To split or not to split

A recent poll of United Methodists found that more than 90 percent of respondents don’t think the church should split over the question of homosexuality. Moreover, “[c]reating disciples of Christ, spiritual growth and youth involvement” were named as higher priorities than debates over sexuality.

The congregation I belong to is firmly in the “open and affirming” camp, and yet our pastor and leadership are strongly committed to the view that the church can and should include people of divergent views on this, as well as on other matters.

Now, in practice, I’m not sure how this is going to work, since as a matter of policy the church will have to come down on one “side” or another. Maybe the best we can hope for is some kind of “local option,” similar to what my former church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has been moving toward. I’m of two minds about this because, on the one hand, I do consider full equality of LGBT persons to be a matter of justice and not simply personal preference. But at the same time, there are good Christian people who have not come around on this, and I’m not convinced that it would be healthy to continue the already-pronounced Protestant tendency toward schism by splitting the church further.

Two additional considerations incline me against a split: first, since we believe in grace and the Spirit, Christians shouldn’t regard anyone as beyond having a change of heart. And second, we shouldn’t think that we (for any value of “we”) possess the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Even in positions we regard as fundamentally wrong, there may be elements of overlooked truth. Staying in communion and conversation with people we disagree with can be a check on smug self-certainty.

I don’t think that there’s any neat and clean solution here, and any course of action is likely to result in pain and loss. And we should be particularly alert to the effect any choice will have on those who’ve been on the receiving end of discrimination for so long. Straight Christians like myself are only too prone to discount how toxic church environments can be for LGBT people.

Probably many churches will muddle through for some time yet without coming to a decisive resolution. But I do think it’s still worth trying to find ways to muddle through together.

 

 

 

Confessions of a backslidden vegetarian

Adam Kotsko posted today about why he’s not a vegetarian, even though he seems like the sort of person who should be one. I was a vegetarian, of increasing strictness, for almost 10 years. I found philosophical arguments for vegetarianism convincing (though I never accepted animal rights arguments in their strongest forms). I read lots of books about it. And I posted about it quite a bit on this blog. So why did I stop? Did I discover a previously unnoticed hole in arguments I had once accepted? Or did I just find living without meat unbearable?

Nothing as exciting as that, I’m afraid. Basically, it had to do with pragmatism and a desire to maintain family harmony. My wife and I have two small children (ages 4 and almost 2), and as many people with kids will tell you, getting them to eat can be a challenge. Early on we agreed that we weren’t going to try to enforce a particular diet on them. We would try to make sure they ate a variety of more-or-less healthy foods, but we weren’t going to exclude meat, if that’s what they were willing to eat. (My wife had never been as strict about not eating meat as I had.)

We never intended to eat meat at every, or even most, meals. But eventually it became clear that it would be burdensome for my wife, who does the majority of the cooking in our house, to provide a “vegetarian option” at every meal. So we agreed that I’d eat meat–generally poultry or fish–once or twice a week, along with the rest of the family. This would only be at dinner, since, at least during the work week, we eat breakfast and lunch separately. If I wanted to keep eating veggie at those meals, that would be up to me.

And this arrangement has worked out well for us. The majority of my meals are still vegetarian, but I eat meat with the rest of my family at supper a couple times a week. I’ve generally stuck to poultry and fish, but have occasionally eaten beef too. (For some reason, I still can’t bring myself to start eating pork again.)

I don’t really have a good intellectual rationalization for this, except that figuring out what works best for my family is more important to me than avoiding meat because of my personal scruples. I still think that factory farming is a moral scandal and that we as a society should probably eat a lot less meat. But the difference between me personally eating all vegetarian and just eating mostly vegetarian, as far as its contribution to the sum total of good in the world goes, doesn’t seem worth fussing over at this point in my life. Maybe this will change as my kids get older, but for now call me a demi-vegetarian or a flexitarian. Or maybe just a sellout.

“Theistic ethics” or Christian ethics?

I said in my previous post that some Christians might be worried by the fact that Ward’s Morality, Autonomy, and God doesn’t appeal to the Bible or specifically Christian revelation. Shouldn’t Christian ethics be informed by convictions specific to Christianity?

In his book Behaving in Public, Christian ethicist Nigel Biggar takes a position that is similar to Ward’s, but is in some ways more satisfactory (in my view) because he is more willing to draw on specific Christian doctrines. Like Ward, Biggar affirms a version of natural law:

To affirm natural law, then, should be to affirm the following: that there is a form of flourishing that is given in and with the nature of human being; that reflection on human nature can achieve an understanding of that flourishing and its component basic goods; that reflection on human experience can produce a grasp of kinds of disposition and action that respect and promote those goods; that all human beings are, despite their sinfulness, somewhat capable of an accurate grasp of basic goods and their practical requirements; and that, therefore, there are sometimes areas of ethical agreement between Christians and others.

However, Biggar also says that “revelation and faith” add both motivational and cognitive content to ethics:

None of this, however, makes the Christian theological salvation-narrative ethically irrelevant. It does not say that sinful humans have the motivation to do sufficiently what they know to be right, apart from the penitence, faith, gratitude, and hope that the story of God’s salvific initiative inspires. Nor does it say that they have the power, unaided by biblical tradition, to know completely what is good, what is virtuous, or what is right.

Like Ward, Biggar thinks that the hope for “postmortem fulfillment” can make moral aspirations more reasonable: “the presence or absence of theological faith and hope can determine what seems morally ‘reasonable.'” Yet, Biggar doesn’t appeal to a generic theism, but to specifically Christian revelation. An implication of this revelation is that there are certain goods beyond those identifiable by “natural” reason which are an intrinsic part of human fulfillment–goods like religious practices “designed to reverse our alienation from God.” In addition, God’s “revealed salvific ethic also involves a certain way of responding to injuries that other sinners cause: namely, through ‘forgiveness’ in the forms of forbearance and compassion and a will to reconciliation.” Although there can be agreement about temporal goods necessary to a relatively just society, the overlap between Christian ethics and other traditions within a pluralistic society will be “partial and provisional.”

I doubt Ward would disagree with much of that (he is, after all, a Christian); but an appeal to an unqualified or abstract “theism” obscures distinctive Christian doctrines and practices and elides the differences between Christianity and other theistic religions. For Biggar, the distinctive goods and  norms of action prescribed by Christianity derive their force from its specific salvation story. This isn’t an optional extra, but an integral part of what it means to do Christian ethics.

(How) does morality need God?

“Does ethics need God?” is an old question, and the answers we get are often simplistic. On the one hand, Christians (and other religious believers) sometimes identify ethics with “God’s will” conceived as a sheer command, and they imply (or sometimes outright assert) that only believers in God can be moral. On the other hand, secularists sometimes insist that belief in God is not only unnecessary to ethics but positively harmful, because it makes being moral a matter of cowering before an arbitrary deity who threatens us with eternal damnation if we slip up.

Keith Ward’s recent book Morality, Autonomy, and God offers a refreshing alternative to this rather stale stand-off. Ward (former Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford) agrees that people don’t have to believe in God to be able to discern what is good and bad, but he goes on to argue that a theistic metaphysics can provide support for moral understanding and moral endeavor—support that may not be available to non-theistic views.

Ward argues that reason can identify certain goods that are conducive to the well-being of rational, autonomous agents. These include things like freedom, knowledge, creativity, and friendship. These goods are “worthwhile states” that are “reasonably choosable by an affective intelligent agent” (xii). Such states are states that “all rational agents have a good reason to want” (ibid.).

According to Ward, a naturalistic metaphysics (at least an “enriched,” non-reductive naturalism) can make room for such goods as part of the “fabric of reality.” In other words, ethics is about human flourishing—about realizing that goods that are worth choosing.

However, naturalism has some weaknesses that may undermine a more ambitious understanding of ethics. In particular, it’s unclear whether naturalism can account for the “categorical” nature and universal scope of moral obligation. That is to say, are we obliged to pursue worthwhile states, or is this just a matter of the desires we happen to have? Moreover, is ethics just a matter of establishing rules to facilitate each person’s pursuit of their own well-being, or is there a stronger obligation to work for a society of universal benevolence—one in which everyone can realize their potential?

There is a morality that may be founded on human sympathy together with cool self-love, and a recognition of the necessity of a cohesive society for the secure pursuit of most of our interests. Yet we may be left feeling that this rather comfortable morality lacks the resources for passionate resistance to injustice or for real self-sacrifice for the sake of others. (p. 45)

Naturalism can support the first point, but it’s difficult, Ward says, to see how it underwrites the second, more ambitious, understanding of morality. On most naturalistic views, the universe does not support our pursuit of the good; everything depends on our “fleeting, ambiguous, and short-lived” efforts. Why try to create a society of universal flourishing when this is almost certainly doomed to failure? And given the radical gap between our moral ideals and our actual performance, does it even make sense to expect such lofty things from human beings?

Theism, Ward suggests, can provide support for this higher moral aspiration. Goods—i.e., possible worthwhile states that can be realized in the world—can be understood as eternal possibilities residing in the divine mind. In creating the world, God chooses to actualize certain objectively worthwhile states. Further, God presents us, as creatures endowed with reason, with possibilities for realizing further goods. Along these lines, Ward sketches a revised “natural law” account of ethics—human flourishing consists in realizing the goods proper to personal agents. (This non-biologistic account of natural law would likely yield less conservative conclusions than some traditional versions in areas like sexual morality.)

God can also been seen as providing aid to human moral effort—helping us to bridge the “moral gap” between what we are and what we should be. In traditional Christian terms, this includes both “justification” (forgiveness) and “sanctification” (making us actually better). A theistic view of the world also holds out the promise of a fully realized society of universal flourishing (even if only after death). Understood this way, theism can provide support and motivation for the more ambitious morality of universal human well-being.

It’s important to note that Ward isn’t arguing that ethics can prove the existence of God. Rather, he’s saying that our intimations of a categorical morality of universal human flourishing receive the most support within a broadly theistic metaphysical (or possibly non-theistic  but religious) framework. Naturalism, he maintains, strains to find the resources to justify anything beyond a limited, prudential morality.

Some Christians may object to Ward’s argument because he doesn’t rely on the Bible or special revelation. But he represents a long-running tradition of theistic Platonism that sees ethics as rooted in universal, eternal truths that subsist in the divine mind. Revelation may clarify certain moral truths, but as such they are accessible to reason. More important, however, is the point that moral obligations aren’t based on arbitrary divine commands, but flow from the eternal divine nature itself and God’s desire for human flourishing. This strikes me as an important counterbalance to some popular conservative accounts of Christian ethics.

Evolution, Adam, Paul, and the Gospel

I’m not sure I was part of the target audience for Peter Enns’ book The Evolution of Adam, but I still got a lot out of it. Enns reviews the scholarship around the composition and authorship of the creation story, as well as its historical context, and argues that the Adam story (i.e., the version of the creation story found in Genesis 2 and the story of the fall in Genesis 3) simply isn’t trying to answer the question of human origins in the way that a scientific account would.

Rather, the creation story (and the OT more generally) is, Enns says, an exercise in Israelite national and theological self-definition in light of competing religions and a history of unfaithfulness, exile, and calamity. In particular, the Genesis creation story can be read as responding to the similar (though also very different) creation stories of the surrounding cultures (Egyptian, Babylonian, etc.), and enunciating the distinctive Israelite view of who God is.

Placing Genesis in its ancient Near Eastern setting strongly suggests that it was written as a self-defining document, as a means of declaring the distinctiveness of Israel’s own beliefs from those of the surrounding nations. In other words, Genesis is an argument, a polemic, declaring how Israel’s God is different from all the other gods, and therefore how Israel is different from all the other nations. (p. 6)

If this is right, Enns says, there is no inherent conflict between Genesis and evolution: the accounts are simply answering different questions.

Christians today misread Genesis when they try to engage it, even minimally, in the scientific arena. Rather, they must follow the trajectory of the postexilic Israelites and ask their own questions of self-definition as the people of God: In view of who and where we are, what do these ancient texts say to us about being the people of God today? (p. 33)

However, things are a bit different when we come to Paul. Enns notes that Adam doesn’t play much of a role in the rest of the OT, and there is certainly no developed theory of “original sin.” Moreover, later Jewish tradition creatively interpreted the Adam story in a variety of ways, many at variance with what became the standard Christian version.

But Paul does seem to think (as demonstrated most clearly in Romans) that Adam was the first human being, historically speaking, and that his disobedience has infected the rest of humanity. For Paul, Adam’s transgression is the cause of sin and death—the predicament from which we are delivered by God’s great act in Jesus. Thus, many have argued, Paul’s gospel only makes sense if there was a historical Adam and a historical fall.

But this is too quick. As Enns argues, Paul is working backwards from the death and resurrection of Jesus, not forward from a theory of original sin. Paul’s reading of the Adam story is not a “straight” reading, but a creative reinterpretation in light of the crucified and risen Messiah (as was much of his use of the OT). As Enns puts it:

In making his case, Paul does not begin with Adam and move to Christ. Rather, the reality of the risen Christ drives Paul to mine Scripture for ways of explicating the wholly unexpected in-breaking of the age to come in the crucifixion and resurrection of the Son of God. Adam, read as “the first human,” supports Paul’s argument about the universal plight and remedy of humanity, but it is not a necessary component for that argument. In other words, attributing the cause of universal sin and death to a historical Adam is not necessary for the gospel of Jesus Christ to be a fully historical solution to that problem. To put it positively, as Paul says, we all need the Savior to deliver us from sin and death. That core Christian truth, as I see it, is unaffected by this entire discussion. (p. 81)

I’ve tried to make a similar point before. I don’t think that when people responded to Jesus it was because they saw him as a  solution to “the Adam problem.” They experienced a concrete liberation from something that oppressed them: illness, possession, guilt, etc. This experience of liberation was not contingent on some prior theory about the origins of sin, suffering, and death. The Adam story can powerfully express the universal human predicament, but we needn’t take it as history to make sense of the Gospel.