Some Thoughts on Christian Ethics

As an ethicist, I often get asked whether something is good or bad, praiseworthy or blameworthy. It is more common for me to be able to answer a clear “no” than for an absolute “yes.” In fact, many times my response is a very robust, “It depends.”

Whether something is morally praiseworthy depends on more than the act itself. It also depends on the circumstances and the reason for the action, at least. Processing moral events in our lives through three particular considerations is the start of the ethical decision-making process. We need consider at least the action, the circumstance, and the reason behind it.

Triperspectival Ethics

I believe that some version of a triperspectival approach to ethics is the most helpful. The most prominent advocate for triperpectival ethics is John Frame, but the foundations of the system are built on a much earlier theological tradition.

The Heidelberg Catechism, asks this pertinent question in question 91:

Q. What are good works?

A. Only those which are done out of true faith, conform to God’s law, and are done for God’s glory; and not those based on our own opinion or human tradition.

There are three basic elements to this: (1) done out of true faith, (2) conforming to God’s law, and (3) done for God’s glory. For each action we need to consider the action itself, our reason for doing it, and the circumstances in which we do it. For example, eating shellfish is morally permissible, since Christ declared all food clean. However, if you believe you are sinning by eating shellfish because you misunderstand the law, then by violating your conscience you are sinning; your attitude is set against God. Or, if you eat shellfish in the knowledge that it is morally permissible to eat, but you do it to show how spiritual you are or simply out of gluttonous motivations, then you have stepped into sin.

All moral acts have at least these three components: (1) the action, (2) the circumstance, and (3) the reason. The first question to ask is whether the action is morally permissible. If Scripture puts it out of bounds, then it is sin to voluntarily perform the action. This is a fairly simple process, typically, but not always.

The second question is whether the circumstances support that act being just. So, for example, if I kill someone out of self-defense, Scripture makes clear that is not sin. However, if I kill an innocent person, then the same physical act becomes sin. Or, as another example, sex is a morally permissible action, but only with my spouse in the bounds of marriage. Who I am and what the situation is makes a difference as to whether something is morally permissible.

The third question is whether the motive is correct. If I kill someone in what appears to be self-defense, but I’ve really wanted to kill him for years or at that moment I hated him because of whatever he did, then that would be sin. If a couple has sex within the bounds of marriage but the man’s mind is solely on his own satisfaction and not on the glory of God and the good of his wife, then that sexual act became sin for him.

Nearly everything we do is tainted by the reason or motive for which we do it. That is the power of sin in this world and our lives. Repentance and prayer must be an ongoing process, because even serving in the church nursery or preaching a sermon quickly become tainted by our sinful motivations. Thank God for the cross.

A Case Study

For those still concerned that triperspectivalism is a form of moral relativism, I assure you it is not. However, I will offer a more complete example to illustrate the process.

If a hardworking janitor at the local hospital dresses in scrubs, goes into the maternity ward, and delivers a baby, we would consider that a morally impermissible event. Most of us would nod our heads in agreement if we saw the headline, “Hospital Janitor Gets 25 Years Baby Delivery.” That janitor is not the appropriate individual to perform the function of the doctor.

However, if we simply change the situation a little, the expert cleaner goes from criminal to hero. Consider the alternative situation where the same janitor helps a woman deliver her baby on a remote stretch of highway when her car had broken down. The action was the same, the individuals were the same, but the circumstances changed the situation radically. What would have been deemed a criminal action in the hospital is a heroic action for that janitor when there is no doctor available.

These are the two layers that the law and human society can consider. The action and the circumstances are the only things that we can measure and judge. However, God’s judgment goes a layer deeper, which further enhances Christian ethics.

To be a praiseworthy action, the action must be in accordance with God’s law, supported by the circumstances, and done with the appropriate motivation. If the heroic janitor delivered the baby on the side of the road for his own glory, with a view to getting into the newspapers, then that is a societally beneficial action, but it becomes sin in the eyes of God.

The Pervasiveness of Sin

Moral relativism tends to minimize sin by arguing that circumstances make an otherwise impermissible action permissible. Thus, some argue that killing a human is sin, but there may be circumstances (e.g., self-defense) in which it is permissible. Triperspectivalism takes the opposite approach. It argues that there are many events which may be morally permissible, but that other factors may make them morally impermissible.

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Killing a human is not sin in and of itself, otherwise God would be liable to the charge of sin, because there are unquestionable examples of God ending the life of a human in Scripture. However, killing an innocent human is a sin. Thus, murder is prohibited, while being a combatant is not. And yet, simply donning a uniform is not enough to make killing an enemy combatant morally praiseworthy. If a soldier kills for the joy of it (i.e., selfish pleasure) or out of pure hatred, then that event has become sinful and must be repented of. We must consider the action, the circumstances, and the motivation.

Similarly, sexual intercourse is not inherently sinful. Intercourse outside the bounds of natural marriage is not necessarily sinful either, since the victim of rape is not responsible for the action being perpetrated on his or her body. However, willing sexual intercourse outside the bounds of natural marriage is sinful because the circumstances violate the norms of God. And yet sex within the bounds of natural marriage is not necessarily without sin. Even with the correct action and circumstances, if the event occurs out of selfishness (e.g., a concern only for one’s pleasure), then it is morally impermissible and therefore sinful.

The reality is that most of what we do is tainted by sin. Even serving in the church nursery or preaching a sermon is often done with, at best, mixed motives. Our hearts are idol factories. We often do “good deeds” as much to get noticed or receive thanks as to honor Christ. The God of the universe is a jealous God, he will not share his glory with his creatures (Is. 42:8).

Total depravity is real. Sin taints every aspect of human existence. Aside from our blatant violations of God’s laws, our motives are likely never pure. This enhances the miracle of grace. We must continually repent of our sin and strive to serve faithfully, but ultimately any praiseworthiness of our actions is due to God’s undeserved grace toward us. Much like a child bringing a shaky drawing to a father, our actions are little more than colorful scribbles. Yet, out of love for us as adopted children, he takes messy works done imperfectly from a heart of faith, sees them as good in Christ, and puts them on the refrigerator. This is why Hebrews 11 extols imperfect people who did imperfect things for doing them through faith.

Ultimately, we are incapable of doing good outside of the working of the Holy Spirit in us. Our worthiness is not based on doing good works (though we should strive to do them), because to do so might lead us to believe we should get to heaven. We can’t do truly good works anyway, because of our sin. However, God has called us to live faithfully and to strive to be holy, just like him. That command leads us to reject obviously sinful actions and circumstances and to pursue actions that do not violate clear revelation of Scripture. At the same time, we must recognize that on our best days we are but sinners whose only hope is the substitutionary death of Christ.

Conclusion

Christian ethics is far from a simplistic set of cases where going to movies is bad, but reading the Bible is good. Both are likely to be tainted by sin. The truth is that we are much worse that we like to believe we are. Our sinful actions and attitudes should continually cause us to repent, turn back toward God, and place our hope in Christ for forgiveness of our sin.

Christian ethics should never lead us to be triumphalistic––that is, to look down on others who commit obvious, public sin––but should push us toward repentance. The judgment on those of us who are redeemed, who have been given the Holy Spirit, and yet who continue to be selfish would be much greater than those without that gift, were it not for the cross.

Reclaiming Hope - A Review

Michael Wear’s recent book Reclaiming Hope is a call for Christians to remain hopeful about the future, despite the misuse and abuse of religion in politics in recent years. Although similar messages have been promoted and led to failure, Wear’s message is a worthwhile one: authentic Christian hope should lead to Christians continuing to participate in politics as Christians. This means that we need to seek the good of the city in which God has placed us and remain critical of both political parties.

Wear is one of the many in the millennial generation who believe that greater government participation in redistribution of wealth is a good thing. The front half of the book recounts his alignment with the Obama White House on the good of passing the Affordable Care Act, which has made purchasing medical insurance legally required with financial penalties for those who choose not to participate in the market. Wear recounts Obama’s use of religious language in supporting things as way that faith can influence policy. For those that oppose the seemingly ever increasing growth of the government through programs like the Affordable Care Act, the front end of the book seems like a bit of tedious hero worship of President Obama. Those who find themselves so frustrated should continue on through the volume. Wear is recording the events as he saw them at the time, though he appears to more critically examine those events later in the volume.

Aside from Wear’s bias toward the government as a means for achieving economic justice, a portrait of the President Obama’s faith begins to emerge. Wear, a socially conservative evangelical Christian, participated in both of Obama’s campaigns and in the first term White House Staff as part of the faith outreach. Part of Wear’s job was to counter the attacks on Obama’s faith, which came from more conservative Christians based on Obama’s apparent support of the continued legalization of abortion and other causes supported by the platform of the Democratic National Convention.

The portrait of Obama’s faith that emerges is of an authentically faithful, liberal Christianity. In this sense, I am not using liberal as a dismissive insult, but to qualify the form of Christianity that Obama appears to hold and to have held. That is, a Christianity that truly holds to certain tenets of the orthodox faith, but sees fit to accept other elements that do not accord with biblical Christianity when historical orthodoxy appears to conflict with modern understandings of the world. This is the sort of Christianity that sees the gospel as primarily a call to social justice rather than personal conversion that leads people to pursue true justice in society in response to God’s justice. Wear, whose doctrine appears to be more consistently orthodox than Obama’s, paints a portrait of a President who sees the impetus toward apparent goods from within Christianity and finds motivation from that, but who may not have accepted the authority of Scripture over all areas of life and practice.

The first half of the book recounts the Obama political machine’s pursuit of doctrinally conservative Christians and efforts to enact a unifying vision for politics. The second half of the volume, however, outlines the ways that the Obama White House subverted those processes, discarded efforts to meaningfully work for a common vision of the good. This failure to seek common cause is highlighted by the Obama Administration's refusal to drop the contraceptive mandate despite the large number of Roman Catholic Bishops who would have otherwise have supported the measure. Wear documents his frustration that the White House staffers were unable or unwilling to understand that prohibition of contraception is a longstanding, significant tenet of Roman Catholic doctrine and to unnecessarily impose a violation of conscience on Roman Catholics in the marketplace would result in alienation of a large base. Additionally, Wear recounts the instant amnesia sexual revolutionaries developed in their efforts to excoriate and persecute those who held a vision of marriage that even Obama held until 2011. Wear reveals a political machine that, at least in part, did not (and likely still does not) understand the place and power of faith in the lives of the faithful of many religions.

Later chapters document the anti-religious influences in the White House overcoming the efforts of Wear and other faithful staffers. This was punctuated by the DNC’s overt pushing of social advocate, shock-value entertainer Lena Dunham’s video comparing voting for Obama in 2008 with her first sexual encounter. Also, the Obama campaign in 2012 used profanity laced e-mails to rally support. The shift into a post-religious White House (which is not to say a post-religious Obama) could be seen in the demonization of Louie Giglio prior to the 2013 inauguration, whose 20-year-old sermon expounding traditional sexual morality was sufficient to result in many public attacks and his ouster from praying at the inauguration. As Wear notes, “In 2009, our diversity demanded we accept that there will be voices we disagree with in public spaces. In 2013, diversity required us to expel all dissent.” (pg 190) This is the reality that many have experienced, which has alienated many of the faithful from the Democratic National Convention, and has helped to push some to vote against Hillary Clinton in the most recent election.

Wear closes the volume with a constructive appeal to a biblical concept of hope, which Christians alone can bring to politics. Whatever policy disagreements I have with Wear, these chapters are helpful. The loss of real hope is detrimental to politics, it leads to fragmentation, hatefulness, and eventually a politics that must win at all cost for fear or retribution. If nothing else, this last section is worth the price of the book, since it reveals the reality of socially conservative, faithfully living evangelicals who have participated in politics with the Democratic National Convention and don’t hate orthodox Christianity. Wear’s willingness to communicate his basis of support for some of the DNC’s policies while seeking to effect change from within. He should be honored for such efforts.

This is a helpful book in many respects. It undermines the notion that being a faithful, socially conservative Christian prevents engaging in politics with the DNC. It provides a glimpse to some of the machinations of the political machine, which should cause both the right and left to question exactly who wrote and how sincerely are meant statements that seem faithful from politicians. It may be that people like Wear are, in good faith, helping politicians craft statements that allow them to seem rather than be truly faithful. Finally, and perhaps the most important lesson in this bleary eyed post-election season, Wear’s volume reminds the reader that we cannot cease participating in politics even when both parties hold positions repugnant to faithful Christians. We must, necessarily, seek to gracefully engage in politics for the common good as we best understand it. We must also seek to be gracious with those with whom we disagree and seek to critique their policy, not their faith.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume as part of the launch team for this book. There was no expectation of a positive review.

There is No Second Order Guilt

There is no such thing as second order guilt.

This election, economic reasoning, and so many of our choices would be greatly simplified if more people were aware of this.

What is second order guilt? I’m glad you asked.

Freedom by Osajus, used by CC license.  http://ow.ly/TL2U305uPoi

Freedom by Osajus, used by CC license. http://ow.ly/TL2U305uPoi

Second order guilt is a situation where you are morally culpable for the actions of someone else that led to your actions or resulted from your actions. It is the basis for many contemporary decisions, but it is not really a thing.

For example, some people argue that if you purchase clothing and that clothing was made by a slave somewhere that you are morally culpable for the person’s slavery. Or another example: some people argue that if the government funds abortions and you pay taxes that you are morally guilty of abortion.

If these sound compellingly familiar, it is because a great deal of argumentation in the public square is based on this sort of reasoning:

“Don’t use the Firefox browser because their CEO supports marriage.”
“You have to vote for X because if Y wins there are going to be more abortions in the US. Therefore, if you vote for Z and Y wins the blood of those babies is on your hands.”
“I buy fair trade coffee because I don’t want to be guilty of abusing poor Peruvian farmers who sell to non-fair trade companies.”

Where the Real Complexity Lies

There are two separate pieces to consider here. First, there are decisions that we make to leverage our economic or political power to bring about social change. Second, there is the actual assignment of guilt. It’s important to recognize the difference.

Boycotting a company over their policies is completely licit and ethically permissible. I think that evangelicals have gone off the rails and use it altogether too much as a blunt object, but people are free to leverage their money to bring about social change. The sugar boycotts that were implemented to help end slavery in Britain were useful both for raising awareness and for putting economic pressure on the plantation owners that used slave labor.

The risk in boycotting is that if it is used too much it loses its impact. Often, too, the products or companies that replace the banned product are nearly as bad or bad in other ways, so there is a great deal more moral ambiguity than people generally allow.

The second is the more significant issue. For many boycotters (or this year, political activists), in order to increase participation, they leap from making boycotting a power play to assigning moral guilt for a failure to participate.

Part of this, I think, is because for many people the ills that are driving the boycott are really that important. Also, there is the fact that no one wants to admit that they are really just making a power play and trying to beat someone else into submission. That’s what a boycott really is. It can be described in a more genteel way, but it is simply a legitimate means of coercion.

However, since the mushy middle, which is the vast majority of the population, is unlikely to take significant action based on a desire to reshape society through genteel economic pressure, activists often inspire commitment to their cause by claiming that someone who doesn’t participate in the boycott is participating in the evil that is driving the boycott.

Like sex outside of marriage, this idea sells, but it isn’t actually biblical. We aren’t guilty of unjust violence even if we pay taxes to a government funding an unjust war. We aren’t guilty of abortion simply because the federal government funds Planned Parenthood in lieu of health centers that provide health services and not abortion. We aren’t guilty of sexual assault because we vote for a particular candidate, nor necessarily for condoning it. (Now, if we minimize the actions...that is another story.)

Biblical Basis

I will provide one Old Testament example that there is no second order guilt, two examples from Paul, and one example from the life of Jesus. Other examples could likely be provided, however, these should be sufficient for this format.

In the Old Testament, in 2 Kings 5, after Naaman is healed, he expresses concern about bowing to an idol in the house of Rimmon while supporting his master. In reality, he was both bowing and facilitating the false worship of his master. However, his heart was not worshiping, he was merely fulfilling the terms of his employment and his patriotic duty. Elisha’s simple comment, “Go in peace,” provides evidence that Naaman was not going to be held accountable for false worship because he in some way helped his master honor a Rimmon. There is no second order guilt in that situation.

Second, Paul urges Christians to submit to a government in Romans 13:1-7. The reader should remember that the Roman government would kill Christians, commit what we would now call war crimes, and generally be barbaric by our contemporary standards. At the same time, Christians were to submit. They did not become guilty for the sins of the nation that they were submitting to. Paul didn’t indicate that by failing to protest or attempt a coup that they were guilty of the war crimes committed by the Romans. In fact, despite the fact that some of their taxes would pay for instruments of torture used against Christians, Paul tells the Christians to pay taxes (13:7).

Third, Jesus himself encourages people to pay tribute to the occupying nation that had desecrated the temple, slaughtered many of his countryman, and would someday kill him despite his absolute innocence. Despite these ills that such tax money would enable, Jesus did not hold himself or others guilty for paying such taxes. There is no second order guilt.

Fourth, dealing with the issue of conscience directly and commerce secondarily, Paul declares eating meat sacrificed to idols licit in 1 Corinthians 8. Buying meat from animals that had once been sacrificed to idols helped to finance the false worship. And yet Paul’s concern is with whether the eating the meat will violate someone’s conscience due to its having been sacrificed to idols. The purchase of the meat, which could support the false worship, is not considered. In fact, Paul makes it clear that it’s not the eating of the meat itself, but the individual’s sense that it is wrong; violating the individual's conscience is the problem. There is no second order guilt.

But My Conscience

The obvious rebuttal to the final example is that a person’s conscience can make the eating of temple meat a sin. This is correct. You can put yourself into a state of conscience over an otherwise good act that makes it a sin to do it. However, Paul calls the conscience that is thus violated weak. The reader is left to infer that mature Christians should not have concerns--at least that they should not make a practice of looking for concerns of conscience.

The upshot is that someone should not violate their conscience or encourage others to violate their conscience, but at the same time, Christians shouldn’t look for ways to create a labyrinth of conscience to navigate.

Synthesis

There is no second order guilt. Someone does not become guilty of abortion because they vote for someone who affirms revoking the Hyde Amendment. People do not become guilty of sexual assault because they vote for someone who has bragged about sexual exploits. Consumers do not sin by buying coffee that was produced under unjust circumstances. Property owners don’t become guilty of crimes committed on their property.

This does not free us from making wise decisions. We should look for proximate justice in our political and commercial activities. Christians will be wise to avoid supporting companies that force people to work in unsafe conditions. They will be wise to choose political candidates that on the whole affirm a biblical concept of holistic justice whenever possible. The Christian property owner should not be negligent in fencing his property or lighting it if crime is a significant problem.* However, these are matters of prudence.

Christians must pursue justice, but that is inevitably a messy affair in our world. For some Christians, advocating for a free market is equivalent to celebrating the moral evil of greed even when it can be shown to alleviate poverty in many cases. For other Christians, voting for a party that celebrates abortion at their national convention is reprehensible even though others view their redistributive economic policies as a moral necessity. In these cases, we are better off arguing the issues rather than binding each others’ consciences and repudiating one another.

What we must not do, however, is attempt to assign second order guilt to someone else because we don’t like their purchase, political party, or policies. That is simply unbiblical.

* (There may be laws that exceed the actual moral culpability regarding property use. In these cases, submission to the government entails following proper codes and local ordinances. To neglect these codes would be sin.)

Three Political Dangers of Moral Relativism

There are three political options that offer strong temptation on a regular basis in a relativistic world. For individuals whose morality is unpinned from an objective reality, these are logical possibilities not temptations. In other words, these three political options are viewed as a menu of choices rather than a list of dangers when relativism is the accepted epistemological basis for morality.

As we sort through the muddle of mixed morality, we need to recognize these dangers for what they are. Until we recognize them, we can take no positive steps to avoid them. I have been helped recently by reflecting on the moral situation in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as it reveals much about contemporary politics.

Lesser of Two Evils

The first political danger is to choose the lesser of two evils.

In a fallen world, sometimes we do need to accept proximate justice. We must work toward what good we can accomplish, recognizing there is much good that is left undone. Such compromise is necessary sometimes, but not always. There are times when we must reject false dichotomies and choose a third option.

Photo Credit: Battle of Vera by Lord Willington1815 http://ow.ly/4nkjpl Used by CC license.

Photo Credit: Battle of Vera by Lord Willington1815 http://ow.ly/4nkjpl Used by CC license.

In the case of politics, this sometimes means that we attempt to impact the future by voting for a cause that is certain to fail in the present. This is why there is a case for a write-in ballot or voting for a third party in an election. It is unlikely that such a candidate will win in our present circumstance, but it gives evidence that we will not be forced to choose the lesser of two evils. In politics, we will never choose perfectly nor have perfect options to choose from, but sometimes the two options presented by our system are simply unpalatable.

There is justification for choosing the lesser of two evils in some cases, such as amputating a limb instead of starving because a hand is pinched in a rock. Before we get to that point, however, we should consider whether there are other options.

Without a thorough acceptance of the existence of objective good, it is unlikely that someone will look past two mediocre options to find a third option that better matches the moral order of the universe.

This danger can be witnessed in Saruman’s alliance with Mordor in an attempt to defeat Mordor. On the one hand he saw a total defeat of good by Mordor if he did not establish his own empire. On the other hand he could see that he would have to use many of Mordor’s methods to build an empire capable of resisting. The lesser of two evils seemed to him to be to turn Orthanc, his little kingdom, into a mini-Mordor in hopes of achieving the lesser of two evils.

At some point, he made a logical choice in his own mind, but it becomes clear later in the narrative of The Lord of the Rings that he did not sufficiently consider a third option that was not evil at all. This led him to use Mordor’s tactics to fight Mordor, and ultimately corrupted any good he could have hoped to accomplish.

When in Mordor

The second political danger that regularly presents itself is to use unwholesome tactics simply because the opponent uses them. This approach recognizes that evil will be done through the unwholesome tactic, but the abuse of power is justified for some later good.

Tolkien captures the essence of this error in his classic work. The One Ring offered such a draw it leads to the corruption of the formerly good Saruman. The desire for power turns him to corrupt means to gain it, supposedly for the common good.

It was, arguably, with the intent to do good (as he understood it) that Saruman sought power. There were justifiable motivations for Saruman’s alliance with Sauron. Power, if used well, can lead to doing good. But such power when concentrated in the wrong hands, is a danger in itself. It proved to be too great a lure to Saruman. His invitation to Gandalf to betray his friends reveals the dangerous trajectory of the utilitarian logic of such political alliances:

“A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all. . . . This then is the one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. Its victory is at hand, and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the power grows, its proved friends will also grow and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evil done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs only in our means.”

In his attempt to draw Gandalf to join him, he offers the lure of power through the One Ring:

“The Ruling Ring? If we could command that, then the Power would pass to us.”

But Gandalf recognizes the problem with such a quest for power, even if it was intended to be used for good. The good that is done via evil means, in this case through the use of the One Ring, would turn to evil. The goodness of the result would be diminished and ultimately corrupted because of the unwholesome means that are used to reach the desired goal.

A moral relativist will be unlikely to recognize this, because when there is no objective good there can only be a calculus of benefit for a majority. In such a calculation, the inconvenience of a few is less significant than the relative good of a larger number.

Redescription of Good

A third political danger is to redescribe something that is evil as good. This is the ultimate fruit of moral relativism as it is being fleshed out in our society.

Saruman did not see his own corruption. He had not only assumed the end justifies the means, he had begun to redefine a negative end as good to cover his immoral actions.

Thus even after sending his armies to destroy and enslave his neighbors he still tried to lure Gandalf in to his plot to gain power. He still couched his goals as being for the ultimate good. Saruman saw his perverted domination of Middle Earth as a moral good. As he said to Gandalf after being unmasked as a traitor,

“Much we could still accomplish together, to heal the disorders of the world. Let us understand one another, and dismiss from thought these lesser folk! Let them wait on our decisions! For the common good I am willing to redress the past, and to receive you.”

But Tolkien provides a foil to that relativism in the character of Gimli the dwarf:

“The words of this wizard stand on their heads, [Gimli] growled, gripping the handle of his axe. ‘In the language of Orthanc help means ruin, and saving means slaying, this is plain.’”

In this passage, Saruman is demonstrating a consistent postmodern epistemology and Gimli recognizes it. He has redefined “help” and “saving.” Gimli, being grounded in an objective epistemology, recognizes this and calls him out. Simply by changing the terms evil did not become good, though things can be made confusing through that process.

The Present Context

I realize that I demonstrate a degree of nerdliness in using the Lord of the Rings to illustrate my points. However, this is the purpose of good literature. It delights and instructs. It tells us something about who we are as humans and not simply what is happening in a fictitious world. In this case, it helps us recognize some of the dangers of relativism.

Our world is swimming in a relativism that is largely unrecognized. To many people, the acceptance of any sort of non-relativistic understanding of morality is a form of violence. We may have reached a critical mass of relativism where a plea to the self-referential incoherence of absolute relativism is incomprehensible. It seems to me that this is so.

Despite this overwhelming relativism around us, we cannot fall prey to it. In order to remain faithful to the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, we cannot use the means of the world to stand our ground. We need to be aware of these political dangers and stay away from them. There is an objective moral good in the universe. We need to avoid compromising it by using flawed methods to achieve a supposed good.

Everyone is a hero in their own story. Relativism provides an easy path to self-justification. It does, however, leave one exposed as an evildoer in the presence of a real, holy, and objective God. We need to remain faithful to our objective epistemology and avoid these three pervasive political dangers.

Raising Faithful Kids in a Skeptical World

It’s a lot easier to raise a skeptic than a child with a mature faith.

This is not a statement about behavior, but about true fidelity. That is, faithfulness that includes both a profession of faith and a solid foundation for that faith.

It is much easier to teach a child to poke holes in the ideas of others than to hold fast to cogent, explanatory truths.

As a result, there is a constant temptation to build buttresses of truth around our kids without exposing them to challenges to the faith. This is good when they are young, because it prevents confusion. It is a dangerous thing over time because it builds a false sense of confidence.

The Place for Honest Doubt

Comprehensive, absolute certainty is a dangerous thing. There is little doubt about that.

Being entirely certain about every detail of one’s own understanding of Scripture, the veracity of the traditions of one’s youth, and the methodology appropriate to determining truth can lead to pain and difficulty over time. Much of that is unnecessary.

There is a fundamental difference between holding a position with absolute certainty and holding it in faithful confidence.

This is because being faithful does not require abandoning the intellectual task of asking questions and considering alternatives. Issues such as the proper mode of baptism, the right style of worship, the way the salvation is explained are all points where legitimate questioning is warranted. After all, a lot of faithful people in the history of the Church have stood on each side of those questions.

Photo used by CC license: Hans Splinter, Parenting,  http://ow.ly/10gV84

Photo used by CC license: Hans Splinter, Parenting, http://ow.ly/10gV84

But there is a place for asking even more significant and sensitive questions. Is there a God? Certainly, a fool says in his heart there is no God (Ps 14:1). However, this doesn’t mean that kids shouldn’t ask the big questions and honestly pursue truthful answers. Helping kids ask those in a space where they have the emotional and spiritual resources to struggle through the mire of doubt is important.

It’s also much easier to teach fideistic adherence to dogma than to teach kids to think through doctrine rightly.

In the end, fideism presents an anemic form of Christianity that skeptics can punch holes through with ease. Then, when faced with intelligent, cogent challenges to their faith, an untried faith system will fall apart.

Always Another Question

As I said, it is easier to raise a skeptic than a faithful child.

Much of contemporary culture trains children to expect a higher degree of certainty and a greater volume of proof for questions of religious significance than anything else. For example, people choose their presidential candidates without knowing everything about them and whether everything in the candidate’s worldview meshes. People take jobs without knowing in gross detail every possible work responsibility, the date of future promotions, and whether the company’s corporate office in Paris might have spent too much on cognac last year. Folks use electricity without understanding where exactly it came from or how it was generated.

In contrast, some critics of religion seem to expect an unassailable record in all of history from the religion itself and also each adherent of the religion. They demand that every possible question be asked and meshed with every other solution offered for all of time. Variety in such responses over history—even to secondary and tertiary questions—is considered evidence that the central truths cannot be true.

Many of these questions are fair to ask and Christians should be prepared to discuss them, even if in general terms. Christians need to be prepared to admit that the history of every religion is tarnished by error and insincerity. Christians need to be willing to communicate that there are some doctrines about which reasonable people can debate.

The reality is that every religion, even Christianity, has open questions about some aspects of it. This is a function of the human conduits of the religion and our finiteness. Every religion has a checkered history with abuses. This is because religions have humans involved and humans tend to be self-centered and imperfect.

This means that for someone looking for objections, there are always additional questions to be asked. If the standard of acceptance for religion is that every question is answered, that standard can never be met. There is always one more question to be asked.

The world is training children to be skeptical, if not agnostic. The Church—especially the parents of children—need to be prepared to help develop a curious, cautious, but not incredulous demeanor in their children.

We need to teach our children to seek the best answer, not the perfect one. We need to demonstrate the power of the gospel to transform and redeem. Once a child understands the reason for the hope within us, they will be better able to ask questions without losing their faith.

We need to teach and demonstrate to our children that the Christian faith has integrity and is founded on the absolute objectivity of God not the absolute certainty of our positions. We can have a high degree of certainty about what we believe without dismissing questions. We can demonstrate confidence in our faith by chasing down answers to difficult questions and admitting when we have more investigation to do.

Retooling Parenting

In some day gone by it may have been possible for kids to pick up enough of a basis for their faith by osmosis. Probably not, though, since the failure to present a credible, cogent faith for generations helps to explain the radical rejection of the trappings of a Christian ethic.

The present culture is one that will not accept Christianity without a great deal of explaining. It also will not allow Christians to live consistently with a robust Christian faith without challenging every inch. We do disservice to our children if we do not equip them and assist them to wrestle with the core doctrines of the Christian faith.

Parenting will look different in our present age than it has in the past if we are to give our children what they need to live as faithful pilgrims in the world. That isn’t to say that it will look different than what it always should have been. In fact, the external pressure on the Church may be a benefit to our sanctification as it forces us to return to our proper responsibilities.

Under Our Skin - Benjamin Watson Discusses Race in America

When Benjamin Watson, a Tight End in the NFL, wrote a Facebook post in the aftermath of the Ferguson, MO decision, some hailed it as a “race-baiting” others saw it as an attempt by at least one person to try to make sense of the racial tension in our world.

The thing is, whether we all like to admit it or not, race is still an issue in the United States. For the most part we’ve gotten over the biggest obstacles to living with one another: Jim Crow has been repealed, discrimination based on ethnicity is forbidden, and society doesn’t generally tolerate overt racists.

However, that doesn’t mean that the issue is settled. It isn’t. And the reason that we need to talk about it is so that we can identify and begin to root out subtler forms of bias against other races.

Benjamin Watson’s book, which was co-authored by Ken Petersen, tries to bring gracious light on the issue from the perspective of one African-American. This is a book that will make you think, even if you don’t agree with all of the details. That is, it will make you think as long as you take the time to read it and try to see what Watson is really communicating.

Summary

The book includes an introduction and eleven chapters. The topics of ten of the chapters come directly from the bullets in Watson’s original, viral Facebook post.

Watson begins with anger, but he recognizes what it is and boiling it down into a gracious tone. He invites the reader in to his perspective on the status of race relations in general and the Ferguson decision in particular. This chapter shows that our starting point can shape how we view the justice of the ending point. Instead of arguing with his readers, he tries to show why he arrives at his perspective.

That’s really the point of the book. It makes the reader aware that there is another perspective and that it is rational. In the end, the reader chooses to believe it or not, but a fair reader should walk away with a better understanding of Watson’s view of race in the United States. Although he certainly doesn’t speak for all African-Americans, his perspective is authentic and winsome. It can’t hurt much to think about things from his point of view.

In much the same way, the remaining ten chapters examine emotions that Watson experienced in response to the Ferguson decision. Introspection, embarrassment, frustration, fearful confusion, and sympathetic sadness are among them. Add to these things feeling offended and hopeless, but at the same time encouraged and empowered. Watson walks through how all these emotions were a part of his response. He does this without giving into any of them or becoming so rational that he discounts the power of the emotions.

Reaction

This isn’t a book on theology with a linear argument that I can critique. Even if it was, that isn’t the point of the book. The point of the book is to get the discussion about race going. It is intended to get one side to see that there is more to the conversation than facts and figures; simply showing that overt racism has been banned is not the end of the story. It is intended to show the other side how to begin a discussion without so much anger that your words can’t be heard.

I think that Watson succeeds in providing a gracious beginning point for conversation.

Watson’s book helps me, a white man, to better understand what it’s like to see things from his perspective. He puts into gracious terms some of the bits and pieces of testimony I’ve heard from friends that are part of racial minorities. I can’t have ever experienced these things, but I can certainly appreciate his perspective better now because he presents his case so carefully.

It is shameful that for many people on the political right simply talking about race has become a divisive political issue. Of course, often that idea is intentionally promoted, as some try to use racial division to paint the other side into a corner. But the issue is too important to allow it to driven by politics.

When we are talking about race, we are talking about people made in the image of God. We are talking about how we treat one another and whether justice is being done. Those are gospel issues, not merely political issues. This is a conversation that we can’t afford to skip out on. This deserves a deep discussion and consideration of where we are as a society, not merely a cursory head nod to equality.

I am thankful for Watson’s book and that he took the time to write it. He’s making enough playing football that he didn’t have to take the time, and yet he did. I’m thankful for the way he engaged the question so that I could benefit from his perspective.

In the end, I’m hopeful that reading this book has helped me see things a bit more clearly and gives me the ability to have a bit more empathy. I’m hopeful that others will read the book and have a similar experience.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume in exchange for an honest review.

Here is a video Watson did with The Gospel Coalition on this topic: 

Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel - A Review

If you are a Christian struggling with how to find a way to positively engage the world around you while remaining orthodox, then Russell Moore’s book, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, is for you.

Moore has been on various news outlets over the past few years as a spokesman for conservative evangelicals, particular for the Southern Baptist Convention. If this has caused you to wonder what he is doing and why he says the things he says, then this book will be helpful for you, too.

Avoiding Twin Dangers

Moore is outlining the twin dangers of Christian engagement in the public square. On the one hand, it is easy for Christians to become like grumpy old people telling kids to get off their lawn. On the other hand, it also easy for Christians to leave unexamined many of the ills of society as long as it doesn't directly impact them. We can’t afford to fall into either one of the errors if we are going to reach the world with the good news of the gospel.

The thing that keeps us from falling into either of these errors is a proper understanding of the gospel. Moore begins by discussing the culture shift that has pushed Christians from the center of the cultural conversation to the prophetic edges. He is careful to note this reality reflects the fact that the values coalitions of previous decades sounded very Christian without actually being converted by the gospel. As the conversation shifted away from something that resembled a Christian ethic, the Christians that remained faithful to the gospel seemed to have two options: either compromise or get left out of the conversation. This is a false dichotomy.

Gospel Foundation, Contemporary Issues

Early on in the volume, Moore digs into the meaning of the gospel. He makes it clear that the gospel isn’t about either personal salvation or social justice; it’s about both. If the Christian church loses its understanding of personal conversion and individual redemption, she loses one of the cornerstones of the gospel message. Salvation is not based on redemption of the whole, but on Christ’s atonement for the individual. At the same time, if Christian individuals miss the central redemptive themes of historic Christianity, which offers a strong dose of the pursuit of justice in society, then they miss out on some of the key implications of their own gospel conversion; redeemed individuals seek to redeem society.

With both these aspects of redemption in mind, Moore addresses a number of major issues that are central to the contemporary cultural discussion: immigration, religious liberty, and family stability. These are social issues that tend to divide Americans from each other and are the topics that commonly lead to calls for compromise and accusations of a lack of compassion.

Convictional Kindness

This is where Moore’s call for convictional kindness comes in. Convictional kindness is standing firm on ethical norms without shame, while confronting the angry accusations of the surrounding world with a gentle spirit. The conviction is birthed from confidence in the objective moral order in creation that is witnessed to by the special revelation found in Scripture. It requires rational, well-thought through positions that are both coherent and correspond to the truth in God’s creation. Kindness is built on the understanding of our own personal need for redemption. We, too, are growing, learning people who have pasts that we may have forgotten. Those that we disagree with, even those waving fingers and shouting in our faces, are people made in the image of God who deserve to hear the message of redemption. That’s a message they won’t be able to hear if we are shouting back. In fact, joining in the shouting will keep our “conversation partners” from hearing both our arguments on the issue and the message of the gospel.

Moore’s overall argument is hugely important as Christians seek to be salt and light in a world that (still) desperately needs the gospel. He also makes subtler points that are even more significant for Christians to hear. For example, in discussing the issue of gun control or gun rights he explains that there is no single Christian position. He has a position, which he does not articulate, but he notes more significantly that no one can speak for an official Christian position. There are certainly moral elements to the question, but at the same time the bulk of the argument is prudential and legal. It would be unethical to leave loaded guns within the reach of toddlers, but the capacity of a magazine and the process for background checks for weapons are prudential questions. This doesn’t mean that the question is not significant, but that we should be careful about promoting our preferred position as a gospel truth when it isn’t. Doing so encourages wrangling within the body of Christ and it largely discredits the message of the gospel because the faulty logic is apparent to any who care to see it. In this example, the Second Amendment is a benefit of being American, not a right imbued by the gospel.

Conclusion

Onward has been published at a time that conservative Christians in America feel like they are under assault because anything resembling a Christianesque ethic is being pushed farther toward the margins. Moore helps by explaining that Christianity has always been strange and that we should continue to cling to our strangeness. We have to articulate the gospel in our homes, in our churches, and in our culture if we are to have an impact. Moore’s book is an encouragement to continue to live faithfully in private and in public, but with a confidence founded on the truth of the gospel not fueled by a majority in the polls. 

How Then Should We Give?

Photo courtesy:  Edd Sowden - Day Eighteen - Change - Used by Creative Commons License.

Photo courtesy:  Edd Sowden - Day Eighteen - Change - Used by Creative Commons License.

Given how often social media posts, hear radio ads, or television commercials ask me to donate money electronically, I would have assumed a generation of digital natives would be among the most generous around. There are always opportunities being presented for needs around the globe.

Additionally, the popularity of the story about the guy who raise tens of thousands of dollars for a Potato Salad on Kickstarter, gives the impression that floods of money are being sent by digitally connected people to many causes, worthy and otherwise.

The February 2015 report from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics on the results of the 2013 Consumer Expenditure Survey shows this isn’t the case. On average, people in the United States give about 2.9% of their income to charity. People under 25 give only 1.7%, while those in the 25-34 age bracket give about 1.6%. All of the media awareness has not raised the rate of giving at any age, even among digital natives.

Despite millennials being engaged in many social causes, and the increasing use of digital media to raise awareness, the result has not been a world-changing generosity toward charitable causes.

This is statistical reality, but it leads us to an important question as we experience the relative wealth of living in a developed nation: How much should we give?

Should We Tithe?

Some figures in church history would have us believe that giving 10% of our income is taught in Scripture. However, the case for carrying over the duty to tithe from the Old Testament to the New Testament is much more complicated than some allow.

For example, there seems to be more than one tithe in Scripture (E.g., Num. 18:21, 24; Deut. 14:22-27; Deut. 14:28-29). Additionally, the tithe(s) were not the extent of required giving. There are other offerings and sacrifices prescribed in Old Testament law. Since there is no clear command to give a particular percentage in the New Testament, and the tithe and offering system seems to be more clearly a part of the old covenant system of worship, it is questionable whether 10% is the amount Christians need to give.

As a matter of fact, as with most of the ethical mandates of the Old Testament, the New Testament seems to call for a higher degree of generosity. Just as Christ explained that lust is a sin like adultery (Matt 5:27-28), so he provided an example of heroic generosity instead of a duty based giving of a particular percentage (Mark 12:41–44).

Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 8 is one of the key passages for determining how contemporary Christians should give.  In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he describes Macedonia giving generously from their poverty as an encouragement to give.

This exhortation to be generous comes after Paul’s earlier instructions in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 to regularly set aside money in preparation for a large gift being sent to alleviate the financial difficulties of the church in Jerusalem.

In neither of these places does Paul cite a specific amount, but urges generosity according to means. The Corinthians were to do more than calculate a percentage when writing their check to the church.

Practical Lesson from Paul

There are at least three things we can learn and apply from Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians:

1.      Giving should be planned. Paul’s encouragement to the Corinthians to “put something aside” on “the first day of the week” (1 Cor 16:2) is significant as it required discipline and planning. Giving is not a reactionary donation of whatever is left after the remainder of our paycheck is spent, it is intended to be a planned economic activity.

2.      Giving should be according to our means. We mathematical modern Christians like to think this signifies a certain percentage; that way the amount goes up with our income. In reality, however, there is a minimum amount we need to survive. We should consider giving an ever increasing portion of our excess as we have the opportunity (2 Cor 8:14).

3.      Giving should be with a genuine generosity. Paul calls giving an act of grace (2 Cor 8:7). He also issues a plea not a command to the Corinthians to be generous (2 Cor 8:8). In other words, giving is to be out of an overflow of love for Christ, in view of his sacrifice for us (2 Cor 8:9), not out of a sense of duty or guilt. We should want to give.

As with any spiritual discipline, giving has the potential for legalism. Our goal should be to put resources entrusted us to work in the best way possible, which should include generous giving as well as wise investment of resources. After all, the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (Ps 24:1). We are merely stewards of the resources God provides us.

Christian Bioethics

The recently release book by B&H Academic, Christian Bioethics, is a good introduction to a series of very important issues that face the people in the developed world today.

Medical technologies seem to press ahead without regard to ethics. The only question that seems palatable to most people in this day is, “Can we do it?” Very few are asking the important question, “Ought we do it?”

The moral vacuum of the culture compounds this problem, as subjective concerns of emotion and desire are promoted in favor of an ethical schema that anticipates objective answers founded on God’s structuring of reality. Fortunately Ben Mitchell and Joy Riley have a more biblical approach.

C. Ben Mitchell has a PhD in medical ethics and has taught moral philosophy for a number of years in a Christian context. D. Joy Riley is an M.D., with an MA in bioethics. With a strong background in the theory of ethics and the technical arguments related to bioethics, Mitchell and Riley can speak with authority and expertise where many others would need to be more tentative.

The book is written conversationally, which makes it suitable for non-academic audiences. Indeed, the subtitle of the volume is, A Guide for Pastors, Health Care Professionals, and Families. As an academic ethicist, this was one of the things I liked least about the book, but for the primary target audience, the approach is likely to be helpful.

The book consists of four parts. First, Riley and Mitchell begin by laying a foundation for Christian Bioethics. What forms of medicine are out there and how should we view them? How does Scripture speak to contemporary cases that are not clearly addressed? These are important questions that are well answered in the first two chapters.

Next, the authors discuss the sanctity of human life as it pertains to abortion and euthanasia. They explain these things in terms that are intelligible and helpful. In the third part, Mitchell and Riley discuss the ethics of infertility and assisted reproductive technologies. They also address the issues of organ donation, transplantation, and cloning. In the final section, the authors address the issues related to anti-aging technologies and the centrality of understanding and respecting our humanity in the contemporary age.

 The greatest strength of this volume is that it is written for a popular audience. It doesn’t use a lot of technical term, though it occurs in the context of a conversation between two experts. Based on my recent experience teaching ethics to laypeople, resources like this are necessary and helpful. Another strength is that each chapter has a series of references that can be used for further study and elaboration. This is again important as the overflow of information on the internet leaves us often wondering which expert we can trust and how someone got to their conclusions.

I am not a fan of written dialogue as an approach to moral reasoning. Thus, I find Augustine’s early philosophical works rather boring and less helpful than they might be. As such, I would have preferred it had this volume taken a more straightforward approach and presented the material in normal prose instead of relying on dialogue. However, this is a stylistic preference and not a rejection of the substance of the book.

 I commend this to readers who are looking for answers to some very important ethical questions. I plan on recommending it as a resource to people in my church who have questions about this topic. It is up to date and informative. It is written with a pastoral heart and academic acumen. It should be a trusted resource for the church for the near future.

Note: A gratis copy of this text was provided by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.