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.

“That’s Not Who We Are”–Are You Sure?

This has been a bad week for the public image of the United States. The negative impressions are well deserved; one can only hope, though without a great deal of confidence, that the events now well publicized will be the occasion of some serious soul-searching. Secret Service agents having a very busy time with Columbian prostitutes; American soldiers in Afghanistan posing with body parts of suicide bomb carriers and (perhaps) slain combatants. Not the stuff the land of the free and home of the brave ought to be posting on the shingle at the front door.

In both cases Washington officials were quick to point out that this is not who we are, not what we are about, not consistent with our values. I believe they genuinely believed what they were saying. I’m not so sure that what they said and believed was entirely true. There is a very real and quite legitimate question about whether these acts were really far off the mark we currently aim at in our culture, by default if not by intent.

Both the Hillary Rodham Clinton (Secretary of State) and Leon Panetta (Defense) are part of a generation that takes a given moral order for granted, whether or not their actual beliefs adequately account for or uphold that given order. According to that order, some actions are just plain, self-evidently wrong; and the actions that have made the recent headlines fall very clearly within the category of the forbidden. They are disturbing actions, in one case because, while prostitution is certainly nothing new, employing prostitutes while engaged in the doing of the country’s business in a foreign land obviously disrespects one’s fellow citizens, let alone one’s own family members; in the other case, the actions seem so heinous that many of us cannot comprehend anyone thinking it, let alone doing it and documenting it. It’s not the stuff we would expect anyone to treasure for home viewing in their later years.

But much has happened to undermine the assumptions on which Clinton, Panetta, and the entire generation they are part of, uncritically relied. And the failure of that generation (my own) to think through and validate the moral law with sound reasoning has led to the virtual demise of even its most basic ideas of decency, civility, and discipline of both self and offspring. When the only virtue remaining is a badly warped sense of tolerance, we mistakenly and tragically lose the power to draw lines other than by political force. And among the first to take advantage of this void was the entertainment industry, which continued to push the boundaries with ever weakening resistance. The result has been music, movies, games, and conversation about the same which devalues decency, civility, and discipline. And now we face the generation which such an approach has spawned, and we find ourselves in disgust, yet with no recourse other than to lament.

I am going to venture an opinion an opinion here against which some readers may well scoff, bristle, or rail. It seems plausible, however, to lay some of the responsibility for our moral situation at the feet of a political agenda which includes the leveling of the religious landscape. That is, when a governmental position is adopted, as undoubtedly and avowedly has been done, holding all faiths to be of equal value, it actually holds none of them to be truly worthwhile. And in so doing, it has removed any constraint against on the (im)moral impulses of its citizens other than those imposed by law. This serves the government well in that it allows no room for other lords than itself. If that is too strong a statement, consider the real meaning of religious freedom, including the freedom of grounding morality in a transcendent reality, when government itself defines religion, as the current president has done. It does so in order to control and shape citizens in its own image.

But if the truth about mankind includes a fallen nature along with our undeniable wealth of potential for creativity, watch out for what we create and the purposes for which we do it. And I submit we are reaping the consequences. Or am I just an old curmudgeon?

What Did John (Wesley) Say About It?

Nothing like ending a two-week hiatus from the blog with a controversy. And controversy there will be on the matter of economics, fairness, and justice. I think (hope) a fair-minded person would conclude several things from the discussion following the previous post. Let’s see if I can get agreement on this much:
1. There is an unequal distribution of wealth in the world and within our own nation.
2. The Bible is aware of the poverty of some people and the wealth of others. It condemns neither person because of their wealth or poverty, nor does it find those estates to be the source of their respective virtue.
3. When sloth is the cause of poverty, it is a deserved condition and one that is just; but not all poverty is so induced. When wealth is gained by unjust means it is a blight upon all and will bring oppression to any land; but not all wealth is unjustly acquired.
4. The hand is never to be closed toward the poor. And scripture does not restrict this message to the super rich.
5. Generational poverty is something which concerns God; hence, the Jubilee provisions by which land and other collateral was to be returned, so that fresh starts could be made.

How these observations and principles, which could obviously be expanded, are to be instantiated in today’s world is a difficult matter to discern, but it cannot be totally ignored simply because it is difficult. In trying to do so, we do not turn to a secular government. (This is something I thought I clearly did not advocate, yet some respondents assumed the contrary.) The government has no interest in discerning the message of scripture unless it can be turned to the state’s advantage for its own purposes. Someone mentioned John Wesley in the comments exchanged. I’d like to reference his formula for a just economics, independent of the state but under the guidance of the church.

The formula Wesley gave was simple and straight-forward: Gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can. On one hand, it is simply an expansion on the apostle’s encouragement to work with our hands so that we may have something to share with those in need. It goes farther than Eph. 5:28, however, in suggesting that there is a diligence with which one should go about making every possible effort to gain as much as one can gain, to use one’s given capacities fully in order to accumulate not just a little extra for a rainy day, but an abundance. That much sounds like any generic encouragement to put nose to grindstone and make hay while the sun shines (lots of good old sayings come to mind–and that’s the point).

But unlike the secular version of success, Wesley’s formula encourages the saving of what can reasonably be saved. This is not an economic stimulus package, geared toward spending and consuming so that others have something to produce for our further consumption, enjoyment, and comfort. Quite the opposite. He encouraged frugality, eschewed ostentation, and preached the value of saving what has been earned through all that hard work. No building of bigger barns, moving to higher-end neighborhoods, or otherwise displaying what one has accumulated. Then when the time and occasion would move one to do so, one should give all one can give in order to meet the needs of others, spread the gospel of Christ, and enter into the very character of God, who so loved that He gave. And gives.

That’s not a message we’ll hear from either party’s platform between now and November. Unfortunately, it is also one we will hear little of from our pulpits and “Christian” television. But it is one we should take to heart, not as a weapon with which to beat one another within the household of faith, but with which to challenge and encourage one another toward good works. I’m not an economist; but I wonder whether the church of Jesus will be bold enough to take its cues from its own story, knowing the end toward which it is focused, and allow those who are economists to speak to the wind.

Is Wesley’s formula too simplistic, too unworkable, or just too challenging for double-minded Christians?

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.

Business As Usual? We Hope Not

The big news of the day, other than the Republican primary campaign and the spin placed upon the Santorum victories in Alabama and Mississippi, has to revolve around the resignation letter of Greg Smith from the financial firm Goldman Sachs. Coming on the heals of a report stating that approximately 70% of the requirements of the Dodd-Franks Act aimed at cleaning up Wall Street have been unmet, the nature is Smith’s letter gives credence to the notion that little if anything has changed in the corner offices of New York’s financial district.

Smith resigned via an open letter placed in the New York Times, which has to rank this as one of the all-time greatest examples of bridge-burning. Here is a portion of his letter:

<emAnd he opines that when he joined the company, the working culture revolved around “teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and doing right by our clients”.

He says: “The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years … I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years.

“… These days, the most common question I get from junior analysts about derivatives is, ‘How much money did we make off the client?’ It bothers me every time I hear it, because it is a clear reflection of what they are observing from their leaders about the way they should behave.

“Now project 10 years into the future: You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the junior analyst sitting quietly in the corner of the room hearing about ‘muppets’, ‘ripping eyeballs out’ and ‘getting paid’ doesn’t exactly turn into a model citizen.”

The question of how widely spread the attitudes Smith exposes really are will undoubtedly be the topic of conversations in many places, with executives rushing to distance their own firms from any such practices or corporate philosophies. Goldman Sachs, of course, is doing everything possible along the damage control front. I’m not in a position to know the extent of what really happens in such offices. Few people are. Yet what happens has a significant effect on how the rest of us will live, in that the national and global economies are dependent on what happens in those corner offices. Is profit the only motive for decisions, or is public interest anywhere in the equation?

On one level, this might be a topic best left to the experts in finance and economics; that’s a position for which I do not qualify, since my experience therein is limited to managing some of the investments made by a very small bank for a short period of time (a long time ago). Why bother with it when there is little we can can do about it? On the other hand, we can at least use this as a lens through which we peer into the soul of a culture—not just the financial culture, but our entire western, specifically American culture. And the view isn’t pleasant.

I doubt that the people alluded to by Smith are all that different from the majority of folks. They’ve been brought to this point in their lives by the same values and attitudes that have been carrying the culture, many of which are the inevitable result of a morally destitute worldview. The culture that doesn’t know anything for sure except a badly skewed idea of tolerance and diversity will have a hard time producing leaders in any segment of the business world, political world, or entertainment world who have a true (no, really, I mean ‘true’) sense of the interests of others at the center. What the Smith letter frighteningly reveals is that not even when our own interests in the long-term will be jeopardized by ignoring others in the short-term are some folks capable of doing what is right.

I also suspect that there may be an underlying fear among those who take what they can take now. It is the fear of someday not having enough and not having the opportunity to obtain it. And this may well be an indicator of the lack of hope that lies at the core of the culture without grounding in truth. Hope. Where can it be found? When we yield the ground of truth, hope cannot be anything more than wishful thinking—and that’s not a very convincing resource to take with us into the battle we all have against the temptation to accumulate for ourselves at the expense of others.