Two Definitions of Racism


When liberals and conservatives use the word racism, they tend to mean different things.

A conservative using the term racism is probably meaning something along the lines of people making race-based comments, committing race-based crimes, hiring an employee because they are one race or another, or something like a person’s college admissions status (which usually has a racial component snuck in there somewhere). For them, racism is specific and active. Racism is specific because it happens to specific people; a person can have very racist attitudes but not actually be “a racist” if they never act upon them, because, in their mind, racism is a thing that happens in the particulars of life, like the examples above. It is active because it requires a person to intentionally want it to happen, and anyone who has agency (activity-ness) can do racist things. Racism isn’t something that “just happens,” because someone has to decide to do it.

A liberal tends to use the term racism, not to put too fine a point on it, in the complete opposite way. For a liberal, racism is general and passive. Racism can be general because a single person is no longer the regular focus, in this definition. Instead, entire groups are viewed in aggregates (on average) and work together. “Whites are _____” and “Blacks are _____” can be meaningful, reasonable statements under this definition (whereas before, it could not). Accordingly, racism can be passive because those groups do not have collective agency (cannot act all together). The general setup of society is the way that it is, for various historical reasons, of course, but it means that nobody alive today planned on racial difference being this way.

The difference in these definitions are profound, and understanding the two definitions will cut away most disagreements before they really get started. For example, if a liberal says “you can’t be racist against blacks”, they don’t mean that you cannot say a racist word to a black person. Of course you could do that, and of course it would be morally wrong, but in the liberal’s mind, that is not enough to count as racism. You see, the liberal scheme of racism is that Racism = Hate based on race + Power. But, and this is the inconvenient truth, the conservative scheme of racism is that Racism = Hate based on race. Conservatives either deny that such a power disparity exists, or, more often, they neither agree nor disagree with the idea, as they have not had it explained clearly to them.

In shorter words, the conservative is talking about bigoted racism, and the liberal is talking about systemic racism. The term “racism” has these two parts, and so it is usually irresponsible to argue that something “is racist” or “is not racist.” Instead, it would be much clearer or everyone if we said that certain things “are racially bigoted” or “are not racially bigoted,” and that they “are systemically racist,” or  “are not systemically racist”.

I believe in the value of precise language.

So the next time someone uses the term racism, ask, “well, possibly, but which kind of racism do you mean? Bigotry, or systemic?” and then most of the friction will go away. You are now left with a claim that can be proven right or wrong, given the relevant facts and data, rather than a debate over categories and definitions, which are the worst.

The metaphysical dilemma of foundational epistemic claims

Modernist or Christian apologists tend to use an argument along these lines:

The claim that “all truth is relative” is an absolute, non-relative claim. If it is true, it proves that at least one claim (itself) is not relative, and therefore it is false [self-refutation]. On the other hand, if it is false, then it is false [tautology]. Therefore, no matter what, it must be false.

More generally, the argument is that any argument about epistemology — any bedrock claim about how to prove claims — cannot depend upon any epistemic claim besides itself. For example, if I believe that “everything can be known through the rational intuition of the mind” then I had better justify that statement using the rational intuition of the mind. If, say, I justified that claim using the five senses, then I have undermined myself.

Sure. Fair enough. Makes for a good satire article every now and again. In an eighth grade literature class discussion about Lord of the Flies my teacher made the claim “there is no absolute truth.”

(How we got there from LOTF?)

It could be said that my entire philosophic training up to that point had been aimed at preparing me for exactly this situation. They had trained me to pounce, and my opportunity was now: Ambush philosophy!: “BUT THAT STATEMENT IS AN ABSOLUTE TRUTH CLAIM,” I blurted out. My teacher paused. She had no response. After a beat she said, and six years later I remember the exact quote: “man, Ross, I could listen to you talk all day,” which in retrospect was exactly the worst thing to say to the kind of person who would employ that kind of argument.

But I digress. There are two fatal problems with the argument.

First, the claim “there is no absolute truth” almost never means truth-at-all. The person speaking means that “there is no absolute meta-narrative truth.” They do not claim that we cannot know the specific facts of life. Who would think that? Perhaps Berkeley? Instead, the postmodernist argues that we cannot know how to compile those specific facts into something meaningful.

Go read the essay Amateur Sociology Considered Harmful by Ozy Frantz. I’m not kidding, it demonstrates a postmodern rejection of meta-narratives better than Foucault or Derrida, who created it. (Or, maybe, a less sophisticated rejection?)

A relevant excerpt:

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, the young sociology student takes her first theory class. The first week, she reads Smith, who presents a plausible and insightful argument that the invisible hand of the market causes goods to be distributed in the way that best benefits everyone. The second week, she reads Marx, who presents a plausible and insightful argument that capitalism is a product of bourgeoisie ownership of the means of production which alienates the proletariat from their labor. The third week, she reads Durkheim, who presents a plausible and insightful argument that industrialization leads to anomie, a condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals. The fourth week, she reads Weber, who presents a plausible and insightful argument that the capitalist spirit originates in a Calvinist urge to find signs whether or not one is a member of the elect. The fifth week, she reads Mills, who presents a plausible and insightful argument that the ordinary citizen is a powerless tool in the hands of corporate, military, and political leaders who control society for their own ends.

At this point, if all goes well, she storms into her professor’s office and says “okay, I can kind of harmonize Smith and Weber, or Marx and Durkheim, but mostly these authors not only don’t agree with each other, they don’t even seem to be describing they same thing! They are at utter disjoint! None of them even agree about what categories we should be using! And yet when I read Weber, he makes sense, and when I read Marx, he makes sense, and when I read Smith, he makes sense! HOW CAN THIS BE? AAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”, and a sociologist is born.

In this sense, the postmodernist is not rejecting specific truth. As you see later on in the article, Ozy does not have any problem with attaining facts, and I’m sure that they hold to the same mindset as a secular humanist, who argues that reason and evidence are the two and only two methods for justifying claims. (Since Ozy is a rationalist, I am sure this is the case).

What, then, is the difference between a secular humanist and postmodernist? They can both assent to the warrant of particular claims, but the latter does not assemble those particular claims into something meaningful. How can we? they ask. The postmodernist engages in a “stark refusal to cultivate a nostalgia for the unattainable” (Putt) while the former seeks to systematize and formalize all truth into what would traditionally be considered a philosophically coherent and confident model.

Second, The other problem is that the claim “there is absolute truth” is itself an absolute truth claim, and therefore commits the converse fallacy, that of circular reasoning. I think that Karl Popper was the first to point this out, though I have since lost the blog link when my other computer died and my bookmarks fared accordingly. Popper formulated it like this:

To prove any epistemic claim, one must
1. Use the claim itself (which is circular reasoning)
2. Use another claim (which undermines the original claim’s purported status as an epistemic foundation)
3. Leave the claim unproved (which does not prove the claim)

That critique does not really have a satisfactory answer, that I have yet seen. I have found so far one good answer, and that involves applying Bayesian rationality, describing all beliefs in terms of a probability between zero and one, testing, feeding the outcome back into the original equation to adjust priors, and repeating until the event incident reaches 0.00 or 1.00.

MAYBE that works. It is a fairly new concept to me, and I’m not sure how we can use that type of reasoning on an extremely abstract, (perhaps unfalsifiable?) level like the foundations of epistemology, or even a few layers up the ladder on issues like the reliability of reason or the degree to which the senses accurately perceive the world. The next thing I am set on uncovering is whether someone can prove than Bayes’s formula is a priori synthetic knowledge on par with 2+2=4, Kant style. Can that be done?

If so, there might be an answer there. But either way, the original objection to the person denying absolute truth is, at best only half the full picture, and at worst a complete misunderstanding of the meaning of the words in use.

Flagged paragraphs from textbooks this year

Here are all the paragraphs I flagged in my course textbooks this year.

(“This year” is inaccurate; I gradually stopped flagging my readings as the year continued, and in retrospect it looks like all of these come from first semester).


Kenneth Berding and Matt Williams, eds. What the New Testament Authors Really Cared About. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publishing. Second edition: 2015. 


Daniel 5 begins recording the second story that is essential for understanding those living during the time of Jesus. Here we read of the Persian king, Cyrus II, who surprisingly overtook the great city of Babylon and her king, Belshazzar, in 539 B.C. Unlike the Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire was more tolerant, allowing 42,360 Jews to return to Jerusalem. According to Ezra 1-4, an altar was set up in 537 B.C., and approximately twenty years later the temple, while far from the glorious Solominc temple, was reconstructed.

Imagine the flood of emotions as the Jews returned to their home and began rebuilding their beloved temple. Ezra tells us that when they laid the foundation of the temple, the people sang together in praise, giving thanks to the Lord for his mercy and goodness (cf. Ezra 3:11). Pro-Jewish sentiment prevailed throughout the Persian monarchy; and in 445-444 B.C., Nehemiah began to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. These years were marked with great sacrifice on the part of those who resettled the land. While certainly not free from foreign control, the Jews were at liberty to worship once again in their temple and celebrate their festivals in the land given to them by their God. The story of the return from exile and rebuilding the temple impacted the Jewish people all the way down to the first century, becoming a rallying point for the Jews for centuries. As a result, it is not surprising that several generations later the Jewish religious leaders would not take kindly to Jesus’s threats to destroy the temple (Matt 27:40).


The Zealots are the last of the important Jewish sects of this time period. Similar in many ways to present-day terrorists, these Jewish fanatics did anything possible to advance the cause of God in the midst of pagan rulers in Israel. Josephus, a Jewish historian who lived during the latter part of the first century, blamed the Zealots for the downfall of the Jewish people under Rome in the Jewish War of A.D. 66-70. The story of the Zealots is important for understanding the story of Jesus and his disciples because Simon (not Simon Peter) was called a Zealot (Luke 6:15), while Matthew was a tax collector, formerly aiding the Roman cause.


Matthew recounted that Jesus called twelve disciples and gave them authority to continue his ministry. Remarkably, the disciples’ mission would replicate Jesus’s in almost every detail: they would drive out evil spirits, heal diseases, preach the kingdom of heaven, raise the dead, and cleanse leapers ([Matthew] 10:1-8). Like Jesus’s own mission, the disciples’ mission would provoke persecution, but the disciples could rest in Jesus’s promise that the Holy Spirit would enable them in times of crisis (10:18-20).

The disciples’ remarkable power and authority is to be understood against the background of the Semitic Shaliah principle, which maintained that persons sent carried the authority of the one who sent them. With this understanding Jesus was able to tell the disciples, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me” (10:40).


Mark 8:22-10:52 is central to Mark’s presentation of discipleship. Within this section, mark repeatedly described Jesus as “on the way” (8:27, 9:33, 10:17, 32, 46, 52). He was on his way to Jerusalem, where he would suffer and die (10:32-33). While Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem, he also taught about the way of discipleship, about the pattern of life expected of all those who desire to follow him.

In this section, Mark arranged his material around Jesus’s three predictions in which he looked ahead to his suffering, death, and resurrection (8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34). Each prediction led to an action on the part of the disciples that revealed their lack of understanding. After the first prediction, Peter rebuked Jesus in response to his teaching on the suffering of the Messiah (8:32-33). After the second prediction, the disciples discussed among themselves which one of them was the greatest (9:32-34). After the third, two disciples, James and John, asked Jesus for the most honored positions in his kingdom (10:35-41). This angered the other disciples because they coveted the same honor. Jesus responded to each instance of misunderstanding by teaching about the nature of true discipleship (8:34-38; 9:35-50; 10:42-45).


Jesus’s sacrificial death, however, did not automatically bring eternal life to everyone in the world. In order to receive that life, one had to believe in Jesus (20:31). John never used the noun “faith”; he always used the verb, “to believe” or “to have faith” (ninety-eight times!). By constantly using the verb, John emphasized the active response of believing.

The idea of “believing” in today’s church is often seen as an action that is performed solely by the brain, that is, an intellectual action. Belief certainly includes the intellectual assent to facts, but John showed that real belief in Jesus always leads to obedience. For example, it was only because the royal official believed Jesus that he could leave him and return to his son (4:50). It was only because the blind man believed Jesus that he went to the pool of Siloam to wash (9:7, 38).


Vaughan Roberts, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the storyline of the Bible. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press. 2002.


‘The time is coming,’ declares the LORD,
‘when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel
and with the house of Judah.’
(Jeremiah 31:31)

This covenant will not be a completely new start. God is not abandoning the promises he has made in the past. But how can he fulfill those promises to bless his people? In his faithfulness, he must do so if he is to keep his word. And yet he is also bound to punish the Israelites if they disobey him. So how can he bless them, given their continued sinfulness? The new covenant will make this possible. It will be unbreakable. God will find a way of dealing with sin, so that all his people will be forgiven and know God intimately. he will change them from within: ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts’ (31:33). Ezekiel and Joel make it clear that this is a promise of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in the lives of all God’s people (Ezekiel 36:26-27; Joel 2:28-32). This new covenant was to be inaugurated by Jesus’s death. When he took the cup at the last supper he said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’ (Luke 22:20).


The New Testament never leads us to expect that there will be any fulfillment of the Old Testament promises other than their fulfillment in Christ… We are not encouraged, for example, to look for their fulfillment in the State of Israel and to expect a new temple to be built there. That is to expect a renewal of the model that has now been dismantled. The permanent reality is found in Christ. Graeme Goldsworthy has put it like this: ‘For the New Testament the interpretation of the Old Testament is not “literal” but “Christological”. That is to say that the coming of Christ transforms all the kingdom terms of the Old Testament into gospel reality.’

Another writer draws an analogy with a father a century ago, who promises his young son that he will give him a horse on his twenty-first birthday. Cars are subsequently invented, and so, when the birthday finally comes, the boy is given a car instead of a horse. The promise has still be fulfilled, but not literally. The father could not have promised his son a car because neither could have understood the concept. In a similar way, God made his promises to Israel in ways they could understand. He used categories they were familiar with, such as the nation, the temple, and material prosperity in the land. But the fulfillment breaks the boundaries of those categories. To expect a literal fulfillment is to miss the point: “To look for direct fulfillment of, say, Ezekiel in the twentieth-century Middle East, is to bypass and short-circuit the reality and the finality of what we already have in Christ as the fulfillment of those great assurances. It is like taking delivery of the motor car but still expecting to receive a horse.” All the promises of the kingdom of God are fulfilled in Christ; he is God’s people, God’s place and God’s rule.


When Jesus is a child, Joseph and Mary take him to Egypt to protect him from Herod’s persecution. Matthew comments ‘So was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son”‘ (Matthew 2:15). Some commentators suggest that this is an unprincipled use of Old Testament prophecy. The question is from Hosea 11:1, which is not a messianic promise referring to an individual. The original context makes it very clear that it refers to the exodus of the nation of Israel. But Matthew is neither naive nor unprincipled. He knows exactly what he is doing. He is deliberately identifying Jesus with Israel. But Jesus is different. He too is temped, as the Israelites were in the wilderness, but, unlike them, he does not fall (Matthew 4:1-11).

Michael Anthony, ed., Christian Education: Foundations for the Twenty-first Century. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. 2001.


George Knight has cited seven hallmarks of a Christian epistemology. In a slightly adapted form, they are:

1. The biblical perspective is that all truth is God’s truth. Therefore, the distinction between sacred and secular truth is a false dichotomy.

2. The truth of Christian revelation is true to what actually exists in the universe. Therefore, the Christian can pursue truth without the fear of ultimate contradiction.

3. Forces of evil seek to undermine the Bible, distort human reasoning, and lead individuals to rely on their own inadequate and fallen selves in the pursuit of truth.

4. We have only a relative grasp of the absolute truths in the universe. In other words, while God can know absolutely, Christians can know absolutes in a relative sense. Thus, there is room for Christian humility in the epistemological enterprise.

5. The Bible is not concerned with abstract truth. It always sees truth as related to life. Therefore, knowing in the biblical sense is applying perceived knowledge to one’s daily life and experience.

6. The various sources of knowledge available to the Christ — the special revelation of Scripture and the person of Jesus Christ, the general revelation of the natural world, and reason — are complementary and should be used in light of the biblical pattern.

7. Given the unity of the truth, the acceptance of a Christian epistemology cannot be separated from the acceptance of a Christian metaphysics and vice-versa. The acceptance of any metaphysical-epistemological configuration is a faith choice, and it necessitates a total commitment to a way of life.


The art of teaching is reflected in a competent teacher’s excellence in balancing the complementary, though often conflicted, attributes of the teaching task. The teacher as artist is constantly working out the right combination of exhorting and complimenting, warning, reassuring, and supporting. The teacher must avoid the desire to control or to remake another person in his or her own image. Integrity demands that an artist-teacher should take very seriously the responsibilities of the career. Any marks of insincerity are displaced by a more thoughtful style marked by realistic judgement calls and underlined by warmth and gentle humor. This sort of sincerity can become warmly appreciated, even eagerly anticipated. Ultimately, it will come to reside in the learner’s own capabilities for self-direction.


Contrary to the popular belief that the Holy Spirit’s voice is primarily a subjective expression of a person’s inner spirit, the Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit represents an objective manifestation of the truth of God that never contradicts biblical truth. While the Spirit often expresses himself in subjective ways within an individual, his voice can be tested as to its authenticity by comparing it to truth from the Word of God. The Holy Spirit’s teaching never contradicts God’s objective revelation in Scripture.


Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. Second Edition: 2006.


In Genesis 22, God commands Abraham to take this son of the promise to Mount Moriah in order to sacrifice him. Abraham shows that he now trusts God completely when the narrative informs the reader that he silently and without complaint carried out God’s request. The reader is left to make the connection between the Mount Moriah of the sacrifice (Gen. 22:2) and the location of the future site of the temple (2 Chron. 3:1).


Attempts like those of a movement called theonomy to impose the laws and penalties found in the Book of the Covenant to contemporary society… are ill-founded and dangerous… They simply do not take into account the radically different cultural and, more importantly, redemptive-historical differences between Old testament Israel and contemporary society. Theonomy used to be an attractive lens through which to read Scripture for many Christians, particularly in Reformed and Pentecostal circles in the 1970s and into the 1990s, among those who looked with horror at the secularization of society and longed for a more powerful Christian influence. Fortunately, as we begin the twenty-first century this movement has lost significant influence.

The law remains relevant for today, however, as the principles behind the various stipulations are summarized in a general way in the Ten Commandments. The Christian is now given a specification of the law in the New Testament along the lines of the Book of the Covenant or the other law codes of the Pentateuch. The Christian must think through contemporary ethical issues with the Ten Commandments as a guide. How does the commandment not to steal apply to computer theft? How does the commandment not to kill apply to the abortion pill? Nuclear arms?

The New Testament, of course, is not bereft of comments on law. Jesus shows that he is God himself as he deepens our understanding of the law in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). Certainly, the most startling news in the New Testament about the law is that Jesus Christ has freed his followers from the curse of the law (Rom. 7). Thus the law, which was never the means to a relationship with God, becomes for Christians a guide to God’s will for their life.


James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press. Fifth Edition: 2009.


Looked at in this way, history itself is a form of revelation. That is, not only does God reveal himself in history (here, there, then), but the very sequence of events is revelation. One can say, therefore, that history (especially as localized in the Jewish people) is the record of the involvement and concern of God in human events. History is the divine purpose of God in concrete form.

This pattern is, of course, dependent on the Christian tradition. It does not at first appear to take into account people other than Jews and Christians. Yet the Old Testament has much to say about the nations surrounding Israel and about God-fearers (non-Jewish people who adopted Jewish beliefs and were considered a part of God’s promise). And the New Testament stresses even more the international dimension of God’s purposes and his reign.

101-102 n13:

The scientific concept of chance is vexed. The Heisenberg principle of indeterminacy holds that one cannot determine with accuracy both the location and the momentum of any given electron. One can have precise knowledge of either, but not both at the same time. It is an epistemological principle. But many scientists, including Werner Heisenberg, drew ontological implications from the epistemological principle that are clearly not warranted. Heisenberg himself said, “Since all experiments are subjected to the laws of quantum mechanics,… the invalidity of the law of causality is definitely proved by quantum mechanics” (quoted by Stanley Jaki, “Chance or Reality,” in Chance or Reality and Other Essays [Lanham, Md,: University Press of America, 1986], pp. 6-7). The implication is that not only is the universe not understandable at a fundamental level, but the universe is itself irrational or, even, unreal.

Heisenberg, along with at least some other scientists and popularizes of science, has moved from ignorance of reality to knowledge about that reality. I cannot measure Xtherefore does not exist. It is just such a movement from the limits of knowledge to the declaration that we have no justification for thinking we know anything that constitutes much of the postmodern pattern of thinking… Reality has to conform to the human mind in a theoretically completely knowable way or it does not exist. In fact, solipsism “has for long been recognized as an inevitable implication of the drastic meaning of Heisenberg’s principle” (Jaki, “Chance or Reality,” pp. 12-13).

One way out of the dilemma was taken by Niels Bohr, who insisted that “all statements about ontology or being must be avoided” (ibid., p. 8). As Jaki says, W. Pauli agreed “that questions about reality were as metaphysical and useless as was the concern of medieval philosophers about the number of angels that could be put on a pinhead” (ibid., p. 10).

Another way out, taken by Albert Einstein and other scientists, tried to get around the principle itself by finding ways of conceiving how measurements could be complete and accurate at the same time. Their attempt failed. All that could be said is, in Einstein’s words, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe” (ibid., p. 9). But this was more a pretheoritical commitment, a presupposition, than a conclusion drawn from successful theorizing from either laboratory or thought experiments. This then left the ontological conclusion to be drawn as many did: the universe is not fundamentally understandable (ibid., p. 8).

A premodern humility about the human ability to know might have prevented this rash and illogical move. Think of the apostle Paul’s caution (“Now we see through a glass darkly”) and then hope (“but then face to face”; 1 Cor 13:12 KJV).

The issue, Jaki concludes, boils down to a confusion of ontology and epistemology. “The science of quantum mechanics states only the impossibility of perfect accuracy in measurements. The philosophy of quantum mechanics states ultimately the impossibility of distinguishing between material and non-material, and even between being and non-being… At any rate, if it is impossible to distinguish between being and non-being, then efforts to say anything about freedom and determinism become utterly meaningless” (Jaki, “Chance or Reality,” p. 14).


As in atheistic existentialism, theistic existentialism emphasizes the disjuction between the objective and the subjective worlds. Martin Buber, a Jewish existentialist whose views have greatly influenced Christians, uses the terms I-Thou and I-It to distinguish between the two ways a person relates to reality. In the I-It relationship a human being is an objectifier. “Now with the magnifying glass of peering observation he bends over particulars and objectifies them, or with the field-glass of remote inspection he objectifies them and arranges them as scenery, he isolates them in observation without any feeling of their exclusiveness, or he knits them into a scheme of observation without any feeling of universality.”

This is the realm of science and logic, of space and time, of measurability. As Buber says, “Without It man cannot live. But he who lives by It alone is not man.” The Thou is necessary.

In the I-Thou relationship, a subject encounters a subject: “When Thou is spoken [Buber means experienced], the speaker has nothing for his object.” Rather, such speakers have a subject like themselves with whom to share a mutual life. In Buber’s words, “All real living is meeting.”

Buber’s statement about the primacy of I-Thou, person-to-person relationships is now recognized as a classic. No simple summary can do it justice, and I encourage readers to treat themselves to the book itself. Here we must content ourselves with one more quotation about the personal relationship Buber sees possible between God and people:

“Men do not find God if they stay in the world. They do not find Him if they leave the world. He who goes out with his whole being to meet his Thou and carries to it all being that is in the world, finds Him who cannot be sought. Of course God is the “wholly Other”; but He is also the wholly Same, the Wholly Present. Of course He is the Mysterious Tremendum that appears and overthrows; but He is also the mystery of the self-evident, nearer to me than my I.

So theistic existentialists emphasize the personal as of primary value. The impersonal is there; it is important; but it is to be lifted up to God, lifted up to the Thou of all Thous. To do so satisfies the and serves to eradicate the alienation so strongly felt by people when they concentrate on I-It relations with nature and, sadly, with other people as well.

This discussion may seem rather abstract to Christians whose faith in God is a daily reality that they live out rather than reflect on. Perhaps the chart in figure 6.1 comparing two ways of looking at some basics elements of Christianity will make the issues clearer. It is adapted from a lecture given by theologian Harold Englund at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1960s. Think of the column on the left as describing a dead orthodoxy contrasted with the column on the right describing a live theistic existentialism.

When put this way, the existential version is obviously more attractive. Of course, traditional theists may well respond in two ways: first, the second column demands or implies the existence of the first column and, second, theism has always included the second column in its system. Both responses are well founded. The problem has been that theism’s total worldview has not always been well understood and churches have tended to stick with column one. It has taken existentialism to restore many theists to a full recognition of the richness of their own system.


The full truth is in the paradox, not in an assertion of only one side of the issue. Presumably this paradox is resolved in the mind of God, but it is not resolved in the human mind. It is to be lived out: “God, I rely completely on you; do your will. I am stepping out to act.”

The strength of stating our understanding of our stance before God in such a paradox is at least in part a result of the inability most of us have had in stating our stance nonparadoxically. Most nonparadoxical statements end by denying either God’s sovereignty or human significance. That is, they tend either to Pelagianism or to hyper-Calvinism.

The weakness of resting in paradox is the difficulty of knowing where to stop. What sets of seemingly contradictory statements are to be lived out as truth? Surely not every set. “Love your neighbor; hate your neighbor.” “Do good to those who persecute you. Call your friends together and do in your enemies.” “Don’t commit adultery. Have every sexual liaison you can pull off.”

So beyond the paradoxical it would seem that there must be some noncontradictory proposition governing which paradoxes we will try to live out. In the Christian form of existentialism the Bible taken as God’s special revelation has set the bounds. It forbids many paradoxes, and it seems to encourage others. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, may be an unresolvable paradox, but it does justice to the biblical data…

Among those who have no external objective authority to set the bounds, paradox tends to run rampant. Marjorie Grene comments about Kierkegaard, “Much of Kierkegaard’s writing seems to be motivated not so much by an insight into the philosophical or religious appropriateness of paradox to a peculiar problem as by the sheer intellectual delight in the absurd for its own sake.” Thus this aspect of theistic existentialism has come in for a great deal of criticism from those holding a traditional theistic worldview. The human mind is made in the image of God’s mind, and thus though our mind is finite and incapable of encompassing the whole of knowledge, it is yet able to discern some truth. As Francis Schaeffer puts it, we can have substantial truth but no exhaustive truth, and we can discern truth from foolishness by the use of the principle of noncontradiction.


Michael P. Schutt, Redeeming Law: Christian Calling and the Legal Profession. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press. 2007. 


Lawyers no longer think theologically about the substance of the law and therefore are blind to the goodness (or wickedness) of their daily work, which might otherwise be apparent in light of Scripture and the teachings of the church through the centuries.

The failure of attorneys and students to think biblically about the law and their daily work opens the door for confusion about the lawyer’s calling and the goodness of the lawyer’s work. Does God have a purpose in tort law? What is a contract? Is there a biblical reason for corporations, and should I participating in creating one? For the most part lawyers don’t ask these questions about the meat of the law; that is, they fail to develop a theology of their work. This is a failure in the life of the mind, and it is a problem running through the entire church, not just the bar. A decade ago Mark Noll documented this failure in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”


The real problem posed by the law school culture is the insidious fruit of the two conditions discussed. After exposure to the unspoken amoral assumptions inherent in the law school climate, students are often deadened to the potential for Christian service in the law. They leave law school with a profound inclination toward a sort of spiritual apathy, fostered by the law school experience. It is a sluggishness about the pursuit of first things, about pursuit of ultimate goodness, truth, and beauty. Medieval scholars used the Latin term acedia for this spiritual sloth.

We are created to pursue the One who is good, who is the truth, and who is beauty. Our chief end, according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, is to glorify him and enjoy him forever. This includes seeing his hand in the natural world, its laws and our duties. In our pursuit of the highest good, we pursue the good things and the noble and the true in the world, in our lives, and in our calling. Our stewardship of this material world is related in part to understanding that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10 ESV). Our good works are in this world; they are here are now. Our great joy is to seek and knock, to search with our hearts, to discern our calling to serve God and others in what we do with our daily work. To abandon this quest is to reject the very privilege that comes with being created in God’s image. Yet acedia steals that joy and wrests the privilege of seeking and knocking from our hands.

This is the joyless state in which many lawyers find themselves. One reason they’re in this position is that, as law students, they gradually came tot understand that any desire for eternal truth in the law should be suppressed as irrelevant. This is a form of spiritual sloth.

Thomas Aquinas discusses this acedia in the context of the sin of despair: “The fact that a man considers an arduous good impossible to obtain, either by himself or by another, is due to his being downcast… [I]t seems to him that he will never be able to rise to any good. And since sloth [acedia] is a sadness that casts down the spirit, in this way, despair is born of [acedia].”

In other words, acedia arises when we look at some worthwhile good thing as impossible to achieve. It is this very despair of achieving a worthwhile good that is fostered in law school. Recall that Judge Posner tells us that we should not despair when we renounce the metaphysical quest, because there is no mystery at the heart of existence “worth troubling our minds about.” Yet because we know that we were created to pursue that mystery and that our happiness depends on it, we do despair. And if we are told enough times that the good is unattainable or irrelevant, we adopt Posner’s acedia as our own and experience the despair that arises from it.


I watched as Stephen, who had just turned nineteen, stood before his church on a Sunday evening service. “The Lord has gotten hold of my heart,” he said, “and I just want to publicly announce that I have surrendered to the ministry.” By this, Stephen meant that he believed that he would spend his life in “full-time Christian work,” that is, in the clergy. Stephen’s announcement reflects common practice at many conservative Protestant churches: young people who feel a call to a deeper level of submission in their faith are encouraged to “surrender to the ministry.” Thus they begin informal preparation for a career as a youth pastor, evangelist, preacher, or missionary. In these circles, there is little consideration — at least no direct discussion or instruction — that “surrendering to God” might best be accomplished through full-time Christian work as a physician, teacher, writer, or lawyer.

Most often, an announcement like Stephen’s comes from a young person whose heart has been stirred to deeper submission to God. This stirring may have little or nothing to do with career or secondary calling issues. More likely, it is the longing to respond to God’s primary calling to surrender one’s life, in every area, to God. Stephen and his church leaders simply assume that his secondary calling in everyday work, based on gifts, talents and ability — will be professional ministry in the church. At a time in their lives when students should be encouraged to broaden their education and perspective on the world, this “surrendering to the ministry” has the opposite result. The student narrows his or her focus to biblical studies or youth ministry, narrowing the options and focus during an important formative period of discovery. Rather than gaining a broad education and wisdom in applying the things of God to real-world experience, the student is often isolated from the opportunities to develop various gifts and talents. Even in churches where the encouragement to “surrender to the ministry” is not phrased in those terms and where the narrowing effect is less obvious, Christians often think of a serious call by God as a call into “full-time” Christian work.


The gravitation of Christian lawyers to political organizations may be a sign of our narrow view of culture-changing vocation. Political activism is often a knee-jerk response to the cultural drift away from moral truth. Yet the culture is almost never changed by politics; the culture must change first, and then political solutions will follow. It’s not that political activity is wrong — indeed, we are called to participate in and influence our political institutions — but we need to beware of our own brand of social engineering, in which we seek to remake the culture in our image through political means. This is the very instrumentalism I criticized in chapter two for being at the root of a shift away from our religious moorings.


Christian thinking must not intentionally politicize. Yes, the life of the lawyer’s mind usually has important political or legal consequences — of course it does. And if clear, biblical, Spirit-led, body-centered thinking leads you to agree with the Republicans, then agree. If it leads you to agree with the Democrats, agree. I am not warning against political involvement, which is one of the clear duties of the Christian. I am warning against equating truth with a particular political movement or goal rather than following the truth wherever it leads. One of the huge traps here is for Christians to follow leaders — presidents, professors, or politicians — because they are “Christian,” and therefore their ideas must be “Christian.” We need to worry about the truth, follow the person of Christ and his revealed Word, and stop worrying about the labels on others. Look to their conduct — is it right? Look to their ideas — are they true? Look to the fruit of their leadership — is it morally sound? We need, for example, to stop worrying about whether the Founding Fathers were Christians or deists or pagans and start faithfully evaluating their ideas and the consequences of their ideas.


Many law students have the idea that the local congregation is unimportant during the law school years. This is simply one of the many little lies that flow from the big lie: I’ll never be any busier than I am now in law school. We need to get used to it, setting our priorities during our formal education so that we have habits that are worth keeping after graduation. Our interaction with church leaders is a great resource for us and a big help to them… Interact with leaders — give them the benefit of your thoughts regarding calling and scholarship. Law students must intentionally pursue belonging to a local congregation or parish. Anonymous attendance is not the point either: students should be involved in the in-going (singing in the choir, teaching Sunday school, assisting in the youth program) and out-going (visitation of the sick, working at the shelter or food pantry, volunteering with Christian Legal Aid) ministries of the local church.


J. P. Moreland reminds us that the couch potato is a poor model for the person pursuing the disciple’s life of the mind: “We let other people do our living and thinking for us: the pastor studies the Bible for us, the news media does our political thinking for us, and we let our favorite sports team exercise, struggle, and win for us. From watching television to listening to sermons, our primary agenda is to be amused and entertained.” This passivity is just one of the seven traits of what Moreland calls the empty self, constituted by “a set of values, motives, and habits of thought, feeling, and behavior that perverts and eliminates the life of the mind and makes maturation in the way of Christ extremely difficult.” Part of his solution to the empty self, beyond recognizing the problem and choosing to be different, is a change of routine. He suggests that our routines can be changed to “get out of passive ruts” and replace them with habits that create physical and intellectual energy. In other words, turn off the TV and the Internet!


Leisure is not vacation, napping, or even retreating, though each of these things may play a role in our pursuit of leisure. Leisure is a condition of the inner person, embracing what God has created him or her to be. Like Daniel, we can exhibit a worshiping heart as we work out the lawyer’s calling. We celebrate our roles in continuing creation work, we reflect on what it means to be human, we stop and consider, we struggle with motherhood or fatherhood, we contemplate the sunset, or wonder why God created gnats. leisure, in its true sense, is the quiet consideration of what is true, good, and beautiful, and it flows from worship of the One who is good.

Both workaholism and idleness are the enemies of leisure. We can pursue work itself out of a true heart of worship, as workers created in the image of God. Yet when we use work to fill empty souls, to replace our obligation to set our minds on things that are beautiful, or to avoid reflection on our lives and purpose, then work stands in opposition to our callings in life. True work compliments true leisure, but work as a tool for fulfillment or as an end in itself is acedia in the same sense that pure idleness is. Spiritual sluggishness can take either form: We might choose to fill our hours with mindless amusement, seeking to distract ourselves from the task of reflection and contemplation, or we might fill our hours with productive task after never-ending task, seeking to numb ourselves to the call to reflect and consider.

American culture is beset with both problems, and, in fact, they feed one another. We are obsessed with work as the means to happiness, and we fill our non-working hours with mindless distraction or expensive toys. Cultural observer David Brooks notes that there are “two work ethics” layered into the American psyche. The first is the perversion of the Puritan work-ethic we discussed in chapter three, filtered through “the secularizing pen of Benjamin Franklin” and moralists preaching the gospel of work. “According to this ethic, it is through work, and our contribution to society, that we define ourselves. Far from being solely a thing you do, work is a way of justifying one’s existence, of fulfilling one’s purpose on earth, and of creating one’s identity.” The other American work ethic, “layered on top of this Puritan sense of calling, ” is that work is the means to “grabbing the goodies.” Brooks calls this the “abundance mentality” that believes that “fanatical work is always worth it, because it can be lavishly rewarded.” Rising class status is part of the goal: if your neighbor can “pull himself up to the realm of Lexus drivers,” someday you can too. People fill their lives with the pursuit of abundance, waiting to be grabbed like candy in a candy shop. “It takes a force of willpower beyond that of most ordinary people to renounce all this glorious possibility. It’s easier to work phenomenally long hours and grasp at all the candies than it is to say no. It takes incredible dedication to renounce opportunity, get off the conveyor, and be content with what one is.” This observation is a prophetic word to lawyers. Stop working to grasp the candies and be content with what you are — and first, take the time to discover who and what you are! This is true leisure, the last of the lawyer’s disciplines.

Luther on Aristotle: Sola Scriptura, Metaphysics, and Nominalism

Last month I stumbled upon this:

Such were the various educational institutions in operation at the opening of the sixteenth century. Naturally sharing in the prevailing rudeness of the time, they were exceedingly defective in studies, methods, and discipline. The pupils were passive under instruction. The teachers lectured, dictated, interpreted, and the learners listened and memorized. The principle of authority prevailed. It was decided, for example, that there were no spots in the sun, because Aristotle had nowhere made mention of the fact. What seemed to be spots were therefore regarded as defects in the observer’s glasses. There was but little intellectual freedom; the teachers were bound by the authority of Aristotle and the Church, and the pupils by the authority of the teacher. Education did not aim at a development of all the faculties, but at a storing of the memory with certain facts of more or less importance in relation to the Church or practical life. In the universities, obscure and often trifling questions in philosophy and theology engaged the attention.

F.V.N. Painter, “Luther on Education.” St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1889. 83.

Yikes. This is the state of education that Martin Luther addresses with his belief in compulsory schooling of all children. More than that, the bit about Aristotle is fascinating.

Aristotle had been mostly forgotten between 500 and 1000 AD. At some point, and I would have to do some historical digging to find out when, various schools of medieval thought began to resurrect Aristotle and ground Christian theology in his metaphysics. This led to the doctrine of transubstantiation and the soul/spirit divide, among others. Most notably of all such theologians is Thomas Aquinas whose project was to baptize Aristotle by synthesizing his philosophy with New Testament theology. After St. Thomas, medieval theology would remain distinctly Aristotelian until roughly the late renaissance/Reformation.

Luther hated this. From the same book as above:

[Luther speaking] “The universities also require a good, sound reformation. The fact is that whatever the Papacy has ordered or instituted is only designed for the propagation of sin and error. What are the universities, as at present ordered, but as the Book of Maccabees says, ‘schools of Greek fashion and heathenish manners,’ full of dissolute living, where very little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and of the Christian faith, and the blind heathen teacher, Aristotle, rules even further than Christ. Now my advice would be that the books of Aristotle, the ‘Physics,’ the ‘Metaphysics,’ ‘Of the Soul,’ and ‘Ethics,’ which have hitherto been considered the best, be altogether abolished, with all others that profess to treat of nature, though nothing can be learned from them, either of natural or spiritual things. Besides, no one has been able to understand his meaning, and much time has been wasted, and many vexed with much useless labor, study, and expense.” (144).


His [Luther’s] mind was not metaphysical, but practical; he has no taste for fine-spun and fruitless theories. At the university, like Lord Bacon a century later, he acquired a strong dislike for Aristotle and the schoolmen. He could not endure their fallacious subtleties. He was made, not for speculation, but for action; he constantly deals with the concrete — not with theories, but with conditions and facts. His style abounds in particular rather than in general terms. (102).

This, by the way, is why Luther rejected the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation but then still believed that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. In his analysis, the Catholic teaching could only be maintained if you accept Aristotle’s distinction between substance and essence; the substance stays bread, but the ghostly essence becomes the body, so you are eating the essence of Christ’s body. Luther rejects this and claims instead that you are eating the essence and the substance of Christ’s body, which is just to say, the substance, because they are one.

A critical takeaway from Luther is his insistence on the Bible as the complete content of the faith. He rejected any metaphysical system that could not be proved by scripture (so, any metaphysical system) and instead sought to terminate his systematic theology just before entering into metaphysical groundwork claims. In his commitment to the Word, he rejected even the slightest hint of eisegesis by philosophy external to the text. I wonder if he would balk at the natural theology of 20th century fundamentalist apologists, if alive today.

But that is not entirely true, because, try as he did, it is really difficult to escape using any philosophy external to the text of the scriptures. Carl Trueman points this out in his recent biography of Luther (which I recommend):

Does the word dog mean something because it refers to something real, a universal “dogginess” in which all dogs participate such that the word legitimately applies to them? Does each dog have something objectively in common with all other dogs that makes the application of the word dog to each of them appropriate? Or does the word simply refer to lots and lots of individual things we choose to bracket together — Fido, Rover, Tico, Butch — under the term dog, with no ideal “dogginess” out there in which they all participate? Taken to its extreme, this latter view became what philosophers call an antiessentialist ontology, which effectively made words, and not underlying essences or substances, the determiners of reality. We might put the matter this way: is dogginess something real and independent of any individual example of a dog, or is it merely a linguistic construct, created by the person or the community that uses the word? Those who denied the existence of universal forms such as “dogginess” represented what is known as late medieval nominalism. This was the linguistic school in which Luther was trained and whose basic assumptions remained with him throughout his career. (83).

Carl Trueman, “Luther on the Christian Life.” Wheaton: Crossway, 2015.

This matters for Luther because if words are what define reality, and if God uses words to communicate, then God’s words literally define all reality. We also happen to have a big book called the Word of God which contains God’s words. So then, the preacher has ultimate creation-ary authority if and only if he preaches from the words of God — the text of scripture. Anything else included in a sermon is fluff, and “created” nothing unless by accident or coincidence. This is why Luther was so insistent on Sola Scriptura. It was not because he needed a norma normans nata normana, a Norming Norm that can Not be Normed, although that certainly was helpful.

The nominalism of Luther came originally from William of Ockham, who wanted to “shave off” any excess bit of metaphysical existence from language. This antiessentialism is where the term “Ockham’s razor” originates. As in, Luther took Ockham’s razor to the communion elements.

So then, in great irony, his insistence on removing Aristotelian metaphysics and other philosophy from theology was under the auspices of an equally metaphysical scheme.

Will Fidget Spinners give you Obesity?

fidget spinners

Will they? Is that really a live option that we should be worried about? After all, the Obesity Epidemic seems to be a big enough problem anyways.

The answer is no. A fidget spinner will not “give you” obesity any more than a person with totally normal Leptin levels will “get obesity” from eating twenty deep fried Oreo’s at the summer fair. Obesity isn’t something you “get,” it is something you have and then get, and anybody who thinks otherwise should read this article before continuing to think that way.

Scott’s summary-of-a-summary is way to intense to summarize here (nor would I chase the folly of attempting a meta-meta-meta-summary of the literature). But there is one interesting anecdote in the piece that is worth mentioning.

Scott lifts this text directly from Guyenet:

Genes explain that friend of yours who seems to eat a lot of food, never exercises, and yet remains lean. Claude Bouchard, a genetics researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has shown that some people are intrinsically resistant to gaining weight even when they overeat, and that this trait is genetically influenced. Bouchard’s team recruited twelve pairs of identical twins and overfed each person by 1,000 calories per day above his caloric needs, for one hundred days. In other words, each person overate the same food by the same amount, under controlled conditions, for the duration of the study.

If overeating affects everyone the same, then they should all have gained the same amount of weight. Yet Bouchard observed that weight gain ranged from nine to twenty-nine pounds! Identical twins tended to gain the same amount of weight and fat as each other, while unrelated subjects had more divergent responses…Not only do some people have more of a tendency to overeat than others, but some people are intrinsically more resistant to gaining fat even if they do overeat.

The research of James Levine, an endocrinologist who works with the Mayo Clinic and Arizona State University, explains this puzzling phenomenon. In a carefully controlled overfeeding study, his team showed that the primary reason some people readily burn off excess calories is that they ramp up a form of calorie-burning called “non-exercise activity thermogenesis” (NEAT). NEAT is basically a fancy term for fidgeting. When certain people overeat, their brains boost calorie expenditure by making them fidget, change posture frequently, and make other small movements throughout the day. It’s an involuntary process, and Levine’s data show that it can incinerate nearly 700 calories per day. The “most gifted” of Levine’s subjects gained less than a pound of body fat from eating 1,000 extra calories per day for eight weeks. Yet the strength of the response was highly variable, and the “least gifted” of Levine’s subjects didn’t increase NEAT at all, shunting all the excess calories into fat tissue and gaining over nine pounds of body fat…

Together, these studies offer indisputable evidence that genetics plays a central role in obesity and dispatch the idea that obesity is primarily due to acquired psychological traits.

I found the Levine (2012) study here but that is paywalled and I couldn’t find a pdf floating around on google in the 20 seconds I bothered to search.

The implication is fairly straightforward that fidgeting burns calories to ward off excess weight gain, which means that fidgeting is a natural, healthy, regular thing to do. 

Fidget spinners are an annoying toy designed to prevent children from fidgeting in class, but it seems to my inductive mind that anything that decreases NEAT will decrease the physiological effects of NEAT, which is calorie burning, and so then the person will not burn as many calories as their body attempted to burn.

I can draw several conclusions about the irony of fidget spinners in that they seek to help kids focus (instead of fidget) in the most distracting way humanly possible. A shiny thing, and it is moving, and it moves faster than the eye can distinguish, and — what was that, teacher? The absolute value bars do what?

(But that implication is only hypothetical, as is my less-than-hypothetically-confident narrative about ADHD diagnosis in children and the degree to which the educational environment treats young children (especially boys) like 18 years olds, and then gets mad then they underperform those unreachable standards. Again, that is even less sure.)

But this concept of NEAT calorie burning is both insightful, straightforward, and probably the only thing that has stopped this sedentary 19 year old from reaching the Freshman 15 so far. A Fidget Spinner will not give you obesity. But it could undermine a process designed to prevent weight gain.


We huddled like men about to die.

Nothing about this activity felt right, but that did not matter. To witness to strangers about the message of the Gospel raises more questions than it answers, breaks more social norms than a person should be allowed to break in a day. As our group gathered, ready to leave for an afternoon at the mall, we prayed like men about to die.


The Scene

Gurnee Mills Mall unfurls across a square kilometer of capitalism. Shoppers bounce into and out of each store, avoiding the center aisle venders. Some occasionally realize they walk too slow, and apologize to me for impeding my business. The greatest aspect of this mall (the food court, as in any mall) produces and distributes to the mall’s lesser aspects a cacophonous blend of smells, just wretched enough to repulse me, just wicked enough to attract me.  


The Precursors

But in the two preceding paragraphs, as in the time thus spent at the mall, I have meandered around my point without taking the action necessary to execute it. In such a bind Brennan, the group leader, gives me an ultimatum: he will go to the restroom, and I must be in an evangelistic conversation with the Watch Repair vendor when he returns. He does not specify the consequences for disobedience.

And I circled and I circled and I circled without the gusto to act, but eventually I realized my time was likely passing, and I walked up to the booth to start the conversation. It was awkward, he didn’t know enough about American culture to understand my movie-themed conversation starter, and it ended rather abruptly as well.

Nearing 10 minutes later Brennan and I approached a high school student named Jose who loved Jesus and loved the things of this world. (The unexamined life is not worth living). That conversation almost worked, with an incoming comparison between his wrestling tournament that week and Jacob who WRESTLED with God but his girlfriend finally came and they scampered away into glory.


The Encirclement

So I found a man eating a pulled-chicken sandwich across the food court and decided he was next. That decision is always easy, but what followed was more difficult.

And I circled and I circled and I circled without the gusto to act, but eventually I realized my time was likely passing, and I walked up to his table to start the conversation.

I’m here for a school project, and I’m required to strike up conversations with strangers about their views on religion. I’m wondering if you’d like to chat for a few minutes?



The Conversation

Ali is a Muslim man in his late 20’s who moved from Pakistan to the U.S. several years ago. As a discussion partner he is cordial and tended to compliment, even when asserting his position. His views are well-informed, and yet he still cautioned that it takes years of study to understand a religion, to get the facts straight, to understand which facts are significant on balance, and to see the cultural and historical impact on and from that religion. So while he knows about Christianity, he can’t speak definitively.

Oh really? What if I could, in less than a few minutes, give the entire narrative arc of the Christian faith? What if I could do that, and then give you permission to speak as definitively or indefinitely as you like?


Here comes the gospel. Over a few minutes I explained the bits of the gospel message. That God created us to be with him, but Our sin separates us from him. Moreover, the scriptures tell us that Sin cannot be removed by good deeds. Thankfully for us, Paying the price for sin, Jesus died and rose again, so that Everyone who trusts in him and him alone can have eternal life. This eternal Life with Jesus starts now, and lasts for an eternity. G. O. S. P. E. L.

It was much more conversation than that. He was constantly nodding and agreeing with the points, or at least, agreeing with the articulation that those points are, in fact, what Christians do think. He even agreed that that was an insight summary that successfully left aside the minor issues to just focus on the big picture. My approach included stopping after each two points to ask clarifying questions and check for comprehension, and to speak as smoothly and fluidly and not I-learned-this-script-at-an-Evangelism-conference-when-I-was-fourteen as possible.

But there was one issue, he said.


The Issue

Why would God’s love motivate him to construct that system? Isn’t the more straightforward system of God rewarding us for deeds done more just?

His point is well taken. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement is unjust. If we define justice as everyone getting as they deserve — no one guilty getting set free, and no one innocent getting punished — then, yes, it is inescapable that God is not doing that definition of justice through the atonement. The proper theological response is that God does punish people for their deeds through eternal torment in Hell. He agreed with that, but says that his objection is more specific than that.

Say that a person, by faith, believes in God and trusts him with their life. They are saved! What then is the justice of God? His objection pits eternal security against God’s justice, not simply the whole system of the atonement. What is to stop me, as a Christian, from doing some extremely evil thing? Sure, there may be temporary punishment, like going to jail. But in the long run, we’re all dead and I’m in heaven celebrating with the Angels, seeing and experiencing the radiant glory of eternal life.

I have no answer to this. I had no answer then and I have no answer now. We both understand exactly what he is talking about, so there is no ask clarifying questions or fill the air with my voice. Anything off-topic or distracting that I say will only embolden his confidence in this critique.

He has pitted the logic of the Greeks against the stumbling block of the Cross and reduced the disagreement to a subjective preference. Which system do I like better, the system that operates logically or the system that inverts logic?


The Suggestions

He was gracious and after a few moments released the tension. He mentioned that he had to go back to work, and I had seen Brennan walk behind Ali a few minutes before and give me a wrap it up gesture. We both agreed, peacefully, to leave, each with more knowledge about the other’s beliefs and an understanding of our differences.

He mentioned the name of an Islamic scholar who publishes in English about some of these things. Zakir Naik, his name is, and it would greatly benefit me to look into his work.

I tentatively agree, but on one condition. Ali must go read some of the writings of a scholar of my choice. William Lane Craig, his name is, and it would greatly benefit him to look into his work.

I mentioned in particular Craig’s article on the Trinity.

I reached out to shake his hand, he twisted it sideways and allowed me to shake his limp wrist (which all happened too fast for me to recall that some Muslims cannot shake hands with non-Muslims in most contexts, as a matter of social procedure).


The Debriefing

My group reassembled near the eastern medicine shop, headed through the wacky mirror hallway, piled into Brennan’s slightly broken-down car, and began to discuss each conversation. Matt Phelps and Joe McHugh had talked with a group of high school atheists for almost an hour. Brennan and I went over our conversations. The car was pindrop silent as I explained that I agreed with Ali that there isn’t a satisfactory logical answer to his dilemma. Or, it would have been pindrop silent, had the carburetor not squealed every few moments.

As we left, everything about the past few hours felt right. We had casted aside the social norms that so easily entangled, we gladly raised more questions than we answered, and we prayed like men truly living.

Campus now came into sight, and we started praying for the people we encountered.

We got out of the car and left.

We left like men prepared to live.

Why chairs are a poor metaphor for faith


Every so often in discussions of faith and reason, the metaphor comes up that I exercise faith by having confidence to sit down in a chair.

What if the chair were to break? Bet you didn’t consider that one.

As the idea stands, it depends upon a simple claim that faith and confidence are one in the same.

Does the certainty we have in chairs demonstrate that we have faith in general, and thus undermine by ad hominem the atheist’s claim that faith is irrational?

No, because it ignores an important distinction in the objects of faith in each scenario. In the first scenario, the reason I exercise such confidence in chairs is that I have observed in the past that they hold strong. My mind quickly estimates the probably of a chair breaking as the same as the number of times it has happened to me before divided by the number of chairs I’ve enjoyed. In this case, my faith depends upon the law of cause and effect.

In the case of God or more generally the supernatural, the faith exercised depends upon that which by definition exists external to the five senses. While you have observed the chair many times, you have not observed the supernatural many times. In fact, you have never observed the supernatural, because any interaction between the supernatural and natural is, from our perspective, natural. We don’t see the supernatural hand of God in rearranging human circumstances, we only see the circumstances themselves.

Notice that faith is the evidence of things not seen, per Hebrews 11.

But more generally than this ignored distinction, the real problem is in the equation of faith with confidence. Faith does not equal confidence. For far too long the concept of faith has been hijacked by fundamentalist streams of anti-modern Evangelical thought originating in the 1920’s which wholly posit the Christian experience as an intellectual one.

Yet the scriptures are absurdly clear that faith is not belief. James writes that “even the demons believe, and they shudder,” meaning that being convinced of an idea is not equivalent to faith in it. Supernatural beings like the demons are, I assume, explicitly aware of the existence of God. They are explicitly aware of his power and the metaphysical imperative to submit to his authority. Why do they not follow him?

Faith is a composite term for three distinct convictions. First, that a person believes that something is true. Then, that a person believes that thing is morally good and therefore worth acting towards, rather than against. Finally, that a person acts towards it.

The final step of action is what distinguishes faith from belief. A way to formulate this would be to say that Belief + Desire + Action = Faith. So to say that faith is confidence is to ignore the second and third steps.

Stop using this metaphor. It reduces faith.