Putting the “fist” back in “pacifist”

by Steve Douglas

Posted on October 25th, 2013 with 10 Comments

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.

Smarter than thou

by Steve Douglas

Posted on August 14th, 2013 with 4 Comments

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”.

Cheating the system with Jesus is not justice

by Steve Douglas

Posted on July 21st, 2013 with 0 Comments

I usually like Coffee with Jesus, but this time…

via Radio Free Babylon on Facebook

In a way I do like this one because it flatly exposes the chicanery involved with the kind of Atonement so popular in Evangelical circles these days–although seemingly without realizing it.

Sadly, it appears Kevin and Jesus haven’t read their George MacDonald, their René Girard, or for that matter, their Steve Douglas.

A quick update

by Steve Douglas

Posted on July 18th, 2013 with 4 Comments

Hi, everyone. Remember me?

I’m not really abandoning the blog. But gosh if it doesn’t seem like I’ve said my piece on most of the topics I’ve discussed.

I have mostly used this blog as a way of working through major shifts in my theology; to give you an idea, here’s a roughly chronological if somewhat overlapping list of most of the major issues I’ve wrestled with (each followed by varying periods of campaigning for my conclusions) since the blog’s beginning:

  • Explaining my already completed move away from futurism toward preterism
  • Explaining my discomfort with CSBI-style inerrancy (which I already held suspect) toward a very mild sort of inerrancy called theological concordism, i.e. the belief that the Bible’s theological claims are all true even if its scientific and historical ones aren’t
  • Acknowledgement (and justification) of my embrace of modern science, including evolutionary theory, etc.
  • A budding conviction about the importance of the historical community of faith
  • Expositions about the meaning of biblical faith, characterized by a growing social consciousness
  • A modification of my bibliology to reject concordism in all its forms and accept the Bible as fully human with no divine guarantee of accuracy
  • A rejection of soteriological exclusivism (the belief that only those who know Jesus by name can be saved)
  • A growing discomfort with “full preterism” based on my developing historical-critical understanding of the Gospels
  • Apathy about the arguments over the Atonement models morphing suddenly into fierce opposition to penal substitution
  • A rising attraction to older forms of ecclesiology
  • Acceptance of Christian universalism

Now, while I certainly don’t want to imply that I’ve arrived, I do think I’ve come to a certain equilibrium where I get the impression I’m in the right vicinity on a lot of the bigger theological issues, and the refinement process isn’t volatile enough to power the kinds of whopping posts I’ve done in the past. But as I said, I’m not packing it in. It’s just likely that going forward this site will be composed less of what amounted to articles and be more of a journal or…well, a blog.

I say that sincerely enough, but I also know how wary I am of posting a quick burst of opinion that misleads by giving an incomplete picture: although I have often attempted short posts in the past, I find that I end up explaining things so that the post can stand alone, which inflates its size. So who knows…

And for anyone concerned about my faith, as I typically am when blogs like mine suddenly go dark, don’t worry: it’s just as strong as it was. So strong that I just don’t feel threatened or that I need to defend it all the time, which is another reason the site has slowed down.

A third reason I’ve been posting less is that I’ve found an outlet for my theologizing  in a remarkably eclectic Google+ Community I created called Theogeeks, intended for Christians or other interested parties not wanting to initiate Christianity vs. atheism/agnosticism, etc. debates. If you’d like to see what’s going on or have things you’d like to discuss I invite you to join.

Hope you all are well. Thanks for reading my update!

From Fear to Faith

by Steve Douglas

Posted on May 31st, 2013 with 5 Comments

Just wanted to inform any readers I might still have here (I’ve been so negligent of this blog of late) that one of my old blog posts was revised and has just been published in a book edited by Travis Milam and Joel Watts (yes, that guy), called From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion). Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

There’s a stereotype of a young, zealous Christian who feels called to the ministry as a pastor, goes to seminary, and then loses his faith as he studies the writings of all those intellectuals and theologians. The stereotype may not be accurate, but there are those who fit this description, not to mention many who leave home for college as passionate Christians and come home unbelievers. More importantly, that stereotype represents a fear the fear that too much education or contact with those whose beliefs differ from those of a particular community will cause someone to lose their faith.

But there’s another group, much larger, but not heard nearly as frequently. This group consists of people who have gone from the position of fear that creates the stereotype to a position of faith, a faith that is no longer afraid of that outer darkness that looms outside the walls of their religious community. Indeed, they may not perceive any looming darkness at all.

From Fear to Faith, edited by Travis Milam and Joel L. Watts, gives voice to that too often unheard group. It is a collection of essays from those who have lived in fear, have faced the looming dark, collided with their share of brick walls, but have come out with a new-found faith and undismayed trust.

The journeys of faith presented in this book reveal a group deeply insightful and grounded minds, rich in thriving spirituality, joy, and hope. Where there was once trepidation in asking the tough questions of human existence, of the divine relationship with creation, there is now a certain hope found when these authors have struggled to overcome canyons of fear, leaving behind a life of black and white certitude, to live in a beautiful world of gray.

They have learned that having questions and even doubts does not reflect a lack of faith. Rather, hiding in fear from the serious questions indicates a lack of faith in the one who said, “Don’t be afraid.”

Come join in this journey from fear to faith.

Most of the essays in this volume are testimonials, what Pete Enns (one of the endorsers) summarized as “stories about leaving conservative churches.” And he’s right: there are some really good stories in here from insightful writers, such as my friend Mike Beidler.

My contribution in Chapter 11, called “The Second Greatest of These”, is an odd man out from the testimonial format, as I seek to temper the fearsome task of “doubt” with a generous helping of “hope”. It explains why my journey with faith (which didn’t so much begin in “fear” as was the case with many of the other contributors) began with questioning and underwent some pretty ground-shaking revisions but hasn’t terminated in the wastelands of “doubt”–the normally assumed and feared trajectory. I’m keen to stand at the bottom of the slippery slope and let everyone know that this is not the end of the ride: for many of us who’ve learned from and embraced the hard lessons of humility on our way down, the bottom of the slope is not a crash landing but a launchpad to better things. My main point is this: doubt is important to accept as a lesson in humility, but it shouldn’t be a destination.

The book is quite affordable, so check it out. And if you do, please drop by and let me know what you thought of it!

Moral atheists (Mondays with MacDonald)

by Steve Douglas

Posted on May 27th, 2013 with 1 Comment

In his novel, Paul Faber, Surgeon, George MacDonald indicated that he would have agreed with a substantial part of Pope Francis’s recent positive remarks about moral atheists:

But such as Faber was, he was both loved and honored by all whom he had ever attended; and, with his fine tastes, his genial nature, his quiet conscience, his good health, his enjoyment of life, his knowledge and love of his profession, his activity, his tender heart–especially to women and children, his keen intellect, and his devising though not embodying imagination, if any man could get on without a God, Faber was that man. He was now trying it, and as yet the trial had cost him no effort: he seemed to himself to be doing very well indeed. And why should he not do as well as the thousands, who counting themselves religious people, get through the business of the hour, the day, the week, the year, without one reference in any thing they do or abstain from doing, to the will of God, or the words of Christ? If he was more helpful to his fellows than they, he fared better; for actions in themselves good, however imperfect the motives that give rise to them, react blissfully upon character and nature. It is better to be an atheist who does the will of God, than a so-called Christian who does not. [It is not] the atheist [who] will…be dismissed because he said Lord, Lord, and did not obey.

The thing that God loves is the only lovely thing, and he who does it, does well, and is upon the way to discover that he does it very badly. When he comes to do it as the will of the perfect Good, then is he on the road to do it perfectly–that is, from love of its own inherent self-constituted goodness, born in the heart of the Perfect. The doing of things from duty is but a stage on the road to the kingdom of truth and love. Not the less must the stage be journeyed; every path diverging from it is “the flowery way that leads to the broad gate and the great fire.”

If loving what is good for its own sake is indeed the path to the perfect, then many a moral atheist is further along the narrow way to redemption than those Christians who think that goodness is defined by God’s arbitrary whims and who obey out of the belief that God demands it. Good is done either way, but the faithful child of God will seek not only to obey, but to love what is commanded and recognize its intrinsic goodness.

The objectiveness of goodness that apologists speak of is touted as unaccountable in atheistic morality–yet ironically it is the atheist (or believer) behaving morally just because it’s the unmotivated “right thing to do” who is closer to God’s heart. Believers should certainly find common ground with those who act in the interests of Goodness, which is God, and find that these who are with Him in that way are not at all against Him.

Toward a fuzzier Jesus

by Steve Douglas

Posted on February 13th, 2013 with 2 Comments

In his review of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (edited by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne), Nijay Gupta writes,

[Morna] Hooker expresses the kind of skepticism towards the authenticity-criteria that is indicative of most of the contributors. She writes, “Perhaps…the time has come to abandon the whole enterprise of trying to discover the ‘real historical Jesus’” (xiv). Why is she wanting to throw in the towel? A large part of it has to do with the tendency to focus on words and phrases, which ends up being too “cut-and-paste” for good historical study. [Hooker writes,] “As with an expressionist painting, what we need to do is to stand back from it, rather than poring over details, for the closer we get, the less we see the whole” (xv).

This of course is specifically addressing the authenticity criterion for the words of Jesus in the Gospels, but I think the problem touches on more than just that. I’ve been following historical Jesus studies and biblical criticism for several years, at least from a distance in my armchair. It can be exhausting after a while seeing completely contradictory theories posed equally plausibly. The frequently cacophonous and yet somehow still unnervingly self-assured stances of critical scholars, especially when coupled with the clever but fundamentally speculative revisionist reconstructions of NT texts, have disconcerted and discombobulated many people into abandoning all hope for commitment to any understanding of the Jesus laid out by the Gospels. Indeed, it’s no doubt partly responsible for the popularity of the movement defined by the denial of even Jesus’ historical existence, which seems to have been declared guilty by its close association with the Gospels.

An impression gradually emerged that when all is said and done, many of the arguments and reconstructions are interesting, but in order to understand what the Jesus of history was all about we ultimately have to step back and try to grapple with the gist of the accounts, to find the impressions Jesus left on his followers and try to recover why they got those impressions. If we waste our time like some (but not all) text critics have done, pulling each phrase out of context and stitching them all back together like some kidnapper’s ransom note, we’ll never reach the more interesting and, arguably, more attainable goal of seeing the bigger picture.

Making concessions to the very real ambiguities and imperfections of the documents we collectively call the New Testament, we must avoid the inerrantist’s claims of a clear picture of Jesus and his teachings; but we really shouldn’t kid ourselves that we can reach a similar level of clarity through biblical criticism. It sounds as though Keith, Le Donne, et al. are sensibly coming to grips with the necessity of adopting a “fuzzier” view of Jesus’ life and ministry, one that’s more heuristic and less definitive.

Hopefully not quite this fuzzy.

Many of these historians of shadowy antiquity seem to have been trying to approach the data as engineers pulling apart complex math equations rather than as interpreters of what is actually messy literature. Historical criticism and text reception history as we’ve typically seen them over the past century strike me as analogous to trying to describe Rembrandt’s works, themes, and overall artistic character by envisaging the brush strokes that created his works–trying to reconstruct the order in which he laid them to canvas, the source of his brushes, and the composition of his paint. Those theories may be interesting, and not even necessarily wrong, but at the same time, even should they somehow successfully recover the fine details about what Jesus said and didn’t say, I have sincere doubts that those insights will be especially helpful for understanding the artist or his work. The latter in comparison seems to me to be low-hanging fruit.