Report on Icelandic religious belief “literally” misleading

continental-fault-line-iceland-2013

The Washington Post reports under the headline, “In this country, literally no young Christians believe that God created the Earth.” The country is Iceland.

So is it “literally” true? God by any standard conceptual defintion just is the creator of the entire physical universe, which includes the Earth. So whether a Christian, or any theist for that matter, believes this through young earth creationism, old earth creationism, theistic evolution/evolutionary creationism, intelligent design, natural theology, or by logical inferences after reading the back of a cereal box, she believes indeed that God created the Earth. For any theist, the Earth did not get the way it is today without at least two means. First, God’s immediate, creative act that brought the physical world into being out of literally nothing, and second, God’s sovereign supervision over ordinary physical means, attributed by virtually everyone to what are called the laws of nature.

This piece of reporting shows how major media can drastically downplay what Christians actually think while in pursuit of the sexy narrative that traditional religious belief is in dramatic decline.

Exemplifying the misleading pull of this narrative, one graphic charts the “Rise of atheism in Iceland,” but the two mutually exclusive responses plotted are “Religious Believers” and “Non-religious,” where the latter includes atheists and non-religious people. Like a cheap off-brand hot dog vendor, some editor has allowed this chart to puff up “atheism” with filler that includes agnostics and non-religious people. This probably counts many spiritual theists who for whatever reason don’t self-identify with a religious tradition.

So all told, don’t believe a headline when it says “literally” no young Icelanders believe in creation.

Photo credit: travfotos via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Arguing about race and justice: an apologist’s perspective

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship drew critical attention for a talk on racial justice delivered at Urbana 15, its recent student missions conference. After plenary speaker Michelle Higgins called out pro-life activism and explained Black Lives Matters to evangelicals, InterVarsity issued a clarifying statement. Many conservative Christians struggle to understand where Higgins’ message comes from, but it is not a new one in the Christian church or even for InterVarsity. What she said is important to understand, because everyone should know and speak truth and act justly.

 

What Higgins Says

Most people will find things to agree with and disagree with in what Higgins says. In an online video of her talk, she shares her personal story, or her narrative. For her, this includes the brutal killing of a mixed race man by white authorities in 1837, not far from where Higgins lives and the Urbana conference is periodically held. Disappointed that evangelicals don’t want to talk about racial justice in the wake of several high profile police killings of young black men, Higgins asserts that her fellow evangelicals have edited and “blanked out” parts of their own story. She believes evangelicals have inherited a burden of white supremacy that says, “white is right.” Higgins affirms that God alone gives people their dignity, and that Christians should give control of their narratives to him. Practically, this means standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matters rather than remaining comfortably indifferent. Finally, she asserts that we have the means to end racist and classist oppression, but we need the will to end it.

Insight from an Apologist

As a mixed race son of a white American father and an immigrant Thai mother, I have long questioned personal identity claims. I don’t fit neatly inside many boxes. Having come to Christian faith in adolescence, I was deeply involved in an InverVarsity community all through college and for years after. But like many others, I wasn’t adequately equipped to interact with some of InterVarsity’s views on racial justice. It took a few years before I learned to critically examine worldviews through my involvement with Christian apologetics. Like I suspect Higgins does, I believe Christians should speak and act truth in love, and this extends to race and justice.

Telling Truth Carefully

In the face of those who deny it, Michelle Higgins correctly exhorts students at Urbana “to tell the truth, the whole truth.” But she overgeneralizes when she ascribes denial to North American evangelicals. For example, Higgins reports the evangelical heart attitude this way:

We’re not ready to talk about the fact that black bodies are grotesque to us, we don’t want to admit that. That’s a part of our story we’ve blanked out.

I can see this as an appropriate expression of righteous anger over a particular harm. I can see this as rhetoric to alert evangelical imaginations to some overlooked truth. But to assert that a whole group is in denial about something is a broad brush stereotype and a stumbling block to mutual understanding. Evangelists know that people bristle when they are told they are guilty of some sin they are unaware of, so why do social justice Christians speak so cavalierly? To so readily peg another’s heart attitude easily comes off as a manipulative and bald assertion. Prophetically speaking truth to power is appropriate for those who stand guilty, but it is far from established that evangelicals individually or collectively are guilty of all that Higgins lays before them.

At another point in her talk, Higgins says evangelicals have inherited a dominating Eurocentrism from the first missionaries arriving on the continent. She sums the inherited attitude this way:

I will not translate my Bible into their language; I will teach them what my Bible says according to me and have them learn what I believe Christianity to be.

Any Christian who is familiar with missions work knows that for centuries missionaries have diligently translated the Bible into native tongues. And for decades missionaries have been sensitive to the error of transmitting cultural non-essentials to people groups being reached out to. These, perhaps more so than the arrogant errors of four or five hundred years ago, are also evangelicals’ inheritance.

In the face of broad rhetorical accusations, many evangelicals have legitimate and unanswered questions. Speaking for InterVarsity, Greg Jao acknowledges the dissonance students experienced after Higgins’ talk:

“This was the first time many of them heard a message like this, and they were really wrestling with the implications: What does white complicity look like? What’s my responsibility as a member of the majority culture, and how do I know that what they’re saying is true?”

Advancing Agreement through Argument

The rhetorical questions Jao asks are familiar to me as an InterVarsity alum. I’ve heard asked many times, “What does it look like . . .?” This is not a bad way to proceed from established truths. But “white complicity” is controversial; it isn’t established in the church, the academy, or North American society that the crime of whiteness implicates any particular individual in any historical or systemic transgression. This is not denial but careful truth-telling. Merely finding that one’s values and tastes come from Europe rather than Africa doesn’t make one guilty of dominance. Social justice Christians who want to assert otherwise need to do more than just start conversations with open-ended questions. Requests for clarification and making distinctions aren’t always excuse seeking or the mere side effect of feeling uncomfortable. Instead, they are often crucial steps toward having constructive arguments that help lead to agreeing upon publicly shared truths.

Christian apologists do this in the broader culture, keeping in mind Peter’s advice to

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15)

An attitude of charity rather confrontation, and a disposition of credulity rather than suspicion, is required in helping others to see a truth that you see. Across the belief spectrum, it feels good to stand prophetically, speaking truth to power, but invoking imaginative sympathy and standing in solidarity aren’t enough to love God and neighbor. We must carefully speak the truth in pursuit of a deliberative consensus. Human imagination doesn’t just motivate feelings of sympathy and acts of solidarity, but enables acts of accurate understanding. If we can speak charitably rather than mislabel each other in the church, we will be closer to fulfilling Jesus’ words in John 13:35 that “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Christians and self-sacrifice: do “we” have to?


Talking about ethical controversies in terms of “we” easily leads to confusion and misunderstanding. Unfortunately, this is all too common when drawing ethical guidance from the Bible. There’s a tendency to assume that a passage can be read as one-size-fits-all, such that it supplies an absolute guiding principle for all times, places, and situations. But not all prescriptions are absolute, and accordingly “we” should not blindly follow them. Rather, look at a passage’s context. Who is the message intended for, and in what circumstance? And if there is a principle to be had, take it for a “test drive” to see if any absurdities arise.
A couple of recent social controversies exemplify the problem of taking biblical prescriptions absolutely. In both cases, people are concerned about what Christians should not be doing. But in the end I don’t think these proscriptions are absolutely authoritative for anyone.
1. Christians and guns. Earlier this month, John Piper offered a charitable and scriptural corrective to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s admonition that Liberty University students should train to carry concealed weapons. In his post, Piper acknowledges that God ordains the state to wield the sword for the purpose of justice. However, he hesitates to affirm that ordinary Christians should be so armed. Drawing from Paul and especially from 1 Peter, Piper relates correctly that God “intends to reveal the supreme worth of his Son and his salvation in the special grace of a Christian people who have the miraculous power to entrust themselves to his care while suffering unjustly.” Further, the New Testament produces a heart that “trusts in the help of God in every situation.” Finally, Piper asks:
What is the moment of life-threatening danger for? Is it for showing how powerful and preemptive we have been? Is it to show our shrewdness — that we have a gun in our back pocket and we can show you something? That is a response learned from Jason Bourne, not Jesus and the Bible. That response appeals to everything earthly in us, and requires no miracle of the new birth.

I agree that God intends to use Christian suffering to testify about Christ. But does this imply that Christians should never prepare for life-threatening events and instances of suffering? I’m not sure Piper means to say this, yet this absolute interpretation gets defended in daily conversations. Before we take this view for a test drive, let’s gain some insight from a second recent controversy.

2. “You Don’t Get to Make that Move.” This Fall, Christians voiced strong reservations about taking Syrian refugees into the United States. Not at all unlike John Piper’s response to Jerry Falwell, Jr., one Christian blogger expressed dismay at the tone and impression other Christians were giving in the course of debate. The blogger rightly tilts against hysteria, fear, and bigotry, accepting that non-Christians might display these traits, but demanding more from Christians:

But if you name Jesus as king? Well, then I’m sorry, Christian, but you don’t get to make that move.

He goes on to tell us things Christians don’t get to do, including:

We don’t get to hunt around for excuses for why we don’t need to include “those people” in the category of “neighbour.”

We don’t get to look for justifications for why it’s better to build a wall than open a door.

We don’t get to label people in convenient and self-serving ways in order to convince ourselves that we don’t have to care for them.

And:

We don’t get to reduce the gospel of peace and life and hope to a business-as-usual kind of political pragmatism with a bit of individual salvation on top.

We don’t get to ask, as our default question, “How can I protect myself and my way of life?” but “How does the love of Christ constrain and liberate me in this particular situation?”

Who can argue against this? My concern though is that such a post ends up getting used by others as a straw man in debate. If all objections to hosting refugees boil down to laziness, carelessness, fear and panic, then how can a Christian or a citizen express legitimate concerns about real dangers affecting her society, her neighbors, her family, or even herself? This absolute position needs a test drive, too.

Taking absolutes for a spin

Recall Piper’s concern that Christians should trust “in the help of God in every situation.” What about situations where Christians or those they care for fall ill? Most seek a doctor, and rightly so. Few people think this entails a lack of trust in God; such a position is absurd. It seems then that in some cases Christians are justified in actively preventing and mitigating their own and others’ suffering.

An obvious objection to this is to distinguish between resisting natural evil and resisting evil coming from the hand of others. After all, both Romans and 1 Peter say not to repay evil with evil. Then maybe “we” ordinary Christians shouldn’t defend ourselves against attack after all. I’ll complicate this objection by appealing to the imperative to protect others. Imagine a case where a Christian, by failing to resist an assailant, allows his wife to die. To extend the test drive of this absolute principle, how about if a Christian by similar inaction allows her own child to die, or her neighbor’s child? It is not at all clear that testifying about Christ requires these kinds of “sacrifices.” By the light of conscience these cases seem morally repugnant. The absolute prohibition against defense of others, and perhaps even self-defense, breaks down.

What about the controversy of being hesitant to take in refugees? Do Christians really not “get to make that move”? The same dynamics seem to be at play with Christians and guns. If following Jesus means urging law enforcement and others to forget completely about the threat of terrorism and violence, then let me suggest that is an absurd and unthinking Christianity.

Every Christian should imitate Christ’s self-sacrifice in appropriate circumstances. But carelessly disregarding one’s own life or the lives of others contradicts essential aspects of Christianity. Bearers of God’s image–including ourselves–deserve great respect and ought to be preserved as much as possible. Deuteronomy 30 exhorts us to “choose life.” Jesus in Mark 12 commands that you love God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and that you love your neighbor as yourself. And in Jeremiah 29:7, God urges, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.” Dying a martyr’s death for the gospel is a noble aspiration and has its proper place, but we should not seek it in every situation we face, let alone enlist our neighbors. In light of scripture and reason, “we” don’t always have to roll over and die.

 

Photo credit: David Villarreal Fernández via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Should a Christian baker bake two cakes instead?

“And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”

Matthew 5:41 (ESV)

The above passage has recently been used to suggest that Christian bakers, if asked to bake a gay wedding cake, should bake two instead. Does this prescription necessarily follow from Jesus’ very own words? Consider this application:

“And if anyone forces you to go to the back of the bus, go twice as far back.”

Anyone who knows the history of the American civil rights movement also knows this is dead wrong. It is a mistaken application of moral reasoning. This is because we know that sometimes, it is right to stand firm in the face of injustice. One thing we know of Jesus is that he always stood for moral truth; he was faithful to and never abandoned it. Even when people misjudged his intentions, to the point of crucifying him. Can we all at least concede the possibility that business operators are trying to make a similar stand?

It has been advised that a Christian should bake a cake to avoid hurting another’s feelings. But following Jesus seems to be more about being faithful to truth than aoviding hurting other’s feelings. Jesus did not swerve from truth when rebuking Pharisees, moneychangers, or even when interacting with the rich, young ruler. Even beyond what scripture says, it is common sense knowledge that we can’t control how others react to us. Avoiding hurting other’s feelings should not trump faithfulness to truth.

The current moment presents a dilemma for bakers, florists, and others who hold to conscience. Today, litigiious activists would force them to appear as if they are affirming and celebrating same-sex marriage as identical to natural marriage. To say nothing of scripture, there is a very real, natural, biological difference beween same-sex and man-woman relationships. The practical difference has been virtually obliterated for the sake of a coarse political agenda, built on mistaken premises. Activists seem to want to compel speech to the effect that, “I approve of you as a human being.” But I believe most of these business owners, like Washington state florist Barronelle Stutzamn, already approve of, and indeed truly love, their LGBTQ customers as human beings. It has been a long held truth that equal dignity comes from all of our being made in the image of God, imago Dei. Lawsuits and vitriolic compulsion do nothing to add or subtract from anyone’s dignity. Rather, they call into question the judgment of activists and progressive supporters who think such moves are justified.

It is a remarkable irony that as the voices of compulsion grow louder, people of conscience have all the more reason to take a stand for truth. And for Christians particularly, being misunderstood is not something to avoid, but to patiently endure until the truth prevails. As the U.S. civil rights movement itself illustrates, sometimes, it is the right thing to refuse what others demand of you.

Who is the one imposing religious belief?


At The Huffington Post, a Christian pastor has recently demanded an end to religious exemptions in anti-discrimination laws. She sees them as veiled bigotry by those who would “impose their religion on others by using the courts or legal actions.” Is this really the case?

Observe the language The Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson uses:

Now, we realize religious exemption from the law is a dangerous by-product of religious bigotry, not religious liberty. Now, we see the harm. Systematically, anti-LGBTQ forces repeated and repeated again that their religious freedom would be harmed by LGBTQ equality; our marriages, our jobs, our families somehow harmed them. If they couldn’t exclude us, fire us, or destroy our families, their relationship with Jesus would be diminished — their families would be less valuable.

Wilson depersonalizes supporters of religious exemptions by calling them “anti-LGBTQ forces.” This label reduces religious freedom proponents to grotesque caricatures who don’t advocate for exemptions out of legitimate interest, but oppose LGBTQ-identified persons in their very being. This claim should not be made lightly or rashly; it tars others with the broadest and darkest brush. It kills rational discourse.

The Reverend Doctor exhorts later on:

It is time to blow the whistle on religious demagogues who say they are victims if they are not allowed to take away the rights of others.

Notice the framing of the issue: “taking away the rights of others.” For Hobby Lobby, this is the right to force one’s employer to pay for a health service that violates that employer’s conscience. For ENDA, this is the right to force a church to hire someone who openly, and without compunction, practices a lifestyle that is proscribed by its tenets. These are not innocuous claims to the right to to be left alone–known as negative liberty– but rights to positively impose one’s own favored moral precept on another person who holds to a disfavored moral precept. This is an Orwellian abuse of language.

Wilson warns that:

There will always be religious leaders — both well-intentioned and nefarious — who try to impose their religion on others by using the courts or legal actions.

Who is imposing on whom? Wilson’s rhetoric is incredible. Progressives invent new rights to transform society after their own particular fashion. Then, when a conservative wants to be left alone to continue in her own traditional, free association, the progressive uses courts and legal actions to allege that the conservative is the one imposing beliefs! This perverse hijacking of language must be resisted by people of good will.

Certainly, many who identify as LGBTQ have suffered ostracism at the hands of those who claim to be religious. It may even be true that new legislative protections are needed in the workplace. Indeed, LGBTQ-identified persons, like all human persons, bear the image of God and have their rights in virtue of this fact.

But simply saying the magic words “equality” and “rights” cannot legitimate Rev. Dr. Wilson’s imposition of her particular religious beliefs onto others wishing to stay true to their own. If religion means anything, it pertains to a community of people who are striving to conform to shared standards. The right to freely associate with others, especially based on their freely chosen actions, should be obvious for such a community. Contrary to popular belief, sexual activity (not orientation) really is among the many kinds of freely chosen actions. This is not to judge others for who they are.

Free association is precisely what opponents of religious exemptions want to take away. That’s illiberal and retrogressive. Let’s not go there.

Christian privilege. Really?

Is there such a thing as Christian privilege? A blogger at Christianity Today thought the idea worth bringing to his reader’s attention. He links to a list of 30+ privileges that suggests, if you identify as Christian, “there’s a good chance you’ve never thought about these things.” How annoying to presume this of the reader.

Anyway, a quick perusal of the list will reveal just how surreal and absurd the idea of Christian privilege is. Here are three I find worth commenting on:

1. You can expect to have time off work to celebrate religious holidays.

2. Music and television programs pertaining to your religion’s holidays are readily accessible.

11. Positive references to your faith are seen dozens of times a day by everyone, regardless of their faith.

As for taking days off, what planet does the list author live on? California, where more than ten percent of Americans live, does not grant a holiday for Easter. Millions of Christians travel to be with family Easter Sunday, and then must hurry back for school or work on Monday. But the state does grant a holiday in proximity to Easter, in honor of labor organizer Cesar Chavez. Once every few years, the Christian church calendar may coincide with this progressive holy day, granting accidental reprieve to resurrection pilgrims.


torbakhopper / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

As for music and television, here’s an important public service announcement: Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer are not profound treasuries of Christian worship or doctrine. Serious Christians have to search as hard as others to find music, videos, and text that substantially facilitate holiday observance. Possibly, this Christian privilege list copies Peggy McIntosh’s white privilege list, which is essentially pre-Internet. Now, with webpages, YouTube, and streaming music services, a Hindu, a Jew, and an Atheist can walk into a bar and check their smartphones to find whatever suits their worship needs with equal ease.

As for daily affirmations, turning on a television might land you randomly on Family Guy, Modern Family, Bill Maher, Niel DeGrasse Tyson, or–until recently–Piers Morgan mangling a cartoonish conception of Christian belief, history, or practice. Websites like Upworthy, the Atlantic and Yahoo News extend the misrepresentation and stereotypes to the internet.

But let’s suppose that Christian privilege exists. Is it good to propagate a list enumerating those privileges? No, it is filled with generalizations that are liable to cultivate prejudiced stereotypes among most social media readers who read it. Perhaps there is a noble purpose in arousing empathy in certain readers, but essentializing an “other” identity with a list of pilfered factoids seems to contribute nothing to this end. Worse, privilege lists quite possibly aggravate interpersonal comparisons, building envy and escalating already existing feelings of grievance.

Maybe you find expositions on privilege refreshing and needed. If so, I’d love to hear from you. But the next time you come across a list or guide to privilege, I hope you will consider carefully before pressing the “share” button.

Equal protection? Piece of cake!

Sugar Daze / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

The week after Arizona governor Jan Brewer’s vetoed “anti-gay” bill SB 1062, The Atlantic ran this headline on its story feed: “How Religious-Freedom Laws Could Come Back to Hurt the Faithful.” Jonathan Merritt lays out a hypothetical turning of tables, where a Unitarian refuses service to a Baptist. Then he asks:

Would conservative Christians support this storeowner’s actions? Because if not, they better think long and hard about advocating for laws that allow public businesses to refuse goods and services to individuals anytime they believe the person’s behavior conflicts with their sincerely held convictions.

The moral lesson seems simple and airtight:

If you are able to discriminate against others on the basis of religious conviction, others must be allowed to do the same when you are on the other side of the counter.

But was the bill really about legally enshrining anti-gay discrimination? The actual text makes no reference to sexual orientation. Read the bill, it’s short. Neither does it say anything about discriminating against a customer on the basis of the customer’s religious belief.

It is very easy to imagine a criterion where a business owner may refuse service: when the requested service violates her conscience. This can happen when an artist is forced to render service to an event she personally finds unconscionable. Maybe she is a florist, photographer, or baker; these people have already been sued and boycotted for refusal of service.

Consider if a caterer, who is a strict vegan by conviction, were forced to serve meat to carnivores. That would be a clear violation of conscience, unjustified and wrong. Some would argue that she should not be in the catering business in the first place, but that’s illiberal and hard-hearted.

However, if the caterer were forced to provide a vegan meal to carnivores, that would pass muster according to the correct understanding of equal protection.

Refusal of service based on an immutable trait of the customer is one thing. But refusal of service based on the impact the service would have on the producer is one possible rational basis for the right to refuse service.

Why hasn’t the mainstream media picked up on this?

Predicating poverty; or, how to offend others

A few days ago, a couple evangelical bloggers took some time to write on poverty.  I was pretty unsettled by what I read.  After a while, I realized the problem: they were writing jeremiads and rhetorical scoldings, but I couldn’t find any real, specific person who originally warranted such a rebuke.  It was the problem of predication.  Somewhere, some straw man was being beat up, perhaps for the sins of some other person in the past, a ubiquitous person I like to refer to as the “bigoted uncle.”

What is predication? Recall from grammar that some sentences have three parts: an object, a predicate, and a subject.  The object does something to the subject.  For instance, a girl hits a ball, or a pedestrian judges a homeless man.  To hit, to judge, these are predicate acts.  These acts must fall upon some subject, as in the ball or the homeless man.

Who is that strawman? I think it’s Bigoted Uncle!
Photo credit: Bookmart / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Now the first blog I noticed came in response to a list of habits posted on the website of a famous get-out-of-debt ministry.  Blogging on CNN’s website, author Rachel Evans took the list and its purveyor to task.

If you read the original list, there is no explicit causal claim about the behaviors of “the rich” and “the poor.”  Evans writes:

One need not be a student of logic to observe that Corley and Ramsey have confused correlation with causation here by suggesting that these habits make people rich or poor.

But Corley’s list did not explicitly make the causal connection.  As the reader who interpreted the text’s meaning, it was only  Evans who could make that implicit connection.

In something of an indignant response appended to the original list, ministry leader Dave Ramsey may well have affirmed a causal relationship.  Even still, inferring causation from statistical surveys does not amount to passing personal judgment on “the poor.” That is another implication that only the reader can bring out.  And this is what Evans seems to do (emphasis mine):

A poor family may eat more junk food, not because they are lazy and undisciplined, but because they live in an economically disadvantaged, urban setting where health food stores are not as available: a so-called “food desert.”

The question arises, who exactly called a poor family “lazy and undisciplined” in the first place?  It wasn’t Ramsey or Corley from what I can tell.  Maybe it was bigoted uncle.

Further on, Evans informs us:

And far from having contempt for the poor, Jesus surrounded himself with the needy and challenged the excesses of the rich.

Who actually had contempt for the poor?  It doesn’t seem to be Ramsey and company.  Again, it could have been bigoted uncle.

A few days after Evans’ post, evangelical writer and HBU provost John Mark Reynolds warned against “poor shaming.”  In the course of the text, we never learn who specifically Reynolds thinks has been shaming the poor in virtue of their being poor.  Recounting the overwhelming external factors that perpetuate poverty, he does opine:

One thing we should not do is have rich Christians give advice to the teeming masses from their Olympian sofas.

This kind of biting rhetoric drives me mad.  Who do these writers, a fellow sister and brother in Christ, actually have in mind?  When they lay down their thoughts in writing, each proposition is preceded by an implicit “I think that . . ..”  They are bearing in mind and making judgments either about specific persons or else some useful fiction.  They are predicating many times over, on the rich, the poor, the middle class, Christians, Americans, and so on.

If serious and thoughtful Christians are going to be predicating, let’s be sure we’re doing it with accuracy and precision.  Evans deplores painting with a categorically broad brush, and so do I.  It’s natural to talk in terms of abstractions, as in Wall Street, Main Street, the one percent, the ninety-nine percent, the rich, and the poor.  If it’s bad to judge individuals, why is it any better to predicate uncharitably on some ambiguous social construct that another person may identify as?

“The rich” and “the poor” both might as well be the Hegelian “The Other.”  If your head is spinning after all of this meta-analysis, I’m nearly done.  Now I will be silent for a time, allowing the Other to self-identify and speak for his or herself.

Pope pontificates unprofitably on free markets

Photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Pope Francis’s recently released exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (pdf), has made the news and elicited commentary for its admonitions against the free market economy.  This is not a new stance for the Catholic Church.  Still, this latest iteration of qualified praise (hat tip First Thoughts blog) from commentators across the political spectrum led me to study the primary source itself.  After reviewing the text, I can only conclude that on free markets and the poor, Francis is tragically mistaken.  He gets it wrong.

In a section titled “Some challenges of today’s world,” Francis calls Christians to say “no to an economy of exclusion.”  Consider this passage:

… today we have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.  How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?  This is a case of exclusion.  Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving?  This is a case of inequality.  Today everything comes under the laws of competition and survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.  As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Herein we get a good sample of the main vehicle of discourse: platitudes.  Pope Francis doesn’t try to marshal any facts or hard evidence that the world is as he says; he takes it for granted that we share in a worldview where the powerful crush the weak and eat them for breakfast.  But is this really the world we live in?

Writing for the Daily Caller, conservative and Christian Matt K. Lewis affirms Francis’s warning against greed.  To me, his acknowledgment of the “tension” between conservatism and markets comes off as a little too contrite.  Lewis appeals to pure speculation by otherwise venerable Christian writer and apologist Francis Schaeffer.  He supposed that employers who sacrificed profits to pay their employees more would demonstrate Christ’s love better than by giving those profits to charity.  This obsession with profits is beyond misguided; it’s destructive to lend credence to the notion that not giving away profits is inherently bad.

Jesus warns us all to refrain from judging our neighbors.  He warns us to remove the log from our own eye before removing the speck from our neighbor’s.  Accordingly, who am I to say that my neighbor is greedy?  It is one thing if I know my neighbor intimately.  But it is uncharitable and an overreach to attribute greed to a general class of people whose trade circumstances I know little about.

As I see it, Francis’s social teaching remains too mired in a Eurocentric, Old World conception of human society.  The Pope himself hails from Argentina, a poster child for the economic development frustrations that are the norm in Latin America.  At one point, Francis sharply rebuts the efficacy of supply-side economic theory:

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.  This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.  Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

But to say that supply-side stimulation has never been confirmed by the facts is untrue!  In America, Kennedy’s 1964 tax cuts, along with Reagan’s 1986 and Bush’s 2002 and 2003 tax cuts, helped everyday Americans greatly.  Over at National Review, Kevin Williamson details some more of Francis’s economic shortsightedness, particularly his trust of government to ameliorate inequality.

If Pope Francis really wants to lift up the “excluded,” he should look no further than to the tiger economies of South Korea, Taiwan, and most recently, China.  There, real people have been lifted out of poverty and brought into purpose, productivity, and prosperity, thanks to the free market.

Elswhere in his treatise, the Pope offers a thesis that violence will continue as long as inequality prevails.  What supports this idea, given that we’ve always had economic inequality, and there is no political mechanism to eliminate it on the horizon?  We could call upon Stephen Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature to see how violence has declined precipetously over the history of civilization.  We can lay this against our background knowledge that inequality is increasing to say that violence has shown itself to be inversely proportional to inequality.  Truely, may the rich get richer!

The progressive may ask, how could anyone say that?  Well, if life is anything more than a zero sum game, where the only way forward is government enforced redistribution, then that’s something we need to know and lay hold of.  In a Wall Street Journal opinion from 2012, Rabbi Aryeh Spero makes the case:

At the opening bell, Genesis announces: “Man is created in the image of God”—in other words, like Him, with individuality and creative intelligence. Unlike animals, the human being is not only a hunter and gatherer but a creative dreamer with the potential of unlocking all the hidden treasures implanted by God in our universe. The mechanism of capitalism, as manifest through investment and reasoned speculation, helps facilitate our partnership with God by bringing to the surface that which the Almighty embedded in nature for our eventual extraction and activation.

Further, seeking to unlock the hidden treasures of creation brings deep joy.  Spero remarks:

Unlike socialism, mired as it is in the static reproduction of things already invented, capitalism is dynamic and energetic. It cheerfully fosters and encourages creativity, unspoken possibilities, and dreams of the individual.

Where the Pope sees dehumanization and a stripping of dignity, a capitalist who understands economic truth in light of the image of God–Imago Dei–sees joy.  To make room for the invisible hand, to allow suppliers to compete for the benefit of the consumer, and to practice capitalism–under the rule of law, not under the unbridled strawman Francis berates–brings very real material and spiritual benefit not just to the capitalist, but to those whom Jesus called “the least of these.”

If we love God with all our mind, as we’re called to do in Matthew 25, then we can heed Francis’s call to serve as ones “bruised, hurting and dirty.”  But that will mean for someone like myself, refuting a simplistic vision of the world that vilifies entrepreneurship, uncritically trusts government to alleviate inequality, and endows dignity as a wealth transfer instead of a mutually beneficial transaction.  If there is joy in the Gospel, it has to be in knowing the world as it actually is.  As for the economic realm, it looks nothing like Pope Francis sees it.

Faith and reason: on predication, rationality, and charity

Predication can be bruising at venues like Parliamentary Question Time. | UK Parliament / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Last month, I posted a critique of Dr. Tania Lombrozo’s interlinked think pieces at Boston Review and 13.7.  I was gratified but slightly apprehensive when she linked back with a post titled, Science Vs. Religion: A Heated Debate Fueled By Disrespect.  To boot, a photo of a South Asian firebreather accompanied the text!  Granted, editors sometimes make decisions not always in accord with the writer’s wishes.  Still, I wondered, what kind of splash did I make on the inner life of this cognitive scientist?  From what Dr. Lombrozo wrote of my critique, I think I acquitted myself well.

Before I comment further on this interaction, I must congratulate Dr. Lombrozo for undertaking a couple of posts on charitable discourse.  In her aforementioned post, I got to serve as a counterweight to biologist Jerry Coyne, one of the staunchest defenders of evolution.  A comment on his blog accused her of being an “accomodationalist,” a scientific Nevil Chamberlain, an appeaser.  Needless to say, her post generated hundreds more heated comments by the clamorous content consumers at 13.7.

But then with her subsequent blog entry, Dr. Lombrozo came back with a real shocker.  She shared an academic paper authored by Lara Buchak, a Berkeley philosopher of religion.  Buchak asked, “Can it be rational to have faith?”  I particularly enjoyed the explication, because Buchak’s theory of decision making is based on a general assumption that human persons are more or less rational.  Quite possibly, that could even apply to nomadic Iron Age sheep herders!  I can see religious epistemologists–philosophers like Alvin Plantinga, Paul Moser, and Richard Swinburne–having fun engaging with Buchak’s work.

The assumption that humans are innately, even unconsciously and unwittingly, reasonable is a counter-intuitive antidote to the popular belief that today, we’re somehow automatically smarter than our ancestors.  It also matches the underlying premises of my college two majors, international relations and economics.  If you want to know what a rational actor or a utility-maximizing agent is, crack open the textbooks of those disciplines.  As I received them at UC Davis a decade ago, the operative principles of those fields were still firmly rooted in mid- to late Enlightenment thought.  No special taint of phenomenologies, Higher Criticisms, or other products of Teutonic intellectual degeneracy.

That being said, my interest in Continental philosophy, the brainchild of Kant, Hegel, Marx, et al. has grown over the years.  Perhaps the best place for common, “charitable ground” as Lombrozo tagged it, is to be found there.  Recently, I discovered that Dallas Willard, a widely admired evangelical teacher and popular author, cut his philosophical teeth on the work of logician Edmund Husserl.  Dr. Willard even drew upon him when contributing to a collection of essays on Derrida!  There, he critiqued Derrida’s conception of “Predication as Originary Violence.” Are you totally lost yet?

So what of that tangle between Lombrozo and myself?  In “Science Vs. Religion,” she observes that my reading of her piece as “‘a rational argument discounting a certain strain of creationism’ . . . suggests an antecedent assumption of hostility.”  I would agree with this!  But only in a limited sense.  I think “hostility” is best understood as a state of affairs between persons proper.  But a close reading of both my critique and her response will show careful wording that produces not interpersonal hostility, but sets up an adversarial contest between ideas.  William Lane Craig observed recently at Reasonable Faith (Are Debates too Polarizing?) that in academia, the relationship between two different theses apprehending the same object is inherently “agonistic,” or competitive.

If predication is an assignment or affirmation about an antecedent object–the possible intent behind a person’s words–then it is only the mind of the reader that can predicate hostility.  Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder.  To practice charity in discussion, then, is to refrain, if possible, from assigning malevolence to the author’s intent.

I suspect that awareness of the nature of intent is something Dr. Willard took away from his reading of the Biblical Jesus.  In the gospel of John, again and again Jesus masterfully avoids the snares of his questioners, whether his disciples, the Pharisees, or Pontius Pilate.  The question is answered with another question; inquiry is turned back on itself.  Is there a more radical skepticism than that?  “Who do you say that I am?”  On Christianity, the divine nature–perhaps the goodness of freedom of the will–is of such weight that the answer to Jesus’ question is only found in one’s own predication.

And so it might be for us.  To avoid violence against the other as she actually is, we judge the merit of the idea, not the motive of the person.  Is there any better way to collaborate in reconciling our disparate ideas to objective reality?

%d bloggers like this: