Saturday, December 28, 2019

Decision-making

I'd like to draw some distinctions in decision-making:

i) There's a difference between morally wrong decisions and mistaken decisions. You may have one or more morally right options. You may make the wrong decision, not because it was morally wrong, but because you had insufficient information to predict the consequences.

ii) Apropos (ii), there's a difference between making the right decision and making a reasonable decision. Because we don't know the future, we must make shortsighted choices. The choices have unforeseen, unintended consequences. That's part of human finitude, as well as the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We didn't choose the situation. The situation generates the options and the available information. 

iii) Apropos (ii), I mean reasonable at the time we made it. The decision may turn out to be mistaken in retrospect, but we didn't have the benefit of hindsight when we made it. We had to choose based on the information at our disposal at the time. It may be mistaken, but that's an innocent mistake. 

iv) Apropos (iii), a dilemma in decision-making is that we don't know in advance if we're making a good decision. We can only find out by acting on an option, after which it may be too late to fix it in case we made the wrong decision. 

Don't kick yourself if you made a thoughtful, conscientious decision that backfired. Ultimately, everyone is at the mercy of providence. 

Communion of the dying

There's the communion of the living. Human beings alive at the same time, who collectively experience the life on earth. 

There's the communion of the dead. The fellowship of the saints in glory who collectively experience heaven. 

Their counterpart is the fellowship of the damned. Hell may be compartmentalized, so that perdition varies. 

There's the communion of the glorified The fellowship of the saints who collective experience the world to come, on a renewed earth. 

There's the communion of the dying. I have in mind those who are lucid. The psychological experience of withdrawing from the world of the living. Who begin to withdraw psychologically before they withdraw physically. Or gradually withdraw in tandem. 

Unbelievers may react to this very differently from believers. But there's a shift in identity, where the dying have a special affinity with each other. Where they relate more to the dying, through the experience of the dying, which they now share in common, than to the living. It depends on part on whether they have the grace to cope with their impending farewell. 

Whatever you think of Trump

Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump (and my own views about the President's delinquencies are well known) surely it's not hard to understand why large numbers of Evangelicals and Catholics favor him over any of the Democrats seeking their party's nomination (despite the fact that many Evangelicals and Catholics aren't happy about the President's character, coarse rhetoric, and some of his polices). There is the fealty of every single one of the Democratic nominees--every single one--to the abortion and sex lib lobbies. If you believe, as Evangelicals and Catholics believe, that abortion is the unjust killing of innocent and defenseless members of the human family, then it is nigh impossible to imagine circumstances under which one could support a politician who pledges to work night and day to deny unborn children any legal protection against the lethal violence now visited with impunity upon nearly a million of them each year. And that is precisely the pledge every Democratic candidate makes to Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and the entire base of their party. But that's only for starters.
Evangelicals and Catholics have watched as Democrats and progressives across the country have worked to shut down Catholic and other religious foster care and adoption agencies because, as a matter of conscience, these agencies place children in homes with a mom and a dad. They have watched as cake bakers, florists, caterers, wedding planners, and others (even the pizza shop-owning O'Connor family ad the software designer Brendan Eich) have been harassed in efforts to drive them out of business and deprive them of their livelihoods because of their beliefs about marriage and sexual morality. They have watched as the Democratic and progressive mayor of Atlanta terminated the employment of Kelvin Cochran, the city's Fire Chief, for the same reason--he had published a book upholding Biblical teaching on marriage and sexual morality. They have watched as Democrats and progressives have tried to "cleanse" entire fields of medicine and healthcare of Evangelicals, Catholics, and other pro-life people by imposing on them requirements to implicate themselves in the taking of innocent life by abortion. They watched as Beto O'Rourke proposed--over no truly meaningful opposition from his fellow Democratic presidential aspirants--to selectively yank the tax exempt status from churches and other religious organizations that refused to fall in line with progressive ideological orthodoxy on sex and marriage.
I could go on.
Now, none of this is to deny that there are some Evangelicals and Catholics (and other Trump supporters) who seem entirely to overlook Donald Trump's faults and failings. They see nothing but good in the man. But at least in my experience these Evangelicals and Catholics are in the minority. Most recognize his faults and failings and wish he were better. Their support for him is based on a prudential judgment that the overall situation for the common good would be made much worse if he were to lose to one of the Democrats. And they fear--with justification--that the consequences for themselves and their religious institutions would be dire if such a thing were to happen. In this respect, their position is formally like that of their anti-Trump co-religionists who favor a Democrat because their prudential judgment is that, though a Democratic president would do great harm to values they cherish (such as the sanctity of human life, and religious liberty and the rights of conscience), the harm would be less than the harm Trump will do to those values and others in the long run.
My point here is not to try to adjudicate this dispute. (For what it's worth, I think that it's a more complicated business than most people on either side suppose. I may say more about that on another occasion after I've reflected on it a good deal more.) It is simply to say that no one should be surprised that many Evangelicals and Catholics (including some like my pal Keith Pavlischek who refused to vote for Trump in 2016) support the President over the Democratic alternatives. Whether one assesses and weights the reasons as they do or not, they do have reasons.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Trump is the wall

To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?


i) The editorialist begins with a tendentious, one-sided version of the impeachment allegations, then, based on his interpretation of the facts, accuses evangelical Trump supporters of presenting a bad witness to the world. His appeal is circular inasmuch as evangelical Trump supporters don't agree with his interpretation of the facts, or his priorities.

ii) Indeed, presidential image takes a backseat to substantive policy. And it's about far more than just abortion. This isn't about "political expediency" but protecting the innocent from secular totalitarians. The attitude of unbelievers is not my moral benchmark. That's mindless blackmail. 

iii) The editorialist says nothing about the Democrats vying for Trump's job. How very telling. 

iv) Thus far, Trump failed to build the border wall. Instead of a border wall, Trump is the wall. And not just or primarily a border wall. Trump is the wall standing between the secular totalitarian vandals on one side, and Christians, innocent children, &c., on the other side. Evangelicals are supposed to bulldoze the wall and let the vandals swarm in to impose their secular totalitarian regime? Really? 

These aren't ordinary times. It's like the difference between wartime and peacetime. 

v) The issue of Christian witness cuts both ways. On the one hand is the allegation that evangelical Trump supporters foster a bad image of Christianity, thereby driving people away. I'm dubious about that. Most of Trump's critics were already secular progressives or "Christian progressives." They never were part of or attracted to conservative evangelicalism.

On the other hand, NeverTrump evangelical leaders (e.g. Russell Moore, J. D. Greear, Christianity Today) are projecting a very damaging image of Christianity to the rank-and-file as out-of-touch elites who only identify with fellow elites and not with the plight of Christians, middle class Americans, and working class Americans facing the secular progressive juggernaut, spearheaded by the LGBT brownshirts.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Joseph's fiat

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

973 By pronouncing her "fiat" at the Annunciation and giving her consent to the Incarnation, Mary was already collaborating with the whole work her Son was to accomplish. She is mother wherever he is Savior and head of the Mystical Body.

The "fiat" alludes to the Vulgate rendering of Lk 1:38:

fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum

“let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). 

Catholic theologians act like this means God was putting the plan of redemption up for a vote by giving Mary a veto. Of course, the Annunciation is an announcement of what God will bring to pass. 

I've read Catholic apologists claim that if the virgin birth was nonconsensual, then it was rape. That overlooks the elementary fact that rape requires sex: penetration of sexual intercourse. But of course, the virginal conception is nonsexual. Sexless rape?  

Be that was it may, let's play along with the Catholic argument for its own sake by drawing a comparison. In Mt 2, Joseph receives some revelatory dreams. These are premonitions of danger. The dreams implicitly raise the specter of alternate futures. If Joseph stays, his young son will be murdered by Herod's henchmen. But he can avert that hypothetical outcome if he gets out of Dodge in time. If things continue as is, along their current trajectory, Jesus will die a premature death. 

iii) This raises a question for Christian libertarians. Was failure to heed the angelic warning a live option for Joseph? Pause to consider what that would entail. We're not just talking about the fate of a lone individual. The fate of the whole human race would hang in the balance. The Incarnation would be in vain. Centuries of providential preparation would go up in smoke. God would have to start from scratch. So by parity of argument, why does Catholicism single out Mary's "fiat" but ignore Joseph's "fiat"? 

For that matter, the logic of the Catholic argument extends to so many other players in the history of redemption. Take the call of Abraham. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Quasi-moral dilemmas

Moral dilemmas are interesting for several reasons. Catholic apologists assure us that a Magisterium can give us crucial moral guidance which Protestants lack. Yet in many cases, Catholic theologians don't even pretend that the Magisterium has all the answers. Traditionally, there are competing schools of casuistry in Catholicism–some stricter and some laxer. 

Moral dilemmas also raise questions about the kind of world we live in. Is it a world governed by divine providence–or a random universe where bad things happen for no reason at all? Calvinism may rule out moral dilemmas whereas freewill theism may generate them. 

Moral dilemmas a paradoxical inasmuch as it might be argued that if an agent, through no fault of his own, finds him thrust into a situation where no right course of action is open to him, then that absolves him of culpability. He ends up to doing something that would normally be wrong, even heinous, if he had a better option. 

From my reading, examples of moral dilemmas either involve doing something wrong or not doing the wrong thing, but if you don't, someone else will do it in your place. Suppose I'm a POW. Suppose two of my fellow POWs are caught stealing food. The prison guard gives me a choice: if I shoot one of them, he will spare the other. Up to me which one I shoot. If I don't shoot one of them, he will shoot both. 

Now let's switch to a different example. Suppose I'm a young bachelor who gets drunk, then drives home drunk, killing a cyclist on the way home. I don't turn myself in because I've got too much to lose, and I can't restore the life of the hit-and-run victim. And it remains an unsolved crime. Although that's a hypothetic case, there are many real-life examples. 

Putting aside what I ought to do in that situation, let's complicate it. A few years later I get married and have kids. Where does my duty lie now? I now have dependents. Prior obligations. So whatever I should have done before, it may now be too late for me to turn myself in, because to turn myself in at this stage conflicts with my present and future duty to my wife and kids. There's a conflict between past and future duties. 

This, however, is different from a moral dilemma in the usual sense. I'm not in a situation where I must do something wrong (or normally wrong). It's not a forced option where the only available alternatives are to do something wrong, or leave it to someone else to do it. 

Rather, it's about me not doing the right thing. Are there situations in which there's a moral distinction between doing the wrong thing and failing to do the right this? This example seems like a candidate. 

The point is that sometimes we may not know the right answer because there is no right answer. That are wrong courses of action, but not necessarily a right course of action moving forward. There are limitations to ethnics in a fallen world. In addition, this is why only God can exact perfect justice. 

The Island of Dr. Moreau

Much is made of whether modern science contradicts the Bible. But what about future developments? Does transhumanism pose a defeater for the Bible? 

What if scientists figure out the biological cause of death, and how to counteract it? Would scientifically-engineered immortality falsify the Bible? Here's an interesting passage:

During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them (Rev 9:6).

Immortality can be blessing or a curse. 

What about human/animal hybrids? Although they aren't specifically human/animal hybrids, Revelation also describes cross-species hybrid monsters. 

Timeless cause/effect relation

I was asked a question about a timeless God's creative relation to the world.

i) It's  not so much that God exists before time but  that he exists apart from or outside of time.

ii) There's an asymmetrical relation. The world has a first moment. So on the mundane side of things, there was something new. 

But from the divine side of things, it's a timeless relation because God is timeless, so there was never time when God was not the Creator. There was no shift in God from when God was the sole existent to God and the world. No change in God. It's a one-sided change.

Here's another potential way to model the issue. Causation normally involves both an interval and a medium. A stock objection to Cartesian dualism is that there's nothing to mediate the cause/effect relation, since mind and matter are categorically distinct substances. 

However, a counter to that objection is that if effects are necessarily mediated effects, then that generates an infinite regress. 

So it seems inevitable that effects bottom out with direction causation. Nothing mediates the transaction. 

If, however, we eliminate the medium, then don't we also eliminate the interval? But if there's no medium, then it's a timeless cause/effect. There's nothing in-between the cause and effect, either substantially or temporally.

A Savior And Lord

"today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11)

"You are willing to have Christ to pardon you, but we cannot divide him, and therefore you must also have him to sanctify you. You must not take the crown from his head; but accept him as the monarch of your soul. If you would have his hand to help you, you must obey the scepter which it grasps. Blessed Immanuel, we are right glad to obey thee!" (Charles Spurgeon, The C.H. Spurgeon Collection [Albany, Oregon: AGES Software, 1998], Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 36, p. 635)

Monday, December 23, 2019

People of the lie

What does Rev 21:8 mean? It can't mean anyone who ever lied is doomed to hell. That would mean there's no point in unbelievers converting to Christianity. Most pagan gentiles lied on a regular basis. It can't mean it's too late for them to become Christian because their behavior as liars damns them in advance. 

In the larger context of Revelation, it has reference, not to tactful lies or altruistic lies (e.g. lying to protect the innocent). Rather, the "lie" in Revelation is false worship. Counterfeit religion. Diabolical heathenism, in defiance of the true faith. In Revelation, the "lie" is paganism. Idolatry. To be a devil-worshiper, under the guise of polytheism. You live in service of that lie. You live in service to a systematic lie about God. 

Not coincidentally, that's how the word is used in 1 Jn 2:22 & 5:10. A religious lie. Likewise, Jn 8:44. If's not as if Satan tells altruistic lies. That's not the kind of lie in view. Rather, he lies about God. He deceives people about God. He leads them astray from the one true God. 

The Light Of The World, In Word And Deed

One way to judge the historicity of something is by whether it's reported in multiple types of contexts. For example:

"Multiple forms. This criterion should not be confused with multiple attestation. Instead of appealing to a similar episode in independent traditions (à la multiple attestation), the criterion of multiple forms appeals to similar content that is featured in different kinds of genre. If similar content appears in a saying and also in a parable, or if similar content appears in the narration of Jesus' actions and also in dispute dialogue, this criterion is warranted. For example, Jesus' respect for John the Baptist appears both in logia and in the narration of his baptism. This, of course, does not speak to the historicity of the final form of these sayings/stories, it merely indicates that such respect was remembered of Jesus' historical life and ministry." (Anthony Le Donne, The Historiographical Jesus [Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2009], 89-90)

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Hyperbole and pacifism


The Sermon on the Mount is the primary prooftext for Christian pacifists. In my reading, a neglected consideration is the fact that hyperbole is a fixture of Christ's pedagogy. You find that throughout the Gospels as well as the Sermon on the Mount in particular. This doesn't mean we can impute hyperbole willy-nilly to whatever Jesus said. But it's something we must make allowance for. In some cases, hyperbolic is overt, but in other cases it's just understood. Take Christ's blanket statements about prayer promises. So we can't automatically take everything Jesus says at face value. There's no presumption in the abstract that the statements of Jesus on any particular occasions are or are not hyperbolic. But in some cases we may not be able to settle the question. 

The Importance Of The Conclusion Of Matthew 2

The end of Matthew 2 doesn't get as much attention as it should. I agree with D.A. Carson's view of what Matthew tells us about Nazareth:

"But the formula [citing scripture in Matthew 2:23] is unique in two respects: only here does Matthew use the plural 'prophets,' and only here does he omit the Greek equivalent of 'saying' and replace it with the conjunction hoti, which can introduce a direct quotation (NIV) but more probably should be rendered 'that,' making the quotation indirect: 'in order to fulfill what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene' (cf. W. Barnes Tatum Jr., 'Matthew 2:23,' BT 27 [1976]: 135-37). This suggests that Matthew had no specific OT quotation in mind; indeed, these words are found nowhere in the OT….We may exclude those [interpretations of Matthew 2:23] that see some wordplay connection with an OT Hebrew word but have no obvious connection with Nazareth….Nazareth was a despised place (Jn 7:42, 52), even to other Galileans (cf. Jn 1:46). Here Jesus grew up, not as 'Jesus the Bethlehemite,' with its Davidic overtones, but as 'Jesus the Nazarene,' with all the opprobrium of the sneer. When Christians were referred to in Acts as the 'Nazarene sect' (24:5), the expression was meant to hurt. First-century Christian readers of Matthew, who had tasted their share of scorn, would have quickly caught Matthew's point. He is not saying that a particular OT prophet foretold that the Messiah would live in Nazareth; he is saying that the OT prophets foretold that the Messiah would be despised (cf. Pss. 22:6-8, 13; 69:8, 20-21; Isa 11:1; 49:7; 53:2-3, 8; Da 9:26). The theme is repeatedly picked up by Matthew (e.g., 8:20; 11:16-19; 15:7-8; see Turner). In other words Matthew gives us the substance of several OT passages, not a direct quotation (so also Ezr 9:10-12; cf. Str-B, 1:92-93)." (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Revised Edition, Vol. 9: Matthew & Mark [Gran Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2010], 124-25)

As W.D. Davies and Dale Allison note, "Moreover, given the belief in the significance of Bethlehem and in Jesus' birth there, the prominence of Nazareth in the gospel tradition would have been all the more puzzling. Mt 2.23 is, therefore, an attempt to come to grips with a difficult fact." (Matthew 1-7 [New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010], 274) Even in later centuries, Tertullian refers to how Jewish opponents of Christianity called Christians "Nazarenes" (Against Marcion, 4:8), and Julian the Apostate derisively gave his anti-Christian work the title Against The Galileans in the fourth century. In our day, critics of Christianity still make much of Jesus' Galilean background, often emphasizing how he was known as Jesus of Nazareth, contrasting that with the expectation that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem.

Furthermore, Jesus and his family don't just go to Nazareth briefly, but instead apparently live there for the rest of his childhood. Consider the contrast between that setting for Jesus' childhood and something like Moses being raised in the household of Pharaoh, Samuel being raised in a sanctuary setting with Eli, or John the Baptist going into the wilderness early in his life. So, Jesus not only lives in Nazareth, but even does so from an early age without living in the sort of setting that distinguished figures like Moses, Samuel, and John the Baptist.

Matthew 2:23 is significant for meeting the criterion of embarrassment in so many ways. It's also significant in that critics of the infancy narratives often claim that Jesus is being paralleled to Old Testament figures like Moses and Samuel and that Jesus is being portrayed as superior to John the Baptist. Yet, Matthew (in agreement with Luke) portrays Jesus' childhood as a largely ordinary one spent in his parents' home in a small, disreputable town.

And the parenthetical comment I just made is important. Luke agrees with Matthew on these issues. Those kinds of agreements are often overlooked or underestimated in discussions about how much Matthew and Luke agree concerning Jesus' childhood.

We should also notice how Matthew 2:23 reflects a larger pattern we see in the early Christian accounts of the childhood of Jesus. The characteristics of 2:23 that I've described above are also seen elsewhere. Think of the premarital timing of Mary's pregnancy, for instance. See the further examples I cited in an article I wrote on the magi account last year. And I discussed more examples in an article on Luke's material.

It's fitting for Matthew to conclude his account of Jesus' childhood with a passage like 2:23. Much of what he and other early Christian sources reported about the childhood of Jesus met with a lot of contempt because of characteristics like the ones discussed in this post. That doesn't sit well with the notion that they were writing fiction or erroneous history.