Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Religion in the Public Sphere

There's been much uproar lately about purported attempts by both Left and Right to shape public policy in an idiosyncratic and undemocratic way. The Right says this about what they call 'activist' judges. The left says this about the religious Right and their attempt to outlaw abortion and stem cell research.

Of course examples could be multiplied, but I'll not take the time to do so. My intent is not to weigh in on this or that issue but rather to say something about the place of religious belief in the public sphere. Some say that when one enters into public debate about public policy, one must leave one's religious beliefs behind. (I've heard this said both by the Right and the Left, but the charge seems more often to originate from the Left.) Others says that religious belief must be the prime if not the sole source of one's political views.

These two opinions about the place of religion in the public sphere are the extremes, and is so often the case with extremes, both must be rejected. The secular extreme requires the impossible. Religious folk can't simply shed their religious beliefs when they enter into political debate. The religious beliefs of religious folk penetrate to the very core of their being. They can no more shed them than they can shed their skin.

But this is not reason to embrace the religious extreme. Much that religious folk here in the U.S. believe should not be written into law. Christians hold that they must attend church, and yet I expect all will agree that church attendance should not be mandated by the law. (Christians are often adamant about this and other related matters. The expression of belief, they say, must be free.)

Thus in political debate we cannot ask religious folk to pretend that they are not religious. But we cannot allow them to simply impose their religious views upon others. What then are we to do? What is the place of religion in the public sphere?

My suggestion is this. It is quite legitimate to bring one's religious beliefs to bear in political debate, but when one does so, one must search for arguments that do not presuppose membership in one or another sect. Rather one's reasons must be, insofar as this is possible, universal in the sense that they have the potential to sway all who hear. If one has no universal reasons to give, one must no longer attempt to write one's views into policy. Consider the example of abortion. For many, their opposition to abortion has its foundation in their religious world-view. Ought opposition to abortion that has a religious source have a place in political debate? Of course it ought. (We should say as well that inevitably it will.) But how ought opposition to abortion be justified in political debate? Is it legitimate for religious folk to say that it ought to be outlawed because it's contrary to God's will as revealed in Scripture? It most certainly is not, for that justification appeals only to a certain sect and its idiosyncratic views. A legitimate justification is one that makes appeal to some universal moral principle on which all can be expected to agree. Perhaps that principle is that it's wrong for anyone anywhere to intentionally kill an innocent human being. But no matter what we think about this matter (and even if we think that abortion should not be illegal) still we must say that in the public sphere, reasons must be universal.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Thank you, Google

Google has just released (in beta, of course) a set of upgrades to its blogger service. I can now begin to organize my posts by theme. Take a look to the right.

The list will continue to grow as time goes on.

What a G-send ('G' for Google, not 'God').

Sunday, August 20, 2006

A New Take on Inerrancy

Let us begin our discussion with a certain common argument for Biblical inerrancy. It is this:

1. If we are Christians, we must think that the Bible is not merely one authority among others but is rather the supreme authority in all matters to do with our salvation.
2. If it is to be such a supreme authority, it must command our absolute trust. A book that we cannot trust absolutely cannot be a book that is supremely authoritative.
3. If there were any error within the Bible, it is possible that, for any passage on which we fix our attention, it too is in error. Error in one place entails the possibility of error anywhere.
4. But a book that might be in error wherever we look is not a book that we can trust absolutely.
5. Thus a book that contains any error is one that we cannot trust absolutely. (From the conjunction of 3 and 4)
6. Thus a book that contains any error is not supremely authoritative. (From the conjunction of 5 and 2)
7. Thus Christians must hold that the Bible is free from error. (From the conjunction of 6 and 1)

If you've followed my work here at all, you know that I reject the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. It is indefensible for a variety of reasons. But I do have a bit of respect for the little argument above. It does not obviously fail. Thus the Christian seems caught between the Scylla of inerrancy and the Charybdis of an abandoned faith. Inerrancy is indefensible, but reject it and it seems that you must reject your faith.

In what follows, I intend to show the Christian how to steer a safe path between these two hazards.

Before I gave the doctrine of inerrancy only a very cursory definition. I seem to recall that I said some such thing as this: when we say that the Bible is inerrant, we mean that, when interpreted properly throughout, it is on that proper interpretation wholly true. I said as well that we must distinguish the debate about Scripture's inerrancy from debates about whether to interpret this or that passage literally or non-literally. Biblical inerrancy is not Biblical literalism; the former concerns truth, and the latter proper manner of interpretation. (For what it's worth, it seems obvious that certain passages are meant to be given a non-literal interpretation. The parables of Jesus come immediately to mind.)

There is a more subtle kind of inerrancy that might be attributed to Scripture, one that differs from the kind defined above. To build to a definition, let us begin with the question, What is the purpose of Scripture? Why was it written? I give the one answer possible for a Christian. Scripture was written so as to bring humans into the right relation with God. Scripture is not for God - God has no need of books, indeed he has need of nothing at all. Scripture is for us. But why do we need it? We need it because we fell, because we rebelled against God and thus severed that relation in which we had stood to him. God took mercy upon us and provided for us a way back to right relation with him. Scripture is the account of our fall and the progress of God's plan for our reconciliation with him. Scripture is our guide to reconciliation.

This is the primary purpose of Scripture. This is what it is for, what it is to do. It is our guide to reconciliation, to salvation.

Let us then fashion a sense of 'inerrancy' appropriate to Scripture's primary purpose. What is this new sense of 'inerrancy'? (I hope that you'll forgive a bit of technical jargon - I was trained as an analytic philosopher. The 'df' below means that I intend to offer a definition of the term italicized on the left.)

Scripture is inerrant =df All said within Scripture served, and continues to serve, as a perfect guide to our reconciliation with God.

Call this sort of inerrancy 'perfect guide inerrancy' (PG inerrancy for short). Call the first, the sort defined at the start, 'perfect truth inerrancy' (PT inerrancy for short).

What do we mean by 'perfect' in the definition of PG inerrancy? We mean at least three things. (i) We mean that the Bible tells us all that we need to know about how to reconcile ourselves to God. (ii) We also mean that, in its primary purpose, the purpose of reconciliation, the Bible will never lead us astray. It will, if followed, always help us along on the path to reconciliation. (iii) Finally, we mean that the Bible's plan of reconciliation is optimal. There could be no better.

In what follows, I will to probe the relation of PG to PT inerrancy. In the course of this, we'll have our explanation of why PG is preferable to PT inerrancy. Let us first say that PG inerrancy does not entail PT inerrancy. Consider the example of the creation story within Genesis. It is, if interpreted is the most natural way, the way that it was first interpreted, simply false. The world was not created in six days. Thus PT inerrancy is untenable. But we need not conclude that PG inerrancy is untenable. For perhaps the story, though false if interpreted in the most natural way, was yet an approximation to the truth who desired effect could not have been achieved by the exact truth. Let me explain.

First let us begin with 'approximation to the truth'. What does it mean? We must say first that if a proposition approximates to the truth, it is, in all strictness, false. But though it is strictly false, it is yet, in some significant respect, nearby to the truth. It is, if you like, a step on the path to strict truth. Moreover, it is in the usual case a useful falsehood, and its usefulness lies in its proximity to the truth. Perhaps an example will help. Much of what's said in physics is only approximately true. For instance, students in introductory physics courses are told that the acceleration due to gravity at the Earth's surface is 9.8 m/s2. (The usual name for this value is 'g'.) This is at best an approximate truth. g differs from place to place, and the value of 9.8 is at best an approximation of a more precise value. Thus in all strictness the proposition:

g = 9.8 m/s2

is false. But it is very nearby the truth. It is, since an approximation to the truth, a step on the path to strict truth. If we wished for a bit more precision, we would say not 9.8 but rather 9.82. 9.8 is a quite natural approximation to the more precise 9.82. It is 9.82 rounded to the nearest 1/10th. It is thus a natural step on the path to strict truth.

But why we would make do with an approximate truth when we might have had an exact one? Why tell the students something we know is, in all strictness, false? Let us answer first for the case of g. After we'll return to the example of the Genesis account of creation. For the purposes of the simple experiments of the introductory physics classroom, the value of 9.8 works just fine. Given the students inability to make precise measurements (an inability that arises primarily from the nature of the equipment they use), a value of 9.8 is all the precision they'll need. Here as elsewhere, the usefulness of an approximation explains why it is made.

In the case of the Genesis account of creation, we must say something a bit different about the need for approximation. Here the need is not experimental in origin. Rather it is a need born at once of ignorance and of evil. The evil in the human heart explains the need for an account of man's creation and of his fall from right relation with God. Human ignorance explains the need for an approximation to the truth. I'll explain each in turn. (i) We are evil and have been since the fall. But if we are to reconcile ourselves to God and thus put our evil ways behind us, we must know both that we are evil and the nature of right relation to God. A sinner who does not know that he is a sinner will take no interest in reconciliation with God; a sinner who does not know what right relation to God is will know nothing of how to put matters right. But how better to make clear both our sin and the nature of right relation to God than to tell the story of our creation and of the origin of evil in the world? Thus our reconciliation to God requires that we be told the story the world's creation and of evil's origin. (ii) But the story of creation and evil's origin was first intended not for us but for a pre-scientific people who would have been utterly unable to understand the strict truth. Thus they had to be told an approximate truth, and in the Genesis story of creation and the fall we have just this. It is, if read in all strictness, false. But it is an approximation to the truth, an approximation that might have been just right for its first audience. God did create the world and all its inhabitants. God did create humans in his image. Humans did rebel against God. Now, of course the world was not created in six days, and in this respect (as in many others) the approximation is far from the truth. But it might have been the approximation that would be most likely to have the desired effect, that would most likely penetrate the hearts and minds of those pre-scientific nomads for whom it was first intended.

Now, I admit that what I've said about the effect of Genesis upon its first audience is speculative. But it is at least defensible. Thus a PG inerrantist take on Genesis is, unlike a PT inerrantist take, defensible.

We have concluded that PG inerrancy does not entail PT inerrancy. One can in consistency hold the former but not the latter. Let us now ask the converse. Does PT inerrancy entail PG inerrancy? In the case of the Bible, it likely does. All Christians, and thus all PT inerrantists, hold that the Bible contains God's plan for our reconciliation with him. But if it does, and if PT inerrancy is true, then likely PG inerrancy is true as well. (I'll not give the details of the argument. It's a relatively trivial exercise, and I leave it to you.)

Let us sum up before we push on to the conclusion. We've distinguished PG from PT inerrancy. We've argued that though the second likely entails the first, the first does not entail the second. What lesson are we to draw from this? What are we to take away? Since PG inerrancy does not entail but is entailed by PT inerrancy, we must say that PG inerrancy is weaker than PT inerrancy. It requires less of Scripture than does PT inerrancy. The standard it sets for Scripture is not so high as that of PT inerrancy. As we have said, the standard of PG inerrancy is perhaps low enough that it can be met even by those portions of Scripture that are, like the Genesis creation account, simply false. But that's not all there is to recommend it. As said above, the Bible's primary purpose is practical. It tells us what we must do, how we must live. Should we not then craft a definition of inerrancy appropriate to this purpose? Should the new inerrancy not make Scripture out to be not a perfect repository of truth but a perfect guide to action?

Before I turn to objections, let me say that I've only just barely begun an PG-type interpretation of Scripture. I've only said a very little about about how such an interpretation of Genesis might be begun. There's a mountain of work left to do. But again the PG-type interpretation does at least have this virtue (a virtue not shared by PT inerrancy): it is not obviously false.

I know of two objections to this conclusion important enough to warrant comment. (i) The first begins with a claim about God's nature. God, the objection begins, is by his nature unable to utter a falsehood. But, the objection continues, Scripture is the inspired word of God and thus can contain no falsehood, not even a falsehood that approximates to the truth. Scripture, since God-breathed, must be strictly true. (ii) The second asks us to distinguish incomplete truths from approximations to truth. The former are in all strictness true, but simply fail to tell the whole story. The latter are in all strictness false. The Genesis account of creation, the objection continues, is at worst an incomplete truth. It is not an approximation to truth. The objection will thus grant that the audience for which Genesis was first intended could not comprehend the whole of the truth. But it does not infer from this that an approximation to the truth had to be substituted for the complete truth. Rather it infers only that an incomplete truth was called for. Genesis, on this objection, is strictly but incompletely true.

Perhaps we should say that the two objections are not likely to be kept separate. One who levels the first is likely to level the second as well; and one who levels the second likely does so because she holds the first. But though the two are related in this way, I'll treat them separately.

In the second post in this series, I'll take on these two objections.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Paul on Slavery

Tom Gilson, in comments in the prior post, said this:

The Ephesians passage on slavery recognized or acknowledged the fact of slavery. It does not approve or condone it. In the historical situation, those who were slaves needed moral guidance appropriate to their circumstance, which is what you find in the passage.

I think the matter important enough to warrant its own post, for I think that what Tom says is what many inerrantist would (and have) said.

Let us have the passage from Ephesians again:

6:5-9: Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.

I believe that Tom's view falls prey to a decisive refutation. Paul does not simply recognize that slavery in fact exists. If that was all that he did, then of course nothing he said would entail that he tacitly condoned it. Rather Paul tells slaves and masters how they are to act, and this does entail that he must condone, if only tacitly, the institution of slavery. The argument is really quite simple. To make it, I'll build upon the analogy of rape. Let us say that I come to know that a certain acquaintance is a serial rapist. I might do a number of things. If a good man, I would report him. If a heartless man, I might do nothing. If an evil man, I might give him advice on how best to carry out his next rape. Indeed it seems that we have a tight relation between approval and advice. If I give you advice about how to do a thing, I thereby condone what you do; and if I think that you ought not do a thing, I ought not give you advice about how to do it.

Paul gives advice to masters and to slaves. Thus he must condone slavery, if only tacitly.

Let me drive the point home. There is simply no right way for a rapist to act, for rape is always and everywhere impermissible. Indeed the always and everywhere impermissibility of rape entails that there's no right way to rape a woman. Just so, the always and everywhere impermissibility of slavery entails that there's no right way to take or hold a slave. But Paul tells slave-owners how they are to treat their slaves and thus assumes that there's a right way to treat slaves. Thus again we must conclude that Paul condones slavery.

Wouldn't it be absurd to say some such thing as this:

Rapist, do right unto your victim. Do not kill or maim her. Do not make her shame known to men.

Of course it would. Why would it be absurd? Rape is always and everywhere an evil, and thus there's no right way to do it. Just so, slavery is always and everywhere evil and thus there's no right way to do it.

Paul was quite indisputably wrong. He was a great man, likely better than any today. But in this matter his moral vision was clouded. He should have condemned slavery instead of give out advice about how masters and slaves should treat one another.

Biblical Particularism, Biblical Liberalism

I'm hard at work on yet another post on inerrancy. I there define a novel type of inerrancy and argue that it's superior to the one I suggest it replace.

I've poked around the internet a bit for material on inerrancy. There's little that's of any use to me. (In contemporary journals and books of philosophy, almost nothing is said about it, even by evangelicals.) But I did some across this yesterday. It's from the Religious Tolerance website. Upon reflection, it says nothing that I did not already know. But what it says it says with exemplary clarity. The passage below was of particular interest to me.

Conservative and liberal Christians have very different concepts of the nature of Scripture. Thus, they tend to develop systems of Christian theology and morality which differ greatly, and are often mutually exclusive. When faced with one of the great moral questions (like abortion, the death penalty, homosexual and bisexual rights, the concept of marriage, various aspects of sexual behavior, etc.) each interprets the Bible in their own way and frequently arrive at quite different conclusions.

A common scenario is that:

  • Conservatives will tend to emphasize a few specific passages of the Bible as proofs of their position. After all, if the Bible is without error, then even a single, clear, unambiguous passage will define the correct belief.

  • Liberals will prefer to emphasize the basic message of Jesus as the basis of their stance.

For example, 150 years ago, the great moral debate of the day was whether slavery should be preserved or abolished. Those in favor of preservation quoted specific verses that condoned, organized and regulated slavery. They pointed out that Jesus, St. Paul, and others had numerous opportunities to speak on the institution of slavery but never condemned it. Abolitionists largely ignored specific passages that dealt directly with slavery, and preferred to argue on the basis of Jesus' message, and broad theological concepts. They recognized that all persons are created in the image of God, and that one should treat one's neighbor as one's self. These would seem to imply that the ownership of one person by another was a profound evil.

The slavery question dealt a severe blow to traditional beliefs about the Bible. Led by various Anabaptist denominations, Methodists, Unitarians and secularists, an increasing percentage of North Americans rejected slavery as an abhorrent practice. They began to realize that the Bible was wrong on the issue. They concluded that portions of Scripture which discussed slavery had to be ignored, and that a higher level of morality must be adopted. The authority of the Bible within Christendom was severely weakened at that time.

We do seem to have a clear and unambiguous passage. It is this:

Ephesians 6:5-9: Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men: Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.

How could one not take away from this the conclusion that Paul thought slavery permissible? He tells slaves that they must be obedient. He does not tell them to rebel. He does not tell others to free the slave. Rather Paul tacitly gives his approval to the institution and tells us how it should be structured.

Of course many in the past have taken precisely this moral away. Ephesians 6:5-9 was the most important of the passages for pro-slavery apologetics. Now, my claim is this: if one is a Biblical inerrantist, one must take this moral away. The passage is clear and unambiguous. It endorses slavery. Thus if all the Bible says is true, slavery must be permissible.

But of course it is not, and almost all of today's Evangelicals know that it is not. On the issue of slavery, they read the Bible as does the liberal. They search for the essence of the gospel message (the essence, as Christ says, it to love God and neighbor), find that it condemns slavery (one cannot both love the neighbor and keep him as a slave), and then condemn it. But when discussion turns to homosexuality, they do precisely what was done by pro-slavery apologists. They hold up particular passages that speak of homosexuality and with them and them alone in mind issue their condemnation.

Call the one sort of interpretative strategy Biblical particularism. Call the other Biblical liberalism.

My charge is that today's Evangelicals are of two minds. One certain matters, homosexuality for example, they are inerrantists and particularists. On others, they are liberals. I suggest they get their act together and decide what they really want to be. At present, their interpretative strategy is simply incoherent.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Christ's Temptation

Immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to Him." - Mark 1:12-13

The accounts of Christ's temptation leave me confused. Perhaps you can help me along. (I'll use the masculine, since the example that I wish to discuss is Christ.)

When we say someone was tempted, we mean one of two things. (i) A certain thing was presented to him that has the power to tempt but he felt no temptation to take it. Call this the external sense. (ii) A certain thing was presented to him that has the power to tempt and he felt the temptation to take it. Call this the internal sense.

The difference in the internal and external senses is clear. To each corresponds a sense of 'temptation'. (i) An external temptation is simply the possibility that I take for myself a certain thing that has the power to tempt others. But though this possibility exists (and I know that it exists) I feel no desire to make the thing my own. Others might well feel the temptation, but I do not. The food is in front of me, but I have no desire to eat it. The woman reclines in my bed, but I have no desire to be with her. (ii) An internal temptation, like an external one, requires the possibility that I take for myself a certain thing. But this is not all that it requires. Rather an internal temptation requires that I desire the thing. It requires the wish that I make it my own. The food is in front of me and I want to eat. The women is in my bed and I want to lie down with her.

The question that I wish to ask should come as no surprise. It is this: When Christ was tempted, was the temptation merely external or what is internal as well?

I find both unacceptable. Let us say first that the temptation was internal. If this is so, Christ desired to possess things that it was not right for him to possess. (As Christ makes clear in his responses to Satan, Satan offers him things that he ought not take.) But the desire for such a thing is a sign of moral failure. A being that desires what it ought not have is imperfect. But of course Christ suffered from no such imperfection. Thus Christ's temptation cannot have been of the internal sort.

But neither can it have been purely external. If Christ's temptation was purely external, he is profoundly unlike you and me. Indeed if it was purely external, his humanity was a sham. The temptations we feel lie at the heart of our moral lives. If Christ felt no temptation, he cannot sympathize with us. He cannot know us. He cannot be our Savior.

I need a savior who knows me in my heart of hearts. If Christ's temptations were purely external, he cannot know me.

Moreover, if Christ's temptation was purely external, his sinlessness was inevitable and thus not praiseworthy. A being that can feel no temptation is a being that cannot sin; and a being that cannot sin is one that deserves no praise when it does not sin. But surely Christ's perfection demands the highest praise; it is praiseworthy about all else.

Thus we are left with this dilemma: either Christ's temptation was internal and Christ was thus imperfect, or his temptation was purely external and thus he cannot know us and does not deserve our praise.

Do you see a way out?