“I Just Believe in One Less God Than You Do”–Or Not

atheism-believing-in-one-less-god-than-you-age-quoteIn the spirit of recycling (and nostalgia), I’ve rifled through old conversations I’ve saved from my pre-blogging, internet correspondence to see if there’s anything serviceable. One dialogue in particular found me channeling Tim Keller on the subject of idolatry. One chap, an aggressive atheist of the Dawkinsian sort, was challenging me on my juvenile belief in God and trotted out the now-famous quote among the New Atheist set:

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

–Stephen H. Roberts

After giving a lengthy list of reasons I have for believing in God, I addressed the quote (grammar:

At this point, I would like to address your quote. I think the question is not whether or not you believe in one less god than I do. I think the reality of the situation is that irrespective of the particular propositions we affirm, we both worship gods. The difference between you and I is that I’ve chosen the Christian one and that in all likelihood, you remain oblivious to the nature of yours.

Let me explain what I mean.

Functionally-speaking, everybody has a “god”, even if they don’t have a “religion.” You have something that you’ve placed at the center of your life that gives it direction, meaning, purpose, and value. You devote your time, energy, love, and affection to this thing as if it were the most central thing in the universe. That, in the monotheistic traditions, is what is called an idol. It is a god-substitute. The point isn’t whether or not you will worship a god. The point is “which god will you worship?”

The Christian claim is that if you match Jesus up with any other god, he wins all day, every day, and (of course) twice on Sundays. So, if you match Jesus up with the most common American god, Money, Jesus wins. Jesus is totally better than money. Money never satisfies. It never delivers what it promises. You can work for it, slave for it, sacrifice everything at the altar for (like your time, relationships, children, marriage, health) and in the end, even when you get it, it lets you down. You keep needing more and more and it never fills that gap. Also, if you don’t get it, if you fail your god, the crushing despair you feel can’t be relieved. Money doesn’t forgive you. When money is your god, being poor is a sin and you’re gonna have a hard time working that off of your soul.

In any case, money can be devalued, can be lost (think market crash in 2008), and, in the end, will distort your soul if you make it the ultimate thing in your life. Jesus ,on the other hand, well, he’s not going anywhere. He doesn’t accept you based on your performance, but by grace, loving you despite all your flaws. He forgives you when you fail. He delivers on what he promises. I could go on of hours, but you kinda get the point. Jesus > Money. Name anything else, even really good things, (Jesus > relationships, Jesus > your personal freedom, Jesus > sex, Jesus > power, Jesus > fame, Jesus > stuff, Jesus > a career, Jesus > status, Jesus > being a rockstar, etc.), and Jesus wins every time.

And remember, you already worship something. You build your sense of self on something. Something is already your god. I don’t know what your particular god is, but I know you have one. The question is whether or not you recognize it, and how well does it match up against the God revealed in Jesus Christ. That is why I think Mr. Robert’s quote, while being trivially true at the purely propositional level, is fundamentally wrong.

A few years on, I would probably adjust tone and my specific elaboration, and yet the fundamental point still holds. The world isn’t divided up between believers and non-believers, worshippers and non-worshippers–we all believe and we all worship. The fundamental difference is the object of our belief and worship–Jesus, or something else.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why You Just Might Want a Penal Account of Just War

just warI finally cracked open Oliver O’Donovan’s little treatise The Just War Revisited over the break. In it he tries to revitalize a judicial account of Just War theory, along the lines of an international application of criminal law in a situation where no comparable authority is able to adjudicate between nations. He does this against the background of the recent trend in Just War thinking oriented primarily towards accounts that privilege “self-defense” as the only acceptable justification for war, making altruistic/interventionist action less intelligible within modern frameworks.

In a particularly remarkable passage, O’Donovan suggests that when we screen out any penal objectives, or considerations of desert, from our moral consideration of war, we end up with less restraint rather than more. So what happens when we lose our ability to think of war in punitive terms? Or, put more provocatively, what would we gain if we began to reconsider penal elements in our war-making?

In our own time the notion of punishment, though hardly aired, is an important tacit support for wars of humanitarian assistance, for only penal desert can justify intervention into a foreign state’s jurisdiction and responsibility out of its hands. Without it, international justice is pushed back upon the ‘perimeter fence’. But the notion also has a critical role in keeping war objectives limited. The pursuit of safety can run to indefinite lengths, and the pursuit of right without regard to guilt can be a cruel thing. When Palestinian guerrillas cross the border from the Occupied Territories into Israel and perform isolated acts of terrorism, in reprisal for which Israel launches massive military bombardment, we call it ‘over-reaction’. What we mean is simply that there is a penal disproportion between offense and response. Whatever the guilt of the attack, it strikes us that the Palestinians have ‘not deserved’ all that they are forced to take. Israel may appeal to its need for safety; but that need is infinitely elastic. To require a penal objective guards against the resort to war as a response to non-culpable injury, and prevents the subtle expansion of defensive war-aims into further goals, such as colonisation. Common prejudice is inclined to suppose that punitive objectives make for unbridled war; but the truth is more or less the opposite; they impose the tightest of reins, since punishment is measured strictly by desert. –pg. 58

In other words, if disconnected from concerns about justice as desert, or punishment, war loses important limits. We can claim “defense” as a justification for all sorts of expanding precautionary measures, but war pursued with respect to penal desert can only go so far. Some actions may indeed make us safer, but do our opponents actually deserve them?

C.S. Lewis made a roughly analogous point in his classic essay, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” His main conceit was that merely deterrent or rehabilitory accounts of imprisonment, capital punishment, and so forth, lose the characteristic trait of justice by dispensing with desert, and ironically become more oppressive:

The reason is this. The Humanitarian theory removes from Punishment the concept of Desert. But the concept of Desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice. It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust. I do not here contend that the question ‘Is it deserved?’ is the only one we can reasonably ask about a punishment. We may very properly ask whether it is likely to deter others and to reform the criminal. But neither of these two last questions is a question about justice. There is no sense in talking about a ‘just deterrent’ or a ‘just cure’. We demand of a deterrent not whether it is just but whether it will deter. We demand of a cure not whether it is just but whether it succeeds. Thus when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case’.

Now some of us might not immediately see the problem with this. After all, it does seem to see things a bit more humanely, less moralistically, and purged of any possible vindictiveness. Yet Lewis goes on to illustrate the problem with an example of where this logic leads in real life:

Let us rather remember that the ‘cure’ of criminals is to be compulsory; and let us then watch how the theory actually works in the mind or the Humanitarian. The immediate starting point of this article was a letter I read in one of our Leftist weeklies. The author was pleading that a certain sin, now treated by our laws as a crime, should henceforward be treated as a disease. And he complained that under the present system the offender, after a term in gaol, was simply let out to return to his original environment where he would probably relapse. What he complained of was not the shutting up but the letting out. On his remedial view of punishment the offender should, of course, be detained until he was cured. And or course the official straighteners are the only people who can say when that is. The first result of the Humanitarian theory is, therefore, to substitute for a definite sentence (reflecting to some extent the community’s moral judgment on the degree of ill-desert involved) an indefinite sentence terminable only by the word of those experts—and they are not experts in moral theology nor even in the Law of Nature—who inflict it. Which of us, if he stood in the dock, would not prefer to be tried by the old system?

We see here how relevant and necessary the punitive question of desert becomes in the prevention of tyranny or injustice in the name of supposedly more enlightened accounts. In the hands of the humane social engineers, a crime deserving of a two-year sentence might be treated for five and with electro-shocks “for the sake of the patient”. Or again, if deterrence is the sole motivation for action, that someone be guilty is not strictly necessary for an example to be made. An innocent accused of the crime, or simply held up as an example of what will happen if you do step out of line, will do just as well. (For more on this, I’d commend to you the rest of the Lewis essay linked above.)

To sum up, while it may seem initially less aggressive, more justifiable by contemporary moral sentiments to screen out moralistic concerns about desert and punishment, it turns out we might just want a penal account of Just War.

Soli Deo Gloria

Finding God in the Gallery (Or, Some Notes on a Visit to LACMA)

godingallery1This last weekend I took my wife to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) as part of a date. We went in part because my wife is a fan of modern art, the main focus of LACMA, and because I myself have finally taken an interest in it. Up until a month or so ago, while I understood that there was something going on in modern works, having a modest background in sketching, I’ve been likely to favor Medieval, Reformational (especially the Dutch Masters), or Neo-Classical periods. I’ll be honest, Campbell’s soup just wasn’t doing it for me.

After reading Daniel Siedell’s theological exploration of contemporary art, God in the Gallery, a couple weeks ago I’ve been motivated to try to engage it once more—or really, for the first time. Given that I could not help but experience LACMA as anybody other than myself, I wanted to write down a few notes, a couple of them, unsurprisingly theological in nature.

meidner1. Hey, Some of this Stuff is Good – To begin with the most basic point: it turns out modern and contemporary art is fascinating. Once you get over the fact that some of it does not look like anything you can recognize, or that the artist is not trying and failing to color inside the lines, you can begin to appreciate it for it is actually doing. Of course, not all of modern art is abstract expressionism.

For instance, there was a fabulous exhibit on productions connected to The Golem that McKenna and I loved. Also, I found myself drawn into the section on German Expressionism and the Bauhaus movement. Ludwig Meidner’s “Apocalyptic Landscape” could have easily held my attention for hours. The atrocity of anybody calling this “degenerate” art finally began to sink in.

Beyond that, easily the most “fun” piece in the whole exhibit, along with the dozens of other viewers, especially children, McKenna and I were drawn into Chris Burden’s Metropolis II:

All in all, I’m excited to continue exploring modern and contemporary art.

2. How Did He Create So Many Unique Pieces? – LACMA houses what seems to be to be a good number of Picasso’s. Probably ten or twelve. While Picasso has never been my favorite, even of the moderns, I found myself marveling at the variety and number of them, knowing that these were probably only a fraction of his total work. While distinctively Picasso’s, bearing his unique mark and style, all of them were unique, keenly differentiated by color, subject matter, and even materials used.

picassoOf course, in the middle of all of this, I realized that while I was looking at the art, I was disturbingly distracted by all the museum visitors. In room after room, I found myself unable to fully devote my attention to the pieces on display because of all the other people walking around.  There they were: the defiant tourist with the camera, determined to snap shots no matter what the security said; mothers hustling little ones about wanting them to gain culture without getting their fingerprints on it; older art connoisseurs, ex-hippies who’d since become wealthy in the market, but still cherished their avante-garde youth; young couples like McKenna and I, out for a nice day at the museum. Hair, clothes, eyes, words uttered, and accompanying gestures that spoke other, sometimes contradictory words.

It’s at that moment I realized I was distracted from the Picassos by the work of another artist: the one who made Picasso himself. And I was struck then at the thought, what is greater? A Picasso, or the Picasso? This isn’t meant as a sort of anti-Picasso Jesus-juke. I just couldn’t help but wonder at the stunning vision and power of a God who could fashion such creative creatures. God is the artist behind the artists.

3. We Are Bits of Performance Art – A final thought struck me in the same vein later on. Given the dazzling assortment of people at the gallery, inevitably I was drawn to a few in particular. There was one couple that looked the quintessential LA art couple. I don’t remember exactly what the girl was wearing bit it was hip. She had multi-colored hair, thrown up seemingly carelessly in a pony-tail. The guy had greasy, disheveled student hair and was rockin’ an older black sports-coat over a jean button-up shirt, darker pants, and to top it off, some boots. These weren’t just regular boots, though. Actually, they weren’t even boots—they were work-shoes—and you could tell. They were dirty and hacked up, with paint stains, and God only knows what else. The whole effect said, “I don’t care what you think. I’m here for the art. Not to preen or impress the rest of you.”

Of course, that took effort to say.

performance artIt’s at this point that I was reminded of one of the more illuminating sections in Siedell’s account: the care taken by contemporary artists to cultivate the proper environment for viewing their works. In a manner that can only be described as ‘religious’, installations are arranged so that the aesthetic effect is all-encompassing down to the last detail of the way the light fails on the viewer when they encounter the work. Even in those pieces that seem most inaccessible, the encounter with the piece and the viewer is carefully cultivated.

Much in the same way, this couple had carefully cultivated the experience of viewing them. Despite the initial impression of haphazardness, upon inspection, it begin to seem all-too-carefully selected for use. And this is where I began to realize that in many ways we’re walking pieces of performance art. We think and we craft ourselves, our movements, and words in relation to our respective audiences and the spaces and times we inhabit; there are layers and resonances to our movements. Some elements are carefully scripted, while others are more akin to spontaneous improvisations.

All of this raises the question: what are we performing? What image are we cultivating? Or, rather, whose image? Are we set on mirroring the idols (money, sex, power, freedom, & so forth) on offer in the culture around us? Or we take into account that we are God’s workmanship (poema; cf. Eph. 2:10), intended to be eikons of the Son in our mortal flesh (2 Cor 4:11)?

Soli Deo Gloria

The Absurdity of Christian “Obsession” with Abortion and Single-Issue Voting

Jan. 22 marks the 41st anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. It has been popular in recent years for younger Evangelicals, or post-Evangelicals, to criticize Christians for having been so “obsessed” with the whole abortion issue for the past 40 years or so. While most don’t dispute its importance, or even its ethics, they can’t quite bring themselves to care about it with the same passion, or understand how their parents could have fixated on it to the exclusion of all other relevant political issues. With poverty, the ecological crisis, and rising violence in the world, how is it that for so many Christians abortion still is the issue?

I’ve refrained from commenting on issues of this sort over the last few years, largely for pastoral reasons, but when a buddy of mine asked a question along the same lines the other night, I was forced to re-examine why the issue has been such a sticking point for me in my own political wanderings. Among the various arguments that ran through my head, one thought in particular stuck out to me: if abortion really is the termination of an innocent human life, then I can’t think of another issue for which we have as much to answer for in America.

At the outset, I must say that none of this is meant as a comment on the pastoral issue involved with the decisions of individual women in horrifying situations faced with such terrible choices. Given the usual struggle with guilt, shame, and depression, compassionate care leads me to believe that the grace of God and the restoring word of the Gospel must be the first one on our lips. But in the world of governance and the provisional judgments of political authority, the dark moral reality must be painted in their starkest light.

According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, since abortion was legalized in the 1970s roughly 50 million + abortions have been performed in the US alone. Let’s see that with zeroes: 50,000,000. Again, assuming abortion really is the ending of an innocent human life, we’re talking about a death-toll over eight times the carnage of the Holocaust. Each year the death-toll dwarfs that of any armed conflict currently taking place around the globe. In New York City, it’s reported that 41%, or 2 in 5 of all pregnancies end in abortion. When we put it in that light, you can begin to see why for so many this isn’t simply one issue among the others.

Let me put it this way: nobody today would say that MLK Jr. was wrong for fixating on race and equality issues. Nor would anybody today complain about abolitionists’ single-minded obsession with slavery. I shudder to think what future generations will think when they look at Christians today and their lack of horror at the tragedy of abortion in America. At this point I’m reminded of one of the best, albeit snarky, rants against self-righteous complaints about ignorant, Christian “single-issue voting” I’ve ever seen. This was back before my blogging days, but I ran across this online, saved it for a rainy day, and unfortunately I don’t remember where or when or who this was. (Also, just to clarify, a. this is sarcastic, b. the grammar is not mine.):

Ok, bear with me as I rant. I’ve just about had it already with you people!

I am not a single issue voter. I never have been and WON’T become one now! There are dozens of other equally-important issues out there for which we can find common ground and then just leave the whole abortion thing alone. Why hit THAT red button every election cycle?

It’s always the same old mantra every four years. A bunch of crazy right-wingers, who I resent being associated with, keep blathering on about the “scourge” of abortion and the “injustice” of killing “innocent” human lives. I don’t like it any more than anyone else, but we have more important things to talk about like health care and taking care of the LIVING (and aging) population, a war in Iraq, an energy crisis looming, financial scandal, and all the rest. What is UP with you single-issue voters anyway?

It was just this way in the sixties. A bunch of do-gooder activists wandered the streets and took up valuable air time in the nightly news holding up signs, blathering on about human rights and demanding equal rights for black people. I mean c’mon, BLACK people of all things! When we SHOULD have been talking about the environment and not wasting our time with such frivolities, there they were, the single issue voters, rearing their ugly heads and ignoring a dozen other more important issues, at least!

Then I remember back in the 40’s, we spent trillions of US dollars funding a ridiculous war to help liberate “The Oppressed” Jews and others held in so called death camps across Europe. What did we gain from that, I’d like to know? Jews. Right here on OUR soil! And what a shame, because we had an energy crisis looming that we could have worked our way out of, not to mention at least a handful of other issues.

Less than twenty years before that, there they were again, those single-issue voters. This time, they were sending our boys off to get arms and legs blown to fight against who? I don’t even know! Probably to “liberate” somebody again. I’m sure that their time could have been better spent dealing with inner city crime and controlling the beginnings of the drug trade, or maybe a Mexico fence or something….

At the turn of the 20th century, we witnessed throngs of people about protesting against injustices directed at WOMEN and demanding basic human rights for them. I mean, come on! WOMEN!! What’s up with that, America?!? It’s almost inconceivable that we didn’t put our time and efforts into something at least as important like the job market and the economy. Maybe we could have avoided those world wars altogether!

So now you can see why I’ve had it with you people! When are you going to get it through your heads that you CAN’T vote just a single issue? Our borders are vulnerable, our education system is a joke, and we’re in the middle of a great big mess of a war. We have work to do in the economy, environment, and energy. We have to shore up our investments and home mortgages and get ready for retirement. We have children to cart around and music lessons and dogs to feed and new music to buy and (Oh My gosh, I almost forgot) I have to tape the latest episode of…something or other.

There’s just waaaay too much important stuff out there to worry about one issue like abortion. Besides that, abortion’s kind of… like… eew, you know, and all that stuff?

Again, none of this is a comment on the particular cases of individual women in desperate situations. Nor is it necessarily to say this makes voting a clear issue. Some continue to make the case that voting for an explicitly pro-life candidate isn’t always the most pro-life thing to do. They argue that a prudential decision can be made to vote for a candidate who will, through other means, reduce the total number of abortions given the low chance of actually over-turning Roe V. Wade, or passing pro-life legislation. I’m not entirely convinced by that logic, but I can see someone making it in good conscience.

My only point here is to illuminate why, given the reality of what Christians believe abortion is, it is perfectly sensible for Christians to be passionate about the issue, to the point of “obsession.” Of course, I hope it motivates them to do more, say, spare a few volunteer hours with local women in difficult situations. Again, this is not only a national political issue, but ultimately one for the local church to be involving itself in, giving women better choices at the personal level, beyond just closing certain horrible doors at the legal level.

In closing, I’m reminded of the comments of the great missiologist Lesslie Newbigin in an address entitled “Gospel and Culture” delivered in 1996 in Brazil at a Conference on Mission and Evangelism:

“I am going to raise on particular issue which I have never raised in public before and which I did not intend to raise when I came to Salvador. It is connected with this ribbon on my wrist. When we stood in the old slave market on Saturday morning on those rough stones which had felt the weight of the bare and bruised and shackled feet of countless of our fellow human beings, when we stood in that place so heavy with human sin and human suffering and we were asked to spend two minutes in silence waiting for what the Spirit might say to us, I thought first how unbelievable that Christians could have connived in that inhuman trade; and then there came to my mind a question: Will it not be the case that perhaps our great-grandchildren will be equally astonished at the way in which we in our generation, in our so-called modern, Western, rich, developed culture, connive at the whole-sale slaughter of unborn children in the name of that central idol of our culture—freedom of choice? I know—and as I say, I have never raised that issue in public before, but do so because I was told to do so—I know that to raise it is exceedingly painful, as painful as was the struggle against the slave trade, as painful as was the World Council’s program to combat racism. But I have discharged that commission. In the context of this conference it is simply one example of the costliness of that attempt to ensure that the gospel is not domesticated within our cultures, but continually challenges our culture.”

–Reprinted in Signs Amid the Rubble, pg. 118


Soli Deo Gloria

New Year’s Resolutions as an “Expectation of Faith” (CaPC)

new-year-resolutionsIf I had to take a guess, New Year’s would not have been the Teacher’s favorite holiday:

All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?
It has been already in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be among those who come after.
–Ecclesiastes 1:7-11

Everything comes around just as it has before. Nothing is new and nothing really changes. Rivers continue in their Sisyphean attempt to fill up the sea; similarly, we work and toil but nothing ever gets done. There is “nothing new under the sun,” and if you are ever surprised, it is because you are young, blind, or a fool.

I’ll be honest, I get the same feeling whenever I reflect on New Year’s resolutions. People concoct them every year but it seems that “there is no remembrance of former things.” We fail to recall last year’s resolutions, largely the same ones, that have been left by the wayside, usually long before the red shadow of Valentine’s Day ever hits. Ironically enough, even pessimism about New Year’s resolutions is not new.

Yet for some reason we still make them every year. We get up, dust the cookie crumbs off our sweaters, and resolve to eat healthier. We dust off our Bibles and promise ourselves we’ll make it past Leviticus. We start looking at our schedule and determine that this year our time will not be wasted in front of the screen again.

Why? When we’ve fallen off the wagon so many times there’s a familiar bump in the road with our name on it, why is it that we continue to clamber back on again? Whence comes this deep compulsion to imagine that the future is a future, and not merely a repetition of the past?

You can read the rest of my meditation on God, the Lord of history, and  the expectation of faith at Christ and Pop Culture.