater expansion of the human project of mastery.
Mr. Deneen's insights (which can be read in context here) address the question of liberty as it relates to individuals, although the same distinctions apply when it comes to the state. Should the liberty of a nation be measured by its ability to constrain unbounded desire and therefore to pursue responsible self-government, or is a nation's liberty predicated on government's ability to grant fulfillment to an ever-expanding corpus of new desires - desire which are then converted into, so called, 'rights'?


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Monday, January 06, 2014

Space for Difference

In the most recent flare-up in Moscow Idaho’s ongoing internet controversy about health food, a recurring assumption from one side of the debate has been that our choice is basically between a Pharisaic legalism, on the one hand, and a laissez-faire “God doesn’t care” approach, on the other.

This false dilemma has fortified the notion that anyone who believes God cares what you eat must be (as Douglas Wilson put it) “a certain type of soul, a certain type of heart.” The debate turned nasty when the anti-health food people began condemning as Pharisees and idolaters everyone who doesn’t believe food is a zone of spiritual neutrality. The dominant assumption animating such accusations was an angst that if the area of food is not a zone of spiritual neutrality then it must be sinful to eat junk food.

The controversy goes back to Doug Wilson's claim (see video below) that all people who believe God cares what we eat are food idolaters, if not the ideological descendants of quack doctors seeking quick cures for original sin.

The issue, it's important to stress, is not whether a healthy diet is good or bad. It is clear from Wilson's larger corpus of writings about food that he is quite happy for people to eat healthy provided they do it from the perspective that God doesn't care; Wilson is quite happy for people to eat healthy, provided they do not think it is legitimate to get uptight about really unhealthy foods; Wilson is quite happy for people to eat healthy, provided they do not think that those who regularly eat junk food have room to grow in maturity; Wilson is quite happy for people to eat healthy, provided they do not think they have spiritual reasons for doing so. If any of these ideological boundaries are traversed, then health food has become an idol, according to Wilson.

Picking up on Wilson's idea, Toby Sumpter (pastor of Doug Wilson's sister church in Moscow Idaho) has suggested that anyone who values organic food and healthy eating must only be doing so because of deep seated sin issues. As he writes,
So pretty much when anybody tells me they are really concerned about nutritional issues, organic farming, or are just really into healthy eating, I pretty much just picture them going home and kissing little icons of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud.
Representing the other side of the debate, we have had some good contributions from Stacy McDonald and John Barach and Brad Littlejohn and myself.

The most recent contribution to this debate is Dr. Littlejohn's article 'The Search for Authority and the Fear of Difference' in which he makes the following observations:
"Broadsides such as those by Toby Sumpter seemed to imply that the problem was that many Christians were legalistic or idolatrous because they were insisting on the necessity of certain food choices as a matter of righteousness. The easiest response to this criticism then was to say, "No, I do care about buying free-range eggs and avoiding processed foods that will destroy my children's health, but that's just my personal decision, and of course no one's sinning to decide otherwise." I'd much rather have this response than Pharisaic legalism, but there ought to be a middle ground somewhere between legalism and laissez-faire. In fact, such a middle ground exists, and within its vast spectrum lie most of the judgments that the task of ethics is called to address, as I've written elsewhere. The person who buys free-range eggs ought to think, I would contend, that she is making some kind of moral judgment, and if it has the status of moral judgment, then it has some kind of universal force: all things being equal, everyone ought to try to buy free-range eggs. Likewise, on somewhat different grounds, one could reason that all things being equal, everyone ought to generally avoid unhealthy processed foods.

"So a moral claim is being made, but it can still tolerate different moral judgments. Why? Because one recognizes, first, that all things are not equal, and there are enough circumstantial variables and complexities that others may quite reasonably reach different judgments. Accordingly, one may deem someone else to be wrong without being at all wicked or stupid. Second, because one recognizes that we are justified by faith, not by works. This means that I can feel confident in my moral judgments and decisions, without indulging in the silly fantasy that this makes me a wonderful special righteous person, and without needing to get too worked up about my neighbor's failure to share these moral judgments. (I should add that all of what I am saying here about moral judgments applies also to truth judgments in the realm of doubtful and debatable secondary matters.) We are both justified by faith, and this gives us space to differ with one another, to think these differences objectively matter, and yet at the end of the day to love and embrace one another."
If there is space for difference as well as space to think those differences objectively matter, then perhaps it is time for Moscow's health food controversies to take on a new tone. Instead of one side condemning the other of idolatry, maybe we should recognize that the body of Christ is large enough to accomodate both camps. Can we have a debate about whether God cares what we eat without one side condemning the other side of idolatry? Can we have a debate about whether it is legitimate to get uptight about really unhealthy foods without one side condemning the other of idolatry? Can we have a debate about whether those who regularly eat junk food have room to grow in maturity, without one party accusing the other of idolatry? If Littlejohn is correct, then the answer is a resounding yes.

Returning again to Brad Littlejohn's contributions to this debate, in 2012 he wrote an insightful article for The Calvinist International which helps to build a fuller context for the type of approach we ought have to these types of doubtful matters. Dr. Littlejohn suggested that matters which are unclear in scripture should be seen as a summons to start exercising judgment, not as a zone of complete spiritual neutrality:
The legalist seeks to compensate for God’s silence by inventing his own rules and attempting to give them the force of divine sanction.  The libertine takes God’s silence as guaranteeing divine sanction for whatever he or she chooses to do. But the godly Christian takes this silence as a summons, a summons to exercise judgment—fallible, human judgment, but judgment that does not take place in a void, for God has not been silent.  Prior to the promulgation of either divine law or human law, God has imbued us with a natural law, according to which we can judge some actions to be harmful and improper even without the express revelation of Scripture.

This abiding moral law does not neuter Christian liberty.  It does not mean that it is pointless or meaningless to designate something adiaphorous.  Far from it.  If something is adiaphorous, in the crucial soteriological sense that Hooker has privileged, this does liberate us. It liberates our conscience from a burden of fear, since it means that if we do our best in good conscience, we are not condemned just because we decided wrong.  It liberates us from the burden of inflexibility, since it means that we recognise our judgments are provisional, and we can respect differing conclusions that other conscientious Christians may reach.  It liberates from the burden of ultimacy, since we know that there are often much more urgent serious and urgent matters that demand our moral attention and action, and if tending to these means we neglect the lesser matters, that’s OK.   But God’s “silence” on adiaphora is also an invitation to get to work—not burdened by fear, but empowered by love—and to seek what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Part of the confusion here may also arise from the fact that for evangelicals from legalistic backgrounds, the only objective criteria for making decisions is sin-avoidance. In areas where the category of sin does not apply, the only criteria to influence our decisions is personal subjective choice.  There are thus no categories with which to talk meaningfully about the telos of a thing, or the internal logic of nature’s ordering, independent to moral questions about right and wrong. Abstraction from teleology turns creation into a playground for us to do with as we like provided we do not sin, while the criteria for determining what counts as sin is truncated to specific divine commands interpreted independently from the teleological-directedness of how creation is.

Further Reading

Friday, January 03, 2014

The Living Room

In the house where I grew up, when you walked through the door you had a choice of three options. You could turn right and you would immediately be in the “family room.” Or you could turn left and go into the “living room.” Or, you could go straight ahead to the hallway, which would usher you to all the other rooms of the house.

I never tended to spend much time in the living room, except during holidays when my dad would set up an electric train around the Christmas tree. Apart from those times, there wasn’t much to do in the living room. I much preferred to go into the rooms that facilitated activities.

I once asked my mother why the living room was called that. She replied it was because it was a place to live. The concept intrigued me. Never before had I thought of living as a separate activity that people did, abstracted from everyday life. I then asked my mother why the family room was called the family room. She replied that it was because that was the room where we went in to be a family.

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Wednesday, January 01, 2014

The Chicken-ness of the Chicken

Farmer Joel Salatin respects the Chicken-ness of the Chicken
Since food is something that has always interested me, I wrote a series of articles last year about the theology of healthy eating. Although I was careful to frame my discussion in terms of wisdom, cultural reformation, and aesthetics, predictably I had friends who interpreted my articles as a call for culinary Phariseeism, or who thought I was saying that being unhealthy is sinful. It reminded me of another conversation I once had where I had been arguing that diatonic music best reflects the nature of the Trinitarian God, and a friend thought I was saying that listening to pentatonic music must therefore be sinful.

Those two interchanges alerted me to an important point, which is that many Christians do not even have the categories to address questions about the right-ordering of nature independent to questions of sin. Because we are legalists at heart, we are quick to reduce everything to a moral issue before we know how to think about it. However, consider a question that a friend of mine will often bring up to his students. Is it sinful to put a cow in a chicken coup? Well, no. But is it wise? Is it rightly ordered? Is it respecting the nature and inherent telos of a cow? No, no, and no. God did not create cows to do chicken-type things, just as He did not create chickens to do the types of things that bees do.

You see, there is a whole realm inquiry that is prior to questions of sin, namely questions about what is most fitting according to the nature of a thing. To understand the nature of a thing, we must appreciate what is the end, or telos for which it was created, and then respect that end unless it interferes with the telos of something more important.

One of the reasons why it is hard for Christians to embrace a theology of food is because our nominalist presuppositions rob us of the categories with which to talk meaningfully about the telos of a thing (whether it be an animal or a human being), independent to questions about right and wrong. Thus, the only objective criteria many Christians recognize for making decisions in the area of food is sin-avoidance, and since sin is not a category that applies to food in the New Testament era, it is assumed that the only criteria we should recognize is personal subjective choice.

However, both producers and consumers of food would benefit from a strong dose of realist metaphysics. According to the right ordering of our nature as human beings, is it more fitting to eat stuff that was grown in the ground or produced in a laboratory? According to the right ordering of a cow, is it more fitting for a farmer to feed his cows grass or recycled animal products? According to the right ordering of a chicken, is it more fitting to treat them like bees and cram tens of thousands of them together in a barn?

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