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God’s Economy

April 20, 2014
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When I was in elementary school a friend of mine got in an argument with a classmate over the nature of humanity and pulled me in to support her side. “Don’t you believe,” she asked me, “That people are basically good?” Even at that age I knew enough to be unsurprised by her insistence and enough to be equally sure that I didn’t know enough about the world (the adult world) to give a sure answer. More than two decades on I have a much firmer grasp of my answer to that question: no, people are basically selfish and stop to be good only after their first-order needs are met. However, I am also even less surprised that some people think (or perhaps wish fervently) that people are basically good. For some large chunk of the population it is dogma that people are basically good, that we can all get along and be nice, and that the struggles for power that have oppressed and beaten down humanity for all of recorded history are aberrations caused by odd people who depart from the normal path.

This position becomes even less tenable when applied to the natural world. Again, I know a number of people who believe that animals live wonderful lives in nature but as an ecologist I know better: the gears of the world are greased with the blood of the weak. In the constant struggle to survive animals do horrible things to one another and, frankly, it would be odd to me if humans escaped those impulses entirely.

The problem boils down to some simple rules: most of the world is a zero-sum game. Most resources are limited sharply enough that if you have something I don’t have it. While this is often not apparent in the Western world with many of life’s necessities we are all aware of it at less life-threatening level. If there were less people with PhD’s in zoology I would have a much easier time securing a prestigious job. If fewer people wanted to buy the same computer software that I want to buy the prices probably wouldn’t be nearly as inflated as they are. Many of us, at some point in our lives, imagined a world where there were fewer members of our sex competing for the attention of the opposite sex. The basis of the world is zero-sum and so there is always competition. The fragile peace we have achieved in the Western democracies is built on our wealth – we don’t compete for food and shelter (directly) and so we aren’t willing to escalate the permanent war between us into serious territory.

Jesus draws some oblique attention to this issue in John 18:33-36. Pilate asks Jesus whether he is a king and, with a short interruption, Jesus answers that his kingdom (or perhaps kingship) is not from the world. (This is frequently rendered “of this world” but “of” is fairly slippery and the Greek here is “from” or “out of”.) Jesus explains that if his kingdom were from this world his servants would fight to prevent his arrest. Of course. In the world of kings power is zero-sum and so kings always seek to remove power from other kings to add to their own. The struggle for power is one that has killed millions of people throughout history and the desire of autocrats to keep their station still drives conflicts today. Kings respond to this threat of the removal of power through force, the currency of struggle.

Of course, this is not how Jesus’ story goes. When Jesus is killed by enemy action his kingdom does not collapse and revert to those who killed him. In fact, his kingship, his right to rule, is affirmed and supported. The man who is killed by Pilate appears to be a wandering rabbi of unusual power making Messianic claims. The man who walks out of the tomb on Easter is clearly something more. In an odd twist Jesus’ march towards death is also his ascension to his throne. (His ascension into heaven occurs later but it is worth being careful with our words: Jesus may reign from heaven but he reigns over earth and his claim to be the king over all the earth is solidified by his resurrection, not his ascension.)

By itself this would be an odd footnote in a zero-sum world. One man, one divine man whose humanness was tinged by something else, broke the zero-sum rule. Force was used against him, it appeared to work, and then, suddenly, it didn’t. The man who exerted no force won the struggle. Moreover, he gained power without a clear loss elsewhere. Pilate remained governor of Judea. The Sanhedrin lost none of its legal power. Despite this, both of these parties lost a conflict in which their enemy gained power.

However, in rising from the dead Jesus broke more than just this rule once. In one man’s rising all are promised life. It’s an egregiously-outsized impact on others. I don’t struggle for my salvation, it is handed to me free. Moreover, force is the currency of the struggle for limited resources and suddenly force loses its punch. The power of the oppressor is that the oppressor can put the oppressed to death. If death is robbed of its power the oppressor is also robbed of his power.

It gets worse. If Jesus is God, the savior of all, and sets the rules then those rules are not zero-sum. A couple runs out of wine and their wedding in Cana and Jesus makes more wine from common water. People come to Jesus for healing and he heals all of them without a diminishment of power. If you made a Jesus video game it would be awful. You’d want to give Jesus a power bar that recharged over time and limited his miracles but no, Jesus is at full power all the time. He doesn’t learn new miracles or level up for better ones. Instead, Jesus always has God’s full power at his disposal all the time.

This is one reason that it’s hard to imagine writing a book with God as a character. We think of deus ex machina as a cheap fix for a story – someone or something shows up with previously unknown powers and fixes everything. Stories are built on rules and those rules demand a certain amount of outlay for a certain amount of effect, some limits on what characters can do so that they can face real challenges, and God just doesn’t follow that rule. God does whatever He wants without limits at any time. God isn’t a zero-sum kind of guy.

Part of the offense of miracles is exactly that they are not zero-sum. Magic is in some way more palatable than miracle. If you burn these components and say these words this thing happens. It follows rules, it can be blocked, it has limits. Miracles are not like this. Someone prays and anything at all may happen. Moses doesn’t need to pray a hundred times longer to part the Red Sea than he does to split one rock. Elijah isn’t recorded as saying any prayer at all to bring rain back to a drought-stricken Israel and his prayer to call divine fire from heaven is mockingly perfunctory after the efforts the prophets of Ba’al have put forth without effect. God is clearly careless with limits and overly-generous with His infinite resources.

Easter is a promise that the world is not always going to be zero-sum because Easter is a promise that God has won. If the world were always zero-sum then Christianity would be a farce, giving up what we have when we should be hoarding it. But if the Son of God rises from the dead, if death and hell break under the weight of his triumph, then maybe his crazy rules are winning too. Maybe God’s economy of unbridled generosity can be real. Maybe we can have peace because there need not be any struggle.

If Easter never happened then my hippie friend’s dream of a world where everyone was nice to everyone would be a dream that dies under the harsh light of a limited sun. The kings of the world would fight and make others die because that would be the only way to win. The resurrection tells us that this a world of real peace can be and is coming. God is winning. God has won. And that is good news for all of us.

Awful Grammar

April 14, 2014
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The book of Job includes a lot of strange, poetic verse. However, right towards the beginning of the book (verse 1:12) most English versions render an odd sentence that cannot be blamed on the book’s poetry. In the NIV the sentence reads, “The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.’” This is hardly the sole fault of the NIV. The ESV reads “Only against him do not stretch out your hand” in the key portion of the verse while the KJV reads “Only upon himself put not forth thine hand”.

There’s a good solid way to say this in English: “Very well then, everything he has is in your power but do not lay a finger on the man himself.” This is how standard English syntax works: subject-verb-object. (Obviously this is slightly modified here since Satan is already being addressed but we still identify the subject, state the verb with its negative, and then identify the object of the action in that order.) So why do we get a nonstandard order in so many translations? Probably because it’s the Hebrew word order here. This sentence translated in an overly-mechanical fashion from Hebrew[1] would read: “And he said (the Lord) to the satan[2], ‘Behold, all that is to him is in your hands only to him do not send your hand.” (“Send your hand” is a common Hebrew idiom for striking someone either physically or with one’s royal or divine power.)

This is hardly the only place where translations retain the syntax of Hebrew or Greek. In fact these places are so common in many translations that I can randomly skip about the Bible and find them with relative ease. Much of the distinctive verbal feel of the Bible is the retention of Hebrew and Greek grammar. Paul’s distinctive style is partly just Greek style with its extremely long sentences. This might not seem like much to note except that we probably wouldn’t leave so much non-English syntax in place in any other document. Translation is, after all, not just about changing words but also fixing syntax. To translate from Hebrew or Greek at all one must rearrange syntax or the resulting English sentence will be nearly unreadable. So why don’t we change syntax all the way into standard English syntax? In cases in which we are dealing with the normal syntax of another language (i.e., syntax that does not signify anything special) shouldn’t we turn it into normal English syntax to retain the lack of emphasis present in the original sentence?

This isn’t the most fascinating translation topic ever. However, the reluctance to tamper with the wording of the Bible at all, even to fix non-English syntax in ways that only serve to make the Bible easier to read, is interesting. There are a few arguments for not altering the underlying syntax of Hebrew and Greek: it makes the Bible “sound right”, giving it the distinctive feel many readers have come to expect, and avoiding altering the text seems like the less-risky choice. However, it may be that choosing not to rearrange words changes the meaning of a text. The Bible often sounds quite formal partly because it uses slightly odd syntax and not the natural syntax of English. Do we always want the Bible to sound formal? Does introducing formality where it was not previously present alter the text?

Ironically, I’ve yet to see a translation that does not alter the text more significantly: both Hebrew and Greek often use pronouns in long strings without re-specifying who they refer to in the way English demands. When faced with “he said to him” for the third time without a proper noun translators tend to swap out a pronoun for a proper noun. It’s certainly difficult for English speakers to follow the original style but technically speaking deciding which “him” is meant by the pronoun is a more significant decision than flipping the order of a few words.

I suspect that the reason these sorts of translation differences come up at all is because Christians can disagree strongly on where the meaning of a passage comes from. If one believes that it comes from the words without any other influences then one should always avoid altering anything about the words if possible. If meaning comes from the words and the sense of tone they give you, which is filtered through your expectations for reading and your culture then the words need to be fitted to their new context. This debate, about whether meaning lives in bare words or in some more nebulous context, is more interesting.

I tend to think that assuming that meaning lives in bare words is overly-reductionist. It would be nice if every generation could be passed the same set of zealously-guarded words and hear them in the same way, but we know that this isn’t true. Even writing from a century ago sounds somewhat odd to us and so every generation hears the same words afresh which may require new translations to retain the old meanings. Of course, this requires more care in translating. It’s one thing to have to make sure to get all the words right but matching tone is much harder. In fact, outside of some of the more obvious cases it may be far too contentious to be really possible.

However, this returns to the question about where meaning lives. If meaning lives in the sweep of a story then the only real course is to know the Bible and its stories well. The false certainty of having every word right won’t do – we will need to know the whole of the Bible, its pacing and unfamiliarly-ancient style to understand the meaning correctly. Meaning may end up being hard to pin down in technical terms and careful specifications. However, this doesn’t mean that meaning isn’t worth pursuing. In fact, the difficulty of the task may signal the value of the reward. What might we learn from the Bible on the fiftieth reading that we missed on the fifth? Well, if tone and context inform meaning, the answer should be “something new”.

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Spiritual Gifts

April 7, 2014
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Some years ago a church I went to made the decision to pay money to administer a spiritual gifts test to the entire congregation. I wasn’t particularly happy with this decision. In part this was because the test was rather obviously a slightly re-packaged personality test. However, there were a number of other issues with the test, all of which stemmed from unexamined assumptions about spiritual gifts.

One of the first assumptions people make about spiritual gifts is that there is a definitive list. 1 Corinthians 12:7-10 and Romans 12:6-8 give more sizable lists of gifts while Ephesians 4:11 lists several roles in the church as gifts that Jesus gave to the church. Prophesy and teaching appear on all three lists while all the other gifts appear on only one list. Ephesians 4 might lead one to suspect that there is a gift of apostleship and a gift of evangelism. 1 Corinthians 12 adds messages of wisdom, messages of knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues while Romans 12 adds serving, encouraging, giving, leading, and showing mercy.

This presents an immediate problem. There are seventeen gifts between the three lists with a total gift-overlap of only two gifts. This immediately suggests that each list is a small subset of a much larger total. (Specifically, if we treated the list in 1 Corinthians and Romans as two samples of a larger whole and estimated from there then we would estimate that there are approximately thirty-one and a half gifts. However, treating the 1 Corinthians and Romans lists as two independent, random samples of a larger whole is fairly ridiculous.) More problematic than the fact that we don’t just see the same gifts list twice is the fact that the three lists all seem to have different themes. The Ephesians list departs most strongly from the others as it lists roles for people (apostles, prophets, etc.) as gifts while the others list abilities. However, the 1 Corinthians list and the Romans list also strongly depart from one another. With the exception of teaching and faith, the 1 Corinthians list appears to be a list of supernatural powers – prophecy, healing, speaking in tongues, and discerning types of spirits. Meanwhile, the Romans list follows the opposite pattern. With the exception of prophecy it appears to be a list of ordinary abilities used for the edification of the church – serving, giving, leading, and so on.

This poses an interesting problem. If we had a clear rationale for gifts then we could probably better accept that we didn’t know their number. For instance, if one only read 1 Corinthians one might be able to accept that the Holy Spirit moves in a variety of powerful ways but that spiritual gifts are any form of powerful movement of the Spirit. Instead we are left with little guidance even there. Is there a gift of accounting? Some churches clearly need it! But is that even the sort of thing that could exist?

Before circling back around to this point I wish to address another concern. Are these spiritual gifts or gifts of the Spirit? Both are plausible readings of the Greek “gifts of the spirit” which lacks capitalization that might distinguish a spirit from the Spirit (although there’s a gift to help out with that). The basic issue is that “X of Y” relationships can mean a number of different things. Compare the following: “house of David” (ownership/founding of the house) to “house of stone” (material elements of the house) to “house of wickedness” (attribute associated with the house). “Spiritual gifts” makes these gifts sound like they are gifts in one’s spirit while “gifts of the Spirit” sounds like we are identifying the gifts by the gift-giver, the Holy Spirit.

Oddly enough, the Old Testament might be of use here. In the Old Testament spirits frequently come upon people and grant them new abilities – spirits of wisdom, spirits of knowledge, or even spirits that bring insanity. My proposal is that when Paul speaks of gifts of the spirit he means gifts brought on or empowered by the presence of the Spirit in/alongside your own spirit. It may actually be unhelpfully modern to attempt to separate the Spirit from the spirit in this case although it is probably worse to make the split and forget the role of the Holy Spirit.

However, this circles us back to the argument about empowerment versus granting. Very few would argue that prophesy is an ability that you have as a non-Christian that is enhanced by the Spirit. However, it’s obvious that some of the other abilities are pre-existing and put to work for Christ. I would again like to suggest that there might be another way to see this. The linchpin of this idea is the fact that both major gifts lists include at least one jarring element – Romans lists a supernatural gifts and 1 Corinthians lists some “ordinary” abilities. If each list simply operated under entirely different rules I would propose that only an accident of wording places them in the same category and that in reality Paul is talking about two different things. However, with crossover on the lists it’s worth asking whether Paul thinks that these lists really combine two different sorts of gifts. Does Paul actually think that teaching and prophecy are different in origin?

One answer to this is the rather simplistic claim that giving, teaching, mercy, and so on exist in two forms, an ordinary form that many people have and a special additional form that is a gift of the Spirit that is occasionally granted to non-charitable individuals through God’s grace. While this is a little odd it also points to a closer synthesis. If some greedy person became Christian and over the course of three or four years gradually became generous would this be evidence of the Spirit’s work? Of course. Would it be evidence of a gift of generosity being given to that person? I think we’d have to say “yes” unless we hold some very rigid ideas about the gifts (more rigid than Paul, it appears, since Paul doesn’t bother to give us so much as a definitive list). So if a generous person became a Christian and focused their generosity in a particular way based on their newfound faith, would that be the work of the Spirit and evidence of a gift of generosity being given? The difficulty in drawing a sharp line here suggests to me that there isn’t one. Instead, the Spirit works in people in a number of different ways and we can call any of these gifts since they are things we are given.

There’s another layer to this. It’s possible that Paul doesn’t come close enough to our Post-Enlightenment natural/supernatural division in our way of thinking for some of these questions to even make sense. For instance, we tend to see distinguishing spirits on a list next to prophecy, healing, and miraculous powers and assume that this involves detecting supernatural entities. It’s possible given the usage of the word “spirit” in Paul’s world that this is actually closer to a gift of insight into people, what we might now call a counseling ability. It’s also possible (and more likely than the last option) that Paul would draw no distinction between these two meanings of distinguishing spirits.

The last question that interests me when I look at all of this is why this is a topic of such interest. One reason seems to be that it tells people they are special. Find your gift and now we can give you clear, personalized guidance and assign you a valuable role. Another reason is that it sometimes lets people get off the hook for being bad at gifts that aren’t supposed to be theirs. Are you grumpy and unpleasant? Claim teaching as your gift (no, please don’t) and leave hospitality to those other people! Finally, it makes things simple. Here’s your gift, now you know what God wants you do to.

Reality seems more complicated. If Paul really means to say something like, “The Spirit helps us do all sorts of things, expected and unexpected, for the church,” then we’re stuck looking for God’s actions in our lives however they come to us. And while that’s a lot more complicated than finding our place on a list I think it is a lot better. After all, almost nothing else we do is this simple. It would be hard to take the gifts of the Spirit seriously if they were not as varied and flexible as the challenges the world we live in presents.

Why is Jesus so Obtuse?

March 31, 2014
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The gospel of John is not very much like the other three gospels (called the Synoptics) in a number of ways. For instance, in the Synoptics Jesus frequently speaks in parables where in John he never does. However, John and the Synoptics share one clear thing in common: Jesus is obtuse. Sure, in the Synoptics it’s parables and in John it is strange metaphors and odd sayings like “you must be born again”, “I am the bread of life”, and “I am the gate for the sheep”, but the basic idea is the same. Jesus does not say things in a plain, straightforward manner.

This is a bit of a problem. We tend to like things to be plain and straightforward. We work hard at making things plain and straightforward when we explain our faith. Heck, even the disciples seem to have wanted Jesus to be plain and straightforward. In Matthew 13:10 the disciples ask why Jesus speaks in parables and in John 16:29-30 the disciples seem very relieved that Jesus is speaking “clearly and without figures of speech”. So why is Jesus so obtuse? Why does he use parables and figures of speech? Why doesn’t he just tell people plainly what is happening? Won’t some people miss out on what Jesus says because he is deliberately being hard to understand?

There are several ways of approaching this. One would be to say that yes, Jesus is being deliberately obtuse in a way that will cause some to miss what he is saying to their own detriment. Another option might be to claim that Jesus is not being obtuse. Instead, he is being as clear as he can about very complex matters. (Imagine explaining a three-dimensional world to a two-dimensional being, or just read my article Calculus for Hamsters.) Yet another option would be to claim that Jesus is being more obtuse than absolutely necessary but that no one will miss what he is saying because of that. I favor a position somewhere between the second two options.

The first option has some things to recommend it. For one, it makes a lot of sense that Jesus is being deliberately obtuse when many of us feel that we can break the gospel down much more simply. For another Jesus never seems to be pushing people to make confessions of faith in him in the way that many evangelicals do. Instead, Jesus spends a lot of time talking about what we often think are secondary concerns without first addressing the “primary” issues. However, it is a little odd to have Jesus deliberately tricking people. Some Calvinists might be OK with this (it’s hardly any worse than double predestination) but it does seem a bit odd.

The second option is also fairly simple but requires us to rethink the gospel. If the gospel were actually much more complicated and nuanced than many of our presentations of it then it would be easy enough to say that Jesus was being as straightforward as possible while still being hard to understand. This would also make sense out of Jesus’ general behavior. A lot of that other teaching that seems to be about secondary issues might not be. Maybe we’ve just oversimplified the gospel. (Which seems plausible – if all that the gospel has to offer is on consistent display in our modern churches then the gospel is weak medicine for our ills.)

The third option is also fairly simple: perhaps only those who would see the spark of divine life in Jesus’ sayings and be willing to wade through the hard bits would ever follow him anyway. Perhaps Jesus’ obtuseness lost no one who would ever really follow him.

I favor a middle option. Assume for a minute that Jesus’ main issue is that most of the things he needs to say are easy to misunderstand. We frequently say this about Jesus’ reluctance to use the word Messiah (or Christ) about himself and his reticence about his divine status. We point out that saying, ‘I’m the Messiah,” in the first-century world would probably communicate the wrong sort of thing because people expected the wrong sort of Messiah. Similarly, “son of god” language would have evoked Greco-Roman ideas of anthropomorphic gods having sex with human women and producing demi-god progeny. Given this we’re content enough that Jesus does not say flat-out “I’m the Messiah” or “I’m the Son of God” all the time. So what if most of what Jesus has to say is like this? What if digging through a complicated parable or figure of speech is necessary for proper understanding?

We say this about Messianic language. The disciples eventually get Jesus. He’s clearly the Messiah – his actions testify to his status – but he’s not doing what the expected. After these two thoughts sit together in the same head long enough the disciples realize that they have misunderstood what it means to be a Messiah. However, explaining this “plainly” would have actually made matters worse. “I’m the Messiah but not like you think” sounds like “I’m the Messiah but not”. The disciples need the cognitive dissonance of having “Jesus must be the Messiah because of the miracles he does” and “Jesus does not act like I thought the Messiah would” to push them on to new realizations about what the Messiah will do.

Perhaps this sort of thing is generally necessary for much of what Jesus says. Perhaps Jesus’ message is insidiously different than the simple version we like to pass around and so Jesus uses obscure language to force us to think about what it really means. Perhaps Jesus could be clearer but no one who would ever follow him properly missed out on what he said because only those with the will to plow through parables and figures of speech would be willing to follow Jesus.

This is (I think) where things get really interesting. We tend to believe that plain speech is better than difficult speech and yet I think there is a strong case to be made that what Jesus says is not all that easy to understand and that only those willing to dig through the hard bits will ever really get it (hence my description of this case as a middle position between my original second and third options). So should we really value plain speech so much? It’s hard to see exactly where to go from here but I think there is probably real value in recovering the lost art of the answer that requires deep thought to understand. In our world where answers are supposed to be easy we may have lost the ability to understand anything that can’t be made simple.

Taking Depravity Seriously

March 24, 2014
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Calvinism, in neo-Calvinist form, is doing quite well.  When I went to college one of the more fashionable exists from an untenable fundamentalism was to become a neo-Calvinist and I’ve seen little evidence that the brand has suffered much since then.  Since Calvinism is (at least in its current form) based around the famous Five Points and the first of these is Total Depravity, one might think that there was a lot of excellent Christian thought going on about depravity.  I wish to argue that there isn’t.

The first reason for this is fairly simple[1].  A lot of modern Calvinist thought seems to be aimed outwards at combating non-Calvinist Christians.  This tends to mean that rather than discussing what depravity is like and how it works, a lot of thought about depravity focuses on whether or not it is total.  Effectively the theological battle within Protestantism sucks resources away from other things.

The second reason is less simple: most people doing any sort of thinking in the Western world are post-Enlightenment thinkers.  One of the real triumphs of the Enlightenment was a drastic reduction in religiously-motivated violence.  By chopping life into personal, private sections and public sections, the Enlightenment managed to end large amounts of violence that had been driven by what were now deemed “private” concerns[2].  However, taking depravity seriously requires breaking out of the Enlightenment boxes.

As a brief aside: taking depravity seriously also means realizing that a complete breakdown of the Enlightenment boxes without any sort of replacement would inevitably lead to the sort of violence that marked the pre-Enlightenment period.  Since people remain the same sort of sinful people as they were before the Enlightenment one can’t simply break down the safety fences and hope the newer set of habits will hold.

The issue with Enlightenment boxes and depravity is that Enlightenment boxes are supposedly non-intersecting.  One’s politics (public) and one’s religion (private) are not supposed to touch.  One’s employment (public) and one’s views on raising a family (private) are not supposed to interact.  Of course these things do interact – politicians make the right noises about religion to appeal to certain demographics and people choose jobs based on part on the time this allows for their families – but the Enlightenment fiction is that they basically don’t.  Herein lies the problem: depravity is a religious statement (and an easily-observed fact of the world but this is frequently missed).  Since depravity is a religious statement it naturally spreads out across its entire Enlightenment box.  However, depravity is effectively the statement that “everything is broken” and so it naturally makes claims on all other boxes.

Indeed, I believe that the real power of taking depravity seriously is that depravity ignores the boxes the Enlightenment has created.  It is very easy as a Western Christian to assume that the Enlightenment boxes are natural and real.  We read religious injunctions and think that they must naturally apply to our private lives and our personal intentions.  We rarely think that they should extend out to the wider world except in specific exceptional cases.  (For example, most of us choose jobs without reference to our religion but would agree that a small class of egregiously-sinful jobs like prostitution or drug-running are off-limits.)  When we hear that everyone is broken we say, “Yes, of course, everyone is broken in their intentions and thoughts.”  We then think carefully about our intentions and thoughts.  However, we don’t think about the other categories.  Are we broken in our economic theories?  Are our ideas about governance based on sinful premises?  Do we measure our work in non-Christian ways?

Some of this is a general blindness to structural evil.  However, much of that is itself a failure to take depravity seriously.  Many a good Calvinist will assert in Bible study after church that they personally are deeply and utterly wicked.  This is despite the fact that this Calvinist is in Bible study at church thinking carefully about how not to be wicked.  It is taken as a given that depravity can lurk behind a façade of goodness and that this façade can even fool the one who puts it on.  So why should we expect the structures of the world to be any different?  If we can hide our own brokenness from ourselves why should our structures be clean?  Doesn’t this involve rejecting depravity and insisting that some part of us that makes structures is morally perfect?

I believe that it is well worth taking one’s personal depravity seriously.  It is, in fact, always more severe than one really believes (something one is reminded of every time one tries to address some “minor” moral lapse in oneself).  However, we should take very seriously the idea that everything we do is broken – our thoughts, our actions, the structures we create, our measurement of ourselves, the way we do business, and so on.  Much of the world around us recognizes the brokenness of our public lives.  It’s worth it as Christians to recognize that this is a real and natural outgrowth of our broken selves.


[1] I’m ignoring the (relatively common) issue wherein people who do not do a lot of theological reading misunderstand what is total about Total Depravity.  Most commonly people do this by assuming that Total Depravity means that everyone is depraved when it actually means that everyone is depraved all the way through.  (This is in contrast to beliefs that hold that some part of a person remains free of the crippling effects of sin.)  However, people who are not even doing the work to understand the terms right are probably not about to contribute great thoughts anyway.

[2] Of course, I would argue that this is largely because violence is always driven in reality by a few simple things and the rationalization that is placed on top of it is not the real reason for the violence.  If one designates a particular area like religion as a stupid reason to be violent towards someone most rationalizers will pick some other rationalization for their violence.

What is Human?

March 17, 2014
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This week I noticed an advertisement for a TV show about how humans share some similar behavioral patterns with non-human animals.  The show is called “How Human are You?”  Well, 100%[1].  That will be a disappointingly short first and only episode.  However, I know what the show is driving at.  It’s a pretty common staple of a certain branch of biology and it’s a near given for some primatologists (some of whom are trained as anthropologists, interestingly enough): humans are not so different from non-human animals.  We tend to think of ourselves as very different (to the extent that not all of my freshman college students are aware that they are taxonomically categorized as animals).  This difference leads to a particular set of behaviors in which humans and animals are treated as fundamentally separate categories.  Of course Christian thinking does have a special place for human beings.  So does it matter to Christians how different humans are from other life forms?

In some sense it must matter how different humans are from other organisms.  However even a “worst case” scenario isn’t a death blow to Christianity.  Let’s just imagine that we discovered that some other species was our intellectual equal with complex language, oral tradition, philosophy, and so forth.  Would that cripple Christianity?  Certainly the Bible is human-centered and certainly we have always interpreted that to mean that humans are special, that alone of all life on the planet humans have the capacity to engage in the kind of deliberate moral or immoral behavior that makes for ethical obedience or disobedience.  However, if another intelligent species showed up we might conclude that the Bible is human-centered because it’s meant to be read and used by humans.  In fact, the Bible contains almost no information on the status of non-humans.  Besides a mandate to rule in Genesis[2], we know almost nothing about the “spiritual” status of other creatures.

One of the more common differences that is asserted between humans and other animals is that humans have a soul.  Not only is this solidly beyond the realm of testing but even this difference isn’t as clear-cut as one might think.  The Bible itself uses soul and spirit in a variety of ways that are not entirely analogous to modern English usage but do allow animals to have souls.  Our modern concept of human souls comes from a medieval division of souls into three types: vegetable (which conferred the power to grow), animal (which conferred the power to move), and logical (which conferred the power to think).  Medieval thinkers held that humans (and humans alone) possessed all three soul types but this is more a matter of medieval philosophy than Biblical exegesis.

So should Christians care how different humans are from other creatures?  I think the answer has to be no.  What’s more, it’s also not important that we find a single clear difference that sets humans apart.  Humans do math but so do chimps.  Humans use language but the boundaries of what animals are doing with language is being pushed further and further back.  Humans build cities but so do ants and prairie dogs.  However, humans put together these skills in a way that means that humans are writing articles about what other animals do while other animals are almost certainly not engaged in any kind of dialog about what makes a human being human.

Central to the odd idea that challenging what makes us human is philosophically important is fuzzy thinking.  It’s a specific sort of fuzzy thinking that appears again and again when scientists attempt to make an idea more interesting by tying it to philosophy that they don’t bother to understand first.  (Neurologists are another common offender here.)  The value of this example is mostly in being an example that helps us think more clearly about other cases we may run across.

The way good thinking about this topic should have begun is with the philosophy.  What is it that makes us human?  Why does that matter?  It’s unclear, as I’ve said, that the first answer even matters.  We can determine who is human and who is not pretty easily and what seems to be more important is what we do with this (the second half).  Coming at the question from this direction, the provocative claims that humans are somehow less-human because they share traits with other species is just nonsense.  However, if we skim over these questions and make culturally-common assumptions about what makes us human we may find that these assumptions don’t work.  We may be shocked to find that we are less unique than we thought.  We may then broadcast that shock as if something radical has changed when what has changed is really only that we have woken up to the question “what makes us human?” for the first time.

Unfortunately, Christians are often tied to older assumptions about how humans work.  A while ago I was asked how I could be an intelligent person and yet believe in “all this stuff”.  It’s a bad question but it’s a common one.  It assumes that the massive revolution in scientific knowledge has fundamentally up-ended older ways of thinking about people that Christianity depends on.  For some individual Christians that is true – their Christianity is based on ideas about how people work that just aren’t true.  But this isn’t the heart of Christianity.  Bad Christianity can be overthrown by bad philosophy quite easily but this says nothing about the more carefully thought-out sort of Christianity.  It behooves Christians to think carefully about our world so that we can better answer these spurious challenges.


[1] If you really want to debate this then the place to do so is with Neanderthal DNA and the question of Neanderthal taxonomy.  I would also probably watch that show.

[2] Even this could be dealt with since humans do hold the fate of other species in their hands in a way that no other species does.  Humans do rule other species and should do so in a manner consistent with God’s will.

The Desperately Poor Don’t Give Up Anything for Lent

March 10, 2014
by

During Lent a lot of Christians give things up.  A lot of Christians give up food of some sort – chocolate, meat, fried food, coffee, dessert, or something else.  Now giving things up often makes us feel a bit put-upon even if we’re the ones oppressing ourselves.  However, I believe that it could (and should) make us thankful.

The genesis of this article began with two simple observations.  First, while most Christians pray before meals I have spent most of my life wondering why we pray before meals instead of some other set of equally-spaced times around the day.  Second, when I break a fast I’m generally much clearer on why I’m praying before a meal.  This second bit isn’t all that surprising – when I’m really hungry I’m more thankful for food.  But this also brings me to another observation: I can give up food only because I have it.

Take, for example, giving up dessert.  To give up dessert meaningfully one must eat dessert regularly enough for it to be missed.  If I were an impoverished subsistence farmer in central Mexico I might well be able to give up dessert every day of the year and never notice because dessert is a luxury that I would never or almost never have access to.  For me to give up meat for Lent I must live a life in which I can afford to buy meat often enough that I would notice something odd if I went for forty days without it.  Most people in most places and times have not been in that situation.

This is where giving up meets gratitude.  Giving something up means that you have it.  When I give up food I give it up by choice – not because the harvest failed and there’s no food to be had, not because I’m too poor to buy any food, and not because someone more powerful than I has cut off my access to food to make a point.  In giving something up I can also celebrate that it is mine to give up.

Moreover, the reason something is mine to give up is always because of God’s gift.  This is true both in an ultimate sense – everything you are and therefore everything you do is God’s gift – and in a more “normal” sense.  Why can I choose to give up chocolate?  Because I work hard?  Sure – I can afford to buy chocolate in part because I work hard.  But even if I wanted to pretend that my work was somehow all my own there’s this small issue that most people throughout history could have worked very hard and never had any chocolate.  The fact that I live in America where there are jobs for hard workers (even if there are still less than we would like) and where the average income is high enough that normal people can buy completely frivolous food and so the grocery stores all stock it is not my doing.  The fact that I live in the 21st century with international shipping of food and a huge number of domesticated plants to eat is not my doing.  Were I a hard-working North Korean in modern-day society I doubt I’d ever have the chance to give up chocolate.  Were I a hard-working Irishman in the year 900 I’d also never get a chance to give up chocolate.

The very fact that we can give things up – so many different things, to judge by what my friends are telling me they are giving up – is a sign that we are blessed.  At the end of Lent we will pick up what we have set aside and we will probably be thankful for it.  But right now let us also be thankful that it was ever ours to set aside.  Be thankful for the meal you eat but also the one you chose not to eat.  And, of course, pray for those who have no choice in the matter.

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