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?

Worship Wars; or, praise malaise

occhiovivo / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

One of the most e-mailed NPR stories of this past week caught my eye: “Modern Hymn Writers Aim to Take Back Sunday.”  Songwriters Keith and Kristyn Getty feature prominently.  They are well known for writing the Irish-inflected hymn “In Christ Alone.”  Keith Getty issues a gem of a quote on what I would term the contemporary “praise malaise”:

“I think it’s to the church’s poverty that the average worship song now has so few words, so little truth,” he says. “[It] is so focused on several commercial aspects of God, like the fact that he loves our praises.”

This resonates with me.  My formative worship experiences were with Lutheran hymns.  Compared to the vapid choruses of today’s jangly ballads, traditional worship songs offer a rich textual landscape.  They are heavy on rhyming and light on repetition.  They paint a strong narrative revealed in patterned stanzas.  And they draw from a vivid, diverse lexicon, producing images which the worshiping mind can continually engage with and readily grasp.

Not so for most contemporary praise songs.  I am not at all trained in music, but when it comes to wordsmithing, I will throw my two cents in.  Some praise choruses drag the worshiper through a lyrically parched salt flat.  Sometimes it seems as if one can go for a couple of Power Point screens without seeing a polysyllabic word.  Another regrettable phenomenon of praise songs is when the subjects and objects are predominately pronouns (I/we/you/me).

There are ubiquitous words that, for better or worse, have little impact on a congregant like myself:

fire
flame
grace
great
hands
love
mercy
sing

Worship music is supposed to cultivate a worshipful mood.  But those who are more abstraction-oriented than affective need to chew on the specific reasons for praise.  These words help:

atonement
banner
blood
Calvary
crowns
diadem
foe
majesty
might
prince
wretch
scepter
tempest

I guess there is a little bit of a martial strain in this list.

To put it all out there, here are some praise songs that I find textually deficient:

Blessed Be Your Name
Consuming Fire
Happy Day
Your Grace is Enough

And here are some hymns that I think could bear to be studied by today’s songwriters:

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name!
Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty
Loud Rushing Planets
O God, Our Help in Ages Past

I’m not totally set against contemporary worship music.  I like to sway to drums and feel the guitar solo as much as I like to rattle off baritone.  But it would be great if more contemporary songs could be just as textually rich as the great hymns.

Greenfield’s theology; or, Does everything happen for a reason?

Decent people agree that deadly disasters like the tornado that ripped through Moore, Oklahoma are tragic.  We all feel to some degree that this is not the way things should be.  Regrettably, columnist Jeff Greenfield compounds the tragedy by propagating unsound, incoherent reflections about the realities of life.

His latest column begins by citing a common, often offensive, response to tragedy: “This is all part of God’s plan.”  Greenfield contrasts this with an answer he prefers instead.  Once, he asked a priest whether John F Kennedy Jr.’s tragic, early death was part of God’s plan.  The priest responded candidly, “Oh, no . . . this sucks.”

Hold on a second. Why think these two views are at odds?

Greenfield complains about another attribution to divine will.  You might hear this upon the death of a child: “God must have wanted another little angel.”  The columnist confesses that he would not “sign up” for a God who works like that. I’m not particularly fond of such angel-acquisition schemes either. Not because it’s distasteful to me, but because it’s not true!

The columnist treats the appeal to divine purpose merely as a means of consolation.  He claims that most serious theologians have moved on from the “simplistic” notion that “everything happens for a reason.”  This is just not the case.  With the minor exception of Open Theism, Christian theology still describes a sovereign God, who either causes or permits everything to happen for a reason.  Whether a specific reason is knowable is another question.  But core Christian doctrine does not change on the charge of simplicity or any other whim.

The only explanations Greenfield accepts are naturalistic or psychological: either the random physics driving thunderstorms and plate tectonics, or personal phenomena like greed, anger, and mental illness.  This mixing of natural and personal causes ought to gives us pause.

Are emotions like greed and anger really knowable causes, in the same way as weather patterns or plate tectonics?  On the deterministic worldview of materialism–precisely where the writer is coolly headed with his criteria for explaining tornadoes and earthquakes–there is no causation outside of the laws of physics.  Greed and anger aren’t real.  Mental illness is merely an unconventional arrangement of molecules.  There is even a subset of philosophy of mind that operates on these metaphysical assumptions.  It’s called eliminative materialism.  Some will go to great lengths to avoid the idea that there might be ultimate purpose in everything.

No one slighted by the harshness of reality–nor anyone, for that matter–can have it both ways.  Ultimately, either chance or design is king.  Ravi Zacharias has often quoted a poem by Steve Turner to great effect:

If chance be the Father of all flesh,
Disaster is his rainbow in the sky,
And when you hear
State of Emergency!
Sniper Kills Ten!
Troops on Rampage!
Whites go Looting!
Bomb Blasts School!
It is but the sound of man worshiping his maker.

There are two candidates in the running to ultimately explain reality: chance or design.  Greenfield approaches the question based on who he would sign up for.  But how is ultimate meaninglessness in any way more palatable than a perfectly purposed cosmos?

One god less

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Have you encountered the “one god less” rhetorical appeal before?  It goes something like this: “You don’t realize it, but you are an atheist too.  You already reject thousands of other gods.  I just believe in one god less than you do.”

Never mind that the correct grammatical form is “fewer,” not less. The slogan is clever but a poor truth claim. It treats the existence of deity as a quantitative rather than a qualitative issue. The appropriate question is not whether any number of deities exist, but is deity a quality of any part of reality?

In his debate with Alex Rosenberg last February, William Lane Craig laid bare the absurdity of metaphysical naturalism, which I identify here with materialism.  On such a view, science cannot find God.  But neither can it find persons!  Craig highlighted eight problematic implications of materialism.  Among them: first-person perspectives are illusory, individuals don’t persist through two moments of time, and no one actually thinks.  This last one follows from the premise that material cannot exhibit intentionality; it can’t inherently be “about” or “of” anything.  The conclusion contradicts our everyday experience; we think about things all the time.  The reality of mind is at odds with materialism.

Rosenberg deflected Craig’s metaphysical critique during the debate.  However, being more candid in the post-debate exchange, he did address a relevant chapter of his popular book, The Atheist’s guide to reality. The chapter is titled “The Brain Does Everything Without Thinking About Anything at All.” It recalls a book by Floyd Ferris, a fictional government scientist in Atlas Shrugged.  That work is amusingly titled, Why Do You Think You Think?

When it comes to building a worldview, the materialist is confined to a set of insufficient explanatory options. I’ve recently found that Thomas Nagel and Alvin Plantinga, each coming from very different places, seem to be saying as much in their own respective works (Mind and Cosmos and Where the Conflict Really Lies).

Indulging the mystique of exotic sciences like quantum mechanics and brane cosmology, lay materialists illicitly attribute intelligence, awareness, and causal potency–hallmarks of personality–to their favorite model of reality.  No amount of quantitative work can make up for a lack of qualitative analysis.

Back to “one god less.”  Why should it not follow that belief in a negative number of gods is more true belief in zero gods? If the materialist seriously entertains this question on a qualitative basis, she runs the danger of believing the existence of one God more.

The Sheeple’s Judge: on the Moral Monster

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To call others “sheeple” is to dismiss their beliefs with a broad brush.  Taking this rhetoric at face value is genetic fallacy.  That some people may not think through the belief thoroughly does not make the belief untrue.

Reading the lively comments following Caroline’s fairly recent two-part post, “Judging Our Judge,” I was encouraged.  The participants, as long as they remained open to discussion, had not succumbed to the sheeple fallacy.

A few weeks out, I’d like to see if I can add some value to the conversation.  I propose to work with this statement: “In the Bible, God is a moral monster.”  By “moral monster” I mean “evil.”  The other day I heard JP Moreland supply a definition of evil: when something is not as it ought to be.  Feel free to lodge a qualification, but focusing on the statement for this post will allow, as Dennis Prager says, clarity over agreement.  After all, agreement is impossible if we mean different things.

Reading evil

Concluding that God is evil from reading the Bible is a literary exercise.  On postmodernism, there is no “naked eye” to read the text; we all come to it with our own interpretive lens.  Fortunately, we can evaluate an interpretation by what informs it.  Knowledge of cultural context, a plausible understanding of the characters, and a moral ontology are some things that necessarily inform a reading of God as Moral Monster.

The need for historical and cultural context is self-evident.  Relatively late in church history, some Christians mistakenly began to read the Bible in light of “plain truth.”  Moral Monster replicates this error.  For the most part, people have read the Bible critically, employing contextual aids and contemplating for years on the consistency and coherence of its content.  Scholars, theologians, and lay people have built a tremendous body of interpretive resources.  To supply an off the cuff reading that doesn’t even try to engage with those resources is hasty.  At least, the reading must fare well against authoritative scholarship.  Not the popular works of physicists or geneticists, but peer-reviewed scholars of literature or divinity.

What is the moral standard?

The reading is also informed by its moral ontology.  This is the set of values and obligations that constitute a moral system or standard.  A moral system lays out not just whether any given act, object, or circumstance is good or bad.  It also can stipulate who owes what to whom, and if its conditions are absolute or situational.

The obligatory nature of a moral system requires it to be objective.  Subjective or relativistic systems are practically meaningless if they are not independent of personal belief.  Morality, if it exists, must be necessary, not contingent.  A supernatural being who is all powerful, all knowing, and all good remains by far the most credible explanation for objective morality.

Consequently, to say “In the Bible, God is a moral monster” is really an in-house debate between theists.  A Muslim or a follower of Baha’i might raise the moral monster critique meaningfully.  But a naturalist or materialist who invokes the reality of evil needs to explain why what he calls morality is not merely subjective or illusory.

Justice and the Supererogatory

In appealing to what ought to be, Moral Monster is a claim to justice.  If God is good, he must be just.  Critics focus on the fact that evil is committed in the temporal world, the part of creation in space-time.  But justice is done when all debts are paid on the flip side of creation, in eternity.  That which not ought to be is erased.  The NIV translation of Revelation says of the righteous, “He will wipe every tear from their eye.”

Still, the question remains, why does God allow any evil at all?  At this point the critic needs supply a reason why goodness needs anything more than justice.

But Christian theology already supplies one.  Prior to creation, God was perfectly good.  He decided to do something extra that was meaningful.  He created moral agents who have no rights except to not arbitrarily suffer injustice.  They, who freely rejected him and became subject to justice, have a second chance to enjoy him in his full goodness for eternity.  This is the supererogatory act: doing not just what’s required of him, but going beyond it.  Some call it grace or mercy.  The critic is free to offer an alternative account of good and evil that is a more compelling fit for reality.

Conclusion: the stakes of evil

Cashing out one’s own views on evil will move one closer to theism and away from atheism.  One who is a theist, or who supplies an objective moral standard, can critique the God of the Bible.  However, well informed readings of the Bible find God to be not merely just, but merciful as well.  This is the best fit for our real experiences of good and evil.

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