Poetry compels our attention and captures our imagination. It draws us out of our perspective into another’s.Read More
Incarnation has come to be a theological word associated primarily with the embodiment of God Himself in human flesh, living for a time on earth with the name of Jesus of Nazareth. He was also given the name of “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). But “God with us” means more than the fact that the Son of God was historically present on earth for a short time. When He went back to Heaven to be with the Father, His place was taken by the Holy Spirit, so that the joyful Presence of God within us is the “hope of glory.” Just as Jesus’ time on earth was lived and terminated for a larger purpose, so we, dying to the flesh, will find His Presence in these mortal bodies to be fulfilled by being resurrected into the eternal Presence of God. God’s Incarnation is reenacted in us, adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.
The three poems below present responses to and experiences of the Incarnation. In “The Husbandry of God,” Mary wrestles with the implications and the aftermath of yielding herself to be the instrument by which the God of Heaven would be incubated and born into the world. She is the willing ground into which divine seed will be planted to bear the fruit of Heaven, and therein she prefigures the process by which every believer in the Messiah becomes a recipient of the Presence of God and by His power reaps eternal life.
The Husbandry of God
How can I contain this word from the Lord?
His light has pierced my being
And sown in single seed
Both glory and shame.
Content was I
To wed in lowliness
And live in obscurity,
With purity my only dower.
Now, ravished with power,
I flout the conventions of man
To incubate God.
In lowliness how shall I bear it?
In modesty how shall I tell it?
What now shall I become?
But the fruit of God's planting
Is His to harvest.
No gleaner I, like Ruth,
But the field itself,
In whom my Lord lies hid.
In “Immanuel,” the “one birth” at the center of the poem both emanates from and ends in God’s Presence. In the first triplet, we look back to the source of the unique “one birth”; in the last triplet we see the results of the “one birth.” God became flesh that we might truly know Him, and He truly know us.
In God's Presence
Is the essence
Of perfect earth;
In one birth
Knows all earth
Of God's Presence.
Finally, “And the Word Became Flesh” emphasizes that it was the very essence, or “Word” of God Who gave up His rightful place beside the Father and came in the form of a fleshly baby. In His short earthly ministry, He steadfastly walked the road to a death He did not deserve, and thereby enabled us who believe in Him to become children of God, inhabited by His Presence as a guarantee that we will someday abide eternally in His Presence.
"And the Word Became Flesh"
When Word invested in flesh,
No matter the shrouds that swathed it;
The donning of sin's poor corpse
Was rightly wrapped in robes of death.
Yet breath of God
Broke through the shroud,
Dispersed the cloud
That darkened every birth before.
Those swaddling bands bespoke
A glory in the grave,
When flesh emerged as Word.
Take up this flesh, O Lord:
Re-form it with Your breath,
That, clothed in wordless death,
It may be Your Word restored.
In a literature class this semester, we read Misha Nogha’s “Chippoke Na Gomi,” an intriguing and provocative science fiction story exploring the repercussions of atomic weaponry and the responsibilities we have to each other. It’s a weighty tale whose pathos pulls at the reader’s heart strings and reminds us of the interconnectedness of the human race, that the harm imposed on others will not—cannot—stay contained. For those readers already predisposed toward empathy, the story’s charge to care for the world can feel overwhelming, which was exactly the case for one of my students. What do we do, she asked me, seeing the world in such need of help and knowing ourselves unequal to the task? I’m grateful that she asked the question because it gave me the opportunity to wrestle with it myself. Here are a few of the thoughts I shared with her, posted here with her permission:
What you bring up is so important and crucial to wrestle with. We can’t let go of either conviction—that the injustices of this world must be rectified and that there’s only so much we can do to fix them. But putting those two realities side-by-side seems to create an intractable problem—the world’s ills will not abate, nor will our resources to solve them suddenly increase exponentially. I think sometimes the response, then, is either to become callous to the problems of the world (understandably so, if only for sanity’s sake) or to run oneself ragged, attempting to care for any and all comers (this, too, is understandable because otherwise it feels like we’ve abdicated our humanity and failed to take seriously the demands of justice).
Neither option is desirable or, truth be told, even tenable. What do we do then? Are we stuck always having to choose between our humanity and our sanity? I think what’s important to keep in mind is that while justice—for all, not only for some—must be served and while we as Christians must participate in that process, the full enactment of that justice is not dependent on us. It is God’s to fulfill, his redemption to enact.
If you’re wanting a biblical reminder of this truth, the Sermon on the Mount might be a good passage to revisit, especially Matthew 6:33: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” We long for heaven, for a world redeemed; your empathy, I think, taps into the truth that human beings are infinitely valuable and deserve so much better than this world and other human beings can offer (themselves included). But such empathy must be tempered with an awareness of our creaturely status, as we are as much in need of redemption ourselves as those other creatures we long to see restored and valued rightly.
The good intention of loving others and wanting to help them can easily be twisted into pride and self-reliance. The better way is to surrender yourself to God’s will, your love of others and unique insights about suffering to his service, and your gifts and talents to his purposes. He will use you as he sees fit; it may take a little time to find your specific calling among the many worthy tasks before us (and, especially relevant for your question, among the many, many needs of this world). Some helpful resources along those lines include this Andy Crouch article, Kevin DeYoung’s Just Do Something, and Tim Keller’s Every Good Endeavor.
I do think ultimately, though, it’s absolutely essential to keep in mind that the promise of salvation, for redemption of the world, is God’s to give and to fulfill. I think sometimes, if we’re honest with ourselves, that might be a bitter pill to swallow because doing so absolutely requires us to face our own pride and delusions of grandeur. But it’s good to do—to be honest with ourselves about those impulses—because only then can God expose that hidden hubris, camouflaged though it is in something good, allowing us to confess it and surrender it to him.
Hello readers of MoralApologetics.com,
We are excited to share that The Morals of the Story has won an Award of Merit from Christianity Today! The award is given to books Christianity Today believes are “most likely to shape evangelical life, thought, and culture.” The Morals of the Story was written by two of the editors at MoralApologetics.com, David and Marybeth Baggett.
Congratulations, Dr. David Baggett and Dr. Marybeth Baggett!
What arguments best support the existence of God?
For centuries the moral argument—that objective morality points to the existence of God—has been a powerful apologetic tool.
In this volume, David and Marybeth Baggett offer a dramatic, robust, and even playful version of the moral argument. Tracing both its historical importance and its contemporary relevance, they argue that it not only still points to God's existence but that it also contributes to our ongoing spiritual transformation.
Hello readers of MoralApologetics.com,
We have some good news! The Morals of the Story, written by our own editors, David and Marybeth Baggett, has made it to the final round in the 2018 Readers’ Choice Awards! If you’d like to vote for this book, just follow the link. Thank you!
What arguments best support the existence of God?
For centuries the moral argument—that objective morality points to the existence of God—has been a powerful apologetic tool.
In this volume, David and Marybeth Baggett offer a dramatic, robust, and even playful version of the moral argument. Tracing both its historical importance and its contemporary relevance, they argue that it not only still points to God's existence but that it also contributes to our ongoing spiritual transformation.
It’s a memorable moment, but again, Neville—like Hermione—has been prepared for such a time as this; the courage he displays here has been built through earlier decisions and courageous acts. Even if the stakes were smaller then, they were nonetheless challenges to be overcome. A memorable training ground for Neville’s stand against Voldemort, for example, was his earlier stand against his friends stopping them from leaving the common room in order to prevent punishment to the whole house. For this act, he is rewarded with ten points for Gryffindore, as Dumbledore announces, “There are all kinds of courage. . . . It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies, but just as much to stand up to your friends.” Crucially, Neville challenges his friends out of a pure heart, not for selfish reasons. Courage is not to be confused with rash and dangerous action; it is instead principled action in the face of fear. For this reason, C. S. Lewis elevates courage above other virtues: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Neville stands up to his friends because he loves them. Love being the motivating virtue for all the others and the most important of all the virtues practiced by the characters and taught by the series.
I think, in fact, that what most attracts readers, what accounts for the Harry Potter phenomenon is this simple yet profound truth: that love will, in fact, save the world. But, and here’s the kicker, love costs. Love is no insubstantial, sentimental thing; it is tough as nails and powerful—it requires force and a humble, courageous act of will. For, as Plato has argued, the virtues truly are unified—they support and reinforce one another to enable us to become the people we ought to be. The education Harry Potter offers is to recognize the value of humility, courage, and most importantly love and to steel us to embrace the cost and to impress deeply upon us that that cost is worth the reward. This pattern—of a desperate situation, a dramatic self-sacrifice, and a hope affirmed through that sacrifice—runs throughout the book and appears both in the overarching narrative and the smaller stories that make up the whole. Through these depictions, Rowling is training her readers to see beyond the immediate and to recognize the even deeper reality of a world ruled by justice and redeemed by love. Individual enactments of humility, courage, and love are inseparable from justice and love’s ultimate triumph. In the soil of Rowling’s books the reader’s moral imagination can grow alongside those of the central characters. Not only is love what is being taught to these characters (and readers) as they grow up; it’s the catalyst for their learning.
In this summer’s popular documentary, Fred Rogers reminds us that “love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” The arc of Harry’s story highlights this deep truth. As powerful as the series’ climax is—where Harry surrenders himself to Voldemort to save his beloved friends and professors—it could never have happened if it weren’t for his mother’s sacrificial act to protect him from Voldemort as a child. And I don’t mean this in the obvious way—that Harry would not have lived were it not for his mother’s protection. I mean it in the way the book makes clear—Lily Potter denies herself in favor of her son, finds courage to stand up against an implacable enemy despite the overwhelming odds that he will prevail, and plants deep within her son a knowledge of love’s power that cannot be shaken; Harry loves well because his mother first loved him. As Dumbledore explains to Harry: “Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign ... to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.”
Even still, Harry must grow into that love, step by step and choice by choice. He does so with the encouragement of loving mentors and pseudo-parents. Dumbledore, especially. As a precursor to Harry’s self-sacrifice in Deathly Hollows, Dumbledore allows Snape to kill him. That Dumbledore took this step gave force to the encouragement and support he offers Harry at King’s Cross Station. Pottermore elaborates on this important scene in the following commentary that’s helpful for underscoring how Dumbledore’s character is simultaneously formed and revealed through his actions:
[D]espite the faults, despite Dumbledore perhaps not being the perfect wizard Harry thought he was, never before has Dumbledore seemed more heroic. For men and women are not born great. They learn greatness over time – from experience, from mistakes. Dumbledore looked at his deeds, at his flaws, and he had the wisdom to confront and overcome them; he fought the greatest nemesis there was: himself. . . . Who better to teach the next generation of wizards? Who better to face Lord Voldemort? Who better to send Harry on his way from King’s Cross station, with one last piece of wisdom: “Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.”
The wisdom Dumbledore offers Harry is wedded to his practice; more importantly, it has grown out of that practice. And Harry has learned well, as he goes out to surrender to Voldemort. It’s a beautiful picture of someone who has embraced and embodied the moral education of these many years. It’s one that resonates with readers, as sales and the popularity of the books and its ancillary products shows. But what readers do with that story matters just as much as the story itself. Have we embraced our own moral education inspired by these books? William James reminds us that without putting what we learned through literature into practice, the experience is the opposite of educative; it is utterly self-indulgent:
The weeping of a Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coach-man is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale. . . . One becomes filled with emotions which habitually pass without prompting to any deed, and so the inertly sentimental condition is kept up. The remedy would be, never to suffer one's self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterward in some active way. Let the expression be the least thing in the world -speaking genially to one's aunt, or giving up one's seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers - but let it not fail to take place.
Rightly read, good literature—the enchanted and non-enchanted varieties alike—habituates our hearts and minds outwardly, to practice humility, bolster our courage, and embrace love. We can—and I think should—lament our current state of affairs, how the worst of times are at present being instantiated: the bitter rivalries, the no-holds barred angry rhetoric, and the general sense of despair. We also can—and dare I say must—fasten our present hopes to the eternal verities that will not disappoint. Good stories can show us the way.
Humility is an apt starting point in talking about education of any kind—moral or otherwise. Without humility, a student is unteachable, thinking themselves better than another or self-sufficient. The arc of Hermione’s story exemplifies both the challenges a lack of humility poses to real intellectual and moral growth and the possibilities of further moral development that can stem from embracing this important habit of heart and mind. In that way, humility truly is what Edmund Burke calls it: the “firm foundation of all virtues,” making way for the full flowering of a person’s spirit and soul. It’s important, however, to distinguish between humiliation and humility. Humility is not to think terribly of oneself, but to think rightly. It is to know one’s strengths and weaknesses. As Mother Theresa once explained, “If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are.” Humiliation, on the other hand, is debasement without respect. Hermione first tasted this humiliation in The Chamber of Secrets, standing out as a Muggle-born among the mostly pure-blood wizards that make up the Hogwarts student body. Draco exploits this vulnerability, angrily dismissing her defense of the Gryffindor Quidditch team with, “[n]o one asked your opinion, you filthy little Mudblood.”
Understandably, as the story progresses, Hermione responds poorly to these slights, by flaunting her strengths (her book learning and firm grasp on class material). Errors come in pairs, as C. S. Lewis has noted, and Hermione swings wildly from the degradation she experienced to an outsized pride, manifested at the expense of Ron. As he struggles in class to cast the prescribed spell, Hermione presumes to lecture him: “You're saying it wrong. . . . It's Wing-gar-dium Levi-o-sa, make the ‘gar’ nice and long.” Unsurprisingly, Ron doesn’t take kindly to this condescension and later says, within Hermione’s earshot, that “it's no wonder no one can stand her. . . . She's a nightmare, honestly.” While this is admittedly not the best start for their relationship, the education enabled by Hermione’s overcorrection and Ron’s candid admission plays out well for all involved and eventually forms the beginning bonds of a strong and life-giving friendship.
We know the details—Hermione, hurt, isolates herself in the girl’s bathroom. When a troll gets loose in the castle, Ron and Harry take off to find her and, after many missteps, rescue her from the troll’s rampage. Through this experience, Hermione modulates her view of herself and others. Friedrich Nietzsche may have thought humility a vice, a trait unworthy of the “overman” because it keeps one beholden to others, but the Harry Potter series, through scenes like this one, demonstrates humanity’s interdependence and the importance of recognizing and honoring our interconnections. The value of humility is highlighted by Hermione’s acknowledgment of the debt she owes to Harry and Ron: "I'm not as good as you,” Harry tells her. To which Hermione responds: “Me! . . . Books! And cleverness! There are more important things – friendship and bravery.” Hermione has learned well the essential lessons of humility, which Flannery O’Connor has captured in this insight: “To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility. . . .”
And upon the humility Hermione develops in book 1 is built much good work. Her advocacy for the house elves, who have historically been poorly treated and ill-thought-of, stems from her own self-acceptance and humble service. Rather than rejecting her precarious social position as a mud-blood on the margins, Hermione embraces it and finds solidarity with others who find themselves similarly maligned. Out of that solidarity, S.P.E.W. (the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) is born, a gesture reminiscent of the kindly acts of Hagrid toward magical creatures, especially those that were unwanted or thought dangerous. Humility, these stories teach us, breeds compassion and empathy, essential components of a strong community.
Two things are important to keep in mind here: First, humility does not come upon a person unbidden; it is a discipline, instilled and strengthened through one’s choices. In the excruciating spot that Hermione found herself in, smarting from Malfoy’s earlier insult and confronted by her own prideful treatment of Ron and the barrier it put between them, she had to test her true self against these extremes—and to recognize that the reality of who she is lay somewhere in between. She is neither the lowly outcast Draco marks her as nor the all-important bigshot she has presented herself as in class. She is intelligent and clever, book-smart and logical, yet she needs others to keep her weaknesses in check and to complement her strengths.
Second, humility, compassion, and empathy—to make a positive difference—must be made manifest in one’s actions and interactions with others. Doing so, especially when the stakes are high and there’s a price to pay, requires courage, a virtue that animates much of the plot of the series. Most of the major characters are afforded an opportunity to demonstrate courage. These opportunities come when something or someone they value is in jeopardy and they must act to protect them. Some characters, like Peter Pettigrew, choose cowardice to preserve themselves rather than defy their fear and risk themselves for something or someone more important. Sirius Black acknowledges that Peter was in a difficult spot—caught between Lord Voldemort and a hard place: betray the Potters or die. But the fear Pettigrew felt was no excuse for his infidelity. To borrow a line from Nelson Mandela, courage is not the absence of fear but the “triumph over it.” Sirius puts the lie to Peter’s sniveling excuses: “What was there to be gained by fighting the most evil wizard who has ever existed? . . . Only innocent lives, Peter!” Peter stubbornly clings to his fear to vindicate himself: “You don’t understand! . . . He would have killed me, Sirius!” Black is having none of it; the right choice in such a situation is as chilling as it is clear: “THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED! . . . DIED RATHER THAN BETRAY YOUR FRIENDS, AS WE WOULD HAVE DONE FOR YOU!”
That sounds incredible for anyone to have done such a thing, to have faced the Dark Lord with the prospect of certain death. But Professor McGonagall does what Pettigrew fails to. She revolts against the Death Eaters who have taken over Hogwarts, with the final straw being Amycus Carrow’s willingness to allow children to take the brunt of Voldemort’s fury in his invasion of the castle. In a phrase reminiscent of Pettigrew, Carrow asks, “Couple of kids more or less, what’s the difference?” McGonagall, like Sirius, realizes what’s at stake: “Only the difference between truth and lies, courage and cowardice, . . . a difference, in short, which you and your sister seem unable to appreciate. But let me make one thing very clear. You are not going to pass off your many ineptitudes on the students of Hogwarts. I shall not permit it.”
At least one Hogwarts student takes to heart the lesson in courage McGonagall and the other faculty teach, Neville Longbottom. Neville, to put it mildly, is an unlikely foe for Voldemort but one who nonetheless dares to oppose him. Rowling vividly captures Neville’s panic as Voldemort uses him as an example—pinning him down with the sorting hat and setting it on fire. Once Harry breaks him free, Neville moves quickly, and in one of the most dramatic scenes of the books, takes out the children’s greatest enemy: “The slash of the silver blade could not be heard over the roar of the oncoming crowd, or the sounds of the clashing giants, or of the stampeding centaurs, and yet it seemed to draw every eye. With a single stroke, Neville sliced off the great snake’s head, which spun high into the air, gleaming in the light flooding from the Entrance Hall, and Voldemort’s mouth was open in a scream of fury that nobody could hear, and the snake’s body thudded to the ground at his feet.”
The opening lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities are among the most recognizable passages in literature—it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The description is simultaneously timeless and time-bound: written in Victorian England, depicting the eve of the French Revolution, but somehow no matter how much time passes, it seems that they ring perpetually true. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Isn’t it always?
In short compass, Dickens manages to draw from his historical moment a broader truth about the human condition: “[I]t was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” We humans, it seems, are continually caught between two extremes: our promise, creative potential, and idealistic possibilities on the one side and our hubris, destructive capacities, and cynical bent on the other. If you don’t believe me, a quick glimpse at your social media feed will prove my point.
Okay, yes, admittedly—we’re nowhere near French-Revolution-era craziness. No one’s brought out the guillotines. At least not yet. But I daresay that most of us can recognize something of our current cultural moment in this iconic Dickens quote. We rally behind one another in the wake of national disasters, volunteering our time and money to restore communities; meanwhile other communities are languishing in the thrall of opioid abuse. Our technological and artistic ingenuity is at an all-time high, with brilliant new gadgets and imaginative creations released daily, while fraud and corruption, violence and ill-health run rampant across the country.
How then do we proceed? What might provide some hope in these troubled times? There are a slew of answers on offer, many of them politically focused—protest, lobby, legislate, vote, agitate. While I don’t think those responses are wrong per se, I do think that absent a personal, individual revolution of the wills and characters of those who make up society, these political maneuvers will merely widen the divide between us, and deepen the challenges we face. Dickens, concerned as he was with the state of Victorian culture and its societal tendencies that had ground many of its people down, suggests another avenue for correction. George Orwell—of all writers—found something about this vision compelling, even if he himself preferred the political: “There is no clear sign that [Dickens] wants the existing order to be overthrown,” Orwell reflects, “or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. . . . His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently, the world would be decent.”
J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, I think, follows this same line of thought. She has, in fact, identified Dickens as an important influence on her work. Like Dickens, Rowling is asking about the cause of our woes and what remedies are on offer and, I argue, drawing similar conclusions. In the pages of her seven highly imaginative, fantastical Harry Potter books, we find—surprisingly enough—a realistic world much like ours, filled with characters that mirror the best and worst of us and who experience the very same joy and despair. Like us, Rowling’s wizards and witches long for good to prevail over the evil they see around them and sincerely want to do the right thing. Well, most of them anyway.
But those others are just as instructive in the moral arc of Rowling’s story and especially in the lessons it provides for readers. Because, let’s face it, Rowling—like most great storytellers—is a master teacher. Harry Potter is not simply set at a school; the series itself is a school, training readers to recognize, prefer, and enact what is good and right. The venerable Roman poet Horace famously said that literature should teach and delight, and Rowling executes his charge well, as readers watch her characters navigate situations that challenge their heart and mind, identify and hone their values and beliefs, and ultimately shape their very selves in their moral choices—for good or ill.
At the center of this education, of course, is the enchanted Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Each year, young wizards throughout Britain await their acceptance letters with bated breath (or for muggle-borns like Hermione, are taken by surprise by them). These spirited scholars head off each fall to the fabled Scottish castle, to take up exotic subjects like transfiguration, potions, herbology, and the daunting defense against the dark arts. Here they get initiated into the world their older siblings and parents have already been a part of—learning to fly, caring for magical creatures, and finally trying their hand at apparition. It’s a fanciful world, and I know we’d all welcome our own Hogwarts invite. But as whimsically as it’s described, we can’t forget that the curriculum is not merely fun and games for these students. It’s real, hard work. They train, practice, fail, try again. They sometimes face disagreeable and downright cruel professors yet have to learn the material despite those challenges. Those O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s won’t pass themselves.
These magical skills are crucial to living in Harry, Hermione, and Ron’s world, and the three friends have varying degrees of success mastering them. Arguably these wondrous features are what make Harry Potter the phenomenon it is. Readers thrill at the games of Quidditch, imagining the students aloft on their broomsticks. They cheer for Harry as he participates in the Triwizard Tournament, putting his magical training to the test. Without the children’s initiation to magic, they’d have no access to Platform nine and three quarters or Diagon Alley, no Patronus charm to fend off the dreaded Dementors. The spells and charms and magical properties of myriad objects in Harry Potter enlarge the story’s possibilities to be sure. Pictures move and talk, invisibility and shape-shifting are live options, as are mind reading and talking with snakes. But, even though magic is at the crux of the Hogwarts curriculum, these magical techniques do not constitute the real education the books offer—neither to the characters nor to the readers. These, in fact, are mere machinery, available to the good and bad characters alike. In fact, someone as wicked as Voldemort has magical abilities at least as strong as those of the virtuous Dumbledore, if not more so. On a smaller scale, we see this contrast play out between Harry and his friends and Draco Malfoy and his.
In The Sorcerer’s Stone these children arrive at Hogwarts full of promise, and in many ways, both sets of friends follow the same path: taking classes, learning their spells, and growing in magical acumen. But that similarity is of little concern to the story; what matters more—what is in fact crucial—is that their paths diverge, as they learn (or reject) the deeper lessons and inculcate in themselves (or don’t) the virtues of friendship and love. They—and we—learn well what Dumbledore notes in The Chamber of Secrets, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” What the contrasts between Harry’s and Draco’s friends show is that an education caught up in teaching only technique—encouraging children’s hands and minds but not guiding their heart—is not one worthy of its name. I think we all know this, but that often doesn’t translate to the dominant view of education in our own world. We don’t have magic, of course, but technology seems to function similarly for us. Who hasn’t, at least once, been wowed by the newest gadget? Every year we hear about new medical advances, feats of modern engineering, and manufacturing capabilities that would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago. Arthur C. Clark captures the connection well with his proverbial quip, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
As with those in Harry Potter, we can easily confuse (or prefer) technical expertise and training with humane education. In many higher education circles, this shift toward the technical and practical—this emphasis on vocational training over the liberal arts—is just about complete. The number of humanities majors are shrinking, and fewer state dollars are going to support the liberal arts overall, deemed too impractical to add value to communities. On one hand, this shift is understandable. People need jobs. The market is changing, and demand for technical skill is on the rise. However, the danger, as I see it, in getting so fixated on these technological pursuits, we might become mindless technophiles, subordinating all else to what Neil Postman has identified as “the sovereignty of technique and technology.”
In other words, we might mistake the means of education for the end of education. But, as Postman notes, “Any education that is mainly about economic utility is far too limited to be useful, and, in any case, so diminishes the world that it mocks one’s humanity.” The Harry Potter series knows (and shows) that, although the magic it depicts (and the technology of our world that it mimics) may mesmerize us, it is neither the cause of nor the solution to our deepest human problems. Instead, the story directs our attention to other, more fundamental concerns—the virtues that make the real differences in the characters’ lives and well-being, chief among them are humility, courage, and love. These virtues are the bedrock of a good life and our full development as human beings; they nurture and grow our spirit and soul. These are the lessons taught by Rowling, learned by Harry and his friends, and inculcated in the readers’ imaginations.
The goodness of God is perhaps nowhere more in question than in situations of unexpected loss—especially when this loss is of your happy and healthy 6-month-old son. A year ago, October 7, 2017, the dark cloud of death appeared over my family and brought with it a deluge of grief and flash floods of confusion, pain, and frustration after my son Landry failed to wake up from a routine nap. In the aftermath that followed in those difficult first few weeks and months, the slowly receding waters of despair revealed a new reality for our family that remains something from which we are healing to this day. On several occasions, the murky deeps even drew out an ancient serpent who hoped to sink its venomous fangs into my weakness and inject the poison of doubt concerning what I have publicly professed as a maturing believer, pastor, and theologian—doubts of God in general and of his goodness in particular. And yet, my commitment to and assurance of a good God, in spite of this horrible calamity, remains, and, in fact, is more certain than ever before. How can this be?
When Goodness Doesn’t Register
It is well known that the Christian worldview argues that a good God offers hope that brings perseverance in seasons of tribulation to those who know and belong to him. One iteration of this principle is recorded in 1 Peter 1:6-7:
In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
This passage teaches that the good promised in the future is able to provide needed perseverance in present difficulties. However, there are those moments in which this particular implication of the promised goods offered by a benevolent God seems especially distant and even foreign. Being reminded of how good God is in providing future hope while in the throes of great suffering might be compared to a flood insurance agent knocking on your door, hoping to sell you a policy for the next major weather event while there is still standing water in your house.
Both of these situations share the promise of coming answers and aid and yet both do not yield immediate comfort and/or present satisfaction for one’s existential confusion. Put differently, there may be at least one situation (acute grief and loss) in which a straightforward moral argument for God or the future goods that he provides is not the most appropriate means of rescuing someone from doubt and disillusionment. It certainly wasn’t what contributed to my resolve to remain a Christian theist in my darkest hour.
Other Goods and Cumulative Apologetics
Interestingly, even the apostle Peter appears to have recognized this in his first epistle. Prior to promising perseverance in trials (supported by the future hope offered by a good God) he reminds his audience of other foundational truths that are apologetically useful and uniquely evidenced.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5)
In this lead up to the passage cited earlier, Peter appears to predicate any and all future hope for salvation and all of the good things that entails with the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This integral event happens to be one of the most thoroughly evidenced episodes in all of history. Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, William Lane Craig, and company have devoted decades to demonstrating that not only is the resurrection of Jesus Christ possible, it is the most probable explanation for all the available historical data that is conceded by the widest variety of critical scholarship. This data includes but is not limited to the following: the fact of Jesus’ death, the presence of an empty tomb three days later, the radical transformation suffered by the disciples in general and James and Paul in particular, the spread of the resurrection story in the proximity of Jerusalem (exactly where the events were said to have transpired and where they could have easily been investigated), the explosion of the early church, the instigation of Sunday worship, etc.
The evidential case made for this important event not only helps the believer defend a central component of Christianity and, by proxy, a myriad of other connected theological teachings, it is not as prone to the kind of emotional scrutiny and skepticism that the concept of a good God is (that is, when articulated in isolation), especially in tragic situations. In other words, one can know/remember in a primarily intellectual way that there are good reasons to affirm belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead along with its theological implications even if/when their existential experience has them doubting God’s goodness. This appears to be Peter’s agenda in his encouragement. When one suffers tribulation that interrupts his conviction in God’s goodness because of a tidal wave of emotion, he can still remember on a more cognitive level that there are good reasons to affirm other fundamental elements in his system. This initial step then has the potential to lead, eventually, to the acceptance of God’s work and many attributes—including but not limited to his divine benevolence. This became especially clear to me when on what would have been my late son’s first birthday, we celebrated Easter Sunday. On that day my Christian convictions were reinforced not by what I felt, or even directly by any formal moral argument, but by a miraculous event that transpired some 2000 years ago and the many strong reasons to affirm its historicity. It was only after this primarily intellectual recollection was made that I was able, in time, to reacquaint myself with more distant affirmations.
One may wonder, especially in the miry depths of despair, how the alleged resurrection of some Nazarene two thousand years ago can provide hope for anyone. Even if he was raised, what is that to me? Whether raised or not, still here I am, drowning, gasping for air. While in the dark, questions come quickly, incessantly. One question comes, perhaps, more naturally than the others: “Oh Jesus of Nazareth, what is this hope to me? How will you right these wrongs? How will you make my family, my son, and me whole again?” In the dark of the deep, only the brightest light will reach the bottom. So, what does the reality of Jesus and his empty tomb offer those who weep?
In that dark place, after recalling Christ’s most wondrous resurrection (affirmed by compelling evidences), I was reminded of several of his claims. Chief among these was his claim to be “the light of the word” (Jn 8:12)--a phrase often heard, but not frequently understood. When Jesus said these words, he was at the Jewish Festival of Lights. Around the temple, bowls were filled with oil and the wicks were so large, they were made from old priestly garments. When lit, the entire temple was filled with the blazing light. Since Jerusalem sits perched on a hill with the temple at the top, one would have seen the lamps burning for miles around.
The light of the golden lamps represented at least two things for the Jews at the feast. First, it was a reminder of the Exodus and of God in the pillar of fire. As the pillar of fire, God would lead Israel to the promised land and he would be in their midst. The Jews also saw the fire and hoped for a new Exodus, where God once again free them from oppression and be with them. God will liberate his people. But the light also represented God himself. After all, the temple was meant to be God’s dwelling place. In fact, there are many occurrences in the Old Testament in which God is said to be light or like light. For example, Isaiah (60:20) tells us that in the day of the messiah, “Your sun will no longer set; your moon will not disappear; the LORD will be your permanent source of light; your time of sorrow will be over.”
It was during this ceremony that Jesus declared, “I am the light world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12).
What this Nazarene offers, then, is Emmanuel, God with us. He offers peace, where “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4). That is some solace, indeed. What Jesus offers is to make all wrongs right, even the death of a son. How this will be accomplished may be a mystery, but that is the promise. Here is the lighthouse whose penetrating beams reach through the depths of grief.
This short testimony reveals the necessity of a well-rounded, multi-valent apologetic system. A cumulative case for God and his work is essential, because if one is either dependent on or tethered to a single argument/style or argumentation, he runs the risk of being broken loose when the storm strikes, doubt overwhelms, and skepticism rises. To encourage the church and effectively communicate in compelling ways to the secularist, the Christian theist must be equipped with a variety of cases for God and employ them appropriately to reach people where they are emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and otherwise. In my personal odyssey, it was the strict evidential case for the resurrection that acted as a lifeline that both kept me connected to my theism and eventually reacquainted me with other elements therein. In this an many other cases, more immediately assessible arguments are able to draw those at risk of drowning in darkness to other truths that slowly, but most assuredly, betray the guiding light that leads the way back to glorious God from whom are all good things.
The Goodness of God
In providing multiple evidences and/or arguments for his existence that can be employed in a multiplicity of situations (from the highly emotional to the academic), God shows something about himself that appears far off when tragedy strikes—his goodness. Only a good God would provide proof of himself that is capable of both piercing through the flood waters of grief and being intelligibly apprehended by people who are struggling to believe that he is benevolent in those painful moments. One might say that by providing arguments in addition to the moral argument, God once again demonstrates how utterly good he really is, and of that I am most assured even after losing my son.
A colleague passed this question along from a student:
Hello, throughout my life I have always sought ought the guidance and insight of pastors of my churches and the Christian teachers at my schools. I base my religious view on history, faith, reason, and observation. I weigh most heavily on reason and try to figure out specific things that test my faith. Through this reasoning I have grown closer to the Lord. I have formed multiple questions that aren’t usually told in Christian school or churches, but questions that beckon my mind and soul. A lot of the question I have my personal answer to (and some are difficult to truly know the answer to until I can ask the Lord face to face in heaven), but I thoroughly enjoy asking other people their thoughts so that I may get insight on what they believe and possibly adapt my own view to fit what makes the most logical sense by means of a Christian standpoint. So, with all of that said, I have a question for you…
The Lord created all things, but Satan is able to distort such things and taint them. So, if God created everything, why did he allow evil to be even a thing? God gave humans and angels the ability of freewill so that we are not mindless drones who blindly love Him; because true love has to be voluntary. But why did He even create evil to be an alternative? He could have allowed for freewill without evil being an option. Why create sadness and pain? Sin and torment? Anger and distortion? It is a bit difficult to explain, especially since humans aren’t fully able to understand a world without all of this stuff, so the meat of the question can get lost In the folly of my ability to explain. But why would God create such evil and bad things? Satan could still have the freewill to love God or not love Him without the factor of evil being an option. Satan is unable to create matter. No one can. Only God can. Matter cannot be created; it can only be reformed and repurposed. So, that means Satan tainted life and caused sin to be defined as a tainted version of something God created (in a paraphrased sense), so then how come sin was even able to be created? Why is something being tainted an ability that God gave us? Again, it is hard for the human mind to understand in this fixed plane of existence, but what if God had allowed something even worse than sin to be able to come into being? Where would we be then? Why would God allow for such pain? Such with Job, who did everything unto the Lord. God allowed Satan to destroy his life to test if he would still love the Lord. Why would God need any more assurance that Job loved him? Why would He allow his people to be subject to such pain and sorrow? Sure, Job got stuff in the end, but nothing could replace certain things that he lost. That is like a father allowing a bully to beat up his kid just to see if the kid would still love his father (even though he knew that his dad told the bully to beat up his son). So why is such distortion and sin and pain and sorrow and evil even a possibility? Freewill can still be existent without evil. Why would God find it necessary to create such things?
Here's my reply:
Thanks so much for passing along your student’s intelligent and thoughtful questions. I’m happy to try my hand at addressing some of them—addressing, more than answering. Some of the questions, to my thinking, don’t lend themselves to easy answers at all. At best we can list some clues and hints, not necessarily anything systematic that can tie it all up in a bow. We continue to see through a glass darkly, and coming to terms with our epistemic limitations is a good thing. We should certainly use the minds God’s given us, but at the same time epistemic humility is a virtue, and acting like we know more than we do is a mistake and ultimately dishonoring to God. All of that to say: these are hard questions and don’t lend themselves to quick, pat answers, by any stretch of the imagination.
The way your student is seeking guidance and insight from pastors and teachers is a good practice. There’s wisdom in an abundance of counselors. At the same time, he may have contributions of his own to add to the conversation. As members of the church, we all have a part to play, and who knows? Perhaps some of these burdens on his heart correspond to directions God’s laying on him for his own ultimate vocation. Each of us is instructed to seek wisdom, and the older we get, the more we have to balance our expectations about answers that others can provide with what God may be teaching us. God may want to speak through this student, who may one day become a great teacher himself.
As a philosopher, I’m a big fan of “reason” too. There’s nothing wrong with asking hard questions, nor with using the steam of general revelation and clear thinking to make progress in answering them. Often the very practice of asking and working hard to answer questions is itself a quite formative process, the culmination of which has for its most important result not just an answer, but the wisdom that comes from the struggle. I’m also aware, as a philosopher, of reason’s limitations. We don’t always get all the answers we want. The problem of evil, the topic of discussion here, is notorious for leaving us less than completely satisfied. The simple fact is that there are mysteries here, and though we can do our best to untangle knots, mysteries will remain. Sometimes we need to trust God and his goodness despite not finding all the answers we might want. We’re promised all the answers eventually, but not always within timetables of our invention. I think this is especially true with existential aspects of suffering. God promises to give us strength to get through, and to be with us through whatever we might be called to endure…but he doesn’t offer specific reasons for every trial we might have to go through, and expecting otherwise is bound to disappoint. Folks who claim to know all those specifics often strike me as inordinately presumptuous and overly confident in their own analyses.
Okay, then, Satan—yes, the Bible has a lot to say about Satan. On connections between Satan and the problem of evil, a new book is forthcoming on the topic by John Peckham. I wrote a blurb for it; it’s well worth the read. The book’s called Theodicy of Love, and it at least partially treats some of the questions your student raises. Now, why did God allow evil to be a thing? How we ask a question is revealing. For evil to be a thing, it sounds like some “reification” is going on. It may well be a thing in some sense, but not a substance or material object or anything like that, but a certain heart orientation. And I suspect that’s what it is. Suffering is nonmorally bad, but gratuitously inflicting needless suffering is morally bad, even evil. Immanuel Kant had this insight that nonmoral badness has to do with consequences, but evil is a distinctively moral category of the heart.
Now, I rather like the appeal to free will your student mentions (not that this is all that needs to be discussed in this context, but it’s a good place to begin), but he wants to suggest that, though free will might be necessary for genuine love relationships (which seems right to me), God perhaps didn’t need to “create evil” as its alternative. But though this is certainly an intriguing suggestion, it’s not clear to me that this was an actual possibility. Not to love as we ought, particularly not to love God as we ought, introduces sin into the world. It’s not clear we can have the ability to resist God and avoid evil; this may well be the very essence of evil at its root. If so, evil wasn’t created by God, but rather its possibility was introduced when God conferred freedom on us. God’s not, at least on my theology, the author of sin. Perhaps he would be on certain models of meticulous providence, but I don’t buy that theology. So the idea that God could have allowed for free will without evil being an option is not obvious to me, and I suspect it’s somewhat contrary to the standard Christian theology on this matter.
Next, why create sadness and pain? These are examples of what I think are nonmoral bads. One fairly standard sort of reply is that these were introduced into the world because of rebellion against God. Why sin and torment? Sin, again, was introduced by human willfulness against God’s best for us. Torment? Sin intrinsically leads to torment, in one sense, because it goes against the grain of the universe; it’s not how we were meant to live, and it invariably detracts from our happiness, and the more entrenched we get into it the more tormented we become. Anger and distortion? Well, anger isn’t necessarily a morally bad thing; Jesus experienced righteous anger. Anger isn’t sin, or else we wouldn’t be told in our anger not to sin. In a perfect world, though, anger will be banished. But we’re not in a perfect world, but a fallen one that God’s in the process of redeeming. I could go and discuss distortion along similar lines, but the point is this: Why did God allow any of these things? (I wouldn’t say “create” as that’s misleading; at the least if we use that language it requires very careful unpacking.) Why allow them? Presumably because he knew that ultimately through his redemptive plan he could use our failings to produce more complex goods not otherwise possible, or something like that. Looking at the world at this moment is just a snapshot of something fully in motion toward a particular glorious end, if Christianity is true. It’s not yet the world as God intended it to be, but it will be when redemption has had its full effect.
“Why would God create such evil and bad things?” He made valuable agents whose existence introduced their possibility, is the way I’d put it. “Satan could still have the freewill to love God or not love Him without the factor of evil being an option.” I doubt it; not to love God is indeed evil; God is worthy of our worship. Again, the claim put forth is not at all intuitively clear to me, and stands in variance with Christian teaching. The idea that Satan twisted something in creation into what it wasn’t intended to be is right; this is very much the Augustinian account of evil. The student then asks why sin was even able to be created? Why did God give us the ability to taint his creation? Perhaps that question addresses, once more, the value of free will. If such freedom entails the freedom to resist God, then that may well entail this tainting ability. We don’t have to talk about Satan in this regard; we have this ability as well, and why? Well, perhaps the ability to love God requires freedom that entails such distortion capacity. It’s not clear this isn’t the case, at least to me. Your student may simply disagree; fair enough. But on that matter perhaps we’d just end up disagreeing. But what bolsters my conviction is that the sort of requisite robust freedom we need has big implications, among which is that sin is really, really bad—a violation of our telos, a disordering of creation, a subverting of God’s intentions, and all the rest.
I’m not trying to offer a definitive response to every question here, but just offer my first spit balling sort of ad hoc reply.
Next, what if God had allowed something even worse than sin to be able to come into being? Where would we be then? That’s what philosophers call a counterfactual, but more than that, it may well be a counteressential—an impossible scenario. What would be worse than sin? It’s not clear anything is. Sufficient are the actual sufferings of this world and the next; I’m not sure it’s a good idea to launch into a defense of counterfactual, perhaps even counteressential sufferings.
In terms of Job, I think there’s a lot to say about that book beyond that God did it to see if Job still loved God. I’d suggest reading some really good commentaries on Job. There are profound insights in the book. Reducing it to whether Job would still love God leaves way too much out. Just one example: In Job we see a minor theme of the OT that becomes a major, if not THE major theme of the NT: the redeeming value of innocent suffering.
And so my final point is just that: in the NT we see the clearest picture both of suffering and God’s use of it for redemptive purposes. None of this discussion can get off the ground, from a Christian vantage point, apart from the wondrous mystery of the cross of Christ, where God didn’t merely watch us suffer, but came and suffered himself, indeed took our suffering on himself. And we’re told that those who trust him may suffer for a little while here, but in the life to come there will be such glory it will make the sufferings of this world, as horrific as they can be, pale into insignificance by comparison. That’s a lovely promise to hold onto.
Again, pain and suffering are tough topics. Personally I think they raise the most difficult questions we face as Christians. At the same time, I can’t imagine any other worldview nearly as equipped as Christianity to offer us hope rather than despair in the face of sufferings.
Thanks for the chance to reflect. I hope your student keeps thinking and that God blesses his efforts!
In touching on the issue of suffering, the Neo-Darwinist poster boy Richard Dawkins famously states in his book River Out of Eden, ‘The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation.’ He goes on to note in the wake of tragedy that people are obsessed with asking, ‘Why, oh why, did the cancer/earthquake/hurricane have to strike my child?’ Why did my innocent child go blind? Why was my mother taken from me?
The issue of suffering, pain and distress bedevils us all. It has been ill-engaging humankind’s most profound thinking from earliest days. How do we think regarding suffering? This brief post does not pretend to address adequately the issue of suffering. However, considering the two polar opposite bents of the Neo-Darwinist Richard Dawkins and Jesus Christ is thought-provoking and illustrative. We see the stark tendencies of the current majority view of the scientific and educational community against that of Jesus Christ. Both Richard Dawkins and Jesus Christ, for different reasons, eschew probing the ‘why’ of suffering. Nevertheless, their contrasting ‘takes’ on suffering is clarifying.
Begin with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Most importantly, he is anxious to ward us off from asking ‘why’. Suppressing the asking of ‘why’ is vital to his conception of suffering. Lamenting that people have ‘purpose’ on the brain, Professor Dawkins almost chastises the human predisposition for seeking ‘purpose’ in suffering. In passing, this strikes one as odd coming from a scientist. The very principle of science under which Professor Dawkins subsumes his study of evolution and upon which Bertrand Russell prominently elaborates is that science itself has a purpose, to form an accurate image of the world.
The necessary presupposition of this Neo-Darwinist’s conception of suffering is we must not read purpose into a universe of ‘blind physical forces and genetic replication’. The universe is precisely as we should expect it. Namely, it seeks the maximization of DNA survival into the next generation. As long as DNA and genes get passed on, says Dawkins, ‘it doesn’t matter who or what gets hurt in the process…Genes don’t care about suffering, because they don’t care about anything…Nature is neither kind nor unkind. She is neither against suffering nor for it. It only matters as it affects the survival of DNA.’ Tragedy is as equally meaningless as good fortune. The universe has ‘no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference’! Though a critic can argue the survival of DNA is indicative of ‘purpose’, the Neo-Darwinist insists there is no purpose in suffering! Suffering is simply the ‘by-product of evolution’.
Now consider in absolute contrast Jesus’s illumination of suffering. The book of Hebrews picks his view up when it says he (Jesus) ‘who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross’. This interpretation derives from Jesus’ own words. He likened his death to a woman’s labor in birth. He said, ‘When a woman is in labor, she has pain…But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.’ There is no denial but recognition of the reality of pain and affliction. No question. A woman suffers in labor. Just last week, my daughter Karissa went into hours of intense labor finally giving birth to a beautiful, healthy son Beau. Women say ‘labor’ is their hardest physical activity – ever! One mother described it as feeling like her insides were being twisted, pulled and squeezed out!
Labor is intense agony a woman must endure. Similarly, Jesus’ cross had to be ‘endured’. ‘Endured’ means he had to stand his ground before the cross’s tribulation. He held out against the physical pain and the psychological humiliation. He did not abandon the cross to escape the suffering. England’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, resolutely held out against the continuous, Nazi bombing raids on England. He famously quipped, ‘If you’re going through hell, keep going.’ The Neo-Darwinist and Jesus agree suffering is a given and something through which one must go. Neither Richard Dawkins nor Jesus Christ contemplates life without suffering.
The world-shattering contradistinction between Jesus and the Neo-Darwinist and everybody else is that for Jesus suffering is teleological. Contrary to Richard Dawkins’ notion, suffering has ultimate purpose!! Suffering is not a wasteful by-product. It labors to a meaningful end. Counterintuitively, for Jesus suffering finally results in joy! Admittedly, a hundred seeming contradictions leap to mind. Nevertheless, there is a deep, universal principle promulgated here. Hours of excruciating labor leads to the beautiful, seven pounds of beauty and joy a mother holds in her arms. Labor’s painful memory fades as the presence of one’s child brightens. The torture of a Roman cross is unimaginable; yet, persevering agony finally results in joy. Jesus’ joy is the profound sense of happiness of obtaining by ‘his own blood’ eternal salvation. Any repentant sinner who has saving faith may now have everlasting fellowship with God!
Is all suffering a Neo-Darwinist waste, a useless by-product, or, might it be, as Jesus claims, useful? Is it meaningless, or purposeful? Does suffering only matter to affect DNA survival, or is it to be endured till ultimately blossoming into joy?
 My references to Richard Dawkins’ view of suffering are taken from the fourth chapter of his book, Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life: Science Masters Series. New York: Basic Books, 95-135
 Hebrews 12: 2
 John 16: 21
Thank you very much for your thoughtful response. I am very tempted to follow the inquiry into the nature of rationality. I would suggest, for example, that the rational constraint that we should act in our self-interest must be understood as a pro tanto constraint. That is, pro tanto I ought to act in accordance with my self-interest. There are circumstances in which it would not be irrational to act in violation of my self-interest (e.g., when sacrificing my life to save the lives of others). I am also very interested in pursuing the distinction between a minimal conception of rationality and a more robust conception of reason-responsiveness. However, let me set such worries aside for now and focus on the substance of my criticism of DCT and your response to that criticism.
If I understand correctly, you are saying that in the absence of divine commands there are moral reasons to engage in actions, but there are no moral obligations. I take your point that on the commonly defended modern versions of DCT (including that defended by Baggett and Walls), DCT is a theory of rightness and wrongness (or, more generally, deontic moral value). The substance of my criticism is that I am offering a counterexample; that is, I am claiming that I can describe a situation in which (a) there are no divine commands, (b) a person faces a choice between two options, (A) and (C), and (c) the person is morally obligated to choose (A) over (C) [or, more carefully, actions (A) and (C) have deontic value, (A) has positive deontic value, (C) has negative deontic value, that we morally ought to perform (A) and that it is morally wrong to perform (C)].
In my original comment, I did not robustly describe options (A) and (C), I merely stipulated some of their properties. Let me put more flesh on the bones of my argument: Suppose the following: I am hiking in a desert region and I come across a young child who is languishing in the heat in obvious distress. She is dehydrated and delirious and does not respond to questions. In such an example, I face two options: (A) Give the child water and food, escort her to safety, and make sure that she receives the medical attention she needs; (C) Ignore the child and complete my hike.
On DCT, (A) (which we can call RENDER AID) has moral value and there are moral reasons to choose it, which reasons are independent of God's commands. Presumably also, on DCT, (C) (IGNORE) has moral value (negative value, i.e., badness) and there are reasons to refrain from choosing it. In my original comment, I asked whether, on DCT, the strength of a reason is also independent of God's commands. If it is, then, I think we can conclude the following:
(1) There are strong reasons to choose (A) RENDER AID and these reasons and the strength of these reasons is independent of God's commands.
(2) These reasons are so strong as to be overriding. That is, they tend to override other reasons that might be present. So, if I have self-interested reasons to complete my hike, these reasons are overridden by the strength of the reasons to render aid.
(3) Option (C) IGNORE is extremely bad. It is much worse than, for example, failing to notify a cashier that he has undercharged you for your groceries.
(4) The reasons that I have to render aid concern the welfare of a conscious person.
(5) The child, in virtue of being a person, has a special moral status, which status endows her with the capacity to make legitimate demands of other persons.
Given (1) - (5), it would be wrong to suggest that RENDER AID is merely supererogatory. The reasons are overriding and concern the welfare of a conscious person. RENDER AID has deontic status, it is the thing that, all things considered, I ought to do. Thus, I am morally obligated to choose to RENDER AID and that if I choose IGNORE, then I have done something wrong.
So, I am saying that RENDER AID is not merely (minimally) rational. (And it is probably not in my self-interest to help the child.) The reasons in support of RENDER AID are not mere rationality constraints. Now compare the (divine command independent) reasons to choose RENDER AID with the reasons to tell a cashier that he has slightly undercharged you (say by 25 cents). The reasons to choose RENDER AID are much more significant than the reasons to inform the cashier of his small error. We should be able to capture this difference in language; our language should be responsive to this difference. And, when we search for a way of describing the difference, what we come up with is that RENDER AID is morally obligatory. Informing the cashier of his error might be a good thing to do, but it is not morally obligatory. If I fail to help the child in the desert, I have done something seriously wrong, I have failed to discharge a moral obligation. But, on the view you are defending, I am not morally obligated to render aid to the girl unless I am commanded to by God.
So, the upshot is that if we grant, as you appeared prepared to do, that (i) there are moral reasons, independent of God's commands, to engage in actions, (ii) that such reasons have differing strengths, where the strength of a reason is also independent of God's commands, and (iii) some such reasons concern the welfare of persons, then there are moral obligations independent of God's commands. The claim that I am only obligated to act when I am so commanded is not tenable.
I apologize for the lengthy response. I hope that you find it interesting and worth your time. Like you, I think this topic is deeply important and very interesting, so I am strongly inclined to take advantage of opportunities to fruitfully discuss these issues. Thanks again.
Thank you for another substantive reply.
I take it that your central claim is this: we can have morally overriding reasons to act without appeal to God’s commands. When we have overriding moral reasons to act, then we have a moral obligation to act. We can see a likely case of this when we imagine that we encounter a little girl stranded on a hiking trail. It seems that, given just natural facts about the situation, we would be morally obligated to act.
A further, but not central, point is that rendering aid to the girl would likely not be in my self-interest, so there are reasons to act distinct from self-interested reasons. Specifically, the right sort of moral reasons in the right amount can generate a reason to act.
Let’s first say something about self-interest and the connection to morality before moving on to address the heart of your reply. It seems to me that there is a real problem if self-interest and morality come apart so that there can be cases where what is right to do is not in my interest to do. This is a worry shared by thinkers like Kant and Sidgwick (perhaps Aristotle as well). If it is not in my interest to be moral, then we cannot hope to make full rational sense of morality (Baggett and Walls, Good God, 13). This is Sidgwick’s problem of “dualism of practical reason.” And in order to solve this problem, Kant thought that we needed to believe that God exists as a “postulate of practical reason.” Hare explains that Kant thought of God as having three roles: the legislative, executive, and judicial (Hare, God and Morality, Kindle location 1740). In his judicial role, God ensures that happiness and holiness ultimately cohere. In this way, it is always in my interest, ultimately, to be moral, and the rational stability of morality is preserved.
Perhaps one could say that morality can be fully rational and yet not always be in our self-interest, which is the view I think you take here. I am not sure that is so. We can always ask, “Why be moral?” Why should I care about moral reasons to act if, in the end, acting is not in my interest? Of course, we find ourselves caring about moral reasons but if we suppose, counterfactually, that we do not care about moral reasons, then it is difficult to show why we should act without some circularity without appeal to self-interest.
I should care because it is right to care; that is one likely answer. And that answer could be translated as “I should be moral because I should be moral,” which is circular. The best answer, as far as I can tell, to the question, “Why be moral?” is that being moral is in our interest. Such an answer avoids the circularity problem and preserves the rationality of morality.
I think this point about practical reason helps illustrate some of my concern with the account of moral obligations you have offered. We, of course, share the perspective that rendering aid is morally obligatory, but we disagree about the explanatory account of that fact.
If I am understanding your view correctly, if we have enough good reasons to act, then those good reasons constitute a moral obligation in at least some cases. But I am not sure why that would be. Certainly, there is an intuitive appeal to the scenario you have laid out. When we encounter the girl on the trail, all morally healthy people would recognize their duty to act. Further, I think it is correct that we recognize this duty without asking ourselves whether God has commanded us to render aid in such cases (though he has with great clarity in the parable of the Good Samaritan). But, and not that this is contrary to your claim, I think it is equally true that we do not asses the state of affairs and add up the moral reasons and then decide we are morally obligated. In such cases, morally healthy people just see that they are so obligated. In fact most of the reasons to act that we are likely to adduce come from our sense of its being a duty already.
So I think we can ask two questions. (1) Why do we have the experience of feeling obligated in such cases, and (2) assuming we are really obligated, what is the explanation of the obligation?
If we assume some conjunction of naturalism and evolution, then in response to 1, we could say that our feelings of obligation are explained by their evolutionary advantage. A species is more likely to thrive when we perform acts of altruism, so our biology has programmed us to have such feelings. And the Christian could say that such intuitions are explained by sharing, to some degree, God’s moral vision. We care about the girl because God cares about the girl and he made us in his image.
The response to (2) has a wide array of options on both naturalism and Christianity. I think your reply gives a good illustration of a possible naturalist reply, but of course, there are many others. Christians may give natural law, virtue ethical, divine command theory, or yet other replies. But the DCT view is this: we are obliged to help if and only if (and because) God has so commanded. (Why we should think of obligations as divine commands is important and perhaps that would be worth exploring in another post. But I will set that aside for now and point readers to Robert Adams’s Finite and Infinite Goods).
This view does not entail that moral reasons and moral obligations are alien to one another. God will often command some act because it’s a good thing to do. God’s commands, contra the radical theological voluntarists, are not capricious. Since we are made in God’s image, we naturally find ourselves thinking that we are obligated to render aid when morally good reasons abound, even if we do not psychologically appeal to God’s command in the moment.
Your challenge is powerful precisely because we find ourselves believing so easily and naturally that we are obligated to render aid. Certainly, if we already think that moral reasons are good reasons for acting, then it will be natural to think that whenever we find sufficient moral reasons, then we will find ourselves believing we are obligated. One might even define “ought” in a colloquial sort of way to mean “having good moral reasons to do something,” but how do we solve the ontological problem of moral obligations? What’s easily lost here is the fact that there are subtle ways to domesticate the notion of moral obligations, losing in the process what Evans calls the “Anscombe intuition” about moral obligations.
Let us suppose, again counterfactually, the God has not commanded us to render aid in a scenario like you have described. In this case, we would have morally good reasons to help the girl and it would be bad if we chose not to help. It’s good to save the life of the girl, to provide relief of the family, safeguard future contributions she will make to society, and so on. The bad would be the negation of all these things, and the cost of her death, emotionally and otherwise. In this context, perhaps it is fair to characterize your view this way: When we have the right kind and quality of morally good reasons to act, and refraining from acting would result in tremendous badness, then we are obliged to act.
Put this way, it seems to be a kind of consequentialism. When the good outweighs the bad, then we have a moral obligation. Of course, there are serious problems with consequentialist theories, like the in-principle denial of human rights and the limited power of our moral calculus, of which I am sure you are aware. We could imagine, if we are in the time traveling mood, that we have encountered Hitler’s mother when she was a little girl. If we balance the scales now, it turns out leaving her to die will result in more good than bad.
That said, I do not think you intend to offer a consequentialist theory, and please correct me if I am wrong. But if it is not consequentialist, and it is deontological, then it would seem to follow on a theory like Kant’s that we should eschew the sort of counting up of good and bad and perform our duty, come what may. Even if the result was very bad, I would still be obligated to perform my duty on a deontic system. Thus, Option (C) IGNORE, would not be prohibited because it has bad results. If you mean that the act itself is bad, and I would agree, then I am still not sure how that would be relevant for an account of moral obligations. Some acts which are bad in themselves can be morally obligatory. For example, sometimes disciplining a child requires us to do something bad, like deprive the child of something he enjoys. Depriving a child does seem like, in isolation, a bad thing. But parents are so obligated. Or, perhaps, killing enemy combatants in a just war is a bad, but morally obligatory thing. This tension between moral goodness/badness and moral rightness/wrongness serves to motivate this problem of how we move from one category to the other.
Again, I take it that you think that having a certain quality and quantity of moral reasons creates a moral obligation. The concern I have here comes from the distinction between moral rightness and moral goodness. These are different kinds of entities and having some of one does not generate the other. How would such a transmutation occur? On the other hand, if we say that God is the good, commands what is good, and these commands are moral obligations, then we preserve the distinction and have a plausible explanatory account, without the risk of watering down what’s meant by moral obligations.
What is moral apologetics and how does it impact the average person?
When I say moral apologetics, I’m referring to various versions of the moral argument. It’s doing apologetics—a rational defense of the faith—using the resources of ethics and moral truth. Of course the phrase “moral apologetics” can also simply be used to express the idea of doing apologetics in a moral way—respectfully, politely, kindly—and I think that’s a good idea too. Particularly if one wants to offer a moral argument for God’s existence, it ought to be done morally. Otherwise it’s like cheating on an ethics test—which would be more than a little ironic.
Moral considerations in favor of theism generally or Christianity particularly come in lots of forms. Formal arguments are just one way; but other ways include casual conversations, a sense of conviction over sin, the need for forgiveness, recognition of the dignity and value and equality of people, the primacy of love. I’d hazard to guess that the sorts of considerations central to most people coming to faith are moral ones. C. S. Lewis gave a version of the moral argument in Book I of Mere Christianity, in which he said that the existence of an objective moral standard and the way we all invariably fall short of it are the two most central concepts in coming to understand the universe. By the way he also first gave that chapter as a radio address in England during World War II—you don’t get much more practical than that. Lewis also wrote that until we recognize that we’ve fallen short of the moral law, we have little sense of any need for forgiveness and salvation, so the considerations of morality can function well not just to point people to God, but to the need for the gospel. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga, when asked, has said that the moral argument is likely the best argument on offer from natural theology. Christian apologist William Lane Craig, when asked, has admitted that when he has debates on various college campuses, the moral argument tends to be the most effective one.
So when we actually give a moral argument for God or Christianity, the basic idea is that we start with foundational moral realities of which most all of us are readily aware, and then we try to make the case that theism can explain these realities better than can the alternatives—like atheism or various secular efforts.
The average person likely doesn’t think about the argument in its formal versions very much, but there’s something deeply intuitive about recognizing moral truth when we see it and allowing it to point us beyond ourselves—and perhaps even all the way to God. There’s something about axiomatic moral truths that gets us thinking about the nature of reality and the human condition. Where did these moral standards come from? It’s not just a matter of what a society happens to dub morality, because societies can be wrong, just as individuals are. There’s an objective standard out there; what does that say about the world we live in? Moral apologists tend to think it says quite a bit.
What’s the history of moral apologetics?
The history of the moral argument is rich indeed. The first really big name associated with the moral argument is Immanuel Kant, who gave a few different versions of it. Before him, you can find precursors of the moral argument or aspects of it in numerous thinkers—from Plato to Aquinas, Descartes to Reid, Pascal to Locke, Pascal to Berkeley. It was Kant, though, who put it together in a systematic way. He saw the reality of the moral law, its authority, our inability to meet the law on our own resources alone, the need for an account of the full rationality of morality. Since him, in the English speaking world, nearly every luminary in the field of moral apologetics has had something to say about Kant. Agree or disagree, we can’t responsibly ignore him. In the 1800s and into the early 1900 several dozen major European thinkers devoted considerable thought to the evidential force of morality where God’s concerned. John Henry Newman is an example, a famous evangelical-turned-Anglican-turned-Catholic. A big aspect of his moral argument is the role of conscience as a faculty that puts us in touch with the deliverances of the moral law. Other major thinkers subsequent to Newman were A. E. Taylor, William Sorley, Hastings Rashdall, and lots of others. A number of these gave whole Gifford lectures and wrote whole books on the topic. Of course in the mid-1900s Lewis popularized the argument in Mere Christianity, and since then, in the United States, there’s been a veritable explosion of interest in the moral argument in which a number of top-notch philosophers have devoted to it their considerable analytic skills. Jerry Walls and I are putting the finishing touches on a book chronicling this fertile history.
What’s the nature of your work in moral apologetics?
When I was in graduate school I decided to write my dissertation on the Euthyphro Dilemma, which arose in an early Socratic dialogue: Is something moral because God commands it, or vice versa. (At least that’s a common contemporary version.) It struck me as interesting because it related to this matter of God and ethics and whether there’s a connection between them. It’s thought by many to pose an intractable objection to theistic ethics. I didn’t agree, but wanted to figure out what I thought about it. After doing that work it freed me up to extend the argument all the way to the moral argument. If we can defend a strong account of the dependence of morality on God, while effectively critiquing secular ethics and basing the whole thing on moral truths that most everyone agrees on, we have the ingredients for an effective moral apologetic.
So in my work I tend to focus on moral facts like objective moral values and duties, moral knowledge, moral transformation, and moral rationality, and argues that these realities are better explained by theism than by atheism. It’s interesting and important work, endlessly fascinating to me. Take moral duties, for example. What is it about the world that can account for their existence—these binding, prescriptive, authoritative moral duties that impose obligations on us irrespective of whether we want them to or not, or whether we have any intention of obeying them or not. What does their existence say about the nature of reality? Or take the essential dignity and value of people. What accounts for such a thing? What does such a moral fact have to teach us about the nature of ultimate reality? In books like Good God, God and Cosmos, and The Morals of the Story, those are the kinds of issues we spend time exploring.
Why have you developed an interest in writing about Mr. Rogers?
That might seem a bit odd, right? But I actually see it as integrally related to moral apologetics. I grew up watching him, of course, like most of us did, and always loved the guy. But the recent documentary got me more interested in finding out about his life. There was much I didn’t know—that he was an ordained minister, personal friends with Henri Nouwen, a graduate of seminary, someone with a vibrant spiritual life. The documentary does a remarkably good job talking about his life and ministry—and he really did see his television work as ministry, though nothing ever heavy handed. Watching his story is deeply moving; most leave the theater in tears. I’ve seen the documentary three times already and it deeply touches me every time. Bullied as a kid, he went on a lifelong quest to see the good in others, even if it was hard to see. He was a wonderful man, and as I thought about it I realized that in his quiet, gentle, loving way he was embodying the sorts of principles I talk about when I do moral apologetics. He didn’t give an argument, or paint people into corners, but he lived its truths, and in the process demonstrated their power. St. Francis said, "Preach Jesus, and if necessary use words." We as evangelicals can underestimate the power of a life lived well to communicate important truths and inculcate in others a hunger to know God. Mr. Rogers did this, day in and day out; he was a prayer warrior, someone who took spiritual formation seriously, someone who saw his work in television as a calling and ministry. He saw himself on a mission to protect kids and their innocence, to let them know they’re loved, that they’re special and unique. He saw the absolute primacy of love. His whole life was a moral apologetic.
What are some of the ways Mr. Rogers connects with your work on the moral argument?
He took seriously the biblical command to love your neighbor as yourself. It wasn’t a coincidence his show was “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He saw that love of God is inextricably tied to love of neighbor. He aimed to be a helper, someone who made the world better in big ways and small, a repairer of creation. He took friendship seriously, investing his time and money and energy in cultivating them with great care. He challenged us all to make goodness attractive—nothing Pollyannaish, but real, actual goodness—and he modeled what doing that looks like. Believers and unbelievers alike look at his life and can see there was something special about him; they can see the love of Christ within him. He didn’t just talk about the primacy of love; he showed us what making love the priority actually looks like.
Part of what drew me to him was that, though he was all about the same principles we talk about in moral apologetics—taking our responsibilities seriously, protecting the innocent, preserving human dignity, making people feel loved, loving your neighbor—he did it in a way that wasn’t heavy handed or off putting, but eminently attractive. Having done a lot of thinking about the theology and theory behind all of this, I’m deeply inspired to see it play out in flesh and blood in a life like his. So I’m aiming to get a trade press contract to write a book about him—particularly about the influences on him like Henri Nouwen, like the child development expert he studied with, Margaret McFarland, and his favorite seminary professor, William Orr.
How do you teach your students to view pop culture through the lens of moral apologetics and why is this important?
Truth can be found in all sorts of places. We just need to cultivate the eyes to see it. I consider it providential that after grad school I was able to get involved with my friend Bill Irwin’s series on philosophy and popular culture. It was a brilliant idea to use the medium of popular culture to talk about important issues in philosophy that arise in fun and unexpected ways in our music and movies and television shows, and its staying power demonstrates what a smart idea it is. In a sense we can do the same with apologetics, including moral apologetics, and see all around us all sorts of important truths that point us to God. My wife just wrote a piece on the television show “The Man in the High Castle.” There’s nothing specifically Christian about the show, which is an adaption of a novel by Philip K. Dick, but implicitly in the story is a strong moral lesson that we need a moral anchor that mere people or even whole societies alone can’t provide, moral truths that go beyond political power or mere expediency. Whether it’s “The Man in the High Castle,” Harry Potter, or Mr. Rogers, apologists can tap into pop culture in all sorts of ways to build bridges and generate important conversations.
By David Baggett and Marybeth Baggett
Connecting God and ethics nowadays often invites amusement at best, disdain at worst. “Religious nones” are on the increase, yet society seems to be holding together tolerably well. Add to that the number of stories about religiously affiliated folks behaving badly, and for many, it’s just not clear what the purpose of throwing God into the moral equation is. Perhaps nothing more than an authoritarian party-pooper whose rules are inscrutable, and a life spent following them, bleak. Ned Flanders from The Simpsons is the posterchild for such a posture—religious, affable, yet perpetually clueless. “I don't drink or dance or swear, I've even kept kosher just to be on the safe side. I've done everything the Bible says! Even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!”
It’s commonplace today to think morality is on better footing without religion’s involvement, which usually just taints and ruins it. All manner of human strife, critics declare, stems from faith convictions—the Crusades, religious persecution throughout history, and contemporary terrorism and unrest in the Middle East. And the Judeo-Christian deity is no better, so the argument goes. After all, Richard Dawkins writes, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
As we said, moral apologists are facing a bit of a publicity crisis these days. Still Dawkins’s bluster helps us understand why moral considerations are now often taken as evidence against God’s goodness or existence, as in the classical problem of evil. Moral arguments in favor of God’s existence—even though they’ve been advanced by thinkers as notable as Immanuel Kant, John Henry Newman, and C. S. Lewis—usually tend to push listeners beyond believability, sometimes even beyond civility. “I don’t need God to be moral!” comes the retort. To suggest otherwise is on par with accusations of offensive body odor or, even worse, forcing the premature cancellation of Firefly. What kind of monster do you think I am?
Duly admonished, most proponents of the moral argument walk back their claims, profusely apologizing and distancing themselves from any implication that unbelievers can’t uphold fine values and sport strong characters. Yes, yes, they say, we appreciate Mulder’s devotion to Scully, thoroughly irreligious as it is. And they dial back their claims, set aside questions of conversion, and start with common ground, exploring the best explanation of moral agency or rights, duties or knowledge. Such care and judiciousness is admirable. It’s also effective in building a bridge between believers and nonbelievers, and heaven knows the more bridges constructed in these divided times the better.
Nevertheless, despite the provocations associated with the claim, it is difficult to blithely accept that we can somehow achieve radical moral transformation of our own devices. A quick glance at human history or literature removes any lingering doubts to the contrary. Maybe there’s something to this God/morality connection, at least something worth thinking a bit about rather than dismissing it out of hand. It is an idea we find compelling ourselves—that anything like realistic hope for moral perfection is possible only if God makes it happen. In fact, we lay out such a case for readers, along with a number of other considerations for the moral argument, in our recent book, The Morals of the Story: Good News about a Good God.
Once everyone’s hackles are down, cooler heads will often acknowledge that, true enough, this world is a mess, and not even Dr. Horrible can save us. Consensus is that something does have to give. We have heard this sentiment expressed in Sarah Silverman’s recent plea for a better world after her friend Louis CK confessed to abusive mistreatment of women; we heard it in victim statement after victim statement in the sentencing trial of convicted child molester Larry Nassar. In light of these horrific wrongs, we can see that the cursory and superficial manner in which morality is often treated in this era of soundbites and social media is just not cutting it. The very issue of moral transformation is often overshadowed by a rather shortsighted and watered-down account of what morality is all about. It’s not simply conventions and negotiations to ensure we get along; it’s not merely knowing and avoiding social taboos and staying in the public’s good graces. It’s much deeper than that, more solid and foundational to reality itself. It features traditional and authoritative obligations with attendant guilt for wrongdoing; it’s a call to a life of virtue with talk of a coming reckoning and promise of forgiveness for sins. To think about it otherwise is to domesticate it beyond recognition.
Take an analogy. There is a crucial difference between genuine health, on the one hand, and merely treating conditions, on the other. A Tylenol might give relief for a few hours, but only a root canal will eradicate the underlying problem. Rather than seeking the cure we need for our moral disease, it’s tempting instead to alleviate a few symptoms, settle for a few incremental improvements along the way, thank our lucky stars for a modicum of palliative therapy, and deny we’re really that sick after all. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography provides a memorable example of just this approach. As a young man, he once set himself to the formidable task of attaining moral perfection. He outlined his plans to conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead him into; however, unsurprisingly, this strategy failed to achieve its ambitious goals: “I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employ’d in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason.” Having failed to reach his lofty aims, Franklin settled instead for the mere appearance of virtue.
As John Hare deftly explains in his important work The Moral Gap, without divine assistance to bridge the chasm between our ethical obligations and capabilities, we find few options other than exaggerating our capacities, lowering the demand, or forging secular substitutes. But as Kant and Lewis have pointed out, and as we so acutely recognize, that approach—psychologically appeasing as it might be—cannot rescue us from our moral dilemma, obligated to a standard that, try as we might, we cannot meet, called to a sublime vocation of which we’re unworthy. At least on our own finite and meager resources.
Malcolm Muggeridge famously wrote that the depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact. Babylon Bee put a humorous twist on this serious subject with the story of a 29-year-old mom who believed that people are basically good—at least until her daughter grew up a little. “Now that Charlotte is two—hoo boy. That innate depravity is shining through with the brightness of a thousand suns…. She’s like a Category 5 hurricane with a cute face.”
Lewis said that there are two facts that are well-nigh undeniable: the existence of moral truths, and that we invariably fall short of them. Lewis thought these two truths provide the most important clue to understand this world in which we live. They constitute our diagnosis; God’s overtures of love offering forgiveness and transformation is the prescription. The life that awaits us, Lewis proclaims, is about so much more than implementing a moral regiment or diluting the standard: “The people who keep on asking if they can’t lead a decent life without Christ, don’t know what life is about; if they did they would know that ‘a decent life’ is mere machinery compared with the thing we men are really made for. Morality is indispensable: but the Divine Life, which gives itself to us and which calls us to be gods, intends for us something in which morality will be swallowed up.” God can do more than merely ameliorate the symptoms of our chronic moral malady. We are to be remade—a glorious prospect indeed. In the face of our urgent need to become not just better people, but new people, for a revolution of the will, for radical moral transformation, the death and resurrection of Christ is indeed “good news.”
Baggett and Walls make a powerful abductive case for theism in Good God by arguing from four different categories of moral facts: ontological, epistemic, practical, and rational. Their thesis is that the existence of God best explains the objective reality of both the good and the right, how we can have genuine moral knowledge, how we can be fully morally transformed, and why morality and happiness ultimately harmonize. Throughout the book, there are intimations of how the Christian God best explains these facts, but I think we could add one additional fact to Baggett and Walls’s list and make a successful and compelling argument for Christian theism.
Here is the moral fact I have in mind: It is good to be human (call this “HF” for the “human fact”). Baggett and Walls agree that this is a moral fact. My aim is to explore what would happen if we put this moral fact explicitly in the list of facts to be explained. Before we consider how the addition of this moral fact might affect Baggett and Walls’s argument, it will help to make three preliminary points. First, one might want to know my reasons for contending that HF is a fact. Second, some explication of the meaning of HF is required. Third, we will want to know whether we really are human, otherwise HF will be irrelevant for us.
Baggett and Walls do not give specific criteria for determining what is a moral fact and what is not. This is not surprising since they take the moral facts in question to be obvious to any moral realist, following Lewis and his discussion of the Tao in Mere Christianity. One may recall Lewis’s parable of the stolen corner seat on the train. We all would sense that we had been wronged morally should some thief swipe our comfortable seat in a moment of inattention. Some moral realities (like the wrongness of stealing) present themselves to us in this immediate and obvious way. Others, like the need for moral rationality and transformation, are thought by Kant to be necessary to practical reason. Does HF follow the pattern set for moral facts given by Baggett and Walls? That depends on what is meant by HF.
The two key terms of HF are good and human. By good, I do not mean some extrinsic or instrumental good, as if being human were merely a way to obtain something else that is what’s actually intrinsically valuable. Rather, I have the sense of good presupposed in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: “that at which all things aim.” Goodness in this sense describes something that is desirable for its own sake; this why Aristotle so closely identified goodness with happiness. Of course, Aristotle did not think of happiness solely as “feeling good.” Rather, happiness is a form of excellence, where excellence is understood as harmony between a thing’s nature and its accidental properties. A person is happy when she lives according to her nature, with both good character and good fortune. This way of life deserves the title of “happiness” because this is the highest form of life possible for a human being, and, as such, produces the most robust kind of satisfaction possible.
But what about the second term in HF, human? Aristotle’s definition of human is well-known: a rational animal. But Aristotle also thinks of human beings as meant for the specific form of life in the Greek polis. Humans as rational animals flourish in the prosperous city-state. The philosophers in such cities experience the best form of life since they are able to realize maximally the rational and animal elements. A life of contemplation is the highest good because it realizes “the best thing in us” and reason is either “itself divine or only the most divine element in us.” Even though Aristotle makes this connection of the human good to the divine he does not, as his teacher Plato did, begin to suggest that embodied human life was something that ought to be transcended. Aristotle would likely see any attempt to transcend the form of life marked out by “rational animal” as an abandonment of one’s humanity and essence, a denial of one’s own nature. That would be supremely irrational, not least because the loss of essential properties would entail that the thing ceases to exist. Aristotle’s reticence to advocate for transcendence and his connection of the human good with the divine further suggests that Aristotle thought of humanity itself as intrinsically valuable. The proper end of man corresponds with the highest reality, the divine.
It is not my intention to commend all of Aristotle’s view, but only to explicate what is meant by HF and to provide some reassurance by appeal to an esteemed figure like Aristotle that such a view has some prima facie credibility. Many have rejected Aristotle’s ethics because of some of the epistemological difficulties of discovering the human good through Aristotle’s proto-scientific method and because of the rich teleology it requires. All that we need for the argument to go through is the more modest claim of HF.
However, the assumption that we are essentially human is contested by materialists and naturalists. They will deny that the term human marks out any real, metaphysical category. David Hull, discussing the implications of materialism, says, “If species evolve in anything like the way that Darwin thought they did, then they cannot possibly have the sort of natures that traditional philosophers claimed they did.” Significantly, Hull's conclusion only follows from the conjunction of Darwinism and materialism/naturalism for theists might say that evolution is merely as means through which God brings about metaphysically actual and distinct categories of species. A number of Christians, including John Hare and C.S. Lewis, have thought evolution and Christianity to be compatible. However, one might further contest that certain Eastern religions, like some forms of Buddhism and Hinduism, teach that our humanity is ultimately illusory. This illusion is very powerful and much of religious practice is devoted overcoming it. For example, a central teaching of the Buddha is the “no-self” doctrine, which is the view that persons, and therefore human beings, are ultimately illusory. It was only through an ecstatic religious experience that the Buddha was able to realize this doctrine; nirvana is partially constituted by the transcendence of this illusion.
Despite this concern, I think it is obvious for most people that we are human. The belief is intuitive and widespread, like the belief in genuine moral obligations; although this is a defeasible justification, it’s not evidence that should be categorically discounted from the outset.
We might further support the obviousness that we are human by pointing out how much of public moral discourse depends upon this assumption. For example, those in favor of harboring refugees will often appeal to the humanity of the refugees. Anne C. Richard, former assistant secretary of state, advocates that “in all cases, people should be treated humanely,” which is, of course, the exhortation to treat humans as if they really were humans. We often use the phrase “human rights,” with the implicit belief that humans have rights because they are human. Further, the fact that the illusion of our humanity can only be overcome by the Buddha’s initial and exceptional experience is further evidence of just how obvious this belief is. It is only when one visits a philosophy (or religion) class that he can be talked out of thinking he is a human being.
On the assumption that we are essentially human, that being an excellent human constitutes the highest form of life possible would follow necessarily by practical reason. It would be a contradiction to act in a way contrary to our own natures; we cannot rationally pursue the impossible end of becoming what we cannot be. The only rational course of action is to pursue a life consistent with our telos. I take it that this piece of reasoning is uncontroversial. It must be a form of excellence to live as humans, if that is what we essentially are.
Still, there could be an objection like this. We know that artifacts can be made with a bad purpose. A cheater makes a pair of weighted dice for the purpose of cheating. The excellence of these dice is bound up in a bad purpose. Why think that human beings do not also have equally bad teleology? In this case, there is a disconnect between what’s good for man and the good; being an excellent human entails being bad in some other sense.
I suspect there cannot be a clean reply to this objection (without presupposing theism) in the same way there cannot be a clean reply to other forms of radical skepticism, because this objection implies that our most deeply held beliefs about what is good for us are ultimately incorrect. It is akin to the familiar “brain in a vat” problem. We could, for all we know, have some ultimately bad purpose in the same way that we could, for all we know, be brains in vats. The mere fact that this is a possibility should not concern us.
What we find every in culture is the implicit or explicit acknowledgment of the intrinsic goodness of being human. For example, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, we encounter the character of Data. Data is an android and decisively not human, yet he desires to be as human as possible. The crew does not discourage Data from this pursuit. Quite the opposite. They encourage Data to continue his quest to become more human, despite the tremendous difficulty and risk it poses. Spock, who is half human, half Vulcan, is similarly commended for embracing his humanity. Possibly, the often-quoted line from Carl Sagan that we are all stardust betrays an implicit belief in the goodness of being human. Sagan does not say that we are all dirt or dung, which is equally as true from his perspective. He says instead that we are stardust. We are made of something majestic, powerful, something valuable.
Of course, in culture we also find many examples of implicit denials of the intrinsic goodness of being human. The trans-humanist movement declares just by its label that humanity is something to be transcended. Nick Bostrom, a transhumanist philosopher, says, “Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways. Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution.” But often the trans-humanists’ desire is not really to cease being human, but to free ourselves from perceived human defects. Bostrom himself says among the goals of transhumanism are the “radical extension of human health-span, eradication of disease, elimination of unnecessary suffering, and augmentation of human intellectual, physical, and emotional capacities.” But the elimination of disease and the enhancement of human capacities is not transcendence from humanity in any sense. It is transcendence of human defect. There is no reason to think that a life free of disease and death would entail the loss of humanity. It may be, as the Bible suggests, the true intention for human life. Ironically, I think that trans-humanists often articulate, without being aware of it, the desire to be a fully realized human being. Perhaps this is further evidence of the basicality and universality of the belief in the intrinsic goodness of being human.
Of course, there is a difference between believing that P and P obtaining. However, for certain common ever-present beliefs, like the belief in the existence of the external world and other minds, one can assume, along with Thomas Reid and Richard Swinburne, that what seems to be the case is the case, unless we have the right sort of defeaters. Therefore, if it seems to us that being human is good, then that is grounds for thinking it is so, unless we encounter defeaters.
All that has been argued so far is just that HF is worthy of being called a moral fact. I think have made the case that it plausibly is a moral fact and we are now ready to consider how Christianity in particular is the best explanation of that moral fact, which is what I’ll do in the next installment.
 David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning, 1 edition. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 113.
 Given the limits of space, this can only be exploratory.
 David Baggett and Jerry L Walls, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 9.
 C. S Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: HarperCollins, 2016), 18.
 For an extended discussion of this, see chapter 3 of John E. Hare, God and Morality: A Philosophical History (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).
 Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics (OUP Oxford, 2009), 3.
 I do not take this to be in tension with the conception of goodness presented in Robert Adams’s Finite and Infinite Goods. Certainly, prima facie, this view seems too immanent to describe the transcendent, Platonic view that Adams proposes. But as I point out later, Aristotle himself did not think that the human good was the only sort of good or even that the human good does not some participate in the good. Cf. Robert Merrihew Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1999).
 Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, 183.
 There are inconsistences in Aristotle’s view on this. In Politics, he describes slaves as sub-human, “living tools.” Though such views are abhorrent, it would not negate the fact that being human is intrinsically good.
 For a discussion of some of the epistemological concerns, see chapter 4 of John E. Hare, God’s Command (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). The concerns about teleology are not raised by Hare, but are ubiquitous in the literature due to the infamous fact-value distinction.
 David L. Hull, The Metaphysics of Evolution (Suny Press, 1989), 73.
 Here is a sample of the Buddha’s teaching on this: “There is, bhikkhus, that base [sphere of reality] where there is no earth, not water, no air; no base consisting of the infinity of space, no base consisting of the infinity of consciousness, no base consisting of nothingness, no base consisting of neither perception nor non-perception; neither this world nor another world nor both; neither sun nor moon. Here, bhikkus, I say there is no coming, no going, no deceasing, no uprising. Not fixed, not moving, it has no support. Just this is the end of suffering.” Nibbana Sutta: Parinibbana, trans. John D. Ireland, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/ud/ud.8.01.irel.html.
 Anne C. Richard, “Opinion | Is the United States Losing Its Humanity?,” The New York Times, June 1, 2018, sec. Opinion, accessed June 3, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/31/opinion/trump-immigration-refugees.html.
 Perhaps the same is true for other moral facts like moral obligations. We must also remember that the target of this argument is not moral anti-realists, but moral realists, who would be much more comfortable with admitting metaphysical categories, like human, into their ontology.
 Nick Bostrom, “Human Genetic Enhancements: A Transhumanist Perspective,” The Journal of Value Inquiry 37, no. 4 (2003): 493.
 Though some might say that there are strong candidates for defeaters of HF, my own view is that there are not. What specifically would be the argument that we either (1) are not human or (2) that being human is not good? Reductions of these sort usually presuppose that such reductions are required and then seek to find coherent ways of performing the reduction. (1) and (2) would be the conclusion of an argument and not the motivation for an argument.
Christians seeking to read literature from a biblical Christian worldview can benefit from the valuable insights Lewis offers in Experiment in Criticism for how to read and interpret literature. One of Lewis’s key arguments for the study of literature is that the reader must commit to receiving, rather than merely using, a book. Lewis states, “When we ‘receive’ it we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist. When we ‘use’ it we treat it as assistance for our own activities” (An Experiment in Criticism 88). Furthermore, “‘Using’ is inferior to ‘reception’ because art, if used rather than received, merely facilitates, brightens, relieves or palliates our life, and does not add to it” (88).
Ryken observes the danger of attempting to use rather than to receive literature:
There is a danger that we must be aware of when we look for world views in literature. It is the danger of reducing literature to a set of abstract ideas, as though this is what literature exists for. In the process, the story or poem itself becomes superfluous. Works of literature embody and incarnate a world view. In talking about that world view in the terms I have outlined, we inevitably formulate it in conceptual terms. But this conceptual framework should never become a substitute for the work itself. It should only be a light by which to illuminate the story or poem. Literature imagines forth a world view. It allows us to experience and feel that world view as experientially as possible. In effect, we look at the world through the ‘eyes’ of the writer’s world view.” (Windows to the World 141-42)
Thus, Lewis’s maxim that “[t]he necessary condition of all good reading is ‘to get ourselves out of the way’” when reading a book is highly beneficial to the reader (An Experiment in Criticism 93). This approach of receiving literature allows the text to speak for itself without the reader imposing preconceived ideas upon it.
Such an approach may ostensibly seem contradictory to a biblical Christian worldview; however, Lewis considers this approach an act of love. Ryken demonstrates this idea in his comment on Lewis’s system of receiving, rather than using, a book:
Lewis thereby shows a respect for the literature he discusses that is akin to Christians’ respect for the Word that they regard as authoritative, whether it comes as Scripture or creed. In a day of ideological criticism in which critics use literature chiefly to advance their own political agenda, Lewis instead listens to authors and works. The model he provides in this regard may, indeed, be his greatest legacy as a literary critic. (Reading the Classics with C. S. Lewis 30)
Lewis’s approach to literature is thus based on humility and respect for the text. Whereas some critics attempt to use a literary work to fit it into their personal or political agenda, Lewis’s method allows the text to “speak for itself” rather than to be manipulated and warped by the reader.
To understand more fully Lewis’s insight, his essay “Meditation in a Toolshed” may be helpful for consideration. Lewis observes a beam of light entering a dark shed. His epiphany is that, to fully understand the beam of light, the viewer must look both at and along the beam. To relate this to literature, the Christian must not only read critically with the biblical Christian worldview, or “along,” but also must look “at” the text for what it is, to fully appreciate and understand it. According to Ryken, Lewis discredited the approach to literature that focuses on considering merely the “idea” of a book: “To reduce a piece of literature to its ideas … is an outrage to the thing the poet has made for us” (Lewis, qtd. in Realms of Gold 8-9).
Moreover, Lewis offers another piece of advice for reading literature; he states that exposure to good literature aids one’s ability in detecting what constitutes good literature. He states, “The best safeguard against bad literature is a full experience of good; just as a real and affectionate acquaintance with honest people gives a better protection against rogues than a habitual distrust of everyone” (An Experiment in Criticism 94). Lewis also advises the reader on how to critique a book based on his own reading and the guidance of critics: “He is, in a word, to have the character which MacDonald attributed to God, and Chesterton, following him, to the critic; that of being ‘easy to please, but hard to satisfy’” (120). When Lewis considers those critics who have been most beneficial to him in his study of literature, he states that they are those who helped primarily
by telling [him] what works exist. But still more by putting [the works] in their setting; thus showing [him] what demands they were meant to satisfy, what furniture they presupposed in the minds of their readers. They have headed [him] off from false approaches, taught [him] what to look for, enabled [him] in some degree to put [himself] into the frame of mind of those to whom they were addressed. This had happened because such historians on the whole have taken Arnold’s advice by getting themselves out of the way. They are concerned far more with describing books than with judging them. (An Experiment in Criticism 121-122)
Thus, for Lewis, context is crucial to a fair study and judgment of literature. He esteems critics who faithfully put a work in its historical and cultural setting to more fully understand its meaning. By first understanding a book by its context, readers can then apply it to their own lives, both through a more fuller grasp of human life and as a safeguard against blindspots of the contemporary age.
Furthermore, Lewis offers his counsel on properly balancing books with what their critics claim for them. Lewis states, “The truth is not that we need the critics in order to enjoy the authors, but that we need the authors in order to enjoy the critics” (An Experiment in Criticism 123). Also, “If we have to choose, it is always better to read Chaucer again than to read a new criticism of him” (An Experiment in Criticism 124). In other words, Lewis prefers the original text to the criticism of it, yet, simultaneously, he recognizes the value of criticism insofar as it is placed in its proper position below the text.
Lewis’s expansive knowledge of literature and his positions at the two greatest universities for humanities give him credibility for establishing his own literary theory. He not only explores the merits of literature from a critical standpoint in his essays and books, but also incorporates his principles into his own fiction writing. By advocating that readers must receive, rather than use, a literary text, Lewis offers an approach that encourages readers to enjoy literature rather than to impose one’s personal agendas on it.
There’s a lot that viewers will find unsurprising in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Morgan Neville’s new documentary about longtime children’s show host Fred Rogers. Most Americans who came of age at the end of the twentieth century are familiar with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, given that the show was on for over thirty years, and the documentary is loaded with iconic images and scenes from the set that are perfect nostalgia fodder. It’s all there: the trolley and memorable music, King Friday the 13th and Daniel the Striped Tiger, Lady Aberlin and Mr. McFeely, Mr. Rogers’ signature cardigans and his regular, recurring visitors. It’s a feel good, emotionally evocative movie if ever there was one, and that good feeling matches the mood of Rogers’ show itself, which intentionally offered children familiar feelings of warmth and reassurance. Over the course of its time on the air, the show remained remarkably consistent; its host, thoughtful and kind, and Neville’s film nicely captures these dynamics so permanently etched into our memories and vividly returns them to us unchanged.
What has changed, however, is the framing of these familiar features, and therein lies the surprise of the film. Behind the simple sets and low production values of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, underneath the quaint songs and the unhurried storylines lay a profound conviction—children are inherently valuable and deserve the love and respect of those charged with their care. It’s a commonplace belief, one that most would readily assent to. And yet, given the contentiousness of our day, we might wonder how genuine such a belief is, how fully committed we are to it. Presented as an homage to Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? poses a stiff challenge to viewers: is the world we are making hospitable to the most vulnerable among us? If not, what are we doing to make it so? It’s a challenge that Mr. Rogers took to heart and fully lived out. If you want to know what moral apologetics for children looks like, watch a rerun of his show. To him love demanded more than lip service; it informed his approach to all he did.
Mr. Rogers was for just this reason deeply countercultural, even radical. Disrupting the system, turning programming for children on its head, was precisely his intention, as he aimed to use the television medium to work against its most destructive tendencies. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Fred Rogers believed children deserved more from TV than the silliness and violence on offer, the pies in the face, the slapstick comedy reliant on gags and props, vacuous frivolity at best, abject dehumanization at worst. In the 1950s, as television was emerging as a cultural force, Rogers saw the potential for it to be used to connect us, to build real community out of the entire country. And he took on that challenge with all the resources at his disposal—his faith, his musical training, his artistic creativity, his education in early childhood development, his listening skills, his talented and dedicated staff, and his obvious love for children—inviting his young viewers into the safety and security of being his neighbor, to become part of a family who would love, guide, and protect them.
But this neighborhood was no Pollyannaish utopia; in fact, conflict was essential to the stories Fred told—conflict that would be honestly presented and dealt with, not papered over, trivialized, or ignored. Despite its Leave It to Beaver feel, the show began in the late 1960s—1968 in fact, perhaps the most heartrending and harrowing year of that most tumultuous of decades. It was a time of unprecedented political and social turmoil, violence, and dissension in the United States, and Mr. Rogers understood it as his job to help children process all of the tragedy and upheaval they were certainly aware of—war, assassinations, racial discrimination—but were often left to their own devices to figure out. Drawing from a concept in music, Rogers explained that he aimed to help children through the difficult modulations of life, some of which are much harder than others to achieve on their own.
His approach was a far cry from seeing these children as consumers merely to be sold a product. As one friend explained, each episode was a sermon, a spiritual message that communicated directly to their hearts. Fred himself said that he saw the space between the TV and the viewer as holy ground, a sentiment verified by the seriousness with which he took his ministry. He crafted every script with care, concerned that the actors follow the lines closely in order to teach the children and help them better understand the world around them. He wrote the songs, voiced the puppets, and produced the shows. And he did so day in and day out, knowing full well that many would miss his point, that he would be mocked with parody, and that he would have to continuously counter the folly of mainstream entertainment.
And that’s perhaps another surprising feature of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The courage and resolve of Fred Rogers, character traits that enabled his long career but that, regrettably, aren’t often associated with the cultural persona of the man himself. I suspect, though, that this is our failure of imagination—to think that kindness, gentleness, and respect are somehow weak or passive. Or perhaps it’s a reflection of the nihilism creep in our culture. The life of Mr. Rogers shows that to be truly kind, to be gentle, to demonstrate empathy, and to respect others takes great will. Mockery and cynicism is far easier. But mockery takes a toll; it erodes confidence and trust and wears away the social fabric, a lesson Fred himself learned as a bullied child who had a hard time making friends. He hoped to protect his viewers against such destructive behavior—either enacting it or receiving it. To this end he sought instead to make goodness attractive, “to help children become more aware that what is essential in life is invisible to the eye.”
Fred’s Christian faith is not the primary focus of the documentary, but it was implicit in everything he did; an attentive viewer will recognize that without it, there would be no Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Junlei Li, director of the Fred Rogers Center, reminds us that Rogers’ insistence that all people are inherently valuable, all are deserving of love and capable of giving it, is a fundamental tenet of Christianity. Mr. Rogers taught his viewers to see with spiritual eyes, to look at all people they encounter as image-bearers of God. No one is ordinary, and everyone is unique. His relationship with François Clemmons who played Officer Clemmons on the show testifies to the power of acting on that truth. Fred’s simple message, “I love you just the way you are,” was meant not only for the children watching but for Clemmons, too. It was a life-changing moment when he finally realized that, Clemmons tearfully recounts: “No man had ever told me that he loved me like that. I needed to hear it all my life. My dad never told me, my stepfather never told me. So from then on he became my surrogate father.”
While detractors may balk, and cynics sneer, Rogers’ generous acceptance of people is nothing like entitlement; it doesn’t enable narcissism. Rather, it’s centered on a notion of interdependence—we are responsible for others. We can encourage them toward good or evil. In a PSA recorded after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Rogers calls us to be Tikkun Olam, a concept from Judaism that means “repairers of creation.” “Love is at the root of everything—all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.” Far from an empty cliché or feckless sentiment, it’s the simple truth that it’s love that changes the world—sharing that love, teaching others to love, promoting love. Fred embodied what love of God and neighbor—the divine commands in some sense constitutive of all the law and prophets—looks like. Rogers did it in his inimitable and singular way, defying odds, bursting categories, shattering expectations, and debunking stereotypes along the way, but as the film reminds us as it closes, this is an ongoing task and persistent charge for us all. As Rogers shared in his last commencement speech, others have smiled us into smiling, talked us into talking, sang us into singing, loved us into loving. Remember them and do likewise. Mr. Rogers ran his race well, and he has handed the baton off to us. We would be wise to honor his memory, celebrate his life, and emulate his faithfulness.
Marybeth's most recent book is The Morals of the Story: Good News about a Good God, coauthored with her husband, David.
In his seminal work on literary theory An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis describes what, in his opinion, constitutes good literature. Lewis argues that literature must be enjoyable: “Every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less. Entertainment, in this sense, is like a qualifying examination. If a fiction can’t provide even that, we may be excused from inquiry into its higher qualities” (An Experiment in Criticism 91-92). Thus, “[i]deally, we should like to define a good book as one which ‘permits, invites, or compels’ good reading” (113). Lewis’s definition of a good book consists primarily in the book’s ability to entertain the reader.
Moreover, Lewis argues that a reader can only pass fair judgment on a book by first reading it with an open mind and positive attitude. He states, “We can find a book bad only by reading it as if it might, after all, be very good. We must empty our minds and lay ourselves open. There is no work in which holes can’t be picked; no work that can succeed without a preliminary act of good will on the part of the reader” (An Experiment in Criticism 116). Therefore, to determine whether a book constitutes good literature, readers must often first set aside their presuppositions and grant the book the benefit of the doubt.
In his study on C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia as well as Lewis’s views of fantasy literature, Gregory Bassham argues that fantasy “broadens our perspective and enlarges our sense of what is possible” (246), and can “re-enchant the ordinary world” (247), “activate our moral imaginations” (248), and “baptize our imaginations” (254). Regarding the latter benefit of fantasy literature, Bassham points out two ways in which Lewis believed this possible: “First, they can stir and trouble us with a longing for we know not what, ‘a dim sense of something’ beyond our reach that, ‘far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth’” (254). Second, “Lewis believed that fantasy literature can baptize our imaginations by making us more likely to accept Christian truth and respond to it fittingly” (Bassham 254). This argument reflects his earlier illustration of the potential benefit for “two-edged” values, which included longing. Fantasy literature can, through the nature of the genre, appeal to the imagination in a way that creates spiritual longing for the reader.
In forming his view on fantasy literature, Lewis drew heavily from Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories.” In Lewis’s essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” he states, “I hope everyone has read Tolkien’s essay on Fairy Tales, which is perhaps the most important contribution to the subject that anyone has yet made” (26). One point Lewis makes, crediting Tolkien, is that “in most places and times, the fairy tale has not been specially made for, nor exclusively enjoyed by, children” (26). Further, “[t]he whole association of fairy tale and fantasy with childhood is local and accidental . . . It has gravitated to the nursery when it became unfashionable in literary circles, just as unfashionable furniture gravitated to the nursery in Victorian houses” (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” 26). Thus, Lewis points out that fantasy literature ought not to be associated merely with children, for it can also impact adult audiences.
One of the arguments most often used against fantasy literature is that it is escapist; in other words, it allows one to escape from reality by entering a world in which one can forget about real problems and instead journey into an unreal world. Thus, “many realist critics charge that fans of fantasy literature are (often) escapists in this pejorative sense” (Bassham 260). However, Lewis responds that the truth of such a claim depends on “whether fantasy fans are escaping ‘into the wrong things’” and “on one’s metaphysical and theological worldview” (Bassham 260). In her analysis of Lewis’s argument on escapism, critic Margaret L. Carter observes Lewis’s reasoning: “Though literature is still mimetic—words, since they carry meaning, inevitably direct our attention to things beyond themselves” (“Sub-Creation and Lewis’s Theory of Literature” 134). Understanding that fantasy literature can capture certain aspects of reality and relate it to the reader in a manner that is both meaningful and comprehensible, Lewis believes that a healthy form of escape is quite beneficial to the reader.
Lewis offers a counter-argument against the claim that fantasy literature is escapist by first acknowledging that fantasy literature does indeed offer escape. However, he proposes the ways in which fantasy may offer a beneficial form of escape: “[It] can help to re-enchant the ordinary world, evoke stabs of ‘joy’ that point us heavenward, restore ‘potency’ to spiritual truths and, as Tolkien suggests, fulfill deep-seated desires to participate in the properly human function of ‘subcreation.’” (Bassham 260). Finally, “for Lewis, there could be no real conflict among imagination, intellect and spirit, any more than among truth, goodness and beauty” (Bassham 260). Thus, by using fantasy, Lewis appeals not only to the intellect but also to the imagination to direct the focus of his readers toward the spiritual realm.
In a previous post, I argued that the Euthypro Dilemma (ED) was a false dilemma against Divine Command Theory (DCT).
The ED I am concerned with can be summarized as saying:
(1) God has no reasons for His commands,
(2) God has reasons for His commands but these reasons are sufficient by themselves in explaining moral obligations.
I proposed a third option which DCT proponents can well affirm:
(3) God has reasons for His commands but these reasons are not sufficient by themselves in explaining moral obligations without God’s commands.
Recently Real Atheology posted a reply on Facebook as follows:
First, I don’t think this is actually a genuine third option- it’s merely a modified second horn (that morality is independent of God). By admitting that God has reasons for not issuing certain commands, Choo is admitting that there is something independent of God which constrains God’s will. He is admitting that there are facts about certain actions which make it the case that God should, ought, or must not command us to perform those actions. If these reasons are sufficient to obligate God from not commanding certain actions, then they are sufficient to obligate us from not performing those same actions. What matters morally would still be independent of God. So all Choo does in his (3) is add a divine legislature and enforcer to the concept of wrongness. In fact, he only ever argues for his (3) by way of analogy to finite legislatures and the laws they enforce. He’s right to point out that morality constrains our legal system. Laws can be morally unjust after all. And laws can also incentivize people to conform to moral norms. A defender of a Euthyphro objection could concede all of this, but the point would still remain that reasons are what make it the case that some acts should not be willed either by human agents or divine agents. These reasons may not be sufficient for a divine legislature and enforcer, but that’s no objection, because reasons also aren’t sufficient for finite legislatures and enforcers. It can only constrain them. Finite legislatures and the demands of a divine commander are both constrained by the logical space of reasons (to borrow Wilfred Sellars term). What matters morally is part of the space of reasons and not the will of a being in the causal order. That is the lesson of the Euthyphro.
I’d recommend thinking of the Euthyphro dilemma differently. Either,
(a) Reasons are more fundamental than God’s will (and nature).
(b) God’s will (and nature) is more fundamental than reasons.
If (a) is true, then reasons constrain what God could will. His commands would not be arbitrary, because he could justify all of his commands with those more fundamental reasons. This would imply that morality is independent of God. If reasons are sufficient to obligate God not to issue certain commands, then those same reasons are sufficient to obligate us not to perform those same actions. Morality would be an autonomous (or self-directed) decision process.
But if (b) is true, then God’s will determines what reasons there are. There would be no justification for God’s commands on this view. They will always have to face a charge of arbitrariness, because there is no further reasons which justify God’s will. Morality would be about an unqualified claim on our obedience to divine commands. It would not be about reasons for action and autonomous decision-making.
Notice that adding a divine legislature and enforcer to (a) does not give us a genuine third option distinct from (a) and (b) either. It’s just something further added on. This is the difference between the reason-implying sense of moral wrongness and the command-implying sense of moral wrongness. If the reason-implying sense of moral wrongness is sufficient to constrain or obligate the command-implying sense of moral wrongness, then the command-implying sense of moral wrongness is superfluous. This is because the reason-implying sense of moral wrongness would also constrain and obligate what actions we should, ought, or must perform or not perform.
First, I am in no way admitting that there are facts about certain actions which make it the case that God should not command us to perform those actions. To do so would be to say that God has moral obligations. As far as I can see, I have not stated this anywhere and this does not follow from anything I previously wrote. Given that most DCT proponents are motivated by the idea that obligations must come from an obligator, I think that most DCT proponents are committed to saying that God does not have moral obligations. If the opponent of DCT asserts that the facts of an act must constitute an obligation for God not to command it, then the opponent is just asserting that the major motivation for DCT is false. If so, the problem is with DCT’s motivation, not the ED.
Now, I do think that God, being loving, kind, good (and so forth), would not command certain actions. Take for example the act of torturing babies for fun. Given the badness of such an act, a loving God would not command it to be done. This claim differs from saying ‘given the badness of such an act, a loving God should not command it to be done.’
One might worry that there is something independent of God which constrains God’s will. Here are three short replies. First, some DCT proponents such as Robert Adams and William Lane Craig argue that God is the Good. If God’s commands are constrained by reasons based on goodness and God is the Good, then there is nothing independent of God which constrains God’s will after all. So this is not a problem for DCT proponents who hold such a theory of goodness. Second, even if one drops Adams’ theory of goodness, it is not true that something independent of God’s will can by itself constrain God’s will. Based on what I said last paragraph, what constrains God’s will is partly explained by God’s character and partly explained by the badness of the act. So part of what explains God’s will is His character, not solely the features of the act alone. Something independent of God only plays a partial role in constraining God’s will. Lastly, the notion of constraining needs to be explained in order to pose a problem. If by ‘constrain,’ one means that the features of an act make it wrong for God to command the act, then I agree this would be problematic. But as I said above, the DCT proponent is not committed to this. If by ‘constrain,’ one means that the features of an act determines what God would not command, then it is not clear why this is problematic. One might however think that if the features of an act determine God’s commands, and God’s commands determine our moral obligations, then it is the features of an act alone that is sufficient to determine our moral obligations. This however is wrong. If X because of Y, and Y because of Z, it does not follow that X solely because of Z. All that follows is that X because of Y and Z.
To end off, I would again appeal to an analogy. Suppose that there is a political authority (be it a single person or a government) which is legitimate (justified by whatever theory of political authority you hold to). Now, one might hold political authority command theory (PACT) which states that if a legitimate political theory issues commands (or institutes laws) and has good reasons for those commands, then those commands would result in our legal obligations.
Now imagine one raises the ED against PACT:
(1) The political authority has no reasons for His commands,
(2) The political authority has reasons for His commands but these reasons are sufficient by themselves in explaining legal obligations.
The defender of PACT can well affirm a third option:
(3) The political authority has reasons for its commands but these reasons are not sufficient by themselves in explaining legal obligations without its commands.
For example, the political authority may have good reasons to command people not to smoke in a certain area and to smoke in another area. This creates our legal obligation to smoke only at the designated areas. But independent of the political authority’s commanding, the good reasons alone are not sufficient to create such a legal obligation. Now also suppose, there are things that the political authority would not command as the authority is wise, loving, etc. With this, we have a close analogy to DCT. I take it that most would not think the ED is a good objection to PACT. As far as we think that the ED is not problematic for PACT, I think the same can be said for DCT. If any ED style objection is to be raised against DCT, then it should also be a good objection against PACT.
"He may have had plenty of reasons to provide the additional moral reasons to perform a particular action that we already had moral reasons to perform. The goodness of the action is one reason for God to command it"
A point of clarification: You seem to be saying that there are actions such that, prior to God's commands, there are moral reasons to perform them and that (at least for such an action) God's commanding that we perform the action gives us additional moral reasons to perform it. Is this a correct interpretation of your view? If this is correct, then an immediate consequence is that God's commands do not generate or constitute the moral reasons that exist prior to God's commands. Presumably, this also entails that God's commands do not generate or constitute the strength of these prior reasons.
Assuming that I understand your view correctly, I have additional questions: Suppose A is an action such that, prior to God's command, there are moral reasons to perform it. What is the nature of A's deontic status at this point (that is, prior to God's command)? Since, on your view, DCT is a theory of deontic value, presumably the answer is that A has no deontic status. So, on your view A is neither obligatory nor wrong prior to God's command. Is this right?
Suppose now that there are two actions, A and B, such that, prior to God's command, there are moral reasons to perform each of them. Suppose that the reasons to perform A are much stronger than the reasons to perform B. Don't we want to say that A has a different moral status than B? Suppose we are faced with a decision between A and B. Don't we want to say that A is the action that we should perform? Given that it is the action that (at least in the context of a choice between A and B) we should perform, don't we want to say that A has a different deontic status than B?
Suppose now that I face a choice between A and C. A is such that, prior to God's commands, there are strong reasons to perform it; and C is such that, prior to God's commands, there are strong reasons to refrain from performing it. What we want to say about such a situation is that I ought to perform A and I ought to refrain from performing C. Indeed, we want to say that, if I perform C rather than A, I will have done something wrong. But, if this is correct, C has deontic value; it is morally wrong and its moral wrongness is dependent only on the existence and strength of reasons that count against performing C (and in favor of A), which reasons exist prior to God's commands. So, how can it be that God's commands make an action have its deontic value?
Thanks for your comment and question!
I’m not Dr. Baggett, but I think I can suggest some ways one might respond to the criticisms you raise.
One thing to keep in mind is the good/right distinction. Divine command theory (DCT) is usually presented by its advocates as a theory of moral rightness (moral obligations, in particular) and not a theory of moral goodness. DCT says that moral rightness is constituted (or caused or, in Hare’s case, prescribed) by divine commands. On each account, if God commands that P, then we have a moral obligation to P. Of course this is one among other theistic ethical accounts of moral obligations.
If something like DCT holds, then we can have moral reasons to act that are not themselves morally obligatory reasons. In other words, an action could be good to do, but not morally obligatory. For example, perhaps it is good for me to spend all my money building wells in drought-stricken areas. But that is not morally obligatory, at least because there are equally good other causes that I could support, like, say, bringing an end to human trafficking. In God’s case, we can say that he has moral reasons to give a command; it is consistent with moral goodness. But that does not presume a theory of moral rightness.
One issue in the discussion of moral obligations, I think, is that we use the term “ought” in different ways. There’s a rational use of “ought” and a moral use of “ought.” Rationally speaking, I ought to do what is in my self-interest. I ought to pursue my self-interest on pain of irrationality. Arguably, it is always irrational to do some act that is not in my interest. And this is precisely the sort of insight that undergirds many ethical theories, like utilitarianism and social contract theory. I ought to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number because, if everyone follows that rule, then it will ultimately result in the most good for everyone, including myself, or so the story goes.
However, it seems that there is another sense of “ought” that is not captured by appeal to rationality in general or self-interest in particular. Phenomenologically, we can spot a difference in ourselves in the case of adding 2 and 2 to make 5 and when we have morally wronged another person. And, it seems to me, that many of our moral choices, psychologically, do not make any reference at all to rationality. When I think about the wrongness of murder, I do not remind myself (at least not at first) of how such an act would not be in my interests. Rather, I have the sense that such an act would be wrong no matter how my interests factor into the equation. There’s a certain gravity, weight, and transcendence with such prohibitions that, at least by my lights, resist the reduction to the merely rational ought.
So, I could have moral reasons for performing some act A over act B, without God’s command in place. Any supererogatory act will, de facto, come with good moral reasons to do that act, but it will not be morally obligatory. But the divine command theorist will say that I am only obligated to act when I am so commanded. Doing some act because it is good is a moral reason to act; however, it is not sufficient to ground moral obligations.