Since I seem incapable of getting a normal-length post out these days and since the second Presidential debate, which will generate all sorts of data for this article’s thesis, is on right now I am going to try to take a point I have been wanting to make at length for quite some time and make it briefly. At least, more briefly than that sentence.
Everyone operates within a moral language. This isn’t to say that everyone takes morality seriously but that everyone has an idea of what morality is and has a way to speak about this.
This has two effects: first, the moral language a person uses may have little to nothing to do with their own morality. Some people who are confident in their own morality will use their own moral language, but many people will instead attempt to adopt the moral language of their target audience. This section was once intended to be much expanded as it explains many odd features of societies. I’ve touched on the issue of religious wars before and this theory here explains why non-religious conflicts would be framed religiously. It’s the moral language of that society. Medieval Europe had a Catholic moral language and the medieval Middle East had an Islamic moral language. Anyone justifying anything to anyone else in either of those societies could be expected to draw upon religious moral language. Similarly, after the USSR enshrined a moral language based on Marxism a number of decidedly non-Marxist decisions were made and justified in Marxist terms. Why? Because people reach for the moral language of their society (or cultural splinter) to justify things, whatever those things actually are.
Second, if you want to understand the moral language of a culture you can’t do much better than listen to immoral people justifying their immorality or being berated for it. Moral language is the language of a quasi-legal discourse and if you want to listen to legal discourse you need to listen to legal cases.
For instance, a number of celebrities have had to apologize for bad behavior that occurred while drinking. In many cases they have defended their actions by pointing out that they were drinking. This suggests that the idea of morality they are appealing to is one where their actions are morally worse than being drunk. When Akio Toyoda issued a public apology for faults in Toyota cars he discussed how the issues with the vehicles damaged his name. While I don’t pretend to understand Japanese culture well that’s the sort of statement that feels very Japanese to me – it’s framed in terms of honor. However, I also don’t know exactly how it functions, and so its presence speaks of a moral language that I’m unfamiliar with.
Where this ties back to tonight’s main event (the second Presidential debate) is that politicians are constantly defending themselves on the campaign trail and in doing so give us an idea of what sort of moral values they think their constituents have. While I have generally found this political season to be horrible it has also been a fascinating window into American moral values (which differ between parties).
 Feral children might be an exception. Might be. People who live in societies have moral languages.
On June 18th Pope Francis issued an encyclical on climate change in which he said that climate change was caused by humans (at least primarily), caused harm, and should be addressed. The encyclical’s main ideas had floated around for months before that and a leaked draft of the encyclical appeared the Monday before the official release. The encyclical creates an interesting issue for conservative American politicians, many of whom play up their Christian faith and also deny climate change (or at least that it is human-caused).
One of the standard lines is that the Pope is just out of line to issue an encyclical on this issue. Jeb Bush said that religion, “ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.” Rick Santorum criticized the Pope for speaking on science and suggested leaving science to the scientists. Months ago I heard a conservative commentator on a news show make the claim that the Pope should stay out of politics and focus on religion when asked to comment about news of this encyclical. This general idea has clearly been widely adopted – but it’s crazy.
Now, one common criticism of these claims is that people like Bush and Santorum have been pretty up-front about mixing their religion and politics before. Backing off now seems hypocritical. The reason I won’t be discussing this criticism further is that it isn’t a criticism of the argument per se but of the arguer. However, the arguments are all terrible in the abstract and I wish to demonstrate that, not that politicians are (surprise!) hypocrites. So, here are a few of the counter-arguments.
1) The Pope is not deciding an issue of science. While conservative American politicians like to pretend that climate change is the center of some active scientific debate it really isn’t. It’s the center of a debate that takes place mostly between scientists and non-scientists. While there are scientists who don’t believe that the earth’s (demonstrable) climate change is caused by humans they are in a small minority and are concentrated in less-relevant fields. Furthermore, the scientists who argue against the majority position now aren’t arguing that the world isn’t warming (which they used to) but that humans aren’t causing the warming. At the level of general overview it would appear that the case for the majority viewpoint is only getting better.
Imagine, for a second, that the Pope accepted Rick Santorum’s admonition to leave science to the scientists and that the Pope wished to know about climate change. The only way for him to do this (without doing science himself) would be to see what scientists think and so he would quite easily decide that the earth is warming because of human activity – the majority of scientists think so and the viewpoint has been gaining strength. So the Pope isn’t actively weighing in on science, he’s allowing scientists to tell him what they think (unlike people like Santorum, who is a politician doing science) and then making comments about this.
2) The Pope is a politician. Vatican City is its own country. The Pope is a head of state. Now, one could ask that the Pope stay out of American politics in much the same way that the Chinese routinely ask America to stay out of Chinese politics but that line is fuzzier than asking the Pope to stay out of politics entirely since the Pope is also the head of an organization that owns land and has employees all across the world.
3) It is the Pope’s job to talk to us about climate change. And it’s his job to talk to us about the Internet, determinism, the sexual revolution, the tensions between India and Pakistan, the economic policies of the IMF, and hundreds of other things. The whole idea of the Pope is that the Pope (and his various advisors) study the world we live in and issue guidance to Catholics based on theological and moral precepts. When one says, “What is the Catholic view on competing on reality television contest shows?” the Pope is the final answer to that. And to do that the Pope must learn about the world we live in order to evaluate it in a moral and theological context. This means that when one says, “Should Catholics act to prevent climate change?” the Pope is also the final answer to that. When the Pope speaks about issues in the modern world he is doing exactly what he is there to do – to explain how ancient Christianity speaks to a changing world.
4) The distinctions that are key to these various arguments against the Pope’s issuance of the encyclical are imaginary. This is the counter-argument that I regard as actually interesting and the reason to write an article about this whole issue. The first three counter-arguments play ball by the same rules that the original arguers use. They recognize a private sphere of religion, a separate sphere of politics, and another sphere of science. They work by asserting either that the Pope isn’t encroaching on foreign territory or that it is actually his job to do so. This fourth counter-argument is different: it insists that the rules that the original arguers have established are the wrong rules.
Jeb Bush provides a great example of this when he says that religion should make us better as people but avoid the political realm. How does anyone do that? Being better people can’t be a private activity. Sure, you can have better thoughts or better prayers but it should also cause you to care more about others and to care more that society is structured in a just and kind manner. Christians have insisted that their care for others should result in political action everywhere from abolition and prison reform to abortion.
The problem that politicians are trying to dance around is that the Enlightenment political project is based on a fictional universe in which everything is neatly categorized in non-interacting boxes (something I discuss partway through this article). A politician can’t deny the Enlightenment fiction (it would be political suicide in a multicultural society, and a terrible idea in said society even aside from political aspirations) but in reality religion makes requests of politicians that cross the boundaries of those boxes. When the Pope says that climate change is a threat to humans (especially the world’s poor) and that Christians should care about this he’s made a claim that crosses from the Enlightenment box of private religion into boxes with labels like “economics” and “politics”. This is extremely dangerous for a politician who wants to appear pro-Catholic. Do you listen to the Pope (thereby denying the Enlightenment’s non-interacting boxes) or do you respect the imaginary boxes and deny the Pope?
One of the major issues with the Enlightenment fiction is that it diminishes moral authority. Here the Pope has tried to exert his moral authority to protect the world’s poor and has been criticized for it on the basis of imaginary fences that somehow prevent us from having to ask moral questions about our economic and political policies. This is, frankly, a terrible idea. We cannot grant sections of our world immunity from moral criticism.
One final lens to view this through: the divine right of kings. This is, oddly, both an admission that there are no clear divisions between aspects of the world and also the beginning of the Enlightenment project. A lot of people seem to think that the Church invented the divine right of kings. Actually, kings invented the divine right of kings to fight the Church (especially the Pope). The idea was that a king had been appointed by God and so the king could speak to religious issues and the Pope couldn’t interfere. The conflict is a simple one: religion claims to describe the nature of reality and define what is meaningful in life which gives it effective dominion over everything. Politics claims the same dominion since it runs everything. This is the strange way that the divine right of kings begins the Enlightenment project. The king (later the state) claims dominion over all things and then grants other entities (like religions, academies, and individuals) limited jurisdiction. These boxes aren’t part of the nature of the world but of the nature of the state. Of course the Pope will come into conflict with politicians. This isn’t because the Pope is going off and “doing politics” but because politics and religion are locked in a turf war. When politicians criticize the Pope for doing politics they simply asserting their claim to the contested turf.
 It’s also remotely possible that these people have changed their minds. They haven’t said so but we do actually need to be more open to the idea of politicians changing their minds. The current attitude that any change of mind is wishy-washy flip-flopping is an attitude that prevents politicians from doing important things like expressing personal growth or learning from mistakes.
 This isn’t to say that there are no dissenters within the ranks of climate scientists. However, there are a few dissenters in every field. To find large numbers of scientists who don’t think that the climate is changing because of human activity one has to leave the fields of science that are relevant to climate science. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to see lists of climate change skeptics that are padded with medical doctors. Yes, medical doctors have a lot of training, and it is sort of like science. But none of it is about climate – it’s all focused around the human body.
There is a general evangelical and fundamentalist sentiment that public morals have collapsed. I do not share this sentiment for a variety of reasons but I believe both generally and theologically that public morals are terrible. It’s merely that they always have been, which is what we should expect since humans are drawn towards evil and oppression like a dying star to a black hole (with similar end results). However, since I last wrote here (shortly after Easter – perhaps my own morals concerning the prompt updating of blogs have collapsed) several major public incidents involving morality have become hot news items. Ironically, one of them was the fall from grace of a family who was quite convinced that everyone else’s morality was faulty. However, one of the more recent incidents, now imaginatively termed the “McKinney Pool Incident” (at least it’s not McKinney-Poolgate) continues a fairly long-running discourse in recent American social consciousness about policing, especially the way in which black people seem to be the targets of unusual levels of police violence. If this issue is foreign to you (perhaps because you don’t live in the US) or not of interest to you there’s no need to read further.
Why would I, on a Christian blog, discuss policing? One of the issues that should interest Christians is how we make moral decisions as a society. The discussion about policing is full of fallacies and bad moral reasoning. Moreover, while I will be treating relatively specific claims in this article these sorts of failures of reasoning are common to all sorts of claims about public morals.
I will assume that if you’re at all interested in this article you are already familiar with the basics of this public discussion. If you aren’t go read up on it elsewhere – I will be jumping right into analysis. Specifically, I will start with a list of terrible justifications I have heard from people who support the police actions that have been called into question. This is largely because I will stick to real arguments I have actually heard and while I gather that there are some crazy people suggesting (and enacting) violent retaliation against the police for these actions I don’t know any. I will, however, deal with them briefly when I discuss the main reasons that people make bad moral decisions in these cases. Without further ado, here’s a short list of bad arguments:
Bad argument #1) Some people are violent towards the police. They should stop and then the police can afford to be nicer.
Reason why it’s a bad argument: “Some people”. Violent police responses to actual violence don’t draw public outcry. What draws public outcry is when the police response is out of proportion to the violence the officer faces. You don’t get to shoot me because Bob once shot at you.
Bad argument #2) Some (perhaps many) of the people who are subject to police violence in these incidents have police records or were caught committing minor crimes, or sometimes just being stupid. If they had not committed crimes/acted in a smarter manner nothing bad would have happened to them.
Reason why it’s a bad argument: We could play this argument for anything bad. If you hadn’t built your house in Kansas you probably wouldn’t have been killed by a tornado. If you hadn’t walked down that street you wouldn’t have gotten mugged. In fact, people use these arguments a lot when the crime is rape and are (quite justifiably) condemned for doing so. The question isn’t whether the person who gets hurt could have changed their behavior in any way to avoid it (because they almost always could have in almost every circumstance, at least if you granted them the ability to see the future) but whether what happened to them is a just result given their crime or mistake.
Bad argument #3) The police do hard, dangerous jobs and we have to give them the latitude needed to protect themselves.
Reason why it’s a bad argument: The hard, dangerous job the police do is protect us. When the police need “latitude” to hurt us to protect themselves this is actually a request to turn police into criminals.
Bad argument #4) You wouldn’t want to live in a world without police.
Reason why it’s a bad argument: True, and irrelevant. I also wouldn’t want to live in a police state. Neither would you. We all want a middle ground between anarchy and brutal control.
Bad argument #5) Black people are far, far more likely to be killed by other black people than by the police so why aren’t we focusing on that?
Reason why it’s a bad argument: We’ve already decided that the problem of people being killed by criminals is so serious that we’ve set up a force of people paid for by taxes to stop criminals. We call this force the police force. If that force becomes a problem in its own right who do we call? (Additionally, this argument often focuses on race but every race is most likely to be killed by their own race because you’re most likely to be killed by someone you know or live by, and that ends up meaning “people of the same race and socio-economic status as you” in most American cities.)
These five arguments fall into four major categories of larger failures to do good moral reasoning. All five arguments fall into the trap of tribalism. #2 overestimates our control of the world. #3 fails to consider the nature of heroism. #3 and #5 fail to understand responsibility.
Let’s start with tribalism, which also provides the background for the crazy people who now hate all police because some police are demonstrably bad. (I’ve seen some police brutality statistics and they vary quite a bit from place to place – any argument that assumes all police are good or all police are bad contradicts the data.) Tribalism seeks to identify bad guys and good guys by simple markers. The first four arguments all treat the police as a monolithic tribe who we as the tribe “non-criminals” (and normally “white non-criminals”) want to see win against some equally-monolithic opposing tribe. Argument #1 treats everyone else in the world who in any way opposes the police as that monolithic tribe whose members are all as guilty as the worst members. #2 treats everyone who has committed any sort of crime as the same (and, again, assigns a high level of guilt not a low one). #3 only makes sense if the police are expected to lump everyone they deal with together. #5 lumps black people together into a tribe and insists that within-tribal violence is more serious than out-of-tribe violence. The problem is that tribalism just doesn’t reflect the real world. Every police officer has their own record and behavior and so does every person they run into. However, tribalism is an easy trap that runs a huge amount of our public dialog. It’s much easier to treat everyone in the public space by assigning them to a few dozen groups than it is to learn about them specifically. I’ve treated tribalism in more detail elsewhere so I will wrap what could be a much longer set of thoughts up by noting that it doesn’t work any better here than it does in any of the other situations where I’ve criticized it.
I also claimed that argument #2 overestimates our control of the world. One reason we love to make up explanations in which people have bad things happen to them because of their own actions is because this is a narrative in which we can prevent bad things by acting correctly. If someone dies of a heart attack because they ate too much fast food (and not because they were dealt bad genes) then heart attacks are safe – we know how to keep them at bay. If we admit that bad policing could strike us that’s scary. It’s easier to make up a scenario in which we are in control even though the real scenarios that we are looking at are ones in which someone is hurt because they have so little control. In essence, we can end up blaming other people because it makes us feel safer.
Argument #3 fails to understand heroism. One of the worst counters I’ve seen to the claims about police brutality is the “Police lives matter” campaign which is (extremely tribally) meant to counter the “Black lives matter” campaign. The problem is that our society is in general agreement that police (and firefighters, and EMTs, etc) are heroes and that their lives matter. There are roads and bridges named after police officers killed in the line of duty. There’s no audience (beyond criminals who care about the lives of almost no one else) who need to be convinced that police lives matter. We all seem to be clear on the idea that police work is dangerous but good and therefore heroic. The problem is that there are two models of heroism we could draw on. One is essentially tribal – heroes fight for us and as long as they are doing that what really matters is that they win, the more decisively the better. The more danger, and the more opponents the hero beats, the more heroism (perfectly in line with argument #3 – the hero needs latitude to win even more decisively and therefore heroically). The other version (what I will call the correct version in an attempt not to bias anyone) is that heroism involves facing danger on someone else’s behalf. In this version putting others in danger to increase one’s own dangerousness is anti-heroic and so arguments about the police needing to be allowed to be occasionally excessive with force in order to protect themselves are arguments that the heroes should sometimes get to be villains in order to keep being heroic. This version simply doesn’t allow argument #3 to make any sense.
Arguments #3 and #5 also fail to understand the nature of responsibility. By focusing on the role of the police as the people who get the bad guys we can lose sight of the actual job of the police – to protect us. That’s the primary responsibility of the police. Imagine the following insane scenario: there’s a town with a one-way portal to a vast uninhabited land. A criminal kills someone and makes a run for the portal. The police chasing the criminal come across a terrible accident where many people’s lives are at risk. If they stop and help the accident victims the criminal will escape through the portal and be gone forever. If they chase the criminal some of the accident victims will die. Under the “get the bad guy” model of responsibility the police should chase the criminal. Under the “protect the people” model of responsibility they should help the accident victims – the portal is one-way and no one lives beyond it so the criminal’s escape threatens no one. It’s also only under the “get the bad guy” model of responsibility that argument #3 or #5 make sense. If the police are there to protect the people it’s a very serious issue if they become a threat to the people. Criminals are always a threat and that’s why we have police but if the police are a threat what do we do? (Who guards the guardians, to ask the question in a much older form.) Police brutality becomes the opposite of policing.
I started this article by promising to examine the way public moral decisions are being made and that the answer would be “badly”. These examples are, of course, just one debate. However, the public moral reasoning on offer includes tribalism (on both sides), a desire to control the world that is so strong that we blame the victims rather than admit that we don’t control the world, an idea of heroism derived from action movies, and an idea of responsibility with similar origins. Needless to say, I think Christian moral thought can (and should) do better than this. Christianity insists that Christ sees through all sorts of tribal barriers that we erect. It insists that God, not us, controls the world and that attempting to control the world can be fundamentally idolatrous. The model we see in Christ is of self-sacrificing heroism aimed at lifting up the broken, something vastly different than notching up wins in fights.
Unfortunately, Christians haven’t done a great job with this particular moral issue. I heard arguments #2-#5 from other Christians (and I don’t know the religious affiliation of the people I heard make argument #1). White Christians don’t tend to do a great job with any issue that deals with race. I hope that one day this will change. I hope that one day Christians can be a voice for better public moral discourse.
This is really almost a separate sub-article. However, I write these articles well in advance. This one has been cooking along for about a week with me making tweaks, adjusting arguments, and generally editing things until I liked it enough to post it. And, as it happens, I’m posting it on a day when we’re hearing about how a suspected white supremacist sympathizer shot up a black church killing multiple people. I simply can’t not add a comment or two about this.
Racism is a terrible and pervasive form of tribalism. For the shooter in the incident I just mentioned “white” became a tribal affiliation at war with every other tribe. Racism is so pervasive and hard to get rid of because tribalism is so natural to humans (even though it’s morally terrible). It’s just so easy for our brains to find patterns that don’t really exist that categorize humans into simple groups based on easily-seen characteristics. It’s part of human nature to find a group that we fit in and attempt to make it “win” against other groups. It is insufficient to sit by and passively do good by avoiding direct evil. Those of us who are white must identify with our brothers and sisters who are black and see their problems the way we see those of our white friends and neighbors. If we accept a society where white people look out for white people and black people look out for black people with very occasional and passive help from white people we are accepting a society in which the problems of race won’t be solved anytime soon. Paul did not consider it enough that Christians from a Jewish background might generally agree that Gentiles could become Christians too. He said they must eat together, fellowship together, pray together, and care for one another. I suspect Paul would look at our functionally-segregated American churches and proclaim us a failure.
I will add that if your reaction to this incident was, “How could this happen in 2015?” you need to re-read that last paragraph. I’m not surprised this happened. I’m horrified, but I hear enough about pervasive, low-level racism from the African-Americans I know that I’m simply not surprised to see evidence that the extreme ends of the American distribution of racist ideas includes people who would shoot up a black church. Frankly, I think you have to live in a pretty white (or highly sanitized) world to be truly surprised by this.
I may comment more about this in another article. For now, let us pray for those who lost friends and family, for those so consumed by hate that they would kill other people because of the color of their skin, and for the blindness that prevents our society from facing this issue and dealing with it properly.
I know that this blog has been quiet for a while causing some of you to believe that this was the quiet of the grave. It’s not, although I’m realizing how little time I really have to spend on this blog with my other commitments. However, I’m working on some additional articles right now and I hope to get some real content up soon. While I did this I re-read a lot of the archives to see what I’ve discussed to death and what I haven’t covered. And so I think it’s worth sharing some general observations about the material I’ve posted on this blog over the years as I prepare to get my act back together.
1) I was surprised to note that in two articles I was searching for a creature that represented complete non-comprehension and both times I independently decided on hamsters. I owned a hamster as a child. I guess he didn’t strike me as any too bright.
2) Perhaps like Tolkien I don’t seem to care much for machines either. (For those of you who missed the Tolkien reference there’s a short bit of dialog in the Two Towers where Treebeard pejoratively describes Saruman as having a “mind of metal and wheels”. This is an excellent insult and I have a number of people I would like to apply it to.) A few examples are here, here, here, and here.
3) The three most popular posts of all time (by pageviews) are Women and Marriage in the Old Testament, A Man in the Land of Uz: Job I, and Women in Ancient Israel. These appear to be popular because it’s hard to find information on the Internet about women in ancient Israel/the Old Testament or about Uz. While it’s lovely to be doing well in some tiny niche these are hardly my favorite articles. In fact, one of my favorite articles I’ve ever written (What is Salvation?, which involved a crazy metaphor about fish) is ranked dead last in pageviews. It’s so low I don’t believe the numbers (there are literally less pageviews than people who wrote comments) and I think it must just have been published and viewed before most of the record-keeping that WordPress does. This article also happens to host the longest comment section of any article ever. This is unfortunate because it’s the sort of comment thread that makes you wish you’d just punched yourself in the face to use up that time instead.
4) “What is Salvation?” isn’t the only early post that continues to have echoes in my more recent ones. Three other posts written within the first six months of this blog’s existence that say things I continue to say (in one case in a departmental meeting last semester) are Two Questions, Glory, full of Grace and Truth, and Personhood. I should point out that those are posts written and also published within the first six months of this blog’s existence. Like a large crocodile waiting just below the water’s surface I play for the long-haul. There’s a draft in my Posts bin in the admin Dashboard that I wrote in February of 2011 that continues to be held back to be the starting article for an entire enormous series I haven’t written. I published the Inerrancy series in September of 2013 and yet I knew I intended to write it and was laying the groundwork for it when I wrote the very first post of this blog in January of 2010.
5) Speaking of series, I’ve neatened up the blog categories so that every series has its own category tag, There are between 19 and 21 series depending on how you count them (one series has a sub-series). However, not all series are created equal. A number of series are two articles but Women in the Bible is a mega-series of 27 articles and nowhere near done. (In point #4 I mention another series I have planned. This is also a mega-series and won’t happen until I finish Women in the Bible. Your grandchildren will enjoy reading its opening article as it posts, I’m sure.)
6) This blog also exemplifies some of the strange contradictions that make me who I am. The massive data-dumps of articles like Bloody Souls, The Spirits of All Life, Let Us Reason Together, I Feel it in My Kidneys, the entire Canon series, A Bad Answer is Worse than No Answer: Kephale and Authority 1, the entire Diakonoi, Presbuteroi, and Episkopoi series, Gehenna, She’ol, HaTaniynim (התנינמ), Judges, and Polygamy (which includes the line “I was able to locate twenty-seven characters in the Bible who are unambiguously polygynous…”) are probably why this blog has such a low readership (that and my recent inability to keep a schedule). However, they are also the works of a man who would like all the data in the world, the flicker of every firefly, the heartbeat of every whale, and the growth rate of every blade of grass normalized for a series of twenty-seven climatic variables. However, some of my very favorite articles are very, very different. What Do I Believe?, Grace for the wicked?, and We Didn’t Know it was You. I wish I could write the second sort of article all the time but I can’t. Sure, I could throw some crazy words together but I can’t always see a thing to describe to you in such an orthogonal way.
One of the reasons the articles hear haven’t been better, or more frequent, is exactly this lack of vision. I can still see the harsh bleeding edge that Neiztche calls “the will to power” and the great offense of the cross that subsumes this power in love. But the thing that lights up my mind like a nuclear flare and then wipes clean what it once made clear? The thing you grasped when you awoke from your dream and understood everything for a frail, fleeting second in which the sky rolled back and the all the gears of the world were laid bare for your understanding? The thing that propels me to write articles like Talking is not Knowing, Here Be Dragons: A Carthography of Mysticism, or Inerrancy Part III: What We Cannot Speak Of? If I saw that better we’d have better articles. Instead, you get a hamster attempting to explain calculus to you.
7) You can’t have gotten this far without detecting my strange sense of humor. Sometimes it gets me in trouble. I still get weird emails about Reading the Bible like it’s Science Fiction. I frequently suspect that the authors haven’t really managed to read the article in any genre. Other times it just produces some of my favorite article titles. There’s no way I can end this recap without mentioning Your Best Life Martyred or In Which the Baby Jesus Fights Santa Claus.
Much like John the Evangelist (but with fewer literary critics) I think seven is the right number of divisions to stop at. New content will come soon, because whatever else has changed in my life and made it harder to write I still think that Scripture is Beautiful.
However, just like John (and Tolkien) get to end the story twice I’ll end for real by saying that our sidebar of blog-friends needs cleanup. I know some of what we currently link to isn’t active. If you link to us and would like a link back (and aren’t crazy – I know at least one of our incoming links is) tell me.
 Defined as a minimum of two articles which are directly linked either by their title, by originally being a single composition, or by being incomplete on their own with the intention being to finish the whole thought in another article. It is necessary that this recap have at least one footnote since those have also been a long-running feature of my articles (and it’s even more fitting that this is a methodological footnote). Unfortunately, footnotes still don’t import properly into WordPress and so every footnote you’ve ever seen has been manually re-coded after WordPress screwed it up.
This Easter my father-in-law asked me if I was familiar with the arguments for believing that Jesus was crucified on Thursday instead of Friday. I was only vaguely familiar with this subject and promptly looked it up. It’s not even remotely difficult to find this claim. Search “Good Thursday” on any decent search engine and you’ll get plenty of hits. What is odd, though, is that almost none of the articles you turn up will argue against the idea. Think about this for a minute: most churches who mark liturgical time in any serious way mark Good Friday. Some churches even have special services or other religious obligations on that day. Despite this, it is much easier to find people arguing for the minority claim than the majority one. What’s going on?
The first answer is that the claim that Jesus was crucified on Thursday (or any other day except Friday) never seem to have made it out into the larger denomination ecosystem. Perusing the articles on the issue I began to recognize the sorts of subtle tells (largely word choices and a fondness for using the KJV) that suggest that many of the articles were written by people coming from a particular sub-section of the Protestant world. Many of the people who might argue most vociferously for Good Friday have probably never heard the Good Thursday claim.
However, the issue is much more interesting than that. Having reviewed the evidence I have decided that the Good Thursday claim is pretty badly supported and rests on a series of intelligent-looking mistakes. I am fond of finding intelligent-looking mistakes because these are the ones that fool most people. Mistakes that are obviously stupid are much more easily avoided.
Let’s start with the reasons for making the Good Thursday claim. There are two reasons to even start down this path. The first, and most often explicitly mentioned, is that Jesus says in Matthew 12:40 that the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Attempting to get three days and three nights out of a Friday death and a Sunday morning resurrection is pretty much impossible. The second reason is that combining John’s chronology with the chronology found in the other gospels supports the Good Thursday interpretation.
The first reason, the count of days and nights, is actually deeply problematic. The prediction “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” is known as the sign of Jonah. Jesus refers to it in this manner in the verse right before the one just quoted and also references it in Matthew 16:4 and also Luke 11:29. In neither of these other instances is an exact count of days given and in Luke the sign may actually consist of something entirely different as the discussion is about how Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites (none of whom are recorded in the book of Jonah as having witnessed Jonah getting barfed out of a giant fish). On its own this would be weak evidence – Matthew 16 may leave of the day count since it was covered in Matthew 12 and Luke 11 may leave off the day count because a different point was being made about Jonah. However, it remains that there are three mentions of a sign of Jonah and only one contains this three day and three night claim. There are, however, eleven instances in the New Testament where Jesus is predicted to rise/said to have risen on the third day. Three times in Matthew (16:21, 17:23, and 20:19) and three times in Luke (9:22, 13:32, and 18:33) Jesus predicts his death and resurrection and states that he will rise on the third day. Jesus’ prediction of his resurrection on the third day (using those words) is also mentioned in Matthew 27:64 and Luke 24:7. In Luke 24:46 (post-resurrection) Jesus explains that the Scriptures said that he would rise on the third day. Finally, Acts 10:40 and 1 Corinthians 15:54 state that Jesus was raised on the third day.
The issue here is that you can’t both be raised on the third day and also be dead for even parts of three days and three nights without being killed at night. (Night 1, Day 1, Night 2, Day 2, Night 3, Day 3 and resurrection.) Since Jesus’ death is pretty clearly placed in the day this gives us no option for making the two ways of counting time reconcile – Jesus will be raised during day three before night three. Any attempt to shift the chronology of Jesus’ death from Friday to Thursday to get three days and three nights to protect the count given in Matthew 12:40 throws off eleven other verses.
Now, it is clear from reading some of the pro-Good Thursday articles that some of the authors are worried that atheists will claim that the three days and three nights discrepancy invalidates the Bible. I will point out that any atheist attempting such a tactic is faced with several problems. Firstly, the actual problem is that the book of Matthew itself contains two irreconcilable time predictions. Secondly, this is a magical contradiction – the fact that both counts exist in the same book indicate strongly that the original readers assumed that one of the counts of days (probably the one only mentioned once) was a loose allusion to the Old Testament and not a precise estimate.
As I mentioned earlier there is also the matter of John’s chronology. This is, I think, a far better argument since it involves a careful reading of John’s gospel and an attempt to tie it in to the other accounts rather than careless reading of a single verse. However, the problem here is also quite pronounced. John’s gospel is (usefully) very clear on when Jesus was crucified. In John 19:14 we learn that Jesus’ trial before Pilate is wrapping up at about noon on the Day of Preparation before Passover. In one regard this is the same chronology as is found in the Synoptics (the name for the other three gospels): these gospels also record that Jesus was killed on the Day of Preparation. However, Matthew 26:17 tells us that on the first day of unleavened bread Jesus’ disciples ask him where he wishes to eat the Passover, placing the Passover meal prior to Jesus’ trial. Some articles advocating for Good Thursday suggest that Jesus ate Passover early and was then killed the following day when other Jews were preparing for Passover (which would have begun at sundown of that day). If this were all of our data that would make some sense although it would be very odd for someone to eat the Passover early since the commands in Exodus 12 regarding the Passover are strict about the timing. It would also require us to ignore the most natural reading for “the first day of unleavened bread” which is that it is the first day of the feast of unleavened bread, which is Passover, and assume that it actually meant the first day on which leavened bread was banned, the day after the Passover meal. One site making this claim points out that the Greek reads “the first day of unleavened bread” and not, as most English translations say, “the first day of the feast of unleavened bread”. However, this is a weak case. We say “the Feast of Unleavened Bread” because we are unfamiliar with it. In fact, in some places English translations will also say “the Feast of Passover” when the Greek just says “Passover”. People who are familiar with the names of holidays generally don’t feel obliged to add adjectives reminding their audience what the type of holiday it is.
Moreover, both Mark and Luke add additional detail. In Mark 14:12 and Luke 22:7 we run across the same “the first day of unleavened bread” formula but also a note that this is when the Passover lamb was traditionally killed/must be sacrificed. This is not a note about the behavior of Jesus and his disciples but a note about a point of time within the calendar of Jewish feasts and it clearly places the Last Supper on Passover. Mark 15:42 adds another important note by saying that Jesus died on the Preparation Day before the Sabbath. So, while all four gospels agree that Jesus died on Preparation Day they disagree on which Preparation Day (since Passover is also a Sabbath, although not always a Saturday). The chronology in John’s gospel has Jesus dying on the day before Passover (during the time period when the Passover lambs were slaughtered) and rising on Sunday (thankfully, all four gospels clearly mark the resurrection as “the first day of the week”, an unambiguous way to indicate the day we now call Sunday). This places Passover on Saturday (with the meal after sundown on Friday), making Passover a High Sabbath on a regular Sabbath. The Synoptic chronology has Passover happening on Friday (with the meal after sundown on Thursday) which makes Passover fall on what would normally be the Day of Preparation for the normal Sabbath.
There are two viable options that I see. One adopts the same fast-and-loose approach to the time of Passover exhibited by some of the articles that I criticize here. However, instead of assuming that Jesus celebrated Passover early we might assume that some Jews figured that since Passover fell on Friday they’d just celebrate it on the Sabbath that was already coming on the next day. This would have some Jews (perhaps hard-core traditionalists) celebrating when Jesus (who was a rabbi, after all) did while other Jews, perhaps laxer Jews who felt that they couldn’t afford to take two days off work in one week, celebrated Passover a day late on the normal Sabbath. This allows both versions of events to be entirely true – there were lambs being sacrificed for Passover on the day that Jesus told his disciples to prepare the Last Supper and also on the day when he died. The other option is just to assume that one chronology isn’t right. Now, this probably worries some people a lot but John’s chronology often doesn’t match that of the Synoptics and I’m not entirely convinced that John’s chronology is meant to be chronological rather than topical. (This appears to be an allowable way to handle chronology in some ancient histories.) Moreover, both accounts agree on a substantial amount of chronological details: Jesus died on a Day of Preparation and was raised on the third day which was Sunday. The argument is exactly when Passover fell amongst all of this and the disagreement amounts to one day’s difference. Eyewitness of events that happened last month can differ more than that.
While this is already a lengthy article there is one more issue of interest to me. It turns out that the Good Friday tradition is quite old. Justin Martyr (First Apology, Chapter LXVII, early second century) says that Jesus was crucified on Friday. The reason I find this interesting is that the rejection of the Good Friday tradition is the rejection of a very old tradition. However, it does not provide a very good explanation of where the Good Friday tradition came from at this early date. If, as I have argued, Jesus was crucified on Friday the tradition comes from receiving that information from those who knew about it or (since I think it’s not that hard to figure the chronology out from the gospels) deriving it from Scripture. The incorrect idea, Good Thursday, would come from people trying to deal with the sign of Jonah, but not very well, and this is why it is both recent and relatively poorly-known. If the Good Thursday people are right then presumably the church began knowing this and Justin would have had to be unaware of this despite very active engagement with Christian theology and writing, indicating that this knowledge had been more or less entirely forgotten. This is an odd claim, although not a lethal one, and it demonstrates one of the reasons I am hesitant to challenge traditions that date to within only a generation or so of the apostles.
What is a lethal blow to the Good Thursday theory is the chronology found in Luke and Mark concerning the timing of Passover relative to the Last Supper and the widespread agreement that, despite the sign of Jonah, Jesus was raised on the third day and not after three days and three nights had passed.
When I was younger I was fond of reading books of apologetics – that is, books which focused on the reasons why Christianity was right and other ideas were wrong. In fact, when I was a teenager I considered it almost a Christian duty to read these books. More recently I’ve become significantly less fond of them.
Part of this is that many modern apologetics books aren’t very good. It’s not any too difficult to find a book claiming that it presents solid reasons to believe in Jesus only to discover that it presents solid reasons to suspect that the author needs to expand his knowledge of philosophy, history, and sometimes even basic writing skills. If this were all I wouldn’t dislike apologetics book in general, I’d just dislike a particular sort of apologetics book (and I do still have something of a soft spot for books that cover ancient and medieval apologetics). Instead, I find that I dislike the whole concept of writing an apologetics book.
It would be easy at this point to accuse me of hypocrisy. Several of my articles here could be considered apologetics articles. However, what I specifically don’t like is a focus on apologetics. The best apologetics are done by accident and attempting to do apologetics is a good way to do it poorly.
One of the dominant myths in Western society is the war between religion and science. This is a myth both in the sense that it gives meaning and structure to many Western beliefs about the world but also in the sense that it is wildly exaggerated. However, within this myth there is a simple story about knowledge: religion starts by knowing what it must conclude and figures out how to work to that point whereas science starts by knowing nothing, figuring out how to best learn things, and then uses those tools to reach conclusions. This isn’t true in general but if it were it would be a pretty damning charge – it would amount to saying that all of Christian intellectual life is devoted to propping up statements of unknown worth. However, the area that gets closest to this parody is apologetics. An apologist starts with some known conclusion and defends this.
To be clear, apologetics doesn’t exist solely in the realm of religion. There are apologists for and against global warming and vaccines, for instance. The people defending these various position feel that their position is so well backed that they can stop questioning it and move on to figuring out why arguments against their idea are wrong. This can be just fine – if I were to deal with a large number of people who argued that I don’t exist I would argue against them in much that style. I know I exist, the only real question is why someone would question the truth of my existence.
However, I still have an issue with apologetics. This issue can be explained in two points.
First, apologetics almost never starts at the beginning. An apologist is a Christian for some reason and it is very, very rarely because that apologist read a document anything like the one they are writing. However, the supposed aim of the document the apologist writes is to cause others to follow the apologist into faith. This is an odd way to go about things. It is a bit like climbing a mountain and then, from the top, advising people to take a different (untried) route up. Now sometimes in both mountain climbing and personal growth one does wish to say, “Now that I am here I see that I took the painfully long route to get here, try that route instead,” but it is odd how few people seem to end up Christian by following the route the apologists lay out.
I believe that the central issue here is that modern apologetics tends towards modern modes of thought. Most Christians are not Christian for reasons that sound good to others. They involve things like personal feelings and being swayed by the grace shown by other Christians rather than cold, hard, “serious” facts. (For that matter, many atheists take a similar track away from Christianity.) However, if that is actually what drives people (and I believe it is) then we should start taking it seriously. It does little good to say, “I wish humans were beings of pure logic and I will address them as if they are.” Instead, facing reality and addressing real people is the smarter course. If an apologist knows how they got to be a Christian they should tell us. If they know that what they then discovered studying Christian is fascinating and answers problems they should tell us that, too. But there’s no point in flipping the order of things and claiming that what one finds out after becoming Christian made one Christian.
Second, apologetics demands a stable point to defend. My own dislike of apologetics in its normal form came about through a slow death of one thousand cuts. I would take a position on a text, on a philosophical issue, on a matter of history in order to make a certain sort of argument. Later I would realize that the position I had taken was shakier than I had realized. However, I had now tied myself to that position through an argument that I had, in turn, tied to my whole faith. If I admitted that Paul’s missionary journeys might have taken a different route than I had first supposed (to pick a random example) I might end up pulling bricks out of the great structure that I insisted held my faith up. There are three choices at this point. One is to stop learning, to freeze the whole edifice of belief as it is right now. Of course, this means freezing some things into perpetual error. However, it does give one fixed points to argue from. Another option is to allow small cracks to destroy one’s entire faith. Were the casualties at the battle of Ai in the book of Joshua rounded? Well, time to abandon the faith! A third option is to realize that growth means that some points will move and that it’s a good idea to allow that to happen and rework ideas when necessary.
A short aside is necessary here. The whole idea of allowing points not to be fixed sounds to many people like saying, “Well, I may well be wrong about everything.” However, when we are actually sure that some things are true we don’t worry too much about treating them as fixed points. For instance, I’m not much concerned if someone needs to rework our current understanding of gravity to make it mesh with quantum physics. A good theory will eventually circle around to something that looks a lot like gravity because gravity is obviously there and in need of explanation. The explanation may change but the phenomenon is real. Similarly, there are articles of faith that I may end up explaining very differently in the future but I don’t worry too much about that because I’m sure a good theory will eventually have to get around to explaining them.
This brings me to my final point. All of my own best apologetics has come about by doing something else entirely. For instance, I may be thinking about why the Church has consistently insisted on the spiritual disciplines and come to some realization about the faith that then spills over into commentary about why I think Christianity explains something better than the other options. Some of my more recent articles probably look like they are aimed outward – they cover issues of what religion is and what gods are and undermine a common atheist claim to be unique and distinct from religious people. However, that line of thought came from thinking about how things other than God can demand allegiance in the Christian life. More specifically, some of those thoughts came from considering whether a rather common tactic in preaching whereby passages about idols are used to launch into discussions of modern “idols” like money, power, fame, or even your favorite hobby was the product of deep insight (these things really do claim the allegiance that ancient statutes of gods once claimed) or a sort of dumb way to deal with passages that were about ancient customs that we don’t practice anymore in the West.
Thinking deeper about Christianity will (if you believe Christianity is true) produce better apologetics naturally. Shallow Christianity is hard to defend. It is silly, bogged down in weird ideas that come from nowhere, and can’t get to grips with hard questions. Deep, thoughtful Christianity has answers to the whole first line of basic questions without doing any additional work. I think it is best to focus on Christianity first and its defense to the outside world second.
In my last article I discussed the idea of identifying gods not by the overt claims made by their worshippers as to the identity of said gods but by their actions. This is to say that when someone claims to worship Jesus or to worship the creator of humanity (or, for that matter, the god of thunderstorms) this tells you less than you would hope. Learning what these gods demand is much more important in many ways.
Given this, we can now deal with “hidden” gods. By this I do not mean unfound, unworshipped gods. Polythesisms and animisms can lose track of gods (there are, after all, so many) or simply have never discovered some of them (if every habitat on earth is populated by a set of unique gods then it would be rather hard to find them all). Indeed, in some ancient societies the expectation was that some gods remained to be found. Cybele was imported into Rome from Anatolia (at the direction of an oracle) and while this was a rather big deal the big deal was not that the Anatolians had a goddess that Rome didn’t but rather that the Romans were generally sure that their versions of everything were best. If one had said to an ancient Roman that there were even more gods out in India or Russia or Chile the biggest issue one would face is explaining where those places were. The idea that they might have undiscovered gods would not seem surprising – the Romans had their gods (stolen from the Greeks, by and large) and other people had theirs.
However, when I speak of hidden gods I mean gods that are hidden in plain sight and are recognizable by the actions of their worshippers. Take modern neo-paganism. Where I grew up associating oneself with neo-paganism or Wicca (which may be different but my high school friends weren’t the ones to know) was a pretty popular way to piss one’s parents off. Now, granted that my knowledge of modern neo-paganism comes largely from high school students who were often recent converts but a couple of things stuck out to me. First, while modern neo-paganism claims to trace its roots back to ancient British paganism it mostly doesn’t. Old-school British paganism was properly polytheistic (i.e., the gods didn’t necessarily like each other and had real differences in attitudes and desires) and rather bloody. None of my supposedly neo-pagan friends ever sacrificed a horse let alone a human being. Moreover, my friends would express to me that their religion was a nature religion. Again, it was far to sanitized. Nature is, to be frank, terribly brutal. Snowy owls have more young than they can support in anything but a very, very good year. The oldest youngster solves this by killing, and sometimes eating, the youngest offspring, moving up the chain until there is enough food for all the young owl who are left. A significant fraction of fish swallow their prey alive, leaving it to die as it is digested. Rather more prosaically, note that we’ve never found an animal with a sensible “off” switch for pain. In a kind, merciful world a doomed animal would switch off pain and die without suffering. But that’s not the real world. In a larger scope, seeing “nature” itself as a sort of persona, nature makes things work mostly by allowing everything living to produce too many offspring and then killing off the ones who don’t fit. Nature greases its wheels with blood to such an extent that I think one of the best arguments against the Christian vision of the world is that the world is a terrible place full of things that will kill you for any mistake and care nothing for your suffering. And yet my friends who practiced a supposed nature religion were all about altruism and kindness, rather the opposite of nature itself.
Let’s be frank: my friends had not resurrected the old polytheistic gods to worship them. The old polytheistic gods don’t fit modern Western sensibilities. Instead, my friends had made a weakened (and often incoherent) version of the dominant monotheism in their culture (Christianity). Sure, Christianity had some moral rules they didn’t like so they borrowed some of the old god’s attitudes towards sex (properly sanitized of all the rape, of course) and maybe a few other things. They didn’t care for Christianity’s totalizing claims to uniqueness and so they went in for a world of multiple gods that might be kinder towards incorporating other deities but, in fact, was not. The true incorporation of other deities would have involved bringing in their viewpoints which would have left us with an old-style pantheon that fought within itself. Instead, I heard about various schemes in which there were multiple gods (the number ranged widely, from two to an uncountable multitude) who acted more like the appendages of one great being than separate entities. There was, in fact, a hidden god behind my friend’s attempts at novelty. Some great monotheistic, moralizing deity hid being the façade of polytheism and do-it-yourself religion. There were rules – kindness, love, respect – but they didn’t come naturally from the frameworks being presented. They belonged, instead, to the god my friends were fleeing from.
The same is (oddly) true of any number of attempts to be entirely non-religious. The simplest of these to explain is humanism. Humanism is about humans – that’s right in its name. However, humanism is not the science of discovering what humans are like but rather an assertion about the value of every human and an (admirable) attempt to uphold that value. Oddly, however, that value has no basis. In the world before Christianity it was taken as a given that some people were worth less and some were worth more. The gods were thought to not only accept this but approve of and support this. Sometimes this worked out as class structures (kings are worth more than peasants) and sometimes as tribal structures (everyone is your brother in this tribe but those people are nothing but animals) but the basic logic was the same. Indeed, it is basic logic. In a world with uncaring gods, or without gods, why is it actually worse for me to stab a human than stick the same knife in a block of wood? After all, from my perspective it is better that I stab him now than that I allow him to come to the same conclusion and stab me. It was Christianity that brought the idea of worth in low-class, useless others. If God loved even the deformed child of a foreign peasant then it wasn’t permissible to kill that child without thought. The argument “but that child is human” which had been no argument before now became the argument “but that child is made in God’s image and is loved by God”. And so again we have a hidden god. The humanist, or in many cases staunch atheist, who says that a human is ultimately reducible to a collection of atoms without a need to bring in anything else treats a human unlike any other collection of atoms.
Indeed, this goes so far that many attempts in the West to attack Christianity are attempts to attack Christianity using Christian ideas. Does Christianity oppress women? Well, why should anyone care unless God loves men and women equally? Oppressing women is, in fact, a natural occurrence that has happened in thousands of societies given some rather minimal preconditions (or, perhaps, non-oppression requires a strict set of conditions). Have Christians supported bad wars? Sure – but the only reason we care about this as a moral issue (instead of a logistical issue about what’s best for us) is because we believe that “the other” has value. And why? One of the most basic, natural instincts in humans is to band together in tribes and fight the other.
This issue of hidden gods is hardly restricted to the West. I live in the West and see it in the West but I know semi-Muslims and semi-Hindus who worship different hidden gods. I know many Westerners who have embraced semi-Buddhism, or have straightforwardly lifted a general idea of non-attachment from Buddhism and dropped it into a different context. To be sure, there are people who really do detach from the gods they were brought up with and don’t side with imported ones either. However, there are far more gods hidden behind other facades then are normally detected.