The Metaphysics of Morality: Part 1, Moral Axioms and Reasoning

I'm continuing to think and read about the metaphysical grounding necessary for values and morality.

If you're a regular reader you may have been following these thoughts of mine over the last few months, but it you're just jumping in a quick summary of the basic idea I'm arguing for.

In short, human values are metaphysical in nature in that they have to be taken as "goods" that are self-evident, non-negotiable givens. To be clear, metaphysical here doesn't mean supernatural or religious. Metaphysical here means axiomatic, things that simply have to be assumed as first principles to get the analytical system off the ground.

If this seems unclear, a good illustration about what I'm talking about is Euclidean geometry. For the logical system of geometry to work--Remember proving things in High School with "QED"?--some basic axioms have to be assumed. For example, an axiom of Euclidean geometry is that the shortest distance between any two points is a straight line.

Now, notice two important points about the relationship between axioms and reasoning in Euclidean geometry.

First, the entire logical system cannot get to work without axioms provided as inputs, as fuel for the logical machine. This illustrates something that I argue holds in exactly the same way for ethical and moral reasoning: Reason alone is not enough. Reason is just an analytical, logical, computational capacity. Reason can suss out fallacies and help you weigh options, but reason can't tell you what is right or wrong independently of how you value various goods when they come into conflict. In the same way that reason without axioms can't lead you to a geometrical truth, reason alone cannot tell you what is right or wrong independently of values. Reason is just a computational tool, but it's a tool that needs raw materials to work with.

This limitation of reason is illustrated by a second feature of Euclidean geometry. Specifically, if you change the axioms and you change the truths. You may or may not know this, but Non-Euclidean geometry was discovered when mathematicians rejected the fifth axiom of the Euclidean system. This was the parallel postulate, the axiom that two parallel lines could never intersect. Well, when you reject that postulate, when you allow a parallel line to cross at some distant point, what you have is a geometry for curved space. This Non-Euclidean geometry for curved space is what Einstein famously turned to to come up with his theory of General Relativity, gravity as causing curvatures in spacetime.

My point here is how different axioms created different geometries, different truths and proofs. Both Euclidean and Non-Euclidean geometry are equally logical and rational, but they describe different realities because they start with a different set of axioms.

I am arguing that a similar thing happens in moral and ethical reflection. Two competing ethical systems can be equally rational. Both systems can make appeals to "reason." For the most part, then, the differences in ethical systems isn't that one is rational and the other irrational. In this sense, a secular, non-religious ethical system and a religious, theistic ethical system can be equally rational. Both reason from axiomatic, first-principles toward ethical conclusions. Any differences in ethical conclusions between these or any other ethical systems would be due to different axioms, as with Euclidean and Non-Euclidean geometry. One ethical system defines "the good" one way and an alternative ethical system defines "the good" in an different way. Just like Euclidean geometry accepts the parallel postulate and Non-Euclidean rejects it.

All that to say, appeals to "rationality" and "reason" in ethical debates is really beside the point. The fundamental issue is how one defines "the good," the fundamental axioms that give you the raw material for ethical reflection and decision making, from the personal to the political.

The point I've been making across various posts is that everyone, theist and atheist, are involved in this metaphysical task, in declaring and specifying "the good," the evaluative, non-negotiable givens that will guide ethical reasoning. Before you can start "reasoning" you have to specify your values, and how those values are ranked should they come into conflict.There's no way to avoid this fundamental task. Oh sure, you can try to say that a process of reason produced your values. But that just backs up the problem. We can ask you to show your work, to display all the inputs and steps of that prior process of reasoning, what axioms provided the input and what computational steps were executed to get to the position you currently espouse.

At some point, unless you're a nihilist, you'll drill down to the basic inputs, to the metaphysical foundation, to the givens, to the moral axioms upon which your ethical systems stands.

Journal Week 46: Johnny Cash Book Update, Some Help, and an Update

In July I finished my first draft of my forthcoming book about Johnny Cash titled "Trains, Jesus, & Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash."

In the weeks since I've been working on getting lyric permissions. The rights of most of Johnny Cash's songs are held by Hal Leonard and Alfred Music. So I had to go through the process of requesting from both publishers permission to quote Johnny Cash lyrics in the book. It's a process you have to be patient with.

So far, I have received permission to quote from the following songs:
"I Walk the Line"
"The Man in Black"
"Folsom Prison Blues"
"San Quentin"
"The Ballad of Ira Hayes"
"Give My Love to Rose"
"The Legend of John Henry's Hammer"
"Sunday Morning Coming Down"
"Ragged Old Flag"
"Drive On"
"All God's Children Ain't Free"
"Delia's Gone"
"The Man Comes Around"
"The Gospel Road" 
Each chapter of the book is built around one songs above.

I'm still wanting and working on getting permissions for two other songs.

The first is "Hurt," the Johnny Cash cover of the Trent Reznor song. "Hurt" is controlled by Kobalt Music and I'm still trying to get a response from them.
The other song is "Greystone Chapel," written by Glen Sherley when he as an inmate at Folsom Prison and famously sung by Johnny Cash during the recording of the live concert album At Folsom Prison. Alfred Music controls the worldwide rights to "Greystone Chapel," and I have secured that permission. But a different company controls the US rights to "Greystone Chapel." That company is Copyright Management Inc. However, it seems this company no longer exists.

Copyright Management Inc. was in Tennessee, but according to Tennessee it seems like the company dissolved in 1982.  It looks like the company might have became Copyright Management Inc. of New York in 1989, but that company seems to have dissolved in 1999.

All that to say, without knowing if Copyright Management Inc. exists and where I can find it, I have no idea how to get the US permissions to "Greystone Chapel." Is it possible, if this company dissolved that "Greystone Chapel" is now in the public domain and I can quote the song?

You have any knowledge or expertise in this area, or can locate who controls the US permissions to "Greystone Chapel," I'd be much obliged.

Thanks to some sleuthing from Kyle M. we have some more leads. It seems William (Rusty) Courtney with Family Airs Publishing may have the rights to "Greystone Chapel."

However, I can't find contact information online for Mr. Courtney or Family Airs Publishing. The only lead is his LinkedIn profile. And his Twitter account, which hasn't been used in some time.

I tried to call Mr. Courtney's last place of employment listed on LinkedIn, but the establishment doesn't seem to have a direct line. So, if you're in the Nashville airport, stop by to see if Mr. Courtney is sill bartending at Hissho Sushi and ask how I might get in touch with him.

Sunday School with Judges: Part 4, This Is Not the King You Are Looking For

The most famous character in the book of Judges is Samson.

Samson is an interesting character. First, let's admit this: The stories of Samson are great stories. Theology and ethics aside, we can see why the Israelites preserved and shared these stories. There's serious entertainment value here.

That said, beyond fireside tales of legendary exploits, what are we supposed to take away from the stories of Samson?

Here's the way I asked the question in my Sunday School class: Was Samson a good judge or a bad judge?

The answers here are all over the place.

Some say Samson was a good judge. In the stories, God is with Samson at critical moments. The New Testament book of Hebrews also lists Samson, along with other judges, as a hero of the faith.

But there are also many commentators who argue that Samson is the very worst judge. Some see a downward progression in Judges, each judge getting worse and worse and worse, finally culminating in the mess known as Samson.

I actually think this mixed message is the point we're supposed to take away from the book. Samson may be a hero, but he's also a train wreck.

And that's because all our heroes are like that.

Think about every hero you've had in your life, people you've put up on a pedestal. And then remember when they disappointed you. We want our heroes to be perfect, but no human is perfect. Everyone fails. Everyone disappoints. Everyone has skeletons in the closet.

Everyone, even the best of us, has a fall from grace.

Toward the end of Judges, after all the crazy stories, there is a refrain, a longing that keeps getting repeated: "In those days Israel had no king."

The message is clear. Samson might be a hero, but he wasn't the king we were looking for.

Saul won't be either, when Israel finally does get a king. David won't be either. Not Solomon. Not anyone. No mere mortal is going to be the king we are looking for.

And I think that's the big point of the book Judges by the time you get to the end. Judges leaves you with an ache. You might thrill to the stories in Judges or be horrified by them. Either way, by the time we get to the end of the book we haven't found the king we were looking for. And the world is suffering because of that. Judges leaves you searching and longing for the Kingdom of God.

In short, Judges is a mess, but what Judges leaves you with is a Messianic longing. An ache for the Kingdom of God. The longing for our rightful king.

Samson might be a great read, but he's not the king we were looking for.

Sunday School with Judges: Part 3, Exodus, Again and Again

It might be hard to find the gospel in Judges, but I think it's clearly there.

The word "judge" is not really the best description for the protagonists in the book. Many commentators think the word "deliverer" is better. Because that's mainly what the judges did, they delivered Israel from oppression.

If you're familiar with the book of Judges you know it presents us with a cycle that happens over and over again in the book. Things start off good, but Israel slowly turns away from God, becoming tangled in the thorns and snares of the gods of the nations surrounding them. As punishment, God allows Israel to be enslaved and oppressed by her pagan neighbors. Under the heavy yoke, Israel cries out for rescue. God hears the cries of Israel, has pity upon them and sends a judge, a deliverer to set the people free. And this happens over and over.

There's something about the repeated, iterative nature of this cycle that really leaves an impression with you.

Specifically, every rescue in Judges is like a little Exodus, every Judge a little Moses setting the people free. Only this happens over and over. It's Exodus, again and again.

But it's also more than that. Judges is a foreshadowing of God's promise to rescue Israel after the exile that comes with the fall of Israel and Judah. As N.T. Wright likes to point out, Israel's bondage in Egypt wasn't due to sin. The exile, by contrast, was the result of sin. Thus, the liberation of the exiled people of God has to involve the "forgiveness of sins" in a way that wasn't in play with Moses and the Exodus.

But the repeated little Exoduses in Judges are very much associated with the forgiveness of sin, as each season of bondage and oppression is a consequence of Israel's sin. In this, the book of Judges stands between Exodus and the Exile, an echo of Exodus but also a foretaste of a coming grace: the forgiveness of sins.

And what I think is really powerful about Judges is its picture of the iterative nature of this grace and forgiveness. In Exodus and the exile, the frame is a one-time event, a linear, serial process. But in Judges, grace is iterative, a repeating cycle. In Judges, it's grace again and again.

That insight into the repeated, iterative nature of grace is unique to Judges. And once again, this is a message that will preach. Because who doesn't need grace again and again?

Yes, we all need the big, climatic salvific moments in our lives. The Big Emancipation. We all need Exodus. But in the day to day grind of the spiritual life, trying to live into the long faithfulness, the message of Judges rings more true. Few of us make steady, cumulative progress on the way to holiness and heaven. Our spiritual lives feel more like a cycle. Good, strong, spiritual seasons falling back into disobedience and darkness. And then back into the light. Faith. Disobedience. Bondage. Rescue. Over and over again.

So that's the gospel according to the book of Judges. What I need in life, what we all need, is grace.

But we need it again and again.

Sunday School with Judges: Part 2, Thorns and Snares

As I mentioned yesterday, one of the big struggles many of us have with the book of Judges is how, coming on the heels of Joshua, it continues the conquest of Canaan.

That said, Judges quickly changes the focus. Concerning the surrounding pagan nations, the struggle in the book of Judges shifts from removal and eradication to faithfulness and covenantal fidelity in the midst of the nations. From Judges 2:
Judges 2.1-4
Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” As soon as the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the people of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. 
God changes the agenda. No longer will God stand with Israel in battle against the nations. God will leave the nations where they are so that they will be "thorns" and "snares" to Israel.

To be sure, there are some sticky issues here, how God seems to leave the nations in place as a punishment for Israel. Regardless, this situation changes the game in Judges when compared to the book of Joshua. Specifically, with the nations staying put the focus in Judges lasers in on the issue of idolatry, remaining faithful to God in the midst of thorns and snares.

And that is a message that can preach. I preached it recently out at the prison and it really resonated. "You live among thorns and snares," I said to the Men in White. And they wholeheartedly agreed. All around them the gods of this world are enticing or threatening them.

And it's the same for all of us. We live lives surrounded by thorns and snares. And as the image of the snare makes clear, this is not a passive situation, us just falling into a hole. We feel positively hunted by predatory forces. These are snares we are avoiding.

All that to say, while the book of Judges has its problems, the book does speak to this situation well, the experience of trying to be faithful while living among the nations, about fidelity to God while living in the midst of thorns and snares.

Sunday School with Judges: Part 1, Judges is Hard on Judges

A few months ago, the adult Bible classes at our church did a series on the book of Judges. As regular readers know, I teach an adult Bible class every Sunday at my church. The name of the class is Sojourners, and I've been teaching it for about fifteen years.

When I first heard we'd be doing a series on Judges I groaned. Along with the book of Joshua, Judges is one of the hardest books to teach. For three reasons.

First, following after Joshua Judges continues the conquest narrative of Israel, the command to remove and displace the Canaanites in the land.

Second, Judges is filled with violence. To be sure, the violence makes for great story telling. From Ehud stabbing the obese Moabite king Eglon to Jael driving a tent peg through the temple of the Canaanite general Sisera. These stories are great stories, but they are hard to turn into Sunday School material.

And third, there are many "texts of terror" in the book of Judges, some of the darkest and most tragic stories in all of the Bible. From Jephthah's daughter (Judges 11) to the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19).

So, yeah, Judges presents the Sunday School teacher with a bit of a challenge. Especially for an adult Bible class like mine, filled with liberal, progressive Christians. For many, the book of Judges is an obstacle to faith. For the reasons stated above. Every Sunday with Judges was going to be triggering a faith crisis.

Still, I wanted to be a dutiful Sunday School teacher, so our class did a series on the book of Judges. And I'd like to use a few posts to share what that sounded like.

I started by naming the elephant in the room, our problems and issues with the book of Judges. What I discussed above.

At that point I could have gone into a big hermeneutical spiel showing how progressive, liberal Christians read these problematic Old Testament texts. There's tons of great material out there on how do read the Bible this way, from Rachel Held Evan's Inspired, to Peter Enns's The Bible Tells Me So, to Rob Bell's What Is the Bible?

But I didn't launch into a big hermeneutical discussion. For three reasons.

First, the study was supposed to be a study about the book of Judges, not a class on how to read the Bible. There is a time and place for a class on how to read the Bible, but such a class is a whole multi-week and multi-month study of its own. And I just didn't have the time. I had eight weeks to cover the book of Judges.

Second, I think sometimes we just need to let the Bible be weird and unsettling. I understand the impulse to smooth out all the rough, dark, violent edges. But I also worry about doing that all the time.

Let me state it this way, if I already know what the Bible should and ought to say, why read it at all? If I already know what the Bible is supposed to say before I read it, the Bible can't teach me anything or challenge me. The Bible is always and only going to preach to me an enlightened, humanistic worldview that helps elect Democrats to political office.

All that to say, I think there's some value it just allowing the Bible to be strange and unsettling, without always quickly rushing to explain it all away.

And finally, there's the Jews. These stories of military victory and conquest were not written by the Empire. These are the stories of one of the most oppressed and persecuted people in history. Yes, it's highly problematic when the Empire adopts theses stories as it own. Social location is everything.

Let me put it this way. I get the issues we have with the Old Testament, but there's something obscene about tone policing and concern trolling the Jews.

So that's how I started off the class. Yes, I said, we have lots of problems with the book of Judges. And yes, I could spend a lot time deploying a sophisticated progressive hermeneutic that would protect us from the text before we waded in. But why don't we, I suggested, just let the stories stand as they are and see what we can see?

And here's the first thing I see when I read the book of Judges.

Yes, as progressive, modern readers we're hard on the book of Judges. But guess what? Judges is hard on Judges. No Hebrews would read the book and say, "Those were the best of times." No, the message of Judges is exact opposite. As the book slowly descends into chaos, terror, and darkness we reach the take home point of the book: "These were the worst of times."

Judges is deeply aware that something is profoundly broken. Judges is not a triumphalistic book. It is a story of moral and political collapse.

And if that's true, it might be a really interesting book for us to read today.  

Journal Week 45: Autumn

The leaves are starting to fall here in Texas. And the days are getting cooler.

Autumn has always been my favorite season. The turn from summer to winter has always made me grow melancholy and reflective, even as a child. There's a pensive moodiness to autumn that I've always experienced. The music that has always perfectly captured my mood this time of year is George Winston's album Autumn.

I grew up in Pennsylvania, so I miss the full palette of color Northern trees give you this time of year. Here in Abilene we mostly have live oaks, mesquite trees, and pecan trees. None of which turn fiery red or orange during autumn. I miss those colors.

Still, on my bike ride to work brisk chilly winds are starting to blow, leaves are starting fall, pecan nuts are dropping and filling the yards, and the sun is setting sooner. So I'm growing reflective and thoughtful again. Just like when I was a boy, walking home from school kicking his feet through wet autumn leaves...


One of the things that strikes you about the parables of Jesus is his emphasis upon vigilance, being watchful for the coming kingdom.

I've written about this before, how the kingdom comes via perception. The kingdom of God is near, always at hand, if we could see it.

Jesus's call to watchfulness and vigilance makes a similar point. The kingdom comes upon us unexpectedly, unannounced, and without warning. Consequently, we have to be attentive and alert.

In my life, I've come to think that spiritual practice is maintaining this posture of watchfulness throughout the day. Spiritual practice is cultivating the perceptual capacity to the discern the kingdom that is near and at hand.

Where is the kingdom, right here and right now?

Be alert. Watch. Attend.

There Is Mercy In Heaven, But The Road To It Is Paved By Our Merciful Acts On Earth

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy." My brothers and sisters, sweet is the thought of mercy, but even more so is mercy itself. It is what all men hope for, but unfortunately, not what all men deserve. For while all men wish to receive it, only a few are willing to give it.

How can a man ask for himself what he refuses to give to another? If he expects to receive any mercy in heaven, he should give mercy on earth. Do we all desire to receive mercy? Let us make mercy our patroness now, and she will free us in the world to come. Yes, there is mercy in heaven, but the road to it is paved by our merciful acts on earth. As Scripture says: "Lord, your mercy is in heaven."

There is, therefore, an earthly as well as heavenly mercy, that is to say, a human and a divine mercy. Human mercy has compassion on the miseries of the poor. Divine mercy grants forgiveness of sins. Whatever human mercy bestows her on earth, divine mercy will return to us in our homeland. In this life God feels cold and hunger in all who are stricken with poverty; for, remember, he once said: "What you have done to the least of my brothers you have done to me." Yes, God who sees fit to give his mercy in heaven wishes it to be a reality here on earth.

What kind of people are we? When God gives, we wish to receive, but when he begs, we refuse to give. Remember, it was Christ who said: "I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat." When the poor are starving, Christ too hungers. Do not neglect to improve the unhappy conditions of the poor, if you wish to ensure that your own sins be forgiven you. Christ hungers now, my brethren; it is he who deigns to hunger and thirst in the persons of the poor. And what he will return in heaven tomorrow is what he receives here on earth today.

What do you wish for, what do you pray for, my dear brothers and sisters, when you come to church? Is it mercy? How can it be anything else? Show mercy, then, while you are on earth, and mercy will be shown to you in heaven. A poor person asks you for something; you ask God for something. He begs for a morsel of food; you beg for eternal life. Give to the beggar so that you may merit to receive from Christ. For he it is who says: "Give and it will be given to you." It baffles me that you have the impudence to ask for what you do not want to give. Give when you come to church. Give to the poor. Give them whatever your resources will allow.

--Saint Caesarius of Arles

Apocalypse: Unveiling or Invasion?

As many of you know, the Greek word apocalypse means "to unveil" or "to reveal." An apocalypse means that something which was hidden has now been brought into view.

Many of the scholars who describe Paul as an apocalyptic thinker, though, add something more to this definition. More than "unveiling," apocalypse means "invasion."

For example, in his highly influential commentary on Galatians, Louis Martyn makes some observations about this passage:
Galatians 3.23-25
Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed [apocalypse]. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
First, note the images of bondage and captivity. "Held under custody." "Locked up." "Guardian."

Next, note how Paul describes the apocalypse as "coming": "the coming of faith," "the faith that was to come," "until Christ came," "this faith has come."

In short, the apocalypse isn't just an unveiling, the apocalypse is something that breaks into our world as sets us free. Apocalypse as invasion, as an act of deliverance.   

Here is Martyn summarizing Paul's imagination:
The genesis of Paul's apocalyptic--as we see it in Galatians--lies in the apostle's certainty that God has invaded the present evil age by sending Christ and his Spirit into it. There was a "before," the time when we were confined, imprisoned; and there is an "after," the time of our deliverance. And the difference between the two is caused not by an unveiling, but rather by the coming of Christ and his Spirit.

Journal Week 44: Notebooks

"How do you write so much?

That's the Number #1 question I get asked by people to follow the blog. How am I able to write so much, week after week, year after year?

One of the reasons is my addiction to notebooks. For decades I've carried a moleskine notebook with me, wherever I go. And I do mean, wherever I go. I have stacks and stacks of  notebooks in my house from over the years.

I use the notebooks to jot down ideas, compose poems, or write down good quotes. Almost every thought I have or the smallest creative spark gets captured in a notebook.

All that to say, I think a lot of us have many good thoughts all the time. We just don't capture them. So when it comes time to face a blank screen we find we don't have anything to write. But if you have a notebook that's captured all your stray, random ideas, all you have to do is flip through the pages to recover those flashes of insight or that good quote you came across last week.

Obviously, this isn't the only factor in play, but it's a piece of it. If I'm heading out the door I'm grabbing three things. My keys, my phone, and my notebook.

Being With Children

Regular readers may remember that last fall, a year ago, Jana and I were helping with after-school childcare at Abilene Christian School. As a wrote about then, that season being with children was very spiritually formative for me.

Yesterday, I was reminded of the impact of those months visiting with the mother of one of the children. She expressed gratitude to me, reminding me that I had taught her son how to play checkers.

I shared how grateful I was to spend time with her son, and all the kids. As I shared last year, being with children teaches you how to be a human being. All children want are presence and attention. And giving those two gifts, presence and attention, trains you in how to be a good spouse, parent, and friend.

Presence and attention are the language of love. And being with children teaches you that.

The Advantage of Religious Over Humanistic Metaphysics

I was having a conversation with a member of my adult faith class about the differences I saw between a religious versus a humanistic metaphysics.

Before the contrast, let me state the assumption I'm working with, an assumption people might disagree with.

My assumption is that everyone, theist and humanist, is involved in metaphysics. Specifically, systems of ethics and/or life philosophies (visions of a "good life") are inherently evaluative and axiomatic. That is, some values have to be taken as non-negotiable, axiomatic givens. For example, the inviolable dignity of human life. A historical example is the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights..."

These self-evident, axiomatic values are metaphysical in that are not and cannot be derived from the laws governing the material cosmos. If anything, a rigorously empirical and reductionistic investigation of the cosmos undermines and sits in tension with axiomatic values. There are no values to be found the the equations of particle physics. Nor meaning in the Periodic Table. The more you drill down into the "building blocks" of nature the more devoid of meaning and value the world appears to be.

So that's my starting assumption. Everyone, theists and humanists, are engaged in some axiomatic evaluation of the world. Some values are taken to be non-negotiable givens.

Now if that's true, as I believe it is, it allows me to make the following contrast between a religious and a humanistic metaphysics, and why I think a religious metaphysics is better than a humanistic metaphysics.

Specifically, a religious metaphysics takes the self-evident, axiomatic, non-negotiable goods as real. Religion argues for values flowing out of being, ethics rooted in ontology, the good as being the truth.

By contrast, in a humanistic metaphysics the self-evident, axiomatic, non-negotiable goods are preferences. Without an ontological ground outside of material existence, values must be asserted as a matter of personal choice, an expression of the will. The self-evident, axiomatic, non-negotiable goods that guide my life are not real, they are my wish, my choice, my preference.  

The advantage, then, as I see it, between a religious versus humanistic metaphysics is that in a religious metaphysics your preferences don't make any difference about what is or is not good. The good exists independently of your opinion. The inviolable dignity of a human life isn't just my preference, it is real, and will always be real, no matter what I think about it.

In short, the good is good because the good exists, the good is real, the good is the truth. You don't have say in the matter. And because the good is real, the good doesn't cease to be good if you happen to change your mind.

All this leads me to believe that a religious metaphysics, one that roots values in ontology, is a more sturdy and robust ethical platform upon which to build a life, a society, and a world.

Three final observations.

First, I'm not critiquing the content humanistic metaphysics. On the issue of content, I think there's a huge, huge amount of common ground. For all practical purposes we're partners, not adversaries. We're on the same team, working toward the same goals.

The contrast I'm making isn't about the content, but the ground of metaphysics. And I think this issue is of some practical importance.

Is this good really true or is this good just the way I prefer to see the world at the moment? According to a religious metaphysics the good is good ontologically, so changing your mind cannot affect the good. You might go for a walk, but the good is saying put.

But with a humanistic metaphysics, changing your mind about the good is changing the good. For example, you change your ethical system--let's say you become a utilitarian--or you change your political views--let's say you switch from being Pro-Life to Pro-Choice, or visa versa. In each instance, you drop one set of ethical non-negotiables for a different set of ethical non-negotiables. This is, let's admit, really stretching the limits of what we mean by "non-negotiable."

Second, a person might object to this whole line of argument because they claim they don't need anything outside of themselves to seek and do the good. "I don't NEED to believe the good as being real. I simply love the world and don't need anything outside of my own desire to be a loving human being." The subtle comparison, accusation even, is that there's something lacking in you if you need something beyond your own goodness to motivate ethical behavior. It's a shaming tactic. In a debate this is a powerful strategy--"I don't need any of that stuff to be a good person. But you seem to. So what's wrong with you?"--as it places you on the moral high ground. And yet, outside of scoring a point in a Facebook debate, this appeal to our own innate saintliness doesn't have a lot to recommend it.

First, you're still stuck needing to explain why you chose this good over that good. And why you think people who violate these goods are wrong and need to stop.

Well, you might say, "I don't need to justify or defend it. I just do the good as I see it and don't worry about what others believe." But that's not the sort of thing we say about the goods we consider to be both non-negotiable and the highest, deepest values of our lives, the vital criteria by which we sort ethical horrors and heroism, the values by which we think the world will tip toward the darkness or toward the light. You're not picking the color of a new shirt or nail polish here. There's something in the good that we expect others to both recognize and submit to. But if the good is ultimately just a lifestyle choice, the entire world is perfectly at liberty to opt out. And you're suggesting that you'd be okay with that? That you'd just shrug and say "aw-shucks" as the world ignores and violates your most deeply held principles? My hunch is, rather, that you'd grow angry and speak your mind and demand that the world conform to the good, that people stop doing the wrong thing and start doing the right thing. But where, can I ask, are you going to get that moral leverage over the world if the good isn't both real and true?

Lastly, let's say, really truly, you don't need a good outside of yourself to do the right thing. Let's say you're a saint. You're never mean and don't hold grudges. You've never failed, not for a minute, to give fully and generously of your time, energy and treasure to those in need. You've never spent too much on Starbucks, golf, clothing, or haircuts with starving children in the world. Your house and garage aren't filled with superfluous cars, toys, and electronics. You are the perfect spouse. Never said a harsh word, committed adultery, or looked at porn. You don't have any addictions. You've never put work above your family. You have no problems with anger, envy, or jealousy. You've always given your children your full, devoted attention. Never shamed them, cut them down, or forced them to play a sport you happen to love. You've never let a friend or co-worker down. You've never hurt or betrayed anyone. Never broken a promise. You've taken care of your aging parents in an exemplary fashion. You've never cheated or cut corners. There's no one in the entire world who thinks you're a fake, liar, or jerk. The homeless can sleep in your house and eat at your table. You skip vacations to send money to the poor. And yesterday, you took your sick neighbor a cake.

You have always done the right thing, it's so natural. I can only say, I wish it were so easy for me.

For me, and for most of the rest of us human beings, we do need the good to exist independently of our preferences. We need a vision of the good that says, "I know you don't want to do this right now, but you can't opt out." We poor smucks need to stand under something that says Must, Should and Ought in a way that we can't avoid or talk ourselves out of. We need a good that makes us squirm, and even hurts. A good that interrupts, disturbs, and haunts us.

Take a long, hard, honest look in the mirror. And don't cheat, look at the dark stuff.

Maybe you don't need religion in your life.

But I do.

Journal Week 43: The Scooter Pre-Show

Next weekend is our bi-annual church retreat at the HEB Foundation camp down on the Frio River.

We love the retreat. The river is beautiful. You can't get cell service. And you're with friends all weekend. I spend most of my time reading a book by the water. It's just a lovely, restorative time.

Everyone has a job during the weekend, and for about ten years now the job of the Beck family has been to host the talent show on Saturday night.

We take our job seriously, and have left our stamp on the evening. When we inherited the show it mainly consisted of old camp gags, getting some unsuspecting person to come up to trick them into sitting on a wet sponge or get soaked with water. We nixed all that. The show is now geared toward talent and not making someone look silly.

Now, the word "talent" is broadly interpreted for our show. A small child might come up to tell a Knock-Knock joke or sing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star." Middle-schoolers do comedy skits, some old camp standbys, but most are original works created by the kids. We get story tellers, dancers, and a lot of singing and instrument playing. It's just a fun, fun time.

But the biggest impact we've had on the talent show is the Scooter Pre-Show.

Smooth concrete paths link the camp, so children bring their scooters. All weekend they scoot around.

Well, a lot of these kids have a "talent" for riding the scooter. So every retreat kids come up to us wanting to ride their scooter as an act in the talent show.

Now, an important part of being the talent show host is protecting the audience. Jana and I try to keep the show to about 90 minutes. More than that it gets tiring. Your child is adorable, but not that adorable.

All that to say, we can't have ten scooter acts, each wanting to go round and round in a circle while we play an entire Taylor Swift song.

Still, we wanted to include these kids. So we invented the Scooter Pre-Show.

As the show gets ready to start, a line of kids on scooters begins to form just off stage left of the pavilion. About 15-20 kids get lined up each show. Then, to kick off the show, I crank up a rock song (my preferred song is "Sweet Child of Mine" by Guns & Roses). Once the music starts, each kid rides out, one at a time. Each child does two loops in front of the cheering crowd, and then exits stage right while another child enters from stage left. One song, 15-20 scooter acts, in and out, and everyone is happy. The child, Mom and Dad, and a grateful church family.

For many, the Scooter Pre-Show is their favorite part of the show. It's a blast, especially when really young kids come out. So cute. It's such a tradition that last retreat I joked that when Jana and I are dead and gone the most lasting impact we will have had on our church is the invention of the Scooter Pre-Show.

Saved By Faith, Hope, and Love

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

― Reinhold Niebuhr

Patience as Hospitality

In Stranger God I have a chapter on the practice of "stopping," allowing yourself to be interruptible. Hospitality isn't just about making room in space, we also make room for each other in time.

This is very hard, given the pace of our lives. Consequently, I've come to think of patience as a practice of hospitality. When I talk to busy people about practices of hospitality I often start them off with patience.

"Work on being patient," I say, "Patience is hospitality when you're in a hurry."

You Can't Love God Directly

One of the problems we have with the Greatest Commandments--loving God and loving your neighbor--is that many people seem to get fixated and stuck upon loving God and never getting around to loving their neighbor.

I'd like to explain why I think this happens by making a connection with Catholic sacramental theology. This is a point I've made before in relation to enchantment, but I'd like to show how it connects to ethical action as well.

Specifically, as physical creatures we can't relate to the spiritual world directly. We have to approach spirit through matter. You can't love spirit directly. You have to love spirit through matter.

Given, then, that God is a spirit, we can't love God directly. Oh, we can try, but we'll find that our "love" struggles to find traction and purchase in this unseen "spiritual" space. Trying to love God directly Gnosticizes our love, shifts love away from tangible, physical expressions toward something vague and abstract. A "spiritual" love that doesn't have a material object or outlet tends to reduce to mere sentiment.

I think that is what Jesus was getting at with the Greatest Commandments, that these aren't two different loves, but that we are to love God through loving our neighbors.

I know it sounds radical to say that you can't love God directly. But 1 John 4.20 makes the point well:

"If someone says, 'I love God,' but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don't love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?"

God Exists & Love Makes Sense

I know of no better translation of the statement "God exists" than the phrase "love makes sense." The place for verifying those statements is not the classroom of the old metaphysics...but life itself; a positive answer to that dual question cannot be proved, only demonstrated. It can only be indicated and corroborated through our own lives.

--Tomáš Halík, from I Want You to Be

Journal Week 42: The Blood Medley

Out at the prison on Monday night I was leading, as I do every week, our hymn sing, where we open up hymnals and the inmates call out the numbers to hymns they want to sing.

This week we found ourselves in "the Blood Medley."

Do you know the Blood Medley?

In many old hymnals some songs are arranged thematically. For example, songs about heaven or faith might be grouped together to create a "medley," songs to be sung in succession around a common theme.

Well, in many of these hymnals there is a group of songs called "the Blood Medley." What ties the Blood Medley songs together is their reflection upon the saving power of Jesus' blood shed on the cross. Songs that are often found in the Blood Medley are "Victory in Jesus," "Are You Washed in the Blood?," "Nothing But the Blood" and "Power in the Blood."

If you've never heard these songs, the Christian group Anthem Lights has a video on YouTube with them singing a mashup of the Blood Medley.

Now, I know these blood-themed hymns are currently out of favor. They are theologically "problematic" for many. But oh my goodness, how these songs move the inmates in prison. They live in a world of blood. And these songs speak to them.

And they speak to me as well.

Problematic and out of fashion they may be, but I love the Blood Medley.

As You Pass Through the Valley of Weeping

"Passing through the valley of Weeping, they make it a place of springs."

--Psalm 84.6

You can read the Psalms for years and still you're interrupted by their poetry.

This image from Psalm 84 captured my imagination today. It's an image of God's faithful passing through "the valley of Weeping" (literally, the "Valley of Baca," from the Hebrew word for tears).

As they pass through the Valley of Weeping God's children transform it into a place of springs, a place of rest and refreshment. What interrupted me about the line was the word "they." You'd expect something like "the Lord" at that moment in the poem. As in: "Passing through the valley of Weeping, the Lord makes it a place of springs."

But it's not the Lord who transforms the valley of Weeping into a place of springs. It's God's faithful children who bring the refreshment and renewal.

So that became my prayer today, and may it be as well for you.

As you walk through the valleys of Weeping today, may you make them a place of springs. 

Merciless Judgment

"For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy."

--James 2.13

I have to admit, I'm a bit of a fundamentalist and legalist when it comes to texts like these.

The eschatological imagination here in James is identical to that of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Yes, I'm saved by faith and grace, but when it comes to following Jesus in my daily life passages like James 2.13 are the ones I use to guide my steps.

I know there are both theological and personal problems here. Theologically, I know a strict, flat reading of texts like James 2.13 creates soteriological issues. And personally, I know a lot of us worry about carrying guilt and shame in relation to God's judgment.

But speaking only for myself, I don't mind carrying guilt when it is tied to the right things, like showing mercy. And while I can't tell you how God being merciless to my lack of mercy works out theologically, from a daily, pragmatic point of view it's a very clarifying perspective upon how to live and make choices today. Theology can be a distraction. When I'm faced with the choice of extending mercy, sometimes you just need James 2.13 to give you a very clear word:

Judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy.

Theology aside, that sentence helps you make better choices.


In the quiet you come close
to me,
and I shiver, trembling
like a frail bird broken
and afraid.
The raw wounded
nerve of the world
wary and apprehensive of touch,
even the tenderest,
that also
is pain.
For there is so much wrong within me,
tangled and in sharp pieces,
and so much
I cannot see
that cuts me in dark places.
It is all weakness, fever,
and hurt.
And I am unable
to untie the knots.
Please save
my tearful
bleeding heart.

Journal Week 41: Evangelist to Millennials

As I've written about in an earlier journal entry, I've been teaching a new class at ACU entitled "Psychology and Christianity."

This is the third time I've taught the class, and increasingly I find myself being an evangelist to Millennials.

(Are college students today still Millennials? I think they are a new, yet to be named generation.)

Obviously, I talk a lot about Christianity in the class, but so many of my students are doubting, disillusioned, or skeptical about the faith. Even at my Christian school. So I spend a lot of time trying to evangelize my students by talking about Christianity in a way that is both honest and surprising. That mixture, I think, is important. College students are very good at detecting BS, so you have to be brutally honest. That's easy for me to do. The harder part is surprising them.

My method is basically to evoke a spiritual ache within them. I try to do this by interrupting them with something so beautiful that a desire stirs within them, an ache for God. I then try to fan that ache into faith.

On Not Seeing Christ in the Stranger

It is a maxim in the Christian tradition of hospitality that we are to "welcome Christ in the stranger." It's a notion neatly captured in a saying derived from The Rule of St. Benedict:

Hospes venit, Christus venit.

When a stranger comes, Christ comes.

In my own lectures, sermons and classes on hospitality I've routinely talked about this idea, how we see Christ in others, and how in our welcome of others we welcome Christ.

But from time to time, people have pushed back upon this formulation. When we see Christ in others are we not, in some sense, failing to see the other person directly and for who they are? Isn't this, to state the matter starkly, a subtle form of dehumanization? Or, at the very least, mishumanization (i.e., missing their particular humanity)?

In short, don't we ultimately want to be welcomed and embraced for who we are, and not as a cipher or stand-in for Christ?

To be sure, there are responses here. The "Christ in you" is your truest, most personal self and it is of inestimable and inviolable worth. Still, I think the pushback about seeing Christ in others is valuable, as it's very easy for people engaged in hospitality to miss the particular human being standing right in front of them in their pursuit of "serving Christ."

In light of that observation, I was struck anew by the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. Matthew 25 is the go-to parable for Christ coming to us in strangers. My book Stranger God is an extended meditation on Matthew 25, "meeting Jesus in disguise."

What's interesting in the parable is how the sheep react to Jesus' praise. Here's what Jesus says to them: "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."

And upon hearing this, the righteous reply: "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?"

Did you catch that? The righteous were not feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirty, giving shelter to the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and prisoner because they were Christ. The righteous are surprised to hear that these people were Christ.

In short, the vision in Matthew 25 is one where people are welcomed for themselves and not as a proxy for receiving Christ. That revelation comes later, as a shock. And one wonders if the ordering in the parable is what makes all the difference.

Only when we welcome someone in their particular humanity are we, in that moment, truly welcoming Christ

Watching The Shack in Prison

I've never been a huge fan of William Young's book The Shack. There are moves in The Shack that I really like--the strong Trinitarianism, God as mother--but theodicy is just really, really hard to pull of, particularly for a tragedy like the one at the heart of The Shack.

But the men in my prison Bible study have loved The Shack, so they were really wanting us to bring them the movie to watch. So we did.

My reaction to the movie was similar to my reaction to the book. Loved God portrayed as a mother and the Trinitarian emphasis, but theodicy is just so hard to pull off.

But more and more, as I spend more time living on the margins and less in my head, reading the Bible with the damned to use Bob Ekblad's phrase, I've come to see how much of theology boils down to social location. I might not get The Shack, but these incarcerated men sure do. Many where in tears at the end. So I check my critiques. The critiques may be valid and important, and there's a time to bring them up, but I don't center or privilege them. I don't allow my academically sophisticated theology to win every argument or be The Answer to every question. Sometimes it's best for theologians to shut up and listen.

In our discussions after the movie, Nate said something that has stuck with me.

"God is always leading us to our own shacks, to that place in our hearts where we don't want to go. This place [the prison] has been my shack, the place where God brought me so I could finally be broken and open my heart up to him."