Why Write an Autobiography

A Twilight Musing  

Recently I felt moved to write an autobiography.  You may ask why I think an account of my life is worth recording and who I think would (or should) read it.  Those are questions worth asking and answering, so I will proceed to do so.  (Perhaps we could call it my apologia autobiographica.)  My basic reasons for undertaking this task are three: (1) Everyone has a story, and the best time of life to tell it is from the vantage point of advanced years, and my four-score and one qualifies.  (2) An account of my life, if written from a Christian perspective, should be a testimony to God’s goodness and faithfulness, so it has the potential of being an encouragement to others.  (3) Recording the events of my life will provide some documentation for our children and grandchildren to understand better their relationship to the past.  And in a more personal way, I want to leave some information about myself that enables them to know me after I’m gone.

One of the stereotypical characteristics of older people is their being inveterate story tellers who patch together episodes in a kind of stream-of-consciousness manner.  I want to tap into this inclination to look back and recall events, but give it structure and thematic unity.  My theme would be to recognize, acknowledge, and give thanks for the many people whose lives contributed to the formation of my character and the development of my skills.  Some of these may be obvious and stand out, while others rendered their services so unobtrusively as to be easily forgotten.  A carefully written record will assure that even my quiet benefactors are recognized.  I remember, for example, the loving attention given to me and others by “Miss Addie,” my first Sunday School teacher.  She never drew attention to herself, but she introduced scores of little children to Bible stories and the love of Jesus over the years.  In contrast, my mentor and sponsor in college days was a larger-than-life professor named James Culp.  Dr. Culp took me under his wing and held out the vision of pursuing an academic career.  I worked as his student assistant in my senior year, and he nominated me for a graduate fellowship that paid my way for the first year of a doctoral program.  After I completed my Ph.D. and was employed as a college teacher myself, he continued to be interested in what was happening to me and rejoiced in my successes.  Miss Addie and Dr. Culp differed greatly in their visibility and the sophistication of their help to me, but I owe them both a significant debt of gratitude.

It has taken a full lifetime for me to come to the state of confidence I now have in the absolute reliability of God.  He has, so to speak, rolled up an overwhelming “track record” of meeting my needs and giving me the strength and resources to do the tasks to which He has called me.  Some account of these experiences is appropriate to share with others—not to brag about, but to give praise to God.  Some of my examples were epiphanies of God’s goodness and dependability, but others were more diffused blessings, like having godly parents who taught me the Word of God and moral responsibility, and having educational opportunities that fostered my intellectual development.  Prominent among the notable instances of God’s provision was His identifying an adult foster care home for our daughter, Cynthia, whose Huntington’s Disease-generated behavior had exhausted our mental and spiritual resources.  Thanks to our being unexpectedly connected by a politician with some influential people, Cynthia was placed in a foster care home within a week of the initiation of procedures.  I hope that more examples of both kinds of God’s good gifts will be of benefit to others and bring Him praise.

Nobody has requested that I write this treatise, so there is no guaranteed audience for it, but I hope that my children and grandchildren, in particular, will see its value once it’s done (a point in time that seems to recede farther the more I write!).  My efforts will have been rewarded if their eventual personal interest in this record morphs into a broader appreciation for the larger history that concerns us all.  Valuing the records of the past is a much-needed perspective in the present Western culture of chronological snobbery.  Our society places so much value on the present and on the supposed advancements of the future that the past seems irrelevant.  Whereas the truth is that we don’t even know who we are without some serious attention to understanding the past.  Even more important for Christians is the fact that their faith is founded in the history of God’s work with His people, and that history is the substance of the Gospel message.

In writing about oneself, it’s difficult to strike a balance between egoistic projection and transparent honesty.  I hope there is something to be gained in reading about both my supposed successes and my failures.  I will do my best neither to exaggerate the one nor to gloss over the other.  Beyond the mere relation of events, I want to present to potential readers some sense of how I see my life experiences and how my understanding has changed over the years.  Of one thing I’m sure: For my having reached this point in my long journey with mind and body pretty much intact, God is greatly to be praised.  I hope that my account of that journey will supply more evidence of His goodness.


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

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.)

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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.)

Now May the God of Hope…. The Biblical Obligation to Hope in Suffering, Part II

Photo by  Jake Blucker  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jake Blucker on Unsplash

Consequential Nature of Hope in Suffering

Despair and Hope: A Contrast

The word hope itself appears for the first time in the book of Ruth, but it is the absence of hope in suffering that is noted rather than the existence of hope. Having come under horrendous grief, Naomi’s soul is embittered toward God. She has lost her husband and her sons, and with them, she has buried all natural hope for safety and prosperity. As could only be expected, she despairs in sorrow, but her despair is particularly characterized as bitter and hopeless.[1] She proclaims herself to be a victim of God’s cruel treatment (Ruth 1:12-13; 20-21). Having adopted this filter through which she sees reality, Naomi inadvertently positions herself against God and speaks out as a perpetrator of his goodness. Through her story, the Bible attests to the fact that experiences with deep sorrow and tangible evil are powerful enough to serve as blinders to all hope; in fact, in this scenario, Naomi rejects hope as an offensively unrealistic mindset and an intentional, disregarding assault toward her pain. Yet, biblically, hope is neither artificially constructed nor dismissive of suffering, and hope in suffering does not preclude grief. Naomi’s rejection of hope is tied to her fundamental misunderstanding of God’s character in light of his dealings with her (Ruth 1:12-13). Though enduring life-altering and heart-breaking suffering is sufficient to produce hopeless bitterness in any soul, the biblical narrative indicates that in view of God and his mercies, it need not, and it must not.

Hannah, too, “was in bitterness of soul,”[2] (1 Sam. 1:10), but rather than resenting God as the cruel catalyst of her pain, she laces her sorrowful cries with confessions of hope. Hannah not only prays, but she weeps, continually pouring out her soul (1 Sam. 1:15), “an involvement of the whole being.”[3] The sufferings of both Naomi and Hannah affronted the core of their beings, and each woman writhed in anguish. Even so, Hannah was unable to relinquish her hope in God. She unleashed the cry of her anguished soul with the confidence that God would not treat her grief casually, nor would he dismiss it flippantly.[4] Hannah’s heart was weighed with her grief, but as her prayer reveals, it was lined with a hope that properly positioned her to receive a response. To this point, it is interesting that though Eli blessed Hannah according to the formal appellation, “God of Israel” (1 Sam. 1:17), a reflection of his deity and authority over the nation, Hannah prayed to “Lord of Hosts” (1:10-11), referencing the personal, covenantal name of the one who revealed himself as compassionate and loving to her ancestors at Sinai (Ex. 34).[5] She knew the one to whom she prayed, and she boldly appealed to him with hope that he would display his goodness in her situation. Even before Samuel was conceived, Hannah’s grief was turned to joy because she received God’s promise by faith and anticipated it in hope.

 

Culminating Value of Hope in Suffering

The grief of both Hannah and Naomi was answered through miraculous means of unexpected provision; both women tangibly received the desires of their hearts in this life, which is certainly not promised or universally experienced (John 16:33; 2 Cor. 12:9-10). Ultimately, God will right every wrong, and though justice and vengeance may not abound until this world has been purged of evil (2 Pet. 3:10), he guarantees that he will wipe every tear and renew all that is groaning under the curse of sin (Heb. 6:19). It is the biblical intent to inspire hope.[6]

In light of God’s revelation, there is a biblical obligation to hope, yet the inescapable reality is that each person will suffer and make a choice as to how he suffers. To this end, we are implored to pour out our anguish before the Lord of Hosts, even through tears of bitterness, and emerge as those who, through storm, wind and fire, have been unmoved from the rock that is Christ (1 Cor. 15:58). Yet, just as mankind was free to choose the road of sin that led to suffering, we are free to suffer apart from God and void of hope; we are free to turn from him in hopelessness, embittered by the conclusion that evidently, circumstances have revealed him to be less loving than he promised. In either case, and in any case, God will make all wrongs right (1 Cor. 15:24-28), but a choice has to be made whether the claims of the biblical narrative will be believed and its God trusted by faith. G. K. Chesterson summarized the rejection of God, and the rejection of hope, in these words: “When belief in God becomes difficult, the tendency is to turn away from him; but in heaven’s name to what?”[7] It is imperative that we hear the biblical command to hope, for without it, the one suffering will be deceived into constructing a distorted view of a distant and unfeeling God. This misconception is fatal to the soul. In light of the Savior, this must not be the experience of the Christian. The Bible answers the cries of human suffering with a depiction of a God whose nature and ways among men validate humanity’s sorrowful cries while answering them with a proclamation of consoling hope.

Surely, hope trusts in the goodness of God’s character and the reliability of his word, and it submits to the process by which he promises to produce perfection. While bitter grief is laced with anger, resentment and a latent distrust of the one who could allow such seemingly unjust treatment, hopeful grief is paradoxically “sorrowful, yet rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10), expectant and confident in God’s goodness. It is essential that the biblical obligation to hope not be mistaken as an attempted means of escaping suffering. God’s love is enduring and perfecting, and it must be distinguished from weaker forms that dilute genuine love with permissive kindness that stiff-arms all sources of discomfort, no matter its value in the end.[8] The biblical narrative witnesses much too loudly to suffering for Christian theology to be distorted according to moralistic therapeutic deism. Though pain and suffering are the unavoidable byproducts of a sinful existence, the character and promises of God, as revealed through the biblical narrative, offer an unshakable source of enduring and eternal hope that is anchored in God’s commitment to create good out of present evil and pain.

 

Conclusion

Though traces of this transformative goodness can be detected in this life, suffering will finally give way to glory in eternity, and the moral knowledge of God, his character and his promises, obligates hope in the present (Rom. 8:18). Rather than simply commanding the Christian to endure suffering, the biblical narrative implores him to do so with hope because hope distinctly validates the conviction that all is not yet well, while simultaneously appropriating God’s strength to be sustained through suffering. Paul encouraged the church in Thessalonica, “We remember before our God and Father … your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 1:3). His prayer must be appropriated by every generation of Christ-followers.

When suffering threatens to capsize the believer, hope anchors him in the person and promises of God. To Abraham, God “swore by himself” (Heb. 6:13) and established his person as the grounds for Abraham’s hope. His specific promises were filtered through the reliability of God’s person, so hope was sustained through years of silence, and Abraham “against hope in hope believed… according to that which had been spoken” (Rom. 4:18). Regardless of how outlandish the content of the promise sounded to Abraham’s reason, he instead reasoned through eyes of hope, because it was God’s unchanging character that was the backdrop to each of his promises. Having received inspired accounts of God’s faithfulness to reference, and having seen in Jesus the full and perfect revelation of God’s character, we now, with even greater confidence, must flee to God for refuge “to lay hold of the hope set before us” (Heb. 6:18). Hope certainly is the graciously ordained “anchor for the soul” (Heb. 6:19).

 

 

[1]  Ruth 1:20: “The Almighty has dealt to me very bitterlyהֵמַ֥ר שַׁדַּ֛י לִ֖י מְאֹֽד.

[2] נָ֑פֶשׁ מָ֣רַת וְהִ֖יא. The same root word found in Ruth 1:13 and 1:20 and is found here: מָר, “bitter.”

[3] David Toshio Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 121.

[4] “Then Elkanah her husband said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? And why is your heart grieved? Am I not better to you than ten sons?’” (1 Sam. 1:8). Hannah sought consolation that validated her suffering.

[5] Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel, 122.

[6] “For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).

[7] Ravi Zacharias, Cries of the Heart, 65.

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: Macmillan, 1994), 33.

 

Fear of Giants, or Faith in God?

John Martin - Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still - Google Art Project

John Martin - Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still - Google Art Project

Giants threaten.  How do you respond to them?  With fear?  Or with faith?  In July 1739 John Wesley was just getting untracked in outdoor preaching.  Joining with George Whitefield the two began advancing England’s eighteenth century awakening.  Giants menaced their mission.   Bishop Joseph Butler was aghast at their unauthorized preaching.  He confronted John Wesley. Bishop Butler was no slouch.  He was the Bishop of Bristol and the renowned author of The Analogy, a hallmark defense of orthodoxy.  Their interview was often in my mind as I frequented Bristol City Library just yards away from the once episcopal residence.  The Bishop spoke plainly to John Wesley:  ‘You have no business here; you are not commissioned to preach in this diocese, therefore I advise thee to go hence.’

How John Wesley would respond to the bishop would have historic consequences. Would he respond with fear?  Would he stop offering Jesus Christ to church outsiders?  Would he respond in faith?  Would he trust God for the call on His life? Would he continue to preach salvation in Jesus Christ in the highways and by-ways?  What ‘giants’ threaten you?  What threats would deter you from fulfilling God’s purposes in your life?  Are you responding with fear? Or with faith?

Moses and the children of Israel are in the Sinai desert at the borders of the Promised Land.  Moses sends twelve men into Canaan to assess the land.  They bring back a mixed report.  The report’s positive is the land is great.  It flows ‘with milk and honey’.  The report’s negative is the people are great too!  They are physically strong.   Their towns are fortified.  The people are of ‘great size’.  Literally, they are ‘men of measurement’:  ‘Giants!

The majority of Israel’s spies came to this conclusion:  ‘We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.’  In some sense, this was the right conclusion.  They ‘were not able’.  The Canaanites had well-defended towns.  They were more powerful people.  Israel was ‘grasshoppers’ next to these giant Canaanites.

Jesus was talking to his disciples about how hard it is for the rich to be saved.  He told them it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom.  He disciples shot back, ‘Who then can be saved?’  Jesus led them to recognize salvation is not the province of humans, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible’.  We are not able!

King Jehoshaphat had Moabites and Ammonites threatening war.  He stood at the temple with the Israelites assembled together praying to God, ‘For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us’.  We are not able!

The kernel of the Gospel, Martin Luther insisted, included this point:  ‘In fact, we are not sick and in need of healing.  We are dead and in need of resurrecting.’  Luther said if we don’t recognize we need eternal life from the hand of God, we remain in our sins and are eternally dead.  We are not able!

The children of Israel came to the right conclusion but made the wrong response.   They said ‘we are not able’ and responded with fear.  They weighed the strength of the towns.  They noted the size of the inhabitants.  They feared.  Fear supplants God with the threat.  It deifies the threat.  The threat carries more gravitas than God.  The Israelites responded with fear to Canaan saying, ‘We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we…Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword’?  Let us choose a captain and return to Egypt.

Had not God told them many times what he told the Israelite spies before he sent them out, ‘Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites…’  The Israelites overvalued the threat and undervalued God. 

Remember when disciple Peter got out of the boat and walked on water toward Jesus.  When Peter noticed the strong wind, he became frightened and began to sink.

A second respond to the conclusion ‘we are not able’ is faith.  Both Caleb and Joshua saw the same threat as the other Israelite spies.  They responded to the Canaan giants with faith.  They believed God was able.   Caleb said, ‘Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.’  Joshua joined in with Caleb and said, ‘If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us.’  Faith puts a threat in God’s perspective.  Yes, we are not able…but God is.

When Bishop Butler said to John Wesley, ‘You have no business here’, John Wesley stood his ground.  He argued that since he was a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, he had a commission to preach the word of God in any part of the Church of England.  Therefore, he did not conceive that in preaching in the brickyards in Bristol that ‘I break any human law’. 

This was John Wesley’s argument not ecclesial policy!  The greater point for John Wesley was if the Bishop’s protestation prevailed, he would effectively not be able to offer Christ outside church walls!  This would annul God’s call on his life.  Giant of a bishop or not, John Wesley told a friend, ‘God being my helper, I will obey Him (Jesus Christ) still, and, if I suffer for it, His will be done.’  John Wesley did not fear Bishop Butler.  He put His faith in Jesus Christ.

The threat of giants can be watershed moments.  Israel’s refusal to go into Canaan was a momentous watershed moment.  The children of Israel listened to their fears. They paid dearly for it.  After this, they wandered in the wilderness for forty years.  Worse yet, they never made it into the Promised Land.  Caleb and Joshua believed God.  They did enter Canaan.  John Wesley believed God rather than fear Bishop Butler.  Consequently, he entered a historic ministry of preaching Jesus Christ to persons who never darkened a sanctuary door.

Is there a ‘giant’ threatening you?  ‘We are not able’…but God is.  Respond not with fear.  Respond with faith.  The way of fear leads to the way of curse.  The way of faith leads to finding your providential way!

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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.

Insights of C. S. Lewis Concerning Faith, Doubt, Pride, Corrupted Love, And Dying to Oneself in Till We Have Faces (Part 1)

Photo by  João Silas  on  Unsplash

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

In Till We Have Faces (henceforth TWHF), C. S. Lewis combines his passion for pagan mythology with his knack for communicating Christian truths via story. Lewis often stresses in his various works his belief that pagan mythology, while not reflecting the complete truth about God, contains various nuggets of the ultimate truth that is found in Christianity. Christianity, he says, is the “true myth” that melds the human need for believing what is true about the world as it actually is with our need for imagination and wonder and delight.[1] It is thus not surprising that, in TWHF, Lewis powerfully illustrates a number of theological and moral positions that are prominent in many of his other writings by retelling the story of the myth of Psyche and Cupid.

This paper will examine two major themes in TWHF that are also emphasized heavily within Lewis’s prose: the theme of faith and doubt and the theme of pride and corrupted love. With regard to the first major theme of faith and doubt, we will examine three key aspects of faith that Lewis stresses throughout his writings that are beautifully illustrated in TWHF. The first aspect of faith involves holding onto what one believes with good reason to be true about God in the face of various emotionally-driven, non-evidential temptations to abandon one’s faith. The second aspect of faith involves humbly drawing upon God’s help as we strive to follow Him and be molded into a person of greater character. The third aspect of faith deals with believing that God is good in the midst of pain and suffering and incomplete information.

The paper will then examine the second major theme of pride and corrupted love. This will begin by examining how Lewis considers pride to be the antithesis of God’s mindset and how it prevents one from knowing God. This truth is at the heart of TWHF. Next, we will consider what Lewis has to say about how pride corrupts love into a sort of jealous hate that devours others and how this is exemplified in the life of Orual in TWHF. We will also see how Lewis’s warning against loving God less than we love others is illustrated in the novel. Finally, we will examine how Lewis’s repeated exhortation to engage in the biblical principle of dying to oneself in order to combat pride and relate properly to God and others is portrayed clearly in TWHF.

 

Faith and Doubt

Lewis has much to say about faith and doubt in his prose; indeed, two chapters of Mere Christianity are fully devoted to the subject. Let us consider three aspects of faith that Lewis emphasizes in his writings and exemplifies in TWHF, beginning with his recognition that faith requires us to hold onto what reason tells us is true about God and not allow our commitment to God to waver when we are tempted to doubt for various emotionally-driven reasons that are not rooted in evidence or reason. Lewis recognizes that human minds are not “completely ruled by reason.” Despite having good reason to trust one’s surgeon, for example, Lewis himself experienced emotional doubt and anxiety when he had surgery; he allowed his “emotion and imagination” to overrule his reason.[2] A Christian with reasonable faith still experiences times when “his emotions rise up and carry out a sort of blitz on his belief.” Also, in some situations there are moral reasons that it is not “convenient” to think that Christianity is true (e.g., when one is tempted to sin). Faith involves maintaining commitment to what one knows is true about Christianity despite one’s changing moods and circumstances.[3] It is a virtue to “teach your moods where they get off” and control them when they challenge one’s reason. This involves recognizing one’s moods and using reason to remind oneself that one’s faith in Christ is true by engaging in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible reading, and church attendance.[4]

This sort of emotional doubt is seen in both Psyche and Orual in TWHF. Psyche rationally believes—on the basis of her longing for the gods, her recognition of their beauty, and her religious experience—that the “god of the Mountain” is the source of all beauty and has been “wooing” her to come to him.[5] Lewis considers the human longing for God and for that which is beyond this world to be a rational reason to believe in God.[6] Yet, despite having good reason to be confident in the gods, Psyche has moments when her emotions—fear in particular—rise up and cause her to doubt. A fear arises in the back of her mind that the god of the Mountain does not exist and that she will slowly die tied to a tree instead of being united with the god. The thought made her cry, but she quickly began reminding herself of the confidence that she has that the Fox’s skepticism about the gods is wrong and that her sense that the gods exist is correct.[7] As Lewis says in A Grief Observed, “You never know how much you really believe in anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.”[8] At such times, it is easier for emotions to get the better of one’s faith, but Psyche reasoned herself away from this doubt in exactly the way Lewis says one should respond to such emotional blitzes.[9]

Orual also experiences emotionally-driven doubts. Unlike Psyche, Orual has no longing for the gods—especially after they take Psyche away. She has hate for them and admits her repulsion to believing that Psyche is living with a god husband in a palace, exclaiming in an angry outburst, “I don’t want [to believe] it!”[10] Although she clearly realizes that the evidence for Psyche’s account of her god husband is enough to believe it is true,[11] she allows her emotions to overrule her reason. Indeed, immediately after realizing that she believes it is true, emotional doubt occurs—what reason told her is true is wiped out by an emotional blitz of “blinding waves of sorrow”.[12] Because she lacks the longing for the gods that Psyche has, Orual does not invoke reason to try to talk herself out of her emotional rejection of the truth. Instead, she convinces herself that she is justified in accepting what is not true despite the fact that factual doubt (i.e., doubt rooted in a lack of evidence) was never the problem.[13] Unless one is determined to rule one’s moods by reason, Lewis says one will remain merely “a creature dithering to and fro” with one’s beliefs “dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion.”[14] That is exactly what happens with Orual. Because she is so influenced by her moods and emotions rather than grounding herself in reason, her beliefs seem to swing wildly back and forth. She goes from nearly a “full belief”[15] that the unseen palace exists to moments later “fluttering to and fro between two opinions” and finding it “unbelievable” that Psyche’s palace and god “could be anything but madness.”[16] Then, shortly thereafter, she briefly sees the palace and is so sure that Psyche is married to a god that she plans to go and ask Psyche and the god to forgive her of her doubts, but when the palace disappears she immediately tries to tell herself it may not have been a veridical experience.[17] Then, after hearing Bardia’s opinion and reflecting again on the evidence, she considers it “plain” truth that Psyche was given to the god.[18] In the end, it is made clear that Orual did know that the palace was real all along and that her emotions—especially her jealousy—were the culprits in her convincing herself that the evidence is unclear.[19] Her emotions carried out a blitz on her beliefs. Like Orual, Lewis experienced the temptation to think negatively about God out of anger rather than what he knew to be true. He calls it “hitting back” at God. But Lewis stresses that “the mood is no evidence.”[20] He illustrates this well in Orual.

Consider now a second aspect of faith stressed by Lewis: realizing that one falls short of the mark morally and striving to be good while at the same time recognizing that one must seek God’s help to make this improvement.[21] Lewis says that the first step to developing this aspect of faith is to try hard to be good for even “six weeks,” as nobody realizes “how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.” Doing this convinces us that we lack the resources apart from God to live up to the demands of morality.[22] This is seen in TWHF, as Orual realizes in the end that she is “ugly in soul” and desires to change her “ugly soul into a fair one.” She realizes that she needs the gods’ help to do this, but she sets out to try to be good and take the first step. She finds that she could not be good for even a half hour and was concerned that the gods would not help her.[23] So as soon as she tries hard to be good, she realizes how much divine help is needed. Yet as the novel unfolds, she finds that the gods are helping her to grow morally. They are doing their “surgery” on her by revealing things to her about herself using events in her life (e.g., the process of writing her book) and interactions with other people (e.g., Ansit and Tarin).[24] As Lewis stresses in Mere Christianity, God helps us to grow via many means. He uses nature, books, experiences, and other people—even when we do not realize they are being used.[25]

A third aspect of faith addressed by Lewis involves believing that God is good in the midst of suffering and incomplete information. Lewis knew well the reality of this faith struggle, as he wrestled with doubting God’s goodness after his wife died. Like Orual, who never seriously doubted the existence of the gods but had serious doubts about their goodness, when Lewis lost his wife he reports struggling with thinking “dreadful things” about God. The conclusion he fears most “is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like.’”[26]

As Psyche was preparing to be offered to the god, she talks with Orual about how to interpret the gods’ actions in such a way that they are considered good. Psyche suggests that even if the gods seem to humans to be doing evil, we may simply not know enough to realize that the gods are actually doing what is good; in addition, she suggests that it is possible that the gods are not the cause of the evils we attribute to them. Orual, on the other hand, sees no other way to interpret the gods demanding Psyche as an offering than to declare that it is clearly evil.[27] Like Orual, when Lewis was in the early stages of his grief after his wife died he was tempted to think, “What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’?”[28] Yet he quickly realized that it is “too anthropomorphic” to think of God as an evil Being; moreover, there seems to be too much good in the world. An evil Being is not likely to include “love, or laughter, or daffodils, or a frosty sunset” as traps or baits in a ploy to harm us. In response, however, to the question raised by Psyche as to whether we are able to evaluate God’s goodness, Lewis rejects the idea that anything God does must be considered good because we are too limited or fallen to pass judgment on God’s morality. He denies that “we are so depraved that our ideas of goodness count for nothing” and that the goodness of God is beyond our ability to assess. If that were true, Lewis says, we would then lack any reason to obey God or to call God “good,” for that term as it applies to God would be meaningless.[29] Lewis, however, does hold that God’s ways and His knowledge are beyond us so that we do not fully understand God’s reasons for allowing things[30]—a truth borne out in TWHF.

Orual also thinks for most of the novel that the gods are toying with us in “cat-and-mouse play” by giving us something good in our life just to take it away and make things worse.[31] In the same way, Lewis for a time wondered if God was like that when his wife died. His concern was that there is a God who is playing with us like we are “rats in a laboratory.” It seemed to Lewis that “time after time, when [God] seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture.”[32] Yet Lewis came to realize that this thought was an emotional “yell rather than a thought” rooted in reason and evidence.[33] Orual, too, comes to see that the gods have not been mistreating her; rather they have been preparing her for moral surgery.[34]

It is also interesting that, when his wife dies, Lewis wonders on what basis he had begun having doubts about God’s goodness. He knew about evil and the fact that spouses die before his own wife died, and it never bothered him before; however, it began to bother him and challenge his confidence in God’s goodness once the suffering happened to him personally.[35] In the same way, Orual says she “never really began to hate” the gods and hold the strong feeling that they are cruel until they affected her personally by taking Psyche away.[36] It is only when suffering impacts our lives personally that this aspect of faith in God’s goodness tends to be doubted.

(Part 2 coming next week)

Notes:

1. C. S. Lewis, “Myth Became Fact,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 58-60.

2. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: A Revised and Amplified Edition, with a New Introduction, of the Three Books Broadcast Talks, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 139.

3. Ibid., 140.

4. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 141.

5. C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace, 1956), 74-6.

6. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 135-7.

7. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 70-1.

8. C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 665.

9. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 140-1. See also Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 108-9. Psyche’s doubts began to return as she was left at the tree. She felt that her old longings were gone and she could no longer believe in the god and the palace. Yet in her doubt she prayed to the gods. Emotional doubt returned when faced with stress and the possibility that her faith is misplaced, but she turned to the spiritual disciplines in the midst of it.

10. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 124.

11. Ibid., 120, 123-4.

12. Ibid., 121.

13. Ibid., 290-1.

14. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 141.

15. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 120.

16. Ibid., 126.

17. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 133. See also C. S. Lewis, “Is Theism Important?,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 191. Related to the brief vision of the palace, Lewis says that religious experience often “comes and goes: especially goes.” Faith involves retaining “what is irresistible and obvious during the moments of special grace. By faith we believe always what we hope hereafter to see always and perfectly and have already seen imperfectly and by flashes.”

18. Ibid., 137.

19. Ibid., 290-1.

20. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 673.

21. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 141-9.

22. Ibid., 141-2.

23. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 281-2.

24. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 253-67.

25. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 190.

26. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 658.

27. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 71-2.

28. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 668.

29. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 669.

30. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 568.

31. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 249.

32. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 668-9.

33. Ibid., 669.

34. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 253-67.

35. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 671-2.

36. Lewis, Till We Have Faces, 290.

 

 

John Hare’s God’s Command, 8.5, “Transcending our Evolutionary Situation with God”

Photo by  Mahkeo  on  Unsplash

Photo by Mahkeo on Unsplash

The story at the beginning of this chapter was treated as a Kant-like translation from biblical theology into the language of contemporary (non-theological) anthropology, though it is still a story and not science. We can now go back and put God back into the story, and doing so helps make sense of the story. We can do this in three moments: the encounter, the command, and the punishment.

First of all, God meets our ancestors, though they were probably not monotheists. The story described this in terms of awe and joy. When we feel awe, we have a sense of something’s greatness, and this requires some standard of comparison. There are many kinds of greatness. Kant distinguishes, for example, between the mathematical sublime that responds to greatness in amount and the dynamic sublime that responds to greatness in power. Both kinds of greatness can make everything else seem small by comparison. It is probably impossible to specify a kind of greatness that is the object of all kinds of awe. But it’s plausibly something personal early on. We’re looking after all at agency detection. Such awe is something like reverence. It doesn’t go far enough to say one respects the Torah, and “respect” may also not be adequate as a translation of Kant’s Achtung, which is the feeling occasioned by the moral law that we “recognize as God’s command.”

Bringing in an encounter with God at this first moment explains how we might arrive at the silencing or subordinating of self-interest. Suppression is not the same as subordinating. It doesn’t mean that in the presence of what is good in itself we lose the affection for advantage, but its salience can be radically decreased. This produces a double-source account of motivation. The encounter with divinity might have been with something experienced as great, not merely terrifying but deeply attractive (in Otto’s terms of fascinans as well as tremendum).

The second moment at which God enters the story is the command. This command, in the story, is not connected in any intelligible way with nature. We are invited to think that God selects within the divine prerogative (arbitrium) the fruit as a test, and the test is to see whether the humans will try to usurp the divine function of establishing what is good and bad, or what is right and wrong. For present purposes, the significant feature of the command is that it is not deducible from our nature or from any nature, and it can therefore stand in for the whole series of divine commands that are within God’s arbitrium in the same way. The basic command is not about the fruit, but is the command to love God that comes out of the experience of being loved by God. Refraining from the fruit is merely a symbol of that response. But, if we generalize to all the divine commands for which we do not see the whole reason, we get some sense of how introducing God into the picture might help from an explanatory point of view.

The third moment is God’s punishment. In Genesis there is expulsion from the Garden, and the condemnation to wearisome work, pain in childbirth, and distorted sexual relations. Despite the punishment, there’s hope that continues, and an ongoing high moral demand. The theistic version of the story tells us that divine punishment doesn’t exclude divine love, and that God intervenes in our predicament to rescue us. The possibility of that redemption is already implicit in the original encounter, but is made explicit in the form of covenant. God goes on making initiatives towards us, and we go on refusing them. Redemption returns us to the argument from grace in Chapter 1.

It’s not surprising that the story fits the theistic explanation, because the original version had God as a central character. But to the extent that the translated version fits what actually happened to our ancestors, it is significant if a theistic explanation is coherent and helpful. Evolutionary psychology gives us an excellent background against which to see why bringing in God might give us a good explanation. There is a fit between what we need and what God’s presence, guidance, and assistance give to us.

Hare now goes back through the discussions of evolutionary psychology to see how our situation as evolved makes some independent guidance helpful. In terms of Greene, we need something both to include us, so that we can get beyond the tragedy of the commons, and to push us beyond the group, so that we do not end up with mere within-group altruism. The failures in psychological altruism that Kitcher posits as the origin of ethics infect both our intra-group and our inter-group lives, and we can see the preachments of the great religious traditions helping us with both. In Arnhart we see our devotion to the competitive goods such as wealth, power, and honor. We have seen Haidt’s claim that because of our evolutionary background we care more about reputation than about truth or sincerity, and that our reasoning is often better seen as an “inner lawyer” managing this reputation than an “inner scientist” trying to work out what is right to do. We have seen Greene’s claim that from an evolutionary perspective our reasoning systems are designed for selecting rewarding behaviors.

We don’t have to accept all of these claims in order to conclude that even within the group our ability to care for others is fragile. Our list of failures could be expanded to include unrighteous anger, importunate lust, and craven fear. To make such a list is not “Calvinistic Sociobiology,” because it’s consistent with saying that we also have tendencies to the good, “better angels” of our nature, so that we end up a mixture. But we need something other than just an appeal to our nature to get us to follow the parts of the mixture that we should follow and not the parts we should not.

Now consider the preachments of the traditions. God is luminous, severe, disinfectant, exultant, and the law of the Lord is cast in the same terms, giving light and cleansing us, to be rejoiced in, more than gold or honey. The Sermon on the Mount is full of commands that go inside the mind. The Qur’an says to give money to kinsmen, orphans, the needy, etc. In all these ways, the resources of religious traditions have responded to the problems within groups posed by our evolutionary heritage. The same is true of the second class of psychological-altruism failures between groups. For Greene, the tragedy of our between-group hostility can be overcome by utilitarianism, but he cuts this school off from its theological roots and the common ground they provide. A variety of commands takes the adherents of the Abrahamic faiths towards a universal morality. These faiths both include their adherents into a community, and then push them beyond it.

Does the picture of divine command, mixed natural capacity, and divine assistance actually work to produce morally better lives in those who accept it? There is some empirical evidence that the answer is “Yes.” Shared religious life binds people together. More importantly, Robert Putnam and David Campbell compared how religious and non-religious Americans behave in terms of giving money and time to charities and social organizations. The religious Americans gave more money not just to religious organizations but to the American Cancer Society, and they volunteered not just in church and synagogue and mosque but in civic associations across the board. They conclude, “By many different measures religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans—they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.”

When we look at the great movements towards the recognition of human value over the last sixty years, we will often find a religious motivation. Hare is thinking of Martin Luther King and the civil-rights movement, and the Lutherans in East Germany and the fall of the totalitarian state. Why is this? Hare suggests it’s because of the nature of the God they worship. It’s true that belonging to a community is very important, but the God of Abraham not only includes us in community but pushes us out beyond community, to meet the needs of the poor and the marginalized who are the object of God’s care just as much as we are. God commands both the inclusion and the moving-out. And these do not need to be competing goals.

What’s Really New?

A Twilight Musing

We Americans are fascinated with all things new, largely because both the word and the idea of “new” are at the center of promoting products, from cereals to automobiles. I heard just this morning in a newscast (as you can see, the word is even embedded in the media) a report about how Apple can get away with marketing a new iPhone every couple of years: people want and eagerly await the next new thing, especially in communications technology.

The assumption of the superiority of the new is also deeply woven into the fabric of modern Western thought. It is intricately connected to the idea of progress, undergirded both by ever-expanding scientific and technological knowledge and by the application of Darwin’s theory of biological evolution to human social development. Arising out of these elements of thought is the rather arrogant assumption that the present age is by definition more advanced than any that has preceded it, merely because it is the latest. This is the state of mind described by C. S. Lewis as “chronological snobbery.” In this context, it’s not surprising that modern theological opinions are considered superior to old ones. If doctrines and moral standards clearly stated in the Bible conflict with modern, enlightened, “scientific” understandings, then we must cast the old aside and embrace the progressive new.

However, the God of the Bible is actually the source of all things new—is, in fact, the only source of the New. The conflict is not primarily between the old and the new in a chronological sense, but between mankind’s “new” and God’s “New.” God demonstrated the archetypal New when He “created the heavens and the earth.” No such thing had ever existed before; it was unique, completely original, and God “saw that it was good.” When sin corrupted this perfect new world, God provided a lesser but sufficient way for the human race to survive on earth until God’s redemption of the fallen world could be worked out. For Adam and Eve, newly banished from the Garden, He balanced the penalties of pain in childbirth and painfully tilling the ground for food by providing them garments and promising that the Serpent who had deceived them would one day be bruised (fatally and finally, it is implied) by one of their offspring. (See Gen. 3:14-21.) We now know that the “offspring” referred to was Jesus Christ, Messiah and Incarnate Son of God, whose heel was bruised by the Serpent Satan when Jesus died on the cross. But before the culmination of that divine plan in the Incarnation, there was a very long period of progressive New Things, beginning with the purging and purifying of the earth through the Flood; the calling of Abraham to be the father of God’s nation, Israel; the institution of a Covenant with that nation, based on the Law given to Moses; the blessing of Israel with a land to live in; the apostasy of the nation leading to their being exiled from that land; and their return from exile to rebuild Jerisalem and the Temple. Thus, over long years, the way was prepared for the coming of God’s Son, the Newest Thing ever seen.

Jesus’ appearance in the world marked the creation of a New Adam, a being who, like the original creation, was unique and without precedent. The first Adam was created from the earth, and God breathed into his physical form the breath of life; but the Second (or New) Adam sprang from the very Spirit of God and was only temporarily clothed in a perishable body (see I Cor. 15:45-49). When Jesus arose from the grave after being struck to death by Satan, He became the source of a New Covenant, established through the shedding of His perfect blood to remove forever the curse invoked on mankind because of sin. With this New Covenant came a New definition of the people of God. No longer was His people merely physical Israel, but a unification of Jew and Gentile into “one New Man” (Eph. 3:15, my caps, and so throughout), so intimately identified with Christ as to be referred to as His Body. The people of God are made up of all those who have accepted Jesus as Lord and have experienced the transformation from death to life, putting off the “old self” and being “renewed” so that we can “put on the New Self” (Eph. 4:21-24), which is actually Christ in us (Col. 1:27). As Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20-21). All of this is preparation for our being ushered into the New Heaven and New Earth with which God will replace the flawed universe in which we now dwell. (See Is. 65:17-18; II Pet. 3:11-13; Rev. 21:1-8.)

God’s New is obviously glorious and benevolent, greatly to be desired and joyfully to be embraced. And yet, as I indicated above, we in this fallen world easily fall prey to the glittering temptation of the temporal new. Scripture has many examples from which we can profit in this regard. One of God’s repeated accusations against Israel was that they went after “new gods” and “forgot the God who gave [them] birth” (Deut. 32:17-18). The jaded old man whose voice we hear in Ecclesiastes is so satiated with his pursuit of the ephemeral “new” that he concludes “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9-10). And he is right, for what is under the sun is not God’s New, but mankind’s flawed new. Nevertheless, God is at work in His people of every age providing spiritual renewal in the midst of our weariness. Inserted into the middle of the book of Lamentations (3:22-24) we find the beautiful affirmation: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’" In Isaiah 40:31, those who “wait for the Lord” are promised that they will “renew their strength” and “run and not be weary . . . walk and not faint.”

Nevertheless, perverse beings that we are, we not only are easily lured by the glitter of the world’s fleeting “new,” we often are frightened and threatened by God’s ‘New,” even though he makes it readily available to us for the asking. But to receive God’s New, we must put off the old that would hinder us from growing in our walk with Him. I once wrote a New Year’s poem that expresses this ambivalence, and I present it here by way of conclusion.

A Reluctance for New Wine

The fabric of threadbare hope

Stretches toward year's end.

Pieces of frayed ambition extend

To cover the old wineskins

That many disclaim But few set aside.

Like children clutching tattered dolls,

We hug in vain security

The rags of the past,

Because in some degree

They are accommodated to our wills.

 

The outworn selves we cling to

Can be our own

The more as time goes by:

We patch and mend In order to possess.

The New Stirs something deep within—

But I would not willingly admit it.

--Elton D. Higgs (Dec. 31, 1977)

 

Image: "Beginning" by Uzzaman. CC License. 

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.)

Why do you have faith?

One day at lunch, my wife asked me, “Why do you have faith?”— meaning, of course, “Why do you have faith that the Christian message is true, and that you should continue to follow it?” Peter instructs us to be ready to give an answer to that kind of question, but I had to pause a few seconds to come up with a concise, focused reply: “Because I need to.” However, that conciseness conceals a great deal that lies behind it. One can identify a variety of contributing elements that can flow into that core, short answer. One is cultural influence. Those who grow up in a theistic culture will usually have a predisposition for some kind of faith, and those who are nurtured from birth in a Christian family are more likely to be Christian believers. Another element is temperament. Some people are led to faith by an emotional experience, and they continue to live in faith because it supports them emotionally. For others, it might have been a path of weighing the arguments of the Christian message, and they continue to find intellectual fulfillment in studying the Word of God. A third element is the experiences of a believer after an initial commitment to walking with Christ. Has the person grown through challenges to his or her faith? This last line of response is the most important, I think, for the question is not addressed merely to the present state of one’s faith, but is also an inquiry as to how the person got to the faith he now holds. A full answer to the question requires some attention to the person’s “journey of faith.” By what stages has one arrived at the kind of faith that he now holds?

My own journey of faith began as I grew up in a devout Christian household. My father was a lay elder, and nightly prayer was faithfully observed (the “family altar” it was called) with all on their knees. I was a Bible reader from at least the age of 8, and I made a profession of faith and was baptized when I was 9. I went to church 3 or 4 times a week, including youth group. In my teen and early college years, I seriously considered being a preacher or a youth worker, but I finally settled on majoring in English, thinking to teach in high school so I could be a self-supported missionary. As I approached my last two years in college, my English professors encouraged me to go to graduate school. When I graduated with my B.A., my wife and I went off to begin my graduate work at the University of Washington, where I encountered for the first time the kind of secular thinking I had been protected from at Abilene Christian College. I went through a couple of years of angst, trying to accommodate my belief in the God of the Bible to the rationalism and materialism assumed by the faculty and many of my fellow students. This experience marked my transition from childhood faith to one forced to deal with the intellectual complexity of believing.

When I finished my graduate work in 1965, I took a position on the faculty of the newly established University of Michigan-Dearborn, at the age of 28. For approximately the first half of my 36 year career there, I was able to tap into the needs of a growing campus, contributing administratively to the creation of new structures to accommodate the expansion from an institution of fewer than a thousand students to an eventual 6,000 or more. During this period my Christian convictions were a sort of curiosity to most of my colleagues, but not a source of any great difficulty. The faculty and staff were fairly close-knit until the academic units began to multiply and we were pulled apart by growth. Eventually, academic and political factions were the rule, and when these factors merged with social changes growing out of the restless ‘60s, particularly the militancy of homosexuals, I increasingly became a target for my publicly stated conservative religious convictions. To these disruptions of professional relationships were added ruptures in church relationships, the two kinds unrelated to each other but both contributing to the painful recognition that my best intentions in interacting with others were not sufficient to prevent those relationships being broken. In the same time period I also had to accept that my professional ambitions were not going to be realized to the extent I had envisioned. In addition to all of this, our church life became unstable, and for the first time Laquita and I considered churches outside the denomination in which we had grown up. Out of this perfect storm of challenges and changes, we began a period of redefining who we were as members of the Body of Christ, and I had to consider a faith that not only went beyond generally accepted intellectual boundaries, but one that transcended the insecurities of friendship and got past conflict within the church.

The resolution of these experiential challenges to my faith came through a deeper understanding of the church as family and of my personal relationship with God. I had to realize that the definition of who I am doesn’t depend on the impression I make on others, but on discovering God’s definition of who I am. I suppose it boiled down to God undermining my self-created security so that I was forced toward humility. When I was in my childhood and young adult faith, I saw myself as a sterling example of a “good boy,” conforming to and exceeding the expectations of both my natural and my spiritual families. In my graduate and early professional years, I had an image of myself as one bravely standing up for my faith in spite of the opposition of my colleagues. But when long-cherished friendships crumbled in both academic and church settings, I had to face the possibility that somewhere along the line, I might have made some really bad choices. The faith that emerged out of that struggle was based on the grace of God, not my own attempts at perfection. My sense of self-worth had to be reestablished through confidence (faith) that I have value because God loves me.

The final stage of my faith development was also born out of difficult personal circumstances, but this time of a sort that brought Laquita and me face to face with an evil that had to be endured more than explained. We had two adopted daughters (mother and daughter biologically) who both developed a genetically transmitted malady called Huntington’s Disease, which is irreversible and fatal, progressing through ten to fifteen years of steady deterioration in mind and body. God called us to be direct caregivers to both of these beautiful daughters over a period of years, beginning when the older daughter was 25 and we were in our mid-fifties. Because the older daughter (Cynthia) was already symptomatic when the younger one (Rachel) was born, we were the newborn’s parents from the beginning of her life. But we knew God had called us to this complex task before it became complex. At first it was agreeing to adopt a child (Cynthia) whose possible “handicap” seemed relatively remote and theoretical when we brought her home. Years later, when she was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease, it helped enormously to remember that taking care of her was a task assigned to us by the Lord. That confidence was confirmed over the years of our care for her, during which both our need and His faithfulness were beyond what we could have imagined at the time.

Now, nearly 50 years since we adopted Cynthia, God has brought us through not only Cynthia’s illness (she died at age 42), but He has enabled and blessed us to raise Rachel and to be her direct caregivers during the first years of her own illness. (She was diagnosed with the juvenile form of Huntington’s Disease four years ago, when she was only 18; she has just recently been placed in an adult foster care facility, after it became clear that we were no longer able to give her the 24-hour a day attention that she needs.)

From this last stage of experience, we have learned a level of faith that has been absolutely necessary to our survival as care-givers. We understand better now why God waited until Abraham’s old age to give him the supreme challenge to his faith, the order to sacrifice his only son. We are told that, although Abraham knew God could even raise his child from the dead, he did not know how God would actually make this preposterous demand come right. Abraham knew only that God had been absolutely faithful up to that point, and he was willing to trust that although he didn’t see how, God was at work in this situation, and in His sovereign power and provision, He would bring it to His glory and honor. In the same way, Laquita and I have been so faithfully sustained in all that God has called us to do that we can look beyond the mystery of the moment and be assured that as God has been the Perfect Provider in the past, He will continue to be so, to His glory, in the present and future.

This is the journey that explains how my short answer to Laquita’s question about the foundation of my faith was, “Because I need to—because I have to.”

 

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.)

The Twilight Years

A Twilight Musing

 

Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, The last of life, for which the first was made: Our times are in His hand Who saith "A whole I planned, Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!'' (Robert Browning, “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” lines 1-6)

 

[su_dropcap size="4"]S[/su_dropcap]ince I have chosen to allude to my age in the overall title of my weekly articles, I suppose it would be appropriate for me to say a few words about the way I have come to regard my “twilight years.” Although I don’t completely share the sanguinity about aging expressed by Browning’s character, I do see some advantages to being old, in spite of the minimal inconveniences attached to this stage of life (reduced energy, less supple joints, erratic memory, and other less mentionable difficulties). However, I acknowledge that by the grace of God and through no merit of my own, I have not had to struggle with the chronic illness and economic insecurity that often bedevil people my age. It is with that qualifier to my credibility that I presume to share with you some of the advantages I see in having completed almost 79 years on this earth.

The first advantage to the elder years is that I have a wider perspective from which to evaluate both my experiences and those of others. When I was young, I was much more absorbed in what was happening to me, and I judged events to be good or bad by how they made me feel, not how they affected others. What was it to me if I received the Dean’s Award and others saw it as evidence of favoritism? In my imperceptiveness, their anger was a total surprise to me. Later on, in the midst of my career, what if my losing out on an appointment as dean meant that the person who got the job was thereby launched on a highly successful administrative career? Any ability to celebrate his success was obscured by my feelings of rejection. As I matured, the real value of such successes and failures diminished, and I was able to understand that I not only had to look beyond myself, but also had to view events over a period of time to evaluate accurately what was happening to me and those around me. The same widened perspective also eventually made me less prone to snap judgments about people’s character.

Second, in my latter years I am better able to appreciate the value of long-term relationships. I am able to have a much deeper kind of intimacy with my wife of 56 years than I had any conception of when we were young. And long-term friendships become special treasures. We have lost touch with most of the friends we had in our younger days, but with those we are still close to we share a richness of mutual understanding that comes only with long and growing acquaintance. Moreover, in those rare instances when it is possible to establish new significant friendships, I have learned to cut through superficialities to the meat of getting to know each other and discussing things that really matter.[su_pullquote]Old age brings with it a sharp understanding of the fact that this world is not our home, and a willingness to hold it loosely now and to let it go gladly when the time comes.[/su_pullquote]

Third, I have learned in my early winter years not to be too concerned with what people think of me, which in turn frees me to state my convictions clearly and directly, though I now see more clearly the need to do so gently and with patience. But in the latter part of my life, I have also discovered the need of attentiveness to the words of others. Truly listening to others leads not only to being listened to more intently oneself, but to finding out how interesting and complex other people’s lives are if you encourage them to tell you how they came to be who they are.

Fourth, through long experience in struggling to see God’s will being worked out in my life and those of others, I have been privileged to compile a record of God’s faithful provision that convinces me to the core of my soul that He is always at work, sometimes especially when we’re not able to see it, or when in His wisdom He doesn’t let us see it. Many times my wife and I have looked back and realized that God’s perfect timing required that His resolution to a problem be delayed until other circumstances were in place. In the buying of our present home, for example, we looked for months until our agent informed us of a house that had just gone on the market, and it turned out to be the perfectly suitable and pleasant home that we still live in.

Finally, old age brings with it a sharp understanding of the fact that this world is not our home, and a willingness to hold it loosely now and to let it go gladly when the time comes. This, too, has a freeing effect, not only liberating us from the fear of death, but enabling us to embrace with eagerness the transition that brings us into the presence of our Savior.

Psalm 92:12-15 declares that the righteous “flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green.” Because of the borrowed righteousness from our Lord Jesus, one of the richest benefits of my twilight years has been God’s gifts of renewed possibilities to “bear fruit in old age.” Besides opportunities to serve in a fellowship of Christians that I became associated with only when I was 70, and the recent boon of singing with my daughter in a local choral society after years of absence from singing with a group, the privilege and challenge of writing this column has been a wonderful stimulus to my creative skills and disciplined thinking that might easily have become inactive. I pray that for those who read these “Twilight Musings,” my “sappiness” will always be reflective of my being planted, by His grace, in “the courts of our God.”

 

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.)

The Appropriate Authority of Morality

The moral argument tries to argue from morality to God. In this short article, I will work on what the source of moral obligations should be based on some features of obligations and of moral obligations.

To start off, we must distinguish between moral obligations and moral values. Moral obligations are deontological, having to do with whether something is required to do (or not to do). The terms typically used are “right” and “wrong”. This is distinct from values which are axiological, having to do with the moral worth of a person, action, or some state of affairs. The terms typically used are “good” and “bad”. Something may be good such as donating one’s kidneys or being a lifeguard to save lives, however one is not morally obligated to do so. Moral obligations have a reason-giving force for all to act, regardless of one’s goals or desires or interests, and even always trump non-moral reasons. It is an imperative with great force and not just a suggestion or preference. In other words, it is an unconditional “ought”.

What then would be an appropriate authority and source of moral obligations? First, we know that obligations come from another person or a group of persons. Some examples are familial obligations, legal obligations, obligations to one’s country, obligations to one’s company, etc. In the case of moral obligations, its source also has to come from another mind(s). It is difficult to see how we are required to do something if no other mind requires it of us.

Second, obligations only arise if the source stands as an authority over those who are being obligated. It would be pointless for some random person to demand to bring you to the police station for questioning unless that person is a police officer who has jurisdiction. In the army, a soldier of a lower rank and without being given authority cannot issue commands to one who is of higher rank. In the case of morality, since moral obligations apply to all human beings across all places and times, the source must transcend human persons and societies and stand as an authority over all human persons.

Third, when different obligations conflict, one obligation trumps the other based on which social relationship is greater or which authority is greater. In the case of moral obligations, since it trumps all other obligations, either the source has a social relationship with humans which is more important than any other social relation, or the source must possess more authority than any other human. Fourth, obligations arise not by might, or by dealing out rewards and punishments. For example, a thief does not exercise authority over me by robbing me at gunpoint. Neither do evil dictators have the appropriate authority. If the law stated that no one could go to the toilet for a hundred days for no good reasons or that we should torture children for fun, then it does not generate an appropriate legal obligation to follow. For obligations to arise, they must be grounded based upon good reasons. So for moral obligations to always be appropriate to follow, the source must be reasonable and perfectly good.

Fifth, the source of obligations must be in a good epistemic position to know relevant considerations. If one is perfectly good and yet cannot know the relevant considerations in a situation and evaluate it properly, then there is no obligation generated. For morality, the source must be able to see all relevant considerations, including really difficult things like predicting the consequences of an action. Hence the source must be wise and intelligent.

Sixth, for obligations to be followed, they must be made known by the source in some way. Since moral obligations are to be followed, the source must either be able to communicate to us or give us faculties that can come to know these moral obligations. Lastly many agree that at least some moral obligations exists necessarily in all possible worlds. For example, it is not possible that the world turned out such that it is right to torture babies for fun. Since there are some necessary moral obligations such as not to murder, the explanation for moral obligations must also be necessary. In the care of moral obligations, the source necessarily requires some actions to be done (or not to be done). If so, it follows that the source must also exist necessarily in order to do so. Note that this does not undermine the source’s freedom if nothing external to Him determines that He requires so.

To sum up, an appropriate source of morality must be from a person or persons, must be an authority above all human persons, either have a social relationship with humans which is greater than any other social relation or possess more authority than any other human, be reasonable and perfectly good, be wise and intelligent, be able to communicate to us or give us faculties that can come to know these moral obligations, and exists necessarily. Hence for theists, one can argue from moral obligations to such a source of morality which they may call God.

Image: CC License. "Authority" by M. Coghlan

Sweeter than Honey

 

If there is any food in the world that most people are positive about, honey would probably be it.  From ancient times it has been held in high regard for its taste, its nutrition, its use as a medicine, and its appropriateness as a gift.  No wonder, then, that scriptural references to honey present it as part of the blessings of Israel’s Promised Land (“flowing with milk and honey,” Ex. 3:9 and many times elsewhere in the O. T.); a descriptor of the taste of the miraculous manna (Ex. 16:32) and of the spiritual taste of the Word of God (Ps. 19:10); and even a part of the imagery of erotic romance in the Song of Solomon (e.g., SS 4:11 & 5:1).  Honey plays a key part in two similar narratives in the Old Testament, in each of which honey is found miraculously available in the countryside and is eaten gladly by the finder.  But also in each story, there is a failure to make full or appropriate use of the “honey” of God’s strength.

In the first of these (Judges 14), we find the strange story of Samson’s dealings with the Philistines in regard to his taking a wife from among them.  In the journey to negotiate the marriage with his chosen one, he encounters a lion, which he kills with his bare hands through the power of God.  In a subsequent journey to continue the negotiations for his wife, he comes upon the carcass of the lion he killed, in which now there is a beehive full of honey.  Samson scoops up some in his hand to eat and carries a portion to his parents as well, although he tells them nothing of its source.  His secrecy carries over to his making the lion-honey incident the source of a riddle he asks the 30 Philistine companions who were assigned to attend Samson’s nuptial feast: “Out of the eater came something to eat.  Out of the strong came something sweet” (14:14).  Samson bets his companions 30 changes of clothing that they can’t solve the riddle.

When it becomes apparent that the Philistines are not going to be able to solve Samson’s riddle, they threaten his wife and her family with being burned if she cannot  wheedle the answer out of Samson.  She finally succeeds, and when the companions give the correct answer (“What is sweeter than honey?  What is stronger than a lion?”), Samson responds by slaying 30 Philistines and taking their garments to pay off the bet.  So the lion-honey incident is not only symbolic of Samson’s later becoming the “hive” out of which God scoops the “honey” of His wrath (see my “Twilight Musing” for Dec. 4, 2015), but is also the catalyst for the opening of Samson’s Spirit-inspired battle against the oppression of Israel by the Philistines.  His eating of the miraculously supplied honey betokens his being nourished and enabled by God as Israel’s deliverer and judge.  His prideful and reckless self-reliance on the strength God has given him makes him spiritually blind to the hazard of playing with Delilah, leading to his being shorn of his strength-giving locks and rendered literally blind.

A similar story of being strengthened by eating divinely supplied honey in the wild is told in I Samuel 14, as a part of King Saul’s first campaign against the Philistines.  Saul had rashly “laid an oath on the people, saying, ‘Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies.’  So none of the people had tasted food” (14:24).  Saul in his pride had not consulted God about a strategy for defeating his enemies, but God had a plan for enabling His people to pursue the Philistines to their utter defeat.  “Now when all the people came to the forest, behold, there was honey on the ground.  And . . . the honey was dropping, but no one put his hand to his mouth, for the people feared the oath” (14:25).  Jonathan, however, had not heard the oath, so he ate some of the honey, “and his eyes became bright” (14:27).  When the people informed him of his father’s oath, Jonathan replied with forthright common sense (14:29-30):

Then Jonathan said, "My father has troubled the land. See how my eyes have become bright because I tasted a little of this honey.  How much better if the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies that they found. For now the defeat among the Philistines has not been great."

When the day ended, the Philistines had been defeated, but the Israelites, in their hunger and faintness, slaughtered their plunder of cattle and ate the meat with the blood, which was forbidden by God in the Law.  Thus was proved the truth that Jonathan had uttered about the negative effect of Saul’s oath.  But far from admitting his error, Saul looked for a scapegoat to blame for God’s not answering his inquiry about whether to continue pursuing their enemies (14:36ff).  When Jonathan was identified by the casting of lots as the one who was “guilty” of having violated Saul’s oath, only the intervention of all the people prevented Saul from compounding his sin by unjustly killing his own son and heir.

As in the story of Samson and the lion-honey, the incident with the honey on the floor of the forest for Saul’s troops speaks to the issue of receiving God’s unexpected gifts of nourishment and strength with thankfulness and a recognition that these gifts are divine enablement to carry out divine purposes.  Both Samson’s and Saul’s pride curtailed the full fruition of the strength God made available to them.  Samson ignored the foreshadowing warning about his vulnerability to the wiles of foreign women, and thus he fell prey to Delilah and lost his strength.  Saul could have been empowered early in his kingship to defeat the Philistines completely, but he relied on his own strategems and was not able to see what God had supplied toward gaining a crushing victory.

The next time you eat good honey, remember and be thankful for the times when God has supplied you with good things in unexpected ways; and pray that you may always recognize and take advantage of His bounty.   As it says in Ps. 34:8-10, “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good!  Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!  Oh fear the Lord, you His saints, for those who fear him have no lack!  The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.”  Remember that ours is the God who nourished His children in the wilderness with “honey out of the rock” (Deut. 32:13).

Image: "Honey" by D. Giordano. CC License. 

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.)

The God of More

 

We live in a society geared to “more.”  We are urged by advertising to acquire more possessions, more pleasures, more comforts, or more power and success, abetting our own desires for increased possessions or.  But of course what humanity in general wants more of doesn’t fit very well with what God’s “more” is.  Recently I noticed some of His “mores,” voiced through Paul, in my reading of Romans 5, and I’d like to share those with you now.

Romans 5  begins with a summing up of God’s marvelous provision of unmerited salvation through His Son’s death and resurrection and the generosity of His grace, concluding that through His  generosity, we also ”rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (vv.1-2), the same glory that God is going to bestow on the Son (Rom. 8:17). And then he goes on to say (italics my emphasis),

3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering  produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and  hope does not put us to shame, because God's love  has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom. 5:3-5, ESV).

“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings.”  Whoops!  Wasn’t that a slip of the tongue, Paul?  Didn’t you mean, “We exult in our being the elect of God”?  No, indeed, for this is one of God’s “mores” that contrasts with human expectations.   Although God is constantly and faithfully generous in pouring His love into our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit (v. 5), we do not embrace the hope of glory without struggle or pain, any more than our Lord Jesus did.  He “learned obedience through what He suffered” (Heb. 5:8) and “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2).  Paul goes on in Romans 5 to expound on the progression by which “suffering  produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope”—that is, the seasoned hope that rests in a faith that has been put through the fire to be proven as pure and precious as refined gold (see I Pet. 1:3-8).

We are now better prepared to understand the “mores” of verses 9-11.

9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Verse 9 picks up from the fact that Jesus died for people because they were in desperate need and in spite of their being thoroughly undeserving of His sacrificial death.  If, Paul argues, we were “justified by His blood” when our value was severely tarnished by sin, “much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God” now that we are in covenant relationship with Him.   Similarly, if Jesus’ death reconciled us to God while we were still enemies, “much more . . . shall we be saved by His life” (v. 10), the resurrection life that prefigures our own participation in His glory.  The final “more” of this little paragraph brings us back to the rejoicing Paul referred to in v. 2, which has gained depth by being subjected to the suffering that brings maturity to our hope.

There is yet one other, culminating “more” at the end of this chapter that will serve to sum up the theme of God’s abundance overcoming all obstacles:

18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness  leads to justification and life for  all men. 19 For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The analogy drawn in vv. 18-19 seems to be an equivalency: one trespass resulting in condemnation for all = one act of obedience resulting in justification for all.  But the problem of sin brought to light by God’s Law, which “came in to increase the trespass,” was cumulative.  Humans did not cease to sin when Christ died, and therefore the grace of God had to cover not only the sins committed up to the point of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but for all of the time from the Fall until God chooses to wrap things up in the final judgment and the restoration of creation.  God’s grace had, so to speak, not only to keep up with but to outstrip the pace of sin revealed by the Law.  Thus, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” And so, as Paul sums up at the end of Romans 8, “we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (v.37).  Our God is not merely adequate, He is abundantly sufficient.

 

 

 

 

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.)

A Critical Review of Is Goodness without God Good Enough? Chapter 2

Summary by Robert Sloan Lee

 Is Goodness without God Good Enough?

Chapter Two: C. Stephen Layman, “A Moral Argument for the Existence of God”

In this chapter, Layman unfortunately ignores most of the debate between William Lane Craig and Paul Kurtz, but he does present an interesting argument for the existence of God (or an afterlife in which virtue is rewarded) based on the idea that there are necessary moral truths which serve as reasons for our actions.  However, his moral argument addresses the issue from a different angle.  Specifically, while Layman argues that the existence of morality requires the existence of God or a certain sort of afterlife, he judiciously clarifies that he is not arguing that this is the case simply because morality is somehow dependent on God (even if that turns out to be the case).

Layman’s Overriding Reasons Argument

To motivate his argument, Layman makes two points concerning our reasons for doing or not doing something.

First, Layman observes that many moral philosophers hold that the strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something (whether or not such a person acts accordingly) are always the moral reasons for doing that thing – and that that these reasons are more important than the non-moral reasons that a person may have for not doing that thing (where, for instance, those non-moral reasons are reasons of inconvenience or self-interest).  In short, moral reasons always override non-moral reasons.  For example, suppose one had promised to meet one’s friends at a specific time and was late for no good reason.  One has a moral obligation to be honest as to why one is late, and this obligation overrides the embarrassment that one might feel in admitting to one’s friends that there was no good reason for being late, even if lying would allow one to avoid the embarrassment.

Second, Layman introduces the claim that if there is no God and no life after death, then it is not true thatthe strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something are always the moral reasons for doing that thing.  In other words, if it is in one’s self-interest to do something immoral (and there is little chance of getting caught or little chance of greatly harming others in doing it), then the non-moral reasons for doing something wrong can override the moral reasons for not doing it – at least if there is no God and no afterlife.  However, that would mean that it is false to say that we always have overriding reasons for doing the right thing rather than doing the wrong thing.  The insight and force of Layman’s argument resides in pitting concerns about self-interests against concerns about morality.  If God does not exist and if there is no afterlife, then we face the possibility that “humans have overriding reasons to behave immorally.”  This is a suggestion that “people who take morality seriously” find “profoundly disturbing,” because it means that there can be cases in which “doing one’s duty would (at least sometimes) be irrational in the sense that it would involve acting on” what we normally take to be “the weaker reasons” – and this is supposed to be seriously problematic even if those cases are relatively rare.

The example that he gives to illustrate his argument involve a Ms. Poore who has lived many years in restrictive (but not life-threatening or health-threatening) poverty.  She has an opportunity to steal a large sum of money (without getting caught) that would permanently deliver her from poverty – and she knows that the persons from whom the money is stolen are wealthy enough that they will not be greatly harmed by the theft.  Further, if she does not steal the money she has reason to believe that she will remain in poverty for the rest of her life.  Layman says that stealing might not be wrong in every case, but if there is neither a God nor an afterlife, then Ms. Poore has stronger reasons for stealing the money than she does for doing the right (or moral) thing – and then it follows that moral reasons are not always overriding reasons that trump reasons of self-interest.

Further Considerations

Layman says that it is hard to see how we know that it is true that the strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something (whether or not such a person acts accordingly) are always the moral reasons for doing that thing – he calls this the “overriding reasons thesis” or ORT.  However, he indicates that it is at least as reasonable to believe this claim as it is to believe other claims that we commonly accept (though we do not seem to know how it is that these others are true) – specifically:

(a)  The future will be like the past.

(b)  It is rational to trust one’s sense experience unless one has special circumstances showing them to be unreliable.

In the case of (a), any attempt to justify (a) by appealing to past experience to certify what our future experience will be like the past will simply assume the truth of (a) rather than proving it.  Again, with (b), any appeal to sensory experience to certify that (b) is true will just end up assuming the truth of (b) rather than demonstrating the truth of (b).  Most philosophers simply accept the truth of (a) and (b), and Layman thinks that something similar can be said about the principle of overriding reasons (or ORT).

To state Layman’s argument precisely, we get the following:

  1. If God does not exist and there is no afterlife in which virtue is rewarded, then it will not always be true that the strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something are the moral reasons for doing that thing.

  2. It is always true that the strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something are the moral reasons for doing that thing. (ORT)

  3. Therefore, either God does exist or there is an afterlife in which virtue is rewarded – or both. (from 1 and 2 by modus tollens and DeMorgan’s Law)

An Objection to Layman’s Argument

Layman then goes on to consider some objections to his argument and how he would reply to those objections.  One objection (and perhaps the most interesting objection) is that the argument does not establish that morality is dependent on God.  In this respect, it would seem that Layman’s conclusion may be more in line with Kurtz’s views than Craig’s (despite the former being an atheist and the latter being a theist).  Layman responds to this objection by agreeing that morality may not be dependent on God.  He writes:

I’ve not suggested that God by fiat (or otherwise) lends moral reasons their force.  Let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that moral reasons have whatever force they have independent of God.  Nevertheless, what a good God can do is guarantee that moral reasons (requirements) are never trumped by other sorts of reasons.  Unfortunately, moral reasons can be trumped assuming naturalism is true.  [emphasis mine]

However, since Layman thinks that moral reasons can never be trumped by non-moral reasons, he believes that naturalism is false, and this leads to his conclusion that either God exists (in such a way as to connect self-interest and morality) or that there is some other sort of afterlife in which virtue is always rewarded.  So, whether or not morality can be grounded in God’s commands or God’s nature, the fact that there are necessary moral truths should (according to Layman) have certain consequences for what we believe about the existence of God or the afterlife.

Parting Thoughts

One aspect of moral truths that sometimes goes unmentioned is that such truths are necessary (if true at all), and one can appreciate that Layman does not overlook this intriguing feature of moral truths.  Given this, explanations of morality that appeal solely to contingent features of the world – features that could have been otherwise (such as our evolutionary history, our environment and education, or our genetic predispositions) – simply do not appear adequate to the task.  Further, if these necessary moral truths can exist independently of God (a possibility which Layman concedes – at least for the sake of argument), this would appear to run counter to Craig’s position that an objective morality must be dependent on God.  One hopes that Craig would address this issue in his response to these essays (as it constitutes a particularly interesting point on the relationship between the ontology of theism and the ontology of ethics).  So, while Layman does not analyze the debate between Craig and Kurtz, some of the issues he raises are pertinent to it, and his own variant of the moral argument is an intriguing one.

Image:By Hans Memling (circa 1433–1494) - www.aiwaz.net, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1455943

Waiting in the Dark

The story of Joseph in Gen. 37-50 is another example of a servant of God “waiting on the Lord” (see Twilight Musings 27).  To sum up his experiences: as a boy of 17, Joseph had dreams of his brothers—and even his parents—bowing down to him, an allegorical prophecy of what actually occurred over 20 years later when Joseph was master of Egypt’s food resources in a time of famine.  A lot of water had to run under the bridge before the time was ripe for these early prophetic dreams to be fulfilled.    Although it wasn’t apparent to Joseph during the first part of this interim period, it was a time of constructive waiting.  His youthful pride in his dreams and in the special favor shown to him by his father were tempered by the hardship of his years as a servant in Egypt.  But God also blessed Joseph in the midst of his servitude by giving him favor with his masters.  He rose quickly to be overseer of the household of his master Potiphar, and then, when he was unjustly thrown into prison, the prison master put him in charge of the rest of the inmates.  Through these jobs he developed the managerial skills he would need to manage Egypt’s national economy through the seven years of plenty and the succeeding seven years of famine.

No doubt when his privileged position in Potiphar’s house was abruptly taken away, Joseph must have wondered why God had blessed him and then allowed him to be cast down again.  I have tried to capture in the following poem Joseph’s thoughts and feelings at that time.  The combination of questioning what God is doing and trying to be ready for what He is going to do next  should be familiar to all of us.

 

JOSEPH IN PRISON

 (Gen. 39:1-23)

How far away the fields where grazed my father's sheep,

Where in my sleep the visions spoke,

Affirming that my special coat was well deserved;

And in my youth I knew that God had favored me.

A willing instrument I was, rebuking in my father's name

My brothers' worldly ways.

 

 

 

And then the pit, the chains, the foreign land--

No one then to listen to my dreams!

 

 

 

But God was gracious to me still,

As Potiphar repaid the works of God in me,

And I regained my virtuous pride.

In confidence I turned aside

The evil of my master's wife,

Rebuked in righteous words her monstrous lust.

 

 

 

And for my trouble once again

I lie imprisoned and disgraced.

 

 

 

Has God seduced me too, and cast me off

For basking in His favor?

It seems but scant reward

To be chief of those who languish in the dark.

How shall I deal with One who rips away

What He Himself bestowed?

My robe of innocence my brothers drenched in blood;

My robe of righteousness was snatched

To scandalize my name.

[su_spacer]

How shall I now be clothed, my Lord,

Lying naked to Your will?

(Elton D. Higgs,11/28/86)

Of course, we have the advantage of knowing what the final outcome of Joseph’s puzzled waiting is going to be.  Not only will God’s servant be raised up out of prison, he will be launched out on the road that will lead to the final fulfillment of his youthful dreams.  We also know the answer to the question in the poem, “How shall I now be clothed, / Lying naked to Your will?”  In God’s good time, Joseph was pulled out of prison and given appropriate clothing for standing in the presence of Pharaoh; and quickly after that he was given fine linen garments and a robe and jewelry proper to his office as vice-Pharoah of Egypt.

Perhaps our seeing the whole picture of Joseph’s story is a good analogy to our status before God: In our limited understanding, we wait in patient expectation to see the rest of the story unfold, but from God’s point of view it’s already finished, and the ending is to our benefit and to His glory.  Those who wait patiently on God will always be clothed (i.e., equipped) appropriately for what He calls them to do.  And beyond that, we sometimes need, like Joseph, a lot of life experience and the wisdom that it brings to be able to experience in humility what was originally embraced in pride.

Image: Supper ate Emmaus by Lambert Jacobsz. (circa 1598–1636) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.)

Waiting as Patient Expectation

The meanings of the word “wait” can refer to basically two situations: (1) someone is standing quietly by in anticipation of another person’s joining him, or (2) someone is serving another person or persons, as in being a waiter in a restaurant. Both cases represent a kind of deference shown by the waiter toward the one being waited upon. It is common in Shakespeare’s plays to find an expression like, “We await your pleasure, my good lord,” which is to say, “We are deferring to your right to say what happens next.” Both of these senses of waiting connote subordinating our immediate desires to the needs or desires of another, so it should not be surprising that the concept of waiting has spiritual applications.

Frequently in the poetry of the Old Testament there is the admonition to “wait upon the Lord,” as in the following:

In the morning, O LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation. (Ps. 5:3 NIV)

Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD. (Ps. 27:14, NIV)

Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices! Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land. (Ps. 37:7-11 ESV) The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. (Lam. 3:25-26 ESV)

So we see that waiting on the Lord involves patient expectation, courage, and dependence on God to set things right in the world. In other words, waiting on the Lord means deferring always to God’s will and trusting that He is at work every minute to bring about what will be best for His children. The payoff for this confident waiting on God is inner peace and the experience of His goodness.

Some scriptural examples will illustrate how God’s people in the past have profited or lost by waiting or not waiting on the Lord. One of the most salient examples of losing by not waiting on God is seen in Saul’s desperate offering of the sacrifice when Samuel didn’t show up exactly when he was expected. The prophet Samuel had instructed Saul to go down to Gilgal and wait for seven days for Samuel to come and offer a sacrifice and give Saul instructions from God on what to do (I Sam. 10:8). Some time later Saul finally was able to assemble an army to fight the Philistines at Gilgal. As he awaited Samuel’s promised arrival there, he grew increasingly worried that his army would disintegrate in fear and panic before the battle even began. And since as the seventh day drew to an end, Samuel was not yet there, Saul took it upon himself (although he had no priestly authority) to offer the sacrifice. Immediately after the illicit sacrifice had been offered, Samuel came, and he pronounced on Saul the severe judgment of God:

Samuel said to Saul, "You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the LORD your God, with which he commanded you. For then the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you." (1 Sam 13:13-15 ESV)

Why was Saul’s action so wrong? Did he not have a real problem on his hands, with the Philistines threatening and his army scattering? Wasn’t his decision to go ahead with the sacrifice evidence of his recognition that God’s help was needed for the Israelites to succeed in battle? But at the base of Saul’s disobedience was a willingness to put his own understanding and judgment ahead of God’s, and this attitude is incompatible with the patient surrender to God’s will that undergirds waiting on the Lord. Although in his rash self-reliance Saul showed some of the qualities that make a good leader—he made a strategic judgment in a tight situation and followed through with determination and resolve—he mistakenly gave the exercise of those qualities precedence over obedience to God and trust in Him. Waiting for Samuel as he was commanded to do would have required Saul to look beyond what was immediately in front of him in order to “see” with the eyes of faith. Saul’s failure to wait in patient expectation for what God was going to do cost him and his heirs the kingship of Israel and set him on a path of self-destruction.

Let us also look at Abraham. His experience in regard to God’s promise that he and Sarah would have a son shows us how even those who eventually reap the rewards of waiting on the Lord may have to go through stages of waiting and learning. There was a long path between Abraham’s initial response to God’s call and the completion of his journey of faith. When Abraham was first commanded to leave his native country to go to another land (Gen. 12), he went “not knowing where he was going” (Heb. 11:8); and when he got there, he wasn’t allowed to stay, but had to go to Egypt to escape a famine. And when he finally returned to the land God had promised, he merely camped out in it, rather than possessing it, for actual control of it by Abraham’s descendents did not come about until many years after Abraham’s death (Gen. 15:12-16). God’s promise of a son to Abraham was renewed when Abraham quite understandably asked God about it after a number of childless years (see Gen. 15:1-6). But no timetable was set, and Abraham and his wife decided to act on their own to supply a son and heir, setting up an enmity between different branches of his descendents down to the present day. Finally, when Abraham and Sarah were far beyond the normal age for producing children, God told them that the arrival of the promised son was right around the corner (Gen. 17).

But even this miraculous fulfillment of God’s promise of a son who would be the forefather of a populous nation was not the end of Abraham’s waiting on the Lord. In Gen. 22 we see the astounding final test of Abraham’s willingness to serve God in obedience (i.e. to wait upon God), when God ordered him to take his only son, this cherished, promised son, and offer him as a sacrifice to the Lord. Only one who had traveled the long path of cumulative experiences of waiting on God could have met this challenge. We want to say on Abraham’s behalf, “Lord, hasn’t this man already led an exemplary life of waiting on you? Can’t you leave him alone to enjoy his old age with the son you finally sent him?” But the outcome of this final testing of Abraham produced a profound symbol of God’s future redemptive action in giving His one and only Son as a sacrifice.

No wonder Hebrews 11 spends so much time presenting Abraham as a prime exemplar of faith in God. In fact, Abraham was the forerunner of a whole line of descendents who awaited in faith the fulfillment of God’s promises and the final end of His plans. “For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God . . . . These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Heb. 11:10, 13).

That brings us to the present period of human history, and to the archetypal waiting we are called to do as members of Christ’s Kingdom on earth, we who are also heirs of the faith testified to in the chapter of faith in Hebrews. In Romans 8, Paul speaks of the glory of final redemption from the corruption of sin and death:

And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Rom. 8:23-25)

In II Peter 3, this active hope and eager waiting are presented in a context of contrasts: God’s immeasurable eternal time with the mutability of human time; and the present perishable earth with an eternal “new heavens and a new earth” (3:13). God’s purposes will be carried out in His time and in His way, and only after the present earth and its inhabitants have reached the limits of their willingness to repent will God bring “the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (3:7), in which “the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (3:10). But out of this destruction and judgment will emerge the final fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and his physical and spiritual successors. Peter concludes: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God . . . .” (3:11-12).

When our hope and trust are in the promises generated by God’s providential goodness, our patient expectation will always be rewarded. As the saying goes, God never hurries, and He’s never late.

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.)

Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, “Moral Faith,” Part V: The Emotional Aspect of Moral Faith

Finite and Infinite Goods

A voluntary decision to commit yourself to a proposition does not, by itself, amount to faith. Even the decision plus a bunch of good reasons for your decision still are not sufficient for a sincere belief, let alone a conviction. Faith as Adams conceives it moves in a space bounded on the one side by subjective certainty (which Calvin ascribed to faith, but Adams does not) and on the other side by the subjectively incredible. Within that space it is often hard to tell, subjectively, how far one’s faith is supported by one’s sense of what is more plausible, and how far by willpower. But both, Adams thinks, are normally involved.

It’s also not easy to specify what more is required beyond willpower. As a first approximation we might try to identify the requisite feeling as at least a minimal degree of confidence in the view that you hold. This is not adequate as it stands, however. If you are depressed, you may doubt that your life is worth living. Yet in precisely this sort of case it is very likely both possible and right for you to cling to faith that your life is worth living.

Is it sheer willpower if you do cling to it? Surely not. Willpower can’t give you a belief in a hypothesis that is not “live” for you, as William James put it. Probably no amount of willpower could give you the belief that 2+2=5, or even that you will never die. Nor could sheer willpower give you the belief that the number of bald eagles that laid eggs in 1993 was even rather than odd. If you succeed, against emotional appearances, in clinging to the faith that your life is worth living, the clinging must feel different from trying to believe one of those patently false or humanly undecidable propositions. Perhaps you feel some level of trust in some reasons for clinging to faith, or perhaps giving up faith “feels wrong” for you.

But “confidence” is hardly the right word here. It suggests a state of feeling that is much less troubled than faith has often to endure. In some ways Adams prefers the word “courage,” provided he can make clear that he does not mean courage as a mainly voluntary virtue. He means courage in a sense in which it is felt more than chosen, the sense in which it might be a direct product of being “encouraged.” In Greek it would be tharsos rather than andreia; in German it would be Mut rather than Tapferkeit. The courage of which Adams would speak is not sheer willpower or voluntary determination. We may hope that such emotions are responsive to reality. They must be, if we are to have much chance of living a life both good and grounded in reality. In a sense indicated by Adams’ argument (not to mention other senses), “the just shall live by faith.”

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image: " Abraham's Journey from Ur to Canaan " By József Molnár - Own work (scanned), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2684048

Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, “Moral Faith,” Part IV: The Volitional Aspect of Moral Faith

Probably all belief involves the will. To have faith is always to be for what one has faith in. Moral faith involves being for something in a special way. Like religious faith, it involves commitment.

There is surely moral and religious belief that does not amount to faith and does not involve commitment. Simply believing what one was taught, or holding one’s beliefs too tentatively, for example. Holding one’s beliefs tentatively can be quite appropriate, but not all the time. “Probably it’s wrong to torture innocent children” is hardly recognizable as an expression of a moral stance.

Kierkegaard was a pioneer in exploring the aspect of faith that we touch here. Kierkegaard is as emphatic as Calvin that an opinion held as merely probable can’t constitute faith, but he does not speak of faith in terms of feelings of assurance. On the contrary, the faith that interests him is one that coexists with an acute awareness of the “risk” that it is wrong.

For most people in the modern world, a confidence amounting to subjective certainty seems neither possible nor desirable. We need to retain the attitude we might be wrong; on this issue about the nature of faith—moral as well as religious faith—Kierkegaard seems likelier than Calvin to speak to our condition.

How, then, can we be committed to an ethical or religious outlook and way of life? Kierkegaard sees commitment in terms of decisiveness, and while in some ways his view is probably too voluntaristic, I think his emphasis on decisiveness is more importantly right than wrong. The attitude of the will, broadly understood, is crucial to commitment. The possibility that one is wrong may be recognized, but at certain points it must be disregarded in one’s decisions and actions and way of life, and one’s “bets” must not be “hedged.” This is the heart of Kierkegaard’s account of faith.

While tentativeness seems quite appropriate in some ethical and theological opinions, a moral life, like a religious life, requires a core of commitment, and in relation to that core we are not prepared to accept attitudes toward probability and doubt that seem perfectly appropriate, or even praiseworthy, in relation to most other topics. It is not morally acceptable to “hedge one’s bet” on morality. A moral person will have a degree of commitment to some central ethical beliefs that is more than proportionate to the strength of the evidence or arguments supporting them. It does not follow that the beliefs to which a moral person is committed can’t all be favored by reason, in preference to alternatives. It is just that reason’s support for them is not likely to be as solid as morality’s.

Closely related to the central role of commitment in faith is the phenomenon of struggles of faith, or striving for faith. That we strive for faith is connected with an important point that Adams thinks American pragmatist philosophers got right, namely, that our cognitive project is one of developing a system of beliefs that can be integrated not only with experience but also with the living of the moral life, and more broadly a good life. The striving often takes the form of clinging to faith. A moral person has reason to cling to moral faith, with some tenacity, when it is tried by doubts.

If impartial desire to believe whatever is true is likelier to lead to true belief than the desire to cling to one’s present belief, then the influence of the latter sort of desire may well corrupt the reliability of one’s belief formation process. But is the impartial desire more likely to lead to truth than the desire that strives for faith? In ethics, Adams does not think we have truth-finding faculties independent of our desires. Whatever may be the nature of ethical truth, it is not plausible to suppose that those whose hearts are in the wrong place are as likely to find it as those whose hearts are in the right place. He doesn’t suppose his ability to grasp moral truth is independent of the way in which their content moves his feeling and his will; and to be moved in the relevant way is in part to want to hold the convictions; it is not independent of volitional commitment to them. To suppose that our thinking in such matters would be more reliable if we did not care which conclusion we come to, so long as it is the correct one, is to propose an implausibly coldhearted conception of what would constitute reliable thinking in ethics.

A humane and reasonable moral faith will include the belief that we all could be more enlightened ethically than we are, and will therefore demand an openness, as unprejudiced as we can manage, to certain revisions of our ethical opinions. But which revisions are those? Are some of our moral judgments of moral faith, to which we should cling, whereas others are mere moral opinions, to which we should try not to be attached? Or ought we to be as open as possible to revision of any of our beliefs about particular ethical issues? Surely not; there are some moral judgments that it would be a betrayal of morality, or of humanity, to think seriously about abandoning. If it seems to us that giving up a particular moral conviction would amount to an abandonment of other human beings, or of a significant part of the moral meaning of our lives, those are certainly reasons for regarding the matter as an issue of faith. The line between moral faith and moral opinion may fall in different places for different people with different histories.

A question Adams regularly addresses is whether moral faith is still a virtue when it is faith in the wrong cause. Adams thinks it can be, though not if the cause is too indefensible. Conflict is dehumanized when we lose the sense that our enemies can be admirable in opposing us, even though we think them wrong. It is a sort of self-righteousness to think that nothing matters by comparison with being on the right side. Epic poets and professional politicians have known that respecting one’s enemies is commonly of at least comparable importance. Recognizing and admiring in one’s antagonist such virtues as courage, loyalty, and faith is a major ingredient of that respect.

Like courage, like loyalty, faith is a dangerous virtue. We may rightly refuse to call them virtues at all where they are part of a pattern of moral depravity. But if we refuse them the title of virtue wherever they are implicated in understandable moral error and contribute to guilt or disaster, we deny appropriate recognition to the frail and fragmentary character of our grasp of moral and other truth.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image: "Kierkegaard 20090502-DSCF1492" by Arne List - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kierkegaard_20090502-DSCF1492.jpg#/media/File:Kierkegaard_20090502-DSCF1492.jpg

Summary of Robert Adams’ chapter on Moral Faith, Part III, from Finite and Infinite Goods: The Cognitive Aspect of Moral Faith

Is it really correct to speak of believing in these contexts, or is something less cognitive demanded in moral faith? Adams chooses to concentrate on some of the concrete features of moral faith that incline him to speak of “belief” here. For no theory on metaethical issues is likely to attain a very high degree of certainty. Moral faith is therefore a stance we will have to take, if we are reasonable, in the face of the recognition that any metaethical theory we may hold could rather easily be mistaken. So it would be good to have an understanding of the stance that does not presuppose very much metaethics.

Adams thinks both will and feeling are involved in moral faith, but he does not think that moral faith is merely will and feeling, or that believing another person’s life is worth living is merely caring about that life. It’s not just a volitional matter; an intention central to moral faith is an intention of respecting something more commanding, more external to the self than mere personal preference and feeling.

This is the most important reason for speaking of moral faith as a sort of “belief,” and it is connected with the possibility of error. Faith confronts a temptation to doubt precisely because such possibilities of error must be recognized, and in a way respected.

Emotions too can be mistaken, but it’s far from clear that we can understand how an emotion of faith in the value of life can be inappropriately related to reality if we can’t understand how faith can be, or involve, a false belief that life is worth living. In any event, the possibility of an objectively appropriate or inappropriate relation to reality is precisely the aspect of moral belief most subject to metaethical doubts, and also the aspect that seems to Adams most important to the nonegocentric character of moral faith.

Connected with the possibility of error is the giving of reasons for and against beliefs. In thinking about items of moral faith one uses logic, one aims at consistency and at coherence with one’s beliefs on other subjects, and one is responsive to one’s sense of “plausibility,” as we sometimes put it. All of that provides grounds for classifying moral faith as a sort of belief.

Particular interest attaches to the question of responsiveness or unresponsiveness of moral faith to the evidence of experience. Our faith in the value of particular human lives, in the value and the possibility of a moral life, and in the possibility of a common good, can be put under strain by particular experiences. Indeed, adverse experience is precisely what gives rise, as Adams has argued, to a problem of evil for moral faith.

There is thus a considerable empirical element in faith in moral ends. But Adams does not believe that science, or social science, could devise a definitive empirical test of the truth of faith in any moral end. Objects of faith have vaguer contours that permit reformulation in the face of adverse experience, so we can’t identify experiences that are unequivocally predicted or excluded by such items of faith as that so-and-so’s life is worth living. So faith is not normally subject to definitive proof or refutation by any specifiable finite set of experiences. And from the perspective of moral faith, this is as it should be, for moral faith is supposed to be resistant to adverse evidence.

Empiricists may take offense at this feature of faith. Faith as such is indeed resistant to adverse experience, and is apt to revise itself before simply accepting refutation. Flew is right that faith is in danger of evacuating itself of content if its resistance is undiscriminating or absolutely unconditional. Nonetheless, Adams believes that resistance to adverse experience, and to refutation in general, is an appropriate feature of faith; and he will argue this with specific reference to moral faith.

Our interest in items of faith is importantly different from our interest in scientific hypotheses. Conclusive falsification of a hypothesis is progress in science. But falsification of an item of faith is not progress—at least not from the perspective within which it is an item of faith. To think that falsification of the belief in morality itself, or of the belief that a moral life is worth living, might be pure progress is already to hold an amoral view, a morally bad view. A loss of moral faith would be the loss of something precious.

When we resist refutation of an item of moral faith, we may, and should, be thinking of the danger of being misled into giving it up while it is true. From a moral point of view that would be a worse mistake to make than the mistake of clinging to moral faith while it is false. Even if an item of moral faith is false, moreover, we are not likely in abandoning it to attain anything corresponding to the moral value of believing it if it is true. This is an important asymmetry.

The balance of potential payoffs is much more equal when it is a question of revising moral faith, rather than abandoning it. We can hope that revision of moral faith will be progress from a moral point of view. This is a further reason for thinking it is good for moral faith to combine a variable, revisable form with a vaguer but more enduring core, so that self-critical growth and development may be combined with constancy of commitment.

Items of faith are not hypotheses to be tested by experience, though we may well want their formulations to be tested by experience. Items of faith may in fact be tested by experience, but we are not trying to refute them. We are trying to live by them. It’s not that moral faith is wholly unempirical, let alone noncognitive, but that it involves a different way of accommodating thought to experience.

Maybe this suggests too stark a contrast between morality and science. Notoriously, the reliability of induction and more broadly of empirical scientific methods has been doubted by reasonable persons and it may not be possible to set the doubts to rest in a completely satisfying way. Yet a refutation of the reliability of induction would not be scientific progress in the same way that a refutation of the meteorite explanation of the extinction of dinosaurs might be. So perhaps there is a place, or even a need, for faith in the highest level beliefs of science, but for now Adams is content to make a point just about moral faith.

 

Believing and Hoping

A Twilight Musing

Two related contrasts came up in my devotional times this week:

  1. the distinction between optimism and hope (particularly Christian hope); and
  2. the profound difference between the popular saying, “Seeing is believing,” and the reverse of that, “Believing is seeing.”

The first of each pair is an expression of a secular, humanistic interpretation of reality, and latter of each pair embodies reality seen through the eyes of faith.  I would like to expound a bit on both pairs.

Optimism and Hope

Both optimism and hope go beyond the visible facts of the situation to which they are applied, but whereas optimism is a chosen attitude, hope is the embracing of confidence in what somebody has said.  Optimism can be merely the expression of a sunny disposition, or perhaps of a kind of naiveté; but hope is the conviction, based on a reliable source, that things are being engineered in a certain direction.  We can choose to be optimistic that the stock market will go up and the economy will prosper, but we can have hope for these developments only if we have inside information that we trust.  Optimism is subjective, whereas hope is grounded in the assurance that a promise will be fulfilled.

When the Bible speaks of hope, it is always connected with faith, and it is never merely a subjective choice to see things in the most positive light.  The Psalms are full of references to hope based on trusting God.  (All biblical passages are from the NIV.)

  Ps 33:20-21
 We wait in hope for the Lord ;
he is our help and our shield.
 In him our hearts rejoice,
for we trust in his holy name.
Isa 40:31
 but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Rom. 4: 18-22 shows the extreme of hope that perseveres because of belief in God’s faithfulness and the surety of His promise:

 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, "So shall your offspring be."  Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead — since he was about a hundred years old — and that Sarah's womb was also dead.  Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.

Heb. 6:17-19 makes clear that our hope in God’s promises is anchored in the Absolute Truth of Yahweh Himself:

Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath.  God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged.   We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.

Seeing is believing/Believing is seeing

All of us have encountered, at some time or another, the practical skepticism of someone who says, “Well, seeing is believing” (or some expression of that sentiment).  Applied to some situations, such as hearing the promises of someone who has proven himself to be untrustworthy, this response is appropriate and understandable.  But for some people, it becomes the expression of a materialistic epistemology, based on the assumption that the only questions worth asking (or answering) are those subject to rational, scientific investigation.

For a person of active faith, this aphorism has to be inverted: “Believing is seeing.”   The contrast between the two statements is very instructive about what is involved in living a life of faith.  At the center of this contrast is the implicit assertion in the first that only seeing can validate and inform believing, while the inverted statement affirms that believing is the foundation for truly seeing.  Augustine articulated the contrast by saying, “I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but rather, I believe in order that I may understand.”  Later, Anselm reinforced this idea with his maxim, “Credo ut intelligam,” which is a reflection of the scriptural statement that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7).  The core meaning of the biblical idea is that one must go beyond the narrow boundaries of what can be established merely by human observation and analysis and accept that the Source of all knowledge is the God Who gave us the power to think.  If we are to have a deep understanding of Truth, we must be grounded in a simple act of faith that accepts possibilities beyond what we can see.

As Paul says in Rom. 8:23-25, we “groan inwardly” in hope of “the redemption of our bodies.   For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?   But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”

Image: "Hope" by P. Herjolf. CC License. 

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.)

Summary of Part 2 of Robert Adams’ “Moral Faith” chapter of Finite and Infinite Goods: Faith in Moral Ends.

Finite and Infinite Goods

The second kind of moral faith we need pertains to the value and attainability of what we might call “moral ends.” Kant saw that moral commitment must set itself a certain end for whose attainment it aspires or hopes, yet that this end is only to a very limited extent within our power, so the possibility of the result for which the moral agent must hope depends on there being a moral order in the universe, which can only be reasonably supposed to exist through the action of a God, in whom we are therefore rationally obliged to believe, if we seriously aim at the end that morality sets as the comprehensive goal of our striving.

One place to begin thinking about faith in moral ends is with the question of whether human life is worth living. Whether your life is worth living. It’s morally important for morality to believe that other people’s lives are worth living. If your friends are going through hard times, they may or may not be tempted to despair. Either way it’s likely to be important to them to have your support as a person who believes in them and in the value of their lives. Having that faith might be essential to being a good friend, and not having it might be letting the other person down in a particularly hurtful way.

What does it take to have faith that a friend’s life, or one’s own, is worth living? It’s closely connected with caring about the person’s good, the friend’s or one’s own. It’s caring the person should be spared suffering pain. Caring more constructively about a person’s good involves taking that person’s life as a project that one prizes. If I care about your good, I add myself as a sponsor of the project. And this I can hardly do without believing that your life is worth living. To have faith that a person’s life is worth living will involve a certain resistance to reasons for doubting the value of that person’s life. Few judgments are more dangerous morally than the judgment that another person’s life is not worth living, or not worth living any more.

It’s also important to believe that distant lives, such as those that are lost to famine in Somalia, or to genocide in Bosnia, are worth living, or would be if they could be preserved.

Other instances of a need for faith in moral ends may be sought in connection with the question of whether the moral life is worth living. It’s hard to deny the moral importance of believing that the moral life will be good, or is apt to be good, for other people. For it is part of moral virtue to care both about the other person’s good and about the other person’s virtue. Morality requires that we encourage each other to live morally. But while few doubt that it is generally advantageous to have the rudiments of honesty and neighborliness, it is notoriously easier to doubt that some of the finer fruits of morality are good for their possessors, when all the consequences they may have are taken into account.

Another question about the value of the moral life is whether it is better for the world, or at least not bad for the world, and not too irrelevant to be worth living—that devotion to justice won’t result in futility. This trust is severely tested by both the failures and unforeseen consequences of moral efforts. Yet it does seem important for morality to believe that living morally is good for the world, or if not, then to believe that the moral life is of such intrinsic value that it is worth living for its own sake.

In these questions Adams has assumed that we can at least live moral lives. But that too can be doubted. Who, after all, emerges unscathed from a morally rigorous examination of conscience? We all have real moral faults, and yet it’s crucial for morality that we believe that moral effort can be successful enough to be worth making. For one can’t live morally without intending to do so, and one can’t exactly intend to do what one believes is totally impossible. Moral philosophers, with the notable exception of Kant, have paid less attention to this problem than they ought.

Adams mentions one more item of faith in a moral end. We might call it faith in the common good. It’s a matter of believing that the good of different persons is not so irreconcilably competitive as to make it incoherent to have the good of all persons as an end. If we can manage to view the problems of fairness and conflicting interests within the framework of a conception of human good that is predominantly cooperative, then we may still be able to take a stance that is fundamentally for everyone and against no one. What we must resist most strongly here is an ultracompetitive view of the pursuit of human good as a sort of zero-sum game, in which every good that anyone enjoys must be taken away from someone else. With such a view it would be impossible to include the good of all persons among one’s ends. It’s probably more tempting to endorse such a view more with nations or groups than with individuals.

Much of the temptation to doubt or abandon our beliefs in moral ends arises from the fact that these beliefs are concerned not only with ideals but also with the relation of ideals to actuality, the possibility of finding sufficient value in the lives of such finite, needy, suffering, ignorant, motivationally complex, and even guilty creatures as we are. Even if there’s a good philosophical answer to evil, it’s unlikely to silence the doubts.

This is the point at which Kant connected morality with religious belief. A belief in a moral order helps, but Adams rests content to have argued just that we have a moral need to believe in more particular possibilities of moral ends, as proximate objects of moral faith.

Adams then mentions a few objections to his argument, just one of which I’ll summarize here. It’s this: that the beliefs Adams demands are more high-flown than morality needs. It may be suggested that our beliefs about actuality will provide sufficient support for morality as long as we believe we’re doing pretty well within the moral system, that honesty is the best policy, that laws will be enforced against us, and so forth.

Adams responds like this: such low-flown beliefs may sustain minimal moral compliance, but won’t sustain moral virtue. Adams’ concern is with moral faith as a part of moral virtue. The attitudes of mind that morality demands are surely not limited to those involved in minimal moral compliance. Morality could hardly exist, indeed, if all or most people had no more than the attitudes of minimal moral compliance. There must be many people who have more virtue than that, for the morality of the merely compliant is largely responsive to the more deeply rooted morality of others. True virtue requires resources that will sustain it when society is supporting evil rather than good, and when there is considerable reason to doubt that honesty is the best policy from a self-interested point of view. Thus virtue requires more moral faith than mere compliance may.

 

Image: The Portals of Paradise by L. OP. CC License. 

Robert Adams on “Moral Faith”: Chapter 16 Finite and Infinite Goods: Part I

Finite and Infinite Goods

Immanuel Kant is perhaps the best known among those who speak of the need for “moral faith,” and his particular emphasis in this regard pertained to whether the moral life is possible and whether there’s correspondence between happiness and virtue. More recently Robert Adams has also spoken of the need for moral faith, and he identifies no less than five ways in which it is needed. For Adams the virtue of faith involves holding to a mean between vices of credulity and incredulity. In a provisional way, he puts it like this: Talk about faith is normally concerned with problems that arise from rational possibilities of doubting or disbelieving something that seems important to believe. For lack of complete evidence, or for the ability to doubt, or for resistance to belief, there’s room for doubting something that intuitively seems important to believe in, like morality; moral faith, then, helps bolster morality on those (perfectly legitimate) occasions of doubt. The five types of moral faith he discusses are (1) faith in morality; (2) faith in moral ends; (3) the cognitive aspect of moral faith; (4) the volitional aspect of moral faith; and (5) the emotional aspect of moral faith. In this post and four subsequent ones each Wednesday, we will briefly consider each in turn, starting today with faith in morality.

Adams says the first and most obvious object of moral faith is morality itself, or one’s own morality, the morality to which one adheres. When considering why be moral, or questions about the meaning of moral terms, or encountering Marxian thought or various “hermeneutics of suspicion,” we may well accept philosophical answers to such questions but remain uncomfortable about the extent to which the answers still seem debatable. These, Adams says, are among the ways in which a rational person might be seriously tempted to doubt the validity of morality in general, or of the morality that she herself nonetheless professes. Such questions about the validity of morality are all serious questions that are unlikely to be permanently cleared off the philosophical agenda.

One reason for this, he thinks, is that in responding to such fundamental philosophical issues it is often impossible to avoid a kind of circularity—by “some essential reliance on our ethical doxastic stance.” Of course, he adds, it doesn’t follow that we should not rely on the practice; indeed, he thinks we should, but that a certain level of rational discomfort with the situation seems appropriate.

Regarding our own particular morality, we are inevitably conscious in our pluralistic cultural situation of the many ways admirable people disagree with us on smaller and larger issues about ethics. Adams thinks this means that our ethical beliefs must be held together with the knowledge that there is a sense in which “we could be wrong.” Some moral convictions are nonnegotiable, certainly, but there remain many ways of looking at moral matters available to reasonable people. Yet surely it’s essential to a moral life to hold some strong beliefs about good and evil, right and wrong. Given the exposure of moral beliefs to possibilities of rational doubt, it appears that moral convictions will have to involve faith, in Adams’ sense of holding to a mean between vices of credulity and incredulity.

Image: "The faith series #1" by Daniel Horacio Agostini. CC license.