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.

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