Dragon Speak (Or, What is Theology?)

You have nice manners for a liar and a thief  (Smaug in the Hobbit)

A few weeks ago I went to a lecture at Otago University. The lecture commemorated five hundred years since Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation. Written on the desk that I sat at where the words, ‘there is no god.’ Yet here I was listening to a lecture about Luther and his god, and believing in that same god. Clearly there was a vast gulf between the theology of the scribe and my own.  

The serpent said to Eve, ‘did God really say, “you must not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ And so begins one of the most famous (or infamous) dialogues in all of human history. Whether you identify as a Christian or not does not take away from the power of this story. It is a universal story: a utopian existence lost through folly. Everybody – Christian, Buddhist, and Jedi alike – has lost someone’s trust through failure or deceit. Humans fail. And their failure hurts them. And it hurts those around them. ‘O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendents’ (2 Esdras 7.11). Some call it sin, others, evil. C. K. Chesterton commented that sin ‘is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proven,’ and is also a ‘fact as practical as potatoes’ (Orthodoxy).   

The third chapter of Genesis is a strange story. The main actors in the previous two chapters – God and Adam – are in the back-ground: God is passive and Adam pretty much invisible. Instead, two new actors – Eve (then unnamed) and the (until then unmentioned) serpent – are introduced as principal characters. Theirs is a fleeting scene: between them they only say a handful of words and some of those are quoting God. Yet the echos of this event thunder down through the ages, obscuring the First Story: we can now barely imagine life in Eden, walking and communing with our creator, without thinking of Eve and Adam’s folly. Ours is a view of a high mountain peak from deep in a shadowed valley.

When we thought and talked about God we did so from the shadows. Long ago we lost our footing and fell off the precipice. David wrote of the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ (Psalm 23.4). We could only look up, and when we did so we saw the silhouette of a dragon circling far above, casting its shadow over us and obscuring our view of the sky. Between us and God was a dragon, ‘that serpent of old’ (Rev 12.9, 20.2).

So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings (Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit)

This changed after the first Easter. Through his life, death, and resurrection Jesus overcame the separation, the expanse between humanity and God. After Easter humans could both know God and know about God in a way that they could not before. Theology as we know it was born. We can know God because he has revealed himself to us through Jesus (Hebrews 1.3a). The historical reality of Jesus, then, makes theology possible. But what  if you don’t believe in Jesus?

Theologians refer to the noetic effect of sin on the human intellect (from the Greek noe?tikos, relating to mental activity or the intellect). The human intellect is affected by sin. This effect is overcome by the work of Jesus in the life of the believer, but not the non-believer. Abraham Kuyper wrote that ‘regeneration [salvation] breaks humanity into two’ – the regenerated mind and the non-regenerated mind (Moroney, 1999:434). While Emil Brunner added that, ‘the more we are dealing with the inner nature of man, with his attitude to God, and the way in which he is determined by God, it is evident that this sinful illusion becomes increasingly dominant’ (439). That is, Christians can both know God and about God because God, through Jesus, has regenerated their minds, while non-believers cannot because their minds remain un-regenerated.

He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself, and if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you (Friedrich Nietzsche).

Consider the following words from some secular thinkers. Protagoras, an epistemological agnostic,  wrote that, ‘concerning the gods….many things prevent knowledge including the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life’ (On the Gods). Thomas Paine, the American revolutionary, charged that ‘the study of theology…is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it provides no authorities…it admits of no conclusion’ (The Age of Reason). Ludwig Feuerbach, the atheist philosopher, suggested that Christianity was a ‘web of contradictions and delusions’ (The Essence of Christianity). While the logical-positivist A. J. Ayer wrote that ‘all utterances about the nature of God are nonsensical’ (Critique of Ethics and Theology).

Meanwhile author and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who clearly hasn’t read much good theology, accuses theology of never being of the ‘smallest use to anybody’ and only talking about ‘pestilence as the wages of sin.’ In his opinion theology is an empty ideology: ‘The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t achieve anything, don’t even mean anything. What makes you think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?’ (Scientific Versus Theological Knowledge). (Perhaps Dawkins should check the history of both his profession and institution.)

But does this mean that the non-believer can have no theological insight? No. It is probably better to understand it in general terms rather than an precise statement true in every situation. There has been some very flawed theology from redeemed minds (by ‘redeemed’ I do not mean ‘perfect’) just as there has been some good theological insight from unredeemed minds.

The Dutch Reformed Church’s (DRC) support of apartheid in South Africa is an example of believers getting theology very wrong. Founded in 1652, it was the theological teaching of the DRC that some races were superior to others that helped pave the way for racial segregation in South Africa. It needs to be noted that while the DRC was expelled from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in the 1980s (an action that showed that other churches believed the theology, on this point, to be wrong), it was re-admitted in 1986 for welcoming black members and preaching that all members of all racial groups should meet and pray together.

St. Augustine wrote that ‘the Platonists realized that God is the creator from whom all other beings derive’ (City of God, VIII, 6). This is a theological insight. The Platonists were not  Christians, though Augustine seemed to have suggested as much, yet they came to a conclusion compatible with a simple reading of Genesis. Paul wrote in Romans 1.19, which Augustine quoted regarding the Platonists, that, ‘what can be known about God is plain…because God has made it plain…’ Perhaps the Platonists were such ardent searches for the truth that God made plain that which they sought? Either way these non-Christians came to the same conclusion as Christians regarding Creation: that one god did it – though they didn’t know which one.    

It might be deemed by some as offensive to hold that non-believers have un-regenerated minds, and it may be so, but some of those un-regenerated minds have no problem accusing believers of stupidity – surely a more offensive claim.

Different conclusions are reached about God because different people are coming from diametrically opposed positions – a point that needs to be remembered. One position says that there is a god, and that that god has revealed himself through Jesus two thousand years ago. Another position sees the notion of a god as foolish from the beginning, and comes to very different conclusions: Richard Dawkins even suggests that Jesus would have been an atheist had he lived today. One mind sees the son of God, the other sees merely another muggle.    

References:

Moroney, S. K. (1999). How Sin Affects Scholarship: A New Model. Christian Scholar’s Review , XXVIII(3), 432-451.     

Foetus in the womb

The Ethics of Abortion: A Pro-life Perspective (Pt 3)

Welcome back for Part 3 of this series, in which I’m presenting a pro-life case against abortion. To recap, in Part 1 we examined the controversy surrounding abortion, and I argued that the rightness or wrongness of abortion rests predominantly on the nature of the unborn. This was expressed with the question “what is the unborn?”. In Part 2, I offered the following argument for the pro-life position:

  1. It is wrong to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being.
  2. Abortion intentionally takes the life of an innocent human being.
  3. Therefore, abortion is wrong.

I then defended the second point with scientific evidence, demonstrating that the unborn is undeniably a human being. In this post, I’ll examine a further distinction that’s sometimes offered to justify abortion; namely, the distinction between a human being and a person. As we continue, I’ll offer reasons to think that this distinction cannot be sustained, and offer a better explanation of human value.


Do you believe that all human beings have a right to life? If so, then you should adopt a pro-life view on abortion. As we’ve seen, the unborn is a distinct, living, and whole human being, which means that if all human beings have a right to life, then the unborn has a right to life. To say that someone has a right to life is simply to say that they have a right not to be killed without sufficient justification. Since elective abortion kills the unborn without sufficient justification, it follows that it violates his or her rights.

Of course, this entails that abortion is wrong—an undesirable inference for many. As such, pro-choice advocates have forged a path that avoids this conclusion. By abandoning the idea that all human beings have a right to life and embracing instead the idea that only some do, we can put the unborn in the category of “human beings without a right to life”, and thus deny that abortion violates those rights.


Do all human beings have a right to life?

When presented with this question, it’s reasonable to suppose that most people would intuitively answer “yes”. However, many ethicists who argue in favour of abortion contend that this isn’t the case. Rather, they propose a distinction between a human being and a human person. The former does not possess a right to life, while the latter does. As such, it is morally permissible to kill a human being but not a human person.

If we consider this line of reasoning in relation to pro-life argument offered above, we can see that it constitutes a denial of the first point (it’s wrong to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being). Rather, proponents of this view hold that it’s morally permissible to kill human beings—as long as they’re not persons. Applied to abortion, this reasoning tells us that it is not wrong to kill the unborn human being if they are not yet persons.

This raises an obvious question: what makes human persons different from human beings? How can we tell the difference? In response, pro-choice advocates have suggested a number of criteria that ostensibly grant human beings personhood and thus a right to life. You’ve probably heard of a few of them: consciousness, brain waves, human appearance, size, viability, desires, etc. It’s argued that human beings who have brain waves, or who look like mature human beings, or who have the capacity for desires etc., are persons; all others are not. In this way, personhood is granted to human beings who perform some function or have some capacity. We can refer to this position as the “functional view” of personhood.

At first blush, the functional view may seem reasonable. However, many scholars contend that it leads to overwhelming difficulties. As it’s well beyond the scope of this post, I’m not going to address each of the proffered criteria of the functional view individually. Rather, I’ll point out a major problem with this view, and leave references in the endnotes for those who wish to pursue the topic further[i].

One of the greatest difficulties with the functional view is that the criteria offered to distinguish persons from mere humans either exclude obvious examples of persons, or include obvious examples of non-persons. Let me explain. If we know that an individual is a person, and a personhood-criterion excludes that individual, then the criterion must be mistaken. Similarly, if we know that an entity is not a person, and a personhood-criterion includes that entity, then the criterion must, once again, be mistaken. For example, if we know that a comatose human being is a person, yet our criterion tells us he/she is not, then we must abandon the criterion. On the other hand, if our criterion tells us that a cow is a person, and we know that it is not, we have ample grounds to reject that criterion.


The SLED Test

In his book The Moral Question of Abortion, Stephen Schwarz[ii] offers a succinct method of summarising and demonstrating this problem. His method is known as the SLED Test. In the SLED test, each of the various criteria proposed by proponents of the functional view are grouped into one of four categories: size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency. Take the first letter of each of these headings, and you have the acronym SLED. By reflecting on these categories, we can see that none of these attributes (or the lack thereof) provide good reason to kill human beings at the foetal stage, but not at a further developed stage.

  • Size

Some pro-choice advocates have suggested that the unborn is too small to be a person and therefore to possess a right to life. However, an 8-year-old child is smaller than a 30-year-old adult, yet it would be absurd to suppose that therefore the child has less of a right to life than the adult. I’m taller than my wife, my dad, my mum, and my sisters, but that doesn’t make me more of a person than they are. Defining personhood in terms of size would commit us to believing that I am, and therefore size is not an adequate criterion.

  • Level of Development

Others argue that the unborn is not developed enough to be the subject of rights—perhaps the unborn isn’t a person because they haven’t reached a certain level of physical development. However, toddlers, teenagers, and adults are all more developed than infants—but that doesn’t mean they have a greater right to life. Furthermore, if physical development determines personhood, then what level of development is sufficient? If a particular stage or bodily state can be identified, why accept that stage/state rather than another? What’s unique about it that makes it the defining moment when a human being becomes a person with rights?

Another stage of development at which human beings are thought to gain value is the stage at which they become conscious/self-aware. It’s said that persons are human beings who are conscious, and, since the unborn is not conscious, the unborn is not a human person. However, if this is true, then infants and comatose adults aren’t persons either, as they aren’t self-aware. Furthermore, sleep is an unconscious state, yet it would be absurd to think we can kill human beings while they sleep because they lose their rights when they lose consciousness. Finally, many animals are more conscious than new-born babies. Are we to forbid killing the former but allow killing the latter?

  • Environment

Another distinction said to disqualify unborn human beings from personhood is environment or location. According to this view, the unborn is located within another person’s body, and therefore is not a human person. However, we know that your value as a human being doesn’t change when you cross the street, fly to China, or roll over in bed. Why, then, should we think that the unborn suddenly becomes a human person when she travels through her mother’s birth canal? A new-born infant is, after all, identical to herself before birth, except she’s in a different location. Moreover, on this view a 39-week unborn child would not be a person, but a prematurely delivered 25-week infant would be. This, however, seems arbitrary and counter-intuitive, indicating that environment is irrelevant when determining value.

  • Degree of Dependency

Finally, others have suggested that human beings become persons when they become viable; that is, when they don’t depend on others or on certain equipment or medication for their survival. Thus, the unborn is only a person once it can survive outside the womb. Once again, however, this criterion excludes an array of human beings whom we know are valuable persons. On this view, the patient whose life depends on insulin or kidney medication would no longer be a person, elderly folk who require the assistance of carers would no longer have rights, and conjoined twins who share bodily systems could be killed without justification.

To compound the problem, viability is technologically dependent. With current technology, foetuses are viable at an earlier stage of development than they were before the modern era. Are we to think that foetuses developing in modern times are persons at 22 weeks of pregnancy while foetuses at that same stage prior to modernity were not? Surely not. As such, viability is not a good reason to attribute value to the unborn.


A Better Explanation[iii]

Clearly the functional view of personhood raises numerous questions and poses apparently insurmountable difficulties. It seems inadequate due to its inability to account for our moral intuitions regarding human value. By “moral intuitions” I mean moral truths that we perceive without having to extensively reflect or deliberate about it; for example, that it’s wrong to kill people in comas, or people who depend on medication for their continued existence. Rather, it makes more sense to say that humans are valuable persons with a right to life in virtue of the type of creature they are. Human beings have intrinsic value simply because they are human. On this view, comatose persons are valuable because they are living human beings. Infants, though not self-aware, nonetheless have a right to life because of the kind of creature they are. The unborn, though smaller, less developed, in a different environment, and more dependent than other human beings, is a valuable person in virtue of its humanity. 

If the case I’ve offered in Parts 1 – 3 of this series is sound, then abortion is wrong. As we’ve seen, the moral permissibility of abortion depends on what the unborn entity is. If the unborn is a human being, and it’s wrong to kill innocent human beings, then abortion is wrong. Science demonstrates that the unborn is a human being, and therefore if all human beings have a right to life, then the unborn has a right to life. Finally, the inability of the functional view of personhood to account for our intuitions suggests the following: if we want to embrace human equality, then we should ground it in the only thing that all humans share equally, namely, their human nature. We should embrace all human beings, defending most vigorously the rights of the weakest and most vulnerable among us—the unborn.


 

Citations/Endnotes:

[i] Helpful resources include Chapter 6 of Francis Beckwith’s book Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, session 4 of Making Abortion Unthinkable, an audio set by Stand to Reason, Chapters 2 – 4 of Scott Klusendorf’s book The Case for Life, and Christopher Kaczor’s book The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice.

[ii] Schwarz, S. D. (1990). The moral question of abortion, pp. 15-19. Chicago: Loyola University Press.

[iii] For more on this view of human value, see Chapter 6 of Francis Beckwith’s book Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, or click here for an informative lecture by Scott Klusendorf.

The death of Truth

You can’t handle the truth

In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche pronounced the death of God. In 1900, God pronounced the death of Nietzsche. In the years between, this German philosopher sought to open the eyes of the masses to the sheer pointlessness of existence using his biting, nihilistic rhetoric.

In 1966, TIME Magazine’s cover echoed Nietzsche’s sentiment, albeit in question form. “Is God Dead?” in giant red letters has become an icon of 20th century history. Nietzche’s intellectual descendants were proud of their his voice now influencing on an even grander scale. Hopelessness bred hope.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of this iconic cover, TIME published some new red letters – same style, different subject. “Is Truth Dead?” was the question for 2017. As a keen cultural observer, my ears were pricked. The subject matter of this piece was the Trumpian concept of truth as a malleable tool – an important conversation, no doubt. But I can’t help but think that TIME Magazine missed an opportunity to be truthful about truth.

Good job, TIME. Bad job, TIME.

TIME’s critique of truth massaging is both warranted and hypocritical. Warranted because language of fact and truth, right and wrong should never be distorted for any form of personal gain. Plain and simple – truth is good, falsehood is wrong. The Great Truth Masseuse of Washington would do well to listen.

On the other hand, TIME has missed a contradiction. A bad one, right in their blind spot. TIME refer to “binary distinctions between truth and falsehood” in the Trump piece, yet they represent a culture that flagrantly denies these same distinctions in areas of personal preference. TIME claims the moral high ground on matters of truth and falsehood while representing the wider cultural norm of relativizing truth whenever it suits. 

I guess I would find it hard to see this if I too had a tree in my eye.

Binary – not just for nerds

Abortion and the transgender revolution are two examples of this – the suppression of self-evident truths in favour of Sovereign Self decrees.

Despite this organism inside me being a human, I will disregard its value and kill it. I make the rules.

Despite being a man, I will declare myself a woman. I have spoken.

Despite no supporting evidence, there are surveillance devices everywhere listening to every word my administration says. That is that.

How are these things different from each other? How is one worthy of critique and the others are not to be questioned? You either keep your cake or eat it. You can’t have both.

This 50 year slide from the death of God to Truth is telling – after all, if there is no God, no Ultimate Truth Giver, can things really be said to be true in any meaningful sense? Obviously, we use ‘truth’ and its derivatives daily to convey meaning but are we appealing to our own subjective sense of meaning, or are we rooting these words in something objective, something that is, regardless of who believes it – something greater than our own unstable circumstances and desires.

If TIME are receiving answers to their pointed cover question, I have one – Yes. Truth died a long time ago. But it has risen and reigns.