I’m right and I know it

Though I enjoy a robust sparring with my ideological opponents, there are times I have to step away from the fray in the interest of preserving a valued relationship. I have to back away from being “right” to being a friend. But why does it have to be this way? What are the factors that push a dialog to the brink of ill will?

Of all the landmines that threaten progress in dialogue, perhaps the greatest is our failure even to attempt to see things from our opponent’s point of view. And perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this failure is our tendency to assert our respective beliefs as matters of fact, without first convincing our sparring partners of their validity.

To illustrate this tendency, I’ll draw from my own history of failure. Though it happened over a decade ago, I remember as if it were yesterday a conversation I was having with a young-earth creationist friend in which I made an unqualified assertion that the earth is very old, much older than the 10,000-year limit he placed on its age. Sure, I started by reciting some scientific arguments I thought should convince him of my position, thereby giving me (in my mind) grounds to make the blanket pronouncement, “The earth IS old” [subtext: “whether you like it or not”]. It didn’t help matters when I told him I was 100% certain of that fact. Not 90% certain, not 99% certain, not 99.999% certain, but 100% certain.

It has only slowly and relatively recently dawned on me how counterproductive it can be to act like this, nor have I fully learned my lesson. It’s just so tempting to underline and bold and italicize my position by stating it with the utmost confidence, as if I couldn’t possibly be mistaken. If only I can get my opponent to see how confident I am in making my assertions, maybe he’ll internally compare his lesser confidence with my greater confidence and so begin to doubt his own hold on his position. But what if the opponent comes back with an equal and opposing confidence in his view? Perhaps both sparring partners really do inwardly share the same confidence, in which case Newton’s 3rd law will have its way, like two equally massive locomotives cruising at equal and opposite velocities ramming each other on the tracks. Not pretty. Alternatively, perhaps one of the sparring partners really is as confident as she projects, while the other is not quite as confident but feels the need to project an equal degree of confidence so that the other’s locomotive doesn’t push her locomotive back when they collide. Or perhaps neither party is as confident as they project but must maintain the illusion of supreme confidence for fear of appearing weak. And so it becomes a game of chicken, a bluffing game to defend one’s position at all costs. This projection of confidence, this strutting, too often pushes otherwise friendly exchange of views to the brink of enmity.

This posturing can take both defensive and offensive forms and can become a two-way game. For example, if, after presenting their case, one of the two parties can’t understand how the other party still can’t see the light, it can be tempting to call the other’s bluff: “You don’t REALLY believe that; you’re just bluffing to avoid having to come to terms with your unsupportable position.” This shrewd tactic serves not only to elevate one’s own confidence but to diminish (at least in the mind of the one calling the bluff) the confidence of the opponent, thus doubly tipping the confidence game of chicken in one’s favor. But it’s also devastating to the relationship, as it challenges the integrity of the opponent, essentially coloring him as a liar. Once that happens, any further dialog becomes difficult at best.

The psychological experience of complete confidence in one’s position is exceedingly common, even for those who are mistaken. Recently I listened to a lecture series called Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills by neurologist Steven Novella. I was particularly struck by how easy it is for our memories to be contaminated while remaining 100% confident that we remember past events correctly. It’s not something we do consciously; our minds simply invent new details or distort real ones, resulting in false memories. This is why eyewitness testimony is so often problematic: witnesses exhibit full confidence in their memories but are often nonetheless mistaken. It’s not that they’re bluffing; they do believe they’re correct when in fact they’re not. This being the case, I consider it both charitable and realistic to give others the benefit of the doubt when they say they believe something that seems incomprehensible to us, rather than assuming a bluff. It’s still possible they’re bluffing, but I’ve learned not to assume it.

Looking back at my behavior in debating my young-earth creationist friend, I now realize that instead of saying outright, “The earth is old,” a more productive, friendly approach would have been to say, “I’m convinced the earth is old, and here are some reasons why.” This doesn’t mean I’m any less confident in the antiquity of the earth than if I were to assert it point blank, but it demonstrates more respect to my sparring partner when I explain my reasons rather than asserting the conclusion. And here’s the hard part: even AFTER explaining my reasons,  I will now still refrain from asserting my conclusion unless and until my opponent adopts my position. This is difficult, especially when I have that psychological experience of complete confidence in my position, along with just about every practicing field geologist in the world today. We’ll just have to agree to disagree. But at least we keep our friendship intact.

Lest you think I’m being entirely altruistic in backing down from a more assertive stance, I’m looking for a trade of sorts. Both skeptics and believers issue their fair share of blanket pronouncements in dialog rather than acknowledging differences of opinion and prefixing their pronouncements with simple softeners like, “I’m convinced of a because of x, y, and, z“. I’d like to think (perhaps I’m naive) that if we could all tone our bravado down a notch, we could engage in a more productive, charitable exchange of ideas.

Accordingly, I’ll aim to avoid unqualified pronouncements like the following when addressing those who disagree:

  • We share a common ancestor with all other living creatures
  • It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that). [Quote from Richard Dawkins in the New York Times, 1989]
  • The Universe is 13.7 billion years old
  • Jesus is not coming back
  • Jesus is Dead [The title of a book by Robert M. Price]
  • You believe because it gives you hope for life after the grave
  • You believe because it gives you meaning in life
  • You believe because it gives you a foundation to impose your moral views on others

And in return, I would hope my sparring partners would avoid unqualified statements like the following when engaging with those like me who don’t accept them:

  • Jesus is coming back
  • God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life
  • You don’t really believe in evolution; it’s too unbelievable
  • Deep down, you really believe in God and in the Gospel; you’re just not admitting it
  • Jesus rose from the dead
  • Atheists just want to get God off their back so they live their lives free of him
  • Atheists are angry at God
  • You have no reason to be moral if you don’t believe in God
  • You can have no basis for logic if you don’t believe in God
  • Life can have no true meaning without God
  • You’re going to be in for a surprise when you wake up before God after you die
  • Many prophecies in the Old Testament where were supernaturally fulfilled in Jesus’ life
  • Homosexuality is a sin against God
  • Moses wrote the Pentateuch
  • Paul wrote all the epistles ascribed to him in the New Testament

Let me be clear: I am most emphatically NOT saying believers should avoid making statements like the above. What I am suggesting is that, when addressing nonbelievers, they should preface such statements with the simple modifier, “I believe that…”. For example, “I believe that atheists have no reason to be moral, and here’s why” is a whole lot less provocative than, “Atheists have no reason to be moral.” If you’re a believer and you don’t appreciate the difference, then consider the following two statements: “Jesus is dead,” and, “I don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead, and here’s why.” Which one do you prefer?

No doubt there will be those on my side of the fence who will object to the suggestion that we add any disclaimers to propositions that enjoy a scientific consensus, rather than stating them as matters of fact. For example, if I were to encounter a geocentrist who believes that the sun goes around the earth, or an animist who believes that infectious diseases are caused by evil spirits rather than by microbes, or a flat earth believer, should I risk watering down the truth by saying, “I am convinced the earth is not flat,” rather than stating unequivocally, “The earth is not flat!”, or by averring, “I am convinced the earth is old,” rather than plainly stating, “The earth is old!”

I understand and share this concern, and I’m also concerned that I’ll be perceived as a post-modernist who holds that all truths are relative and simply “true for me” or “true for you.” To be sure, I would prefer to just say, “The earth is old; now get over it!” rather than to qualify my statement in the interest of improved relations. But if the facts are on our side, arguing our case respectfully with the facts will stand a better chance of getting through to the other side than deliberately bludgeoning them with a take-no-prisoners pronouncement.

This modest proposal is rooted in the ideal of putting oneself in the shoes of another. It’s also rooted in mutual respect, whereby when one party says they believe something, we take them at face value rather than imputing the worst of motives on them. Some atheists assume that all believers are willfully ignorant or that they really don’t believe what they say they do. Some believers assume the same about all atheists. I’m convinced our mistaken beliefs are rooted more in the foibles of our imperfect brains than in a willful self-deception over which we have conscious control. I’ve lived on both sides of the divide: I know what it feels like to be convinced that evolution is untrue, for example, but I also now know what it feels like to be convinced that it’s true. If you say you don’t believe evolution is true, I’ll take you at your word; I’ve been there. If you tell me I don’t really believe evolution is true, then we have nothing further to say to each other, especially if you have never lived the experience of being convinced of the truth of evolution.

I’ll speak frankly here: some–certainly not all–believers with whom I’ve engaged in conversation have demonstrated not the slightest willingness to put themselves in my shoes. They assume my motives are dark. They know that morality can have no foundation without God, and they are not in the least interested in learning the basis for my morality or for that of millions of humanists the world over. They know that the complexity of life could not have risen by chance, and they’re not in the least interested in truly knowing the evidence that has lead to a consensus on evolution (which is based not merely on chance) among biologists. And many atheists are no less ugly toward believers who don’t bend in the face of their assertions.

What if we were all willing to step back a bit from our machismo, from our need to assert, from our need to blame? Would this not increase the chances for a dialog of mutual respect in which we’re willing to show some humility, acknowledge the possibility we could be mistaken, open ourselves to learning something new from others, and refuse to impute the worst possible motives on our ideological opponents?

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How to Prevent Youth from Apostatizing

We’ve all read the hand-wringing articles alerting the faithful to the growing crisis of youth apostasy in the church. Depending on the article, between 20% and 85% of church youth leave the fold in college or early adulthood, never to return. Inevitably these articles offer an analysis of why this is happening (typically blaming their parents or churches or pizza-and-entertainment-loving youth groups), along with prescriptions for stemming the tide (usually including better teaching, more Bible study, more apologetics, more prayer, and more true conversions). For a sampling of such articles, simply google why our youth are leaving the church.

Most of these analyses seem to be based on the best guesses of the authors, supported by the conventional wisdom and shared views of their believing audience. A few of the authors do go to the trouble of actually asking apostates why they left the faith. However, the articles I’ve read in the latter category tend to filter the words of the apostates through an evangelical lens, without really allowing the apostates’ true reasons come through.

As a flesh and blood apostate, I’ll offer a few of my humble best guesses as to how to prevent youth from leaving the fold, based on a retrospective of my own experience. I offer two alternative tracks, which I’ll call the Insular Track and the Liberal Track. I’m not sure which track, if any, would have prevented me from taking the path I’ve followed.

#1: Insular Track

    1) Don’t give them unfettered access to the Internet. On this point I’m in agreement with apologist Josh McDowell, who maintains that the Internet is the greatest threat to Christians. Granted, it’s probably rare for an unwavering youth to be blindsided by a single Internet article, but if she already has some doubts about the truth of the gospel, she’ll have no problem finding a wealth of well-reasoned arguments against her faith, potentially destabilizing her moorings irrevocably. This is what happened to me: I was struggling with certain passages of the Bible in Africa in 2000, searched for some help from a Christian perspective, and ended up finding and reading Dr. Robert Price’s Beyond Born Again, which threw my already fragile faith into a tailspin and led me to realize I was not alone in my doubts.

    2) Don’t send your kids to a Christian college. I attended LeTourneau University, an evangelical school whose library happened to have a book called Christianity and the Age of the Earth by evangelical geologist Davis Young (1988), that had convinced me I had been wrong about the age of the earth and that my reasons for believing in a young earth had been merely illusory. This was not the main reason I left the faith, but it did put me at odds with the majority of Christians in my circles, making it easier eventually to question others of their claims.

    3) Don’t encourage them to read the Bible in its entirety, especially the Old Testament, unless you’re prepared to explain, for example, why it was moral for God to order the Israelite men to keep the virgins for themselves (we all know what that means) after slaughtering the Midianite men, women, and children. And don’t condemn Muslims for doing similar acts if you’re not prepared to condemn those of the Israelites.

    4) Don’t dismiss their genuine questions with exasperation or with accusations of rebellion or bias. Listen to them and admit they have good questions, and don’t offer them facile answers they can see through.

    5) Don’t let them meet kind and wise individuals outside the fold, like some of the Muslims I met in Africa, or like one of my bosses as work, who’s married to another man. A sensitive soul can’t rightly stomach the idea that these outsiders are deserving of eternal damnation.

#2: Liberal Track

    1) Teach them that the earth is very old and that we share common ancestors with all other creatures on earth. This will spare them a rude encounter with reality once they discover the overwhelming evidence for evolution.

    2) Teach them that the Bible is not inerrant. When they find true contradictory passages in the Bible, they won’t be thrown into an existential crisis like the one I faced when I had to sign a statement of inerrancy with my mission employer.

    3) Teach them that hell is either nonexistent or of limited duration, and that even some of the NT writers like Paul did not subscribe to eternal damnation, but rather the annihilation/destruction of the lost.

    4) Teach them that love and respect are the pillars of any decent family, friendship, and society, and for goodness’ sake, spend more time advocating for the poor, the outcast, and the unjustly treated, than you do expressing thinly veiled or explicit contempt for blacks, gays, welfare recipients, and Obama.

Interestingly, some of the strongest criticisms of my book came from those who believe my background was too strict, so that when I did encounter the real world of ambiguity, I wasn’t able to weather the storm like a pliable liberal reed, but instead broke like a brittle fundamentalist oak. See, for example, this review and my response to it. See also this review.

In truth, probably neither of these tracks would have prevented my departure from the fold, but I’d like to think that Track #2 would have offered me a better chance, because I think it’s the more honest approach.

I’ll offer yet a third track, which I’ll call the Pious Track, representing some of the most common suggestions I’ve read in the online articles aiming to diagnose and treat the problem of apostasy. It’s the track I actually followed, but it didn’t prevent me from doubting the Bible and eventually the existence of God.

#3: Pious Track

    1) Accept Jesus into your heart and really mean it

    2) Read and study the Bible, both individually and in groups, and believe it’s God’s very word

    3) Pray, cultivating a one-on-one relationship with Jesus

    4) Respect, love, and obey your parents

    5) Attend church

    6) Serve God in ministry a lot

    7) Tell others about Jesus and lead them to him

    8) Study doctrine and believe orthodox things about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation, the resurrection, and the Bible

    9) Live a chaste life

    10) Ask God forgiveness for every known and unknown sin

    11) Praise God for who he is and what he’s done

    12) Believe that salvation is through faith, not works

I confess I have no answers for those who really do want to know how to prevent their youth from leaving the fold, though that’s likely unsurprising coming from someone like me. Perhaps this post will offer a window in the mind of an apostate for those who’ve only read articles on this subject from the point of view of the faithful.

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Am I Evil?

Am I evil? Am I capable of pulling a switch to shock experimental subjects to the point of excruciating pain or even death? Am I the kind of person who would walk past a wounded person in need while making my way to give a speech on charity?

While commuting to work I’ve been listening to a set of 40 lectures from an enlightening course entitled Why Evil Exists (http://www.audible.com/pd/Nonfiction/Why-Evil-Exists-Audiobook/B00DL7TD3Y#publisher-summary), in which University of Virginia religion professor Charles Mathewes surveys Western and Middle Eastern views on evil from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the modern era. The majority of the course looks at evil from a religious perspective, but I was particularly interested in hearing about a couple of key twentieth-century scientific experiments that reveal some scary tendencies in human nature.

No doubt many of you are familiar with the Milgram experiments, in which subjects were led to believe they were participating in an experiment that required them (at the behest of “scientists” in white coats) to pull a lever to deliver a series of increasingly severe electric shocks to other “subjects” behind a glass wall. The majority of those who were asked to pull the lever did so until the shock recipient actors nearly “died.”

Professor Mathewes also reflects on the “Good Samaritan Experiments,” in which one set of Princeton Seminary students was asked to deliver a speech on the Good Samaritan while another set was to give a nonreligious speech. As the speech-giving students walked from on Princeton building to another, they passed by an “injured” man in clear need of assistance. Most of the students neglected to stop and help the “injured man,” and it didn’t make a difference whether the speech they were about to give was on the Good Samaritan or not.

My first instinct was to think that I would be better than the subjects in these experiments, but then I realized that no doubt most of those who failed would have thought of themselves as good, upstanding people incapable of such moral ineptitude.

Though I’d like to think I’d do better than majority of these experimental subjects, maybe I’m just like the majority of individuals who think they’re morally better than the average person. The majority can’t be better than average, by definition.

Perhaps it’s helpful for all of us to reflect from time to time on our very real capacity for evil, especially those of us who think most highly of our moral rectitude. Did Hitler think himself immoral? No; as he wrote in Mein Kampf, “By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord’s work.” I concur with the Apostle Paul, who wrote in Romans 12:3, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.”

Had I been a Hutu in 1994, could I have wielded a machete and mowed one or more of the million Tutsi slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide? As I sit in my warm, comfortable home in front of my glowing computer screen while my beautiful wife decorates the Christmas tree, with one son home from college for the holidays and another one on the way tomorrow, with a full belly and everything I need to flourish, am I in a position to judge whether, in a particular set of circumstances, in a time of want, in a wave of popular tribal ferment, I would not be capable of such moral monstrosities?

There but for the grace of circumstances (or, if you prefer, by the grace of God) go I.

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Community Conditioning

We all underestimate the extent to which our beliefs are conditioned by the communities we belong to. We’d like to think we’re driven primarily by more objective standards, whether it be by reason, by empirical evidence, or a holy book.

When I left the Christian faith, I had no intention of softening my hardline opposition to homosexuality and abortion; I didn’t defect because I was looking to loosen my morals. Over the years, however, my views on these hot-button social issues did gradually soften. I would like to think this was entirely a result of cool, rational reflection, but that would be naïve. If the great majority of freethinkers were opposed to abortion and homosexuality, it’s likely I never would have countenanced a change in my original position.

Freethinkers can be every bit every bit as vicious to those who hold conservative views as fundamentalists are to those who hold liberal ones. As a freethinker, I don’t relish the idea of being on the receiving end of this vitriol, and I can’t rule out the possibility that my thinking has been nudged in the direction of the majority of my fellow freethinkers. If I were even to contemplate coming out in opposition to gay marriage, for example, I would no longer be welcome in skeptical circles. As it turns out, I’ve come to a middle ground position that sidesteps the issue: I would prefer that our secular government get out of the marriage domain altogether. If a couple wants to marry, let their religious or family or social group recognize the marriage without the involvement of the government. The government could offer tax benefits to guardians in proportion to the number of children who live in their home more than half the year, without needing to ask the nature of the guardians’ relationship to each other or their gender.

Regarding abortion, I don’t toe the freethinking party line whereby a fetus is simply a part of the woman’s body. Yes, it’s a part of the woman’s body, but it also has its own body, with its own distinct and full set of human chromosomes, and it can feel pain starting at around 25 weeks. That doesn’t mean I think a single-celled zygote is a person in any meaningful sense, nor do I think that the 70% of embryos that spontaneously abort before the mother is even aware she’s pregnant constitute the sort of tragedy we would all perceive it to be if 70% of all cooing, dimpled children were to die sometime after birth. If anyone seriously thinks there’s any sort of equivalence between the two, I would ask why there’s so little concern and so little money expended to stem the holocaust of spontaneously aborted embryos. For religiously motivated abortion opponents, I would ask whether you think adult souls will be vastly outnumbered by human embryos that never saw the light of day, souls that never developed a personality or a thought in this world? And will you stop pretending to be opposed to abortion on the basis of the pain it causes the baby, if you have no qualms about the killing of an adult cow for your gustatory pleasure or the cutting off the foreskin of a baby boy, who feels the pain for hours or days, while a fetus aborted before 25 weeks feels none?

So in some ways I have been shaped by the freethought community I now identify with, but I’ve staked out a compromise of my own: I would prefer that neither gays nor straights be married in the eyes of the government, and out of caution I advocate that abortions be restricted after 25 weeks.

How have your views been shaped by the community to which you belong, and in what ways have you staked out more nuanced positions not held by the majority of your community?

Many freethinkers may be surprised to learn that, until a decade or so ago, a strong current of atheists, agnostics, and humanists were opposed to gay marriage, not wanting to lend support to the institution of marriage of any stripe.
Likewise, many evangelicals may be surprised that until the late 1970s, the majority of even the most conservative evangelicals were not opposed to abortion, using the Bible to support their position. Here I’ll quote from an article entitled “How Evangelicals Decided that Life Begins at Conception”, at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-dudley/how-evangelicals-decided-that-life-begins-at-conception_b_2072716.html:

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In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention agreed, in a joint resolution: “We call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

Dallas Theological Seminary professors also supported the cause. Bruce Wakte [Waltke], writing in Christianity Today, drew on Exodus 21:22-24 to argue that “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed.” His colleague Norman Geisler concurred: “The embryo is not fully human — it is an undeveloped person.”
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If you’re surprised by any of the above, whether as an atheist or as a fundamentalist or anything in between, my hope is that you’ll come to a greater understanding of just how much we are prisoners of our own communities.
I’ll close with another example of this imprisonment. Ask Saint Francis of Assisi whether Jesus condoned wealth, and you would get a definite, “No.” Ask just about any modern American evangelical the same question, and you would get a definite “Yes, as long as you keep a proper attitude and don’t allow it to turn you away from God.”

That’s not what Jesus said in the Luke.

Here’s what he said in Luke 6:24-25:

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.

There it is, in black and white (or red, depending on your Bible). But evangelicals routinely gloss over this passage (and many others like it in Luke) because it has become acceptable in the evangelical community to be rich. If a sincere young reader of Luke comes across these passages for the first time, she may initially start to think wealth is bad, only to be assured by her parents, her youth leader, or he pastor that this isn’t what the passages *really* teach. And they she goes on her merry way, satisfied that it’s only really about the state of one’s heart, and she’s no longer troubled by it. Why? Because her *community* that she *trusts* tells her it’s not the problem she thought it might be. In other words, she trusts her community over the clear teaching of the Bible, but she doesn’t realize it, because she believes her community is following the Bible, and who is she to challenge all the smart and wise people in her community who have it all figured out? What she fails to understand is that the needs and desires of the community come first, and the Bible can be made to say whatever lines up with those needs. And why doesn’t she see this? Precisely because the community claims to base its views on the Bible, and the more the community insists on its allegiance to the Bible, the harder it is to acknowledge any divergence from the Bible. We see this also in the way the Bible is used by the community in one generation to condone abortion and in the next generation to condemn it.

Imagine if Jesus has said anything as clear as this alongside Luke 6:24-25:

But woe to you who kill a baby in its mother’s womb,
for the baby is a person from the moment of conception.
Woe to you anyone who engages in sexual relations with one of the same gender,
for God intended sex to be between only a husband and his wife.

Boom! No more debate about abortion, no more debate about homosexuality for those who follow Jesus.

Do you really think it would be that easy? Not at all! Because if those who today claim to be the most faithful to the Bible can worm their way around “But woe to you who are rich,” and “He who has two tunics should give to him who has none,” and “He who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple,” and “where your treasure is, there *will* your heart be also,” then it’s possible to get around “But woe to you who kill a baby in its mother’s womb,” even if Jesus had said it. Which he didn’t.

Why do conservative believers imagine themselves to be faithful to the Bible while ignoring (or explaining away) Jesus’ clear teachings on wealth? And why do more progressive believers believe themselves to be faithful to the Bible while ignoring (or explaining away) Paul’s clear teachings on homosexuality? I can’t pretend to speak for either party as I’m no longer a believer, but it looks suspiciously as though the leanings of the community trump the teachings of the Bible they claim to follow. If homosexuality disgusts you, then the few biblical passages that condemn it are “clear” and “applicable for all time and in all circumstances.” Women wearing head coverings and wealth being condemned? Not so much. If compassion is your number one value, then Jesus’ teachings on the poor resonate with you and you’re likely to be in favor of universal health care and the distribution of wealth, while sympathizing with gays persecuted by the Pharisaical religious right. And the community you belong to reinforces your bent further, demonizing those in the other camp and preventing you from seeing any merit in them.

In summary, I contend that believers’ social and political proclivities have priority over what the scriptures teach, whether you’re pro- or anti-slavery, pro- or anti-women’s rights, pro- or anti-segregation, pro- or anti-mixed race marriages, pro- or anti-feminist, pro- or anti-war, pro- or anti-immigration, etc.

If you’re a Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants’ prescription of polygamy can be set aside when the cultural tide shifts against it, as can be the proscription of blacks in the priesthood. If you’re the Apostle Paul, you can set aside the clearly prescribed ordinances of circumcision and Sabbaths and animal sacrifice and kosher food if it lowers the bar for Gentiles to enter the Kingdom. Because, *reasons*. Yes, there are always reasons for setting aside earlier divine revelation. But how can you get any clearer than Leviticus 16:30-32 (NASB)?

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for it is on this day that [a]atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you will be clean from all your sins before the LORD. 31 It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a *permanent* statute.
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My arguments here are not likely to be accepted readily by many believers. Why? Because if it’s admitted that the community of faith is unfaithful to the teachings of the Bible, then the Bible can no longer be used as a rod to prod the errant into line. By errant it is meant those who don’t share the prior proclivities of the community, whether it be in relation to male headship, wealth, civil rights, segregation, abortion, slavery, mixed marriages, war, immigration, or what have you.

Again, the illusion that a community is faithfully following the scriptures must be maintained at all costs, or the authority of the community to impose its proclivities on those within and without its ranks will be jeopardized. But an illusion it is. I have raised here only a small sampling of the passages routinely ignored or conveniently explained away by Christians of various stripes. For a much fuller discussion of more such passages, I cannot recommend highly enough the book “Raw Revelation: The Bible They Never Tell You About” by Ron Roncace at http://www.amazon.com/Raw-Revelation-Bible-Never-About-ebook/dp/B00AQ6BWY6/ (see also my review of the book on the Amazon page).

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My First Attempt at Apologetics at Age Sixteen

As a sixteen-year-old, I was probably the most “on fire,” committed Christian of all my friends. Nothing was more important to me than my relationship with Jesus, and I wanted the world to know him. I had read some creationist books like The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris and had listened to a number of tapes produced by the Institute for Creation Research. Josh McDowell was my favorite apologist at the time. Armed with the knowledge I gleaned from these and other sources, I set out to pen a treatise that would show the world, once and for all, that the Christian faith demanded the assent of skeptical minds.

The result was a partially completed nine-page handwritten document I called “For Skeptics Only.” For what it’s worth, I’m attaching both the original scanned document and a transcribed version below. Apparently I aimed to address three broad topics: the existence of God, the deity and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the inspiration of the Bible. As it turns out, I ended up writing about only the first of these topics and never found a skeptic to share it with. Ironically, I would be the first skeptic to read it, a full 30 years later.

This evening I transcribed the document, reading it for the first time since I wrote it so many years ago. What waters have passed under the bridge since that time! What would I have thought back then if I had known my future self would take such a precipitous turn away from the faith of my youth? What emotions flood me this evening as I contemplate who I was and who I’ve become!

It’s impossible to describe the surreal nature of connecting again with my past self. So much has changed, and yet strangely, so much has remained the same.

Here are some points of comparison between my past self and my present self:

  • I wanted others to know what I passionately believed. I still do.
  • My writing was stilted (did I know how to write non-passive sentences?), and still is, but hopefully a little less so now. (My boss at work is making every effort to help me simplify and boil down my thoughts to the basics when I write.)
  • My handwriting style hasn’t changed much, perhaps in part because I really haven’t done much handwriting since then, thanks to the advent of word processing.
  • I thought I knew more than I really did, and I was confident in what I thought I knew. I still have this tendency, but the more I’ve read from scholars and scientists, the more I realize how paltry my knowledge is.
  • I still don’t know the answers to some of the questions I posed to skeptics back then, but I no longer feel compelled to answer them all. As Thomas Jefferson quipped, “He who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.”
  • I’ve learned a lot since then. My earlier musings were full of misunderstandings about the Big Bang and evolution. I know better now, but my knowledge is still incomplete and skewed. I now love to read and learn more about these topics, filling in some of the holes and misconceptions. I realize I’ll never have the all the answers; the process of picking up bits and pieces is like solving a giant puzzle that will never be complete in my lifetime.

Here’s the scanned copy of my handwritten document: 1985 For Skeptics Only – Ken Daniels

And here’s the transcribed copy:


For Skeptics Only

Ken Daniels, 1985

The modern thinking man may look at Christianity at a surface level and see it as merely one of many world religions. He may regard all religions as concocted myths to explain certain natural phenomena or to meet emotional needs. Admittedly many Christians do not provide sufficient intellectual reasons to convince skeptics of the uniqueness of Christianity. One may view the activities of evangelists in churches and conclude they do nothing but play on the emotions of people ignorant and susceptible enough to accept the dogma of Christianity based on the Bible.

Furthermore, the naturalist, having convinced himself that there is insufficient proof to verify any one religion, has thrown out religion from the picture. To reject religion is to reject a Supreme Being and to reject the latter is to be forced to explain the origin of the universe and of life by chance. Therefore, the theory of evolution was contrived, which has been the most widely accepted explanation for the spontaneous origin of life.

Along with the rejection of the belief in a supreme being comes the freedom from responsibility. Therefore the atheist is free to act according to what he or she believes is right in a particular situation. It is not hard therefore, to understand why the skeptic may look at the standards and beliefs of Christians with considerable disdain.

Having now briefly examined the point of view of the modern thinking man, we will now focus on the beliefs of Christians and some reasons to support them.

The Christian faith is built on 3 essential pillars: the existence of God, the deity and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the inspiration of the Bible.

While these pillars cannot be proven by sight or scientific method, the Christian may hold to what he or she believes is very strong circumstantial and historical evidence supporting his or her convictions. However, it must be noted that the one who has previously resolved not to accept the premises of Christianity will always be able to find a way to rationalize the retaining of his or her position.

Let us now examine the first pillar, the existence of God. Since the naturalist claims to be led foremostly by his or her five senses, the question of God’s existence will be dealt with in terms of that which can be seen: the universe and life.

Every rational man will agree that those things which exist came into being by chance or the act of an intelligent and all-powerful Creator. Therefore, offering evidence against one theory will give proof for the other. It may be argued here that since the creation of the cosmos by a supreme being necessitates the deviation from existing natural laws, there can be no proof against creation by using these laws. Therefor the theory which holds to a natural view of origins must rely completely on that which supports itself according to natural laws and that which can be seen. The creation theory, on the other hand, can better be supported by discrediting its counterpart, which is bound to the framework of natural laws.

The theory of natural origins is most widely explained on the basis of uniformitarianism and evolution. It is held that many billions of years ago, a small but dense particle of matter exploded and sent matter in all directions into space. In short, stars and planets were formed by the regathering of matter after a period of time. Following the formation of the earth, a single cell of life was spontaneously generated. As this organism reproduced, mutations or changes in offspring occured.

Those mutations which were harmful to the organisms caused the elimination of the latter. Those mutations which were beneficial to the survival of the organism were carried on to subsequent generations. Through this process of natural selection over millions of years, life went through the development from a simple cell to complex human beings.

At first glance, these premises may seem logical and attractive in explaining away the existence of a Creator. Further support is given to this theory by scientists who have succeeded in integrating it as a scientific fact into public and higher education and the media. It is shown that fossils found in many parts of the earth are simple in lower strata and more complex in higher strata, demonstrating the general development of evolution. Furthermore, reconstructed ape-men are depicted to give on the impression that they are links in the development of men from lower primates. The evolutionist constantly talks on the basis of millions or billions of years, time which is necessary to even consider the possibility of evolution.

However, upon further examination, one can find numerous fatal flaws in the naturalistic theory for the origin of the cosmos:

1) If all processes and laws have been the same throughout time, there is no way to account for the explosion of the original dense particle of matter, which had previously existed in a state of equilibrium for eternity past.

2) if the explosion of the original particle of matter resulted in matter being expulsed in all directions, it is not possible that some of it could lump together to form stars and planets. The matter would more likely collapse into the center where gravity was next to infinite.

3) The spontaneous generation of the first cell of life is statistically next to impossible, no matter how much time is allotted for this event.

  • Man has developed many sophisticated technologies, including X vehicles which can enter and leave space with payloads, but to date he has not been able to produce anything faintly resembling life. He has merely been able to create simple amino acids and proteins for all his efforts Therefore, the simplest form of life is more complex than say, a space shuttle. No one would argue that, given enough time, materials, and energy, a space shuttle could arise spontaneously from the earth. Yet this is more possible than the chance of life coming into existence alone.
  • The chance for the spontaneous generation for just one of many proteins in a simple cell is approximately one in 10^500. After 4 billion years and taking into consideration all the possible opportunities for the formation of proteins throughout the earth, this chance is reduced to one in 10^415, a blatant impossibility.
  • In order for life to have formed on earth, there had to have been nitrogen compounds prevalent in the atmosphere which are not found today. The evolutionist attempt to rectify this situation by suggesting that the atmosphere had no oxygen at that time and that it contained the gases necessary for the formation of life. It is said that later plants gave the oxygen to the atmosphere as it presently exists. However, this would have considerably reduced the organism’s chance for survival in that there would have not been an ozone layer compressed of oxygen in the upper atmosphere to protect life from harmful radiation of the sun.
  • In order for the first organism to have received nutrition and energy for survival, it would have needed to obtain its own energy directly from the sun. Thus, this creature must have had the incredibly complex compound of chlorophyll, which would greatly increase the odds against the spontaneous generation of life.

4) There are numerous evolutionary gaps both in the fossil and living record of life. Charles Darwin himself, the found of the modern theory of evolution, wrote, “Why, if species have descended from other species by fine gradations, is not all nature in confusion, instead of being, as we see them, the species well-defined?”

 5) It is not possible to explain the development of new structures and organs in organisms on the basis of natural selection. For example, the development of wings on lizards to produce flying reptiles meets strong logical barriers. While the lizard was in the beginning stages of wing development, the outgrowths on its shoulders would have been useless and cumbersome, because it would not yet be able to take the the advantage of flight. Therefore, this harmful mutation would have been eliminated and evolution could not have proceeded. This principle is true also of the development of the eyes, ears, circulatory system, arms, legs, sexual reproductive system, etc.

 6) The theory of evolution is at odds in explaining the development of characteristics in man such as his taste for music and art, his ability to read and write, his sense of right and wrong, his almost universal recognition of a God or gods, and his ability to choose the direction that his life will take.The unguided force of natural selection would have no reason to select any of these characteristics in the struggle for survival, even if any of them could appear by chance.

 7) Mutations are almost always harmful. Suppose that a computer program was continually recopied from tape to tape, occasionally with small accidental changes. The changes that were harmful to the continuity of the program were discarded, and the ones that increased its complexity were kept and passed on. Needless to say, this process would not be sufficient to explain the development of a simple child-created program to one that is complex and technical, even after millions of reproductions. What order can come about by chance? The evolution of complex life forms encounters still much more difficulty. It may be argued here by the naturalist that life, unlike a computer program, can undergo small changes in reproduction without being disrupted. However, these changes are small and simply create diversity horizontally, not upward.

 8) The existence of natural laws in the universe is left unexplained without a supreme being. What caused the origin of gravity, energy, magnetism, time, etc.? Why does matter exist? It is reasonable to assume that each of these phenomena was created and controlled by a pre-existing force outside of the confines of the cosmos.

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Well-Meaning Harm

For a brief moment, it was encouraging to see our politically and religiously divided country unite in the common cause of dousing each other with ice water to raise funds for research on the debilitating and often fatal disease ALS. Alas, it wasn’t to last; before long, I started seeing warnings on Facebook against supporting the ALS Foundation because their disease research makes use of human embryo stem cell lines.

ALS research isn’t the only target of pro-life advocates; recently I read an article entitled “God Does not Support Vaccines,” warning Christians that all the childhood immunizations contain “baby parts” from aborted fetuses (see http://www.livingwhole.org/god-does-not-support-vaccines/).

I can appreciate a concern to avoid the ending of human life in the service of a “greater good.” If, as I once believed, a microscopic embryo is a person, then ending its life is murder, whether on the part of mother who sleeps around irresponsibly and doesn’t want to incur the inconvenience of bearing a baby, or on the part of a researcher seeking to cure a human scourge.

I later learned that an estimated two-thirds of all human embryos are naturally aborted as they fail to implant in the uterus and are washed out, never seeing the light of day. I began to wonder why I was so unconcerned about this holocaust that ends more human lives than all other causes of life combined, if it was really people who were dying. Maybe my pro-life stance had been rooted in black-and-white thinking that didn’t want to have to figure out where to draw a fuzzy right-to-life line somewhere between an unfeeling, microscopic embryo and a cooing, dimpled full-term baby. Maybe also I wanted to hold accountable the women who couldn’t control their sexual urges. Maybe I also feared that terminating an embryo would lead to a slippery slope culminating in rampant adult euthanasia without consent.

Over time I came to adopt a form of consequentialist morality. When considering whether a course of action is ethical, I stopped asking whether it violates sacred or traditional principles, but instead began asking, What is the practical effect of a given action on sentient beings? Does it cause suffering? Does it lead to well-being or happiness?

Sometimes religious pro-life advocates will appeal to consequentialist arguments in an attempt to bolster a position based on what is sacred. For example, we’ll hear that a fetus suffers pain when aborted, or that women who undergo abortions experience higher rates of cancer or depression, or that adult stem cell lines are more effective for disease research than are embryonic stem cell lines. These arguments seem to be to be disingenuous. An embryo can’t feel pain, nor is there any well documented link between abortion (let alone egg and sperm harvesting) and cancer. And what if embryonic stem cells really are more useful than adult stem cells in pursuing a cure for a given disease? And what if societies that permit abortion have not seen a rise in non-consensual euthanasia or murder? Can any of these arguments have an effect on way or another on a sacred position, which by definition cannot be negotiated?

An appeal to the sacred, however well meaning, can sometimes unwittingly lead to a net increase in suffering. An embryo feels no pain; those who suffer from ALS, and any children who die because of their parents’ misgivings over the “baby parts” in vaccines certainly feel pain.

I don’t pretend to know exactly where to draw the right-to-life line between an embryo and infant, but I will not allow my discomfort for ambiguity to stand in the way of research and vaccines that offer a very real chance of alleviating true human suffering. The loss of a single-celled, unfeeling, unconscious, socially unconnected zygote is simply of no consequence compared to the murder of an adult who is, for example, a friend, a spouse, a daughter, and a mother. For those of you who see an equivalence between the two, I implore you to ask whether you are needlessly causing harm, even if you mean well.

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Do husbands have to earn respect?

“Your husband doesn’t have to earn your respect.” These words, the title of an article by conservative Christian blogger Matt Walsh, raised my hackles when I first read them yesterday. A sampling of thoughts that hit me up front: Why should husbands deserve unconditional respect and not wives? Does every man deserve automatic respect (beyond the basic respect we owe all humans by virtue of their common humanity), even if he abuses his wife, sleeps around, or shirks his responsibility to provide for his family? Can a wife manufacture respect for her husband if, deep down, she doesn’t respect him?

To be fair, I proceeded to read the full blog article and found it to be more balanced and less provocative than I had feared. Walsh does make a number of valid points, for example, that no husband deserves to receive the kind of treatment he describes here:

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…[S]ome time ago, I found myself in the same vicinity as another married couple.
I certainly can’t read their minds, and I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, all I know is that the husband couldn’t seem to utter a single phrase that wouldn’t provoke exaggerated eye-rolling from his wife.

She disagreed with everything he said.

She contradicted nearly every statement.

She nagged him.

She brought up a “funny” story that made him out to be incompetent and foolish. He laughed, but he was embarrassed.

She was gutting him right in front of us. Emasculating him. Neutering him. Damaging him.

It was excruciating.

It was tragic.

It also was, or is becoming, pretty par-for-the-course.
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I’m on board with Walsh here (with the exception of his use of the sexist term “nag”, which it seems is never used for men); I’ve witnessed wives treating their husbands this way, though I’ve also witnessed the reverse in equal measure.
Walsh continues by making a case that this lack of respect for husbands is responsible at least in part for our soaring divorce rates. I would certainly agree with him that overt disrespect does nothing to improve the odds of marital success. And I am all for marital success; I’ve been happily married for 22 years, and I have every intention of remaining faithful to my wife for the rest of my life, despite our very profound religious and political differences.

Yet I’m still uncomfortable with certain aspects of Walsh’s article (as I am with many of Walsh’s other views). He asks us to take for granted that men need respect more than women do and that women need love more than men do. Perhaps that really is the case, but where is the evidence for it?

Why is Walsh inclined to believe that husbands are more in need of respect than wives are? One possibility is that his belief is a true belief, supported not just by folk wisdom but also by the data. Another possibility—and I suspect this to be the case—is that respect for a man is a necessary prerequisite for maintaining the biblical order of male headship in the home. In any organizational hierarchy, from politics to the military to the corporate world to the family, effective leadership cannot be maintained without respect for the leader.

There’s no denying that many biblical passages place the responsibility of family leadership on the husband, not on the wife. For example:

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I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety (1 Timothy 2: 11-15).

For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord (1 Peter 3:5-6).
——————–

So it follows in Walsh’s biblical worldview that, even if both men and women deserve respect, a man is particularly needful of it in order to maintain his divinely appointed role in the family, as the one the wife is to obey and consider as lord.

While training to serve with Wycliffe Bible Translators (WBT) in the 1990s, one of my WBT-affiliated professors, Dr. Kenneth McElhanon, whose wife was serving at the time as a counselor for WBT members, asked our class to guess the number one issue driving couples to seek counseling. None of us guessed the correct answer, which turned out to be fallout from male headship in the home. In retrospect, why should it be a surprise that a woman who’s every bit as gifted as her husband might chafe when required in all things to obey her husband and call him lord?

Mark Walsh’s view that wives are to be subordinate to their husbands and that each partner is to play a complementary role in the marriage and family is referred to as “complementarianism,” in contrast to “egalitarianism,” which holds that women should not be limited to the roles or offices they can hold (including pastorship in a church) and should not be subordinate to men in a family hierarchy. Religious egalitarians like Dr. McElhanon argue that God’s long-term vision for humanity is for women to be on an equal footing with men, to be emancipated from their hierarchical subordination to men, just as it was his vision for slaves to be emancipated from their hierarchical subordination to their masters. Egalitarians acknowledge that many biblical passages do indeed uphold both slavery and male dominion, but these were simply concessions to the hardness of the people’s hearts, while God’s intent was that the Church would eventually take its cue from the following touchstone passage and emancipate both its slaves and its women from its traditional authoritarian structures:

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There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).
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I was a complementarian at the time Dr. McElhanon made this argument to our class, and I objected that “being one in Christ Jesus” does not necessarily entail hierarchical egalitarianism; a wife can be subordinate to her husband, and a parishioner can be subordinate to her pastor, while still being “one in Christ Jesus.” He immediately shot back that this was precisely the same argument used by racial segregationists (“separate but equal”), nineteenth-century slave-owners, and southern evangelical pastors in response to the use of this passage by abolitionists and civil rights leaders. He then proceeded to project on the classroom screen excerpt after excerpt of sermons by southern pastors vehemently excoriating the northern liberal and progressive Christian abolitionists for their misuse of God’s word, marshaling biblical passage after biblical passage affirming slavery as a God-ordained institution and enjoining slaves to obey their masters. For example:

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Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly (Leviticus 25:42-46).

If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property (Exodus 21:20). (KJV: “Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.”)

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:18-21).
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It goes without saying that the above passages were not favorites of the abolitionists, while Galatians 3:28 was, just as it is for the modern-day egalitarians. But the above passages were certainly useful for pro-slavery southern pastors, just as passages like 1 Peter 3:5-6 are useful for complementarians arguing that wives are to obey their husbands. (Side note: the “Southern” in “Southern Baptist” and “Southern Methodist” stems from their split from the more liberal northern counterparts over the issue of slavery; the Southern Baptists did not apologize for their support of slavery until 1995; see http://articles.philly.com/1995-06-21/news/25690255_1_northern-baptists-slavery-southern-baptists)

Yet it seems that even the most enthusiastic complementarians of today—those that cite chapter and verse as a blunt instrument to drive the “absolute truth” into the rebellious skulls of the egalitarians—are reluctant to cite chapter and verse to resurrect the divinely sanctioned institution of slavery and require slaves to obey their masters (a directive which assumes the existence of slavery).
This is but one of many manifestations of a tendency on the part of some fundamentalists to press a biblical agenda on their opponents, claiming the mantle of biblical authority without realizing how far they fall short of following the Bible themselves.

Liberal Christians acknowledge the scriptures are profoundly influenced by the human thinking of the era in which they were composed and that they don’t all necessarily represent God’s ideals. They appeal to higher principles (e.g., “do unto others” or “one in Christ”) to bracket off the texts that violate these principles. By contrast, many fundamentalists (myself included before 2000) can admit neither that imperfections exist in the Bible nor that they routinely bracket off any of its teachings (particularly those of the New Testament).

But in fact many, no doubt most, fundamentalists bracket off more texts than they realize or care to admit, all the while castigating progressive Christians for doing the same. Few conservative believers today call for slaves to obey their masters, while insisting that wives submit to and obey their husbands. In the following paragraphs, I draw from my book for more examples of this bracketing practice.

Most American evangelicals seem not to believe Jesus’ teachings on violence and wealth. Consider Jesus’ injunction:

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But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matthew 5:39).
——————

I recall how as a missionary in Nigeria my father kept a baseball bat at his bedside to protect the household against nighttime intruders. Though he never had occasion to use it physically (other than as a threat), he was prepared to do so. Thus, he not only did not subscribe to Jesus’ clear teachings, but he violated those teachings in a deliberate, premeditated manner. Note that I am not criticizing his decision; I believe he did the right thing, as does anyone who practices self-defense when threatened. My point is to demonstrate that common sense can sometimes trump even clear biblical teachings for those who claim they subscribe to the Bible in its entirety.

If we insist that a passage such as the above has to be interpreted correctly (meaning other than at face value), then we demonstrate that we, and not the text, are the final arbiter of what is right and wrong. We decide it’s unreasonable to interpret it according to its apparent meaning, so we search for other possible texts to mitigate its implications and settle on an alternative ethic we consider to be both biblical and reasonable. But in so doing, we have violated the unambiguous teachings of Jesus; we have cherry picked the texts we prefer.

The teachings of Jesus and his followers concerning wealth are both equally clear and equally disregarded by many of his followers. Consider these passages from the Gospel of Luke:

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6:24 But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.

2:32 Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

14:33 In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
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Or consider Paul’s socialist ideals:

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Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they [the church in Jerusalem] need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you [the church at Corinth] need. Then there will be equality (1 Corinthians 8:13-14).
——————-

In summary, both liberal and conservative Christians routinely pick and choose from the text what they will believe. The difference is that liberals freely admit this, while conservatives do not, using special hermeneutics to explain how Jesus didn’t mean what he really did say about wealth, violence, etc.

Given that they have a choice, why is it that conservative American evangelicals opt to focus on particular texts and particular issues while ignoring others? In other words, if as I maintain, they are picking and choosing, why are they picking male headship as an issue and not economic inequality, for example? I can only tentatively speculate, but I’ll give it a shot, acknowledging I may well be mistaken.

On average, males are physically stronger than females. In most societies throughout human history, males have held sway over females. This is true even of most traditional societies that have never come into contact with Judeo-Christian-Islamic scriptures. The Bible does not have a monopoly on calling for men to stand above women. Even among most mammals, the males “control the roost.” Witness the absolute control a male chimpanzee has over his harem of females, or the tendency of male lions to kill the females’ infants after defeating a rival male and taking control of his harem (bonobos, relatives of chimpanzees, are a more matriarchal exception to the general rule of male domination). If this tendency is so deep and prevalent in nature, I see it as the default position, the deeply ingrained status quo, even perhaps our instinct. Gender equality, if it is to exist in a society, must be taught; otherwise, male domination will prevail by default.

To a certain extent, the same primordial tendency may exist for polygamy (the Old Testament not only reports it but sanctions it when God informs David in 2 Samuel 12:8, “I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms”), for warfare (as far as I’m aware, all human societies engage in war to some degree, as do chimpanzees), for the right to possess great wealth (see Proverbs 24:3-4), for racial/tribal rivalry and inequality, for retributive justice, and for homophobia. These primordial predilections exist in the human breast, predating the Old Testament, where they all find divine sanction.

Over time, religious communities came to see the downside of some of these tendencies and began to teach against them. For example, Jesus, bracketing the Old Testament primal principle of retributive justice, taught, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Unfortunately the New Testament never explicitly advocated abolition from slavery or female equality, though these principles find a kernel of expression in Galatians 3:28 and in a few other passages. And over time, the Christian community after many centuries came to understand the evils of slavery and repudiated it, so that by dint of history, it’s no longer acceptable to use the Bible to promote slavery. The same process is gradually occurring with regard to gender hierarchy, though primordially ingrained tendencies don’t die without a fight. Unfortunately, its demise, like that of slavery, is retarded by the belief that it is divinely instituted and that it is a virtue, rather than a vice, to promote it.

Biblical teachings that correspond to primordial human impulses (e.g., gender hierarchy and homophobia) are more likely to persist and to be embraced by conservatives than those that run counter to our primordial instincts (e.g., the economic equality advocated by Jesus, Paul, and John the Baptist, and the nonresistant pacifism taught by Jesus). As Jimmy Carter so ably expressed in his essay on women and religion, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) had a choice whether to emphasize the texts that promote gender equality or those that promote a gender hierarchy, and they chose the latter, leading to Carter’s decision to disaffiliate himself from the SBC.

Whenever I hear conservative evangelicals calling us to live and believe “biblically,” my impulse it to ask them, “Have you given up all you have to the poor? Did you support the American campaign to resist Saddam Hussein, an evil person, even though Jesus said not to resist an evil person? Do you acknowledge that the Bible sanctioned slavery and never called for its abolition, and that slaves are to obey their masters? Do you acknowledge that God approved of polygamy in the Old Testament and never outlawed it in the New Testament (save for church overseers/elders)? If you believe in predestination and eternal security, do you acknowledge there are passages that run counter to your position, and vice versa? If you believe Jesus’ death on the cross was lacking in any way, do you believe Colossians 1:24 (“I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions”)? The list could go on; for every one of these issues, there are passages that suggest conflicting perspectives: Are works required for salvation? Did Jesus return in his generation? Is baptism necessary for salvation?

My view is that Mark Walsh and his allies are predisposed by nature, like the majority of men throughout history, to favor male authority, and it is fortunate for them that the Bible by and large supports their view, conferring on them what they perceive to be a divine mandate to rescue men from the emasculatory trends of our God-ignoring society. I say “fortunate for them” but not “fortunate for women.” While many complementarians treat their wives with respect and dignity and promote a happy family environment, many others, like those that came to Dr. McElhanon’s wife for counseling, have not. You might protest that this is the fault of the individual men, not the teaching, and you would be right to an extent. However, given the reality that men tend by nature to abuse women more than the other way around, it seems misguided to offer any rope to the men by which to hang their wives, so to speak. In other words, men don’t need any encouragement to place themselves above their wives; it’s already in their nature. What they need, rather, is more encouragement to see their wives as equals, to give them an equal say in every decision, to seek outside counsel if they can’t come to a mutual agreement.

Having observed both Western and African marriages, it’s my conviction that, if we were to measure the total amount of suffering imposed by one gender on another within marriage, husbands generally surpass wives in meting out suffering. I’ve seen the enormous loads of wood and water carried by women in Africa while watching their husbands chat by the watering hole. I’ve seen the women walk miles to till fields with a hand hoe, baby on back, while their husbands chat by the watering hole. I’ve been asked by African men whether I beat my wife and been greeted by surprise when I responded No. I’ve seen in pictures the fruit of the Taliban’s righteous zeal after throwing acid on an adulterous woman’s face, or on a girl who defied their ban on education. I know ordinary families in which the wife silently bears the husband’s capricious, sometimes harmful decisions in the name of biblical headship.

Again, I’m with Walsh when he calls for spouses to treat each other with outward respect, refraining from eye rolling and derogatory comments. However, calling for automatic inward respect, especially toward men, potentially opens the door to abuse. If a man knows that her wife owes her unconditional respect, he has less incentive to offer her a tolerable marriage. If a woman must respect and stand by her husband who abuses her or who lazes around on the couch by day and carouses by night, and if she is led to believe it’s sinful to call out her husband or escape from the marriage, she will be consigned to unnecessary suffering for the rest of her life, all in the name of preserving biblical manhood. Divorce is not always the greatest possible evil; indeed, employed judiciously, it can effectively serve as a safety valve against a living hell.

Righteous ideas and teachings sometimes have unintended consequences. It’s an outrage that some of the most misguided ideas, like slavery and male dominion, have persisted for so long due to their support by zealous believers thinking they are on God’s side.

I’ll close by bringing this discussion down to a more personal level. My wife and I have two teenage sons (one almost 20) and a teenage daughter. May my wife always have a husband who treats her with the utmost respect and love, and may her husband never raise a hand against her or impose his will against hers, and may he always look into her eyes and see a perfect equal, one whose abilities and talents are to be given full reign with no artificial or ideological restrictions, and may her husband always provide for and support her, never speaking ill of her. May my sons treat their women in the same way, and may their women return the favor. May my daughter find this same kind of man—one who is sufficiently secure in his masculinity not to require obedience from his wife just because the Bible says that’s the way it should be.

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