What if a Doctrine Feels Wrong?

When universalists look at the idea of people going to hell, they often have an emotional reaction. The idea of people going to hell ought to provoke an emotional reaction, and the number of missions agencies and the fact that people continue to join them and support them shows just what people are willing to do as they respond to that reaction. The universalists, rather than increase their missionary support and go to the mission field, decide instead that eternal damnation is not true. Universalists’ feelings are not wrong, but their doctrine is. Even so, what if a doctrine feels wrong? Does that indicate anything? Continue reading What if a Doctrine Feels Wrong?

On Smart Christianity: Not Just Interesting Ideas

There is not really a “beyond” in Christian theology, given that everything that we learn in Sunday school is still true when systematic theology rears its dogmatic head. It is impossible to transcend the basics. Although there is a “mere Christianity” that all Christians hold in common, it is possible, nay, desirable to elaborate upon what we believe and develop smart Christianity. The question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only or from the Father and the Son together was one issue at stake in the East-West Schism of 1054. The Pope’s decision to tack “and from the Son” onto the end of “proceeds from the Father” in the Nicene Creed spiritually means something. The theology that we believe goes into the kind of people that we become. As learned Christians elaborate upon “mere” Christianity, they are not merely playing a game for bookworms.

In The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Vladimir Lossky states,

If even now a political doctrine professed by the members of a party can so fashion their mentality as to produce a type of man distinguishable from other men by certain moral or psychical marks, a fortiori religious dogma succeeds in transforming the very souls of those who confess it. They are men different from other men, from those who have been formed by another dogmatic conception.

As Christians examine TULIP, papal supremacy, Arminian soteriology, and weigh the views of Christ’s divine-human composition, they make decisions about what kinds of people they are becoming. Belief Two builds upon Belief One, and believing that subtle distinctions in theology are just Star Trek vs. Star Wars arguments for nerds is in itself a Belief One that supports a Belief Two. What Christians do with people who disagree with them is in itself a spiritual decision. From the lady adding and subtracting dollars in the supermarket to the nuclear physicist playing with imaginary numbers in a top secret lab, while simple math is enough for practical matters, anyone looking at an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile in an exhibition lit by nuclear power knows that advanced math is also enough for practical matters.

Mere Christianity is powerful stuff. It helps Protestant and Catholic missionaries cooperate on the mission field to serve people with physical needs and leads Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox Christians to dig for their common roots. Even so, it is not an iron to press flat the various folds following the Good Shepherd. Transubstantiation is not just a funky Catholic idea, and the five Protestant “solas” as an expression of basic Christianity are not practically the same thing as the decisions handed down by the Council of Trent. Protestants and Catholics agreed in many areas as they reformed abuses in the Church, but Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries revealed a Protestant fresh perspective on the sanctity of Church property. If I am an ecclesiological pluralist, it is as a pragmatic maneuver to keep peace with people who love God. Because I believe that Calvinism is wrong, I argue against it when it comes up in conversation, but I have enjoyed fellowship in Reformed churches because they possessed enormous stocks of mere Christianity.

When I find myself debating with Calvinists, I make better progress with them than when I chat with agnostics. My disagreements with atheists and agnostics are actually flat and uninteresting compared to my disputes with Calvinists because of the extent to which we agree. Arguments within the game of Monopoly are far more heated than discussions of whether the game is worth playing. When we quote St. Augustine as saying, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity,” it is with the point of letting each other live long enough to make good progress in studying and obeying the truth. Even non-essentials matter, but we also believe that charity is true. Getting into advanced theology matters quite a bit, so when you have to let go of a position, be sure to do so as letting go of a lower rung to grasp a higher.

Question from Harry Potter: Is It Real or Just in My Head?

Editor’s note: This week, we’re running a series on questions, inspired by Matthew Lee Anderson’s book, The End of Our Exploring. We reviewed his book hereThere’s a great deal going on this week: buy one copy of Matt’s book, and you can give one away for free. Check out the details here.

I unashamedly love the Harry Potter series as Christian literature. This is not to say that J. K. Rowling wrote the books as evangelistic tools, but the story that she tells through the whole series gives Christian answers to the big questions about life. In Harry Potter, evil is a selfish progression toward non-existence, death to self and the love of others is the way forward, being bound to life on this earth as though its continuation is the highest good is evil, belief is a choice that continually has to be made, love are trust is better than hatred and suspicion, and love is ultimately stronger than death. I could go on, but John Granger says everything much better and at greater length in How Harry Cast His Spell. In that book, Granger highlights a very important question at the very end of the series, and it is from Granger that I draw most of my beginning thoughts. Continue reading Question from Harry Potter: Is It Real or Just in My Head?

Fun With Logic

This post could also be titled Boring The Audience To Death, or perhaps How To Lose Readers In 15 Seconds Or Less.  So, here is my brief apologetic for the worthiness of this post.  First, this is kind of a book review.  Second, logic is extremely important, yet too often neglected.  Whether you are interested in doing Apologetics, or merely being a better reader and interpreter of the Bible, logic is key.  People forget that logic is a discipline that needs to be studied and practiced, not taken for granted.  Finally, I think this is fun, and so I must subject everyone to my reverie. Continue reading Fun With Logic

A Sack of Spin

A recent article by Kevin Sack concerns pre-abortion ultrasounds, and whether they might or might-not affect a woman’s decision. But he wrote another article simultaneously–one about how only cold, cruel extremists insist that clinics provide ultrasounds.

Impressive. Sack’s article is composed of subtle, well-crafted infusion of bias, all neatly packaged into what I would think appears to most people as a typical, passably-objective piece of journalism.

But take a closer look at the article. Sack uses rhetorical devices to maintain a dual agenda throughout his article—one on a literal, journalistic level, and another on a persuasive, op-ed level. A careful read can reveal the devices Sack employs. After all, it’s one thing for someone to be a bad writer; but it’s a whole other, and more dangerous thing to be a bad reader.

1. Euphemism, or ‘Positive Expression’, and Dysphemisms, or ‘Sneaky Smack’

A euphemism isn’t always bad. I’m glad we say, ‘I’m going to use the restroom’ instead of a more graphic description of that room’s goings-on. All the same, in an article like Mr. Sack’s, euphemisms are used as a powerful form of rhetorical manipulation.

Here are a few examples:

‘abortion method’? Nope: “method of extraction
‘Young (or small) fetus’? Uh, no: “bean-size fetus”
‘Abortion Supporters’?  Nah: “Abortion rights advocates”

These are some fairly obvious examples of how words can be crafted with that ‘dual agenda’ I mentioned earlier. On a factual level, both ways of speaking—the ‘moderate’ and ‘euphemized’—convey the same information. But the euphemisms motivate substantially different responses by softening and/or abstracting language.

Dysphemisms are the opposite of euphemisms, and Sack’s article is loaded with these as well. Dysphemisms employ words to make something sound a lot worse than it is.

For example, Sack does not say that anti-abortion supporters hope sonograms will convince women to ‘carry their babies to term’ or ‘not have an abortion’. Instead, they are trying to get them to “preserve pregnancies.” As if abortion were so natural that a woman must make extra effort to ‘preserve’ her pregnancy…?

Some dysphemisms verge on also being ad hominem. Sack calls ultrasound advocates ‘anti-abortion strategists’. ‘Strategists’—brilliant choice. Consider the dictionary definition: “a person skilled in planning action or policy, esp. in war or politics.” With a single word, Sack throws the anti-abortion side into freezing cold category connotations of war and politics, perhaps the two worst human inventions in all history.

My favorite dysphemism, though, was when Sack was still talking about the woman ‘Laura’, and why she did not want to look at the ultrasound images. The image, Sack writes, “would only unleash…hormonal emotions.”  Oh, Mr. Sack, don’t you mean they would ‘activate maternal instinct’?

Another tip: also look for overarching euphemisms/dysphemisms. Sack maintains a subtle consistency in his references to pro-abortion and anti-abortion supporters. Pro-abortion supporters are ‘who’s’: they are personified groups or individuals. Anti-abortion, on the other hand, is referenced as ‘groups, which’ or the aforementioned ‘strategists’.

Be aware of euphemisms and dysphemisms. Receiving information is good, but don’t fall for the word play.

2. Ambiguity, That-Sometimes-Interesting-Thing

Take a look at the following sentence:

Because human features may barely be detectable during much of the first trimester, when 9 of 10 abortions are performed, some women find viewing the images reassuring.
Sack impresses me. That’s a golden amorphous sentence—I bet that nearly all readers finish it thinking, ‘Oh, first-trimester fetuses are just blobs and seeing them has no effect on women.’ And yet, Mr. Sack doesn’t make that claim–at least, not concretely. Instead, his statements are couched by terms like ‘may barely’ or ‘some’.

Ambiguity is not only is what is written, but largely also in what is not written. For example, Mr. Sack never directly comments on what type or quality of ultrasounds women are given in abortion clinics.

His article only contains two vague indications: the first occurs in the opening paragraph, which portrays a woman named Laura, about to have an abortion, staring “away from the grainy image on the screen.” Okay, so we know they are ‘grainy’. The second comes from a post-abortive woman named Tiesha, who Mr. Sack quotes as saying, “It [the 8-week old fetus] just looked like a little egg, and I couldn’t see arms or legs or a face.”

No wonder Mr. Sack chose to be ambiguous in the ‘human features’ sentence. Look up high-quality, 4-D ultrasound images 8-week old fetuses. I highly doubt Tiesha saw what you see in those images—a fetal image from the best ultrasound technology wouldn’t be confused with a ‘little egg’.

3. Emotional Appeal, aka ‘Feel Good—Agree with Me’

‘Appeal to emotion’ is a powerful tool, but it also happens to be a logical fallacy. The fallacy runs something like this: A is associated with B. B is associated with positive (or negative) emotions. Therefore, A is a good (or bad) thing.

Take Sack’s following sentence: “But a number of women at the Birmingham clinic, which was the site of a fatal bombing in 1998, said they simply did not want to subject themselves to images that might haunt them.” The bombing of the Birmingham clinic has nothing to do with the ultrasound discussion. However, all sorts of negative emotions towards anti-abortion supporters are wrapped up in any mention of anti-abortion violence. Likely, those emotional connotations will transfer onto the also anti-abortion, ultrasound advocates, even though the two aren’t actually  connected at all.

Sack also embeds a lot of emotional quotations into his article, particularly at the beginning and end. The article closes with an interviewee concluding that ultrasounds are “emotional torture.”

This recalls an earlier statement, made by the National Abortion Federation’s president. Laws, she says, that require ultrasound images be available to women who choose to view them “don’t respect women’s ability to make informed choices.”

Funny, that. I never knew that providing information was disrespecting someone’s ability to use information. Thank you for enlightening me, Ms. Saporta!

4. Appeal to Authority, Their Word is my Communiqué

A writer need resources and authorities when he/she writes an article, particularly a news article. But choosing those authorities has a huge impact on the spin of the piece. Are they objective? Are they knowledgeable? Do cited statistics come from credible sources?

Sack uses at least two authorities that seems to be fallacious: first, people who are either unknowledgeable or highly biased, and secondly, questionable statistics.

Let’s look at Sack’ interviewee list:
Laura: 36-year old post-abortive woman
Tiesha: 27-year-old post-abortive woman
Carmen: 28-year-old post-abortive woman
Diane Derzis: abortion clinic owner
Vicki Saporta: president of the National Abortion Federation
Linda Meek: director of Reproductive Services abortion clinic in Tulsa
Carrie Earll: spokeswoman from Focus on the Family
For an article concerning abortion law and the boundaries of informed medical consent, Sack’s article has a startling lack of interviews with lawmakers or non-abortionist physicians. Also, the only voice on the pro-life side comes from Focus on the Family—undeniably, an organization with a pre-existing reputation among secular media, no matter or just or unjust that reputation may be.

Six of Sack’s seven interviews were with already pro-abortion advocates—once a reader notices that, the slant of the article begins to be recognizable. Another way to  reveal bias is to look at the source and type of cited statistics.

Sack writes:

In one of the few studies of the issue — there have been none in the United States — two abortion clinics in British Columbia found that 73 percent of patients wanted to see an image if offered the chance. Eighty-four percent of the 254 women who viewed sonograms said it did not make the experience more difficult, and none reversed her decision.
I was unable to find the source of this ‘study’. Where is Sack getting this information? And since when are two Canadian abortion clinics an adequate sample size or representation of all American abortion clinics?

Later in the article, Sack takes the report of an abortion clinic owner as an authority concerning ultrasound’s effectiveness or lack thereof. Again, Sack cites illegitimate statistical authority and inadequate sample size/representation.

Conclusion: Read Defensively

I know that here at Evangelical Outpost we often talk about ‘reading charitably’. And that’s true and good. All the same, reading a modern news piece on sensitive topics like abortion, health care, euthanasia, religion and other similar topics calls for a different method of reading than does reading other types of literature. Sack’s article could compel a blithe reader into, at best, opinion with strength unwarranted by the evidence and, at worst, pure uninformed belief. Read well, read defensively and seek out truth–it remains unmovable beneath any spin.

Intentional Ambiguity: Telling it Slant

In the recent inaugural episode of Barak Wright’s arts and culture podcast, The Sandbox Monthly, Ken Myers talked about the dearth of genuine speech on the radio.

Real conversation is full of starts and stops, hesitations, and the kind of awkwardness not found in the canned speech of radio personalities, talk show hosts, and sitcom characters. Myers cited an interview he hosted with Eugene Peterson on Mars Hill Audio Journal, wherein Peterson talked about the sort of reading he calls “spiritual.” ‘Spiritual reading’ enters into conversation with the author; Peterson opposed it to reading merely to extract information. He made the point that Jesus spoke in parables, often appearing to purposefully befuddle his followers. If anyone is opposed to communication solely for the sake of transferring factual knowledge, it is Jesus.

This is hard for Christians in general, and Evangelicals in particular, to grasp. As people who are concerned with the spread of the gospel and the kingdom, we worry about our alienating “Christian-ese.” We feel the pull of cultural relevance and simplicity of speech. Although we are disenchanted with the evangelism of Chick tracts and the like, simplicity and clarity are still prized above all in our writing and speaking.

How could this be a bad thing? We certainly want our message to be clear.  An unclear gospel breeds unwitting heresy or false belief. With this in mind, Jesus’ parables become hard to account for. We must conclude, as Peterson affirms, that Christ is interested in engaging his listeners more than in conveying sufficient information. He is interested in involving their souls, not securing their listening comprehension.

Not only is ambiguity integral to great art (as I’ve written before), it is frequently a result of the artist’s intentions. Artists who cannot “say what they mean” are the worse for it; but artists very rarely say precisely what they mean. They aren’t interested in doing so. This might be frustrating (and often is) if we think of literature or music or painting the way we might think of an instruction manual.

Intentional ambiguity isn’t only integral to good art. It is also important in good conversation. Jesus’ parables are not only premier examples of the genre, they are also the cause of real connections between real people. He is not concerned with uncovering all the mysteries of the Kingdom; his language often veils rather than reveals. This is not because he couldn’t communicate better, but because he chose to speak ambiguously. If we understand the kind of conversation Christ modeled, it could decidedly inform our own.

The title of Eugene Peterson’s book, highlighted in the interview with Myers, is “Tell It Slant,” echoing an Emily Dickinson poem which begins “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Dickinson, like Peterson and Myers, understands what Jesus modeled: we ought to speak the truth to one another, but it is not always most effective to speak the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This is Dickenson’s point, as she concludes her poem with “The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind—” Often, we insulate ourselves from truths we dislike. Likewise, we presume we understand a truth stated too baldly, even if we hardly know it at all. In these cases, using ambiguity purposefully is one way of disallowing this faulty presumption. Those who demand immediate gratification will be held off from understanding.

Statements, verbal or artistic, that do not immediately disclose themselves to the audience demand closer listening, lengthier thought, and a more disciplined attention than we busy people would otherwise yield. Those who persist in conversational, open listening to intentional ambiguity may indeed be ‘dazzled gradually’ – in the case of Christ’s parables, perhaps by the saving gospel. Even if attention to the ambiguous does not yield comprehensive understanding, it teaches us to be patient and thoughtful in ways little else does.

Logic, Anyone? (Part I)

The most common arguments for abortion rest on fallacious logic. This is not to say that every argument for abortion invokes faulty logic. However, in my experience traveling to many US college campuses and dialoging about abortion, studying abortion ethics at Oxford, and interning at the Yale Bioethics Center, this is the prevailing argument used in favor of abortion:

We agree that human persons should not be killed.
However, the unborn [qualify with developmental stage] is not a human person.
Therefore, the [human being not yet attained to personhood] does not have the same rights as a human person.

This line of thinking usually attributes the “right to life” in the rights attributed to human beings established as persons but not to the unborn “pre-person.” It carries emotional weight by pitting the being-who-has-not-yet-attained personhood (the embryo or fetus) against the rights of the being-who-has-obviously-attained-personhood (the mother). When it is thus framed, many people would argue that the non- or pre-person may morally be aborted.

It took a Yale professor to show me the flaw in this argument. Karen Lebacqz is a thirty-year bioethicist from Harvard who now teaches at the Graduate Theological Union and Yale. Her many contributions to the field include helping draft the internationally recognized Belmont Report.

Lebacqz introduced her “Methods in Bioethics” seminar this summer with a reprisal of basic logic. With a bachelor’s degree in philosophy tucked under my belt, I expected nothing new. When we began by reviewing this simple fallacy, I almost fell asleep:

Major Premise: Red apples are good to eat.
Minor Premise: This apple is green.
Conclusion: Therefore this apple is not good to eat.

This is the fallacy of the “Illicit Major,” in which the converse of the first statement is assumed to be true. I had spotted plenty of these fallacies while working on my undergraduate degree. Simple enough. But then we changed the terms:

Major Premise: Human persons should not be killed.
Minor Premise: The embryo/fetus is not a human person.
Conclusion: Therefore the embryo/fetus can be killed.

This is the same fallacy: the major term is undistributed in the major premise, but distributed in the conclusion. In other words, nothing has been said about non-persons, so we cannot draw a conclusion about whether we may kill it, at least not without making a fallacious argument. Simply assuming that an embryo/fetus is not a person does not grant us the right to terminate it. Additional arguments—and robust ones at that—are needed.

These additional arguments must state clearly and defend the hidden assumption that it is permissible to kill a non-person.

However, most people who use the above argument for abortion also argue that certain non-persons ought not be killed. While Lebacqz used the example of a redwood tree, I would point to the vast animal rights movement. I don’t think dolphins are persons, and I don’t think they ever will be. But I would do everything in my power to stop someone who threatened to shoot a dolphin.

Assume, then, that the unborn are not persons. But don’t think it is therefore obvious that abortion in all instances is morally acceptable. If a dolphin was growing inside my friend’s womb, I would do everything possible to convince her not to have an abortion. Only if her life was in danger would I drive her to an abortion provider (and I’d do that if it was a baby, too). While unborn babies are far more precious than dolphins for many reasons, this “hierarchy” has no bearing on the fallacious assumption that “we can obviously abort non-persons” operating as a hidden premise in this common argument for abortion. If abortion advocates want to persuade those who have taken logic, they will have to provide arguments that are much more robust—and logically valid. ‘

How to Argue Like Jesus – by Joe Carter and John Coleman

Joe has written a book!


How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator

by Joe Carter and John Coleman

Joe sent me a note about the book in which he said: “Argue Like Jesus, which was written for both Christians and
non-believers, uses Jesus as a model of logic, rhetoric, and persuasion in order
to show how to be a more effective influencer and communicator. We think
students, bloggers, business people, and anyone else who needs to be persuasive
will find it useful (it’s short — 170 pages — and practically oriented).

You can learn more about it on our website: ArgueLikeJesus.com.”

I have provided a link above so that you can purchase your copy of the book through Amazon.  I just ordered my copy and look forward to reading it. 

The Five Fallacy Categories:
How Not to Argue (Part III)

[Note: This is the 3rd entry in the How Not to Argue series. See also Heuristics and Hyperbole and No True Scientist.]
Although an argument free of fallacies is not always good, a good argument is always free of fallacies.
While that chiastic assertion may not be completely true (or even fallacy-free) it is a fair summation of the fallacy theory of T. Edward Damer, philosopher and author of Attacking Faulty Reasoning. According to Damer, a fallacy is a violation of one of the five criteria of a good argument:

  • the argument must be structurally well-formed,
  • the premises must be relevant,
  • the premises must be acceptable,
  • the premises must be sufficient in number, weight, and kind, and
  • there must be an effective rebuttal of challenges to the argument.

Spotting fallacies in your own argument is one of the easiest ways to ensure they are more persuasive. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to keep track of the endless list of informal fallacies and their Latin nomenclature (ad argumentum ad infinitum). A useful heuristic is to instead become familiar with Damer’s five fallacy categories and the most common fallacies within each:

Continue reading The Five Fallacy Categories:
How Not to Argue (Part III)

Walt Whitman and the Dim Dhimmi:
Truth, Tolerance, and Non-Contradiction

On Sunday mornings, Rev. Ann Holmes Redding puts on the white clerical collar of an Episcopal priest and stands for prayers at St. Clement’s of Rome Episcopal Church in Seattle. But after noon on Fridays she dons a black hijab and kneels for prayer with other Muslims in the Al-Islam Center.
Redding, who will begin teaching the New Testament as a visiting assistant professor at Seattle University this fall, claims to be both a Christian and a Muslim: “I am both Muslim and Christian, just like I’m both an American of African descent and a woman. I’m 100 percent both.”
Despite the fact that the tenets of the two faiths are irreconcilable, Redding doesn’t feel she has to resolve the contradictions. As she tells the Seattle Times:

People within one religion can’t even agree on all the details, she said. “So why would I spend time to try to reconcile all of Christian belief with all of Islam? At the most basic level, I understand the two religions to be compatible. That’s all I need.”

My first reaction to reading Redding’s quote was to think of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” As you’ll recall from your high school literature class, Whitman’s paean of narcissism contained the oft-quoted line,

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The reason that Whitman could–using the language of poetry–make such a claim is because he was–using the language of philosophy–an idiot.
I do not mean this as an insult, or even as a counter-insult (for Whitman has been insulting our intelligence and aesthetic sensibilities for over a hundred years). Rather, I mean it quite literally. To embrace that which is true is an intellectual virtue; to embrace that which is known to be in error is an intellectual vice. In deciding to embrace real, not just apparent, contradictions, Whitman succumbs to one of the most egregious of intellectual vices: choosing to be willfully stupid.

Continue reading Walt Whitman and the Dim Dhimmi:
Truth, Tolerance, and Non-Contradiction