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?

Weekly Roundup: Same Sex Marriage and Superman

For many years Joe Carter, the original proprietor of the Evangelical Outpost, would gather together the week’s most interesting stories in a series called 33 Things.  Being a bloodthirsty Capitalist, Joe has threatened to sue if we continue to use the name*, thus we continue the tradition with the entirely unoriginal title of Weekly Roundup.

This week saw the high profile Supreme Court decisions that will fundamentally alter the same sex marriage debate in America.  Mere Orthodoxy has a helpful roundup of their own, gathering many of the major reactions from across the web.

One reaction not included in the Mere-O roundup comes from Dr. Peter Jones, Professor at Westminster Seminary California and Director of truthXchange.  Dr. Jones has a sober warning for the future of the church and her witness in America.

The venerable Doug Wilson, for his part, offers words of encouragement:

The salvation that Jesus is bringing to us is not a possible salvation, or a probable one, or a likely salvation. It is an inexorable and necessary salvation. Reformation, revival, salvation, forgiveness, and a spirit of deep repentance is coming at America just like tomorrow morning is.

Speaking in broader cultural terms, Josh Bishop ponders the implications of genderless marriage for men in general, specifically for their ability to form intimate, lasting and non-erotic friendships with other men.

And John Mark Reynolds provides a bit of much needed perspective by reminding traditional Christians that we have long been the “moral minority.”

In other political news, President Obama is still using ad hominem attacks on his political opponents, again suggesting that anyone who disagrees with his alarmist views on global warming is a member of the “Flat Earth Society.”  At HughHewitt.com, Clark Judge suggests that it is Mr. Obama who embraces flat earth science…and economics.

Zach Snyder’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel, is generating a lot of controversy for its dark tone and seemingly endless action sequences, as well as its clumsy Christological references.  But what if there is much more going on beneath the surface?  Peter Lawler at Big Think suggests that the film is all about Plato.  (He then continues and deepens his discussion of the Platonic themes in Man of Steel here).

While the new Superman may be an analogy for both Jesus and Plato’s Philosopher-King, Joe Carter would like to remind us that a Kryptonian invasion would be seriously bad for the economy.

There is a popular story on BuzzFeed, Eight Foods That We Eat in The US That Are Banned in Other Countries, that makes several claims about the negative health impact of some of our everyday foods, specifically the chemicals in those foods.  A chemist reviews those claims and finds them a bit overstated. 

While postmodern secularists would say that modesty (they would call it prudishness) is opposed to free self-expression, Marc at Bad Catholic argues that modesty is all about honesty, and is in fact the very thing that enables the truest expression of the self.

And now for something completely different!


*I kid, of course.  Joe is not bloodthirsty and he would never sue us.  He is a Capitalist, though.


Man of Steel: Morality Gone Wrong

If you haven’t seen Man of Steel yet, and you don’t want certain things about the film to be revealed to you, you should walk away now. In other words: Spoiler Alert.

There’s a lot to be said about Man of Steel, whether we’re judging Snyder’s directorial imprint on the iconic superhero or Henry Cavill’s (nearly perfect) attempt to portray Superman himself. The actors are all exceptional, with no exceptions. I’d be hard pressed to rain on their parade.

But this isn’t a review, so I won’t explain how neat the special effects were, or how gritty the punches felt, or what I thought about the use of flashbacks to tell a large piece of the story. Instead, there’s one bit of the film that drives me nuts: when Clark Kent’s father dies.

Kevin Costner does an excellent job playing Clark’s dad, Jonathan Kent. There’s weight to every line he gives us: this is a man who has clearly thought long and hard about the realities of raising a boy who would one day be Superman. While his lines make this incredibly obvious (“You’re going to change the world, son, for good or for evil,” paraphrased), it is more subtle than that: we see the trappings of a man who has thought so long about this that he can’t see new thoughts. He doesn’t leave room for his son to argue because Clark is still the young boy, even as he grows older.

Here’s the moment of frustration, the moment of alleged morality: Jonathan allows himself to be killed in order to prevent Clark from revealing his true power. This line of thinking (namely: preventing the world from knowing about this boy with superhuman strength and senses was more important than saving lives) is introduced earlier in the film. When Clark is still a kid, his school bus drives off a bridge, into the river below. In order to save the lives of the children on the bus, Clark gets out and pushes the bus to the shore. A few of the kids see him do this, and their parents confront the Kents.

When Jonathan goes out to talk with him, he explains that they have already talked about this; it is vital that the world not yet know about Clark’s powers. But Clark is having nothing to do with this, and makes the most obvious and powerful counterargument: “What was I supposed to do, let them all die?”

For some reason, Clark’s dad says “Maybe.”

He goes on to explain that the world isn’t ready for him, that many more lives could be lost if the government found out about him, and other similar arguments. This is where Jonathan’s moral views have failed him. He has spent so much of his life considering the consequences of this child’s identity that he no longer sees the immediate good. He was able to seriously consider sacrificing the lives of a dozen children in order to protect the identity of his own. It doesn’t help that the reason for protecting the identity of Clark is based on speculation and potential danger, not confirmed danger. If you’ve reached the point where you’re willing to let a dozen kids die for a perceived possible threat, your moral compass needs a new magnet.

Jonathan’s views end up leading to his own death. During a tornado, he rushes out to save a dog, risking his own life. When he gets stuck in a car, and eventually steps out, he makes eye contact with his son, Clark. With a slight shake of his head, Jonathan tells Clark to stay put. It would have been trivial for Clark to save Jonathan, but the risk involved–that is, the risk of allowing some relatively small number of people see him perform the task–was apparently too great. No, Clark couldn’t be allowed to save a life, just yet.

Throughout the film, many characters consider the weight of revealing to the world the story of Superman. Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) makes the same comment to Lois Lane (Amy Adams), when she comes to him about the story. Even if the story were completely true, he remarks, imagine what the world would do, how the world would react. There’s some validity here, even in the confines of the world we’re witnessing: when Superman is revealed, he spends some time as a target of the military. Even once he proves himself, the government is actively trying to learn more about him, when he’s asked them to simply trust him. It seems that everyone agrees that public knowledge regarding Superman’s abilities is dangerous. Lois Lane goes so far as to say she wouldn’t turn Superman in, even as Zod threatens to destroy the world.

One thing I hope we can all agree on: lives are valuable. I really hope I wouldn’t be the sort of person who would sacrifice a life in order to avoid a difficult situation.

The Gay Marriage Round-Up: Thoughts from Around the Web

Same-sex marriage has been a major topic of discussion across the web, especially in evangelical circles. I thought it might be helpful to give our readers a round-up of some of the best and most interesting stuff around the web.

A flurry of posts immediately followed The Atlantic‘s story “The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss,” so that’s as good a starting point as any. In it are a number of arguments, many of them speculative, considering what sorts of things a gay couple may be able to teach a heterosexual couple. There are lots of statistics from various surveys and studies, but many of the claims for future knowledge come down to separating the sexes in order to learn what is ‘uniquely male’ and ‘uniquely female’ in relationship settings.

In direct response, First Things offered up the similarly titled “What We Can Learn from Same-Sex Couples.” Here, Glenn Stanton works through the research behind the provocative story from The Atlantic, in order to tease out the implications. The findings are less optimistic than the Gay Guide would have us believe, to say the least.

The Atlantic may just have been capitalizing on the topic, but they followed up The Gay Guide with a piece written by a gay member of the Catholic Church. She speaks to the difference between believing in God abstractly and believing in God concretely; the former is likely not tied to any particular church, while the latter has some visible historicity and beauty to it. Even as an evangelical, I certainly understand and appreciate the point of view.

While I don’t agree with the position of the person being interviewed, John Corvino still makes some really important points regarding debate, broadly speaking. Especially worth noting is his rejection of the idea that all positions are equally valid–a common yet absurd notion–which is an important reminder in fields other than gay marriage (often, same-sex marriage debates agree on but one thing: both sides can’t be right, and one position is clearly superior to the other).

If you’re not familiar with the topic at all, however, the above may have been overwhelming. Joe Carter offered up some definitions regarding LGBTQ issues, which are helpful for those who haven’t researched any of it. He also works through the positions of those who have embraced gay-marriage while still holding to some form of Christianity.

Not every question is new, however. On the topic of giving up the fight against gay marriage, at least publicly, Timothy Dalrymple simply asks: when is the cost too high? In answer to the question, Matthew Lee Anderson of Mere Orthodoxy points out that not every socially conservative movement has looked bleak; in fact, he argues that we should learn the right lessons from the pro-life debate, which is gaining traction. While there are clear differences between the movements, there’s something to this approach. Brad Littlejohn also addressed the question of a tactical withdrawal, but argues for a shift in those tactics, rather than running away entirely.

That’s a lot of reading. And some of it is pretty heavy. While I stand with the traditional Christian view on homosexuality, I also recognize that a lot of the ways that Christians have interacted with the gay community have been harmful, and I’d like to find a way to change that without sacrificing what I believe is Biblical truth. We should be known for our love, after all.

Just Let Them Think You’re Stupid: Choosing Humility

By a quirk of our schooling, report cards and grades catechize us into perfect certainty of (at least) one thoroughly false lesson: that our ability to demonstrate understanding of something is more important than the understanding or the thing itself. Mixed with our natural inclination toward that frightened state called selfishness, this lesson curves back our conversations toward ourselves for the rest of our lives.

Because of long exposure to this lesson, an insufferable sickness dominates (especially among the well-educated): the need to demonstrate our value and knowledge. Like any good behaviorist can tell you, rewarded behavior tends to become thoughtless habit. Thoughtless habit, of course, tends to become vice.

It is everywhere. Who hasn’t watched those two terrible words flounce unbidden off her own tongue, dragging behind them some “demonstration” of knowledge? Those two little words that stifle further learning, further companionship, and further humility – “I know.” (Furthermore, who hasn’t been injured by them?) “I know that already; I’ve read War and Peace three times.” Or, “I know: I’ve been going to church since before I was born.” Or, in some other way, “I know, already, what you’re trying to teach me. I’m, in fact, better than you think I am.”

Finding ourselves in a museum with the painting of an artist we studied in Art History I as college freshmen, we appreciate getting to tell whoever is with us that we’ve studied this artist. I always find this inclination strongest with artists I know a little, but don’t really, deeply know. Famous and posh artists that “I know” are the ones I’m likeliest to “demonstrate.” We tend to turn conversations about half-known works of art into conversations about ourselves, via our demonstrable knowledge. We tend to be the least likely to defer to their merits, exalting our own (necessarily limited) knowledge of them as the highest merit.

On the other hand, artists that I know enough to love are the ones about which I’m least likely to say “I know.” Less drawn to demonstrate myself through them, I genuinely want to demonstrate their work and beauty and greatness. I don’t want to brag about Dante; I want to talk about Dante, because the most amazing thing about Dante is not my knowledge of Dante, but Dante, himself. When talking about Dante, I would be grieved to hear someone say, “Wow, Alicia, you know a lot.” I’d much rather hear, “Wow, Dante knew a lot.” The irony is clear – the artists about which I could demonstrate the most knowledge are the artists about whom I wish to demonstrate the least. When we try to demonstrate intelligence, then, we tend to demonstrate ignorance. Further, by loving Dante, I find myself less prone to demonstrate about other artists, for fear that it will change the way my conversations about Dante will go. Love is a matter of stepping aside so that your shadow can’t obscure anyone’s view of the beloved.

The lingering sense of a G.P.A., I’m afraid, obscures the view of the beloved. The G.P.A., which dominates our dominant instructional setting from ages 6 to 16 (or 26), teaches us nothing about love and humility. It teaches us about demonstration; getting an A on a geometric proof teaches us less about proving a mathematical concept than it teaches us about how to prove ourselves. After all, chronologically and logically, the student knew the concept before the grade existed.

The ripples of our grade-induced lessons flavor our conversations, making us believe that conversations about things studied or known are primarily about ourselves, instead of about the thing known. You will hear, in a college cafeteria, genuine conversations that express interest in the subject of conversation, proving love for the people conversing. But, you’ll also hear conversations of demonstration, wherein the conversationalists are simply making use of the conversation’s object to “one up” one another.

The cure for demonstration will not be easily effected. Our educational conditioning trained us that demonstration is vital to our value; our fallen state combined this with our deep-seated, natural pride. The roots are deep.

Yet, the cure is logically simple: let people think less of you.

What if, when someone began to tell you something you already knew, you didn’t counter with a demonstration? What if you allowed them to teach you, trusting that they may have more to say about it than you know? Expelling “I know” from our vocabulary allows people to think we know nothing, which – paradoxically – opens us to the possibility of knowing more. To cut off someone with “I know” guarantees that you exit the conversation in the same state in which you entered it. For the lover of the subject, this is a tragedy; why would we ever dismiss the slightest chance to learn about the beloved? No, employing the fast-lipped “I know” serves a single function: preserving the self at the expense of the subject.

But, it does us no harm to accept the seat of lowest honor at the table. From there, we have everything to gain.

A coworker asked what grade I’d received in statistics. I shrugged, “Grades distract me, so I don’t look at them. I learned a lot from the course, though.”

Instantly, I saw it on her face. I read it in a smugness of her tone as she responded: she thought I was getting bad grades and didn’t want to look at them.

How could she?! I wanted to find the grade out right then. I wanted the old, familiar, demonstrable proof of myself. My heart groaned, and I yearned to explain, “No, no, I’m not getting poor grades! I’m probably getting good grades. I’m submitting every assignment and studying hard.”

Purposefully and uncharacteristically choosing humility, I managed to bite my tongue. It does me no harm, after all, to let her think I failed statistics. Her misunderstanding will probably make her feel more comfortable offering me aid in the future than if I demonstrated my abilities with some arbitrary letter grade. And, I’ll never know enough about statistics for me to be in a place to reject any aid.

Often, when I manage to bite back that insufferable “I know,” I learn something. When I let someone go through five sentences of familiar information, the sixth usually blesses me with some new insight. The more frequently I let the conversation be about the subject at hand, without trying to commander it to being about me, the more I can love the subject at hand and the more I love the person who taught me about it.

Are Dolphins Persons?

India has banned holding dolphins captive for entertainment purposes. The act doesn’t concern me, at this point; I’m unsure how to tease out our relationship with creation, especially in terms of captivity or the ‘taming’ of animals. Christians may be able to encourage captivity of animals under the clause of “[ruling] over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” We could also argue that part of righteous rule is loving our ‘subjects,’ so to speak, and that captivity is intrinsically against this idea.

But the fascinating bit of the decision—as is often the case—is the reasoning behind it. The Central Zoo Authority of India had this to say about dolphins:

Whereas cetaceans in general are highly intelligent and sensitive, and various scientists who have researched dolphin behavior have suggested that the unusually high intelligence; as compared to other animals means that dolphin should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights and is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose.

I’m  not sure what a non-human person is, but that seems to be the hinge of the argument. There are other pragmatic concerns (dolphins are more likely to die in captivity, for instance), but those are less concerned with the necessary reality of captivity; that is, a practical concern is one that we can learn to overcome, while the nature of the thing (i.e., a ‘non-human person’) would make all captivity immoral. Questions of personhood are familiar to proponents of the pro-life debate, and those who have entered into serious science fiction might have dealt with the questions as well (clones, aliens, any number of other fictional possibilities). But we don’t often deal with the question outside of humanity, at least with living creatures here on earth.

So what makes a person? Well, Chisholm helps us frame the question:

An answer would take the form “Necessarily, x is a person if and only if …x …”, with the blanks appropriately filled in. More specifically, we can ask at what point in one’s development from a fertilized egg there comes to be a person, or what it would take for a chimpanzee or a Martian or an electronic computer to be a person, if they could ever be. (See e.g. Chisholm 1976: 136f., Baker 2000: ch. 3.)

If I were to argue against dolphin personhood, it is tempting to simply fill in “human” for x above. Unfortunately, this question begging doesn’t really end up taking us anywhere. Ultimately, we’d end up setting up ‘human’ and ‘person’ as essentially equivalent in the initial definition, which removes even the possibility of discussion of other candidates for personhood. It is possible that ‘person’ is best defined as human, to an argument for personhood can’t start there.

So let’s assume that we have to define ‘personhood’ using something deeper than just ‘human.’ The first obvious fact of personhood is that any given human must be classified as a person. We grant rights, and some we believe are inalienable, to all persons, but no one disputes that humans are persons (or shouldn’t; we’ve got a bad history with things like slavery, but we’re making progress). So if we came up with a definition of personhood that wasn’t fluid enough or broad enough to include a human, we’ve failed in our definition.

But is it possible that personhood is bigger than just humanity? That’s at least the assumption behind the dolphin argument. I’ll start by saying this: if you asked me on the street what endowed human beings with personhood, as it were, I’d likely say something akin to “all persons are made in the image of God.” Any and every bearer of the image of God is deserving of certain rights and graces, or at least we should be offering those rights to them. This answer necessarily precludes anything non-human, since only humanity is made in the image of God. There is a sense in which God has personhood, of course, but it’s a source relationship as much as anything; the image of God is derivative of God, and so personhood is derivative of something, perhaps some sort of divine personhood.

But I wonder if we can make the argument sans the image of God. Starting with naturalistic evolution, do we have good reason to refrain from granting personhood to dolphins, chimpanzees, or any other intelligent non-human life?

One criterion, tacitly offered by the dolphin argument, is that intelligence is sufficient for personhood. The primary argument for personhood, after all, is that “cetaceans are highly intelligent and sensitive,” and so they deserve some rights as non-human persons. While some argue that intelligence is a poor measure of personhood on the basis of the clear exceptions (those in a vegetative state may appear to lack any intelligence, even if they once had it; more powerful is the example of certain sorts of mental handicaps or deficiencies), but it will be more helpful to deal with generalities rather than exceptions. You can say a family is kind and mean it, even if there’s an unkind uncle. Perhaps not every member of a species is intelligent, but that shouldn’t preclude the species from being classified as intelligent. There will always be outliers.

But is intelligence enough for us to grant personhood? Science fiction has been asking this for years, though usually in terms of artificial intelligence. Should we grant rights to the appearance of intelligence that we see in computers or holograms? Perhaps one day AI technology will reach a point where we have genuine intelligence (though I have my doubts about the viability of this), and if that happens we’ll find ourselves asking the same questions. But a dolphin is different in significant ways. For starters, there is no feeling of ownership that can come with artificial intelligence. We didn’t create the dolphin, so we don’t have the same rights over it that we might over a mechanical intelligence.

Some might extend ‘intelligence’ to mean something like an ability to plan and put into motion various plans. Others might classify it as the ability to engage in abstract thought (a quick counterargument: do we have a way of confirming that dolphins, who appear to have other intelligent actions, are not capable of abstract thought?). Still others would rest on the issue of the image of God, as my own instincts guide me.

Personhood is difficult to define, that’s certain. It’s an important process to go through, for a variety of reasons. The pro-life movement is one of them, but so are many claims of victimization or oppression. Anytime someone claims that they are treated as sub-human, we have to ask how we treat sub-humans, which usually means identifying some sub-humans. While I remain unconvinced that we should treat dolphins as non-human persons, I recognize that the majority of the strength of my position comes from my religious convictions. I don’t think that weakens them, but it does offer less assistance when arguing in the public sphere.

Body Modification and Ethics: A Helpful Framework

If you aren’t reading Mere-O Notes, you really ought to be. Perhaps it is presumptuous to use an ‘ought’ so early in a discussion of ethics, but so be it. Really, go check it out. It is some of the best content curating on the web from an evangelical perspective.

How do we evaluate body modification in certain extreme cases? One woman has decided that she wants to gain weight for the express purpose of livestreaming herself on the web, either eating or otherwise. Her purpose for gaining weight is simple: there’s a market for “big, beautiful women,” and she can make more money by increasing her size. Jake ends his brief article on the subject with a question:

hope that Christian readers will be disturbed by this story and agree that this isn’t an ethical way to modify the body. But the counter-argument for good moderns will be, “It’s her body, she’s not hurting anyone but herself, and she’s finding a way to actually make a living from it… so what’s the problem?” What’s the appropriate response for thoughtful evangelicals?

The comments are helpful. Two readers ran with the same argument: the body isn’t ultimately ours. We are stewards of the body, and the body is a temple. The above example makes it pretty clear that stewardship has gone out the door, and any reverence due a temple seems missing. I added my own thoughts, which I’ll quote here:

I think the issue gets a little trickier when we start to discuss the issues in the public sphere. Arguments like “the body belongs to God” doesn’t hold much weight with people who either don’t believe in God or don’t think God has any pull in our day-to-day lives, or even from people who hold to other religious beliefs, potentially.

I don’t think that means we can’t make the arguments, though.

On the one hand, I might be tempted to just say we shouldn’t worry about making the arguments. We can’t morally police everyone who isn’t within the fold, so to speak, so why try?

But if we were to make a run at it, I might start by arguing that our bodies are actually more public than we often recognize; if they are indeed our extension into space, it follows that our presence is shifted by the shape and state of our bodies. Perhaps people think they are only harming themselves, but (at least in the above example), there’s certainly the issue of encouraging others (how many people might see this method as a way to make money, and then damage their own bodies in desperation to pay their bills?). There might even be something worth arguing about the strangeness of finding unhealthiness intrinsically attractive (rather than finding someone attractive who is unhealthy, it seems these people are attracted to the act of making oneself less healthy, which strikes me as pretty problematic).

The other arguments we’d have to combat (happiness is the leading/best reason that people should be allowed to do things; ownership is reason enough to justify any action; we are our own greatest authorities, and are sovereigns of our own bodies) are trickier to work through, sans Christianity or some other religious appeal, but I’m not sure they’re impossible.

I won’t repeat myself, but I did want to take some time to advance one of these arguments a bit further. If there’s interest, perhaps I’ll work through some of the others.

That second-to-last paragraph is what I want to hone in on; in particular, I want to talk about the intrinsic public nature of bodies. I’ll admit right off the bat that a lot of my thoughts on bodies, especially theological thoughts, have been influenced by Earthen Vessels, written by Matthew Anderson.

In one sense, our bodies are private: we cover them, and only reveal them in intimate moments (most of us, anyway). But for the most part, our bodies are absolutely public: people look at us and see us, we smell and touch others, we live in the world as embodied beings. So when we make decisions about our bodies–from the food we eat to the people we see to the places we go–we’re acting in a way that, by definition, doesn’t stay with the self.

And so it gets tricky when we start to look at something like intentionally making ourselves unhealthy. While the story cited above may give us all a similar reaction (perhaps it doesn’t; I’d like to hear from you, if that’s the case!), what about when we go and eat fast food, or skip exercising, or avoid vegetables? These are moments when we act against the body, in a way. The counter argument, and the one most of us will probably quickly jump to, is to say something like “Well, pleasure is an important part of life as well. If we don’t all like vegetables, we should sometimes enjoy stuff that isn’t so good for us, because we enjoy it.”

If we push that further, however, we get to the point where we gorge ourselves for the sake of enjoyment, rather than practicing stewardship.

So what do we do to evaluate our own actions in regards to our bodies? What framework should we use; what questions should we ask?

I think the stewardship line is a helpful one to explore. We should take care of the temples we have been given. While it feels like this will immediately lead us all to rigorous diet and exercise schedules, I think we should stretch the analogy a bit more. A temple that is crafted and decorated and chiseled until it looks absolutely perfect may be beautiful, and it may even be functional, but it will also be cold. A place of worship–a church–that discourages people from experiencing emotion or from opening up their very souls is a poor place of worship.

The analogy gets muddled there (I was tempted to say that lots of people frequent the church building, but I’m certain I don’t want to push that line), but the point is this: sometimes we should spend our time attending to things other than temple maintenance. Sometimes it is appropriate to eat something for the pleasure of it, even if it isn’t the healthiest thing we can find. Enjoyment is valuable, as are exercise and vegetables.

But the question should always be one of stewardship.

Arguing Against an Invalid Viewpoint

Today, as always, Christians find themselves in head to head disputes over issues they cannot compromise. No matter what creative thinking either side might apply, there are things they cannot and will not do. On certain doctrinal and social issues, there is no alternative perspective to the orthodox one. No amount of creative thinking and cumbayah singing can erase disagreement and attempts to relativize it look obsequious and sycophantic. When it comes to points of heresy and sin, Christians cannot honestly treat opposing perspectives as a sort of viable alternative to their own views. In view of the fact that telling opponents that they are wrong is an affront to their dignity—even telling someone they made a mistake slightly impugns their abilities—Christians must keep their own limitations in view as they continue to adhere to their own views. Continue reading Arguing Against an Invalid Viewpoint

Objective Beauty: An End to the Pepsi Challenge

Chocolate ice cream is objectively better than vanilla.  Coke is obviously superior to Pepsi.  Snickers is the best candy bar.  Most people would consider these statements a mere opinion or preference, but what if there was more to it than that?  Could one actually be better?

Earlier this year I was talking with my brother Josh, and he made a comment about how chocolate was objectively better than vanilla.  I’ve heard this kind of joke many times.  “Oh obviously Coke is better than Pepsi, if you disagree then you’re just wrong.”  It’s funny because we all know that neither is better (or rather, it was funny before I explained the joke).  It struck me as odd, because Josh does believe in objective truth and objective beauty about some things at least.  He believes it is not just a matter of preference where there is more stark contrast, such as when comparing a sunset with a decaying corpse.  Is he inconsistent?

If so, then his is a common inconsistency.  I have especially noticed it in Christian circles as a way to describe moral relativism.  “The moral relativist thinks that morals are like flavors of ice cream, it’s all just a matter of preference.”

To be clear, I don’t think which flavor is better between Pepsi and Coke is knowable.  But just because one cannot know something, that doesn’t mean there can’t be truth about it.  I think I’ll never fully grasp the nature of God or higher mathematics, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth about those things.  I’m quite sure I will never know the number of leaves in the world at this moment, but I think the number exists and that God knows it.

So why would I believe something so counter-intuitive—that there probably is an objectively superior flavor of ice cream?  To begin with, I think beauty is objective, at least about some things.  I am not going to put any effort into arguing for it, it’s just one of the most obvious truths to me.  A sunset must be more objectively beautiful than a decaying corpse.  Many interesting discussions could be had arguing for or against it, but my project is to assume it as my first premise and consider the possible implications.

If the sunset is more beautiful than the corpse, then might the sunset be more beautiful than something else that is obviously beautiful, such as a rose?  Why not?  If beauty is objective about some things, is it more plausible that there is truth about less obvious claims, or that beauty stops being objective when people begin to disagree?

One may think, perhaps there is objective beauty about the sunset and the rose, but beauty doesn’t apply to taste.  Perhaps it doesn’t.  But is it really plausible that when one person prefers skittles to a steak that he is not deeply mistaken?   I don’t think so.  I don’t think good cooks are just figuring out what people like, I think they are making art in a similar way that a good painter does.  The great painting isn’t great because people like it, but because it truly is beautiful.  It seems infinitely more plausible to me that the same is true of food.  And if that is the case, then it seems plausible that there is truth about less obvious cases, such as chocolate and vanilla.

The presence of disagreement need not imply the absence of truth.  But, one might ask, how then are we to understand why we have such irreconcilable disagreements?  Some people hate Coke, some people hate Pepsi, and others couldn’t tell the difference between them in a blind taste test if their lives depended on it.

One explanation that seems to ring true is that we are sometimes bad at appreciating good things.  For example, I used to hate fish.  I would try eating it at the university cafeteria and would almost gag every time.  I tried better fish in a backyard barbecue and hated it just as much.  But it seemed plausible to me that God created good things for us to enjoy and that if so many people seemed to like fish so much, then it’s more likely that the problem is with my ability to appreciate fish rather than with fish itself.  I decided to try to make myself like it, and over the course of a couple of years, grew to love it.  I have not yet been successful in my effort to learn to like pickles.  Make of that what you will.

This doesn’t prove that there is objective truth about fish; I don’t think I can positively demonstrate any of this.  I’m merely attempting to paint a plausible alternative to the explanation that when some people like fish and others don’t, neither is right.

Another reason we have such disagreements is that we have different preferences, which I think is perfectly compatible with my theory.  How many men have you known, who, upon falling in love, found their girlfriend or wife to be the most beautiful creature on the face of the planet?  I’ve both witnessed it and experienced it.  Let’s assume for the sake of argument that one hundred (a very conservative estimate) men simultaneously have the belief that his beloved is the most beautiful.  In one sense, they cannot all be right, there can only be one most beautiful woman.  But in another, I think they all are right: to each of them, his beloved is clearly the most beautiful.  Similarly, perhaps when two friends cannot come to an agreement on Coke or Pepsi, perhaps Coke tastes the best to one and Pepsi tastes the best to the other.  This could be a result of positive or negative associations, it could be because one of them is slightly worse than the other at appreciating good things, or, most likely, they have different preferences.  My point is that having different preferences about things does not imply that there is not objective truth about them.

An (admittedly) odd implication of this view is that, when it comes to aesthetics, there is an objective hierarchy.  God could line up all the men, or women, or paintings, or foods exactly in order of most aesthetic quality to least.  I think if God were to show me some of these foods all lined up that I would have preferences for some over others, even amongst almost indistinguishably delicious food.  Perhaps in the all-knowing mind of God, there is an objective ranking or an awareness of a precise level of aesthetic value.

“Aha!” one might say at this point.  “Maybe there is such a hierarchy for some things, but that the aesthetic value of, say, chocolate and vanilla ice cream happens to be identical, so it isn’t true that one is better than the other!  Perhaps this is even true for all of the controversial cases.”  While this is possible, I suspect it isn’t the case for the same reason that I think determining which is better is unknowable: if the answer exists, it would be incredibly complex.  If, given infinite knowledge, one could quantify something as complex and mysterious as beauty, it strikes me as implausible that very different foods, people or art could happen to wind up with the exact same amount of beauty.

Even if you are persuaded, you may be wondering, “Why should I care?  If it’s unknowable anyway, what does it matter?  Why am I even reading this?”  Or maybe even, “I want the last ten minutes of my life back.”  Perhaps it isn’t significant outside of entertaining food for thought (pun intended).  It is certainly far less significant than the fact that many people don’t know God, so don’t spend so much time thinking about this that you miss an opportunity to talk to people about more important things.

There are two reasons I do think it matters though.  The first is that while I care much more about the objectivity of the sunset over the corpse than I do about less obvious cases like Coke and Pepsi, I suspect denying the objectivity of the one may undermine the objectivity of the other.  If we assume there isn’t truth about one, why should there be truth about the other?  The second is that it seems more likely that one will try to learn to appreciate art if she thinks there is beauty to be appreciated than if she assumes a given style or artist just isn’t her “cup of tea” (a terribly misleading phrase, if my theory is correct, and the aesthetic value of tea is objective).