When Was the Last Time You Talked Baseball With Your Enemies?

baseballI’m not a communications expert, but it’s a subject I think about a lot. I preach (almost) every week, blog here, tweet, Facebook, meet with students, and do all the regular sorts of communicating most humans do (because I am a human too). One of the dimensions of communication I’ve wrestled with most is how to talk to people you don’t agree with, maybe dislike or even consider an ideological enemy. It’s also one of the things we Christians seem to be particularly bad at in our internet age. I don’t need to describe this in detail. We’ve all see one too many Facebook updates blow up into a rehash of the Schisms and the Crusades to doubt that this is a problem.

While there are a number of reasons this should not be so, one of the important is Jesus’ command to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and pray for those with whom we are opposed. If we can’t do that with people with whom we share the household of God, how are we supposed to do that with those outside of it?

So, how can we love, honor, and treat with Christian dignity those with whom we disagree? How can we love someone all the while contending for a truth that is of significant moral and personal interest when they are forcibly set against you?

Sometimes I wonder if we hear this standard and are struck with this overwhelming challenge to love in its most difficult, highest form, come to the summit of the mountain, and stop because it seems all too impossible. But what if there was a simpler first step? What if we could begin with something as simple as small talk?

For instance, when was the last time you chatted baseball with your atheist cousin? Or Christopher Nolan films with your friend who watches Fox News (or MSNBC)? Or how about favorite Mexican foods with that blogger who always seems to pick the wrong opinion on every theological issue?

Phatic v. Emphatic Speech

I’m not just throwing out a bit of silly advice here. I mean this seriously. I’m not a communications expert, but one of the most interesting tidbits I picked up from Timothy Muehlhoff’s book I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love was the distinction between “phatic” and “emphatic” speech (pp. 45-46).

Muehlhoff draws on the work of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski who discovered the importance of “phatic” communication for healthy relationships. Most of the conversations we have about difficult issues are “emphatic.” But that’s not most of the conversations we have with friends and family. Phatic speech is all those small interactions talking about daily routines, shared interests–small talk, basically. Healthy relationships need a significant amount of conversations dealing with the weather, sports, the price of tires, favorite sandwiches and TV shows.

Think of it this way: every relationship we have has a sort of emotional temperature to it. If you only ever talk to someone in order to argue–engage in emphatic speech–the emotional temperature is always cranked up, so every conversation only gets more heated. Too many of those in a row and things are likely to blow. Phatic speech about shared interests, innocuous cultural items, and so forth, lowers the conversation temperature so that it is less like to reach that boiling point where you finally throw up your hands and say, “That’s it! I can’t talk to this person anymore!”

I have seen this in my own life. I have found myself in a number of conversations and even friendships with people on very different sides of the theological spectrum over the years. I’ve noticed that I always make more headway–or at least less damage–when it’s someone that I have managed to find common interests, jokes, and so forth. I’ve also noticed that when one of these relationships gets strained, I can usually look back at the last few weeks and realize that all of our interactions have been in the “emphatic” mode. In that sense, willingness to trade a joke or two on Twitter can go a long way in forwarding communication between opposed camps.

I think also of one discussion group that manages to be a decent space for discussion of difficult issues: Christ and Pop Culture’s Member’s Group. (For those who don’t know what that is, Christ and Pop Culture offers a paid membership and one of the many privileges is being part of a private Facebook group to chat about issues with writers and other members.) What’s funny about the group is that discussions range from Sufjan Stevens’ last album to the latest Evangelical cultural blow-up to RFRA and things manage to stay pretty loving. I mean, people disagree plenty, but there’s such an interesting mix of phatic and emphatic speech in the group that the conversational temperature says pretty healthy and constructive. That, and the fact that when things get heated, Alan Noble swoops in with a Kermit GIF to defuse the tension.

Remember They’re Human

Why is this sort of small talk so important? Well, on top of the emotional temperature, the mix of phatic and emphatic speech in our relationships reminds us of our shared, common humanity in concrete ways. It’s not just that your “enemy” is a Democrat, or a Fox News Watcher, or a Progressive, or a Calvinist, or whatever. They’re also the person who agrees that Batman is smart enough to beat Superman and both of you have kids who, for some reason, can’t manage to eat anything that’s not a peanut butter sandwich. This is not just the “marriage revisionist”, but someone else who was also suffering last Tuesday when the dry weather was killing your sinuses.

When you know this, it changes the character of the big, real issues that stand between you. It’s not that they go away or become any less important. It’s that it is harder to reduce the person to the issue on which you are ideologically divided. It’s harder to put them in an entire different category of humanity (or non-humanity), beyond the realm of possible persuasion and hope. This, I think, maybe a communication theory spin on remembering the basic theological realities of common grace and the Image of God. I’ve written about this before, but it’s one of the reasons Chesterton was so good at staying in healthy relationships with his foe/friends like Shaw–he knew they were more than their ideas.

So, do I think that talking baseball with my ideological opponents will heal all the wounds of the Church in an internet age? No. That sort of thing can only be accomplished by the Spirit of God, supernaturally working his Word into our souls. Still, it might be one small step towards following Paul’s admonition, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).

Sometimes the attempt to live peacably includes chatting with your opponent about Opening Day.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Mere Fidelity: The Resurrection, Ethics, and Natural Law

Mere FidelityGiven that it’s the week after Easter, Alastair, Matt, and I decided to ask “What has the resurrection to do with how we think about ethics?” as well as the limits and possibilities of natural law reasoning. We consider (tangentially) this essay by James K.A. Smith, this fascinating story from Conor Friedersdorf, and this tome by Oliver O’Donovan. I think we cover a lot of important and relevant material here, so I hope you enjoy it.

Soli Deo Gloria

In this Case, Father Elfert Does Not Know Best. No, Fornication is Not a Great Idea.

So, on April Fool’s Day, there was an installment of Rev. Martin Elfert’s “Father Knows Best” column on Religion New Service that I originally hoped was a joke, but sadly was not. A young man (LC) wrote in confessing that he and his girlfriend had been engaging in premarital sex, but had recently confessed and decided to swear it off until marriage. Good for them. Now, the LC’s question is a typical, understandable. follow-up that just about any college or youth pastor has gotten before, “But does the other stuff (oral, manual, etc) count? Can I do that instead? Because, really, things are tough here.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten that question in the last 8 years.

What was Rev. Elfert’s answer? Well, at one point he very clearly and rightly says the other stuff is still sex. It’s in the technical names of the terms (manual sex, oral sex). Beyond that, the structure of the acts themselves as well as the results (orgasm, etc.), make it clear that these are species of sexual activity.

But that’s not the whole of his answer. This, actually, is his primary response:

My educated guess, LC, is that you are writing in the hopes that someone will give you and your girlfriend permission to have sex. If that guess is right then consider this column your official authorization to fornicate. Go forth with my blessing and hop into the bed or the back seat of the car of your choosing. I promise not to tell anyone.

He continues on:

The overwhelming majority of couples at whose marriages I officiate and/or for whom I perform premarital counseling are already sexually active and already living together. And for the life of me, LC, I can’t figure out why I need to be troubled about that. While I recognize that there was a time when the moral norm was to be — or at least was to be pretend to be — celibate up until your wedding day, I don’t find the arguments for preserving or restoring that norm persuasive.Indeed, I can think of at least two pretty solid reasons that being sexually active before a wedding is a good idea.

His two reasons? First, sex is important and you have to know you’re sexually compatible. You don’t want to live a life of sexual misery do you? Second, you can’t think straight when you’re horny, so you want to be sure your head is clear when you decide to get married. You don’t want to just get married so you can have sex.

Yes, apparently this man is ordained as a Christian pastor somewhere, in charge of caring for souls in the Church Christ bought at the cost of his own blood. Take a moment and grieve, if you need to.

Now, I’m not sure if LC will ever see this response, but I figured it would be worth my time to quickly respond to this little bit of silliness in hopes that he or someone else confused by Elfert’s piece might run across it.

Who Cares About Fornication? Jesus. Paul. Pretty much everybody in the Bible. 

First, why should Rev. Elfert be troubled enough about extra-marital or pre-marital sex to say something about it to the couples he’s counseling? Why should he not tell people to fornicate? Well, what does the Apostle Paul (guy inspired by God and personally knocked off his horse by the Resurrected Christ) say?

“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:13-20 ESV)

Just to be clear, the term “sexual immorality” is the Greek term porneia.  Most New Testament lexicons and commentators will point out that the term includes a variety of practices including adultery, prostitution, unlawful sex, and certainly sex outside of marriage. Often it is translated “fornication.” So, the NRSV actually renders verse 18 “shun fornication!”

This kind of thing is apparently a big enough deal that Jesus himself condemns it (Mark 7:21) along with a laundry list of sins like theft, unclean thoughts, murder, etc. In fact, Jesus cites it as one of the only legitimate grounds for initiating a divorce (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). And Jesus really hates divorce.

So maybe, Rev. Elfert ought to be concerned because according to Jesus, fornication is a sin to be repented of, not to be encouraged. LC, your instinct to go to confession and then repent was the right one.

What’s the Problem? Sex is good. Sex is powerful. Sex works. 

So why is it a big deal? Not because God doesn’t like sex. Rev. Elfert had that much right. God created the original desires, instincts, bodily functions, nerve endings, and so forth that make sex pleasurable and a source of joy. He’s the one who say “Be fruitful and multiply”, knowing full well how that multiplication happens. But the reality is that he created sex to function within the context of marriage. This is what Paul is getting at in the passage above when he says,

“Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.'”

Quoting Genesis chapter 2, he notes that sexual intercourse is the process by which “two will become one flesh.” Jesus himself quotes this same text when teaching his disciples about the inadmissibility of divorce:

And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:5-9)

This “one-flesh” the author of Genesis, Jesus, and Paul are talking about is the reality that sexual intercourse creates a bond between people at multiple levels: physical, emotional, and spiritual. It’s a deeply beautiful act, that in the context of a marriage, functions as a promise: I love you, I accept you, I will be faithful to you, and I will share my life with you. In the context of the Bible, it’s a covenant renewal ceremony, that’s why Timothy Keller has called it “covenant glue.”

Another way of putting it is that it’s a powerful commitment apparatus. Having sex with someone bonds you to them in a way that going to the movies, having long conversations, or even spending months together does not. Nakedness does something to the relationship.

This is why Elfert’s second reason for having sex with someone before marriage is beyond counterproductive and verges into the downright idiotic. Having sex with someone does not clear your head about them; it bonds you to them. This is at the heart of why God is against fornication. He made sex, he made it good, and he made it powerful. It works and it works great in the context of marriage. But when you have sex outside of marriage, you’re promising yourself, bonding yourself, and committing yourself to someone you’re not actually committed to. Sex divorced from marriage becomes an exercising in lying to yourself and your partner. Even though you may rationally not be promising something, your body and your emotions, in a sense, believe deeper than your mind.

Can you see how sexual engagement in -order-to-figure-things-out is just complicating an already complicated decision? Sex doesn’t clear your head so you can make a thoughtful decision. It fogs it up. This, by the way, is part of why you see so many confused relationships that last way too long, or those breakups that are inexplicably devastating. You’ve bonded to the person in a significant way, despite what judgment your reason might have made about the person and now its hard to think straight about them or let go when you need to. Certain sociologists have compared the process of ending relationships in which there has been sexual intercourse with a mini-divorce. So, having sex, breaking up, having sex, breaking up, and so on, until you find the right person can be the psychological equivalent of experiencing multiple mini-divorces, leading to serious consequences for your emotional health.

This is not a matter of being “sex-positive” or “body-positive”, either. It’s about being “sex-realistic.” Believe me, I’m quite positive about sex and so is the Bible. Just go read Song of Solomon. But just because something is good and positive, that doesn’t mean we can’t be wise about how we use or engage it. Sex is good and it is powerful. This is why God put the guardrails around it that he did with marriage vows of life-long fidelity and exclusivity. He’s not a prude–he’s a good Father who doesn’t want us getting hurt.

What About Sexual Compatibility?

I’ll try to be quicker here, but a few points. First, you need to remember that marriage is about far more than just sex. This is difficult to fathom in a culture that idolizes the experience of sexual fulfillment.

Second, if you’re not sleeping with a number of people, what’s your reference point to compare your spouse to? One chap put it this way: “sexual compatibility” as the culture currently defines it, ends up meaning that your bag of tricks you picked up from your partners along the way, and their bag of tricks matches up. But if you have no bag (or a smaller bag) to start? I’ve talked to a number of people who regret this aspect of their life before their marriage, precisely because they wish they only knew and grew with their spouses.

Third, sexual practice, style, and so forth, is not some static, unchangeable thing, like plastic Lego pieces you’re trying put together  You have your whole life to find out how to serve, love, please, enjoy each other better in your sex life. Practice makes perfect. (Also, there are such things as sex therapists. Help can be had here.)

Grace

My final point is to remember there’s grace. LC, if you’re reading, I need you to know that as serious as sex outside of marriage (along with a whole bunch of other activities) is, God’s forgiveness is greater still. Sexual sin is not the one, unforgivable sin out there. As Paul says just a few verses earlier,

“But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).

The message of the gospel is that Jesus came to us while we were still doing everything wrong, in order to die on the Cross, remove our guilt, our shame, reconcile us to God, and give us the power to live new lives by the Holy Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Finally, this is a set of somewhat silly practical tips I give to my college students for keeping a lid on things with your girlfriend before marriage. Most people have found them helpful.

Also, check out Timothy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage for some helpful insights into marriage, sex, dating, and so forth.

Two Murders, Two Cities, Two Loves

William_Blake's_Cain_and_AbelAccording to Augustine, it is common that earthly cities are founded by murderers. Fratricides to be exact (City of God, Bk. XV.5). In Scripture, we learn that the first city Cain who slew his brother Abel was the founder of the first earthly city. He was jealous of Abel’s favor before the Lord in offering a right sacrifice and so the sin crouching at his feet overwhelmed Cain as he overwhelmed his brother.

It’s no wonder, then, that he was followed in this “by a kind of reflection” in the founder of the archetypical “capital” of the earthly city of Rome. As the founding myth would have it, there were two brothers, Romulus and Remus. Disagreeing about which hill to build their future city on, they quarreled and Romulus slaughtered his brother, founded the city, and named it after himself. After that, Romulus built his armies, legions, and spread from there.

The two foundings, while similar, also reveal different conflicts at work. In the case of the second pair, Augustine thinks it is obvious what the root of the issue is: both Romulus and Remus were citizens of the City of Man whose aim is self-glory.

Both sought the glory of establishing the Roman state, but a joint foundation would not bring to each the glory that a single founder would enjoy. Anyone whose aim is to enjoy glory in the exercise of power would obviously enjoy less power if his sovereignty was diminished by a living partner. Therefore, in order that the sole power should be wielded by one person, the partner was eliminated; and what would have been kept smaller and better by innocence grew through crime into something bigger and worse.

As the lust for glory provokes Romulus to kill Remus, it would spill into further violence and bloodshed. The lust for dominance and glory is insatiable, and once it has found a crack in the wall, the dam inevitably bursts forth.

But what of Cain and Abel? There was a difference there, right? Cain was the founder of the first city and a representative of the City of Man, but Abel was a citizen of the “Eternal City” of God whose glory is the love of God. There was not “the same ambition for earthly gains”, and Cain was clearly not jealous of Abel’s power–he was a poor shepherd and their was no city to be founded yet. Instead, Augustine says that “Cain’s was the diabolical envy of that the wicked feel for the good simply because they are good, while they themselves are evil.”

Thus the quarrel that arose between Remus and Romulus demonstrated the division of the earthly city against itself; while the conflict between Cain and Abel displayed the hostility between the two cities themselves, the City of God and the city of men. Thus the wicked fight among themselves; and likewise the wicked fight against the good and the good against the wicked.

The city of man built on love of human glory and power is inherently destructive. It not only opposes the good, but eventually tears itself apart. Because human glory is a limited resource, those who desire it cannot share it. And, what’s more, they even hate those who do not seek it, because it seems to diminish their own pursuit of it. Try to opt out of the competition and it makes the prize at the end seem all the less desirable.

But what of the love of the city of God? What of the desire to possess goodness?

A man’s possession of goodness is in no way diminished by the arrival, or the continuance, of a sharer in it; indeed, goodness is a possession enjoyed more widely by the united affection of partners in that possession in proportion to the harmony that exists among them. In fact, anyone who refuses to enjoy this possession in partnership will not enjoy it at all; and he will find that he possesses it in ampler measure in proportion to his ability to love his partner in it.

Love of good and the God who is the Good is an inherently social love. Those who have it naturally seek out fellow citizens who with whom to delight and rejoice together. And this is the joy of the Heavenly Jerusalem that descends from above. There the citizens of the City of God will have their eternal good and delight together in their unchanging possession of, or rather, possession by, the Infinite, Unlimited Subject of their affection.

 

Soli Deo Gloria 

Selma and the Sufferings of Christ

SELMAI went to go see the movie Selma with my wife yesterday and, as I predicted, I was wrecked. I do not cry often, nor especially in films, but along with the stories of the martyrs, the history of the struggle against slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation move on my heart. I wept as I have not wept in years. The kind of tears that wrench your gut and stick in your throat for hours. As I went home that evening, just thinking of the various injustices and degradations depicted threaten to bring on another torrent. I was exhausted with the grief and, yes, the heaviness of hope.

I am no film critic, but suffice it to say, the film was powerful. I really do suggest you go watch it. It is not just Black history, or American history, but our history, as Christians and humans made in the Image of God. The depth of human depravity, the height of human courage, and the slow, but inevitable coming of justice–however partial, however incomplete–is a story that will not sit easy, but builds you and blesses you nonetheless.

While there are any number of spiritual and theological themes I could profitably take up in this post, I want to talk about Jesus and Selma. Or rather, I want to ask a specific question about what our Christology, our view of Jesus, has to do with our view of what happened in Selma and what happens in the suffering of God’s people around the world. Admittedly, this is not the only question, and maybe not even the most important Christological question raised by the film, and yet I want to briefly address it nonetheless, because I think there is comfort and challenge involved here.

Does God Cry?

In the middle of the film, when Martin Luther King Jr. is out of town, a small band of Selma protesters engage in a night march. The police get wind of it and decide to teach them a lesson by ambushing them with a wave of brutality and violence. In the middle of it all, one young protestor, Jimmie Lee Jackson, is shot and killed trying to protect his mother and grandfather. It is wrenching and heartbreaking. When he hears the news, King comes to visit Jackson’s grandfather and speak some words of comfort. King addresses him and assures him that Jimmie will not have died in vain, but the very first words he says, are something to the effect of:

“I want you to know that when Jimmie died, God was the first to cry. He was the first to shed a tear.”

It is a powerful moment, especially as you watch Jimmie’s grandfather look at King with an expression of humility, comfort, and deep pain and say, “Oh yes, I believe that. I know that.” The words are so appropriately-timed and attuned to speak a message that provides balm for the soul. God knows your pain. He is not distant from your cares and woes. They are his cares and woes. Your tears do not fall to the ground alone but join with those shed from heaven above, by the God of all creation.

Of course, the question that struck me in the theater was, “Is that true? Does God shed a tear for Jimmie?”

A God Who Cannot Suffer Becomes A Redeemer Who Can

I asked the question because, as Wesley Hill recently reminded us, for most of her history the church has taught the doctrine of impassibility. The nearly unified confession of church history until about the 20th Century was that, strictly speaking, God does not and cannot in “suffer” passions–be overwhelmed by irrational or uncontrollable feelings, etc–or be acted upon in his divine nature. The Triune God is the author of life whose own glory is that of perfect, unchanging glory. He is incapable of being overwhelmed or overcome in his divine life. So does God cry? Well, in a sense, no. God is spiritual, not physical. In himself he cannot be overwhelmed as we are, have an adrenaline rush with a flush of the face, a flaring of the nostrils, or an unbidden moistening of the tear-ducts. God does not cry.

At the same time, though, as Ben Myers reminded the attendees of last week’s LA Theology conference, for the Church Fathers the presupposition of impassibility is precisely the logic behind the cross. As I’ve explained before, God’s impassibility should not be taken to mean that God does not care, or that he has no emotional life–he does. It’s just that we should not think of it precisely as we do our own. In fact, this is the glory of the God of the gospel: we find a God who cares so much that the one who cannot suffer and die in his own nature, takes on human nature in order to suffer and die with us and for us. The Impassible God is the one who loves so implacably that he overcomes the obstacle of his own perfect life in order to participate in our life, so marred with pain and sin, to redeem us from it. In other words, the God who could not suffer, became a Redeemer who could.

Jesus is the God who became human so he could shed tears with us at the tomb of Lazarus.

Eternal Mediator

What now, though? The Scriptures teach that this Godman is the one who, after his Resurrection, was exalted to the right hand of the Father in order to intercede for us even now. According to Hebrews, like Melchizedek, Christ “continues a priest forever” (Heb. 7:3). The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity is currently a human seated on the throne of the universe. If it is not too speculative, I would hazard the courage to say that Jesus is the God who can still shed human tears for his people in this world racked with sin and injustice.

I say this on the basis of Acts 9, when the Resurrected Christ comes to Saul, the marauder of the church and says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” The Risen Christ so identifies with his people that any assault on them is an assault on him. Their suffering is his. Their tears are his. As Calvin writes about this passage:

…the godly may gather great comfort by this, in that they hear that the Son of God is partner with them of the cross, when as they suffer and labor for the testimony of the gospel, and that he doth, as it were, put under his shoulders, that he may bear some part of the burden. For it is not for nothing that he saith that he suffereth in our person; but he will have us to be assuredly persuaded of this, that he suffereth together with us, as if the enemies of the gospel should wound us through his side. Wherefore Paul saith, that that is wanting in the sufferings of Christ what persecutions soever the faithful suffer at this day for the defense of the gospel, (Colossians 1:24.) —Comment on Acts 9:4

Though impassible in his own nature, in Christ, God suffers in and with his people. Jesus is the God who cries for Jimmie Lee Jackson.

This is an unspeakable comfort for those suffering under grave oppression around the world. Whether it be the marchers in Selma, laboring for the justice of God’s kingdom, or the persecuted church around the world, God’s joy and impassible life does not mean he is separated from our pain and struggle. He is there in the heart of it, working to redeem it.

Yet the Gospel moves us beyond the tears of Christ to remind us that by his once and for all suffering on the Cross and victorious Resurrection, Christ has secured the day when “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)

May we look forward to that day as we look about our world filled with injustice and pain. May that hope gird us up as we shed the tears that will inevitably come as we follow Christ in looking the brokenness of the world, in order to meet it with the gospel of our justice-loving God.

Soli Deo Gloria

“Because I said so”: Epistemic Access, Our Current Moral Debates, and a Trustworthy God

My college philosophy program was a deeply formative time for me theologically. Many of the conclusions I came to in those classes are still with me and exercise a deep influence on the way I process certain divisive theological issues today. What’s more, looking back on things, I probably couldn’t have predicted at the time which insights would stick with me and which wouldn’t.

a fawnOne concept that’s been particularly important I picked up in my undergrad class on the problem of evil: CORNEA. Coined by Stephen J. Wykstra in, as you might have guessed, a piece of analytic philosophy, it’s an acronym for a very lengthy, nerdy term “Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access”. Wykstra was arguing against a very famous reformulation by William Rowe of the problem of evil, specifically the evidential one.

The gist of Rowe’s argument is this: think about a baby fawn dying in a forest fire somewhere all alone suffering miserably in the process. This seems to be an instance of suffering and evil where there is no possible point this could serve–at least not one that we can see. Countless situations like this mar our world daily. History is replete with apparently pointless evil. Therefore, on the evidence, it seems highly unlikely that God exists.

Now, there are numerous problems with this, but Wykstra put his finger on what is to my mind the key one: the issue of epistemic access. It is here that he proposes CORNEA (forgive the philosopher speak):

We are, I propose, here in the vicinity of a general condition – necessary rather than sufficient – for one’s being entitled, on the basis of some cognized situation s, to claim “it appears that p.” Since what is at issue is whether it is reasonable to think one has “epistemic access” to the truth of p through s, let us call this “the Condition Of Reasonable Epistemic Access,” or – for short – CORNEA: On the basis of cognized situation s, human H is entitled to claim “It appears that p” only if it is reasonable for H to believe that, given her cognitive faculties and the use she has made of them, if p were not the case, s would likely be different than it is in some way discernible by her.

— “The Humean Obstacle To Evidential Arguments From Suffering: On Avoiding The Evils of Appearance

Think of it this way: say you walk into a room in a seminary and find a man speaking an indecipherable tongue. Now, also consider the fact that in this scenario you know nothing of other languages having spoken only English your whole life. Is it reasonable for you to walk out and claim “It appears to me that they’re teaching nothing but a load of gibberish in there”? It could be a course in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic, and yet, given your cognitive abilities–your total ignorance of other languages and such–you’re not really in a position to make that judgment. You have not, in Wykstra’s language, satisfied the “Condition of Reasonable Epistemic Access.” So, the idea behind CORNEA is that you’re only allowed to say, “it appears that such and such” if you’re in an intellectual position to reasonably make that sort of call.

With respect to the problem of evil, Wykstra says we’re in a similar situation:

We must note here, first, that the outweighing good at issue is of a special sort: one purposed by the Creator of all that is, whose vision and wisdom are therefore somewhat greater than ours. How much greater? A modest proposal might be that his wisdom is to ours, roughly as an adult human’s is to a one- month old infant’s. (You may adjust the ages and species to fit your own estimate of how close our knowledge is to omniscience.) If such goods as this exist, it might not be unlikely that we should discern some of them: even a one-month old infant can perhaps discern, in its inarticulate way, some of the purposes of his mother in her dealings with him. But if outweighing goods of the sort at issue exist in connection with instances of suffering, that we should discern most of them seems about as likely as that a one-month old should discern most of his parents’ purposes for those pains they allow him to suffer – which is to say, it is not likely at all. So for any selected instance of intense suffering, there is good reason to think that if there is an outweighing good of the sort at issue connected to it, we would not have epistemic access to this: our cognized situation would be just as Rowe says it is with respect to (say) the fawn’s suffering.

In other words, given the sort of suffering that fawn is going through, if God had a good enough reason for allowing it to suffer in the fashion, do you really think its the kind of thing you and I could possibly understand? Is it reasonable for a finite creature of limited wisdom to be able to rule out the possibility that the infinite God has a reason you in your present state couldn’t possibly wrap your mind around? Not really. You can barely wrap your mind around high school physics. In which case, mounting the sort of evidential case Rowe wants to is very problematic. In order to claim that omniscience couldn’t possibly have a good reason for something, you would have an awfully high opinion of your own ability to plumb the infinite depths of knowledge and truth. One that, honestly, it’s quite unreasonable to have. (Incidentally, this is an excellent example of someone using philosophical refinement to make an eminently biblical point. Compare Job 38-41.)

What does any of this have to do with today’s moral debates as I implied in the title? Well, the key comes in with this phrase asking about the difference between God’s knowledge as Creator and ours as creatures:

How much greater? A modest proposal might be that his wisdom is to ours, roughly as an adult human’s is to a one- month old infant’s. (You may adjust the ages and species to fit your own estimate of how close our knowledge is to omniscience.)

In many of today’s moral debates, many of us think we’re a lot closer than that. The assumption many make is that unless God’s reasoning on a subject is absolutely transparent or immediately intuitive to postmoderns, it simply doesn’t exist or, or it is completely arbitrary. The most obvious example comes in the sexuality debates. Given our culture’s new presuppositions when it comes to sexuality and human identity construction, much of the biblical logic just seems opaque and incoherent. To attempt to appeal to a natural order  that doesn’t seem “natural” to us is arbitrary and obscurantist no matter that it’s revealed in Scripture.

infantvaccineWhile in the past there was probably greater comfort in appealing to God’s unfathomable wisdom, today we balk at the idea that there might be some things we just have to trust him on. Even now, I can hear critics objecting to the example Van Wykstra used above of a the difference between an infant and a parent. That’s an infantilizing cop-out! You have do better than a parent’s “Because I said so.”

But here’s the thing, is there an appropriate time for a parent to simply say “Because I said so”? When a  3-year-old child is too small to understand mom and dad’s logic for allowing them to get stuck in the arm with a needle, it makes sense for them to say “Because I said so” doesn’t it? They know that the child doesn’t have the cognitive capabilities of understanding germs, vaccinations, and so forth. This is not an act of arbitrary enforcement of an irrational will, but the reasonable response to the limits of their child’s reason. It is an appeal to something that the child ought to know and can trust: that loving character of the parent. It is “because said so and you know enough to know me.”

For Christians, there is an added dimension to this appeal. In those situations where the biblical logic seems unclear or arbitrary, when it appears to you that God is simply saying “Because I said so”, it pays to remember that the “I” who commands is the same God of whom Paul testifies:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

And again, of God’s wisdom he says:

But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,

nor the heart of man imagined,

what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:7-9)

This is the God whose deepest wisdom for the salvation of the world–the mystery of God’s good purposes for those who love him–was one that the wisest of the day couldn’t recognize. This is the God who at times says “Because said so”, or “Trust and one day you’ll understand my very good reasons.” He has proven himself ultimately trustworthy through subjecting in Jesus to the apparently pointless tragedy of the cross. This is the good God with good commands even if we can’t always understand them.

Soli Deo Gloria