Skip to content

Complicated Ethics

In this post I want to complicate (express frustration at) (bemoan) (dunk on) the overly simplistic views of ethics that I call “Freshman Year Ethics.” I will try to avoid big words but as a philosophy student I am literally trained to do the opposite of that.

My three main points: that all ethical decisions are situational, that action and consequence cannot reasonably be separated, and that an ethical decision should be understood as the best possible choice, not the correct one

camp canoes

Unrelated, but I need a photo so the shareable link looks worth clicking. The sweetest place on earth.

First, that all ethical decisions are situational. Growing up in a very conservative church culture, “situational ethics” was a dirty word. The radio shows I listened to, and the politicians I could understood, bemoaned moral relativism which opposed the Bible. Obama was the chief culprit behind the destruction of American Values and the Traditional Family and The Moral Fiber of This Country, because he doesn’t stand for Absolute Truth. Around then, some lefties wanted situational ethics classes taught in public schools. By teaching young, impressionable students morality as situational, I was told, such ethics classes would lead a whole generation away from Christianity. Don’t you know? Murder is never right! Lying is never right! Sexual immorality is always wrong! Forget about the situation!

What does that miss? A definition of what “murder” is, what “lying” is, or what “sexual immorality” is. The first one: “murder” is an ethically-charged way of saying “killing.” Killing is just a brute fact of the matter, but murder is a claim that a certain killing was morally wrong. Killing someone in a morally wrong way is murder. But when is it morally wrong to kill someone? Always? We seem to believe that self-defense is a good exception. If someone attacks you, and they have the capacity to kill you, and you’ve used all possible non-violent ways to deter them, then sure, kill them. Another exception is accidental killing. The reason we label car accident deaths “vehicular manslaughter” instead of “murder by car” is that the killing was not intentional, so we say that the killer cannot be held morally responsible in the same way as a true murderer. In these cases the brute fact of “I killed them” is true but the ethical claim “I murdered them” is not. Another exception is going to war, which usually involves killing. Over the past thousand years Christians have developed a Just War tradition that gives clarity on when entering a war is justified, and then once in the war, what actions can be justly taken. Maybe the deaths in Just Wars are killings, not murders.

But wait a second, you say. “Going to war” is not one action. Going to war is millions upon millions of actions. Let’s list a few. 1. An eighteen year old drops out of high school to sign up. 2. An enlistment officer uses a certain tone and messaging to convince recruits to join. 3. The generals decide to cut electricity in a city they are invading. 4. One solider uses a civilian as a human shield when fighting breaks out, but that civilian was already directly in the line of fire anyways and so was already highly likely to die. 5. The army decides to bomb a building housing enemy combatants, but only five of the seven people who decided on the bombing were aware that the next-door building housed civilians. 6. Remotely piloted drones hit a doppelganger of the intended target, but interestingly, the intended target happened to also be within striking distance, and he dies too. 7. …

We could keep going. There are millions of actions nested in “going to war,” which is why we cannot answer the question “was War X right or wrong” without massive oversimplification. What we perceive to be one decision often is a large number of decisions held together by our perspective on the situation. We make one choice, but what if there were 15 hidden choices within that choice, some of which were up to us, but others of which were out of our control? How do we account for these unchosen aspects of our choices? For this reason, all ethics is situational ethics, because all ethical decisions are made by people, and people are always in certain situations. All ethical decisions are situational.

(I only addressed murder. Lying is the morally charged way to say “not telling the truth,” which also is okay in some cases. Jokes. Parables. Misspeaking. When Hitler wants your sworn allegiance but you have decided to assassinate him for unrelated ethical reasons. Again, not telling the truth in a morally wrong way is lying. Sexual immorality is just another way of saying “sexual badness,” so that will face the same problem. Yes, you should not practice sexual immorality. But having sex is not itself immoral. Sex, in a morally wrong way, is sexual immorality. The same holds for theft, slavery, arson, libel, etc.)

Second, that actions and consequences cannot be separated. Two big schools of ethical theory are deontology and consequentialism. Simply put, what aspect of our decisions holds its morality? Do we locate the morality of a decision in the action taken, or in the consequences that result from that action? Kant says that lying, stealing, murdering, etc., are wrong not because they make others’ lives worse, but because the actions are wrong in themselves. Even if, somehow, stealing my phone would make me a better person (which honestly may be true), you still should not do it. Even if killing Leopold II of Belgium could have saved ten million Congolese lives, still a no.

On the other side of the debate, consequentialism would say that the consequences matter, not the action taken. If stealing the internet connections of everyone involved in Pizzagate (probably 200 people) could have produced .0001% more joy in the rest of the populations lives (370m people), then even though it would have been 20% less joy for them, we should have done it. 200 x 20 = 4000, but .0001 x 370m = 37,000. Therefore society would have been about 37,000/4000=9.25 times better off with those modems stolen. If numbers like that are unavailable—and they are never available—just think about it generally: we ignore the action itself and focus instead on the consequences.

What if actions and consequences are not so different? What if we stopped peddling that egregious dichotomy and recognized the spectrum between?

There are two ends of the spectrum. On the one end, you have cases that you know with 100% certainty the outcome of your actions. For those cases, the moral analysis of Kant and Mill should be exactly the same, because when a consequence is the necessary outcome of an action, we say that the action is tantamount to the consequence. If I have full certainty that killing Fred will land his children in foster care, I am not just killing Fred, I am putting his children in foster care.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have consequences that are highly uncertain. Could John Calvin have predicted that his concept of vocation would be secularized into profession, the driving force of industrial capitalism? No. He could not have. But it was the consequence of his action.

In between these extremes of total certainty and total uncertainty, we have a million degrees. Did George Bush know the War in Iraq would result in the formation of ISIS? Probably not exactly, but he could have known that eventually we would have to leave, and that regime change always creates a power vacuum, into which horrible people are drawn. So, maybe he is somewhat responsible. But not for everything that happened.

To complicate things further, not only is there a spectrum of our ability to predict consequences, but there is also the bundling effect from above. Our “single moral decisions” are usually a bundle of moral decisions, and the spectrum of predictability applies to each one of them. I envision all sorts of consequences left in the wake of my decisions, but the further those ripples move, the less I can predict what ripples they will have of their own. So then, we should be held responsible both for what—all—we chose, and the consequences to the extent that we knew them.

In 1797 Kant was asked a question that often is used as a case-in-point. A knife-bearing murder knocks on your door, and when you answer, he asks, “is your son home? I’d like to kill him.” You have some options. You could lie. You could tell the truth. You could tell the truth and then body slam the murder to the ground. Which would you choose? For Kant, lying is forbidden even here because it breaks the moral law. But my objection is, isn’t telling the truth tantamount to killing your son? If you know that this murderer has a greater capacity to kill you than you him, and your son is home, and there is no way to warn your son, then answering yes seems to be morally wrong. You can claim to be passively rather than actively killing him, fine, but he still dies and you have still participated in his death in a way that, without your participation, he would not have died.

In other words, I think we should take a wider-angle-lens view of actions. Our actions are never “in themselves” because actions always have consequences, and to the degree that they are successfully predictable, we should consider those consequences along with the action taken.

So who is right, consequentialism or deontology? And what about those Virtue Theorists who say a person’s inner state and motivations are what really matter? Maybe the most Christian answer I can give is that the Bible relentlessly affirms all three parts of the action as relevant factors: motive, the “before” step, action, the “during” step, and consequence, the “after” step. This is why reading modern ethical theory back onto the Bible is always a mistake. And so, I think that Christians can have genuine disagreements about how exactly to fiddle with the ethical priorities between motives, actions, and consequences. (There is a better way to hammer out the system than vaguely saying, “let’s use them all.” But at minimum, let’s use them all.) Actions and consequences cannot be separated. 

Third, that ethical truth should be understood as a best possible choice, not a correct one. Something that the Situational Ethics Will Destroy God’s Chosen Nation of America crowd got very wrong was that situational ethics does not mean totally situational ethics. There is a continuum of worse and worse things that, at a certain point, we all agree are wrong. On the good side we have Mother Theresa’s ministry to the lepers in India; walking the proverbial old lady across the street; donating $20 to charity; picking up litter on your walk through the park; and smiling at strangers in a non-creepy way. Then in the middle you have taking a single penny from the tips container so that the cashier doesn’t have to arduously scrounge up coins; wearing a shirt you agree with but that makes your friends uncomfortable; being sassy back to the person who unnecessarily told you to hurry up; and downloading the audio of Youtube videos that were not monetized and are not copyright, like song covers with 120 views. On the far side you have spraying non-violent protesters with full-power fire hoses; stealing millions of dollars of diamonds in an epic heist with your girlfriends; subjecting the native Irish population to a Protestant Ascendancy that takes their land and selectively eliminates primogeniture for them but not the colonizers; human trafficking; and ultimately mass genocide like in Rwanda, the Shoah, Srebrenica, East Timor, etc.

Nobody disagrees that those first things are moral; nobody disagrees that those last things are immoral. The disagreement lies in the middle things, those ethical decisions that cut both ways across our basic moral intuitions. How do we decide those? We would do much better to look to the Wisdom Tradition like in Proverbs than to a one-size-fits-all meta-ethic like Kant or Mill or Bentham. These middle issues may require complex knowledge, like what digital intellectual property means, or, when boundaries are crossed in unspoken cultural assumptions, or, whether rudeness comes from deep in the heart or from a surface level response we have conditioned ourselves to have. Kant can’t help us on those. And so we must move on, past what could pejoratively be called Freshman Year Ethics. We need to accumulate an enormous body of ethical principles which we can structure together into a system. Was the action intentional? Was it truly meant or mostly reflexive? Would the person have acted differently in other contexts? Does prejudice play a role in the person’s thinking while they make the action? Would this decision be made behind the veil of ignorance?

Paul does this in Romans 14. When presented with a dilemma in the local church, he brings up a new ethical principle and applies it to the situation. Don’t do something that would cause a weaker sibling in the faith to stumble. Don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols in front of them if you know they will get super freaked about it. But, crucially, Paul does not say that neither side is right. We know which side he was on, because he calls one side weaker and the other side stronger, rather than the one side looser and the other holier, or some third way of phrasing it.

So I don’t want to imply that there is no right answer. Unlike the caricature of situational ethics I have described above, I think that situational just means “complicated” and not “non-real.” We agree on the extreme goods and bads. So, there is moral truth! But where do we draw the twenty dimensional boundary line between them? It is so complicated that in these non-obvious cases, that we may want to talk of “morally best” choices rather than “morally right” ones. The right moral choice is always the best one. Ethical truth should be understood as a best possible choice, not a correct one.

Conclusion

Some ideas that have been influential in the history of ethical theory were important at the time but have since been ripped to shreds. There are no strict deontologists anymore, and barely any strict consequentialists; only a million cross-contaminated positions between. We cannot afford to oversimplify the debate into these frameworks, or we risk holding some people back from doing what is right, and letting some others off the hook for doing what is wrong.

Do not spare yourself the hard work of thinking carefully about ethics. Do the painful labor of examining the motives, actions, and consequences involved in the decisions you make. Be okay with people disagreeing, while still holding firmly to your conscience, because you could be right. Do what is morally best. Embrace this complexity, live in it, and celebrate such a God-given task: to live wisely, and so, rightly, in our time.

Right-wing so-called populism

Right-wing parties have found success using populist and nativist rhetoric. This happened here in 2016, of course, but also in the ‘Yes’ campaign for Brexit, in the Orban presidency in Hungary, or Duda in Poland. I don’t know if Bolsonaro in Brazil counts since his campaign was focused on anti-corruption, but he himself fits this bill. Le Pen in France was close, and Italy has now put together a right-wing coalition government that opposes refugees / immigration on nationalist grounds. Golden Dawn rising in Greece, Modi’s recent policies in India, perhaps Geert Wilders soon in The Netherlands, etc., etc., etc.

Something that occurred to me while watching this slightly aggravating but overall bold new video from The Guardian: these politicians are masquerading as “the people” but they are just as rich and disconnected from Joe the Plumber as the elites they wish to dethrone. Steve Bannon had been a Goldman Sachs banker before entering politics. Trump has billions of dollars and is demonstrably not a “self-made billionaire.” Orban studied at Oxford on a scholarship from… you can’t make this up… the Soros Foundation. He also has a net-worth of $750 million USD. etc., etc., etc.

So how do they represent “the people”? How does their political messaging seem in any way “in touch with” the common folk? The answer is that left and right wing politics have separate lenses, through which they also see populism. Using a Marxist lens, the ideological left views people primarily as their economic status, whereas the ideological right, using a van Herder-ian (?) lens, views people primarily as their national identity. To the left, Trump is a gazillionaire, but to the right, Trump is an American. These contrasting perspectives are not helped by the Democratic party’s capitulation to identity politics and abandonment of hard-left economics since the late ’90’s. As a result of that, we have two parties both centered on identity, whether racial or gender or otherwise, and one supports the majority holders of that identity while the other supports assorted minorities. Identity politics can be a worthy battle to fight, but by engaging it on those terms the Left has already ceded what should have been their starting ground.

bannon

I could give an argument for why the economic lens is far more relevant to the distribution of power than the racial or national lens. But instead I think I should just point out the incredulity of what Steve Bannon is trying to do, which Paul Lewis picks up in the video. Bannon as a political organizer is doing what true populism should not require: coordinating in secret HQs and scheming with politicians how to take over their countries. Why is Bannon coordinating anything at all? Doesn’t that immediately imply that there is not a true grassroots movement in Europe towards the right? And more contradictory is his plan to make a central movement (complete with the meta-self-conscious title “The Movement”) to support a nationalist push in each country. But national pushes are not supposed to be centralized among all of Europe! There cannot be a central structure to a series of national movements. That structure would be immediately foreign, because is an embodiment of international cooperation.

This contradiction gives away what everyone already knows: that far-right nationalism is merely a smoke screen for certain politicians to gain power, and more importantly, for their financiers to gain favorable legislation. As always, social issues are used to rally voters to the polls, but the most deeply embedded interests in any election are the financial and banking interests. Sure, we voted Republican to end abortion, but we therefore also gave an enormous tax cut to the rich. Sure, the next election will largely be a referendum on immigration, but the next Democratic president is going to try to tax capital gains as income and introduce more Green legislation (which big business hates, for obvious reasons). The turn to right-wing so-called populism should cause us to ask the bigger question, not just of who visibly will suffer should they be elected, but also of who invisibly will gain.

Four contradictions in government

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. But. Klein does not and indeed cannot give a solution to these problems. Why is that?

There are four contradictions in American government (and the 3rd and 4th are true of all Western democracies).

synecdoche image1

The first contradiction is between constituted and constituting power. Or in less legalese terms, between the constitution as a written document and the government which must enforce that document in ever-changing circumstances. We have amendments in theory, but given our polarization they are impossible. How can we continue to hold to this document with so few modifications even though everything has changed? The uniquely American legal theory of Constitutional Literalism, which is so clearly bankrupt at its core, cannot help us if there are no modifications to the text. For example, that we have the Senate is the result of the Great Compromise which got small states to sign the new constitution; but the founders ideally did not want some small states to have more representation. They wanted the elite ruling class to ignore everyone equally, and make decisions independent of the popular policy will. But we cannot change this part of the Constitution to accommodate our new needs or values. The tension here can be summarized as Constitutional Literalism + no new amendments = a broken and forever breaking system.

synecdoche image2

The second contradiction is between local representation and the whole will of the democracy. If we want local representation, then we need individual politicians, but to have individual politicians requires FPTP voting (apparently, I guess, because America). Here we find the root of the 2 party system which is always a poor caricature of the actual will of the people. Here we also find the difference between American legislatures and the European parliamentary model. However, if we want to have their more broadly representational model, we have to leave localism and conceive of ourselves strictly as one nation, which is the opposite of our current direction. We cannot make this move as long as our poor political representation model is in place, because it itself reinforces these localistic tendencies. So, since neither will budge first, this remains a contradiction.

synecdoche image4

The third contradiction is between the values we hold dear as Americans, and the goals we have for our government in realizing those values. According to David Labaree, and he is talking about education here, we want “1. democratic equality (“education as a mechanism for producing capable citizens”), 2. social efficiency (“education as a mechanism for developing productive workers”), and 3. social mobility (“education as a way for individuals to reinforce or improve their social position”)”. However, these goals are immediately in tension, and nobody has yet to devise a political philosophy that achieves all three. This is why our dismal education system always resembles our equally dismal political system: they reflect the same value trade-offs, which are always a lose-lose. This is even the title of Labaree’s book, “Somebody Has to Lose,” which seems to be permanently true in all Western democracies.

synecdoche image6

The fourth contradiction is between our nation as a biopolitical body and as one that “recognizes” “all people’s” equal status under the authority of the State. While we pride ourselves on multiculturalism and the inclusion of minorities, these are only included insofar as they assimilate (which the majority gets to decide). For example even though African Americans are 15th or whatever generation Americans, they are treated as equal to or less than 1st generation immigrants by the biopolitcal majority. This is also true of all immigrants. We paper over this reality with stock phrases like “all men are created equal” or “We the people” but we cannot define who the “all men” or the “We” are. Per Agamben, this is because the basic function of national sovereignty is the production of biopolitical life, and so homogeneity is required. To constantly add to the racial diversity of the nation is to undermine the idea of a nation, which requires racial differentiation. If you are only an American insofar as you are not Mexican, then what happens when Mexicans become a part of America? etc. for all nationalities. Thus the problem of nationalism is unsolved and indeed unsolvable.

synecdoche image3

These four reasons are why Klein does not provide an answer to the issues he points out.. We can tinker with the current arrangement all day long (e.g., for #2, state-grouped parliamentary representation). But until we re-conceive of what we want from government, and so then create a new politics from scratch, we will never solve these problems.

synecdoche image5

Agamben on Paul and the Law, monastic rule

This is the most succinct I have found Agamben on Paul and the Law. (He wrote a whole book on it, The Time That Remains, but besides that he brings it up often). The second paragraph is what matters here, the rest are given for context, the italics are original but boldface is my emphasis.

highest poverty image

The considerations developed up to now must have rendered obvious the sense in which it is almost impossible to pose the problem of the juridical or nonjuridical nature of the monastic rules without falling into anachronism. Even granting that something like our term juridical has always existed (which is no less dubious), it is certain, in any case, that it means one thing in Roman law, another in the early centuries of Christianity, another still starting from the Carolingian age, and another, finally, in the modern age, when the State begins to assume the monopoly over law. Furthermore, the debates that we have analyzed over the “legal” or “advisory” character of the rules, which seem to approach the terms of our problem, become intelligible only if one does not forget that they are superimposed over the theological problem of the relation between the two diathēkai, the Mosaic law and the New Testament.

In this sense, the problem ceases to be anachronistic only if it is restored to its proper theological context, which is that of the relationship between evangelium and lex (that is, first of all, the Hebraic law). The theory of this relationship was elaborated in the Pauline letters and culminates in the declaration that Christ as messiah is telos nomou, end and fulfillment of the law (Rom. 10:4). Even if in the same letter this radical messianic thesis —and the opposition that it implies between pistis and nomos—is complicated to the point of giving rise to a series of aporias (as in 3:31: “Do we then render the law inoperative by this faith? By no means! On the contrary , we uphold the law”), it is nonetheless certain that the Christian life is no longer “under the law” and cannot in any case be conceived in juridical terms. The Christian, like Paul, is “dead to the law” (nomōi apethanon; Gal. 2:19), and lives in the freedom of the spirit. Even when the Gospel is counterposed to the Mosaic law as a “law of faith” (Rom. 3:27), or later as a nova lex to the vetus, it remains the case that neither its form nor its content are homogeneous to those of the nomos. “The difference between the law and the Gospel,” one reads in Isidore’s Liber differentiarum (chap. 31), “is this: in the law there is the letter, in the Gospel grace . . . the first was given for transgression, the second for justification; the law shows sin to the one who does not know it, grace helps him to avoid it . . . in the law the commandments are observed, in the fullness of the Gospel the promises are consummated.”

It is in this theological context that one must situate the monastic rules. Basil and Pachomius, to whom we owe, so to speak, the archetypes of the rules, are perfectly conscious of the irreducibility of the Christian form of life to the law. Basil, in his treatise on baptism, explicitly confirms the Pauline principle according to which the Christian dies to the law (apothanein tōi nomōi), and as we have seen, Pachomius’s Praecepta atque iudicia opens with the statement that love is the fulfillment of the law (plenitudo legis caritas). The rule, whose model is the Gospel, cannot therefore have the form of law, and it is probable that the very choice of the term regula implied an opposition to the sphere of the legal commandment. It is in this sense that a passage from Tertullian seems to oppose the term rule to the “form of the [Mosaic] law”: “Once the form of the old law was dissolved [veteris legis forma soluta], this is the first rule which the apostles, on the authority of the Holy Spirit, sent out to those who were already beginning to be gathered to their side out of the nations” (Tertullian 3, 12). The nova lex cannot have the form of law, but as regula, it approaches the very form of life, which it guides and orients (regula dicta quod recte ducit, recalls an etymology from Isidore, Etymologiarum 6.16).

The problem of the juridical nature of the monastic rules here finds both its specific context and its proper limits. Certainly the Church will progressively construct a system of norms that will culminate in the twelfth century in the system of canon law that Gratian compiles in his Decretum. But if Christian life doubtless can readily encounter the sphere of law, it is just as certain that the Christian forma vivendi itself—which is what the rule has in view—cannot be exhausted in the observance of a precept, which is to say that it cannot have a legal nature.

 

Agamben, The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, 45-47.

Two recent posts about apologetics

Here are two recent statuses from my Facebook about apologetics method. This topic has become important to me lately, and more so as I’ve been gearing up to finally read Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. My blog may begin to focus on it more as well. My goal in the long term, I guess, is to think of apologetics in terms of theological anthropology — how should we share the truth of the gospel, given what it means to be a human being? — but we’ll see how that goes. For now here are the two posts; click the links to see comments from some of my friends. (More pushback on the second one).

IMG_8270-X2

(unrelated: first snowfall of the Winter was the very day we left for a Fall retreat at camp.)

 

1. About presuppositionalism (here)

It has taken me an entire college degree in Philosophy to realize that “presuppositional apologetics” is just Christian Philosophy but done in an annoying way.

The presup tactic is to expose the other person’s unspoken assumptions, and show how those assumptions make their non-Christian answers a foregone conclusion. “I don’t believe in God because I only believe in the 5 senses” is exposed by the question “can you know that the 5 senses are reliable using the 5 senses?” which implies that the person does not have good grounds for disbelieving in God. They had to chose that starting point (the 5 senses) and of course their conclusion is atheism; but we could have just as easily chosen any other starting point (“I believe in what seems rationally intuitive” or “I believe what my traditional community tells me”) and get any other number of results.

What I am just now realizing is that, in addition to being the most annoying tactic a person can possibly use during an in-person conversation… this is not much different from the extremely annoying dialectic that Socrates used. “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” “Ah, I see that we’ve reached bedrock, but do you have reason for believing this particular claim?”

The presup method is not much of a method at all. It is just Christian philosophy. But can’t we be so much more straightforward, so much less annoying, and so much more clear by just stating our epistemic grounds right at the beginning, instead of waiting for the other person to imply theirs and then question it into existence?

 

2. About religious epistemology and the Apologetics Industry (here)

So many times I have heard folks associated with the apologetics industry argue that we need a “cumulative case” approach to proving Christianity. Maybe one argument does not convincingly lead to the conclusions we want, but it almost does; another argument also almost does; so do these other ones over here, and look over there! More arguments that almost work.

But obviously, two 50% convincing arguments do not make a full truth. Nor do four 25% convincing arguments, nor do four-thirds of a 75% convincing argument, or even one-hundred ninety-ninths of a 99% convincing argument. If every single argument can be ruled out as flawed in some clear way, then they all fail. Full stop.

The solution to this does not seem to be “make better apologetics arguments” seeing as that has not worked well to date, but rather, “rethink apologetics methodology” or “rethink religious epistemology altogether.” This is why presuppositionalism has become the standard brand of Christian philosophy, along Plantinga’s lines.

But there is no reason why that has to be so. Why can’t there be other ways of understanding religious epistemology? Paul Moser in The Severity of God and his other books seems to have a viable competitor, and one that lines up more closely with the faith that apologetics tries to prove.

I am working on a paper right now (literally right now) on this topic and while writing it, it has become more and more obvious that there is an entire Apologetics Industry that feeds on bad arguments and shallow epistemology by failing to reckon with any new developments in epistemology since… say… the 1700’s. Why do we give them so much credit? And why are they, of all people, the ones whose work is popularized so that it reaches the common student in youth ministry?

This underscores the point I made in the post a few weeks ago about presuppositionalism: that what we need is not a shortcut method that leads to our conclusions, but a full-fleshed Christian philosophy that unashamedly grounds itself in the Gospel of Christ — both in content and in method.

Trump, White Evangelicalism, Immigration, etc.

There is a lot to say about this new essay from Tara Isabella Burton at Vox. The key quote to focus on:

“This willingness to define seemingly straightforward passages in the Bible along politicized terms — reimagining what it means to be someone’s “neighbor” — speaks to a wider issue within white evangelicalism. The degree to which white evangelical identity is increasingly predicated on politicized whiteness — and on an insular and isolationist vision of community — reveals the extent to which white evangelicalism has become synonymous with Christian nationalism under the Trump administration. And, increasingly, white evangelicals are willing to selectively reinterpret the Bible to justify this.”

What disorients me is that I have experienced little of what TIB has described. The pastors of my parents’ church and my own current church have forcefully denounced Nationalism from the pulpit in messages on 1 Peter 2 (the church is “a holy nation, a royal priesthood”), on Revelation 5&7 (People of every nation will worship around the throne), on Ephesians 6 (that the Devil is our true enemy, not political or ethnic opponents) and Romans 14 (politics as disputable matters). My church is currently doing a series on politics and political engagement as a Christian, and the tone is nothing like an “evangelical identity predicated on politicized whiteness.” I go to the largest EFCA school in the country, and the rhetoric spoken around campus is always pro-refugee-life, pro-aid, pro-humanitarian. All of the Christian leaders who I pay attention to are similarly oriented when it comes to immigration topics — including the editorial staff for The Gospel Coalition, which is not a platform for liberalism.

But TIB’s description is still true. I see tastes of it at conferences, or from across the Christian blogosphere, or from individuals in small group settings in-person or being interviewed on television. And the polling numbers don’t lie, at least, significantly outside the margin of error. Here’s what I am wondering: in the same way Conservative and Progressive voices online get locked into echo chambers where only supporters see their content, could something similar be happening even within evangelicalism? I am not suggesting that we have carved out sectors of the larger Conservative-Progressive social mediaspace, but that within the Christian mediaspace certain niches have been carved to accommodate each perspective.

In an essay from earlier this month TIB pointed out that White Evangelicals are the only religious group in the country who supports President Trump. Which is true. But what she does not acknowledge is that there have already been longstanding breaks between Mainline and Evangelical protestants, and even longer, historic breaks between Catholics and Protestants. Those breaks happened at the level of whole countries (e.g., Germany vs. Italy, England vs. France), whole denominations (e.g., PCA vs. PCUSA), whole universities (e.g., Princeton vs. Westminster), whole ideologies (e.g., Modernism vs. Fundamentalism). But what is really new, what is really damning, is that now, in this current transition, there is not much of an institutional shift. The separation between politically conservative Evangelicals, on the one hand, and politically moderate or just leans-conservative Evangelicals, on the other hand, is happening at the grassroots level. President Trump has galvanized something like a grassroots split within Evangelicalism proper, mirroring broader concerns over the “Death of Truth” or “Post-Truth” society we inhabit in the information age.

But regardless of the existence of a niche, politically-moderate voice within Evangelicalism that happens to surround me, here is what TIB nails: the new hermeneutic at use that subverts Jesus’s calling to care for the helpless. By redefining “neighbor” to be only fellow Christians (which is bogus), or to be only those who have not broken the law, Christians in the age of Trump are buying into an inward gaze. This inward gaze is the concrete result of Nationalist rhetoric, yes, but I would also say it is a result of Rule-of-Law thinking that became really popular during Black Lives Matter protesting a few years ago. Of course, of course, of course, the Rule-of-Law mindset is completely irreconcilable with Christianity. With Jesus’s rendering inoperative (katargeó) the Old Testament Law. But that doesn’t seem to be a problem these days, since the Old Testament laws about refugees and immigrants are also being ignored. TIB refers to Isaiah 10, Matthew 25, Leviticus 19:33–34, Jeremiah 7:5–7, Ezekiel 47:22, Zechariah 7:9–10, and the flight to Egypt by Joseph and Mary as Biblical precedent for a pro-refugee-life stance. Ultimately she employs Galatians 3:28 to say that the power of Christianity subverts political and ethnic identities.

trump holding a bible 2

(The gross mishandling of Romans 13 by Jeff Session and Sarah Sanders, which I didn’t know about until reading this piece, is also important. Can you imagine Nero quoting Paul’s words back to the Christian community and saying, “Yes, you heard the man, now offer sacrifices to me”? When Rome quotes Romans, we have a problem.)

On that count, TIB is spot on. But what about the specific policies we support? What about the particular ways the federal bureaucracy maneuvers through these topics? Those are important, but disputable questions. However, we need to keep in mind that the most shocking statistic TIB cited was not about a specific policy: “more than half of white evangelicals report feeling concerned about America’s declining white population” is not a policy position; it is a generally racist sentiment. Such racism, obviously, has no place in Christian community. If not specific policy, when we focus on the topic of ethnic nativism: let’s not condemn ethnic nativism because “the Bible says that” you should care for the helpless and those who are fleeing persecution. Worse, let’s not default to citing “these Biblical writers who say that” we must be pro-refugee-life. If our doctrine of the Inspiration of Scripture informs our thinking on this topic, we can comfortably and boldly say that “God himself has said.”

To use brackets when teaching theology in the church

Something the NASB edition does but nobody else bothers with: italicizing all words that have no basis in the original text. Of course, this is hilarious, because even word-for-word translations have several words in each sentence that are interpolated. A phrase like πιστις Χριστου cannot be translated into English as “faith Christ” but must include an “of” in between to make sense. Should we italicize “of” in every genitive? The word “in” or “to” for each dative? Beyond case-use, there are more ways that words get added. One that Matt Chandler pointed out a few years ago is Philippians 2:4, “not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” In the Greek, this sentence is more like “not looking to your own ________ but each of your to _________ of others.” The word “interests” is a simple translation addition to make the sentence clear for English readers. The NASB italicizes it.

brackets symbol vectorTo avoid being confusingly word-for-word, the NASB still includes the word; to avoid giving the word undue weight, the NASB italicizes it. While that approach may be ridiculous — and at times unhelpful, since English readers are used to thinking of emphasis when they see italics — the idea can be applied on a different level. I would like to suggest that the same inclusion-by-italicization method can be helpful for our teaching of theology in the church. Since, again, italics usually communicate emphasis, maybe brackets are the better symbol.

The balance struck by the NASB is also a balance to strike with teaching theology: we don’t want to be unhelpfully text-only, which would deprive our congregation from thinking rightly about the text. On the other hand, the theology we supply to the text may be wrong, and we do not want to give it the same level of authority in our teaching.

The main example that comes up in my conversations at Trinity is limited atonement. Limited atonement is a doctrinal idea that I believe is logically consequent from other doctrinal ideas which have strong Biblical basis: the other four points of Calvinism, total depravity, unconditional atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Each of these command strong Biblical support in a way that limited atonement does not. (If anything, 1 John 2:2 leans the other way on atonement). Limited atonement is extra-biblical, but this does not mean untrue; it only means not necessarily true. Calculus is extra-biblical, but true!

So if someone were to ask me, “Where do you see limited atonement in the Bible?” I would have to first show the Biblical support for those other four doctrines, and then after all of that, say, “Look, I know its not anywhere in the text, but limited atonement just has to be an accurate description of Christ’s work on the cross if these other four things are true.” In other words, limited atonement as a doctrine exists one level of abstraction above these other doctrines; it does not have roots in the text, but in other doctrines, which themselves have roots in the text.

So, should we teach limited atonement? Or should we just leave it unsaid? My answer is that we should still teach it, but bracket it with phrases like “it seems like the best way to understand these doctrines would be…” as an opening bracket and then “there may be more precise ways to talk about the relationship between these doctrines, but we can save those for later.” Maybe it’s my evangelical upbringing, but this approach seems like a healthy way to major on the majors, minor on the minors, and keep our gaze focused on the Biblical text and the doctrines most obviously rooted in the text.

Of course, this bracketing is unnecessary in a doctrinal class, a catechism class, a book study group, or, unthinkably, a class on theology. I am only talking about expositional preaching on Sunday morning, especially when the congregation is walking through a book of the Bible chapter by chapter. As pastors, our understanding of level-two and higher doctrine should impact how we read the text and the basic ideas which emerge from it — don’t get me wrong, higher doctrine matters — but it is unhelpful to explain these ideas as if they bears the same weight as other teachings. Your doctrinal stance on the precise nature of the atonement will color your teaching, but don’t trick the congregation into thinking that stance is rock-solid authoritative like the text itself.

I know there are objections to what I am saying. For his part, Paul comments that he opposed Peter “when I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.” (Galatians 2:14, a great verse to memorize). Likewise we should understand the gospel in all its abstract implications and try to live accordingly. There is also the simple fact that Paul himself was a deeply systematic theologian, and he wrote Biblical text, so then we have some Biblical texts that ground even our deepest systematic theology. The number of topics that can be two layers of abstraction away from “But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!” or “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” is small. (Romans 11:12, 29).

I am talking about practical, day-to-day, sermon-by-sermon use of theology for teaching laypeople. For the Junior High students I volunteer with at church, this can be important. I remember when I was in eighth grade and first started to discover the doctrines of grace and the five points of Calvinism. It changed my life, but not always for the better. Eighth-grade me would have been far better off being challenged to learn more about the Torah and Prophets, or about the doctrine of sanctification (!) than about theoretical constructs which I later discovered were deeply bankrupt. The solution doesn’t have to be complicated: we can better communicate the message of scripture by including-by-bracketing logical developments of doctrine.

Denmark, Civil Disobedience, and the Holocaust that was not.

We all know that civil disobedience in the face of injustice is a good thing. And we all know that it can be successful even when only a few (but still vocal) people stand up. The main example in the American subconscious is the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s, in which the majority of the country did not participate and against which many actively fought. If King, the NCAAP, and the SCLC could change society from a minority position, how much more incredible would it be if the entire society stood together? What does successful, society-wide civil disobedience look like?

Last week I devoured Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Everyone with an interest in the Holocaust, in totalitarian systems, or in the Problem of Evil should read it. The book is controversial, it is true, but primarily because Arendt does not reduce the trial or the events of the Third Reich to a simple good guy – bad guy story. Eichmann in Jerusalem is jam-packed with the ironies of a totalitarian state that cannot become maximally evil because of the classic failures of bureaucracy. Because the S.S., the R.S.H.A., the W.V.H.A., the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Transportation, etc. etc. etc., were in never-ending competition, they would logistically undermine each other to make themselves look good in the eyes of the Party leadership; yet, for exactly the same reason, they each tried as hard as possible to meet the goals of the First, then Second, then Final solutions. In this way the Third Reich was nearly, nearly as efficiently evil as a human system can be.

However, this was not true everywhere. “For various reasons,” Adolf Eichmann later said in his trial, “the action against the Jews in Denmark has been a failure.” What are those various reasons? By what acts of civil disobedience and subversion did the Danish people conduct undermine their Nazi occupiers? Rather than trying to summarize what is already a superb summary by Arendt, I will merely reproduce that summary here. As you read, take special notice of the lines I have bolded; they are especially key to her analysis, and may hold something valuable for a practice of civil disobedience today.

 

eichmann in jerusalem cover

At the Wannsee Conference, Martin Luther, of the Foreign Office, warned of great difficulties in the Scandinavian countries, notably in Norway and Denmark. (Sweden was never occupied, and Finland, though in the war on the side of the Axis, was the one country the Nazis hardly ever even approached on the Jewish question. This surprising exception of Finland, with some two thousand Jews, may have been due to Hitler’s great esteem for the Finns, whom perhaps he did not want to subject to threats and humiliating blackmail.) Luther proposed postponing evacuations from Scandinavia for the time being, and as far as Denmark was concerned, this really went without saying, since the country retained its independent government, and was respected as a neutral state, until the fall of 1943, although it, along with Norway, had been invaded by the German Army in April, 1940. There existed no Fascist or Nazi movement in Denmark worth mentioning, and therefore no collaborators. In NORWAY, however, the Germans had been able to find enthusiastic supporters; indeed, Vidkun Quisling, leader of the pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic Norwegian party, gave his name to what later became known as a “quisling government.” The bulk of Norway’s seventeen hundred Jews were stateless, refugees from Germany; they were seized and interned in a few lightning operations in October and November, 1942. When Eichmann’s office ordered their deportation to Auschwitz, some of Quisling’s own men resigned their government posts. This may not have come as a surprise to Mr. Luther and the Foreign Office, but what was much more serious, and certainly totally unexpected, was that Sweden immediately offered asylum, and sometimes even Swedish nationality, to all who were persecuted. Ernst von Weizsacker, Undersecretary of State of the Foreign Office, who received the proposal, refused to discuss it, but the offer helped nevertheless. It is always relatively easy to get out of a country illegally, whereas it is nearly impossible to enter the place of refuge without permission and to dodge the immigration authorities. Hence, about nine hundred people, slightly more than half of the small Norwegian community, could be smuggled into Sweden.

It was in DENMARK, however, that the Germans found out how fully justified the Foreign Office’s apprehensions had been. The story of the Danish Jews is sui generis, and the behavior of the Danish people and their government was unique among all the countries of Europe – whether occupied, or a partner of the Axis, or neutral and truly independent. One is tempted to recommend the story as required reading in political science for all students who wish to learn something about the enormous power potential inherent in non-violent action and in resistance to an opponent possessing vastly superior means of violence. To be sure, a few other countries in Europe lacked proper “understanding of the Jewish question,” and actually a majority of them were opposed to “radical” and “final” solutions. Like Denmark, Sweden, Italy, and Bulgaria proved to be nearly immune to anti-Semitism, but of the three that were in the German sphere of influence, only the Danes dared speak out on the subject to their German masters. Italy and Bulgaria sabotaged German orders and indulged in a complicated game of double-dealing and double-crossing, saving their Jews by a tour de force of sheer ingenuity, but they never contested the policy as such. That was totally different from what the Danes did. When the Germans approached them rather cautiously about introducing the yellow badge, they were simply told that the King would be the first to wear it, and the Danish government officials were careful to point out that anti-Jewish measures of any sort would cause their own immediate resignation. It was decisive in this whole matter that the Germans did not even succeed in introducing the vitally important distinction between native Danes of Jewish origin, of whom there were about sixty-four hundred, and the fourteen hundred German Jewish refugees who had found asylum in the country prior to the war and who now had been declared stateless by the German government. This refusal must have surprised the Germans no end, since it appeared so “illogical” for a government to protect people to whom it had categorically denied naturalization and even permission to work. (Legally, the prewar situation of refugees in Denmark was not unlike that in France, except that the general corruption in the Third Republic’s civil services enabled a few of them to obtain naturalization papers, through bribes or “connections,” and most refugees in France could work illegally, without a permit. But Denmark, like Switzerland, was no country pour se débrouiller.) The Danes, however, explained to the German officials that because the stateless refugees were no longer German citizens, the Nazis could not claim them without Danish assent. This was one of the few cases in which statelessness turned out to be an asset, although it was of course not statelessness per se that saved the Jews but, on the contrary, the fact that the Danish government had decided to protect them. Thus, none of the preparatory moves, so important for the bureaucracy of murder, could carried out, and operations were postponed until the fall of 1943.

What happened then was truly amazing; compared with what took place in other European countries, everything went topsy-turvy. In August, 1943 – after the German offensive in Russia had failed, the Afrika Korps had surrendered in Tunisia, and the Allies had invaded Italy – the Swedish government canceled its 1940 agreement with Germany which had permitted German troops the right to pass through the country. Thereupon, the Danish workers decided that they could help a bit in hurrying things up; riots broke out in Danish shipyards, where the dock workers refused to repair German ships and then went on strike. The German military commander proclaimed a state of emergency and imposed martial law, and Himmler thought this was the right moment to tackle the Jewish question, whose “solution” was long overdue. What he did not reckon with was that – quite apart from Danish resistance – the German officials who had been living in the country for years were no longer the same. Not only did General von Hannecken, the military commander, refuse to put troops at the disposal of the Reich plenipotentiary, Dr. Werner Best; the special S.S. units (Einsatzkommandos) employed in Denmark very frequently objected to “the measures they were ordered to carry out by the central agencies” – according to Best’s testimony at Nuremberg. And Best himself, an old Gestapo man and former legal adviser to Heydrich, author of a then famous book on the police, who had worked for the military government in Paris to the entire satisfaction of his superiors, could no longer be trusted, although it is doubtful that Berlin ever learned the extent of his unreliability. Still, it was clear from the beginning that things were not going well, and Eichmann’s office sent one of its best men to Denmark – Rolf Günther, whom no one had ever accused of not possessing the required “ruthless toughness.” Günther made no impression on his colleagues in Copenhagen, and now von Hannecken refused even to issue a decree requiring all Jews to report for work.

Best went to Berlin and obtained a promise that all Jews from Denmark would be sent to Theresienstadt regardless of their category – a very important concession, from the Nazis’ point of view. The night of October 1 was set for their seizure and immediate departure – ships were ready in the harbor – and since neither the Danes nor the Jews nor the German troops stationed in Denmark could be relied on to help, police units arrived from Germany for a door-to-door search. At the last moment, Best told them that they were not permitted to break into apartments, because the Danish police might then interfere, and they were not supposed to fight it out with the Danes. Hence they could seize only those Jews who voluntarily opened their doors. They found exactly 477 people, out of a total of more than 7,800, at home and willing to let them in. A few days before the date of doom, a German shipping agent, Georg F. Duckwitz, having probably been tipped off by Best himself, had revealed the whole plan to Danish government officials, who, in turn, had hurriedly informed the heads of the Jewish community. They, in marked contrast to Jewish leaders in other countries, had then communicated the news openly in the synagogues on the occasion of the New Year services. The Jews had just time enough to leave their apartments and go into hiding, which was very easy in Denmark, because, in the words of the judgment, “all sections of the Danish people, from the King down to simple citizens,” stood ready to receive them.

They might have remained in hiding until the end of the war if the Danes had not been blessed with Sweden as a neighbor. It seemed reasonable to ship the Jews to Sweden, and this was done with the help of the Danish fishing fleet. The cost of transportation for people without means – about a hundred dollars per person – was paid largely by wealthy Danish citizens, and that was perhaps the most astounding feat of all, since this was a time when Jews were paying for their own deportation, when the rich among them were paying fortunes for exit permits (in Holland, Slovakia, and, later, in Hungary) either by bribing the local authorities or by negotiating “legally” with the S.S., who accepted only hard currency and sold exit permits, in Holland, to the tune of five or ten thousand dollars per person. Even in places where Jews met with genuine sympathy and a sincere willingness to help, they had to pay for it, and the chances poor people had of escaping were nil.

It took the better part of October to ferry all the Jews across the five to fifteen miles of water that separates Denmark from Sweden. The Swedes received 5,919 refugees, of whom at least 1,000 were of German origin, 1,310 were half-Jews, and 686 were non-Jews married to Jews. (Almost half the Danish Jews seem to have remained in the country and survived the war in hiding.) The non-Danish Jews were better off than ever before, they all received permission to work. The few hundred Jews whom the German police had been able to arrest were shipped to Theresienstadt. They were old or poor people, who either had not received the news in time or had not been able to comprehend its meaning. In the ghetto, they enjoyed greater privileges than any other group because of the never-ending “fuss” made about them by Danish institutions and private persons. Forty-eight persons died, a figure that was not particularly high, in view of the average age of the group. When everything was over, it was the considered opinion of Eichmann that “for various reasons the action against the Jews in Denmark has been a failure,” whereas the curious Dr. Best declared that “the objective of the operation was not to seize a great number of Jews but to clean Denmark of Jews, and this objective has now been achieved.”

Politically and psychologically, the most interesting aspect of this incident is perhaps the role played by the German authorities in Denmark, their obvious sabotage of orders from Berlin. It is the only case we know of in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met resistance based on principle, and their “toughness” had melted like butter in the sun, they had even been able to show a few timid beginnings of genuine courage. That the ideal of “toughness,” except, perhaps, for a few half-demented brutes, was nothing but a myth of self-deception, concealing a ruthless desire for conformity at any price, was clearly revealed at the Nuremberg Trials, where the defendants accused and betrayed each other and assured the world that they “had always been against it” or claimed, as Eichmann was to do, that their best qualities had been “abused” by their superiors. (In Jerusalem, he accused “those in power” of having abused his “obedience.” “The subject of a good government is lucky, the subject of a bad government is unlucky. I had no luck.”) The atmosphere had changed, and although most of them must have known that they were doomed, not a single one of them had the guts to defend the Nazi ideology. Werner Best claimed at Nuremberg that he had played a complicated double role and that it was thanks to him that the Danish officials had been warned of the impending catastrophe; documentary evidence showed, on the contrary, that he himself had proposed the Danish operation in Berlin, but he explained that this was all part of the game. He was extradited to Denmark and there condemned to death, but he appealed the sentence, with surprising results; because of “new evidence,” his sentence was commuted to five years in prison, from which he was released soon afterward. He must have been able to prove to the satisfaction of the Danish court that he really had done his best (170-175).

Fall, friendship, and experiencing God

As I drove back to college from my parents house today, my route wove through an aimless countryside. Along the way were Pumpkin Patches and Harvest Pickings, Apple Orchards and Tree Farms. My parents and I stopped at one together and bought cider, jams and apples. We even had our picture taken:

edwards photo.jpg

Seeing the fall in action ushered my mind to a moment in one of my favorite books. David Whyte’s collection of short essays, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. In his meditation on Friendship, he writes this:

Through the eyes of a friend we especially learn to remain at least a little interesting to others. When we flatten our personalities and lose our curiosity in the life of the world or of another, friendship loses spirit and animation; boredom is the second great killer of friendship. Through the natural surprises of a relationship held through the passage of years we recognize the greater surprising circles of which we are a part and the faithfulness that leads to a wider sense of revelation independent of human relationship: to learn to be friends with the earth and the sky, with the horizon and with the seasons, even with the disappearances of winter and in that faithfulness, take the difficult path of becoming a good friend to our own going. (73-74).

One of our main goals as people is to experience transcendence. This is true of everyone, even, awkwardly, of those who deny that the transcendent is real. To see a mountain that dwarfs us in size. To look out on an ocean whose end is the horizon. To look injustice in the face and say “No, you will not remain,” only for, to our surprise, our words to make themselves true. To understand our world in a way that bring us if only for a moment far beyond our normal, small lives. To look up at the color-changing leaves of a tree and tremble under the weight of overwhelming beauty.

For the believer, these everyday moments point to something outside of themselves. They sign God to us, or his glory, or the meaning he declares over our lives. For the nonbeliever, these moments of transcendence are puzzling. Even though nothing exists out there, beyond us… we still experience the “out there” in our own lives.

These are “the surprising circles of which we are a part” and “the wider sense of revelation independent of human relationship.” We have the option to see them around us — or we can shut them out. If only we have eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to understand.

What surprises me about Whyte’s comments is that friendship helps us get outside us. Friendship and its “natural surprises” can condition us to see a bigger world. A world that is open to what may be outside it, whether we like that possibility or not.

Thinking it would be fitting to the topic, I sat outside to write this post. But within a few minutes, I was too cold and had to retreat to the Student Center fireplace. Even after almost twenty conscious years of living through the Midwest winter — which bottoms out at negative 20 most years — I always forget the cold. This is because the knowledge of cold and the experience of cold are two different things. Six months of warmth is not enough to make me forget that it gets cold in October. But that length is enough for me to forget what the cold feels like.

In the same way, we who believe can know that God is real. And those who do not believe can know that God is not real. But we all feel, we all experience, we all sense God. The changing seasons, of which Pumpkin Patches and Apple Orchards are reminders, remind us to look beyond ourselves. So, too, does the tumult of ordinary life with friends challenge our gaze to drift higher and higher.

A few reservations about “The Lost World of Adam and Eve”

lost world adam and eve

Today I finished John Walton’s book The Lost World of Adam and Eve (IVP, 2015). Earlier in the year I read his similarly-titled book The Lost World of Genesis One. Laying around my dorm room somewhere are The Lost World of Scripture and The Lost World of The Israelite Conquest. I haven’t bought it yet, but earlier this year he released with Tremper Longman a book under the title The Lost World of The Flood. 

You know, if it works, don’t fix it.

The basic method of these books (and I’m obviously only knowledgeable about the books I have read so far) is to reinterpret the Old Testament text according to its ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context. At the crux of all these particular reinterpretations we find a distinction Walton uses over and over again. Some things are created materially, others functionally. The image of God could be interpreted materially, but we should interpret it functionally. The serpent in the garden could be seen as materially forced to eat dirt, or to functionally eat dirt. The creation of gender could be interpreted as a biological, material reality, or in terms of the function that each plays in the original created relationship. Etc. etc. etc.

The mistake we moderns make is that we read Genesis 1-3 (and, I presume, the Israelite Conquest, and all (?) of Scripture, and the Flood) in material terms when the original authorial intent was to describe functions. Therefore, when we read that God “created the Sun, Moon and Stars to govern over the day and the night” on day four of creation, that means not that God formed their material, physical structures. Instead there was a point in time when God issued the authority to the Sun to govern over the day, and designated this as the purpose of the Sun. Ergo, the verse could be better rendered as God “created-to-govern the Sun, Moon and Stars over the day and the night.” What was created was not the Sun, but that it has the function of governing. Walton uses the same distinction in the exegesis of almost every verse in Genesis 1-3.

Walton supports this distinction in at least two ways. The first is by word studies across the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. I have no problem with this, and some of the word studies were fascinating. The other way is by finding similar motifs or thought-patterns in the literature of ANE societies. Suppose you could find that in Egyptian, Akkadian, Hittite, Neo-Assyrian, etc. religious texts, every single one has a serpent without legs. In some of these texts the serpent is standing up, but is made to crawl on its belly — despite not having legs in the first place. You could then deduce something along the lines of “in the ANE context, for a snake to crawl on its belly is for it to be reduced in its functional posture from striking to passivity” or something like that. Walton does nearly this in Chapter 14.

To be honest, I love this approach. This makes it so much easier for me to dismiss the text of Genesis!, says the side of my personality that reflexively bows to current criticisms out of fear of embarrassment. (Charles Taylor-y side note: when we frame our life stories as one going from ignorance to learnedness, as I realize I have done for most of my life, we condition ourselves to have this reflex). Everything in me wants to be able to stare science in the face and say “oh hey there science how are you doing.” So, I hope that my reservations about Walton’s method can be resolved.

The extra benefit of Walton’s approach is that he can see the theological significance in Genesis 1-3 just like those who interpret it as poetry, while still having a literal view that does not reduce the text’s historicity to mere myth or glyph. By unseeing the material dimension of the text, he can avoid conflict with modern science; by seeing the functional dimension of the text as real, actual history, he can side-step the problems that arise because Adam needs to be a historical figure. It really is the best of both worlds.

While I have found it extremely difficult to explain to people outside of college the difference between material and functional ontology (mostly high school students and some people at church), that is not my real complaint. At some point we can find good metaphors, and Walton introduced one in this book that was not present in Genesis One that I think would be helpful (family moving into a house and then setting up furniture). No, that would be a useless critique. My actual objection is somewhere in his use of ANE texts when interpreting the Old Testament.

For example, in his concluding summary of the book Walton writes that

A number of these elements in Genesis find similarities with ancient Near Eastern literature, while others are entirely unique in the ancient world. Proper interpretation will recognize both. We should note, however, that the Israelites often show marked dissimilarity from the surrounding cultures even when they share concepts with the ancient world. So, for example, even though the ancient Near Eastern literature considers the creation of humanity to involve a large group of humans, the underlying reasons are far different from what would exist in the biblical text if en masse creation of humanity were to be seen from Genesis 1. In the ancient Near East creation narratives, many humans are created at once because many gods were intending to use many humans to supply their needs. The purposes of the gods would not be well served if only a few humans were created. In contrast, if Genesis 1 allows en masse creation of humans (as I have argued), it is not for the same reason. The God of the Bible has no needs, and the function of humans is presented in very different terms. Likewise, the roles and functions of human beings as presented in the Bible cannot be confirmed through science because science is incapable of discussing final causes. (199-200).

The problem that I have with this hermeneutic is this: how can we separate Biblical intent from ANE cultural motif? More concretely, and in the question more relevant to the Genesis One book, how do we know that the authors of Genesis are subverting only the polytheism and use-of-chaos-to-create? Why couldn’t the authors of Genesis be radicals who subverted both of those things AND the entire functional ontology of their time? Why does their subversion of cultural paradigms and motifs and etiologies have to stop precisely when it gets inconvenient for our 21st century modern beliefs? If we were to play “which one of these things is not like the other” with all of the ANE societies, I would hazard that Israel is most dissimilar to the rest. So then, how do we know that this dissimilarity stops only at the level of motif and does not extend also to ontology?

I am sure that I am not the only person to ask this question. I am 100%, 1000% sure that I am not such an original mind to be the first person to ask this. Which means that I have more reading to do. Walton has a scholarly edition of the Genesis One book, and has a few stand-alone books about ancient culture and his methodology. So I’m sure that he has addressed this problem somewhere. For now, the only answer I can imagine is that because the functional/material ontology is something that changed over time, it would then be out of chronology to read materiality back into the text; whereas the inversion or parody or subversion of motifs is something that has happened from the beginning and has continued. So, you have to argue for a subverted motif by ANE context, but you can know an ontological paradigm just by dating the document to a certain century.

That solution seems implicit in Walton’s method. Another potential critique — but I did not think this through much — is that his use of ANE texts seems like some form of affirming the consequent. I wrote in the margin of the book at one point, Can comparative ANE studies PROVE Walton’s interpretation, positively, or can they only disprove, negatively, someone else’s interpretation? There would not be a distinction here if there were only two possible readings of scripture: to disagree with one is to agree with the other. But as we all know, there are a zillion readings of Genesis 1-3 no matter your initial methodological constraints. If/When Walton’s method becomes popular among scholars, no doubt somebody will use the same method to draw entirely separate conclusions about ANE texts. In a world where Old Testament professors at christian colleges are doomed to… never mind. I think my point is clear. Once another scholar proposes any fact about the ANE context, there is no longer anything in Walton’s methodology that would make his reading of Genesis de facto more accurate than theirs. So, the use of ANE comparative studies cannot on its own prove an interpretation, even if it gives strong grounds to dismiss someone’s interpretation as anachronistic.

Maybe I did give that some thought. But this whole post, indeed this whole blog, is not scholarly and mostly gives me something to do that nobody reads anyways. (Except that recently a post of mind from almost two years ago — about a bad study conducted on Chiropractic patients (?) — has been getting a ton of hits.) My most viewed post is about a Starbucks frappe, and my second most viewed post is… also about a Starbucks frappe. John Walton, if you are reading this, know that you are the only one. And please don’t hate me. Or blast me on Biologos for being an unfair critic.

If you are just reading this post and have not read the books, I would strongly recommend that you pick up a copy of The Lost World of Genesis One and The Lost World of Adam and Eve. Read them with a healthy blend of charity and critique. Some parts are excellent, some dubious, and others unhelpful. But the whole experience is mind-bending in a way that this blog post can’t convey. At minimum, he is good opposition reading. At maximum, he could rework your entire understanding of the Bible. More likely than either of these, and situated right between them: he will free you from the shackles of your middle school biblical exegesis.