Making Sense of the Marriage Debate. Part One.

Yes, I know. It’s either totally foolish or terribly audacious to suggest that one blog post from a barely known pastor-theologian will do what many have begged for and few have actually provided. So let me begin by saying I am not claiming to have the final solutions to anything, least of all how we should handle the questions surrounding what is described as same-sex marriage. And I acknowledge that I approach the matter as a Christian committed to the integrity of the biblical narrative and to the definition of Christianity provided by the ancient creeds; these are, after all, summaries of the doctrines implied by that narrative.

One of the most difficult tasks in an emotionally laden controversy is to separate the questions and the positions the questions imply. That is what I propose to do in this post. It will say too much for some readers and too little for others; it will ask as many questions as it will answer, but it will hopefully do so in such a way as to generate less heat and more thought. If any readers find that those with different answers to some of the questions do have a point to consider, we will have moved forward. As a Christian I want to honor Christ in the way I engage others in hard conversations just as much as I want to honor him by speaking the mind of the Holy Spirit. The first of those is always under my control; the latter is something about which I can be mistaken, strive as I might and shall to hear his voice through the scriptures, through reason, and through history.

What Are We Talking About?

On the surface, this seems a silly question. We’ve already stated that we are speaking about same sex marriage. But that’s just the problem for many people in this debate. What is marriage? And, more importantly, how do we know what it is, and who gets to say what it is? What are the grounds for saying it is one thing and not another, or that it can or cannot be different things for different people? We cannot be deceived on this latter point. To say that the nature of marriage is such that it can be different things simultaneously is to make a claim to know the truth about marriage.

This is a philosophical issue, something for which our culture has little time or training. And because we have not been taught how to think or reason well, we have fallen prey to a philosophy that says things only become something when we name them, and that the naming is arbitrary, performed as an act of power by those who have the upper hand. In other words, there is no true identity to anything, no essence to the things and even (or especially) the values or ideals by which we measure human actions and purposes. Beauty, truth, justice, goodness are just ideas we have created. They don’t actually exist. When it comes to something like marriage, or families, or pets, or humans themselves the same is true. There are no definitions until we supply them; in fact, they can’t exist until we make up words to apply to them.

If this is the case, there can be no debate. If we say marriage is anything we want it to be, and there is no question of whether it is true or not, then if we want two people of the same gender to have the same status as two of different genders, then so be it. Who could argue?

 

Nominalism, which is the position just described, can be adequately understood as name-only-ism; our values and our descriptions, our definitions of terms, our understandings of concepts, etc., have no grounding other than in the words we use to name them. There is no real or true answer, description, or standard against which to measure or assess what we call things. And the question before us then is a question of whether there is anything that can be true or false about what we decide what marriage–or anything else–is.

The Christian concept of revelation challenges nominalism. It tells us that all things exist in, through, and because of God; they have their meaning in God. And the concept further suggests that there are ways in which God communicates the nature of the things that have been created. While some people would limit revelation to the words of the Bible as God’s “special” revelation, even the Bible itself suggests that the nature of the world and our reflection on it gives us some insight into the true nature of things. It is my strong inclination to believe that reason, properly employed and honestly pursued, will not undo the picture of things which the Bible paints–provided that it, too, is honestly and properly understood. I say this because it is one thing to claim that there is ultimate truth, grounded in God; it seems a position Christians are bound to adopt. But it is quite another thing to say that we fully and finally comprehend that ultimate truth; that is something we should not say. That is, we cannot allow ourselves to deny the possibility of our being mistaken as individual persons or even as a corporate church. But our susceptibility to error does not invalidate the idea that there really is truth. All of this may seem a to be a tangent from what I first proposed to write about. But God’s revelation, if such there be, must be the starting point for Christian reflection on the nature of the world and the things in it, most importantly regarding the nature of human life.

When we seek God’s perspective on human nature from the Bible, we learn a few things very quickly from the first two chapters of Genesis. Let’s list them for simplicity and in order to refer to them at later points:

1. We are created in the image of God.
2. We are created male and female.
3. Man and woman are united by leaving parents and, at least in potential, creating offspring.

What we learn in these few simple statements from the opening chapters of the Bible is corroborated in many ways through human history and anthropology. All cultures have some way of recognizing and protecting the relationship between the parents and potential parents of the next generation; it is essential to the survival of the culture into the future, the protection and continuation of what they have made into a future beyond their own lifetime. In all cultures, a man has left father and mother in order to be united with his wife and create a family of their own.

With respect to the second statement, human psychology and physiology concur. There is difference within the bearing of the image of God. Male and female bodies are different; the brain chemistry is different, as science has repeatedly demonstrated. Yet these differences between male and female are complimentary; and both male and female characteristics have their origin in God. Some conclusions follow from this. As designed, humans are to be God’s image-bearers, that is, the icons of God. And since this image is born jointly by male and female, it is through their difference and in their combination that children born to them are to see God represented to them. It is how they learn of God. This is an idea primitively stated in Adam’s having a helper (better: compliment) suitable for him; it is one more sophisicatedly stated by research that demonstrates that children of two-parent (male-female) households thrive better than those in other situations. It is the reason all cultures, with or without the Bible, with or without the research, have protected in some significant ways the relationship between man and woman. It’s in our nature as created to do so.

Things have diverged from this creation pattern in many ways. That’s why we have controversies. But as we consider the challenges and brokenness of our lives in this world, we cannot do so without some strong sense of the place from which we have fallen. It is for that reason that I have begun this series of posts in this vein. What to do about our fallenness, what Christians do and should say to the culture at large, and how they should think of the matter of same-sex unions in their own company will be considered in subsequent additions to the blog. Thanks for listening.

Rich, Poor, Fairness, and the Bible

Back to work. And what better way to restart the blogging than to fill a request from a former student? Who can resist an opening like “I wonder what my former theology professor would say about this”?

The issue is one of growing concern for Christians and non-Christians alike. It has to do with the growing disparity of income between the very wealthy and the rest. But this particular round in the on-going battle began with an interview of Rick Warren, whose considerable presence on the evangelical stage was further enhanced a few years ago by his book The Purpose-Driven Life. The following line in the interview struck a nerve with at least one reader:

There’s over 2,000 verses in the Bible about the poor. And God says that those who care about the poor, God will care about them and God will bless them. But there’s a fundamental question on the meaning of “fairness.” Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money? I do not believe in wealth redistribution, I believe in wealth creation.

The Rev. Susan Russell, pastor of All Saints Church in Pasadena, responded through an open letter in the Huffington Post, the gist of which cited Matthew 20 as demonstrating that everyone should indeed be paid the same wage. That response prompted the former student’s curiosity as to what I thought, to which the reply was that I thought both parties were seriously wrong, and that more would follow. This is the “more,” though I know full well that it will not satisfy the desire for a full-blown position on wealth and poverty to which Christians ought to subscribe.

I don’t think many biblical exegetes would suggest what Rev. Russell does regarding the parable of Jesus, in which workers hired at various points throughout the day all received the identical compensation for their labors. For one obvious feature, the issue is not the difference in the type of work done but in the length of time the different parties engaged in the labor. More fundamentally, Jesus was in no way making a statement about how things ought to be handled on the farm, much less the factory or broader marketplace; he was making statements about spiritual pride of place and privilege, turning prevailing assumptions about deserving God’s favor on their head. In order to make this into a text about compensating everyone equally regardless of their contribution, one must bring a lot of preconceived ideas to the reading.

But what about Rick Warren’s statement? Certainly, he is correct about the numerous mentions of poverty and just treatment of those in that position. But it seems to me that the real issue is obscured by asking the question of what fairness entails (a “fair” enough question) in the way he does it. Moving from the very legitimate question of fairness to the incendiary discussion of wealth redistribution changes everything; it’s an emotionally charged term, and I think he knows it. It has the effect of saying “we know you don’t want that—nobody would want that,” and using it to predispose anyone listening to accept the rest of what he will say as necessary to avoid the evils of wealth redistribution.

Let’s think about this for a moment. I suspect that what he really has in mind is government enforced redistribution; that, indeed, could cause significant problems on a number of levels. But that’s not what was said. The fact is that every transaction we engage in is a redistribution of wealth. And over time, the tendency is for more of the wealth to end up in fewer hands, which raises the question of whether the transactions were fairly structured to begin with. If you have experienced a real estate settlement, and actually analyzed all of what you were paying for, you would have serious questions about how fair the redistribution really was; but the only recourse would be to end the transaction without gaining the property. Are prices for many of the things we purchase on a routine basis fairly set? Whether they are or are not, it is a redistribution.

Here are some not-so-new statistics. Every indication is that the current ones would be even more stark than these from a few years ago:

• 83 percent of all U.S. stocks are in the hands of 1 percent of the people.
• 66 percent of the income growth between 2001 and 2007 went to the top 1% of all Americans
• Only the top 5 percent of U.S. households have earned enough additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975.
• For the first time in U.S. history, banks own a greater share of residential housing net worth in the United States than all individual Americans put together.
• In 1950, the ratio of the average executive’s paycheck to the average worker’s paycheck was about 30 to 1. Since the year 2000, that ratio has exploded to between 300 to 500 to one
• As of 2007, the bottom 80 percent of American households held about 7% of the liquid financial assets
• The bottom 50 percent of income earners in the United States now collectively own less than 1 percent of the nation’s wealth.
• Average Wall Street bonuses for 2009 were up 17 percent when compared with 2008
• The top 1 percent of U.S. households own nearly twice as much of America’s corporate wealth as they did just 15 years ago
• The top 10 percent of Americans now earn around 50 percent of our national income.

Data such as these are not to be unexpected in a world of sinful, self-absorbed people. That’s why some form of redistribution was envisioned for us by God. Though never fully practiced, the Jubilee principle nonetheless acknowledges the need for fresh starts, including the release of bonded workers, and the forgiveness of debts. It is God’s plan of (dare we say) redistribution. And while the government is a poor candidate for enacting/enforcing/interpreting its version of the provisions, it would be in the best interest of Christian thinkers and leaders to provide leadership in helping us to think better about how we might care for one another in fair and just ways which neither encourage sloth nor punish industry. Christians cannot in good conscience simply give endorsement to political and economic models which do either of these.

What do you think? What does this suggest about our political priorities?

What Makes Business “Christian”?

I’m going to do a few posts on creation next week—no, not creation as in the story of origins, but as in the part we play in creating things as bearers of the divine image.

But before beginning those posts I want to ask simply what makes a business a Christian business. It’s a straight-forward question, but just to get things started, here are a few possible answers, which readers may embrace and defend or reject; alternative proposals or combinations and nuances are also encouraged. So let’s begin.

A. A Christian business is one which is owned/operated by a Christian person or persons. This answer is more about the claim to Christian identity on the part of the owner(s) than about anything dealing with the business itself. It might be defended by pointing to ones’ identity in Christ, which makes anything one does Christian by extension.

B. A Christian business is one which displays Christian symbols in advertizing, on the premises of the business operations, on the product, or in any other publicly recognizable way. This makes the case very clearly that what we do is an offering to the Lord, who provides for all things.

C. A Christian business is one which operates on principles drawn from the Bible. These principles may or may not be prominently displayed, but are nonetheless diligently promoted in the company’s culture.

D. A Christian business is one in which specifically Christian products are made. Whether pencils or vans, they are designed specifically with a Christian consumer in mind.

E. A Christian business is one wich is used primarily as a vehicle for witnessing; it provides opportunity to share the gospel, and does so by opening doors which might otherwise be closed to the one(s) who operate the business.

That’s a short list, and it leaves many things unaddressed, but it’s only intended as a conversation starter. An additional question to consider is whether you make a concerted effort to make purchases of goods and services from Christian businesses, or whether that form of selectivity should be encouraged.

Waiting to hear from you.

Does the Bible Make Sense?

The most obvious answer to the title question is a resounding “yes” if we consider the number of people through a very long period of time and across an ever-increasing number of cultures who have been positively influenced by The Holy Bible. Apparently, it has made a lot of sense to a lot of people, though certainly not without its smattering of critics.

But when the question digs a little more deeply into the reasons for which and the manner in which the Bible makes sense, things change a bit. There has been no shortage of attempts at defining the nature of the Bible and the role of its statements about all sorts of things, from how to be “saved” to how to be successful in business, marriage, friendships, etc. The Bible has been used as a scientific book of origins, a manual for building an economic utopia, and a handbook for spirituality. But why should it be expected to hold any of these positions? What does it mean to say that it is inspired, or infallible, or inerrant, or authoritative? How would we go about defending any of those choices of descriptors—should the Bible itself be the court of appeal, or should there be externally grounded corroboration before we accept a biblical “final word” on any subject? Is the status of Scripture something equally discernible by the believer and unbeliever alike, or must there be a leap of faith before the truth of the biblical message(s) make sense?

These sorts of questions, and what be believes to be an inadequate answer most often given by conservative Christians, form the basis of Christian Smith’s book, The Bible Made Impossible. The author’s contention is that what most evangelical Christians say about the Bible—or perhaps more accurately, what they have been taught they must say about the Bible—does not make sense. Specifically, we should expect a perfect, inspired, inerrant word from God to be clearly consistent in its statements, pronouncements, and even its interpretation. Since this is very clearly not the case, it is time for those who care about the Bible to take more seriously the problems that have been present yet overlooked in the descriptions we have been given. The advantage Smith has is that of not being a theologian and not working (teaching) at an evangelical college or seminary (he’s a sociologist at Notre Dame); this, he acknowledges, gives him the freedom to speak without fear of repercussion that might ensue if someone else would write such things.

I’m going to take a couple of days on this blog to examine Smith’s ideas. But to begin (and to allow anyone interested to get the Kindle edition and follow along), I’d simply like to ask what anyone thinks the Bible is/is not, and why you think it is that way; and how satisfied you are with what you have received as an apologetic for the status of the Bible. So let’s hear from you, and we’ll begin with Smith tomorrow, and see if the Bible really has been made impossible.

What’s a Teacher?

Odd question from someone who has been earning a living by filling the role the title is all about. It was partially prompted by today’s post on the “Jesus Creed” blog page, and partially stirred by a class I led last evening. The blog post cites Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur’s discovery that lectures are largely ineffective in raising the level of understanding of students. That’s old news for anyone familiar with education research–or for anyone doing the lecturing and daring enough to truly assess its impact. Oh, a good lecturer may entertain or otherwise impress his or her students; but is it effective teaching? That might just be a different question.

Yet virtually all of us of a certain age (if you fit it, you’ll know it) have expectations that are well ingrained when it comes to the “delivery” of information, which we assume to be the equivalent of teaching. Mazur started with the same assumption, and it guided his work for years. If I am a teacher, maybe I had better refresh my thoughts on what I’m supposed to do. So I looked at the definition of teaching (on the Merriam-Webster app on my iPhone, of course–at least it wasn’t Wikipedia), where I encountered a few options, beginning with, “to cause to know something.” Goodness, I gave up the pretension of being the first cause of anything other than my occasional stupidity a long time ago. Let’s keep trying. “To cause to know how.” Not much better; same problem in thinking we can cause this sort of result, much as we’d like to. Similarly, “to cause to know the disagreeable consequences of some action.” Well, we do have grade books.

But then there are more agreeable options:”to accustom to some action or attitude;” or, “to guide the studies of,” “to instruct by precept, example, or experience.” By extension, a teacher would then be someone who does these things—accustoms, guides, and instructs. That seems far more to be the case with all of those most of us recall as teachers. We remember these verbs and think of instances of their display when we think of our teachers; we do not think of their lectures. We may recall that they were particularly engaging when they did lecture, but probably not what they said. They may even have been perfectly awful at the podium, but provided guidance nonetheless.

I mention this because of a class in which we were discussing the nature and purpose of mankind as implied in the second chapter of Genesis. What we noted (and I do mean the plural here) was that humans, as the image-bearing creature of God (icons) were set in the world to go about the task of creating, exploring, developing, growing, healing, naming, describing, etc. The eureka moment came in recognizing that each of these activities is a godly activity, and that to know how to do each and every creative task well, we need to know the one in whose image we are made, and who created us for this purpose. In other words, everybody needs good theology.

I can’t tell him many lectures I’ve given in attempts to impress upon students this very simple truth of our common need for theology; and I always had high hopes for the results (teachers are an optimistic lot). It occurred to me later, however, that God is the pattern of the teacher as well as of any other endeavor. And He gave few lectures, but was always there to accustom, guide, and instruct. After all these years, I think I’m getting the idea.

When It Hurts Too Much

One of the advantages of being solely responsible for the content of a blog is having to answer to no one for deviating from the announced plan. I expect to return tomorrow to thoughts regarding Lent and the journey of Jesus toward his death in Jerusalem.

But today I simply offer reflection on the fragility of our lives in this world. I am not speaking only of the more obvious meaning of that term, such as its application to times when accidents or illness claim or seriously alter life. I am also thinking of the fragile nature of the mind and spirit of a person. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made. It is not difficult to marvel at the latter; we do so when we are in awe of the abilities of mind and body to create and to heal, to plan and to execute plans. The more we learn of the intricacies of our own physical structure the more the wonder leads us to praise.

What of the “fearfully” part? Is it a reference to our being subject to physical breakdown, either through age or sudden catastrophe? Is it that the same intricate inner workings of the complex systems that make up our bodies can turn and work against our health, rather than for it? Is it a reminder to do what we can to guard our bodies, given the precious nature of the life they hold, not only for ourselves, but for those who share life with us? And what about those others, with whom we have relationships of many kinds, all of which are themselves subject to both healthy and unhealthy expression, bringing both great joy and great heartache?

We are told that God knows our frame, that He has not forgotten that we are but dust; he knows our thoughts from afar. Both of these are truths of which we need to be reminded, as is Paul’s warning that no one knows the thoughts or heart of another person, rendering judgments thereon as words we are unfit to pronounce. That thought continues with the clear statement that it is to our own master that we stand or fall–and that He is able to make us stand. And that ability–no, that promise–to make us stand is not something we undo by succumbing to the pressures of life.

Few of us, though perhaps more of us than what is readily apparent, find life so overwhelming that we seriously entertain thoughts of taking our own lives. Why would a person, especially one who has a solid hope in Christ as sufficient for all of our needs, be in so desperate a position? How would someone who brought encouragement and the blessing of faith fail to find it at a critical point? Was medication intended to maintain that fearfully delicate balance in the brain responsible for its undoing instead? We don’t know. And we will not know. But there are some things we can know.

We know that life hurts at times; sometimes it hurts unbearably, in ways never to become visibly manifested even to those closest and dearest. And no one is immune to things which they would never foresee happening to them. Even the best efforts at mitigation are not always successful because of the complex sort of beings we are; we are not reducible to a formula or equation.

We also know, or should know, that for those who are in Christ there is no condemnation. When Paul writes of the great Christian hope at the close of the same eighth chapter of Romans, he tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing in all creation. His power to hold surpasses the power of confusion, delusion, and anything else in the created order. The depths and heights of our experience of living, always clouded when compared to the perfect vision that yet awaits us, cannot separate us from the hope of Easter. Nor can the sadness, the temporary rocking of our world, or the fearful yet wonderful nature of our being in this world. For now we groan; tomorrow we shall yet rejoice.

Hawking: No God Necessary

Well, there you have it; or at least we will have it on September 9, when Stephen Hawking’s new book is released. According to the newest theory, nothing spontaneously creates something, which becomes the universe. There is, therefore, no need to invoke a god or gods as the ultimate explanation of things. This is a bit of a departure from Hawking’s view in A Brief History of Time, in which the door was left somewhat ajar for the possibility of a creator.

I’m not a scientist. I have read more than the average person in the field of the interplay of science and theology; but I haven’t studied all the requisite fields of knowledge to render a scientific opinion on the merits of Hawking’s proposal. I do not know, therefore, whether it actually is scientifically possible for matter to appear out of, literally, nowhere. Color me skeptical. But even if the possibility of such as origin could be established, it does not automatically negate other options. It would be, at best, one of the possible causes of the universe, not the only logical option.

In my reading of science-theology dialogs, it seems that something is consistently missed by those of atheist leanings. Perhaps in part because of their drive to find data-based answers for all beliefs, many in the scientific community believe that Christians (and other theists) believe in God because we find Him necessary to explain the world. God, according to this prevailing attitude, is the answer to why there is a world at all; and the further belief is that such a conclusion comes from the investigation of the available data. So when one refuses to search all of that data, and in fact dismisses it as irrelevant to ultimate questions, the scientist can only conclude that believers are deluded, obscurantist, and just plain stupid.

But is that really the way belief is established? Do we insist on a personal Creator because we refuse to face “the facts” uncovered by empirical investigation? The God of the Bible is not the conclusion of mankind’s search for origins, which then became the property of a privileged (male) class, which in turn wrote the stories and the rules in such a way as to secure their own privileged position. From the very beginning, God is the one who reveals Himself, not the intricacies of the natural order. And that continues to be the case for people of faith. God addresses us, makes us aware of His presence with an invitation to find meaning–not just the meaning of a natural order, but meaning for life and relationship, now and beyond the observable order.

The fact that the solution to our quest for meaning and a plausible explanation of the universe cohere with one another provides something Hawking’s proposal cannot give. It doesn’t simply explain why there is an “us” and a place for us; it explains us.