Love is a verb with feelings

A friend of mine shared a recent post on the blog, “A Holy Experience”. The blogger, author/speaker Ann Voskamp, was so moved by the plight of poor Iranians that she visited Iran in a relief effort. She’s written a bit of other stuff regarding the humanitarian crisis there, but this was the first I ran across. There are details in this post that I could hardly bring myself to read. They are too painful to just imagine, not to mention witness, not to mention experience.

Nine-year-old Yezidi and Christian girls can show up in headlines: Impregnated. Held, taken, violated and discarded. Sides round and swollen. Sent back to shame their communities. Pregnant little girls with dolls still in their hands. While we are having out wheaties and reading the day’s news.

ISIS sells nine year old girls in slave bazaars.

Voskamp’s site is rather popular among many Evangelical women I know, but I’m not particularly familiar with it other than the fact it seems to be a devotional/encouragement type of Christian blog.

I tell you what, though: its existence is probably justified by this one post alone.

We aren’t where we are to just peripherally care about the people on the margins as some superfluous gesture or token nicety. The exact reason why you are where you are — is to risk everything for those being oppressed out there.

You are where you are — to help others where they are. The reason your hands are where they are in this world — is to give other people in this world a hand.

Finally! All those middle-class church ladies who read her blog are being exposed to the real world! Score for social justice!

I am indeed thankful that her platform reaches this demographic. But her commentary is precisely the kind of thing that Christians – heck, humans in general – of all stripes should allow themselves to be challenged by. Not just those who cling to guns and conservative politics to protect themselves from radical Islam (or from anyone who isn’t a conservative Evangelical for that matter)–but even to those who think they know better and look down their noses at such benighted Christians. Because although she was talking above about the marginalized, the principal is equally true of everyone we share our planet with.

Caring isn’t a Christian’s sideline hobby. Caring is a Christian’s complete career. We don’t just care about people — caring about people is our job — the job every single one of us get up to do every single day. That’s it. Caring is our job, our point, our purpose.

Do you get up in the morning with the goal of giving yourself to everyone around you? Do you consciously empty yourself of your vain desires to the benefit of those you might not even like? I honestly don’t think I know anyone who could be said to approach that standard, perhaps least of all those of us who get so much pleasure out of jabbing the foibles of our ideological opposites in Christendom. We certainly must stand up against injustice, even defying our comrades in order to do so, but can’t we manage to do so without being so angry or disgusted with those comrades that we forget they are victims of their own crimes? Caring can – sometimes must – take the form of “tough love”, and no doubt exposing the vacuous and preposterous nature of a mindset is occasionally effective as a means of caring. It’s what I earnestly believe this post of mine is intended for.

But here’s what caring most definitely isn’t. Middle-school mockery. Reproachful discussion that’s just loud enough to be heard by the losers you’re talking about. Showy quarantines in front of those you want to like you, demonstrating your relative health and conscientious isolation from the unpopular, unclean people they might otherwise lump you in with. Memes and other in-jokes that have no chance of actually reforming the objects of your ridicule and stand only to separate you from them. Unbridled cheers, jeers, and crowing when those people fall or are exposed as hypocrites. Look back over your social media activity for the last couple of weeks and see how you score.

And here’s a hint: if you got upset with Voskamp’s audience for her even needing to say that kind of stuff, if your first thoughts went to accusing a group of people who just don’t “get it” rather than examining your own response to the crisis, it ought to hit you hard as well. We need to be, at our core, without limits or shibboleths, people who don’t just “love”, but care. We cannot continue to be people whose most obvious traits are being loudly more compassionate, being exceptionally good at differentiating ourselves from that other kind of Christian, and gaining pleasure by exposing others’ faults.

Maybe you’re wondering, Why is he going on and on about this? Even if Christians are sometimes tweeting excessively sarcastic comments about other Christians, it’s not as though we’re selling each other’s children as sex slaves. #firstworldproblems

I really do not want to suggest that this issue is anywhere near as urgent as the ones causing the substantial suffering of “people on the margins” as described above. And of course we can’t wait until we “feel” loving before we act lovingly. But I do believe that until we really become people who are characterized by caring at our core and who exhibit a deep-seated sensitivity in dealing with others, our outreach projects will be “sideline hobbies”. We prize our cynicism and sarcasm so highly; irreverence sometimes seems like the highest modern virtue, such that we’re so afraid of sounding pious and out-of-touch that we will laugh at things we should be upset about so long as everyone else is laughing. The snark of this generation may not stop us from lighting candles here or there, but more than that we need to actually be the lights in the darkness. The post-Evangelical crowd is now disabused of the Fundamentalist notion that being different from “the world” in every conceivable way is somehow admirable, but I fear it’s gone lopsided the other way now; it’s probably worth asking, is the fact that you may (or may not) go to church or call yourself a believer the biggest difference between you and your unbelieving friends?

Most of us have learned well the lesson that love is more than just a feeling–that it’s something you act upon. But that’s really just “the rest of the story” and not the whole story. If you go about trying to fulfill our calling of love through some mechanical sense of right without ever feeling the intrinsic motivation of emotion, you may be doing the work of the Kingdom, but only as a hired hand. The children of God must love as He loves, feel concern as He does, and out of the overflow of their heart will their actions come spilling. It’s easy enough to conjure up feelings of concern for those poor folks on the other side of the globe, but it’s harder by far to 1) act on that concern in a measurable way and 2) feel concern for those much nearer to us who deserve a good, swift kick in the pants for their boneheaded actions and attitudes.

Until we cultivate a fervent, consuming heart of compassion for all, a fundamental rewrite of our hearts’ inclinations that will put us out of lockstep with our culture, we will continue to be merely placating our consciences by sending off our monthly checks, proclaiming the righteousness of our convictions, criticizing those who don’t share them to the extent that we’d like, and then going about our self-aggrandizing business. Caring has to become a lifestyle; love has to be our hallmark as human beings, in all of our actions and interactions.

I guess it’s obvious that Voskamp’s challenging words hit me really hard. In case you’re wondering, I’m not interested in discussing the specific outreach organization she suggests at the bottom of her post. Honestly, if you’re not particularly impressed with it, the onus is literally on you to come up with a better option and not simply to criticize that one. But I do plead with you to find some way of meaningfully contributing. Maybe that will mean sending money–or maybe it will mean going. However it manifests, our caring needs to start much deeper down than our wallets.

May 19th, 2015 by Steve Douglas | No Comments »

I got published on Theologues!

Theologues is a site I have really enjoyed for several months now, dedicated to bridging “ancient and apostolic Christian wisdom with the modern Christian experience” (source: About page). They strive to bring the deep tradition of our faith to bear on our modern experience. I have really appreciated several of their podcast episodes as well. So when I was approached by another contributor about submitting something to the site, I was eager to try.

The result: Why No Explanation of Suffering is Sufficient.

We often try to take comfort in the old saw, “Things happen for a reason.” But when enduring the harshest of hardships, even entertaining the possibility that our sufferings were inflicted on us intentionally – good reason or no – seems not only to be overstepping the boundary of undisputed knowledge and experience, but opens up deeper and more painful questions regarding God’s insensitivity to our plight.

Hope you enjoy the site!

May 13th, 2015 by Steve Douglas | 1 Comment »

Roger Olson and David Bentley Hart on universalism

A few months ago I responded to a post concerning universalism on Roger Olson’s blog. What I want to focus on is not the post itself but a discussion in the comments section of the post (N.B. for clarification I have made a couple minor edits of my own comments below without always noting them. The originals can always be found at the link above.)

In responding to another commenter, I contended that, “For many of us, universalism has as much to do with our beginnings as our endings… [viz., that] 1) God created us, as Augustine suggested, in such a way that we can never be truly ‘home’ without Him; 2) Our separation from God is a result of a perversion of our intended orientation; 3) God has the ability, intent, and an eternity’s opportunity to heal everyone to at least get us to the point at which we will recognize Him as perfect goodness and as wholly lovely. At that point, any reasonable, unimpaired soul would willingly embrace the perfect good and wholly lovely. More than ‘hopeful’, it seems to be the only reasonable outcome to expect given those assumptions…”

At which point Olson joined in: “Hopeful expectation, maybe, but not dogmatic knowledge.” On several occasions he has made a sharp distinction between what is taught in Scripture, which becomes a matter of dogma, and that which is reasoned, about which we cannot claim any certainty or undue emphasis.

To this I responded that we should have more than mere hopeful expectation that all will be redeemed because if we posited either that “God could but would not heal an impaired will” or that “He designed creatures that, even once all external encumbrances were removed, would still have a desire to reject the plainly beheld utmost Good,” we would be contradicting descriptions of God that (to use his term) are revealed. Even if we don’t have what he would call dogmatic grounds for universal reconciliation, I proposed that it is at least axiomatic. “But then again,” I noted, “most all of our dogmas are based on interpretations rather than unrefracted revelations.” I wanted to make the last point because his category of “revealed” ends up being vacuous given the human element of interpretation: nothing is “revealed” in Scripture that is not then processed and shaded by human reason.

Olson declined to engage those points, choosing to shift to his most fundamental objection to universalism (that I’ve responded to before): “The larger issue,” said he, “is the relative autonomy required for a real relationship. What you call ‘healing an impaired will’ would amount to coercion.” This free-will objection is probably one of the most commonly raised against universalism.

I tried again: “It really seems you’re saying God would rather have people choose to commune with Him in violation of their own judgment than choose Him because they can accurately perceive His intrinsic goodness and love Him for that sake. If a mind rejects intrinsic goodness, it is the definition of ‘broken’–and being born in this fallen world, how could it not be broken? We’re not talking about some biology lab experiment where God creates lots of tabula rasa entities just to see which ones will choose Him: the teaching on the imago dei paints a very different picture. A God who desires all to come to repentance wouldn’t leave those whose judgment is impaired to their own devices any more than a loving father would be content to watch his mentally handicapped son play with a loaded gun, knowing what will inevitably happen and yet not interfering. The line between coercion and persuasion/coaxing/wooing is not thin at all: coercion entails a violated will, whereas the latter refer to removing hindrances” and revealing how what is already wished for can be fulfilled. “I’m not really talking some monergistic remapping of the mind, but of patient interaction with every yet-viable part of the will. (On the other hand, I don’t know that violating my toddler’s will to run into a busy street is such an unforgivable coercion.)”

I was trying to point out a realization I had that unveiled universalism as the only view I now find coherent. It was an epiphany grounded in two unlikely universalist allies, namely Augustine’s teaching (mentioned above) that man was “made for” God and can only find rest in Him and Luther’s emphasis on the bondage of the will. As I wrote some time ago, “[God] has never made a soul that could become so blind as to be utterly incapable of recognizing Him as Father, and [George] MacDonald doubted to the extreme that there ever existed a soul that would not be irresistibly drawn to Him and His goodness once it did recognize Him. Our wills are bound, bound by our biology, bound by our cultures, habits, and prejudices: what else would a loving Father do but make every effort to free His children from that bondage? ‘The will of God should be done. Man should be free—not merely man as he thinks of himself, but man as God thinks of him’ (MacDonald).”

This week it all came home to me once again as I read Eastern Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart’s unexpected foray into another comments section, this time on Fr. Aidan Kimel’s blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy. After describing himself as a “complete and unreserved universalist”, something that I don’t believe has heretofore been common knowledge, DBH explained that “freedom as defined in a purely voluntarist, spontaneous, atelic movement of the will–pure libertarian freedom…is a logically incoherent model of freedom…”

The classical Platonic-Aristotelian-Christian understanding of freedom is one in which the rational will of necessity, when set free from ignorance, wills the good end of its own nature; and perfect freedom is the power to achieve that end without hindrance. Thus God is perfectly free precisely because he cannot work evil, which is to say nothing can prevent him from realizing his nature as the infinite Good…Since, after all, all employments of the will are teleological–necessarily intentionally directed towards an end, either clearly or obscurely known by the intellect–and since the Good is the final cause of all movements of the will, no choice of evil can be free in a meaningful sense. For evil is not an end, and so can be chosen under the delusion that it is in some sense a good in respect of the soul (even if, in moral terms, one is aware that one is choosing what is conventionally regarded as “evil”); and no choice made in ignorance can be a free choice.

In simple terms, if a deranged man chooses to slash himself with a knife or set fire to himself, you would not be interfering with his “freedom” by preventing him from doing so. You would be rescuing him from his slavery to madness. This is why the free-will defense of the idea of an eternal hell is essentially gibberish.

So the moral of the story (aside from the observation that a lot of the most interesting discussion in the blogosphere comes from the comments section!) is that the libertarian or free-will objection to universalism, at least as commonly formulated, ultimately has no legs.

Now, regarding whether universalism is “revealed” in Scripture and hence eligible to be dogma for folks like Olson, we may soon begin to see progress on that front as well: according to the same comment thread, DBH stated his conviction that universalism is the only coherent way of reading Paul and his intention to write a technical work on the subject. In the meantime, he says he has been chalking up even more evidence of the prevalence of universalism (also called apokatastasis) in the New Testament as he works on a translation that he quips will deserve to be called the “Apokatastatic Standard Version”!

But even if the biblical evidence ends up falling shy of teaching universalism, I cannot see why anyone considering the above arguments has any reason to cling to that still-too-bleak belief in hopeful universalism rather than at least axiomatic universalism, in which no diseased soul can remain unhealed and God must fulfill His destiny of being all in all.

May 13th, 2015 by Steve Douglas | 2 Comments »

Reacting to the violence of the angry mob

 

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To you, the one whose first reflex is to assume justification and seek reasons for abusive behavior in the powerful but refuses to extend this courtesy to the powerless ones reacting against it,

To the one who sees a people group acting in violence and unquestioningly blames their race or religion instead of seeking out the circumstances that radicalized them,

To the one who views acts of anger in a people with no prestige as evidence of your own race’s or religion’s prestige,

To the one who prescribes death, more oppression, or threats of violence disguised as “second amendment rights” as a cure to the grievances of those whose desperation is erupting in the streets,

To the one who seeks only to crush in punishment where co-suffering and healing is the only hope of redress,

To you I make this plea.

Sit at the feet of the one who not only willingly subjected himself to the violence of angry crowds but nevertheless went on to pray in his time of greatest, most unjust suffering, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

May 5th, 2015 by Steve Douglas | No Comments »

No stones to throw: rescuing the sinful oppressed

The greater part of the life of the Christian is ordered around controlling our reactions. Left unchecked our reactions are often as bad as or worse than what we’re reacting against, even when they’re fueled by a sense of justice.

Watching the recent violence in Ferguson and Baltimore, and the violent reactions to the violence in Ferguson and Baltimore, and the violent reactions to the violent reactions to the violence in Ferguson and Baltimore, I have one thought that won’t leave my head. By and large, the fellow believers I’m encountering are making a monumental mistake. It’s a mistake that has an established pedigree among us, but it’s also one that helps perpetuate the kind of incidents like the ones currently in the news. We find ourselves asking, why can’t protesters act like good citizens? Why don’t they show themselves to be worthy of justice by controlling their violent and senseless reactions?

In short, we insist upon the perfection of victims before we champion their cause.

This is common among the American Evangelical culture I’m a part of, as evidenced by my Facebook friends’ postings and comments. Oh, so the police savaged a young man when arresting him? Our first reaction is to ask, “But was he or wasn’t he breaking the law?” If the answer is in the negative, we still expect that, given the neighborhood, he probably already has a rap sheet, so the immediate cause for arrest isn’t as important: the bottom line is that the good guys were after a bad guy. And only then might we move on to asking slightly less problematic questions like, “What might the police have done differently in apprehending the thug?”

But then before we get a chance to think all of this through, in reaction to the police crackdown, there’s a violent public reaction. We shake our heads and conclude, “See? The police have to be tough because they’re attempting to corral wild beasts.” We look upon a people group systemically oppressed, neglected, and abused by the people put in charge of them and, lumping them all together into an isolated Them, we demand that everyone in the entire group be prudent, impassive, and blameless in all their reactions before we will consider jumping to defend them. We are somewhat relieved to be able to conclude, “You know, if They would just behave, the police wouldn’t have to get so tough on Them.” This encapsulates most of the conversation I have heard from people around me. Strangely, the police are not held accountable in this way: we can watch whole swaths of their number in a city indicted for corruption and charged with excessive force brutality year after year, and still the presumption of right and justice is on them (or should I say Us?).

Why is this? I’m afraid it’s because the police stand for the positional righteousness we believe is our own. The excuses that “everyone makes mistakes,” “there are occasional bad apples,” etc. mount up so that, on the whole, it’s a rarity that the badged upholders of our system are considered anything but heroes put in a bad situation even when they fail most egregiously–after all, they’re our proxy, standing up against bad guys who almost invariably have it coming to them for some transgression, past, present, or future. Yet the societally marginalized are not beneficiaries of this presumption of holiness; They must earn their righteousness by sinlessness. When They riot, when Their children loot places of business, we look upon Them with scorn for their inability to keep control of Themselves.

This is wholly and completely un-Christlike. It is the very definition of anti-Christ.

The story of the woman caught in adultery is often trotted out in times like these, but I beg of you, those of you who have ears, to really hear it.

We have no idea what brought this woman to the point of adultery: was she seeking the affection of someone outside her abusive marriage? Or maybe she was lascivious and insatiable in her lust. We don’t even have the slightest indication that the woman was penitent of her moral failure–she was caught in the act, after all. Jesus – our professed Lord and Savior, our example and teacher – does not demand her moral uprightness; he doesn’t insist that she grovel or beg for mercy or promise to do better, that she listen to his speech about the evil of her actions, that her sentence be commuted to something better than the death penalty provided that she demonstrate her repentance.

“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Jesus does not address the sinner first. In fact, there is no “sinner” vs. “sinless” demarcation at all. With that one simple statement, our Lord demolishes the wall that We – the good guys, the righteous lawkeepers – have constructed to save us from the likes of Them – the people from whom the laws were surely created to protect Us. Jesus demands that the sinner’s accusers be righteous before the accusers enforce their punishment.

“Go, and sin no more.”

We want to focus on the second imperative: surely sinning no more is the prerequisite for grace? No — too late: her savior has already sent her forth with a life-changing, “Go.” He sets her free from her past transgressions and then he imparts to her a future, sending her hurtling toward a life of purity with a propulsion of extravagant, unexpected, unsought grace. He doesn’t just loose her from the rote consequences of the laws that the lawkeepers had held her accountable to: his grace simultaneously binds her to the pursuit of a righteous heart. It is the kindness of the Lord, not the threat of punishment, that leads to true repentance.

It’s commonly recognized that Jesus was much harder on the righteous than he was on the sinners of his day. In bewildered revulsion people named him “a friend of sinners.” And this is why: Jesus treated disenfranchised sinners as victims of the righteous rulers. Leaders have to be held accountable for their failure to administer the balm of true righteousness to the sufferers in their charge. No doubt there are many sins that no one can blame anyone but the sinner for, but what of the hosts of sins bred in an environment unrestrained by justice, peace, or the presence of true holiness? The perpetrators of sin are the victims of sin, and sin isn’t cast out without healing the one who embraced it. The strong man of sin must be bound before sending away the devils.

Those who would be leaders cannot cure sin in others without removing the stumbling blocks, the largest of which is their own oppressive sin. Those with righteous power are supposed to send forth sinners in grace; they are supposed to empower them with mercy and commission them with justice. There is no doubt a need for repentance on the part of the sinner and for those who are being destructive and violent to be held accountable or somehow prohibited from enacting their rage in ways that harm the innocent. But can we expect to elicit this repentance by sending in those they see to be the oppressors to put a boot on their necks?

“What, you want police officers to just let people do whatever they want? To wink at their crimes?” I’m not trying to dictate the actions of law enforcement here. That’s a monumental task that I’m not fit for. I do want those who call themselves Christians to consider that our first duty is to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from him rather than trying to cram him into our prized, safe societal structures, and that sometimes our obedience to him will look insane to our carnal minds. But primarily right now I want to implore bystanders with cultural and societal influence to avoid both the automatic defense of police and the knee-jerk condemnation of those who are reacting in unfortunate ways from within a system of oppression that may have even been partially their own fault but has undoubtedly festered in a corrupt and dehumanizing environment of a militarized police force. Jesus’ example is that we should dismiss the sin of the powerless long before we shrug off the transgressions of the powerful. At very least we must avoid denying that the bad reactions of Them are indeed exceptions while using those exceptions to excuse the atrocious actions that We have been all too happy to wink at. And yes, it may spiral to a point at which the oppressed become oppressors, and that will be awful as well. But it won’t ever justify our looking down our noses from Our side of the wall and cheering Their deposition.

I can’t say for certain since my sight is a little blurry, but I get the distinct impression that the plank in our own eyes is large enough to keep us busy for quite a while.
April 29th, 2015 by Steve Douglas | 4 Comments »

Putting the “fist” back in “pacifist”

As he is wont to do, Mark Driscoll recently set the blogosphere aflame by his characteristically crass rejection of the idea that Jesus was a pansy (the manly man term for pacifist).  This post is a part of a synchroblog devoted to the topic. I wasn’t going to get involved, but then I read Arni’s contribution over at I Think I Believe, “My Own Personal Pacifism“.

I have heard people objecting to the type of scenario that begins Arni’s post, where someone breaks into your house and threatens to kill your entire family and you have the chance to play the hero and save the day by defeating the attacker. “We don’t make principles based on extreme, unlikely circumstances.” Very well; neither should we make principles that don’t suffer allowances for extreme, unlikely circumstances. In this case, I think the principle of non-violence is specifically formulated so as to preclude all such exceptions, which are admittedly rare but do occur. This is the reason I want to “resist” (non-violently!) that principle as it is most commonly stated.

Arni makes some very good points, including the following:

If you can’t force someone to become a Christian and you can’t be a Christian on other people’s behalf – can you force them to be non-violent? Or, more pointedly, can you force them to endure violence because you are non-violent? Wouldn’t that be… violent?

Arni’s overall stance is very close to where I stand. In my estimation, a hard and fast principle of “do nothing that causes physical harm to anyone under any circumstances” is not what a justly principled non-violence looks like. The violence that is to be avoided at all costs has to be defined as a selfish assertion of strength over others. But I also believe we can also selfishly withhold assertions of strength over others.

The rub is that it’s often hard to determine the purity of our motives, and so such violent assertions of strength should indeed be condemned as a rule for normative ethical interaction, and we should, as a rule, hold everyone in society accountable to act non-violently. I truly believe that non-violence is to be a cornerstone of human interaction in the Kingdom of God. So I am with “the New Pacifists” very far down the way.

But as Arni was trying to say, we are called to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others as a principle; we are not called to sacrifice others for the sake of our principles. In my current thinking, it is precisely wrongful assertions of strength over others that are  being promoted by onlookers who refuse to lift a finger to potential victims in these cases of abnormal, exceptional interactions. Our goal is not primarily to be non-violent, but to be pro-life. That this entails non-violence is a not inviolable principle.

Please understand that I fully believe that intentionally causing harm to other people (even “bad guys”) damages our souls and psyches and, possibly exceptionlessly, ultimately brings judgment upon ourselves. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it is only a complete devotion to that conviction that could ever excuse “violence” in the interest of the defense of others. What I mean is that knowingly bringing condemnation and harm upon ourselves, choosing to “die by the sword” as Jesus warned in order to prevent immediate and sure violence being perpetrated against the innocent, is a kind of self-sacrifice that I believe is indeed cruciform, and as such can be righteous. At the very least, it stands a greater chance of being righteous before God than standing by and sacrificing others so as not to sully our personal holiness.

The moment we do something good not for its own sake but specifically to keep from tainting our personal righteousness it becomes a selfish, unrighteous act. I trust that God will have more mercy on me for choosing to act instinctively and unconsciously – even if violently – out of self-sacrificial love than He would if I knowingly allowed someone else’s sin to hurt others just so my personal righteous standing could remain unblemished. And even if our non-action is caused not by self-righteousness but by a sincere effort to please God, we must remember that Jesus taught that we love God completely only by loving our neighbor: letting our neighbor be harmed because we are wanting to please God strikes me as completely naive and wrongheaded.

Now, the idea that selfless, “violent” resistance to evil can be a relative (only ever relative) good is not a hard and fast rule, either. It can play out all right in the case of an intruder and other simple settings, but it does not play out well on large, complex scales, as in the case of war. There are simply too many variables involved with raising armies and sending them to kill and die, ostensibly for others’ sake but where there are invariably other cloudy interests involved and the planning and consequences of these actions are opaque to those doing the killing and dying. Whereas a quick, decisive action like a fist to the jaw or a bullet can conceivably resolve simple, immediate circumstances like a small alleyway assault, war is so much slower and requires enough planning and strategy that non-violent, or at least relatively less destructive, means will probably present themselves to anyone interested. Additionally, and vitally, any violent resistive action toward the offender must not be done in anger or hatred (that’s the kicker, isn’t it?), but instead must be done either reflexively in immediate circumstances or, when reflection is possible, must be done despite sincere, loving sorrow for the victims. But as any soldier will tell you, that’s not the way a war is won! And in war there are always many more repercussions and ramifications for many people to worry about than there are for an assailant in an alleyway. So I’m not a real fan of just war theory for the cover it gives these dubious nation-state objectives, although I recognize that the principles within it generally have some merit.

I’ve given this so much thought over the last few years. In some ways I want to be a hard and fast non-violence pacifist, as I think that’s close to the heart of God. But hopefully this explains why I can’t quite get there.

October 25th, 2013 by Steve Douglas | 10 Comments »

Smarter than thou

A recent story that suggested that atheists are more intelligent than religious people has blown up in social media. I imagine some people will want to examine some of the methodology and assumptions behind the study. I’m not going to attempt evaluating the study or its results other than to say that there are several points that could be made about the danger of correlation and causation, and that even if valid the results are not really surprising. The rest of this post will assume the results are valid for argument’s sake.

Several people have now noticed the “gotcha” game being played by this match’s purported victors–with no sportsmanship in sight.  I suppose the idea is that whatever is believed by intelligent people is likelier to be true, perhaps because intelligent people are likelier to discover and know what’s true, and less intelligent people are apt to obliviously embrace nonsense. Statistically speaking maybe this is so, but pushing that point very far is also tantamount to an argument from authority, which actually isn’t all that bright. Ostensibly, the individuals who are the ones pushing the average up on the atheist side are not the ones acting so triumphalistic, but maybe that expectation leans too heavily on a correlation of intelligence with common decency. Which leads me to the point I most want to make.

It’s a sad indictment that the results of this study have been pushed so hard and triumphantly by atheists, with no regard for etiquette, humility, or other forms of thoughtfulness. When you performed well on a test in school, did you rub the nose of a friend or classmate who didn’t perform as well in your superior test score? If that classmate had ignored your advice and followed a study regimen that you had warned them against, would that justify smugly seeking them out to notify them of your results? But even that scenario depends on the idea that the poor performer could have done something different: this scenario suggests that people are religious because they’re mentally less capable of being atheists. That’s like rubbing it in when you perform better than a kid with severe dyslexia or other encumbrance. Saying, “We’re smarter than you” can only be intended to belittle or shame someone into agreeing with you and, as mentioned above, act as an argument from authority. Why else even bring it up?

A Christian friend at work, who’s quiet by nature and not at all argumentative or confrontational, was disheartened and hurt when an atheist friend thought it a great idea to send her that study. She reached out to me for advice on how to respond. I gave her a couple pointers and mentioned the limitations of this particular study. But probably most importantly, I noted that showing love and compassion for others was a much higher virtue than flaunting one’s own intelligence to demean someone else.

It bears mentioning that some of the most atrocious humans in history have been among the most intelligent. Some of the most intelligent people in history have been among the most deluded.

As Arni wrote,

There’s something about our culture that instinctively sees intelligence as a good thing. But upon reflection, in and of itself, intelligence is neither good nor bad. It can serve the good immensely, yes. But likewise it can enable the bad in absolutely horrifying ways. It’s not a virtue. It can be helpful, but only to the extent that its use is shaped by the virtues.

I’ll put this out there as well. I don’t have stats, and it’s a pure hypothetical, but as someone who often has more in common with my unbelieving friends than I do with my fellow theists, I still feel safe in asserting that if this study had concluded the opposite, I can hardly imagine the same sort of reaction from believers. Most Christians I know would of course feel encouraged and more confident about their faith, and they’d no doubt pass the study around to their fellow believers, and I imagine many would even succumb to the temptation of feeling puffed up and superior. Still, I’m confident that only a small minority would even acknowledge the study’s results to their atheist friends, except perhaps to those atheist friends intent on arguing the opposite. Because it’s just wrong to act that way. We poor, dumb religious folk think “pride” is a sin.

I affirm the ability of atheists to be moral and ethical–this isn’t about that. Still, this can hardly help but suggest to me a marked difference in the effect of the respective beliefs and ethics systems of the theist and the atheist. “Holier than thou” is an awful attitude that bespeaks pride, which paradoxically makes those with that attitude less holy in an important way; those with that attitude are thus being self-contradictory, and are admonished by their own belief system. Someone who is focused on being “holy” is focusing on virtues that will improve human relationships. But as the above case suggests, the “smarter than thou” attitude stands to have more adverse affects in that it doesn’t entail any moral obligations. If you’re smarter, you can act like a jerk, and unless you’ve come up with a clever rational reason not to make theists feel stupid and inferior, there is nothing in the world that should keep you from reacting just as so many have to a study like this one.

Given the choice, give me dumb, good-hearted people any day of the week. Of course, what do I know? I’m “religious”.

August 14th, 2013 by Steve Douglas | 5 Comments »