6. Original Sin
I suppose most folks have an intuitive resistance to original sin. It seems unfair. Yet what, exactly, is it that prompts this instinctive reaction? There is a difference between being blamed for doing some I didn’t do, and being blamed for something I didn’t do. The former is unjust because it is untrue. But the latter is subtler. When men rankle under the dogma of original sin, I doubt that they draw this distinction.
Certainly there are many cases in which I’m blameworthy for something I didn’t do—precisely because it was something I was supposed to have done. And there are cases in which I’m blameworthy, or share the blame, for something done by another. A father is largely responsible for the behavior of a young child.
The reprobate and unregenerate cannot believe the Gospel in much the same way as a bad man cannot stand to be in the same room as a good man. The mere presence of a good man makes him feel unclean. Having you ever noticed, in this regard, how the most indignant men are the most evil men? They fly into a rage at the slightest breath of criticism, whereas a saint is characteristically contrite.
The ubiquitous appeal of art, drama and literature is prized on our capacity for imaginative identification with another. We project ourselves into the situation of the character—even to the point of moral complicity (e.g. voyeurism). Hence, the idea of our vicarious solidarity with Adam, so far from being counterintuitive, is more in the nature of a cultural universal.
It is amusing to see how quickly folks will forfeit their grandiose claims on freewill. A liberal preacher goes to the movies Saturday night. There, in the darkened movie theater, his attention is glued to a patch of dancing light. He sees everything through the lens of the cameraman. His perspective is skewed by the director’s viewpoint. He identifies with a sympathetic character. He relates to his sticky situation. He resonates with the pathos of a powerful actor. His moods mirror the color scheme. His emotions are massaged by the sound track. His feelings synchronize with the moviegoer behind him, beside him, and ahead of him. Having marinated himself in polite mob psychology and vicarious virtual reality for two or three hours, he mounts the pulpit Sunday morning to denounce the dogma of original sin as a tyrannical infringement on our impregnable freedom.
A lot of folks seem to find the idea of predestination claustrophobic. How do we account for their existential panic? The reasoning seems to be as follows: If I were just a dumb animal, then it wouldn't matter to me; but to be conscious of my own fate feels as though I'm being shadowed by a doppelganger. I peer over my shoulder only to catch myself fulfilling my own fate.
But this dualism is illusory, for there is a wide difference between knowing that my choices are foreordained, and knowing what they are. If I knew in advance, and could do nothing to alter the fact, then that would induce this paranoid feeling of a spectral self trapped in the body of an automaton. But the decree is a hidden decree.
Suppose we compare predestination to a game of seven-card stud. God is the dealer. One of the players is a believer, the other an unbeliever who tries to cheat the believer at every turn. However, God has stacked the deck so that his chosen people will win over the long haul.
Now, God is securing the outcome by securing the deal. Yet he isn’t forcing the hand of a crooked player. Since a crooked player doesn’t know that the dealer is a cardsharp, he bets and bluffs just the same as if the deck were randomly shuffled. He can only play the hand he’s dealt, but that’s true in any poker game, and he enjoys the very same choices he’d have if the cards just happened to play out in that order.
God allows the unbeliever to cheat the believer, but feeds the believer enough winning cards to keep him in the game. God then lets the crooked player become overconfident and bet the whole jackpot on a weak hand, at which point the Christian calls his bluff and rakes in all the chips.
To me, there’s a delicious irony in this arrangement, for a crooked player constantly tries to cheat his fellow player, but all the while he’s being cheated by the dealer. That’s more than bare permission, but less than overt coercion—just as Assyria was a rod of wrath in the hands of the Almighty, levied by providence to crush a hypocritical nation (Isa 10:5-19). Assyria meant it for evil, but God meant it for good (Gen 50:20); for God tips the scales here-and-now to right the scales hereafter. (Some readers may feel that it is irreverent to take an illustration from professional gambling; but, in fact, the Bible uses a gaming metaphor to describe God's providence [Prov 16:33].)
Man has more freedom of choice than does a dog. Unlike the merely instinctual or Pavlovian behavior of the animal kingdom, man has been endowed with a capacity for moral and rational deliberation. But God chooses our choices. God is responsible for everything, but blamable for nothing. To say that God is responsible for whatever happens is not to say that God is solely responsible for whatever happens. God is not the only agent in the world. God is the primary agent, but he has made secondary agents as well.
There are many men who, for whatever reason, find predestination deeply unpalatable. And, for them, dislike and disbelief are one and the same thing. Yet there are certain drab advantages to believing unlovely truths over lovely lies. A lunatic is free to believe whatever he pleases, but as that renders him a danger to himself and others, he is confined to a padded cell. Although the truth may crimp our style, a clear-headed man is fundamentally freer than a madman, for he knows what will work and what will not. A medium is both a door and a wall. If you respect the medium, it empowers you; if you disrespect the medium, it overpowers you. A ship on water is liberating; a car on water is a coffin. Jumping off a cliff will get you to the bottom of the hill quicker than keeping close to the trail, but the benefits of speed are off-set by the hard landing. The only free man is a man who lives by the promises and admonitions of the Lord. By respecting reality, he avoids the dangers and enjoys the dividends that only a reverence for the truth can repay.
The popular appeal of freewill stands for a state of arrested adolescence. Now it may be natural and normal for teenagers to be a bit rebellious. But God is not the sort of father we will ever outgrow, so the itch for independence is out of place where our religious relations are concerned. Indeed, one purpose of parenting is to model our dependence on God. Nothing is more laughable than the spectacle of an emancipated five-year-old. His best efforts to run away from home take him no further than the tree-house in his own back yard. And even then he must come down for dinner and a dry place to sleep.
Freewill is the oldest heresy in the book, having a diabolical origin (Gen 3:1-5). It was the temper himself who insinuated that our primal parents were free to defy God and go their own way. But while they were at liberty to disobey the law of God, they were never free of the will of God, for their very downfall was decreed of God (Rom 11:32; Gal 3:22).
In a fallen world, freedom is like a jailbreak. Would we really wish to empty the prisons and have marauding bands roaming the streets? If evil is foreordained, then there is hope—for evil is restrained by a higher reason for a higher good; but if evil is freely willed, then there is only despair—for it has no boundaries in time and space.
8. Euthyphro Dilemma
It is often thought that the Euthyphro dilemma cancels out the appeal to God as the ground of morality. I've already addressed this objection in my essay on Bertrand Russell ("Why I am not a Russellite").
9. Crimes of Christianity
One of the most popular objections to the faith is the charge that various atrocities have been committed in the name of Christ, viz., Inquisition, Crusades, pogroms, witch-hunting, wars of religion, &c.
i) One of the revealing things about this charge is the way it betrays the lack of a self-critical sense on the part of unbelievers. For even if the charge were altogether true, isn’t the time past due for the secular humanist to account for all the atrocities committed on his watch, viz., Baathism, Maoism, Nazism, Stalinism?
ii) Although various sins are inconsistent with Christian ethics, then are not inconsistent with Christian theology for the obvious reason that Christian theology includes a theology of sin. Sin does not disprove the Gospel, for the gospel is predicated on sin. Unbelievers were hardly the first to find hypocrites inside the church (Mt 23). But what about all the hypocrites outside the church?
iii) Freedom of dissent is a modern idea. The Medieval Church was intolerant of dissent because the Medieval Church was an autocratic institution. But the same could be said of the Medieval State, or the pre-Christian state, or the post-Christian state—with its speech codes and the like. To single out the Church for special censure is anachronistic and blinkered.
iv) At the same time, freedom dissent has its logical corollary in freedom of assembly. The Church, like any voluntary association, has the right to lay down the terms of membership—just like political parties and professional associations.
v) There is a rote way in which unbelievers tick off the crimes of Christianity. They always cite the same, shopworn examples, viz., the Crusades, the Inquisition, &c. To this a couple of things need to be said. To begin with, since I am not Roman Catholic, I’m no more blamable for Catholic church history than Jews are blamable for the Nazis. After all, the Spanish Inquisition targeted Evangelicals—among other victims, and the pogroms slaughtered Armenian believers as well as Jews.
However, we need to make some allowance the situation facing the Latin Church. Islam was the mortal enemy of the Church. And it still is. The Crusades were a counteroffensive to push back a rising Jihad. Just read Urban’s speech to the Council of Constance. And the Spanish Inquisition was a mopping up operation to round up collaborators after the Moors were driven from of the Iberian Peninsula. Both the Inquisition and the Crusades got out of hand, but it is easy for us to jeer from the cheap seats, and I’m prepared to cut the Catholic Church a little slack on this matter.
Witch-hunting peaked, not during the Middle Ages, but the Enlightenment. Likewise, the wars of religion took place during the Enlightenment. Guilt-by-association has a long reach, and infidels may find themselves mired in the same tar pit if they resort to such tactics.
I’d add that the wars of religion did not a represent a popular movement, but were instigated and prosecuted by European monarchs. The Christian conscript is not to blame for following orders at gunpoint. And the Irish problem is owing to the legacy of English colonialism.
Let us also recall that it was theologians like Augustine and Aquinas who tried to lay down the rules of war in order to minimize atrocities. Just war doctrine is a Christian creation. Before then it was a free-for-all.
10. Christian Chauvinism
Many people take great offense, or at least feign offense, at the exclusive claims of the Christian faith. What are we to make of this?
i) It is a commonplace of human experience that people disagree with one another. If I disagree with you, I must think that I’m right and you’re wrong. So unless the critics of Christian chauvinism are going to resign the right to ever disagree with anyone about anything, it is unclear why they reserve one standard for themselves, and a contrary standard for the Christian.
ii) The alternative to believing that only one religion is right and every opposing faith is false is believing that every faith is false bar none. So it is hard to see how this is more tolerant than Christian chauvinism.
iii) Christian chauvinism would only be morally wrong if it were factually wrong. The pluralist assumes that Christian chauvinism is false. And he is only tolerant in the demeaning sense that if all religious creeds are false, then one creed is no better or worse than another, and it matters not which one you believe in as long as your equally insincere.
iv) However, the objection may take a more moderate form. The issue is not that all religions are wholly false, but that no one religion is wholly true; hence, the propert attitude is to revere the glimmers of truth in each religious tradition.
But even if this were so, the question is how a pluralist happens to privy to knowing where the truth lies in each religious tradition. What is his benchmark? Under the guise of tolerant magnanimity, isn’t he assuming a God’s eye view? For how can he say that this or that faith is relatively true or false unless he is gazing down from his Olympian throne?
v) Many of those opposing Christian mission are supporting sociopolitical activism. They feel that some political beliefs are right, but others wrong. They deem it terribly important to convert people from the wrong political party to the right political party. They deem it terribly important for educational institutions to indoctrinate the young in liberal values. They write books and articles to convince us of their superior views. They even support coercive legislation to penalize dissent.
But why the double standard? Why is religious persuasion immoral, but political persuasion is a moral imperative? Why religious relativism, but sociopolitical absolutism?
vi) However, some would say that the problem is not with believing that I am right, but in failing to make allowance for the possibility that I may be wrong. By way of reply,
(a) The abstract possibility that I may be wrong about something is no reason to question my convictions. It may be that if I get out of bed, I’ll be run over by a car, but that is not sensible reason to stay in bed all day.
(b) Why is the pluralist more worried about being wrong than being right? To be sure, there are dangers in being wrong when you supposed you were right. But there are equal dangers of moral paralysis, of refusing to act on what you deem to be right for fear of being wrong.
(c) A Christian is quite willing to admit that he may be wrong about almost anything—excepting, that is, his Christian faith ; what he is unwilling to admit is that God may ever be wrong. The Christian does not lean on his own fallible wisdom, but on the infallible wisdom of God.
(d) It may be objected that (c) only pushes the problem back a step. At issue is the question of whether the Christian may be wrong about God. But if that is, indeed, a serious question, then the answer cannot be short-circuited by preemptive finger-waging about the arrogance of religious intolerance.
vii) It is sometimes said that oriental religions are more tolerant than occidental religions. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that that is true, they have more reason to be tolerant, for eastern religions are not prized on the principle of divine revelation. And so they have no theoretical basis for religious certainty.
But to fault occidental religions for being less tolerant that oriental religions ignores their varying truth-conditions. A revealed religion has different truth-conditions, and for that same reason, a claim to religious certainty. The primary question is the authenticity of its revelatory status.
But are oriental religions more tolerant? They have vicious fights over succession within a given school or sect, and vicious fights between hostile schools and sects. They are fanatically inflexible over fine points of ritual. They persecute Christian missionaries and converts. The tolerant image of oriental religions seems to be the image exported for Western consumption, and not an impression formed by those who have had to live in the orient.
viii) Critics of Christian chauvinism are fond of tossing around the charge of intellectual arrogance. But what, exactly, is intellectual arrogance? Is it merely the conviction that I am right and you are wrong?
I define intellectual arrogance as anti-intellectual arrogance. I am guilty of intellectual arrogance if and when I do not hold myself accountable for my beliefs—when I insist that I am right, and you are wrong, but I refuse to offer a rational defense of my convictions, when I have no intellectual standards. To be intellectually arrogant is to be both dogmatic and irresponsible inasmuch as I don’t have the arguments to back up my dogmatism. On the one hand I assume an air of intellectual superiority while, at the same time, withdrawing into a shell an unreasoning obstinacy when my vaunted beliefs come under fire. But the Christian faith has always had a strong apologetic component. We make a reasoned case for what we believe.