Conservative Theology

February 02, 2010

Religion and Politics / The Abuse of "Story"


Postmodernism has greatly increased the relevance of "story" in both the interpretation of the Bible and in interpersonal interactions (for those of you who are unaware of what this is, here is a really good short summary by a friend of mine).  On the whole, this is a good thing.  However, recently I have been reading books which abuse the notion of story as to become propoganda.  This is a phenomena which I believe we will see more of, and is an unintended effect of our culture's shift towards "story" as a way of understanding. 

The problem is that "story" can easily become a substitute for "rational argument".  When we overemphasize story, we fail to be able to analyze a situation critically.  The book I'm currently reading is about the "story of the universe," and, actually, it is much worse than previous books I've read on this subject.

With story, one need not give an argument.  One simply presents heroes and villains and victims.  It is not possible to ask of a story if the heroes were heroic or evil, or if the victims were actually villains in someone else's story.  Story prevents you from asking many questions which are essential for discerning truth.

That isn't to say that story can't be used to communicate truth.  I certainly believe that the Bible does that.  The problem is that "story" only communicates truth when the teller of the story is a trusted source.  The only difference between story and propoganda is the trustworthiness of the teller.

Therefore, the postmodern shift towards story, while it may be good for both Biblical studies and interpersonal relationships, could really damage us in the realm of public knowledge, because to rely on story for this critical aspect of life will mean that it is inevitably susceptible for anyone to create a good enough story, with beautiful looking heroes and mean, nasty villains, and, since "story" instead of "argument" is the key phrase, public villainizing can be substituted for public debate.

"Story" is not impartial, and it's usefulness depends on the trustworthiness - and shared ideals - of the teller.

January 29, 2010

The Bible / John Hobbins on Inerrancy and Haiti


Going back through my RSS reader, I found a few excellent pieces by John Hobbins:

I have no idea how John manages to put out so much thoughtful content so often. 

As for inerrancy, I don't entirely agree or disagree with John.  I agree with his basic points, but think that the history and the art are much more intertwined than John's post implies.  My belief is that, for God, the history is the art.


I also found this (slightly older) post of John's: Why believers must complain about and criticize biblical texts

What matters is the context in which complaints and criticism occur. Do I make the criticism because I expect God or scripture to answer my questions and I will not rest until I find my rest in God and his Word? Or because I've decided that God and his Word are something I need to protect myself against, because I've found a higher standard of truth by which to judge them both?...




January 27, 2010

General / Quoted in the Christian Century on


I was recently quoted in an article on in the latest issue of Christian Century.  Jason Byassee was doing an introduction to the church for a mainline audience, who might not understand what LifeChurch is or why it is important.  It was a really good article.

My quote is toward the end, which, admittedly, borrows a lot from a friend who I will not name because he may wish to remain nameless:

Jonathan Bartlett, a seminary student with a background in the Vineyard movement, says he sees little place in LifeChurch for strong lay leaders. "Their whole pitch for leaders of LifeGroups is 'It's easy.' LifeChurch is made up of people who liked youth group in high school, but then grew up and found nothing like it—until this."

While I was at LifeChurch, that is what I found - there simply isn't much of a place for a strong lay leadership.  It is antithetical to the way they operate.  I think they like the idea of a strong lay leadership in theory, but they simply don't provide any meaningful mode of expression.  Their LifeGroups, which presumably might feed that purpose, are promoted to leaders, not with the idea that this is something that requires something of you, but rather that all that is required is for you to insert a DVD and press play. 

And, not suprisingly, most LifeGroups conform to the low expectations that the Church puts on them.

January 20, 2010

General / Family - From Naivete to Reality


Mark Riddle hits a home run with his saga about breastfeeding, and the changed perspective one gets after actually having a family, rather than just imagining what it might be like.

December 19, 2009

Religion and Politics / Libertarianism vs. Conservatism, Pt. 2

Responses to Objections


My good friend Rick did me the great service of making excellent criticisms of my essay on libertarianisms.  I started to post a response in the comments, but it quickly got too long.  In any case, here is my response:

"I disagree with your premise that giving a social norm the weight of (sovereign) law is distinguishable from governmental intervention. Sovereign law, for better or worse, IS government intervention."

The point was not that it was or wasn't governmental "intervention" - sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't, but rather, a law doesn't require a government. See for example this post about the powers of text.

In fact, you find throughout history many laws that have no explicit punishments.  That is because, often, none is needed.  By intermarrying society and law, you can have laws that don't require governments.  When you separate them, the only thing that enforces law is a government.

"Rather than allowing individuals to define the terms of their relationships (or to choose NOT to define them, a possibility you've overlooked)"

I am unclear how an undefined terms of relationship would work in a legal context, except, perhaps, by ceding authority to social norms!

"A market would exist (in fact, already does exist) for ready-made contractual arrangements, especially for relationships as common as marriages"

But this is only part of the point.  The fact is that, (1) that there are always unexpected parts of a relationship which the law must handle.  These are handled according to societal norms and goals, precisely because that is what is left when a contract breaks down, and (2) marriage impacts much more than just the people getting married.  I pointed this out here.  If marriage communication is, in fact, privileged, then who receives this privilege is a societal issue, and not one of the contractants of marriage.  The possibility of children introduces players into the contract which were not a party to it.  This means that either (a) the children are treated as simple property, or (b) that society establishes norms regarding their handling, which would have priority above the contractural relationship.  In fact, even though there are many other places where society and law have a necessary interaction, the existence of children alone bring together societal norms and law in a very powerful way.

The fundamental problem of libertarianism is that it presumes that we can be, for the most part, disconnected from each other, and even elevates that to a societal goal - to be connected to only those people you choose. 

In reality, though, this is neither possible nor desirable.  Libertarianism, similar to liberalism, places extremely high value on the degrees of freedom that an individual can do.  While I agree that there shouldn't be any unwarranted restriction on degrees of freedom, I find this highly suspicious as an end-goal.   Is the ability to pick my nose in public really the purpose for which liberty aspires?  I should hope not, for if so it makes it a goal not worth persuing.  I agree that liberty is important.  I also agree that the nature of liberty requires that society allow things that it normally doesn't agree with, and that society and law, while overlapping in many areas, are not coextensive. 

Liberty is the combination of self-mastery, faith, and humility.  It is self-mastery in that none of us are free unless we can get control of ourselves - the biggest source of bondage is actually the lack of personal control over ourselves, not other people.  In addition, liberty is about the faith that others' may be persuing societal good by means which are radically different, and not necessarily completely understood.  Also faith in the fact that most errors in this direction are not fatal.  Finally, it is about the humility to accept that there is room for disagreement in everything.

From this perspective, while individual degrees of freedom are important, they are not the only consideration.  Freedom to err is vitally important for the freedom to be correct, but this doesn't mean that liberty implies that I should be able to just do anything I want.  That is the attitude of my children, I should hope that by the time they are adults they will have sufficient self-mastery to be beyond that.

"In addition, government recognition (aka regulation) of marriage also allows the government a guise of legitimacy under which to confer benefits on one group at the expense of another. Tax and other benefits are provided to married people but denied to gays, polygamists, and unattractive singles."

Just to point out, most of the "benefits" are actually to unmarried cohabitators.  We found this out this summer.  The state social workers were encouraging us to divorce so that we would have more access to benefits.  They determined that we were going to need $89,000 in assistance each year, but that my salary (which is less than that figure) disqualified me from receiving anything.  However, if we divorced, then Christa would be able to get the full benefits package.

"Your conclusions about contracts for burgers and lawyers attending weddings are nothing more than unsupported hyperbole."

I disagree.  The fact is that law is actually moving more towards your view with regards to basic human interactions.  And, with that, we are receiving a constant increase in the number of things we have to sign.  We have crazy lawsuits because we no longer have a societal expectation for self-responsibility.  Therefore, in nearly every interaction, we have contract which disclaim problems that occur from a lack of self-responsibility.  We have idiotic privacy forms we have to fill out at the doctor's office.  We have stupid EULAs we have to click through to install software.  Why do we just click through them?  Because we know what they say.  However, if, instead of everyone lawyering up, we instead had a means of social expectations interacting with the law, we could do away with (a) the lawyers to draft them, (b) the lawyers to fight with them, and (c) having to read them all. 

The problem with the libertarian position is that it assumes a lot of the societal interaction that it rails against.  Most libertarians agree that lawsuits about stupid things are stupid.  But that is just because they are assuming conservative, not libertarian, values.  In libertarianism, society doesn't affect legal expectations, so why should self-responsibility be assumed?

The nanny-state of liberalism is simply the byproduct of the libertinism of libertarianism.  When an ethical self-mastery is no longer part and parcel of what it means to be free, the only valid social response is the nanny state.

So, to sum up, I would say:

  1. Liberty is about more than individual degrees of freedom.  Increasing individual degrees of freedom is an important part of liberty, but other parts (such as self-mastery) are more important
  2. We are interwoven with each other.  A legal system (or a definition of freedom) that ignores this is simply anti-realist.  Marriage and children are interesting precisely because the point of them transcends the two people involved.
  3. Removing social norms from legal expectations does in fact mean that we will have to lawyer-up for the smallest detail.  The other option would be that those who don't have lawyers are at mercy of those who do (which removes their liberty more than just about anything else I can think of)
  4. When you intermix societal and legal norms, you get the advantages of law without having to have a large institution of government for enforcement.  It is their separation which causes us to have a large, coercive government which only has power due to its coercive abilities


December 17, 2009

Religion and Politics / Libertarianism vs Conservatism


While I often assail the left-wing on this blog, I don't always find the time to do equal justice to the not-wing -- the libertarians.  Conservatives and Libertarians are often lumped together because of two things (and really they are both the same thing):

  • We both dislike the direction of the left-wing, and the attitudes with which they approach public policy
  • Many of the first steps that either position would take when in office would be the same -- removal of the massive governmental beurocracy which has developed

However, I think that because of these broad-stroke similarities, many people miss the issues with libertarians. 

I think there are a lot of ways in which you could separate libertarians from conservatives.  This post is going to concentrate on one of them:

  • Conservatives want to dismantle the governmental infrastructure in this country.  Libertarians want to dismantle the legal infrastructure as well.

Libertarians tend to be reductionists in their thinking.  They want all legal structures to follow contract law, and reduce everything else to that.

This is why many libertarians view marriage as an improper role of government.  According to much libertarian thought, marriage doesn't have any role in law, except as two parties wish to establish a contract with each other.  Only then should the law step in.

Conservative thought, on the other hand, views a number of different relationships as being governmentally important, and thinks that law should be engaged in dealing with those.

Here's are several reasons why I'm a conservative:

  1. I think that enabling people to live simply and peaceably with each other without undue interference should be a primary governmental goal
  2. I do think that society needs rules and boundaries to operate in a variety of circumstances
  3. I do not think that society needs a large government to accomplish #2, and that a large government is in direct opposition to #1

The thing that libertarians don't seem to understand is that it is precisely the fact that many of our social mores get encoded into law that allow us to operate with a small government, and with that government having minimal interference in our lives. 

By giving norms the weight of law, it allows people to live simply by following common and respected patterns, without requiring governmental intervention.  It is precisely these social forms and customs which make governmental intervention redundant.

Take marriage, for instance.  It is true that in many societies marriages do not need approval from the state (like a marriage license).  But that does not mean that marriage is any less within the bounds of law.  Precisely because a society has norms and customs surrounding marriage (which are utilized directly within the law) means that two people can be married without any need for permission or approval from the government. 

Can you imagine a society in which, in order to get married, you needed to lawyer-up and make an airtight contract defining the terms of your relationship?  That would be ludicrous!  It is precisely because we have social norms that are reflected in legal norms that two people who are in love can get married with minimal intereference with the government.

In fact, in absence of social norms reflected in legal norms, you wind up having to make a contract for everything you do.  So, instead of dealing with governmental red tape every time you interact with them, you have to deal with red tape in every single interaction you make with any person at all!  Our society is already moving this way, with all of the disclaimers, End-User-License-Agreements, privacy statements, and other idiocy we have to deal with every day.  All of these stem from the fact that our social norms are being segregated from our legal norms in the name of "neutrality" (whether religious neutrality or some other form of multiculturalism).

You might object that it is not the libertarians who are doing this but the liberals.  But in this aspect the liberals and libertarians are in complete agreement.  Both agree that social norms are mere contrivances, and therefore do not merit the coverage of law. 

Conservatives, on the other hand, view social norms as a vital part of an integrated society, which cannot be cleanly separated into "legal", "cultural", and "religious" aspects.  Our law is meaningless if it is separated from cultural norms, and cultural norms are derived from religious ideals.

The fact is that the liberals are right about one thing - if you want to treat social norms as mere cultural artifacts, it takes a big beaurocracy to do so.  The liberals want one big beaurocracy in the government, while the libertarians would like a signed contract completely stating all terms and assumptions when I go to purchase a hamburger, and for a team of lawyers to sit in the front row of the wedding ceremony.

Social norms, however, allow you to live peaceably in society with each other without the hassle.  In a conservative culture, you can focus on loving each other, and not on the legal hassles which will result from loving each other.

December 15, 2009

Religion and Science / Deontological Ethics and Emergence


NOTE - Don't get lost in the opening sentence, I will explain myself as I go on

I have been studying emergent behaviors of systems for a variety of inquiries, and think I have found an interesting connection between emergence and ethical systems.

Emergence is the idea that there are global properties of systems that are not present in any of the details of the system.  For example, if you look at the function of a car, it is for locomotion.  However, none of the _parts_ of the car themselves are capable of indepedent motion.  Gasoline is not, spark plugs are not, the drive shaft is not, etc.  However, when all of the parts of the car are correctly assembled, the car can move.  Therefore, independent motion is an emergent property of the car - it is something the car does that none of its individual components can do.

A subset of emergent systems are rule-based emergent systems.  That is, given a set of players, and a set of rules, one can get global behavior to emerge that is not apparent in the rules themselves.  For instance, it has been found that honeycombs have a very characteristic, global pattern.  That pattern is stable even if it is perterbed by experimenters, or no matter what the initial state is.  However, the honeybees do not have to have the global pattern in mind in order to implement it.  It seems, instead, that bees only apply a few, simple rules for what to put in each cell.  Those rules, when applied consistently and repeatedly, always result in a global pattern of honeycomb organization.  As I mentioned earlier, this pattern is stable even in the face of adverse interventions, such as experimenters modifying the organization while the bees are away.

Now, when it comes to ethics, there are two main systems of ethical thought - deontological, or rule-based ethics, and teleological, or goal-oriented ethics.  I tend to do both, depending on how clear the scriptural teaching is.  If there is a clear rule in scripture, I try to follow it, but use the goals outlined in scripture to fill in the details.

Deontological ethics has come under a lot of fire in postmodernity.  While people can understand a person who holds on to their ideals in spite of adversity, the idea of following rules seems old-fashioned.  Whose rules are you following anyway?  It is thought that deontological ethics is outmoded because the rules themselves require justification, and that justification could only be provided by a teleological framework.  Therefore, any apparently deontological system that was worthwhile would actually have a teleological system hiding underneath, giving purpose to the rules that were being followed.

I think that deontological ethics has been unduly frowned upon, however.  There are many aspects of deontological ethics which are worthwhile, even in absence of an underlying teleology. 

Or, I should clarify, even in absence of a personal teleology.

If God has a purpose, or a vision, for what society should look like, what is the best way to implement it?  Most teleologists would assume that God would give us the goals, and that we would use the goals to implement God's plan.  But what if it wasn't so simple?  What if the path to the destination wasn't directly visible to us?  What if there were too many variables?  What if God did not want to rely on our intellectual capacity to implement His visiion for our social order?

Perhaps He used, like He appears to have used on the honeybees, a rule-based approach for our living.  That is, perhaps God's end-goal for society is an emergent property of His people following His rules.  It is not something that is visible from the rules themselves, but rather something that will emerge when we are obedient to His instruction, having enduring properties not available to us if we were to try to implement it on our own.

And so, I think a re-evaluation of deontological ethics is in order, focusing on the relationship between rules and emergence and God's goal for humanity.

While I'm thinking of it, Thomas Sowell gave another good reason for deontological ethics (actually he's given several - this one is from Basic Economics if I recall).  His point was that social classes can do well even in a society that discriminates against them.  However, it can do this only if its rules are well-specified, relatively static, and consistently applied.  I don't remember the specific example, but Sowell points out that in one society, although the minority class had very few rights, those rights were well-specified and very consistently applied.  Therefore, they could be leveraged, and used for social advancement.  In a teleological system, the goal is, well, the goal, and the rules can be bent in service to the goals.  This does not lend well to social advancement, as whatever ideological errors exist in the society are actually encoded into the laws.  In a deontological system, only the accidents of the ideological errors are encoded into the laws, and can be overcome through social leverage.  This cannot be done in a teleological system. 

Therefore, a deontological system actually allows for better resilience to ideological error than a teleological system.

November 26, 2009

Religion and Science / A Friend's Journey to YEC


A friend of mine wrote about his change from theistic evolution to young-earth Creationism here.

November 08, 2009

General / Academics vs. Laity


I am often appalled at the way in which many academics treat laity.  Whether it is the way in which academic theologians think about the faithful Bible-believer in the pew who knows only how to read the Bible devotionally or it is the way in which evolutionists think that no other discipline (or especially someone just making use of common sense) might have something to add to biology.

If I've ever treated someone this way, I'm sorry.  It is a bad habit, and it is bred into you in the post-graduate level.  Basically, any thinking like a lay person should be thought of as stupid, and talked down to, rather than addressed seriously.  That is the way nearly every academic professor I've run into has behaved when teaching classes, and so that academic elitism gets transferred to the students by osmosis.

What academics don't realize is that there is a perspective that lay people can offer that is simply unavailable to them in an academic setting.  This isn't to say that lay people are more knowledgeable than the experts.  On the contrary, the perspective that lay people offer is important precisely because they do not know all of the details. 

Think about the view of earth as a fly, a person, an airplane, and a satellite.  Each of them might be looking at the same spot, but each one is seeing very different things.  The satellite will never see the details that a fly does.  However, the satellite may in fact have data, or even a perspective, that would be useful to the fly.

I often challenge evolutionists to try to find something of value in the way in which creationists (not me, but the lay creationists that annoy them so much) are thinking.  They often respond that while they can value the person, there is no way in which they can value such idiotic ideas.  Really?  Nothing?  Can you value the way in which they rest solidly on their faith, even though you might disagree with its content?  Can you value some aspect of the way their worldview works?  I have trouble thinking of any thought pattern which is completely valueless.

But this looking-down-your-nose attitude continues to prevail throughout culture.  And it's not just evolution.  If you hear the way in which theologians talk so condescendingly about people who read the Bible who have no idea of the synoptic problem, but just want to know God better, it is truly disgusting.

The fact is that lay people have, among other things, the following attributes in which academics simply cannot have:

  • A fresh perspective on the issue that is not clouded with the discipline's own history of investigation
  • A view of the discipline only from the perspective of how it interacts with other disciplines
  • A view of the data using alternate rubrics of interpretation and reliability
  • A habit of sorting through the data so as to ignore the unimportant and grasp only the essentails (let me tell you - academics are habitually trained to focus, in a razor-sharp manner - on the unimportant)

Any particular lay person will have additional perspectives which are valuable.  This doesn't mean that academics should abandon their post for a lay-only view of their subject.  But it does mean that people who aren't part of a discipline might have valuable insight that is simply unavailable to the unaided academic community.  If a layperson is incorrect, belittling them is not the answer - but rather a process of both finding out where they are coming from and explaining where you are coming from is the answer.  I've often found that, even when someone is completely wrong, there is a kernel of truth to what they say, and if you find it this kernel will be greatly valuable.

For you lay people, be encouraged.  Just because an academic treats you like mud doesn't mean your ideas are worthless.  It just means that you having gone through the right hazing rituals to be respected by their community.  For you academics - lighten up!  A two-way dialogue is the best way to interact with the lay public, not a one-way lecture.

November 06, 2009

General / Critique: Harvey Cox's The Future of Faith


I have been reading Cox's The Future of Faith.  There seems to be a rash of reinterpreting what Christianity means.  I don't know if there is a direct-causal relationship, or which way the causality goes, but I will say that the rise of "reinterpreting Christianity" seems to match, almost step-for-step, the rise in theistic evolution among evangelicals.  I think that what is happening is that they stem from a common theological sea change - the move from an emphasis on special revelation to an emphasis on general revelation.

Cox describes what he views as the direction that Christianity is headed in as "the age of the spirit".  He says that we have been in the "age of belief", where Christianity was identified by adherence to specific doctrines, and are moving into a period where Christianity will be defined by people who are empowered by the awe they see in the universe, however they define it, to live it out in their lives by doing good.

Cox tried to make a connection to this view of the world to the early days of Christianity, but really it doesn't stack up.  The Bible - the book produced and used by the early Church - makes it clear both that (a) there is doctrine, and (b) that it is important.  It is true that sometimes Christians go overboard with doctrine and forget our calling in the world.  Nevertheless, scripture (and likewise the early Church) makes it clear that doctrine is, in fact, important.  Of course it is wildly popular today to talk about other types of Christianity in the early period (Paul had some interesting things to say about these other types of Christianity himself).  However, this was not mainstream Christianity, nor was it an extension of the apostle's teaching.

The fundamental flaw with the move to general revelation over special revelation is that Christianity is a historical religion.  It's very foundation is the fact that God has indeed done special things throughout history.  God is Himself involved in history.  Christianity cannot be replaced with a sense of awe that invokes a desire to do good.  It is about God doing specific things with specific meanings.

Did God do these things?  If so, then they matter - both their historical reality and their implications.  If not, then we need to not improve Christianity, but rather simply switch religions.

Cox on several occasions tries to convince the reader that the old way of believing is invalid, but his arguments are excessively weak.  He argues against end-times notions on the basis that it doesn't help environmentalism.  He argues against Biblical Christianity on the basis that Catholics and Jews have different Bibles.  He argues against fundamentalism on the basis that people get carried away with it (has he never read any of the liberation theologians he espouses?).

It is true that Christianity is often suffocated by creeds.  But the fix is not to abandon them, but to rather, (a) be more cautious about our own ability to fully rationally understand and articulate the faith, and (b) put them in their right place within Christianity.  Creeds are important, but God calls us to be united.  Cox, like others (see Spong, for instance), call for a "shift" in Christianity, which is actually an abandonment.  What you believe is important, because these are God's acts in history.  If Jesus did in fact come down to be a sacrifice for us all, then what you believe about that event matters. 

The God that Christians worship is a God who has been active in the world from the beginning - not in some nebulous manner - but a real, active, and detectable presence throughout history.  Christians live in continuity with God's message, believing in His works, and trusting Him about what the future will hold.

But that is not the future of faith that Harvey Cox sees.