C. S. Lewis and 8 Reasons for Believing in Objective Morality

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The cornerstone of the moral argument is the existence of an objective moral standard. If there really is a standard of right and wrong that holds true regardless of our opinions and emotions, then the moral argument has the ability to convince. However, apart from the existence of such an objective standard, moral arguments for God’s existence (and Christian theism) quickly lose their persuasive power and morality as a whole falls to the realm of subjective preference. Although I could say a fair amount about what the world would be like if morality really was a matter of preference (consider The Purge), the purpose of this article is to provide reasons for believing in objective morality (or “moral realism,” as philosophers call it).

Because of his continued focus on the objective nature of morality throughout his writings, and due to his unique ability to communicate and defend this concept in a clear and compelling manner, I will rely heavily on the thought of C. S. Lewis below. As I’ve read through a number of Lewis’s books, I’ve identified eight arguments he raises in favor of objective morality. Below is my attempt to list these eight arguments and offer a few thoughts of my own concerning each.

1)    Quarreling between two or more individuals.[1] When quarreling occurs, individuals assume there is an objective standard of right and wrong, of which each person is aware and one has broken. Why quarrel if no objective standard exists?

By definition, quarreling (or arguing) involves trying to show another person that he is in the wrong. And as Lewis indicates, there is no point in trying to do that unless there is some sort of agreement as to what right and wrong actually are, just like there is no sense in saying a football player has committed a foul if there is no agreement about the rules of football.[2]

2)    It’s obvious that an objective moral standard exists.[3] Throughout history, mankind has generally agreed that “the human idea of decent behavior [is] obvious to everyone.”[4] For example, it’s obvious (or self-evident) that torturing a child for fun is morally reprehensible.

As the father of two children, a daughter who is five and a son who is three, I have noticed that even my young children recognize that certain things are obviously right or wrong. For example, while watching a show like PJ Masks, my children can easily point out the good characters as well as the bad ones – even without my help. In short, the overwhelming obviousness that certain acts are clearly right or wrong indicates that an objective moral standard exists.

3)    Mistreatment.[5] One might say he does not believe in objective morality, however, the moment he is mistreated he will react as if such a standard exists. When one denies the existence of an objective standard of behavior, the moment he is mistreated, “he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair!’ before you can say Jack Robinson.”[6]

Sean McDowell relays an example of this when he shares a story involving J. P. Moreland taking the stereo of a University of Vermont student who denied the existence of objective morality in favor of moral relativism. As Moreland was sharing the gospel with the university student, the student responded by saying he (Moreland) couldn’t force his views on others because “everything is relative.” Following this claim, in an effort to reveal what the student really believed about moral issues, Moreland picked up the student’s stereo from his dorm room and began to walk down the hallway, when the student suddenly shouted, “Hey, what are you doing? You can’t do that!”[7]

Again, one might deny the existence of an objective standard of behavior through his words or actions, but he will always reveal what he really believes through his reactions when mistreated. (Note: Here at moralapologetics.com, we do not recommend you go around and mistreat others, as that wouldn’t be a moral way to do apologetics. See what I did there? Rather, we are simply bringing up the mistreatment issue as a way of exposing a deep flaw within moral relativism.)

4)    Measuring value systems.[8] When an individual states that one value system is better than another, or attempts to replace a particular value system with a better one, he assumes there is an objective standard of judgment. This objective standard of judgment, which is different from either value system, helps one conclude that one value system conforms more closely to the moral standard than another. Without some sort of objective measuring stick for value systems, there is no way to conclude that civilized morality, where humans treat one another with dignity and respect, is better than savage morality, where humans brutally murder others, even within their own tribe at times, for various reasons.

 

To illustrate this point, Lewis says, “The reason why your idea of New York can be truer or less true than mine is that New York is a real place, existing quite apart from what either of us thinks. If when each of us said ‘New York’ each means merely ‘The town I am imagining in my own head,’ how could one of us have truer ideas than the other? There would be no question of truth or falsehood at all.”[9] In the same way, if there is no objective moral standard, then there is no sense in saying that any one value system has ever been morally good or morally bad, or morally superior or inferior to other value systems.

5)    Attempting to improve morally.[10] Certainly, countless individuals attempt to improve themselves morally on a daily basis. No sane person wakes up and declares, “My goal is to become more immoral today!”[11] If there is no absolute standard of good which exists, then talk of moral improvement is nonsensical and actual moral progress is impossible. If no ultimate standard of right and wrong exists, then one might change his actions, but he can never improve his morality.

If there is hope of moral improvement, then there must be some sort of absolute standard of good that exists above and outside the process of improvement. In other words, there must be a target for humans to aim their moral efforts at and also a ruler by which to measure moral progress. Without an objective moral standard of behavior, then “[t]here is no sense in talking of ‘becoming better’ if better means simply ‘what we are becoming’ – it is like congratulating yourself on reaching your destination and defining destination as ‘the place you have reached.’”[12] 

6)    Reasoning over moral issues.[13] When men reason over moral issues, it is assumed there is an objective standard of right and wrong. If there is no objective standard, then reasoning over moral issues is on the same level as one arguing with his friends about the best flavor of ice cream at the local parlor (“I prefer this” and “I don’t like that”). In short, a world where morality is a matter of preference makes it impossible to have meaningful conversations over issues like adultery, sexuality, abortion, immigration, drugs, bullying, stealing, and so on.

7)    Feeling a sense of obligation over moral matters.[14] The words “ought” and “ought not” imply the existence of an objective moral law that mankind recognizes and feels obligated to follow. Virtually all humans would agree that one ought to try to save the life of a drowning child and that one ought not kill innocent people for sheer entertainment. It is also perfectly intelligible to believe that humans are morally obligated to possess (or acquire) traits such as compassion, mercifulness, generosity, and courage.[15]

8)    Making excuses for not behaving appropriately.[16] If one does not believe in an objective standard of behavior, then why should he become anxious to make excuses for how he behaved in a given circumstance? Why doesn’t he just go on with his life without defending himself? After all, a man doesn’t have to defend himself if there is no standard for him to fall short of or altogether break. Lewis maintains, “The truth is, we believe in decency so much – we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so – that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility.”[17]

Although the eight reasons provided above do not cover all of the reasons for believing in objective morality, it is a starting point nonetheless. If any of the reasons above for believing in objective morality are valid, then the moral argument for God’s existence (and Christian theism) has the ability to get off the ground. In fact, if there are any good reasons (in this article or beyond it) for believing in an objective moral standard, then I think God’s existence becomes the best possible explanation for morality since such a standard at the least requires a transcendent, good, and personal source – which sounds a lot like the God of Christian theism.

 

 

 

 

Stephen S. Jordan currently serves as a high school Bible teacher at Liberty Christian Academy. He is also a Bible teacher, curriculum developer, and curriculum editor at Liberty University Online Academy, as well as a PhD student at Liberty University. He and his wife, along with their two children and German shepherd, reside in Goode, Virginia.


[1] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 3.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid. In the appendix section of The Abolition of Man, Lewis provides a list that illustrates the points of agreement amongst various civilizations throughout history. See C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 83-101.

[5] Ibid., 6.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sean McDowell, Ethix: Being Bold in a Whatever World (Nashville, TN: B&H Books, 2006), 45-46.

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 43, 73. Also see Lewis, Mere Christianity, 13.

[9] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 13-14.

[10] C. S. Lewis, “Evil and God,” in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014), 3-4.

[11] Even if someone’s goal is to become more immoral, he still needs an objective standard to measure the level of his badness.

[12] Ibid.

[13] C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 54.

[14] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 10.

[15] C. Stephen Evans, God and Moral Obligation (New York, NY: Oxford University Press), 2-3.

[16] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 8.

[17] Ibid.

Mailbag: Does Christianity Fail as a Moral Guide?

Editor’s note: This reply is part of a longer conversation. The first part may be found here. Here Randy replies to Heath’s latest comment:

Moral Apologetics: Thank you kindly for your lengthy response and interest. I admit I am somewhat flattered by this. You wrote a long reply here and I read through it several times. But in the end I found it unpersuasive. The original premise “If humanity’s deep and unshakeable moral intuitions are correct, the “Morals of the Story demonstrates that the rational observer should embrace Christian theism in response.”

The rational observer would first question the premise that humanity has ever held “deep and unshakeable” moralities. The historical record just doesn’t support this. I hope that sometime in the future we will have such deep, unshakeable morals. But clearly we do not.

Christian theology, in my opinion, has been an abject failure as a moral guide. I find it impossible to believe that a world filled with evil is the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and righteousness. I find Christianity to be among the greatest enemies of morality, first by setting up factitious excellencies— belief in creeds, devotional feelings and ceremonies not connected to the good of humankind. These are accepted as substitutes for genuine virtues.

And then there is the problem of a redeemer. In this unseemly dogma, the son of god suffered and “died” for our “sins.”

Vicarious virtue. If I owe Paul money and god forgives me, that doesn’t pay Paul.

Hello Heath,

I have read your response to the answer Jonathan gave and thought I would chime in!

The original premise is an if-then conditional, meaning that someone can affirm it even if the antecedent (the “if” part) is false; one should really only reject the premise if you think the moral intuitions are correct but that people shouldn’t embrace Christian theism in response (or, rather, are not rational in doing so). This means that questioning whether there is such a morality isn’t, strictly speaking, relevant to the truth of the original premise.


It seems your argument against objective morality is that history doesn’t support this, and we “clearly” do not have them. Perhaps you have misunderstood the original claim. The original claim is simply that the common human experience is that there is some X such that X is good, and there is some Y such that Y is evil, and so on. The claim is not that we all share the same content of those moral beliefs (as that is what is historically false). In fact, it seems you implicitly recognize there is a perception of evil and good when you later claim the world is “filled with evil”—how could it be filled with something that so clearly does not exist? The original claim is that if our intuitions are correct, then Christian theism is the way to go—and our intuitions are that some things are really good and some really evil. Even if we’re mistaken about the implications—the content—it doesn’t follow that we’re mistaken about the reality of the categories at all. In fact, if we reject the categories of good and evil, then an interesting result is that we’ve never made any moral progress: it makes no moral difference whether we have African-Americans as slaves or not; it makes no moral difference whether we bully homosexuals for fun or not. The (morally horrible) list goes on.

The next claim is that Christianity has failed as a moral guide. That is, Christianity has failed to tell us the correct ways to live. You list the problem of evil, but this isn’t directly relevant to this claim of Christianity being a moral guide (it could turn out that someone who is deeply evil or hypocritical could nonetheless give you great moral advice). Within this same claim, you mention that “belief in creeds, devotional feelings and ceremonies” are “not connected to the good of human kind.” But why think this? It seems you suggest these are “substitutes for genuine virtues.” But Heath, remember, your view commits you to saying there are no virtues! But in any case, we can amend the claim to saying that if there were virtues, the ones that Christianity would espouse are replaced by creeds, feelings, and ceremonies. But the mere fact that Christianity embraces creeds, feelings, and ceremonies doesn’t entail that they replace any virtues whatsoever! In fact, there is a long and rich tradition, both intellectual and existential, of virtue ethics and living the right kind of Christian life. I’m afraid you may be taking late 20th and early 21st-century stereotypes of Western Christianity and applying them to the entire foundations of the church.

But let us also not forget that these kinds of activities do not at all seem to be divorced from the good of human kind. Consider the creeds: the creeds encapsulate essential Christian doctrine, and reinforce common but perhaps non-essential doctrines. From these creeds and their entailments and associated doctrines, we commit to believe and practice the idea that all are made in the image of God, that Jesus came to live among us in the ultimate act of love and sacrifice for humans, that we should be involved in caring for the poor (see much of the Old Testament and James 1), and that we ought to live in community with others’ needs placed before our own (Philippians 2:4). Next, let us consider “devotional feelings.” It’s not perfectly clear to me what is meant here, but I suspect the idea of reading one’s Bible and praying—perhaps even having an emotional experience while doing so—is in view. If so, I can assure you that many people have had their attitudes and conduct changed by these habitual activities. Given that none of us is a social island, becoming a virtuous person does in fact connect to the good of all. Although I am not sure what ceremonies you reference, I can say that participating in ecclesiastical activities is designed to bring us closer to each other (and hence our communities) and closer to our God. This brings us to the last point: if Christianity is true, then God is the highest good (and its source). Being involved with and close to him is the highest good, and will in turn precipitate the highest goods if we do so.

I’d like to return to the problem of evil. Your formulation is apparently that, given omnipotence and omnibenevolence, the world should not be “filled” with evil. I take “filled with evil” to mean something like “there is a large amount and high degree of evil in the world.” One of the common responses to this is called a “free-will defense.” People have freedom, and they sometimes (often!) exercise it for evil instead of the good. Omnipotence does not entail the ability to do the logically impossible, and forcing someone to freely do something certainly qualifies. If a loving relationship requires freedom to enter it (as I and many others think it does), then what this means is that God typically allows free choices to be made, and God cannot force a free decision (since this isn’t a thing to be done, and omnipotence entails the ability to do all things). The result is the world we have. But the good news is we aren’t left with such a world: the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is the “down payment” ensuring that one day the evils of the world will be rectified. One day, God will make everything right: this is referred to as redemption and restoration. Christian theology provides for the restoration of all that had once gone wrong, and redemption for those who have wronged each other and God; how beautiful is that?

This leads us to what you have called “the problem of a redeemer.” You have stated that “If I owe Paul money and god forgives me, that doesn’t pay Paul.” True enough. But the basis of that forgiveness is Christ’s paying the penalty for sins. So perhaps you mean if Christ pays the penalty for sins but I sin against another human (by, say, stealing her wallet), this doesn’t give her back her money. True enough again! All sins are ultimately against God (in other words, stealing the wallet is against the woman, but also against God). The penalty for sin is separation from God; the remedy is life through the Son of God. The sin is paid for by Christ; if a person does not accept, they endure separation from God. Suppose you do not accept and are separated by God. Justice is served since you are “serving your sentence.” Suppose you do accept, and restore her wallet. Justice is served, since Jesus died in your place and he had lived a perfect life on the Christian story; further, the woman has her wallet. Suppose you are unable to restore her wallet. The good news is that this affects your justice in no way; Christ’s perfect sacrifice is still perfect. What about her? She’s in the same boat—she can accept or reject Christ. If she accepts him, the effects of being with God forever far outweigh anything that can happen in this life. If she rejects him, it will be due to sins that she will be separated from God (for example, the sin of understanding and yet rejecting Jesus).

So, to recap, we’ve seen there isn’t a reason against accepting that we have the sense that there are objective categories of good and evil, that Christianity does contribute to the good of human kind, the problem of evil has a reasonable response dealing with creaturely freedom and the expected restoration of all things, and that salvation is offered through the perfect sacrifice of the God-man, Christ Jesus. I hope this at least points you in the right direction, and if you are interested, I’d love to talk more!

Randy

Mailbag: Does the Moral Argument Have a Fatal Flaw?

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In December, we shared a post on Facebook about The Morals of the Story, a book written by two of our editors, David and Marybeth Baggett. Along with the post, we included this snippet from a review of the book:

"If humanity’s deep and unshakable moral intuitions are correct, then The Morals of the Story demonstrates that the rational observer should embrace Christian theism in response."

In response to this idea, Heath writes,

 The point being that "objective morality points to the existence of god.” Which god, might I ask? Well, of course the Christian god. Who else? Why not Allah, or Shiva, or Quetzacoatyl? These are all gods too. And if objective morality points to god, objectively it points to ALL gods equally. Objective morality. Can there even be such a thing? I think all morality is subjective, not objective. It would be nice if moralities were indeed objective, but since we've decided to tie morality to religion we must necessarily reject objectivity. Example: A large group of profoundly fervent jungle tribesmen find it moral to hack the hearts out of living men, women and children to appease their gods. That is moral to them. Another group believes that 2000 years ago a god sacrificed himself to himself so that the believers can be forgiven for all time. That is moral, to them. A different group of people use reason to construct morals. Morals based on enlightened self-interest. Obviously they would reject the morals of both previously mentioned groups. These are atheists, and only without religious bias can morals begin to be objective.

Reply,

Hi Heath,

Thank you for your comment and you raise a couple of important objections to a moral argument for the truth of Christianity. Of course, your post is brief and one would not expect arguments to be fully developed in the context of social media, so I will try to spell out how I think you intend the argument to go. I take it that you have two concerns about the claim that if human moral intuitions are correct, then this suggests that Christian theism is correct.

First, even if humans generally and accurately apprehend moral truths, and even if this is best explained by theism, it is not at all clear how this would be best explained by Christian theism. If morality requires some form of supernaturalism, then many supernatural explanations of morality are available and it is not immediately obvious why the Christian explanation should fare any better than, say, the Hindu explanation. If there are moral truths that need supernatural explanation, then that is evidence that applies equally well to all supernatural accounts.

Second, you suggest that morality is not objective and, therefore, there are no moral truths with which Christians can build their moral case for Christian theism. The hypothetical story about the origin of moral beliefs is meant to motivate this conclusion that moral realism is not correct. Later, in another comment, you add this: “Different cultures have different morals. Hence the subjective nature of it all. I don't get why you presume a standard morality to be everywhere. That is a pipe dream. Not a reality.” In that case, the whole project of The Morals of the Story rests on the mistake of thinking moral realism (the view that there are objective moral realities) obtains. Since the project assumes something true that is false, it must be fatally flawed.

Let me take the second objection first. There are two kinds of reply I want to make here. First, I want to say something about why we should think moral realism is a justified belief. Second, I want to consider whether we have any good reason to think it is not.

Geoff Sayre-McCord, a philosopher teaching at the University of North Carolina, claims that “moral realism can fairly claim to have common sense and initial appearances on its side.”[1] The reason that Sayre-McCord might say that moral realism has this advantage is that we simply find ourselves believing in moral realism and we find ourselves having a high degree of confidence in these beliefs.[2] It seems obvious to most people that there are at least some moral facts.

For example, for most it seems obviously true that the Holocaust was factually, objectively, morally wrong. It seems equally as obvious that torturing children for fun would be wrong in all the same ways. This, of course, is not anything like a decisive argument that moral realism is correct, but it should provide some reason to think we are justified in believing that moral realism is correct.

After all, we take all kinds of seemings as good justification for belief. It seems to me that there are other minds and that I am not a brain in a vat. It seems to me there is a table over there and that I am drinking coffee. These seemings are adequate grounds for having a justified belief that these things are so. If my three-year-old son looks out the window and sees a tree, it seems to him that there is a tree out there, and he forms the belief “There is a tree out there.” Few would say that this belief is not justified until he has more evidence; the seeming itself is sufficient.

 Of course, for all we know, we could be brains in vats or everyone around us could be mindless zombies that act exactly as if they had minds, but epistemologists generally agree that the mere possibility that these states of affairs could be actual should not worry us very much. Justification doesn’t require certainty.

However, justified beliefs can have their justification defeated. One might have good reasons to think that we are brains in vats, for example. Perhaps, like Neo from The Matrix, one could somehow become aware that reality as they experience it is a mere simulation. In that case, the belief that I am not a brain in a vat would no longer be justified.

My suggestion is that our moral intuitions are kinds of seemings analogous to the other kinds I have mentioned and that there are prima facie grounds for counting our moral intuitions as justified beliefs. Just as our experience of empirical realities can justify our belief in the external world or other minds, likewise our moral experience can offer us initial justification for at least certain of our less negotiable moral convictions. If one does not experience these moral intuitions, then, clearly, he could not be justified in believing in moral realism on this basis. Or, if he has sufficiently strong defeaters, he could no longer consider his belief justified, unless he defeats the defeaters. My view is that moral intuitions provide a prima facie reason for thinking that moral realism obtains.

If that is claim, then the next thing we will want to consider is whether there are any defeaters for moral intuitions. You offer one such possible defeater: the reality of moral disagreement. But it is not true that disagreement entails or even implies that a belief is false or that there is no truth to the matter. The history of science provides ample evidence of this. People disagreed with the heliocentric model of the solar system, but this did not imply that the proposition “The earth revolves around the sun” is neither objectively true nor false. Today, the flat earth movement is growing alarmingly and unfortunately fast. As a result, there is disagreement about whether the earth there is a flat disc or a globe. But this does not imply that, therefore, the truth of the proposition “The earth is not a disc” is merely a matter of subjective preference or opinion. If some proposition is objectively true then, by definition, whether people agree that it is true or not is not relevant to its status as a true proposition. So, I do not consider the argument from moral disagreement to be a defeater for the justification of our beliefs about moral realism. And so, if I am correct, then I continue to be justified in thinking that moral intuitions generate true moral beliefs.

If our belief in moral realism is justified, then we still have the remaining question of how the truth of these beliefs is best explained by Christian theism. You argue that the evidence is explained equally well by any religious perspective. But this simply is not the case. Some religions may not make any attempt to explain moral facts; they may say that ethics are ultimately illusory, as is the case in various forms of Buddhism and Hinduism. One central doctrine of some forms of Buddhism is annata or “no self” doctrine. This is the view that the perception of ourselves and others as moral agents is an error. We simply do not exist as persons. Perhaps we could preserve some form of moral realism on this view, but it would not accommodate what most take to be the obvious moral facts, even by most people living in contexts where the no-self doctrine is promoted. There is a reason why the Buddha needed to achieve enlightenment in order to discover the truth; his doctrines are directly at odds with our most basic beliefs about ourselves and the only way to overcome them is through rigorous practice.  Further, at least some religions are intrinsically bad explanations for anything. Scientology seems obviously and inherently less likely to be a good explanation for any phenomena it might be summoned to explain.

The Christian worldview, on the other hand, readily and naturally explains how many of our most deeply held moral beliefs are true. Suppose we think that human beings have dignity and value. The Christian worldview claims that ultimate reality is constituted by a being who is tri-personal. This being is the locus and ground of all value. It is natural to think that when we find the infinite good of the personal God mirrored in finite things, there we would find dignity and value. Many religions simply do not make the same claim about the nature of reality and the good. Polytheistic religions cannot claim the same thing without contradiction. The Christian worldview further confirms the value of human beings by telling us that we were created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26) and, most dramatically, in the incarnation, where the Second Person of the Trinity became a human being himself. God thought it worthwhile to condescend to becoming a human being in order that he might redeem humankind.

So, in Christian theology and revelation, we find our moral intuitions about the value of human beings easily and logically explained. That is just one example, but there are many others.[3] I think this is enough to show that it is just not the case that all religions are equally equipped explain how our moral beliefs can be true. What objective morality can help do is adjudicate between conflicting accounts and help us decide the best explanation. Not every theology is equally well equipped to provide a good explanation of the full range of moral phenomena in need of explanation—from moral duties to moral freedom, from moral values to the dignity of people, from moral knowledge to an account of evil, from moral regret to moral transformation to moral rationality. This is much of what The Morals of the Story tries to explore and explicate, while respecting the mental freedom of those who remain unconvinced by the argument. Of course here in this short post I can’t make the full case; not even a whole book can. Philosophy is difficult, and takes a serious investment of time.

Heath, you have given us some important objections to consider and I hope that I have at least provided you with some idea of how a Christian might answer them, though I am also sure I have not convinced you to change your mind. We don’t even have the tip of the iceberg here! Maybe we have the tip of the tip and that is all. Still, I think you can at least see how one might argue that belief in moral realism is justified and how, at least possibly and perhaps somewhat plausibly, Christian theism may well be the best explanation of the truth of those moral beliefs.

If you are interested in exploring how Christians think about morality and how it might be evidence for the existence of God and the truth of Christian theism, The Morals of the Story is a good place to start. If you are interested in something a bit more rigorous and technical, you might try Good God or God and Cosmos. Baggett and Walls are wrapping up a new book on the history of the moral argument, which you might find of interest as well when it gets published eventually.

Thanks again for your comment,

Jonathan Pruitt

Managing Editor


[1] Geoff Sayre-McCord, “Moral Realism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy),” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, n.d., accessed December 20, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-realism/.

[2] According to a survey of professional philosophers, most believe in moral realism.

[3]For another, fuller perspective, you might see Baggett’s Seven Reasons Moral Apologetics Points to Christianity. If you are interested in how Christianity better explains our moral intuitions about love, you might be interested in this discussion I had with Brian Scalise.

I offer an explanation of how Christianity in particular best explains how we have moral knowledge elsewhere.

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Three Poems on the New Year: Perspectives on Time

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          The measurement of time is so ingrained in our society that we take it for granted.  On a daily basis we have schedules that mark the beginning and ending of assigned or chosen tasks.  On a larger scale, we track the progress of each week, month, or year.  Our annual celebration of the transition from one calendar year to another invites a summary and evaluation of what has been accomplished or merely taken place in the past year.  In a more personal way, we celebrate birthdays as milestones in the progress of our lives.  Underlying all of this measurement of time is an awareness that we humans, along with our social and political institutions, have limited lifespans.  We are all on the path to death.

          It has not always been so.  When God created the Earth to be an environment for living things, especially for his ultimate creation, human beings, there was no sense of limited life, and so no need to measure time.  But all of that changed when Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, thereby incurring the promised penalty of death.  Very quickly after the two of them were banished from the timeless Garden of Eden, the narrative about their offspring began to be marked by the passage of time: how many years between the births of their children and how old each person was when he died.  How different the human and divine perspectives on the passage of time had become.

          I have imagined in “Adam’s first New Year” how he might have ruminated about his new perception of the passage of time on the anniversary of his and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise. In this monologue, Adam, though keenly aware of the sad new world he and Eve have brought about, realizes that God is still with him, transcending His own edict of judgment, just as He had done earlier when He clothed the just-realized, sin-conscious nakedness of the pair. 

Adam's First New Year

 

Adam paced the field

Made rough by tilling,

Unwilling ground since God

Withdrew His Presence from it.

The sun itself, now cyclic,

Gave only partial beams

To warm the stubborn soil.

 

"No need in Eden's bounds

To think of ebb and flow,

Of patterned change

Which gives us markers

For the progress of decay;

But now each day reveals

That something more of what we were

Is lost,

And nights accumulate

Until the sun comes back

To mark the point where death began.

 

"That day, I made a world

Where beginnings add up to ends,

And cycles are incremental.

Can God be heard in such a place?

Can timeless Love be found

Where time feeds hateful death?

I know only that breath,

Though shortened now,

Is still from Him;

And though I sweat for bread,

He feeds me yet."

 

            The next two poems show the same paradoxical way that God goes beyond our

time-limited understanding of the flow of events.  He sees without the restrictions of past, present, and future.

Tying Up Loose Ends

 

Accumulating year-ends is a purely human occupation:

Piling up tinsel monuments

And stacking shards of shattered plans.

Only the illusion

That things which matter have beginning or end

Spurs mortals to wrap up one year

And open another.

 

Celestial perception

Tolerates imperfection,

But gently urges us not to mistake

Our clocks for absolute.

We will accept, then,

The fragmentation of experience,

And search for the splices of God

By which the worst of the past

And the promise of the future

Are always joined.

           

            Finally, I offer a poem that reflects the perversity of our fallen wills in opting so often for the immediate, but temporal, pleasures of our mortal world, rather than the eternally significant treasures of God’s grace.

Bankrupt

Borrowed time

Is what we all live on.

Profligate spenders,

We purchase the gauds and trinkets

Of Vanity Fair.

We prefer our own

Purchased pain

To the gift of suffering

Which is beyond our means;

Our own indebtedness

To the solvency of Grace.

 

Kyrie eleison,

Christe eleison!

 

Lord, have mercy!  Christ, have mercy!  Grant us the eyes of eternity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

“Christ in you, the hope of glory”: Three Poems on the Incarnation

Photo by  NeONBRAND  on  Unsplash

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

            Incarnation has come to be a theological word associated primarily with the embodiment of God Himself in human flesh, living for a time on earth with the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  He was also given the name of “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us” (Matt. 1:23).  But “God with us” means more than the fact that the Son of God was historically present on earth for a short time.  When He went back to Heaven to be with the Father, His place was taken by the Holy Spirit, so that the joyful Presence of God within us is the “hope of glory.”  Just as Jesus’ time on earth was lived and terminated for a larger purpose, so we, dying to the flesh, will find His Presence in these mortal bodies to be fulfilled by being resurrected into the eternal Presence of God.  God’s Incarnation is reenacted in us, adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.

            The three poems below present responses to and experiences of the Incarnation.  In “The Husbandry of God,” Mary wrestles with the implications and the aftermath of yielding herself to be the instrument by which the God of Heaven would be incubated and born into the world.  She is the willing ground into which divine seed will be planted to bear the fruit of Heaven, and therein she prefigures the process by which every believer in the Messiah becomes a recipient of the Presence of God and by His power reaps eternal life.

                 The Husbandry of God

                        (Luke 1:26-35)  

How can I contain this word from the Lord?

His light has pierced my being

And sown in single seed

Both glory and shame.

Content was I

To wed in lowliness

And live in obscurity,

With purity my only dower.

Now, ravished with power,

I flout the conventions of man

To incubate God.

In lowliness how shall I bear it?

In modesty how shall I tell it?

What now shall I become?

But the fruit of God's planting

Is His to harvest.

No gleaner I, like Ruth,

But the field itself,

In whom my Lord lies hid.

 

            In “Immanuel,” the “one birth” at the center of the poem both emanates from and ends in God’s Presence.  In the first triplet, we look back to the source of the unique “one birth”; in the last triplet we see the results of the “one birth.”  God became flesh that we might truly know Him, and He truly know us.  

 

                             Immanuel  

 

In God's Presence

Is the essence

Of perfect earth;

In one birth

Knows all earth

The essence

Of God's Presence. 

 

 

Finally, “And the Word Became Flesh” emphasizes that it was the very essence, or “Word” of God Who gave up His rightful place beside the Father and came in the form of a fleshly baby.  In His short earthly ministry, He steadfastly walked the road to a death He did not deserve, and thereby enabled us who believe in Him to become children of God, inhabited by His Presence as a guarantee that we will someday abide eternally in His Presence.

 

"And the Word Became Flesh"

(John 1:1)

When Word invested in flesh,

No matter the shrouds that swathed it;

The donning of sin's poor corpse

(Indignity enough)

Was rightly wrapped in robes of death.

 

Yet breath of God

Broke through the shroud,

Dispersed the cloud

That darkened every birth before.

Those swaddling bands bespoke

A glory in the grave,

When flesh emerged as Word.

 

Take up this flesh, O Lord:

Re-form it with Your breath,

That, clothed in wordless death,

It may be Your Word restored.

                                                                       

 

 

 

 

 

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Mailbag: Thoughts on Saving the World

In a literature class this semester, we read Misha Nogha’s “Chippoke Na Gomi,” an intriguing and provocative science fiction story exploring the repercussions of atomic weaponry and the responsibilities we have to each other. It’s a weighty tale whose pathos pulls at the reader’s heart strings and reminds us of the interconnectedness of the human race, that the harm imposed on others will not—cannot—stay contained. For those readers already predisposed toward empathy, the story’s charge to care for the world can feel overwhelming, which was exactly the case for one of my students. What do we do, she asked me, seeing the world in such need of help and knowing ourselves unequal to the task? I’m grateful that she asked the question because it gave me the opportunity to wrestle with it myself. Here are a few of the thoughts I shared with her, posted here with her permission:

What you bring up is so important and crucial to wrestle with. We can’t let go of either conviction—that the injustices of this world must be rectified and that there’s only so much we can do to fix them. But putting those two realities side-by-side seems to create an intractable problem—the world’s ills will not abate, nor will our resources to solve them suddenly increase exponentially. I think sometimes the response, then, is either to become callous to the problems of the world (understandably so, if only for sanity’s sake) or to run oneself ragged, attempting to care for any and all comers (this, too, is understandable because otherwise it feels like we’ve abdicated our humanity and failed to take seriously the demands of justice).

Neither option is desirable or, truth be told, even tenable. What do we do then? Are we stuck always having to choose between our humanity and our sanity? I think what’s important to keep in mind is that while justice—for all, not only for some—must be served and while we as Christians must participate in that process, the full enactment of that justice is not dependent on us. It is God’s to fulfill, his redemption to enact.

If you’re wanting a biblical reminder of this truth, the Sermon on the Mount might be a good passage to revisit, especially Matthew 6:33: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” We long for heaven, for a world redeemed; your empathy, I think, taps into the truth that human beings are infinitely valuable and deserve so much better than this world and other human beings can offer (themselves included). But such empathy must be tempered with an awareness of our creaturely status, as we are as much in need of redemption ourselves as those other creatures we long to see restored and valued rightly.

The good intention of loving others and wanting to help them can easily be twisted into pride and self-reliance. The better way is to surrender yourself to God’s will, your love of others and unique insights about suffering to his service, and your gifts and talents to his purposes. He will use you as he sees fit; it may take a little time to find your specific calling among the many worthy tasks before us (and, especially relevant for your question, among the many, many needs of this world). Some helpful resources along those lines include this Andy Crouch article, Kevin DeYoung’s Just Do Something, and Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor.

I do think ultimately, though, it’s absolutely essential to keep in mind that the promise of salvation, for redemption of the world, is God’s to give and to fulfill. I think sometimes, if we’re honest with ourselves, that might be a bitter pill to swallow because doing so absolutely requires us to face our own pride and delusions of grandeur. But it’s good to do—to be honest with ourselves about those impulses—because only then can God expose that hidden hubris, camouflaged though it is in something good, allowing us to confess it and surrender it to him.

The Morals of the Story: Award of Merit from Christianity Today

Hello readers of MoralApologetics.com,

We are excited to share that The Morals of the Story has won an Award of Merit from Christianity Today! The award is given to books Christianity Today believes are “most likely to shape evangelical life, thought, and culture.” The Morals of the Story was written by two of the editors at MoralApologetics.com, David and Marybeth Baggett.

From CT:

The Baggetts are convinced that the moral argument for God’s existence and nature is among the most resonant and persuasive arguments available in contemporary society, and they do a masterful job of pooling the relevant resources. They highlight the inability of secular ethical theories to account for objective good and evil and human moral obligation. They also demonstrate the rich explanatory power of the Christian worldview in accounting for those same moral realities. If humanity’s deep and unshakable moral intuitions are correct, then The Morals of the Story demonstrates that the rational observer should embrace Christian theism in response.
— Tawa Anderson, professor of philosophy, Oklahoma Baptist University
ariel-besagar-497034-unsplash.jpg

Congratulations, Dr. David Baggett and Dr. Marybeth Baggett!

-Jonathan Pruitt

Managing Editor



From the Publisher:

What arguments best support the existence of God?

For centuries the moral argument—that objective morality points to the existence of God—has been a powerful apologetic tool.

In this volume, David and Marybeth Baggett offer a dramatic, robust, and even playful version of the moral argument. Tracing both its historical importance and its contemporary relevance, they argue that it not only still points to God's existence but that it also contributes to our ongoing spiritual transformation.

The Morals of the Story: Good News About a Good God
By David Baggett, Marybeth Baggett
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Foreword by Ravi Zacharias

The Morals of the Story is timely, educational, and entertaining. Due to his lectures and previous writings, Professor Baggett has established himself as one of a small handful of elite experts on moral arguments for God and related matters. Now, colaboring with his wife, Marybeth, we finally have a readable and authoritative treatment of a very wide range of issues relevant to the moral argument. The book’s structure could not be better, moving from a historical sketch of moral arguments to an identification of the central topics associated with them and closing with a summary of these topics and a word of practical application. Thanks be to God and to the Baggetts for giving us such a treasure.

— J. P. Moreland, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University
The Morals of the Story is a delight to read! It weaves together resources from philosophy, literature, and science as well as illustrations from popular culture and the authors’ personal experiences. The result is a powerful, accessible, winsome presentation of the moral argument for God’s existence and—in light of our own moral failure—the hope we have in the gospel of Christ.

— Paul Copan, Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics, Palm Beach Atlantic University, author of A Little Book for New Philosophers

The Morals of the Story: IVP Readers' Choice Finalist!

ivp.jpg

Hello readers of MoralApologetics.com,

We have some good news! The Morals of the Story, written by our own editors, David and Marybeth Baggett, has made it to the final round in the 2018 Readers’ Choice Awards! If you’d like to vote for this book, just follow the link. Thank you!



From the Publisher:

What arguments best support the existence of God?

For centuries the moral argument—that objective morality points to the existence of God—has been a powerful apologetic tool.

In this volume, David and Marybeth Baggett offer a dramatic, robust, and even playful version of the moral argument. Tracing both its historical importance and its contemporary relevance, they argue that it not only still points to God's existence but that it also contributes to our ongoing spiritual transformation.

The Morals of the Story: Good News About a Good God
By David Baggett, Marybeth Baggett
brandi-redd-414738-unsplash (1).jpg

Foreword by Ravi Zacharias

The Morals of the Story is timely, educational, and entertaining. Due to his lectures and previous writings, Professor Baggett has established himself as one of a small handful of elite experts on moral arguments for God and related matters. Now, colaboring with his wife, Marybeth, we finally have a readable and authoritative treatment of a very wide range of issues relevant to the moral argument. The book’s structure could not be better, moving from a historical sketch of moral arguments to an identification of the central topics associated with them and closing with a summary of these topics and a word of practical application. Thanks be to God and to the Baggetts for giving us such a treasure.

— J. P. Moreland, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University
The Morals of the Story is a delight to read! It weaves together resources from philosophy, literature, and science as well as illustrations from popular culture and the authors’ personal experiences. The result is a powerful, accessible, winsome presentation of the moral argument for God’s existence and—in light of our own moral failure—the hope we have in the gospel of Christ.

— Paul Copan, Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics, Palm Beach Atlantic University, author of A Little Book for New Philosophers

Train Up Your Wizards in the Way They Should Go (Part III)

Photo by  Jack Anstey  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jack Anstey on Unsplash

It’s a memorable moment, but again, Neville—like Hermione—has been prepared for such a time as this; the courage he displays here has been built through earlier decisions and courageous acts. Even if the stakes were smaller then, they were nonetheless challenges to be overcome. A memorable training ground for Neville’s stand against Voldemort, for example, was his earlier stand against his friends stopping them from leaving the common room in order to prevent punishment to the whole house. For this act, he is rewarded with ten points for Gryffindore, as Dumbledore announces, “There are all kinds of courage. . . . It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies, but just as much to stand up to your friends.” Crucially, Neville challenges his friends out of a pure heart, not for selfish reasons. Courage is not to be confused with rash and dangerous action; it is instead principled action in the face of fear. For this reason, C. S. Lewis elevates courage above other virtues: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Neville stands up to his friends because he loves them. Love being the motivating virtue for all the others and the most important of all the virtues practiced by the characters and taught by the series.

I think, in fact, that what most attracts readers, what accounts for the Harry Potter phenomenon is this simple yet profound truth: that love will, in fact, save the world. But, and here’s the kicker, love costs. Love is no insubstantial, sentimental thing; it is tough as nails and powerful—it requires force and a humble, courageous act of will. For, as Plato has argued, the virtues truly are unified—they support and reinforce one another to enable us to become the people we ought to be. The education Harry Potter offers is to recognize the value of humility, courage, and most importantly love and to steel us to embrace the cost and to impress deeply upon us that that cost is worth the reward. This pattern—of a desperate situation, a dramatic self-sacrifice, and a hope affirmed through that sacrifice—runs throughout the book and appears both in the overarching narrative and the smaller stories that make up the whole. Through these depictions, Rowling is training her readers to see beyond the immediate and to recognize the even deeper reality of a world ruled by justice and redeemed by love. Individual enactments of humility, courage, and love are inseparable from justice and love’s ultimate triumph. In the soil of Rowling’s books the reader’s moral imagination can grow alongside those of the central characters. Not only is love what is being taught to these characters (and readers) as they grow up; it’s the catalyst for their learning.

In this summer’s popular documentary, Fred Rogers reminds us that “love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” The arc of Harry’s story highlights this deep truth. As powerful as the series’ climax is—where Harry surrenders himself to Voldemort to save his beloved friends and professors—it could never have happened if it weren’t for his mother’s sacrificial act to protect him from Voldemort as a child. And I don’t mean this in the obvious way—that Harry would not have lived were it not for his mother’s protection. I mean it in the way the book makes clear—Lily Potter denies herself in favor of her son, finds courage to stand up against an implacable enemy despite the overwhelming odds that he will prevail, and plants deep within her son a knowledge of love’s power that cannot be shaken; Harry loves well because his mother first loved him. As Dumbledore explains to Harry: “Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign ... to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.”

Even still, Harry must grow into that love, step by step and choice by choice. He does so with the encouragement of loving mentors and pseudo-parents. Dumbledore, especially. As a precursor to Harry’s self-sacrifice in Deathly Hollows, Dumbledore allows Snape to kill him. That Dumbledore took this step gave force to the encouragement and support he offers Harry at King’s Cross Station. Pottermore elaborates on this important scene in the following commentary that’s helpful for underscoring how Dumbledore’s character is simultaneously formed and revealed through his actions:

[D]espite the faults, despite Dumbledore perhaps not being the perfect wizard Harry thought he was, never before has Dumbledore seemed more heroic. For men and women are not born great. They learn greatness over time – from experience, from mistakes. Dumbledore looked at his deeds, at his flaws, and he had the wisdom to confront and overcome them; he fought the greatest nemesis there was: himself. . . . Who better to teach the next generation of wizards? Who better to face Lord Voldemort? Who better to send Harry on his way from King’s Cross station, with one last piece of wisdom: “Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.”

The wisdom Dumbledore offers Harry is wedded to his practice; more importantly, it has grown out of that practice. And Harry has learned well, as he goes out to surrender to Voldemort. It’s a beautiful picture of someone who has embraced and embodied the moral education of these many years. It’s one that resonates with readers, as sales and the popularity of the books and its ancillary products shows. But what readers do with that story matters just as much as the story itself. Have we embraced our own moral education inspired by these books? William James reminds us that without putting what we learned through literature into practice, the experience is the opposite of educative; it is utterly self-indulgent:

The weeping of a Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coach-man is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale. . . . One becomes filled with emotions which habitually pass without prompting to any deed, and so the inertly sentimental condition is kept up. The remedy would be, never to suffer one's self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterward in some active way. Let the expression be the least thing in the world -speaking genially to one's aunt, or giving up one's seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers - but let it not fail to take place.

Rightly read, good literature—the enchanted and non-enchanted varieties alike—habituates our hearts and minds outwardly, to practice humility, bolster our courage, and embrace love. We can—and I think should—lament our current state of affairs, how the worst of times are at present being instantiated: the bitter rivalries, the no-holds barred angry rhetoric, and the general sense of despair. We also can—and dare I say must—fasten our present hopes to the eternal verities that will not disappoint. Good stories can show us the way.

Train Up Your Wizards in the Way They Should Go (Part II)

Humility is an apt starting point in talking about education of any kind—moral or otherwise. Without humility, a student is unteachable, thinking themselves better than another or self-sufficient. The arc of Hermione’s story exemplifies both the challenges a lack of humility poses to real intellectual and moral growth and the possibilities of further moral development that can stem from embracing this important habit of heart and mind. In that way, humility truly is what Edmund Burke calls it: the “firm foundation of all virtues,” making way for the full flowering of a person’s spirit and soul. It’s important, however, to distinguish between humiliation and humility. Humility is not to think terribly of oneself, but to think rightly. It is to know one’s strengths and weaknesses. As Mother Theresa once explained, “If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.” Humiliation, on the other hand, is debasement without respect. Hermione first tasted this humiliation in The Chamber of Secrets, standing out as a Muggle-born among the mostly pure-blood wizards that make up the Hogwarts student body. Draco exploits this vulnerability, angrily dismissing her defense of the Gryffindor Quidditch team with, “[n]o one asked your opinion, you filthy little Mudblood.”

Understandably, as the story progresses, Hermione responds poorly to these slights, by flaunting her strengths (her book learning and firm grasp on class material). Errors come in pairs, as C. S. Lewis has noted, and Hermione swings wildly from the degradation she experienced to an outsized pride, manifested at the expense of Ron. As he struggles in class to cast the prescribed spell, Hermione presumes to lecture him: “You're saying it wrong. . . . It's Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa, make the ‘gar’ nice and long.” Unsurprisingly, Ron doesn’t take kindly to this condescension and later says, within Hermione’s earshot, that “it's no wonder no one can stand her. . . . She's a nightmare, honestly.” While this is admittedly not the best start for their relationship, the education enabled by Hermione’s overcorrection and Ron’s candid admission plays out well for all involved and eventually forms the beginning bonds of a strong and life-giving friendship.

We know the details—Hermione, hurt, isolates herself in the girl’s bathroom. When a troll gets loose in the castle, Ron and Harry take off to find her and, after many missteps, rescue her from the troll’s rampage. Through this experience, Hermione modulates her view of herself and others. Friedrich Nietzsche may have thought humility a vice, a trait unworthy of the “overman” because it keeps one beholden to others, but the Harry Potter series, through scenes like this one, demonstrates humanity’s interdependence and the importance of recognizing and honoring our interconnections. The value of humility is highlighted by Hermione’s acknowledgment of the debt she owes to Harry and Ron:  "I'm not as good as you,” Harry tells her. To which Hermione responds: “Me! . . . Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery.” Hermione has learned well the essential lessons of humility, which Flannery O’Connor has captured in this insight: “To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility. . . .”

And upon the humility Hermione develops in book 1 is built much good work. Her advocacy for the house elves, who have historically been poorly treated and ill-thought-of, stems from her own self-acceptance and humble service. Rather than rejecting her precarious social position as a mud-blood on the margins, Hermione embraces it and finds solidarity with others who find themselves similarly maligned. Out of that solidarity, S.P.E.W. (the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) is born, a gesture reminiscent of the kindly acts of Hagrid toward magical creatures, especially those that were unwanted or thought dangerous. Humility, these stories teach us, breeds compassion and empathy, essential components of a strong community.

Two things are important to keep in mind here: First, humility does not come upon a person unbidden; it is a discipline, instilled and strengthened through one’s choices. In the excruciating spot that Hermione found herself in, smarting from Malfoy’s earlier insult and confronted by her own prideful treatment of Ron and the barrier it put between them, she had to test her true self against these extremes—and to recognize that the reality of who she is lay somewhere in between. She is neither the lowly outcast Draco marks her as nor the all-important bigshot she has presented herself as in class. She is intelligent and clever, book-smart and logical, yet she needs others to keep her weaknesses in check and to complement her strengths.

Second, humility, compassion, and empathy—to make a positive difference—must be made manifest in one’s actions and interactions with others. Doing so, especially when the stakes are high and there’s a price to pay, requires courage, a virtue that animates much of the plot of the series. Most of the major characters are afforded an opportunity to demonstrate courage. These opportunities come when something or someone they value is in jeopardy and they must act to protect them. Some characters, like Peter Pettigrew, choose cowardice to preserve themselves rather than defy their fear and risk themselves for something or someone more important. Sirius Black acknowledges that Peter was in a difficult spot—caught between Lord Voldemort and a hard place: betray the Potters or die. But the fear Pettigrew felt was no excuse for his infidelity. To borrow a line from Nelson Mandela, courage is not the absence of fear but the “triumph over it.” Sirius puts the lie to Peter’s sniveling excuses: “What was there to be gained by fighting the most evil wizard who has ever existed? . . . Only innocent lives, Peter!” Peter stubbornly clings to his fear to vindicate himself: “You don’t understand! . . . He would have killed me, Sirius!” Black is having none of it; the right choice in such a situation is as chilling as it is clear: “THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED! . . . DIED RATHER THAN BETRAY YOUR FRIENDS, AS WE WOULD HAVE DONE FOR YOU!”

That sounds incredible for anyone to have done such a thing, to have faced the Dark Lord with the prospect of certain death. But Professor McGonagall does what Pettigrew fails to. She revolts against the Death Eaters who have taken over Hogwarts, with the final straw being Amycus Carrow’s willingness to allow children to take the brunt of Voldemort’s fury in his invasion of the castle. In a phrase reminiscent of Pettigrew, Carrow asks, “Couple of kids more or less, what’s the difference?” McGonagall, like Sirius, realizes what’s at stake: “Only the difference between truth and lies, courage and cowardice, . . . a difference, in short, which you and your sister seem unable to appreciate. But let me make one thing very clear. You are not going to pass off your many ineptitudes on the students of Hogwarts. I shall not permit it.”

At least one Hogwarts student takes to heart the lesson in courage McGonagall and the other faculty teach, Neville Longbottom. Neville, to put it mildly, is an unlikely foe for Voldemort but one who nonetheless dares to oppose him. Rowling vividly captures Neville’s panic as Voldemort uses him as an example—pinning him down with the sorting hat and setting it on fire. Once Harry breaks him free, Neville moves quickly, and in one of the most dramatic scenes of the books, takes out the children’s greatest enemy: “The slash of the silver blade could not be heard over the roar of the oncoming crowd, or the sounds of the clashing giants, or of the stampeding centaurs, and yet it seemed to draw every eye. With a single stroke, Neville sliced off the great snake’s head, which spun high into the air, gleaming in the light flooding from the Entrance Hall, and Voldemort’s mouth was open in a scream of fury that nobody could hear, and the snake’s body thudded to the ground at his feet.”

Train Up Your Wizards in the Way They Should Go (Part 1)

Photo by  Mervyn Chan  on  Unsplash

Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

The opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities are among the most recognizable passages in literature—it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The description is simultaneously timeless and time-bound: written in Victorian England, depicting the eve of the French Revolution, but somehow no matter how much time passes, it seems that they ring perpetually true. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Isn’t it always?

In short compass, Dickens manages to draw from his historical moment a broader truth about the human condition: “[I]t was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” We humans, it seems, are continually caught between two extremes: our promise, creative potential, and idealistic possibilities on the one side and our hubris, destructive capacities, and cynical bent on the other. If you don’t believe me, a quick glimpse at your social media feed will prove my point.

Okay, yes, admittedly—we’re nowhere near French-Revolution-era craziness. No one’s brought out the guillotines. At least not yet. But I daresay that most of us can recognize something of our current cultural moment in this iconic Dickens quote. We rally behind one another in the wake of national disasters, volunteering our time and money to restore communities; meanwhile other communities are languishing in the thrall of opioid abuse. Our technological and artistic ingenuity is at an all-time high, with brilliant new gadgets and imaginative creations released daily, while fraud and corruption, violence and ill-health run rampant across the country.      

How then do we proceed? What might provide some hope in these troubled times? There are a slew of answers on offer, many of them politically focused—protest, lobby, legislate, vote, agitate. While I don’t think those responses are wrong per se, I do think that absent a personal, individual revolution of the wills and characters of those who make up society, these political maneuvers will merely widen the divide between us, and deepen the challenges we face. Dickens, concerned as he was with the state of Victorian culture and its societal tendencies that had ground many of its people down, suggests another avenue for correction. George Orwell—of all writers—found something about this vision compelling, even if he himself preferred the political: “There is no clear sign that [Dickens] wants the existing order to be overthrown,” Orwell reflects, “or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. . . . His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently, the world would be decent.” 

J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, I think, follows this same line of thought. She has, in fact, identified Dickens as an important influence on her work. Like Dickens, Rowling is asking about the cause of our woes and what remedies are on offer and, I argue, drawing similar conclusions. In the pages of her seven highly imaginative, fantastical Harry Potter books, we find—surprisingly enough—a realistic world much like ours, filled with characters that mirror the best and worst of us and who experience the very same joy and despair. Like us, Rowling’s wizards and witches long for good to prevail over the evil they see around them and sincerely want to do the right thing. Well, most of them anyway.

But those others are just as instructive in the moral arc of Rowling’s story and especially in the lessons it provides for readers. Because, let’s face it, Rowling—like most great storytellers—is a master teacher. Harry Potter is not simply set at a school; the series itself is a school, training readers to recognize, prefer, and enact what is good and right. The venerable Roman poet Horace famously said that literature should teach and delight, and Rowling executes his charge well, as readers watch her characters navigate situations that challenge their heart and mind, identify and hone their values and beliefs, and ultimately shape their very selves in their moral choices—for good or ill.

At the center of this education, of course, is the enchanted Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Each year, young wizards throughout Britain await their acceptance letters with bated breath (or for muggle-borns like Hermione, are taken by surprise by them). These spirited scholars head off each fall to the fabled Scottish castle, to take up exotic subjects like transfiguration, potions, herbology, and the daunting defense against the dark arts. Here they get initiated into the world their older siblings and parents have already been a part of—learning to fly, caring for magical creatures, and finally trying their hand at apparition. It’s a fanciful world, and I know we’d all welcome our own Hogwarts invite. But as whimsically as it’s described, we can’t forget that the curriculum is not merely fun and games for these students. It’s real, hard work. They train, practice, fail, try again. They sometimes face disagreeable and downright cruel professors yet have to learn the material despite those challenges. Those O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s won’t pass themselves.

These magical skills are crucial to living in Harry, Hermione, and Ron’s world, and the three friends have varying degrees of success mastering them. Arguably these wondrous features are what make Harry Potter the phenomenon it is. Readers thrill at the games of Quidditch, imagining the students aloft on their broomsticks. They cheer for Harry as he participates in the Triwizard Tournament, putting his magical training to the test. Without the children’s initiation to magic, they’d have no access to Platform nine and three quarters or Diagon Alley, no Patronus charm to fend off the dreaded Dementors. The spells and charms and magical properties of myriad objects in Harry Potter enlarge the story’s possibilities to be sure. Pictures move and talk, invisibility and shape-shifting are live options, as are mind reading and talking with snakes. But, even though magic is at the crux of the Hogwarts curriculum, these magical techniques do not constitute the real education the books offer—neither to the characters nor to the readers. These, in fact, are mere machinery, available to the good and bad characters alike. In fact, someone as wicked as Voldemort has magical abilities at least as strong as those of the virtuous Dumbledore, if not more so. On a smaller scale, we see this contrast play out between Harry and his friends and Draco Malfoy and his.

In The Sorcerer’s Stone these children arrive at Hogwarts full of promise, and in many ways, both sets of friends follow the same path: taking classes, learning their spells, and growing in magical acumen. But that similarity is of little concern to the story; what matters more—what is in fact crucial—is that their paths diverge, as they learn (or reject) the deeper lessons and inculcate in themselves (or don’t) the virtues of friendship and love. They—and we—learn well what Dumbledore notes in The Chamber of Secrets, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” What the contrasts between Harry’s and Draco’s friends show is that an education caught up in teaching only technique—encouraging children’s hands and minds but not guiding their heart—is not one worthy of its name. I think we all know this, but that often doesn’t translate to the dominant view of education in our own world. We don’t have magic, of course, but technology seems to function similarly for us. Who hasn’t, at least once, been wowed by the newest gadget? Every year we hear about new medical advances, feats of modern engineering, and manufacturing capabilities that would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago. Arthur C. Clark captures the connection well with his proverbial quip, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

As with those in Harry Potter, we can easily confuse (or prefer) technical expertise and training with humane education. In many higher education circles, this shift toward the technical and practical—this emphasis on vocational training over the liberal arts—is just about complete. The number of humanities majors are shrinking, and fewer state dollars are going to support the liberal arts overall, deemed too impractical to add value to communities. On one hand, this shift is understandable. People need jobs. The market is changing, and demand for technical skill is on the rise. However, the danger, as I see it, in getting so fixated on these technological pursuits, we might become mindless technophiles, subordinating all else to what Neil Postman has identified as “the sovereignty of technique and technology.” 

In other words, we might mistake the means of education for the end of education. But, as Postman notes, “Any education that is mainly about economic utility is far too limited to be useful, and, in any case, so diminishes the world that it mocks one’s humanity.” The Harry Potter series knows (and shows) that, although the magic it depicts (and the technology of our world that it mimics) may mesmerize us, it is neither the cause of nor the solution to our deepest human problems. Instead, the story directs our attention to other, more fundamental concerns—the virtues that make the real differences in the characters’ lives and well-being, chief among them are humility, courage, and love. These virtues are the bedrock of a good life and our full development as human beings; they nurture and grow our spirit and soul. These are the lessons taught by Rowling, learned by Harry and his friends, and inculcated in the readers’ imaginations.

The Goodness of God after the Loss of My Son

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The goodness of God is perhaps nowhere more in question than in situations of unexpected loss—especially when this loss is of your happy and healthy 6-month-old son. A year ago, October 7, 2017, the dark cloud of death appeared over my family and brought with it a deluge of grief and flash floods of confusion, pain, and frustration after my son Landry failed to wake up from a routine nap. In the aftermath that followed in those difficult first few weeks and months, the slowly receding waters of despair revealed a new reality for our family that remains something from which we are healing to this day. On several occasions, the murky deeps even drew out an ancient serpent who hoped to sink its venomous fangs into my weakness and inject the poison of doubt concerning what I have publicly professed as a maturing believer, pastor, and theologian—doubts of God in general and of his goodness in particular. And yet, my commitment to and assurance of a good God, in spite of this horrible calamity, remains, and, in fact, is more certain than ever before. How can this be?

When Goodness Doesn’t Register

It is well known that the Christian worldview argues that a good God offers hope that brings perseverance in seasons of tribulation to those who know and belong to him. One iteration of this principle is recorded in 1 Peter 1:6-7:

In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

This passage teaches that the good promised in the future is able to provide needed perseverance in present difficulties. However, there are those moments in which this particular implication of the promised goods offered by a benevolent God seems especially distant and even foreign. Being reminded of how good God is in providing future hope while in the throes of great suffering might be compared to a flood insurance agent knocking on your door, hoping to sell you a policy for the next major weather event while there is still standing water in your house.

Both of these situations share the promise of coming answers and aid and yet both do not yield immediate comfort and/or present satisfaction for one’s existential confusion. Put differently, there may be at least one situation (acute grief and loss) in which a straightforward moral argument for God or the future goods that he provides is not the most appropriate means of rescuing someone from doubt and disillusionment. It certainly wasn’t what contributed to my resolve to remain a Christian theist in my darkest hour.

 

Other Goods and Cumulative Apologetics

Interestingly, even the apostle Peter appears to have recognized this in his first epistle. Prior to promising perseverance in trials (supported by the future hope offered by a good God) he reminds his audience of other foundational truths that are apologetically useful and uniquely evidenced.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5)

In this lead up to the passage cited earlier, Peter appears to predicate any and all future hope for salvation and all of the good things that entails with the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This integral event happens to be one of the most thoroughly evidenced episodes in all of history. Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, William Lane Craig, and company have devoted decades to demonstrating that not only is the resurrection of Jesus Christ possible, it is the most probable explanation for all the available historical data that is conceded by the widest variety of critical scholarship. This data includes but is not limited to the following: the fact of Jesus’ death, the presence of an empty tomb three days later, the radical transformation suffered by the disciples in general and James and Paul in particular, the spread of the resurrection story in the proximity of Jerusalem (exactly where the events were said to have transpired and where they could have easily been investigated), the explosion of the early church, the instigation of Sunday worship, etc.

The evidential case made for this important event not only helps the believer defend a central component of Christianity and, by proxy, a myriad of other connected theological teachings, it is not as prone to the kind of emotional scrutiny and skepticism that the concept of a good God is (that is, when articulated in isolation), especially in tragic situations. In other words, one can know/remember in a primarily intellectual way that there are good reasons to affirm belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead along with its theological implications even if/when their existential experience has them doubting God’s goodness. This appears to be Peter’s agenda in his encouragement. When one suffers tribulation that interrupts his conviction in God’s goodness because of a tidal wave of emotion, he can still remember on a more cognitive level that there are good reasons to affirm other fundamental elements in his system. This initial step then has the potential to lead, eventually, to the acceptance of God’s work and many attributes—including but not limited to his divine benevolence. This became especially clear to me when on what would have been my late son’s first birthday, we celebrated Easter Sunday. On that day my Christian convictions were reinforced not by what I felt, or even directly by any formal moral argument, but by a miraculous event that transpired some 2000 years ago and the many strong reasons to affirm its historicity. It was only after this primarily intellectual recollection was made that I was able, in time, to reacquaint myself with more distant affirmations.

One may wonder, especially in the miry depths of despair, how the alleged resurrection of some Nazarene two thousand years ago can provide hope for anyone. Even if he was raised, what is that to me? Whether raised or not, still here I am, drowning, gasping for air. While in the dark, questions come quickly, incessantly. One question comes, perhaps, more naturally than the others: “Oh Jesus of Nazareth, what is this hope to me? How will you right these wrongs? How will you make my family, my son, and me whole again?” In the dark of the deep, only the brightest light will reach the bottom. So, what does the reality of Jesus and his empty tomb offer those who weep?

In that dark place, after recalling Christ’s most wondrous resurrection (affirmed by compelling evidences), I was reminded of several of his claims. Chief among these was his claim to be “the light of the word” (Jn 8:12)--a phrase often heard, but not frequently understood. When Jesus said these words, he was at the Jewish Festival of Lights. Around the temple, bowls were filled with oil and the wicks were so large, they were made from old priestly garments. When lit, the entire temple was filled with the blazing light. Since Jerusalem sits perched on a hill with the temple at the top, one would have seen the lamps burning for miles around.

The light of the golden lamps represented at least two things for the Jews at the feast. First, it was a reminder of the Exodus and of God in the pillar of fire. As the pillar of fire, God would lead Israel to the promised land and he would be in their midst. The Jews also saw the fire and hoped for a new Exodus, where God once again free them from oppression and be with them. God will liberate his people. But the light also represented God himself. After all, the temple was meant to be God’s dwelling place. In fact, there are many occurrences in the Old Testament in which God is said to be light or like light. For example, Isaiah (60:20) tells us that in the day of the messiah, “Your sun will no longer set; your moon will not disappear; the LORD will be your permanent source of light; your time of sorrow will be over.”

It was during this ceremony that Jesus declared, “I am the light world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12).

What this Nazarene offers, then, is Emmanuel, God with us. He offers peace, where “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4). That is some solace, indeed. What Jesus offers is to make all wrongs right, even the death of a son. How this will be accomplished may be a mystery, but that is the promise. Here is the lighthouse whose penetrating beams reach through the depths of grief.

This short testimony reveals the necessity of a well-rounded, multi-valent apologetic system. A cumulative case for God and his work is essential, because if one is either dependent on or tethered to a single argument/style or argumentation, he runs the risk of being broken loose when the storm strikes, doubt overwhelms, and skepticism rises. To encourage the church and effectively communicate in compelling ways to the secularist, the Christian theist must be equipped with a variety of cases for God and employ them appropriately to reach people where they are emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and otherwise. In my personal odyssey, it was the strict evidential case for the resurrection that acted as a lifeline that both kept me connected to my theism and eventually reacquainted me with other elements therein. In this an many other cases, more immediately assessible arguments are able to draw those at risk of drowning in darkness to other truths that slowly, but most assuredly, betray the guiding light that leads the way back to glorious God from whom are all good things.

The Goodness of God

In providing multiple evidences and/or arguments for his existence that can be employed in a multiplicity of situations (from the highly emotional to the academic), God shows something about himself that appears far off when tragedy strikes—his goodness. Only a good God would provide proof of himself that is capable of both piercing through the flood waters of grief and being intelligibly apprehended by people who are struggling to believe that he is benevolent in those painful moments. One might say that by providing arguments in addition to the moral argument, God once again demonstrates how utterly good he really is, and of that I am most assured even after losing my son.

Mailbag: Some Questions on Satan, Free Will, and the Nature of Evil

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A colleague passed this question along from a student:

 

Hello, throughout my life I have always sought ought the guidance and insight of pastors of my churches and the Christian teachers at my schools. I base my religious view on history, faith, reason, and observation. I weigh most heavily on reason and try to figure out specific things that test my faith. Through this reasoning I have grown closer to the Lord. I have formed multiple questions that aren’t usually told in Christian school or churches, but questions that beckon my mind and soul. A lot of the question I have my personal answer to (and some are difficult to truly know the answer to until I can ask the Lord face to face in heaven), but I thoroughly enjoy asking other people their thoughts so that I may get insight on what they believe and possibly adapt my own view to fit what makes the most logical sense by means of a Christian standpoint. So, with all of that said, I have a question for you… 

The Lord created all things, but Satan is able to distort such things and taint them. So, if God created everything, why did he allow evil to be even a thing? God gave humans and angels the ability of freewill so that we are not mindless drones who blindly love Him; because true love has to be voluntary. But why did He even create evil to be an alternative? He could have allowed for freewill without evil being an option. Why create sadness and pain? Sin and torment? Anger and distortion? It is a bit difficult to explain, especially since humans aren’t fully able to understand a world without all of this stuff, so the meat of the question can get lost In the folly of my ability to explain. But why would God create such evil and bad things? Satan could still have the freewill to love God or not love Him without the factor of evil being an option. Satan is unable to create matter. No one can. Only God can. Matter cannot be created; it can only be reformed and repurposed. So, that means Satan tainted life and caused sin to be defined as a tainted version of something God created (in a paraphrased sense), so then how come sin was even able to be created? Why is something being tainted an ability that God gave us? Again, it is hard for the human mind to understand in this fixed plane of existence, but what if God had allowed something even worse than sin to be able to come into being? Where would we be then? Why would God allow for such pain? Such with Job, who did everything unto the Lord. God allowed Satan to destroy his life to test if he would still love the Lord. Why would God need any more assurance that Job loved him? Why would He allow his people to be subject to such pain and sorrow? Sure, Job got stuff in the end, but nothing could replace certain things that he lost. That is like a father allowing a bully to beat up his kid just to see if the kid would still love his father (even though he knew that his dad told the bully to beat up his son). So why is such distortion and sin and pain and sorrow and evil even a possibility? Freewill can still be existent without evil. Why would God find it necessary to create such things?

 

Here's my reply:

 

 

Thanks so much for passing along your student’s intelligent and thoughtful questions. I’m happy to try my hand at addressing some of them—addressing, more than answering. Some of the questions, to my thinking, don’t lend themselves to easy answers at all. At best we can list some clues and hints, not necessarily anything systematic that can tie it all up in a bow. We continue to see through a glass darkly, and coming to terms with our epistemic limitations is a good thing. We should certainly use the minds God’s given us, but at the same time epistemic humility is a virtue, and acting like we know more than we do is a mistake and ultimately dishonoring to God. All of that to say: these are hard questions and don’t lend themselves to quick, pat answers, by any stretch of the imagination.

 

The way your student is seeking guidance and insight from pastors and teachers is a good practice. There’s wisdom in an abundance of counselors. At the same time, he may have contributions of his own to add to the conversation. As members of the church, we all have a part to play, and who knows? Perhaps some of these burdens on his heart correspond to directions God’s laying on him for his own ultimate vocation. Each of us is instructed to seek wisdom, and the older we get, the more we have to balance our expectations about answers that others can provide with what God may be teaching us. God may want to speak through this student, who may one day become a great teacher himself.

 

As a philosopher, I’m a big fan of “reason” too. There’s nothing wrong with asking hard questions, nor with using the steam of general revelation and clear thinking to make progress in answering them. Often the very practice of asking and working hard to answer questions is itself a quite formative process, the culmination of which has for its most important result not just an answer, but the wisdom that comes from the struggle. I’m also aware, as a philosopher, of reason’s limitations. We don’t always get all the answers we want. The problem of evil, the topic of discussion here, is notorious for leaving us less than completely satisfied. The simple fact is that there are mysteries here, and though we can do our best to untangle knots, mysteries will remain. Sometimes we need to trust God and his goodness despite not finding all the answers we might want. We’re promised all the answers eventually, but not always within timetables of our invention. I think this is especially true with existential aspects of suffering. God promises to give us strength to get through, and to be with us through whatever we might be called to endure…but he doesn’t offer specific reasons for every trial we might have to go through, and expecting otherwise is bound to disappoint. Folks who claim to know all those specifics often strike me as inordinately presumptuous and overly confident in their own analyses.

 

Okay, then, Satan—yes, the Bible has a lot to say about Satan. On connections between Satan and the problem of evil, a new book is forthcoming on the topic by John Peckham. I wrote a blurb for it; it’s well worth the read. The book’s called Theodicy of Love, and it at least partially treats some of the questions your student raises. Now, why did God allow evil to be a thing? How we ask a question is revealing. For evil to be a thing, it sounds like some “reification” is going on. It may well be a thing in some sense, but not a substance or material object or anything like that, but a certain heart orientation. And I suspect that’s what it is. Suffering is nonmorally bad, but gratuitously inflicting needless suffering is morally bad, even evil. Immanuel Kant had this insight that nonmoral badness has to do with consequences, but evil is a distinctively moral category of the heart.

 

Now, I rather like the appeal to free will your student mentions (not that this is all that needs to be discussed in this context, but it’s a good place to begin), but he wants to suggest that, though free will might be necessary for genuine love relationships (which seems right to me), God perhaps didn’t need to “create evil” as its alternative. But though this is certainly an intriguing suggestion, it’s not clear to me that this was an actual possibility. Not to love as we ought, particularly not to love God as we ought, introduces sin into the world. It’s not clear we can have the ability to resist God and avoid evil; this may well be the very essence of evil at its root. If so, evil wasn’t created by God, but rather its possibility was introduced when God conferred freedom on us. God’s not, at least on my theology, the author of sin. Perhaps he would be on certain models of meticulous providence, but I don’t buy that theology. So the idea that God could have allowed for free will without evil being an option is not obvious to me, and I suspect it’s somewhat contrary to the standard Christian theology on this matter. 

 

Next, why create sadness and pain? These are examples of what I think are nonmoral bads. One fairly standard sort of reply is that these were introduced into the world because of rebellion against God. Why sin and torment? Sin, again, was introduced by human willfulness against God’s best for us. Torment? Sin intrinsically leads to torment, in one sense, because it goes against the grain of the universe; it’s not how we were meant to live, and it invariably detracts from our happiness, and the more entrenched we get into it the more tormented we become. Anger and distortion? Well, anger isn’t necessarily a morally bad thing; Jesus experienced righteous anger. Anger isn’t sin, or else we wouldn’t be told in our anger not to sin. In a perfect world, though, anger will be banished. But we’re not in a perfect world, but a fallen one that God’s in the process of redeeming. I could go and discuss distortion along similar lines, but the point is this: Why did God allow any of these things? (I wouldn’t say “create” as that’s misleading; at the least if we use that language it requires very careful unpacking.) Why allow them? Presumably because he knew that ultimately through his redemptive plan he could use our failings to produce more complex goods not otherwise possible, or something like that. Looking at the world at this moment is just a snapshot of something fully in motion toward a particular glorious end, if Christianity is true. It’s not yet the world as God intended it to be, but it will be when redemption has had its full effect.

 

“Why would God create such evil and bad things?” He made valuable agents whose existence introduced their possibility, is the way I’d put it. “Satan could still have the freewill to love God or not love Him without the factor of evil being an option.” I doubt it; not to love God is indeed evil; God is worthy of our worship. Again, the claim put forth is not at all intuitively clear to me, and stands in variance with Christian teaching. The idea that Satan twisted something in creation into what it wasn’t intended to be is right; this is very much the Augustinian account of evil. The student then asks why sin was even able to be created? Why did God give us the ability to taint his creation? Perhaps that question addresses, once more, the value of free will. If such freedom entails the freedom to resist God, then that may well entail this tainting ability. We don’t have to talk about Satan in this regard; we have this ability as well, and why? Well, perhaps the ability to love God requires freedom that entails such distortion capacity. It’s not clear this isn’t the case, at least to me. Your student may simply disagree; fair enough. But on that matter perhaps we’d just end up disagreeing. But what bolsters my conviction is that the sort of requisite robust freedom we need has big implications, among which is that sin is really, really bad—a violation of our telos, a disordering of creation, a subverting of God’s intentions, and all the rest.

 

I’m not trying to offer a definitive response to every question here, but just offer my first spit balling sort of ad hoc reply.

 

Next, what if God had allowed something even worse than sin to be able to come into being? Where would we be then? That’s what philosophers call a counterfactual, but more than that, it may well be a counteressential—an impossible scenario. What would be worse than sin? It’s not clear anything is. Sufficient are the actual sufferings of this world and the next; I’m not sure it’s a good idea to launch into a defense of counterfactual, perhaps even counteressential sufferings.

 

In terms of Job, I think there’s a lot to say about that book beyond that God did it to see if Job still loved God. I’d suggest reading some really good commentaries on Job. There are profound insights in the book. Reducing it to whether Job would still love God leaves way too much out. Just one example: In Job we see a minor theme of the OT that becomes a major, if not THE major theme of the NT: the redeeming value of innocent suffering.

 

And so my final point is just that: in the NT we see the clearest picture both of suffering and God’s use of it for redemptive purposes. None of this discussion can get off the ground, from a Christian vantage point, apart from the wondrous mystery of the cross of Christ, where God didn’t merely watch us suffer, but came and suffered himself, indeed took our suffering on himself. And we’re told that those who trust him may suffer for a little while here, but in the life to come there will be such glory it will make the sufferings of this world, as horrific as they can be, pale into insignificance by comparison. That’s a lovely promise to hold onto.

 

Again, pain and suffering are tough topics. Personally I think they raise the most difficult questions we face as Christians. At the same time, I can’t imagine any other worldview nearly as equipped as Christianity to offer us hope rather than despair in the face of sufferings.

 

Thanks for the chance to reflect. I hope your student keeps thinking and that God blesses his efforts!

 

Best,

djb

Suffering: Richard Dawkins Contra Jesus

Photo by  Stefan Kunze  on  Unsplash

Photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash

In touching on the issue of suffering, the Neo-Darwinist poster boy Richard Dawkins famously states in his book River Out of Eden, ‘The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation.’ He goes on to note in the wake of tragedy that people are obsessed with asking, ‘Why, oh why, did the cancer/earthquake/hurricane have to strike my child?’ Why did my innocent child go blind?  Why was my mother taken from me?[1] 

The issue of suffering, pain and distress bedevils us all.  It has been ill-engaging humankind’s most profound thinking from earliest days.  How do we think regarding suffering?  This brief post does not pretend to address adequately the issue of suffering.  However, considering the two polar opposite bents of the Neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins and Jesus Christ is thought-provoking and illustrative.  We see the stark tendencies of the current majority view of the scientific and educational community against that of Jesus Christ.  Both Richard Dawkins and Jesus Christ, for different reasons, eschew probing the ‘why’ of suffering.  Nevertheless, their contrasting ‘takes’ on suffering is clarifying.

Begin with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Most importantly, he is anxious to ward us off from asking ‘why’.  Suppressing the asking of ‘why’ is vital to his conception of suffering.  Lamenting that people have ‘purpose’ on the brain, Professor Dawkins almost chastises the human predisposition for seeking ‘purpose’ in suffering.  In passing, this strikes one as odd coming from a scientist. The very principle of science under which Professor Dawkins subsumes his study of evolution and upon which Bertrand Russell prominently elaborates is that science itself has a purpose, to form an accurate image of the world.

The necessary presupposition of this Neo-Darwinist’s conception of suffering is we must not read purpose into a universe of ‘blind physical forces and genetic replication’.  The universe is precisely as we should expect it.  Namely, it seeks the maximization of DNA survival into the next generation. As long as DNA and genes get passed on, says Dawkins, ‘it doesn’t matter who or what gets hurt in the process…Genes don’t care about suffering, because they don’t care about anything…Nature is neither kind nor unkind.  She is neither against suffering nor for it. It only matters as it affects the survival of DNA.’  Tragedy is as equally meaningless as good fortune.  The universe has ‘no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference’!  Though a critic can argue the survival of DNA is indicative of ‘purpose’, the Neo-Darwinist insists there is no purpose in suffering!  Suffering is simply the ‘by-product of evolution’.

            Now consider in absolute contrast Jesus’s illumination of suffering.  The book of Hebrews picks his view up when it says he (Jesus) ‘who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross’.[2]  This interpretation derives from Jesus’ own words.  He likened his death to a woman’s labor in birth.  He said, ‘When a woman is in labor, she has pain…But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.’[3]  There is no denial but recognition of the reality of pain and affliction.  No question.  A woman suffers in labor. Just last week, my daughter Karissa went into hours of intense labor finally giving birth to a beautiful, healthy son Beau. Women say ‘labor’ is their hardest physical activity – ever! One mother described it as feeling like her insides were being twisted, pulled and squeezed out!

            Labor is intense agony a woman must endure.  Similarly, Jesus’ cross had to be ‘endured’.  ‘Endured’ means he had to stand his ground before the cross’s tribulation.  He held out against the physical pain and the psychological humiliation.  He did not abandon the cross to escape the suffering.  England’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, resolutely held out against the continuous, Nazi bombing raids on England.  He famously quipped, ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going.’  The Neo-Darwinist and Jesus agree suffering is a given and something through which one must go.  Neither Richard Dawkins nor Jesus Christ contemplates life without suffering.

            The world-shattering contradistinction between Jesus and the Neo-Darwinist and everybody else is that for Jesus suffering is teleological.  Contrary to Richard Dawkins’ notion, suffering has ultimate purpose!! Suffering is not a wasteful by-product. It labors to a meaningful end.  Counterintuitively, for Jesus suffering finally results in joy! Admittedly, a hundred seeming contradictions leap to mind.  Nevertheless, there is a deep, universal principle promulgated here. Hours of excruciating labor leads to the beautiful, seven pounds of beauty and joy a mother holds in her arms.  Labor’s painful memory fades as the presence of one’s child brightens.  The torture of a Roman cross is unimaginable; yet, persevering agony finally results in joy.  Jesus’ joy is the profound sense of happiness of obtaining by ‘his own blood’ eternal salvation. Any repentant sinner who has saving faith may now have everlasting fellowship with God! 

            Is all suffering a Neo-Darwinist waste, a useless by-product, or, might it be, as Jesus claims, useful?  Is it meaningless, or purposeful? Does suffering only matter to affect DNA survival, or is it to be endured till ultimately blossoming into joy?


[1] My references to Richard Dawkins’ view of suffering are taken from the fourth chapter of his book, Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life: Science Masters Series. New York: Basic Books, 95-135

[2] Hebrews 12: 2

[3] John 16: 21

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Tom Thomas

Tom was most recently pastor of the Bellevue Charge in Forest, Virginia until retiring in July.  Studying John Wesley’s theology, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. While a student, he and his wife Pam lived in John Wesley’s Chapel “The New Room”, Bristol, England, the first established Methodist preaching house.  Tom was a faculty member of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1998-2003. He has contributed articles to Methodist History and the Wesleyan Theological Journal. He and his wife Pam have two children, Karissa, who is an Associate Attorney at McCandlish Holton Morris in Richmond, and, John, who is a junior communications major/business minor at Regent University.  Tom enjoys being outdoors in his parkland woods and sitting by a cheery fire with a good book on a cool evening.