Racism, Anti-Racism, and Sin

As American cities burn amid riots and communist activists carve out micro-states for themselves in the wake of George Floyd’s death, we’ve also borne witness to a vast army of conservatives rising up to affirm the one core principle that truly matters in such uncertain times: Racism is bad, mmm’kay.

But that’s pretty much business as usual. Conservatives have a long-standing tradition of trying to prove our not-racism to progressives whom we all know to be the real racists. It’s become a wholly irrelevant song-and-dance number for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, every significant cultural institution we possess already believes, teaches, and confesses that race-based enmity and prejudice are wrong. “Preaching to the choir” is an understatement. Most people in America already recognize that George Floyd’s death was an injustice. The situation might be more nuanced than the stark narratives painted by media and rioters–which is why judgement should be reserved for the courtrooms–but the reality is grim enough. Even so, I haven’t seen any people arguing that he simply got what he deserved–certainly not that he got what he deserved because he’s black.

For another thing, conservatives’ brand of abstract denunciations aren’t terribly meaningful to blacks for whom racism is part of their experience, heritage, and identity. Communication tends to break down when abstraction confronts visceral reality. It’s like telling a man who has lost 5 family members in different plane crashes that such crashes are definitely bad, but planes are safer now than they used to be, and flying is statistically still the safest way to travel. It’s not exactly wrong, but neither is it particularly relevant.

(That factor is probably worth its own blog post at some point because for some readers, I’m doing exactly the same thing here. I absolutely critique myself with my own observation. I deal with racism philosophically–I don’t grasp it in my heart the way victims do, and dealing with it is not part of my identity. That said… for now, I’m putting that on the back burner as a matter of intended audience. This post will be dealing with racism philosophically, and so I suspect it’s not going to be too compelling for many of those whose experience is more concrete. But frankly, I’m writing this primarily in response to what I see white people telling me about racism lately, and that conversation has to happen too. I just want to pause and point out that it’s not the only conversation that has to happen.)

Racism: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.

But there is a different factor I’m going to focus on in this post–one which makes our dutiful affirmations harmful rather than simply irrelevant: The very concept of “racism” has been transformed into a political bludgeon that’s only tangentially related to the enmity and prejudice we all already outwardly condemn.

I wrote a piece for The Federalist about that transformation five years ago, and very little has changed since then. However, I’m revisiting it now because so many are telling churches that God has commanded them to start doing the conservative song-and-dance as well. We must condemn racism, and for the Church that means proclaiming it a sin. But what exactly are we saying when we make such an assertion? What exactly does it mean to say that racism–in it’s contemporary sense–is a sin?

The word “racism” began it’s life as an umbrella term for all manner of genuine wrongdoing that proceeded from racial prejudice, enmity, and partiality in America. But as subsequent generations were raised from childhood to believe that racism is the ultimate wrongdoing, the word began to take on a different significance. It became something akin to a curse–a convenient label we can apply to people to make them social pariahs.

For the sake of political pragmatism, the term was deliberately transformed so that it could be applied more expediently. Even 20 years ago, I was already being taught in college that racism was a matter of being born white in a historically white culture–one in which social structures were designed by whites for their self-interest. “Privilege” language wasn’t yet in vogue, but that’s essentially what they were talking about. And nowadays, that’s how the younger generations fundamentally understand the word. Even the dictionaries are finally following suit on the academic trend. (And note from the article that it’s being changed specifically because white people had been successfully demonstrating that they weren’t racist and that was simply unacceptable. Ironically, “racist” has effectively become a racial slur.)

But it’s not a sin to be born white in a historically white country. It’s not a sin for a society to build structures that privilege its members–on the contrary, that’s the very purpose of society. It’s not a sin for parents to privilege their children–again, that’s the very purpose of parents. Neither is it a sin to actually benefit from such privilege–rather, we should be grateful for it.

To be sure, this can and has been done in sinful ways. Say, for example, your culture kidnapped thousands upon thousands of people and sailed them across an ocean to be used as beasts of burden for the sake of privileging your posterity. That would be altogether unconscionable. We cannot treat other peoples as resources to be consumed for the sake of our own. And for the last century and a half, America has been reckoning with the fact that we did exactly that rather than picking our own cotton. But we cannot reckon with it through condemnations of privilege as such as though it were the privilege that’s the sinful part of the situation.

Neither are we going to reckon with it by burying our noses in the concept of microaggressions. It’s certainly not a sin to engage in the ever-growing list of trivial activities which are deemed racist by our society–things like asking someone where they’re from, singing Baa Baa black Sheep, asserting that all lives matter, preferring white meat chicken to dark meat (as absurd as that preference may be), and so forth. This nonsense has been going on for a long time now, and the label of racism has been inextricably linked to it.

For most of us–especially those of us who understand racism abstractly–these two things, privilege and microaggression, are the lion’s share of the weight carried by the word “racist” in 2020, and they’re not sinful. So why are our churches all rushing to say that racism is?

Oh, but you didn’t mean it that way? You meant it according to it’s older and “truer” definition? Then why are you shouting it to the heavens alongside those who are quite explicitly using the present culturally accepted definition? How exactly did you think people were going to understand what you meant?

We all have our reasons for overlooking that reality: concern for the oppressed, a desire for peace in our nation, an attempt to show solidarity, and, of course, virtue-signalling. But today, charges of racism do nothing but muddy the waters with the term’s philosophical and political baggage.

Like it or not, every time you apply the word racism to a person (or a race) you’re bringing all that nonsense into the conversation alongside anything important you’re trying to address. If you want to address the truly sinful aspects of our present circumstances, you can surely do so without using a word that’s been redesigned specifically to shut down conversation. And if you can’t avoid that word in your condemnation… then maybe what you’re talking about isn’t really a sin after all.

Other Sins of Heart and Tongue

But I’ll go a step further than saying racism–in it’s 2020 sense–is not a sin: More often than not, it’s a sin for us to throw that label around as freely as we do. I would not have said that even a year ago–I merely would have said it’s foolish. But I’ve spent that time going through Luther’s Large Catechism for a class I teach, and I now cannot help but come to that conclusion.

If you consider racism according to the prevailing definitions rooted in privilege, accusations of racism are clear violations of the 9th & 10th commandments–the entire concept is inherently covetous. As Luther writes:

No one should consider or intend to get what belongs to another, such as his wife, servants, house and estate, land, meadows, cattle. He should not take them even with a show of right, by a trick, or to his neighbor’s harm. For above, in the Seventh Commandment, the vice is forbidden where one takes for himself the possessions of others or withholds them from his neighbor. A person cannot rightly do these things. But here it is also forbidden for you to alienate anything from your neighbor, even though you could do so with honor in the eyes of the world, so that no one could accuse or blame you as though you had gotten it wrongfully.

According to Luther, the 9th & 10th Commandments concern deliberately alienating your neighbor from his household and possessions so that you may ultimately acquire them for yourself. In 2020, the word racism is used almost exclusively for that purpose: to create guilt over one’s possessions, social standing, culture, and heritage so that these may be carved up and reapportioned to others who are deemed more deserving of them. More than ever before, that word is compelling people to tear down monuments, loot stores, destroy property, deprive others of their livelihood, and exile any dissenters from civil society–depriving them of their good name and reputation along with everything else. And all of it is being done with honor and accolades from the world.

How, then, could I dare to join myself to that chorus of denunciation–knowing what it means?

And even if you’re one of those whose commitment to the obsolete meaning of the word blinds them to the reality of its current meaning, you still must reckon with the 8th Commandment. Indeed, the broader sins of prejudice, partiality, and superficial enmity remain sinful when they have to do with race. But how exactly can you apply that judgement to people today? Going back to the Large Catechism, Luther teaches us that false witness is whatever cannot be “properly proved.” “Proved,” of course, refers to what we actually know from evidence rather than our speculations or gossip. And “properly” refers to our vocations–for most of the time, the sins of others are none of our business.

It’s virtually impossible to properly prove a charge of racism today. A century ago, people would be quite open about their prejudice and enmity–willingly making it a matter of public record and therefore a legitimate topic of conversation and accusation. In America in 2020, virtually no one is going to publicly announce their enmity for any race other than whites (a subject most people whose piety supposedly forces them to denounce racism by its old meaning remain curiously silent about.) You are left with no recourse but to guess at motivations and attitudes. You infer them from actions that may very well be innocuous simply because they fit a narrative–a prejudice–that you’re familiar with. And based on that alone, you presume to pass judgement on people–to punish them. After all, applying the label of “racist” is undoubtedly a punishment today. It deprives your neighbor of their good name and reputation–and often their livelihood as well once the SJW’s get involved.

Now, some readers will no doubt call this whole thing an excuse. “Matt, I’m no progressive. Like yourself, I hate Critical Race Theory, Marxism, and grievance studies in general. But there are travesties of justice happening to blacks every day in this country, and compassion compels me to act. I suspect your fixation on critiquing progressive errors is ultimately just a way of avoiding engaging against those very real problems–maybe even because of your own unconscious prejudice.”

To this all-to-common objection, I have three things to say. First, though you may claim to reject the progressive mindset, you just engaged in it. Your judgment is exclusively against what you presume to be hidden in my heart based on my race, heritage, and the structures of privilege I enjoy. Maybe you’re even correct, for who can understand the desperately wicked hearts of men? But its entirely presumption–a presumption you have lifted wholesale from philosophies you claim to find repugnant in any other context. So how sure are you of your own heart? How sure are you that there’s no plank in your own eye obstructing your vision of mine? Do you truly believe that you can resolve partiality by trying to balance one form against an other?

Second, it is yet another example of the fallacy of desperation. “We have to do something!” But what you want to do is wicked and counter-productive. “At least it’s something!” Make no mistake: when we knowingly do evil out of desperation, it is never an attempt to help our neighbor–it is only an attempt to make ourselves look or feel better. It’s like smacking your television when the picture gets fuzzy. It has more to do with working out your own frustration and impotence than it does with fixing the TV. When you remember your deep and abiding concern for the plight of blacks only when the world tells you to, it’s probably not as deep and abiding as you’d like to believe.

Lastly, it’s ultimately nothing more than ad hominem. It’s a judgment against me, but even if true, it has no bearing on my argument. You can believe what you want about me–I can only find my righteousness in Christ anyway. It doesn’t wipe away my argument.

American (Dis)unity?

So what then are we to do about those very real problems? Well, there are two ways of approaching this–both necessary. One is to address discrete issues, and the other is to address relations between whites and blacks in America. Charges of racism, unfortunately, hinder both of those endeavors.

On the matter of discrete issues, it should be quite possible to work together. Let’s take the issue of police malfeasance as an example. This is a very real problem that’s due in part to the increasingly militarized role we expect police to play in society. It’s made worse by the increasingly tribal mindset of police in which they protect their own at the expense of the rest of us and often cover up for one another when they should be investigating. (Both of these are ridiculously exacerbated rather than solved by the current unrest, by the way.)

This is, of course, a concern for blacks at the moment for obvious reasons. They want to fix this because their lives matter and they don’t think everybody else truly believes that–completely reasonable. But it’s an issue that affects many others–potentially all of us, for we all encounter the police at some point or another. Some will want the issue addressed because they have a different personal stake. I, for example, am father to an autistic son, and those of us on the spectrum have documented difficulties interacting with police–often with dangerous consequences. Others will want the issue addressed because they believe all lives matter–in other words, simply for the sake of justice in the abstract. And there could be any number of other reasons to get on board with rectifying the issue.

Except that anytime anyone says “all lives matter,” they’re called racist now.

Now, I get that that slogan isn’t compelling to many blacks. It takes black lives for granted when many believe they’re specifically being devalued. But different motivations can still lead to cooperation towards common goals–as long as you don’t immediately jettison anyone who disagrees. That’s the problem with tribalism: It makes people incapable of cooperating unless they’ve already made the proper commitment to the one true group. But today’s anti-racism fanaticism demands exactly that. If you don’t confess to only “right” rationales and priorities, you’re placed into exile. It forces division where cooperation and positive change would otherwise be possible.

And that leads us to the last issue I’m going to raise here: relations between black Americans and other Americans. You may or may not have noticed, but I’ve written this entire blog post in us/them terms. I honestly have no idea whether I should have been doing that or not.

On one hand, American blacks seem a nation unto themselves. I see “nation” primarily in terms of heritage and identity–race plays a real role in both of those things, but it’s not the definitive factor. But in terms of heritage, their experience of American history is radically different than mine. “Freedom” has an entirely different flavor when your ancestors were slaves. The Constitution has a different meaning when it failed to protect your people. Our legal institutions are experienced differently when they would have considered you 3/5 of a person not all that long ago. The Malcolm X line that “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock landed on us” isn’t an entirely unreasonable sentiment. And the common call for reparations from blacks follows this same kind of thinking, for a single nation doesn’t pay reparations to itself.

But that’s not the whole of the story either, because we have a distinctly American heritage in common as well. Black history in America obviously involves slavery and it’s continuing fallout, but it’s not exclusive to those experiences either. Not all blacks have been slaves. blacks have voluntarily shed their blood in all American wars. Blacks have held offices both high and low in American institutions. They have lived in American communities for centuries. However they got here, they’ve been here and part of America since the beginning. Blacks are inheritors of the American legacy just as the rest of us are. There have been various “back to Africa” ideas over the years, but I suspect they’ve never really caught on precisely because blacks’ experiences in America tend to be more tangible and important than earlier African roots (which is not to say that those African roots don’t matter at all.)

But are we two peoples or are we one? That’s the question I struggle with. If we’re two, the historical fact that multi-ethnic societies tend to end in a division that is bloody more often than peaceful gives me a great deal of pause. If that’s the case, we’re better off dividing the inheritance by offering a handful of States as reparations and peacefully seeking our separate destinies. If not, then we need to find ways to live together peacefully by sharing the inheritance.

I’d much rather the answer be that we’re one people rather than two–I want the answer to be more like this:

Why do I like this video (which I first saw in the excellent Hoaxed) of Black Lives Matter leader Hawk Newsome standing up and addressing a Trump rally? First, because listening actually occurred–the organizers offered the mic for two minutes when they didn’t have to and the BLM activists accepted it when they didn’t have to. Second, because Mr. Newsome started out affirming some common identities–“I’m an American! I’m a Christian!” Third, because after stating his grievance, he acknowledged counter-points and clarified: All lives matter, but he’s concerned first about the black lives he sees being lost every day without retribution. He’s not anti-cop, but wants bad cops punished and removed from service. And fourth, because two opposing sides had a little conversation without losing their identities, without ceding any ground they valued, and without fighting, but walking away with a better understanding of one another, at least some measure of camaraderie they didn’t expect to find, and some hope that their respective concerns can both be addressed. That’s what I want. I have no illusion that I wouldn’t have major political differences with the man, and his comments about “undocumented” residents suggest that we’d view what “American” means rather differently. Nevertheless, it seems like there’s room for genuine conversation and possibly cooperation.

That’s what I want. But it’s not about my wants, my hopes, or even about how I see blacks. It’s about how blacks see themselves, and that’s why I can’t answer the question of whether we are two peoples or one people. Black identity isn’t going away regardless, but I don’t know if the greater weight in “black American” falls on “black” or “American.” I don’t even know whether blacks generally think about it in those terms. I’m ignorant because I deliberately avoid broaching those subjects. I deliberately avoid broaching those subjects because doing so risks receiving the very dangerous charge of racism. (Note that I’m not pointing this out to measure my risk against others’. I’m merely pointing out a practical barrier to understanding.)

Both discovering what the answer is and dealing with it appropriately requires conversation–and negotiation as well. This, in turn, depends on having things like good-faith, clear intentions, self-respect, and all parties honestly contending for their respective interests. Most contemporary charges of racism completely undermine all of those things. When I see white people bowing down to blacks and shaving their heads in a desperate attempt to be declared not-racist, it’s neither healthy nor helpful. When I see blacks looting and burning using racism as an excuse, it’s neither healthy nor helpful. There’s no listening going on in either of those things. I see a lot of people tacitly defending rioting as “speech”, but I’d much rather see adult conversations like this one in which two people can find both agreement and disagreement without a Sword of Damocles hanging over anybody’s head.

But my preferences don’t matter.  Reality matters.

I don’t know the solutions to our current problems; I don’t know if solutions even exist; and I don’t know how this all ends. I do know that I’m absolutely not going to make things worse by jumping on the anti-racism bandwagon. In 2020, charges of racism do far more harm than good, and the contemporary philosophy of anti-racism makes things worse, not better. And so I pray for peace. I pray for unity. I pray for justice. I encourage you all to do the same. Call that “doing nothing” if you like. Christians know better.

Posted in Law, Musings, Politics, Theology | 5 Comments

Zombie Heresies – Theological Liberalism – Part 6

Dead or not, Theological Liberalism is already being rebranded under a variety of names. Now that we’ve studied where Theological Liberalism came from and how the Church confronted it in the past, we’re taking a look at how we must confront it today.

Previous Entries:
Introduction to Zombie Heresies: https://youtu.be/WhXcjI52eO8
Theological Liberalism – Part 1: https://youtu.be/f5B7MkjzczM
Theological Liberalism – Part 2: https://youtu.be/HZstlJNUwNI
Theological Liberalism – Part 3: https://youtu.be/apSL-as0ZPc
Theological Liberalism – Part 4: https://youtu.be/T7sGav0PbJA
Theological Liberalism – Part 5: https://youtu.be/bVmr7QVuQhg

Related:
Just Stay Ahead of the Wind: http://matthewcochran.net/blog/?p=1075
Christianity for People Who Hate the Gospel: http://matthewcochran.net/blog/?p=751
No Need to Choose Between Doctrine and Love: http://matthewcochran.net/blog/?p=511

You can find more of my material at…
The 96th Thesis: http://matthewcochran.net/blog/
The Federalist: http://thefederalist.com/author/matthewcochran/
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Though-Were-Actually-True-Apologetics-ebook/dp/B01G4KWQJW/

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The New Man Grows

Is there anything for a Christian to do in this life?

It’s an odd question, but one I greatly struggled with in the past as I imbibed a peculiar corruption of Lutheranism.

Certainly, there is nothing for us to do when it comes to our Justification. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone–not through any of our works. Unfortunately, Radical Lutherans and their sympathizers–in their zeal to extinguish works-righteousness–try to make this the totality of the Christian’s story and expunge any kind of activity from his new identity in Christ. In other words, they seek to remove works from Sanctification as well as from Justification. Within such false teaching, nothing we do actually matters to God beyond simply hearing the Gospel and receiving the Sacraments as we wait for death to finally release us from this faux-Lutheran Nihilism.

Sanctification, they often say, is just a matter of getting used to Justification. Anything we try to “do” either gets in God’s way or at least takes our eyes off of Christ. As for the Law–all those things God has explicitly told Christians to do? Well… they say it reminds us that we’re still sinners and therefore that we still need the Gospel, but that’s it. In short, these Fake Lutherans deny the Third Use of the Law–that it’s a guide to instruct Christians on how God wants us to live.

After all, as they will quickly point out, the Old Man–our old sinful nature–cannot be reformed or improved. It can only die along with us before we are raised to life again without it in the New Creation. In contrast, the New Man–our new nature in Christ–is perfect and blameless before God already. It does good works naturally and spontaneously without being compelled by the Law.  From this, they erroneously conclude that any Christian who is actually learning, struggling, or trying to do good works can only be wallowing in self-righteousness.

Now that more Lutherans are waking up to the dangers of these false teachers, I thought it would be appropriate to write a followup to a decade-old blog post of mine called Sanctification is not the Think System that I’ve seen passed around social media recently. In it, I addressed the misappropriation of the Formula of Concord’s confession that a Christian’s good works are spontaneous in order to teach that the Christian is actually inert with respect to works. As I explained then:

“Spontaneously” does not mean “without effort” for a creature whose God-given nature is to work.  “Naturally” does not mean “without instruction” for a creature whose God-given nature is to learn.  The sanctified life is not a semi-human life that excludes all sorts of basic steps of living…

Sanctification does end up involving my own real effort–not because my efforts are achieving sanctification, but because my efforts (along with the rest of the real me) are what is being sanctified by God.  Humans are creatures that try.  When Christ sanctifies us, he therefore sanctifies our trying, and so we try to do good. Humans are creatures that learn.  When Christ sanctifies us, he sanctifies our learning, and so we learn to do good. Humans are creatures that want. When Christ sanctifies us, he therefore sanctifies our wanting, and so we want to do good. Humans are self-disciplined creatures. When Christ sanctifies us, he therefore sanctifies our self-discipline as well, and so we discipline ourselves to do good. We do these things because we already are being sanctified.

Because of this, the Law does play a role in the life of the New Man–an instructive one. It carries no threat because the New Man is free from the threat of the Law. It provides no motivation because the New Man is already fully oriented towards loving God and neighbor. It does not redirect our will because the New Man’s will is already perfectly aligned with God’s. It does, however, give form and shape to the already good movements of that will. In short, it helps train us to be skilled in doing good. It shows us the practical details of what loving God and neighbor actually mean from day to day. And as we grow and assimilate what God has to tell us about goodness through his Law, even the New Man struggles and expends effort in order to put it into practice.

In a sense, this struggle to do good even entails the possibility of failure. For example, had Adam and Eve not sinned, I greatly suspect that their babies would have still tried to roll over a few times before they finally made it all the way–and that their parents would have found that just as endearing as we do today as they encouraged their babes. I suspect their toddlers would have stumbled at their first steps rather than walking perfectly right out of the gate, and that their parents would still have held their arms out and said “come here.” I suspect that when they imitated mom and dad by making breakfast for the first time, they might have overcooked the fruit–its taste and presentation would have not lived up to what they had seen mom and dad do before.

But none of that would entail any sin. Any failure at the particular tasks in which their  goodness was temporally enfleshed would be utterly blameless.

I also believe that we’ll experience failure of this sort in heaven as well–just without the embarrassment, shame, and disappointment that usually accompany failure in this life. We will still enjoy the thrill of overcoming a challenge after putting in a lot of practice and effort while we learn from our mistakes. And all the while, we will get to see the smiles of our heavenly Father as he enjoys watching us learn, grow, and succeed.

But we need not merely speculate based on an Eden and a New Creation about which we know little. We can actually see this dynamic in the life of Christ. As Luke tells us, Jesus grew not only in stature, but also in wisdom and favor with God and man. In other words, the already perfect and sinless Son of God nevertheless learned and grew more accomplished in doing good according to his perfect human nature.

You can also see him learning in the story that immediately precedes Luke’s summary: when Jesus stays behind at the Temple unbeknownst to his parents. There are two key items that Luke reveals when they finally find him three days later. First, Jesus seems genuinely surprised that he had caused a fuss, saying “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Second, Jesus submitted to his parents and left with them instead of remaining at his Father’s house. He never broke the Fourth Commandment, but he did learn more about the details of keeping it and adjusted his behavior accordingly. He was instructed and trained in doing good.

It’s somewhat different for Christians in this life, of course. We have not only our new nature in Christ, but our old sinful nature as well. We can never perfectly delineate our blameless failures from our sinful failures. The old nature does no good, and the new nature does no evil, but the single person in whom those two natures are united does some measure of both in everything.  And in that same person, even as the Law restrains his wickedness and condemns him, the same Law also teaches him the details of doing good. Like our perfect Savior, the New Man grows and is instructed in the nature of the good which he naturally and spontaneously tries to do. That reality is part of what we experience when the Holy Spirit Sanctifies us.

If Sanctification necessarily entails our efforts, what then does that mean for divine monergism therein? It really depends on how you use the term. If you mean it in the subject/object sense (i.e. that God alone is the one who sanctifies us), then this view of Sanctification remains monergistic. Our growth and efforts are the fruits of God’s work in us, not our means of helping God accomplish His work. But if you mean divine monergism in the sense that God alone is taking action, then it’s clearly not, for both God and Man are acting in Sanctification–even though God alone is the one accomplishing the Sanctifying.

We must also ask what it means for those false teachers who reject the Third Use of the Law and contend that it only accuses us. It is most certainly not the New Man who rejects it. On the contrary, he loves the Law and rejoices in the loving instruction of his Heavenly Father. He always wants to learn more and more about doing good–not because of any threat or desire for self-righteousness, but simply because he loves his Father. It is, rather, the old man–our sinful nature–which sees God’s Law as only accusatory. It is no coincidence that those Radical Lutherans who reject Third Use also tend to reject anything inherently or eternally Good about the Law. In the end, that rejection is nothing more than the old man trying to Nerf God’s righteous statutes in order to avoid their accusation, for they have no real trust in the Gospel to relieve the guilt they experience.

To be sure, each one of us still carries that sinful nature in this life. The Law will always accuse us for we always violate it to some extent.  But we also have a living and active perfect nature which ensures that the Law will not only accuse the Christian. For those who steadfastly insist that accusation is the entirety of the matter, there are really only two options:  Either they’re actively suppressing every natural God-given response in their minds and souls besides accusation, or there is no perfect nature in them to receive anything else. And I greatly fear for how many people fall into the latter by stubbornly insisting on the former.

Posted in Gospel, Law, Lutheranism, Sanctification, Theological Pietism, Theology | 3 Comments

Abuse and a Theology of Divorce

It’s a good thing when our theology informs our opinions on what makes positive social change. It’s not so good when our opinions on social change inform our theology. Case in point:  A few months ago, Sheila Gregoire put up a blog post arguing that abuse (very broadly defined) should not only be immediate warrant for Biblical divorce, but should be considered equal to or worse than adultery–one of the actual Biblical warrants for divorce.

The post contains the usual difficulties with this particular conversation, starting with the ever-expanding definition of abuse. Like rape, the term abuse gets a very real moral urgency from a particularly heinous act–a husband using his superior size and strength to leave his wife bruised, bloody, and battered. Also like rape, feminists like to borrow that moral urgency for a very wide range of tangentially related behaviors and attitudes they would like to extinguish. And so now, “abuse” can mean anything from broken bones to raised voices or joint finances. Indeed, many even contend that it’s not even objective behavior that’s definitive of abuse, but rather how the victim feels–that is, if a wife feels intimidated or controlled, the husband is ipso facto guilty of abuse.

As long as it’s so nebulous and expansive, the bare label “abuse” shouldn’t be treated as a warrant for anything so serious as divorce. And as long as ubiquitous conceptualizations of the label like the Duluth Model make biblical submission per se abusive, the bare label should never carry much weight in Biblical ethics in the first place.

Also present is the “we must protect women from abuse no matter what” attitude that tends to make dialog on this issue so difficult. It is, of course, not the goal that’s problematic, nor the fact that it naturally makes emotions run high–they should. Rather, the issue is the “no matter what” qualifier. It makes for successful activism because it gets stuff done. It’s also (ironically in this case) quite easy to abuse in the long run because it gets stuff done thoughtlessly. This is why the Duluth model ends up getting battered husbands arrested. It’s why people think it’s quite reasonable to divorce a faithful spouse over not putting their dishes in the sink–it’s basically like getting punched in the face, after all.

You can see this attitude on full display in Gregoire’s post as she condemns a theologian for being too slow to grant license to divorce. She even goes so far as to blame him for the deaths and beatings of those who did not immediately divorce as she highlights his lack of apology to them. And, of course, the same black brush tars everyone who hesitates to embrace her reasoning. Naturally, “If you don’t agree with me, you’re responsible for murder” isn’t exactly conducive to thoughtful discussion.

Nevertheless, the aspect of Gregoire’s argument that makes it so theologically problematic is a specific theological sleight of hand that seems to be popular among prominent women teachers. She writes:

I agree that the case that you can divorce for adultery is clearer in the Bible than that you can divorce for abuse. However, I think that when you read all of Scripture, you see God’s concern for the oppressed. You see God’s passion for justice and concern for the downtrodden. I don’t see how you can read all of Scripture and still believe that God wants women–or men–to endure abuse. That’s just not the heart of God.

That is how the game is played. Upon learning that one’s position isn’t found in the text of Scripture, you must instead presume to search God’s heart for it apart from what He’s actually said. Then, having established his attitudes and feelings mainly by projecting your own onto Him, you ask how someone with such attitudes and feelings would weigh in on the subject at hand. Amazingly enough, this method always discovers that God would say exactly what you yourself would say.

The problem with this method is, of course, that we’re not actually God. Our Lord has this unnerving tendency to do and say things that we would never, in a million years, choose to say or do. Surely a loving God would never damn anybody! But He clearly says He does. God would never commit atrocities! But He annihilated almost every living thing on the planet in a flood. Jesus would always be as winsome as possible because of His heart for the lost! But He drove away most of His followers by being offensive in John 6. God would never point out his most devoted follower to Satan and then give him permission to devastate the man’s property, slaughter his family, and afflict him with horrific disease! But the Book of Job exists. And, of course, if you query anybody in a pre-Christian society, they’d tell you that God would certainly never lower himself to become a human being and to die. It’s a senseless method when, in the end, God’s thoughts are simply higher than our thoughts.

That’s also why Gregoire’s utilitarian argument falls so flat. She points to a study indicating that the children of high conflict marriages have higher well-being scores after divorce. Even ignoring her failure to pass along the study’s definition of both “conflict” and “well-being,” what exactly does that prove? There are a myriad of circumstances in which God instructs people to do good despite the evil consequences that may result. God is by no means a utilitarian. There are many divorces that would be advantageous to someone in the household that are nevertheless prohibited.

To be sure, given the physical vulnerability of women and their tendency to undervalue chastity, it’s entirely understandable that many would rate abuse as worse than adultery. That doesn’t mean they get to project their opinion onto God. If you want to know God’s opinion on divorce, your only real option is to look at what He says in Scripture–precisely the instructions that Gregoire finds inadequate. If you want his opinion on adultery as compared to broadly-defined abuse, you’ll have to look at what He says in Scripture–precisely the instruction that Gregoire is dissatisfied with. You’ll find a whole lot about adultery. You’re not going to find much in support of the Duluth Model.

All that said, the elephant in the room needs to be addressed as well. What then for those women (and men) from whom Gregoire borrows her moral urgency–those who were murdered or beaten by their spouses? (Note that I’m not even using the term “abuse” here.) Well, they should most definitely get to safety first and then figure out the details of the long-term solution from that safe place.

Is it permissible for that long-term solution to include divorce? Yes. As it happens, I do think there’s merit in the argument that this kind of violence constitutes abandonment–I consider abandonment in terms of marriage’s primary responsibilities rather than in terms of mere physical proximity or of feeling abandoned. A husband is fundamentally responsible for protecting and providing for his wife’s bodily needs (1 Timothy 5:8), so actually assaulting her yourself is about as clear an abandonment of that responsibility as you can possibly get.

Of course, I suspect feminists aren’t going to like some of the other places that argument logically leads–I even hear them labeled as “abusive” sometimes. After all, sex is also a fundamental marital responsibility. Accordingly, perpetual refusal of physical intimacy would also be abandonment and make divorce permissible in some circumstances. Luther makes a similar case in The Estate of Marriage.  (And whoo boy is that 2nd paragraph triggering. Note that I do disagree with Luther on civil government’s role in the matter, though not on the gravity of the sin.)

The third case for divorce is that in which one of the parties deprives and avoids the other, refusing to fulfil the conjugal duty or to live with the other person. For example, one finds many a stubborn wife like that who will not give in, and who cares not a whit whether her husband falls into the sin of unchastity ten times over. Here it is time for the husband to say, “If you will not, another will; the maid will come if the wife will not.” Only first the husband should admonish and warn his wife two or three times, and let the situation be known to others so that her stubbornness becomes a matter of common knowledge and is rebuked before the congregation. If she still refuses, get rid of her; take an Esther and let Vashti go, as King Ahasuerus did [Esther 1:1 :17].

Here you should be guided by the words of St. Paul, I Corinthians 7 [:4-5], “The husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does; likewise the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does. Do not deprive each other, except by agreement,” etc. Notice that St. Paul forbids either party to deprive the other, for by the marriage vow each submits his body to the other in conjugal duty. When one resists the other and refuses the conjugal duty she is robbing the other of the body she had bestowed upon him. This is really contrary to marriage, and dissolves the marriage. For this reason the civil government must compel the wife, or put her to death. If the government fails to act, the husband must reason that his wife has been stolen away and slain by robbers; he must seek another. We would certainly have to accept it if someone’s life were taken from him. Why then should we not also accept it if a wife steals herself away from her husband, or is stolen away by others?

Could this same kind of reasoning extend to include violent assault as a dissolution of the marriage? Absolutely. That is why I’m not in any way inclined to condemn men and women who divorced because they were being assaulted or to dissuade those who are currently in peril from divorcing in self-defense.

Could this kind of reasoning extend to every other pattern of behavior that fits under the ever-expanding umbrella of “abuse”? By no means. Some might be covered, but most probably aren’t. Jesus was quite clear that divorce is typically a matter of hard-heartedness. Complaints like “he yelled at me”, “he doesn’t do enough housework,” “he’s too controlling,” or the myriad of others I routinely see described as “abuse” are merely excuses. Filing your marital grievances under “abuse” and then, as Gregoire recommends, avoiding any pastor, elder, or counselor who might actually challenge your conclusion is no blanket permission for divorce.

I get why women want that blanket permission. I get that there are times when one needs to act instead of overthinking the matter. I get that anybody would want to give battered women a clear and easy road to relief which no one is allowed to second-guess. I get that when people like Gregoire talk about “abuse,” they’re usually visualizing those women in particular. The routinely overlooked problem, unfortunately, is all the women who feel entitled to hitch a ride with them simply because they’re unhappy–and who consequently leave all manner of their own victims in their wake.

Our divorce culture is far more abusive than some of the things that are routinely labeled abuse these days. (“intimidation” and “control” certainly come to mind when a spouse has police enforce when you’re allowed to see you children, how your income is allotted, who your property belongs to, and so forth.) That’s why Christians can’t just accept “abuse” as an incantation that banishes all moral obstacles to divorce–not even if it’s super-effective at helping the one specific class of victims you want to focus on as you pretend all the others are merely hypothetical. Thoughtfulness is naturally a source of constant frustration for activists, but one can’t just expect the rest of us to abandon it.

It is truly a terrible thing to sever oneself from one’s spouse, just as it’s a terrible thing to sever one of your own limbs. But in each case, there are terrible times when it must be done. If our culture actually treated divorce according to that gravity rather than our habit of wallowing in our Eat, Pray, Love empowerment fantasies, this question wouldn’t be so hard to discuss in the first place.

Posted in Ethics, Feminism | 1 Comment

Zombie Heresies – Theological Liberalism – Part 5

So how did the Church respond to Theological Liberalism? Better to ask how *is* the Chruch responding, for the book isn’t closed on this heresy yet. We’ve spent a lot of time in retreat, but there have been Christians who expertly confronted the Spirit of the Age.

Previous Entries:
Introduction to Zombie Heresies: https://youtu.be/WhXcjI52eO8
Theological Liberalism – Part 1: https://youtu.be/f5B7MkjzczM
Theological Liberalism – Part 2: https://youtu.be/HZstlJNUwNI
Theological Liberalism – Part 3: https://youtu.be/apSL-as0ZPc
Theological Liberalism – Part 4: https://youtu.be/T7sGav0PbJA

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Why Do We Have Church?

As the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. It’s a lesson many Christians are becoming painfully aware of as their local congregations are caught up in the various shutdowns and quarantines. We deeply desire to return to our church, so naturally, pastors, elders, and local church councils everywhere are struggling with the question of when and how much to reopen their doors.

It’s an important question, but not simply because of the pandemic. As families sit at home, huddled around a laptop watching services streamed into our living room, there is a question that inevitably weighs heavily on our minds: Why do we go to church? What is important about gathering together each Sunday?

Whether deliberately or not, our congregations are answering that questions for us in this time of crisis by their reactions to it. The practical decision of how to respond to a pandemic is inevitably a cost/benefit analysis. Covid-19 represents a real risk factor–overblown by a frantic media, to be sure, but a risk nonetheless. How do we weigh that risk of illness–or even death for the elderly and those with certain preexisting conditions–against what we have to offer at church? More precisely, how does it weigh against what we are responsible for offering? It depends, of course, on what you believe your church offers. Why should people go to church? Everybody will know your answer to that question based on what you offer as an acceptable substitute.

The thing we’re liable to forget is that it’s the same question that was asked before the pandemic, and it will be the same question asked afterward. The very answers we hear now will also apply when Christians decide when–or whether–to return. What congregations and church bodies tell their parishioners now–both explicitly in our words and implicitly in our actions–will resonate long after Covid-19 either goes away or, more likely, becomes part of everyday life. Closing your doors until the media tells you it’s safe and maybe streaming your Sunday service in the meantime may be the safe route, but will doing that for months on end deliver what you’re responsible for offering?

Message

You might think so if you believe church is fundamentally about hearing and receiving a particular message. You hear a sermon, you hear some hymns, you hear some prayers you can pray along with. It’s not really worth risking illness just to hear that message in person rather than via Facebook Live. Data-transfer works just fine over the internet, so those things are covered well.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, they’re covered a little too well. Data-transfer and communication are precisely what the internet excels at. If that’s why you go to church, online services aren’t just an acceptable substitute–they’re a superior replacement. I’ve written before that for my family, getting to church each Sunday is a struggle. It’s been MUCH easier to get everybody on the couch on time than in a pew on time. The little family tradition we’ve been building around our online services is much more comfortable and convenient than going to church in person was. If hearing a message is why we go to church, then why would we go back when this is over?

So many companies and employees who have been forced to experiment with remote work have discovered that it is much more practical in many circumstances. Accordingly, I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more remote work going forward–it just makes sense. Congregations who believe they’re simply delivering a message are going to find exactly the same thing among their parishioners. And with distance being a non-issue online, they will eventually gravitate towards those few churches who deliver messages in a superior manner.

Community

Now, you might say, “No, it’s not just about the message. It’s also about our community! You can’t have a real community online!” If that’s what you offer at church, then you’ll probably think it wise to keep your doors closed amid the pandemic. With social distancing being our current norm, Americans have already collectively decided that enjoying community isn’t worth the risk. After all, while it’s sad that we’ll be away from one another for so long, our reunion will be all the sweeter once we can safely reopen.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, the presumption that you can’t have a real community online is a highly generational one. Boomers don’t think you can have a real online community. Millennials and Gen Z, on the other hand, have already been forming online communities for decades that they often greatly prefer to the flesh-and-blood communities around them. If community is why you go to church in the first place, then you’ll have your boomers and maybe some gen-Xers return when it’s all over.

But why would anyone else? Why would the younger generation come back on Sunday for community–particularly after you shut them out despite less risk to them from Covid-19 than there is from the flu? And if your boomers return alone, then your congregation has no future. That’s not even a community anymore–that’s a social club. And if that’s why people will go to your church after the pandemic, then maybe a social club is all you really had before.

Tradition

Still others might say that it’s more than a message and a community–we also offer a great tradition that reaches back into history. We have the liturgy. We have great hymns of the faith. We have these things which transcend the local church community and connect to Christians throughout the ages and around the world. By participating alongside them, we join in something greater than ourselves. Merely watching the traditions unfold is hardly the same thing. If this is your view, then temporarily suspending your traditions make sense. They’ve lasted for thousands of years, and will still be there when they come back.

Here we actually begin to get closer to the mark, but we have not yet stuck it. For one thing, it’s only a compelling answer if most of your parishioners actually recognize this kind of value in your traditions. Too few do. But even so, the answer is still insufficient because any tradition worth sharing through time and space must point to a reality beyond itself. Tradition for its own sake is nothing more than nostalgia. Too many churches were already finding nostalgia to be woefully insufficient to bring people back before Covid19. It’s not going to be any better afterward.

What then do our traditions point us to? It your tradition merely points to a message or a community, then you’re back to square one. After all, traditions change. In fact, you’re changing them right now due to the pandemic. And you *should* change your traditions in circumstances like this. Passing offering plates around the congregation at the moment is stupid. So is passing the peace. There are traditions that *should* go by the wayside, and there will inevitably be new traditions that grow into the spaces left by those we prune. That’s the thing about a living body of tradition–we’re always cultivating it, and it continues to grow and change organically. Those traditions will only retain Sunday services if they point to them in the first place.

Worship

But there’s more than even that, isn’t there? We also offer worship. On Sunday morning, we present an opportunity to join together to praise God, to recognize Him as our Lord, and confess our faith in him. If that’s what your church offers, then you may still think it’s wise to be online-only for the time-being. After all, God is omnipresent and can hear our praise from our living rooms without any issue. And if being in the same room is more ideal for confessing Christ before others, commenting “peace be with you” or “amen” on Facebook will do for now in the face of an epidemic.

But after the epidemic is either over or routine, God will still be omnipresent. We can still worship Him from home–and should be doing so throughout our daily lives. After all, worship is, at its root, worth-ship. We worship God by recognizing, appreciating, and proclaiming His great worth and praising Him for what He’s done.

And that’s precisely why so many people already think they can worship God from the golf course, their gardens, their dining rooms, their places of employment and so forth instead of coming to church. And they’re not exactly wrong. You praise the Creator when you appreciate nature. You praise Him when you thank Him for your food. You praise Him when you deliberately act according to His Law in your daily life. When it comes down to it, we can and should do all those things. We don’t need a church building simply to worship per se. At least, not unless you mean something more precise by “worship.”

The Body of Christ

And that is where we finally come to the real answer–or at least what should be the real answer–to our question of what we are responsible for offering as congregations. When we worship God on Sunday, we are recognizing his great worth for a specific reason–His amazing promises to us through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We confess our sins before one-another because he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. But the Gospel is not simply an abstract message of forgiveness–it is embodied in the Sacraments. That’s why Lutherans use the phrase “Word and Sacrament Ministry.”

Christians aren’t simply those who have heard and believed a message, we are the Body of Christ–living stones being built into a spiritual house. We become part of that body through baptism. And throughout the rest of our lives, the apex of that embodiment is a specific divine promise for which we worship our Lord on Sundays: This is my body, given for you; this is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.

When all is said and done, that is why we gather our embodied selves for worship in a physical place on Sunday morning. We recognize the great worth of what Christ has done on that Cross and receive in our mouths the fruits of that atoning sacrifice: forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. That is the core of Christian worship as distinct from every other religion that praises the divine.

And we can’t do that from our living room via Facebook. We call it “Communion” for a reason. We may or may not like each other, but we all believe and receive the same promise together from the same Lord at the altar. Our message, our community, our traditions, and our worship are all good, important things–things which we should be concerned about maintaining in times of crisis. But the Sacraments are the embodiment of our message. They’re the source of our community. They’re what our traditions point us to. They’re our highest form of worship. And they can’t be done online.

But what are we teaching our congregations about that through our reactions to the pandemic?

When, for example, our governors deem us non-essential, and we comply, what are we saying? Grocery stores stay open because they are essential–we need food to live. But Christ says is body is true food and his blood is true drink, and that we need it to live. To be sure, nobody is going to lose their faith because they missed a Sunday anymore than they’d starve because they missed one grocery run. Humans can go a fair amount of time without food. But even so, it’s still essential, which is why we keep grocery stores open–food needs to be made available. The same is true of the Sacrament.

But there’s more than just that. I’ve also heard all manner of nonsense about “fasting” from the Supper, and it isn’t going to fly. It’s already dubious for individual Christians, but it’s altogether senseless for the congregation itself. Delivering Word and Sacrament ministry to its members is the responsibility of the local congregation–its raison d’etre. We do not get to “fast” from responsibilities.

And, of course, there are other foolish statements.  There’s the constant refrain that it’s better to be safe than to offer Word and Sacrament–a view that’s hard to find anywhere in the New Testament. I’ve even heard “sorry for the inconvenience,” as though the Lord’s Supper is was merely a convenience for us in the first place. I don’t think there’s any deliberate malice behind statements like these, but we cannot be so casual in our responses.

When all is said and done, the question so many churches have been asking, “how long should we close during the pandemic,” is only secondary. Our primary question should be this: How can we provide Word and Sacrament ministry during the pandemic? How can we fulfill our responsibility to offer it? There may be many answers to this question–many of them good, many acceptable, and many more bad. Reasonable Christians can disagree reasonably over which ways are best. And yes, maybe offering it in one giant service on Sunday morning isn’t the best way at the moment. And yes, maybe other options are logistically difficult to accomplish. But consider the cost of our excuses for failing to do carry out our responsibilities.

So think long and hard: What does your church offer? Why do your people go to church? If it’s any of those other things–message, community, tradition, or worship–then there’s not going to be much of a reason for anyone to come back the longer this goes on. Have you accepted your civil government’s determination that you aren’t essential? Then many will still believe you’re non-essential when this is all over. Have you gone out of your way to get the Supper to your parishioners during this time? If not, then many of them have learned that there’s no reason to go out of their way to receive it.

Times of crisis have a habit of revealing what we’re made of. Let’s be cognizant of that. And let’s make sure we tend to our spiritual health as well as our physical health.

Posted in Gospel, Lutheranism, The Modern Church, Tradition | 2 Comments

Zombie Heresies – Theological Liberalism Part 4

Now that we’ve explored the roots of Theological Liberalism, it’s time to turn our attention to the fruits–and they are rotten indeed. As it turns out, the Spirit of the Age is anything but Holy, and the religion it creates is nothing like Christianity. In the end, Theological Liberalism denies both Jesus Christ and his Gospel.

Referenced:
Schori’s terrible sermon: https://episcopalchurch.org/posts/jeffertsschori/easter-7c-all-saints-church

Related:
The Father Is Not A Metaphor: http://matthewcochran.net/blog/?p=420
Then We Can No Longer Refer To You As Christians: http://matthewcochran.net/blog/?p=1007
Just Stay Ahead Of The Wind: http://matthewcochran.net/blog/?p=1075

Previous Entries in the Series:
Introduction to Zombie Heresies: https://youtu.be/WhXcjI52eO8
Theological Liberalism – Part 1: https://youtu.be/f5B7MkjzczM
Theological Liberalism – Part 2: https://youtu.be/HZstlJNUwNI
Theological Liberalism – Part 3: https://youtu.be/apSL-as0ZPc

You can find more of my material at…
The 96th Thesis: http://matthewcochran.net/blog/
The Federalist: http://thefederalist.com/author/matthewcochran/
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Though-Were-Actually-True-Apologetics-ebook/dp/B01G4KWQJW/

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Accuracy vs. Precision in Theology

This is an allegory; let the reader understand.

It’s important to recognize the distinction between accuracy and precision in mathematics. Take the value of pi for example. Is it 3? 3.14? 3.14159? 3.1415926535? Well, in each case, the answer is yes and no. Pi is an irrational number with never-ending decimal places which cannot be fully expressed numerically. Because of that, pi isn’t really 3, 3.14, or 3.14159. However, we can say that 3, 3.14, 3.14159, and so on are all accurate representations of pi because in each number, the given digits speak the truth assigned to them. Where they differ is in how precise they are. The more decimal places there are, the more precise the value is. Nevertheless, they’re all imprecise to some extent because the decimal places go on to infinity–far more than can be written down by mere humans.

So how precise does a person’s value for pi need to be? It really depends on a variety of factors. It depends, for example, on how precise your measurements are. When making calculations, you should always keep the concept of significant figures in mind because you shouldn’t claim greater precision than you’ve been given. It also depends on what you’re doing with pi, for some applications require more precision than others. It even depends on how educated you are. It’s proper for college students to know pi more precisely than kids in elementary school. Ultimately, answering the question of how much precision is required necessitates good judgement in each individual case, for to whom much is given, much is expected.

Because of this, I think It’s very good for mathematicians to argue about pi so they can learn it’s value more accurately and more precisely. Iron sharpens iron, after all, and truth is a noble pursuit. What’s more, if you’re going to build anything circular, you need to make sure you’re working with an appropriate value for pi–something that’s both accurate and precise enough for your project. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a deformed circle or a different shape entirely. Accordingly, argument is also important when false mathematicians promote inaccurate values–they need to be corrected.

But not all kinds of arguments are helpful. And people who fail to remember the distinction between accuracy and precision are doomed to suffer an eternity of making stupid arguments about the value of pi. For example:

Pi is not 3! It’s 3.14159! Anyone who says pi is 3 has denied mathematics!”

This is not so. 3 and 3.14159 are both accurate values for pi. The latter is merely more precise. It’s entirely inappropriate for Dr. 3.14159 to be telling Mr. 3 that he’s wrong. It’s good for a man to have greater mathematical precision, but he should not be lording it over anyone. Rather, he should patiently and humbly lead people from 3 to 3.1 or from 3.1 to 3.14 as needed.

He should also keep in mind that not everybody needs the same level of precision. The man who is fabricating sophisticated scientific devices with circular components needs more decimal places than the man who is building a hula hoop. We all have different callings and different gifts. Accordingly, we should respect those who express accurate values with different levels of precision.

Pi is not 3.14159! It’s 3.0! The 3 is the only important thing, and anyone who looks beyond the decimal point is just an arrogant egghead trying to confuse the issue!”

This is not so. On the contrary, 3.0 is actually an inaccurate value for pi and needs to be corrected. True, 3 and 3.0 may be numerically equal. But in its virtuous humility, 3 does not reach for greater precision than it possesses. In its pride and arrogance, 3.0 insists on specifying digits of which it’s ignorant, and consequently falls into error. Mr 3 should not be contemptuous of Dr. 3.14159 or scorn his precision. Not only is that precision useful in certain applications, anyone who is interested in geometry will naturally want to learn more about pi. Those with greater intellectual gifts will usually learn its value more precisely.

If you aspire to greater precision, then work hard to learn the decimal places accurately. Otherwise, remain silent about them. Once again, all would-be mathematicians from greatest to least need the humility to recognize different gifts and callings.

“How dare you reject my favorite mathematician who says that pi is 9.14159! So what if he has one little digit wrong? He’s GREAT about the decimal places!”

This is truly foolish. The decimal places may look very very similar, but 9.14159 is a wildly inaccurate value for pi! Unfortunately, it’s quite easy for precision-loving mathematicians who spend their lives calculating decimal places to forget how important the whole number is. After all, they learned the whole number long ago, and now concern themselves with “deeper” matters. But deeper in this sense is a matter of precision while the basics are a matter of accuracy. By their very nature, some digits are far more important than others. If you get the whole number wrong, it doesn’t matter how many decimal places of pi you have correct. Building anything circular based on that value would be an absolute disaster.

You might think yourself wise and sophisticated for getting decimal places right, but never take the whole number for granted. The things we take for granted are precisely the things we lose over time. And nobody should ever trust a mathematician who let themselves get that far off track–not until they’ve recognized and publicly acknowledged the reality and magnitude of their error.

“Look: mathematicians throughout history have never really agreed on the value of pi. Some say 3, others 3.14, still others 3.14159, and so forth. Some have even said it’s 3.142! Clearly, pi has no definitive value. So why should anyone have a problem with me saying pi is 89.4?”

This too is foolish. Our limited ability to express the value of pi precisely does not mean we cannot express it accurately or that all inaccuracies are equal. Of course those kinds of disagreements will happen among those mathematicians who strive for greater precision. That’s all part and parcel of working out calculations. But we shouldn’t confuse disagreements in how many decimal places to use or when to round with disagreements over the value of pi.

What’s more, we shouldn’t assume that differences between mathematicians about pi means that any and every value is fair game. Just because answers with different levels of precision are all accurate doesn’t mean there are no inaccurate values. Anyone giving a value like 89.4 is not talking about pi, but about another number entirely. Trying to pretend their value is actually pi is inherently deceptive. And that deception will be a catastrophe for anyone who believes that lying mathematician and then tries to make something circular.

It may be the case that nobody can fully understand the value of pi, but that does not excuse deliberately misunderstanding it.

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Zombie Heresies – Theological Liberalism Part 3

So where did academic theology go after Schleiermacher? The Enlightenment presumption was that the Bible was altogether false in terms of historical narrative. Accordingly, the academic question ceased to be “what does this say” and instead shifted towards “how did this evolve?” and “what experience does it give us today?”

In this episode, we’ll take a brief look at the development of Higher Criticism and the attempt to “demythologize” God’s Word.

Introduction to Zombie Heresies: https://youtu.be/WhXcjI52eO8
Theological Liberalism – Part 1: https://youtu.be/f5B7MkjzczM
Theological Liberalism – Part 2: https://youtu.be/HZstlJNUwNI

You can find more of my material at…
The 96th Thesis: http://matthewcochran.net/blog/
The Federalist: http://thefederalist.com/author/matthewcochran/
Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Though-Were-Actually-True-Apologetics-ebook/dp/B01G4KWQJW/

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Is Christian Exclusivity Arrogant?

Is it arrogant to believe Christians are right about God and everyone else is wrong?

Nathan Rinne adroitly addressed that question from a student on his blog recently, and it got me thinking. As common as the question is these days, it’s always seemed odd to me. How could it be arrogant simply to believe that you know the truth? I believe that I’m sitting at my desk as I write this, and if anyone were to tell me otherwise, I’d believe them quite wrong. Surely such a claim of truth doesn’t make me or anyone else arrogant. If I likewise believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate who literally rose from the dead 2000 years ago, then it’s hard to fathom why it should be considered arrogant merely to claim that I am correct and that contrary claims are false. There’s nothing arrogant about evidence.

And yet, so many people do think it’s arrogant. In circumstances like that, when the senseless seems so sensible to so many, I find it useful to pause and consider why. In this case, the question itself betrays something about our view of religion in general–and Christianity in particular. If we can better understand the faulty reasoning, then we can give better answers. So what are some of the ways one could mentally categorize religion in order for that kind of accusation of arrogance to make sense?

Preference

If I were to assert that chocolate is the best flavor of ice cream and that everyone who disagrees with me is incorrect, then I’d certainly be arrogant. After all, taste is highly subjective–rooted as it is in feelings and personal perception. Why should one person’s subjectivity be superior to another’s? And that is, indeed, how many people in the West view religion: If you prefer crosses, steeples, and the Apostle’s Creed over crescents, minarets, and the Shahada, is that not largely a matter of personal taste? If that’s your view of religion, then it really does make sense to condemn a person who looks down religions other than his own.

But that’s not what Christianity–or any religion–is (which is why you never see religion springing up around things like chocolate ice cream.) Religion is about worship in the sense that there is something we recognize as objectively having more worth than anything else–a god that transcends matters of personal taste. The Christian faith doesn’t lift high the Cross because we like it’s clean lines & simple design, but because God truly died upon one to pay for the sins of the world. We know this not because we prefer the idea, but because it’s a matter of historical record that the same Jesus who died also rose from the dead.

Why, then, is this mistake so common? Well, many secular Westerners mistake religion as a preference precisely because mere preference is their own rationale for rejecting Christianity. That’s a sad reality about our civilization, to be sure. Nevertheless, it’s ultimately a matter of projecting their own disdain onto others. They fail to understand religion in general and so ignorantly assume it’s a matter of preference for its adherents as well.

Heritage

If I were to assert that America is the only real nation in the world and that anyone who belongs to a different nation is wrong or deficient, then I’d certainly be arrogant. One can argue about the pro’s and con’s of different cultures, of course, but to make a blanket statement that every nation other than one’s own is an utter failure is a bigotry that we’re particularly sensitive to post-WW2. We tend to forget this in the postmodern secular West, but religion is an almost ubiquitous part of cultural heritage. If that’s fundamentally how you see religion, then once again, it does make sense to think that condemning another religion as false is a kind of cultural self-aggrandizement.

But this isn’t a particularly accurate view of religion either. While cultural heritage usually embraces religious particulars to varying extents, a great many religions are much broader than that–they allege realities that transcend culture. Even tribal religions like Hinduism or Judaism–which are so tied to their respective heritages that outsiders can’t wholly convert to them–still espouse ideas and practices that outsiders can and have adopted.

How much more is this the case with a religion like Christianity which is explicitly universal with its claims of a singular God who died for the sins of the entire world and its directive to make disciples of all nations? Even the Jewish culture to whom the law and prophets were given is explicitly transcended as Christ died for Jew and Gentile alike. Christianity makes some absolutely audacious claims and commands which really do exclude many elements of different cultural heritages that run contrary to its teachings. Because of that audacity, it’s only natural that people would be offended when their own sacred cows are being gored.

But audacity is not the same thing as arrogance. Different cultures have made different assertions about the Sun, but the same Sun shines on them all. Accordingly, any assertion about it makes a claim to objective truth. And so, inasmuch as any religious claim is matters of objective truth, those claims are not arrogant–any more than it inherently arrogant to dispute any culturally entrenched falsehood on factual grounds. It can be done arrogantly, but those who see it as arrogant per se are simply wrong.

Utility

If I were to assert that my diet and exercise plan is the only one that leads to health and that everyone who doesn’t follow it is unhealthy, then I’d certainly be arrogant. After all, health is a complex and multifaceted concept. While it’s not subjective to the degree that preference is–you can at least identify discrete goals and measure the effects of different plans–the wide variety of different health goals along with natural biological variance among different groups of humans precludes a single “right” answer on diet & exercise. There is, as they say, more than one way to skin a cat, so insisting that your way is the only effective way would indeed be arrogant.

But whenever the subject of utility is broached, one must ask what it’s useful for. Here, answers vary widely by religion. People all over the world want things like feelings of inner peace, healthy crops, moral rectitude, or other forms of worldly prosperity or piety coram mundo, and they look to their gods to provide them. And this includes Christians. We regularly petition God for many such things. Inasmuch as we proclaim Christianity as the best or only path to such things, I’m afraid we are indeed being arrogant.

But it is not on any matter of worldly prosperity that Christianity claims exclusivity. On the contrary, Christian teachings are quite clear that God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.  They’re also clear that God’s Law is written on the heart of those who never heard the Law and the prophets. It is precisely on the matter of coming to the Father–of eternal salvation and righteousness coram deo–that Jesus Christ claims to be the only way.

But this returns us to a matter of basic objective fact. If you want to know the details of life after death, then who better to tell you than somebody who physically, historically died and who physically, historically returned to life three days later? That’s orders of magnitude better than intuition born from meditation, voices heard in caves, seances, legends, near-death experiences, and the like. As Paul indicates in Romans, everyone knows about God to some degree. But Christians alone know God because we alone know Jesus Christ–who made this absolutely ridiculous claim to be God but nevertheless demonstrated the clear truth of that claim.

So what, then, can we learn from this? Understanding these reasons for perceiving arrogance gives us a rhetorical edge when we proclaim Christianity. We can’t blithely assume that just because we know our religion is first and foremost a matter of objective truth, that other people will automatically approach it in the same way. We need to be aware that not everyone categorizes religion as Christians do. We also need to be aware that not all Christians categorize it as they should. Accordingly, When we preach and teach, we need to make it clear what category we’re talking about–and which ones we aren’t.

In so doing, we can avoid some pretty common mistakes. Sadly, we are plagued by false teachers of prosperity Gospels, but we can make sure that we explicitly put the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation front & center when we proclaim Christ. When we preach the Law, we can make sure we avoid conflating God’s Law with American cultural norms. (For example, we can avoid preaching the “law” to Muslims by condemning them for being insufficiently feminist or democratic–I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen Conservative Christians engaged in that kind of idiocy.) And most importantly, we can make sure that we always point to the brute facts of history that anchor Christianity in the realm of objective truth: We preach the crucified and risen Christ.

A historical Resurrection changes everything about religion. As we continue to claim that our religion is true and all others are false, let’s make sure our audience knows that that is what we’re talking about.

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