Talking with the Dead

I like talking to dead people.

The trouble is, in today’s world the dead aren’t around much. It’s hard to find them.

This is why I visit cemeteries. I enjoy visiting cemeteries because I feel like I need to converse with the dead. I find it an important part of my spiritual life. The dead tell you things the living do not.

My favorites cemeteries are the Cities of the Dead I saw in Uruguay and Argentina. I got to visit them a few years ago on an ACU-sponsored trip. In South America, for those who can afford it, the dead are put in “houses” along streets. Over time the houses accumulate and what is produced is a whole above-ground city with street after street of houses for the dead.

These cemeteries were great places to find the dead. But in modern America it is harder and harder to find the dead.

Why is this? Thanatologists say that the modern era is characterized by “the pornography of death.” That is, the subject of death is considered to be morbid and inappropriate talk for polite company. Death is risqué and not for public viewing.

But it wasn’t always this way. We used to live with the dead. We were born in our homes and we died in our homes. Our dead bodies were viewed in the parlor of the home. The wake was in the home. We were buried next to the church or on the homestead property, in a family cemetery. And our cemeteries were next to our church, a building which also functioned as our school and the town hall. In those days, children played among the dead, church assembled with the dead, and the body politic deliberated with the dead.

But eventually the funeral industry took over. We began to die in hospitals. Our bodies were not taken home but to the “funeral home.” Cemeteries began to be displaced from the center of spiritual and public life, planted not at the center but on the edges of town. Tombstones were replaced with markers level with the ground so you could drive by and not know, not see, that the dead were close. Eventually, homemaker magazines noted that the parlor was no longer being occupied by the dead. So they reclaimed it from the dead by calling it the “living room.”

And so the dead were finally forced out of our homes, out of our lives.

And it began to be harder and harder and harder to find and talk to the dead.

But there has remained one lone failure in the communal hushing of the dead. There remains one exception to the hegemony of the living.

For there remains one public ceremony, one night a year, where the dead can walk the night and ring your doorbell.

Tonight I get to talk to the dead. And I look forward to it every year.

To invite the dead I'll decorate my frontyard to look like a graveyard, complete with tombstones that say RIP. This will make the dead feel comfortable to approach. And I'll decorate with caskets, not coffins. Modern coffins, during this era of the pornography of death, look like rounded, spaceage, capsules. Coffins don't conform to the contours of the body, thus hiding, euphemizing, its contents. The dead prefer caskets, those elongated hexagons. Narrow at the top, wide at the shoulders, and tapering down toward the feet. Caskets take the shape of bodies. They know what they contain. So, only caskets, no coffins, for me and the dead.

Ready now, I'll welcome the parade of the dead to my door.

And the dead will come to my door as ghosts, spirits, and skeletons.

I’ll welcome the mythic dead, those vampires and zombies and mummies.

I’ll welcome the newly, gory dead with their blood and gore and detached limbs and misplaced eyeballs.

And I’ll welcome Death himself coming in the shape of movie murderers, those Hollywood incarnations of the Grim Reaper, the cold killer who cannot be escaped in slasher movies...or in life.

The dead will walk tonight. And it’s the only time we get to see them in modern America.

Which is why I consider tonight to be one of the most spiritual nights of the year.

Happy Halloween.

--ACU Honor's Chapel, All Hallows Eve, 2007

Me, Stanley Hauerwas, and the Puzzlement of the Trinity

Since I pointed you to Ben Myers' Faith and Theology blog you may have seen that they have been discussing the Trinity over there. Also, a few days ago Ben posted a quote on education by Stanley Hauerwas, one of the most influential theologians alive today. Finally, we've been talking a bit about Tillich on this blog. All of this--Hauerwas, the Trinity, and Tillich--reminded me of an incident here at ACU a few years back.

ACU was hosting a conference on theology and the academy and two very good friends of mine, Paul Morris and Fred Aquino, were doing a talk on Paul Tillich and Albert Einstein. Paul is a theoretical physicist and Fred is a systematic theologian. Their talk concerned the conversation between faith and science through the lens of a correspondence about God and God's existence that took place between Tillich and Einstein.

Needless to say, if you know Tillich and Einstein, the two were able to find some common ground about their conceptions of God. Paul and Fred used this rapprochement as a talking point to note that science and religion can have fruitful exchanges between them. I think we can all agree that this was an excellent point to make. Science and religion don't have to fight.

However, during the Q&A right after the talk this older guy across the room raises his hand and says something like this:

"But Tillich was mistaken. Tillich didn't take into account the Trinity. Thus, Tillich should be ignored, theologically speaking."

And I start thinking, "The Trinity? Who is this nut job? The Trinity? I mean, there is a good chance God doesn't exist. Further, there is no convincing means to determine how many gods--should they exist--there are. There could be 1 or 1,000. How could you possibly know? And this joker is going to interject a comment about the Trinity--a wildly controversial and far from clear doctrine (see Faith and Theology)--into a science versus religion conversation? Has this guy lost his marbles?"

Well, I find out later from Fred (after I ask my "Who is the nut job talking about the Trinity?" question) that that nut job just so happened to be one of the most influential theologians in the world today. One Stanley Hauerwas.

Don't get me wrong. I love the doctrine (idea? symbol? notion? schema? myth?) of the Trinity. If God is love from all eternity then God has to be ontologically communal, right? So I get it. I like the idea.

But Tillich didn't make a mistake. Hauerwas did. Tillich was trying to talk to everyone, scientist and Christian. His might have been a fool's errand, but I think it was a legitimate attempt. But the doctrine of the Trinity, as powerful as it is, isn't trying to talk to everyone. It's a shibboleth for an insider conversation. Which is fine, but to utter that shibboleth in a room full of scientists trying hard to take religion seriously is, well, a mistake.

Curing the Religious Disease, Part 3: God is found "In Between"

One of my favorite theology blogs is Faith and Theology by Ben Myers. Faith and Theology is a Barthian blog. I haven't read much Barth so I was intrigued recently when Dr. Myers posted a review of a book by John Franke--Barth for Armchair Theologians--that introduces Barth to interested laypersons. People like me. So, I read Barth for Armchair Theologians and found some things in Barth's thinking that converge on what I had been finding in Tillich, all of which speaks to the "religious disease."

What struck me was Barth's notion of dialectical theology. From what I understand, Barth's dialectical method characterized his early work, particularly his commentary on Romans. However, although Barth's later work is very different in style from his early work, many scholars believe Barth never gave up the dialectical method.

(Side note:
In his commentary on Romans Barth floats some ideas about religion that appeared to have influenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was Barth's student. Specifically, in his work on Romans Barth makes some comments about religion that seem to parallel Bonhoeffer's thoughts about "religionless Christianity," a topic we've been chatting about on this blog. For example, from Franke's book:

"One of the chief places where Barth identified contemporary idolatry was in the practice of 'religion.' It is particularly in religion that we see most pointedly the tendency to confuse the distinction between God and human beings. Human beings desire power and security along with an assurance that their activities and pursuits are right and above reproach. In order to secure a sense of divine blessing, human beings create gods in their own image from the resources of their own imaginations and create religion to serve the gods they have made. Religion is then pressed into the service of its creators in order to provide justification, sanction, and self-legitimation for their decisions and actions. Even a cursory reading of human religious history, Christian and otherwise, provides numerous examples of such attempts at justification and self-legitimation along with the establishment of power and oppression that often attends it. When human beings talk about God in such a way as to make their beliefs and aspirations the locus of ultimate truth or to claim divine sanction for institutions that are all too human and flawed, they become guilty of idolatry and ungodliness.

Barth maintained that the Bible legitimizes only one truth, one story, and one kingdom, the kingdom of God. In the process it delegitimizes every human institution, including the Christian church, precisely because they are not, at the end of the day, the embodiment of the kingdom of God."
(pp. 45-46)

Interestingly, this quote strikes me as being very similar to the Tillich passage from our last post.

Now, back to Barth's dialectical method...)

Barth's dialectical method is a procedure that allows for forward movement in theology while recognizing that theology is, at root, an impossible task. Specifically, theology is impossible in that humans, as finite creatures, cannot make their language about God represent or correspond to God in any way we could call "accurate." And yet, Christians do believe God has acted in Christ and these actions demand some kind of description. In short, this is the dilemma of theology: We are compelled to speak about something we cannot accurately describe.

Given this predicament Barth suggests (I'm using "Barth" as shorthand for "Franke's description of Barth") two kinds of mistakes are often made. On the one hand, we have the Fundamentalist Mistake. The Fundamentalist Mistake is made by those who feel that their statements about God correspond directly to the reality of God. This stance is self-evidently problematic in that one's understanding of God is taken to BE God. Which is, essentially, a form of idolatry.

In contrast to the Fundamentalist Mistake we see the Mystical Mistake. (BTW, these terms are my own. Barth called the Fundamentalist Mistake and the Mystical Mistake the "dogmatic" and "self-critical" approaches respectively.) In the Mystical Mistake one concludes that no positive statements about God can ever be made. Again, this stance is self-evidently problematic. If NOTHING can ever be properly said about God then God becomes an empty concept, devoid of any meaning.

How, then, are we to proceed to speak about God? On the one hand, we know that some things should be properly said about God (e.g., "God is love."). Yet on the other hand all statements about God are provisional human creations. How can we go forward?

Barth suggests that we follow what he calls the dialectical method. Specifically, in the dialectical method we balance between the Fundamentalist and Mystic by both affirming and denying the descriptions we make of God. What is critical in this method is that it remains dynamic. If we settle too much with affirmation we fall into the abyss of the Fundamentalist. By contrast, if we settle too much with negation, where nothing can be said of God, we fall into the opposing chasm of vacuous Mysticism. In short, faith must be constant chatter equally balancing the affirmation and the negation. Faith is dialectical and dialogical. One might also say that faith is Socratic.

Franke gives us two quotes from Barth to illustrate these points:

"This way from outset undertakes seriously and positively to develop the idea of God on the one hand and the criticism of man and all things human on the other..."

"...that all such information, whether it be positive or negative, is not really information, but always either dogma or self-criticism. On this narrow ridge of rock one can only walk."

I kind of think it's like riding a bike. On has to keep forward momentum (that is, in this metaphor, to keep the rounds of assertion/negation flowing) or one falls over.

Going back to the issue that prompted this series--the "religious disease"--it will be recalled that religion gets out of control when it becomes overly dogmatic. And I think the notion of a dialectical, Socratic faith goes a fair way to cooling the religious fever. Interestingly, it does so in much the same way Tillich's Protestant Principle does. This is interesting in that Tillich and Barth were very different kinds of theologians. But on this issue their ideas seem to converge.

To conclude, in the last post I focused on listening. But Barth's ideas remind us that we also need to keep talking. The conversation about God, to be a conversation about God, needs forward momentum. With rounds of creation and destruction. Affirmation and critique. Death and Resurrection. God, miraculously and graciously Barth would claim, shows up in the seams of these conversations. God is always "in between" you and I. I don't speak for God and neither do you. But we both are critical to the process of giving God a voice.

Maybe that is the genius of it all. God can only show up in conversation. Which takes two of us. I can't possess God as an individual. God isn't "in" me. God is "between." Specifically, between you and I. I can't possess God because when I speak of God I'm always in danger of saying some crazy stuff. So I need a listening partner to deny, negate, and play Socrates with me. And you need the same.

To illustrate this, some of my friends wonder why I'm so interested in talking with atheists. My answer, I hope, is now obvious: I think I'll find God "in between" me and my atheist interlocutors. A church that fails to seriously listen to atheists will never fully see the idolatry that is religion. Atheists speak a truth about religion that most Christians of my acquaintance cannot (or will not) articulate. And if this is so, how can Christianity ever be honest with itself? Conversation with atheists and critics of religion isn't a luxury or a pastime, it's a necessary and vital aspect of faith.

Going back to the bike metaphor, I bet many of the readers of this blog can't figure me out. I know a lot of people at ACU feel this way. It probably seems like I'm performing a very fine balancing act, walking a very thin line. In some posts I look religious. In others I look downright atheistic. Sometimes I'm for the church. At other times I'm calling for its removal. So, what's going on?

Well, I think it's the "in between" of Barth's dialectic. That is to say, as a Christian of course my blog looks this way. It's a forward, dynamic conversation that will not settle down into affirmation or negation. Which is to say I think this is how faith is supposed to look.

Curing the Religious Disease, Part 2: The Protestant Principle

Thanks to Tracy (who has guest posted here before) I've started reading some Paul Tillich. Given my existential bent, it should come as no surprise to those who know Tillich that I like what I'm reading.

Relevant to this series, I have been struck by Tillich's notion of embedding criticism into the very fabric of faith. Tillich calls this the Protestant Principle honoring how Protestantism during the Reformation was able to criticize the Roman church. Tillich takes this event of "protest" to be more than just a historical one-off phenomenon, but rather an illustration of a reoccurring mechanism that should be built into the fabric of communal faith. In his Dynamics of Faith, after discussing the role of doubt in personal faith, Tillich turns his attention to communal faith:

The second step in the solution of the problem deals with faith and doubt within the community of faith itself. The question is whether the dynamic concept of faith is incompatible with a community which needs creedal expressions of the concrete elements of it ultimate concern. The answer is that no answer is possible if the character of the creedal excludes all presence of doubt. The concept of the "infallibility" of a decision by a council or a bishop or a book excludes doubt as an element of faith in those who subject themselves to these authorities. They may have to struggle within themselves about their subjection; but after they have made the decision, no doubt can be admitted by them about the infallible statements of the authorities. This faith has become static, a nonquestioning surrender...In this way something preliminary and conditional--the human interpretation of the content of faith from the Biblical writers to the present--receives ultimacy and is elevated above the risk of doubt...

So we stand again before the question: how can a faith which has doubt as an element within itself be united with creedal statements of the community of faith? The answer can only be that creedal statements of the ultimate concern of the community must include their own criticism. It must become obvious in all of them--be they liturgical, doctrinal, or ethical expressions of the faith of the community--that they are not ultimate. Rather, their function is to point to the ultimate which is beyond all of them. This is what I call the "Protestant principle," the critical element in the expression of the community of faith and consequently the element of doubt in the act of faith. Neither the doubt nor the critical element is always actual, but both must always be possible within the circle of faith. From the Christian point of view, one would say that the church with all its doctrines and institutions and authorities stands under the prophetic judgment and not above it. Criticism and doubt show that the community of faith stands "under the Cross," if the Cross is understood as the divine judgment over man's religious life, and even over Christianity though it has accepted the sign of the cross. In this way the dynamic faith which we first described in personal terms is applied to the community of faith. Certainly, the life of a community of faith is a continuous risk, if faith itself is understood as a risk. But this is the character of dynamic faith, and the consequence of the Protestant principle.

Recall from my last post the symptoms of the religious disease:

Disease = Static + Insular + Moral Conviction (an objectively experienced, emotionally laden, moral universal)

Given this "disease" I think Tillich's comments go a fair distance in helping break the fever. Here are some of, in my opinion, Tillich's important insights:

1. Even creedal expressions need to be held tentatively.

2. We should be wary of "infallibility" as it locks in the belief system, shutting down further exploration, questioning, and critique.

3. We must be consistently reminded that the trappings of our religious environment (and this includes the contents of my mind) are provisional human constructions. Gestures toward the Divine but not, in themselves, the Divine.

4. To keep faith fluid and searching entails risk.

5. Most importantly, faith must build in a mechanism of criticism.

I think this idea of embedding mechanisms of criticism within the faith community (and in your own life) is the key insight. I don't see many faith communities building in these mechanisms. Why not? Well, as Tillich notes, faith is inherently risky. And people don't like risk. It's uncomfortable. Thus, we avoid criticism. And as we avoid voices of critique our faith becomes more and more insular. Which means the faith congeals and grows static. And the illness sets in.

So how would you know if a faith community was allowing critique? I'm still thinking about this, but here's my guess:

Do they listen?

Pick a church and ask these questions: Do they listen to the poor? Do they listen to the Democrats? Do they listen to the Republicans? Do they listen to the Iraqis? Do they listen to the culture? Do they listen to the homosexual community? Do they listen to the feminists? Do they listen to the gang leaders? Do they listen to the criminals in prison? And on and on.

Do they listen? Truly listen?

My hunch is that if they listen, honestly listen, then that church will hear plenty of critique, tales of how the church and religion have failed people, overlooked people, damned people, and abused people. And if Tillich is right, to listen is to risk. And my guess is, if the church takes that risk, then God just might find a way to speak to that church.

Curing the Religious Disease, Part 1: Diagnosis

Over the last year I've been reading and interacting with some ideas that have shown some interesting convergence. The convergence speaks to what tends to go awry in religion and what needs to be in place to correct the diseases of religion.

What is the disease of religion? What happens when religion goes awry?

In my opinion, religion becomes diseased when its adherents settle into an insular, static, morally convicted ideology. Let me unpack this:

The religious person or group rejects any sort of external critique or outside commentary.

The religious person or group feels that they are in possession of the "Truth." Thus, they cannot change. To change is to deny the truth. This position is very problematic in that conversation becomes impossible. The only conversational mode available to the group is evangelistic and never dialogical. To be always in the evangelistic mode is to be always in the position of Teacher and never the Student.

Morally Convcited:
I've written about the psychology of moral convictions before, but a review might be helpful to new readers (what follows is taken from Skitka, L., Bauman, C.W., & Sargis, E.G. 2005. Moral conviction: Another contributor to attitude strength or something more?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 88, 895-917).

First, moral convictions are experienced as OBJECTIVE MORAL FACTS about the world. For example, if someone is morally convicted about abortion being murder then they experience this conviction as a fact. Nothing could be more obvious to them than this "fact." They don't experience their conviction as a subjective moral judgment. No, it feels like a "fact." Obviously, this experience of "facthood" causes a problem. The reason is that if a person disagrees with the moral conviction (as Pro-Choice people do about abortion) these dissents appear to be coming from epistemologically broken or deviant persons. "I mean," the Pro-Life person exclaims, "can't these people SEE that abortion is wrong! Isn't it obvious?!" This stance is self-evidently problematic: You treat all dissenters as either idiotic or demonic.

But it gets worse. Beyond the experience of "facthood" the moral conviction is also experienced as a UNIVERSAL. That is, if you hold a moral conviction you believe that everyone must conform to your conviction. There is no opting out. No middle ground. No let's agree to disagree. This facet of moral conviction means that we will get into each other's stuff. We can't allow people to behave differently from our conviction. Thus, we'll work to try to get you to conform. And this boundary crossing increases the conflict.

But it gets worse. The third and final feature of moral conviction is EMOTION. That is, when moral convictions are being discussed people will get very emotional very quickly. Which means that the conversations become irrational shouting matches. The rhetorical object becomes to defend and attack rather than to learn.

So, to conclude this post, I just wanted to paint a picture of the "religious disease" as I see it:

Morally Convicted

The question then becomes, how do we treat or prevent the illness?

Primal Theological Memories

Steve, in his comment to my last post, tells a story from his faith journey when he realized that there were Christians beyond the borders of his faith tradition. I have a similar story. But before I tell it, I'd like to try to start my first internet meme.

There are some psychologists who suggest that our personality and worldview is influenced by and symbolized by evocative childhood memories. Primal memories often loaded with emotion, good or ill. Some have suggested that these early childhood memories affect our theological beliefs. For example, W. Paul Jones makes this claim explicitly in his book Theological Worlds. Jones suggests that early childhood memories set up and represent our obsessio, what we find perplexing about life.

I don't know if this is true and I don't want to get all psychoanalytical on you. But I do think there is some truth to the idea of primal theological memories. I think most of us can look back at childhood or adolescence and recall a time when our worldview opened up and was changed in ways we didn't appreciate at the time.

So, here's the meme. Tell a story on your blog (or here if you don't have one) that you consider to be a primal theological memory in your life. The rules:

1. This should date from childhood to adolescence.
2. It should be a memory that you think symbolizes or has directly affected your theological development. And this could be theological movement forward, backward, sideways, or just different.
3. Encourage others to share their memories.

To start, here is my memory:

I was raised in a very devout, church-going home. We were members of the Church of Christ. And, obviously, as a child we sang "Jesus Loves Me" almost every Sunday in Bible Class:

Jesus loves me this I know
For the bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong
They are weak but he is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
The bible tells me so.

One day, and I remember this vividly, I was playing in the neighborhood and I heard a girl singing. She was singing "Jesus Loves Me." I remember walking closer to get a better look at her. Obviously, she had to be a girl from my church. Because that was a song I learned at my church. But when I got closer I realized that she wasn't from my church. And then it hit me. Other churches, non-Church of Christ churches, are singing "Jesus Loves Me." How can that be? My little mind swirled. How can they know this song if they don't go to my church?

Looking back, I think in that moment something started inside of me that is still growing and moving. From that day on I never looked at church the same way again. I thought "Jesus Loves Me" was MY song. OUR song. Owned by my church.

But, apparently, we didn't own it.

Others knew it and sang it.

Theology as Self-Expression

I was visiting with a student today about my religious beliefs. Specifically, he was asking me about my faith journey and the specific issues that have caused crises in my faith.

As I reflected on my spiritual history I noted that many of us have particular theological hang-ups or tripping points. And these vary from person to person. Specifically, people will vary on if they take Issue X seriously. If they are dismissive of Issue X they don't trip up on X. But if they take X seriously they trip.

So, I began thinking about all the things I've taken seriously in the world of ideas and how each, because I take it seriously, has affected my theological system. My preliminary list is as follows:

My faith has tripped up on the following...

Evolution (particularly hominid evolution)

Existentialism (specifically that religious faith might be a form of wishful thinking)

The Historical Background of the Bible (did you know Moses did not write the first five books of the bible?)

The Doctrine of Hell (I find it morally heinous)

The Problem of Pain/Evil (which, I hope, needs no explanation)

By taking each of these seriously my faith has been altered in radical ways. But what strikes me about this list, or others, is that not everyone trips up on these exact issues. Which always puzzles me. Each seems obvious to me. What this seems to suggest is that the peculiarities of our theological beliefs will tend to vary willy-nilly, for no real rhyme or reason. Some things you take seriously and other things not so much. And these positions seem to come to us like preferences. We don't "choose" to take the problem of pain seriously. It just imposes itself upon you, it forces you to take it seriously. You feel these tripping points in your bones. You either "get it" or not.

Which means that your theology is kind of like your sense of humor or taste in music. It expresses something about you and how you take in the world.

On Why We Need God, Part 2: A Place for Prophets to Stand

2 Samuel 11-12
One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, "Isn't this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite?" Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her...Then she went back home. The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, "I am pregnant."

...In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. In it he wrote, "Put Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die."

So while Joab had the city under siege, he put Uriah at a place where he knew the strongest defenders were. When the men of the city came out and fought against Joab, some of the men in David's army fell; moreover, Uriah the Hittite died.

...When Uriah's wife heard that her husband was dead, she mourned for him. After the time of mourning was over, David had her brought to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing David had done displeased the LORD.

The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, "There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him."

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, "As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity."

Then Nathan said to David, "You are the man!"

In my prior post I said that my faith journey is centered around the following:


which I abbreviated as KASE. I further noted that I've found the following worldviews/belief systems most helpful in fostering KASE (in me):

Liberal Humanism

Finally, I noted that Christianity, with its belief in God, has been the most effective in shaping me into a moral person. Why?

Well, it might be best to start with the Biggest Temptation (BT).

The BT is this: A constant temptation to conflate The Good with what I want. This is, btw, the analysis the bible gives for the BT. In the bible the BT is always idolatry, the worship of "another god." And, invariably, this god is created in the image of humanity. In short, idolatry is when I dress up my selfish desires as a god and then worship, well, myself.

What happens in idolatry is that what I claim to be "god" or "good" is really just my own cravings. Idolatry is just God-talk painted over my cravings for safety, status, or comfort. The insidious nature of idolatry is that my base cravings get overt religious sanction from my "god." I gratify myself and get to feel righteous all at the same time. It's a win/win.

But let me quickly note that the BT isn't just a temptation for religious folk. Even atheistic liberal humanists try to justify their selfish choices with moral rationalizations. We all want to appear pure in our own eyes.

My big point is simply this: We are all fooling ourselves. Theist and atheist alike. The BT is always there, encouraging us to let ourselves off the hook, to offer excuses, to give the ready rationalization, and to cut moral corners. If you go back over my KASE list from my last post I think we can all agree that KASE is hard. Really hard. Really, really hard. So we tend to not go through with it.

So here's the question. Who is going to keep holding my feet to the fire? Who is going to be constantly in my face about how I treat my wife, my children, my world? Who?

See, the trouble I've had with buddhism and liberal humanism is that they did not provide me with moral critique. I could be a complete jerk and be a liberal humanist. But I can't be a complete jerk and be a Christian, at least not as I understand Christianity (i.e., KASE). You see, my moral struggle is very simple: I just don't want to be a jerk. Really. I spend most of my day obsessing about that. I don't really care about many of the moral issues swirling around Christianity (e.g., homosexuality, the War in Iraq, social justice, etc.). Those are important issues, but truthfully, I'm kind of busy working on not being a jerk. And it takes a lot of effort. Seriously. Try to make everyone around you in your home and at work or just in passing feel welcomed, embraced, respected, valued, and listened to. From the waitress, to the boss, to the co-worker, to the flight attendant, to the homeless person on your corner. It takes all my moral effort to be kind to all these people. Particularly if they are silly, shallow, prideful, or mean. And I fail all the time in my Quixotic quest not to be a jerk.

KASE is hard.

So I've found that I need prophets. I need a prophetic voice in my life. I need someone to break the tablets and shout apocalyptically at me when I'm worshiping the Golden Calf otherwise known as ME.

But prophets need a place to stand. They need to speak from a place of unimpeachable moral authority. They need, in short, to come from God. Again, I don't care much for the purposes of this post if God exists. I just have to believe in a moral location, or rather, a moral elevation that stands over me. This moral elevation creates, by its mere existence, the potential for prophecy. Without it my life becomes a level moral playing field. But I won't listen to mere humans. Trust me. Sometimes I will, if I like them. But when push comes to shove, why should I listen to you? You're just as much of a jerk as I am. Take the plank out of your own eye, you hypocrite!

You get the idea. I won't have truck with humans. I'll just debate them to death. And while I'm debating the moral fine points of my choices with you I'm not developing KASE.

So I need a moral critique that is hard to fight with. I need to feel that the moral critique just isn't another human opinion. I need to sense that the verdict is coming from a place much higher or deeper. Call that place "God."

In sum, I've remained within Christianity for a few reasons First, it paints for me the vision of KASE more clearly than all the other faiths/worldviews I've explored. And second, its notion of God creates a place for prophets to stand. Christianity builds moral critique into the system. And regardless if God exists or not, I've found the prophetic voice--which relies on God as "location/evelation/origin"--morally useful. More, I've found it morally vital and necessary. For me.

I do believe that non-theists can be good people, saints even. But for me, I can't cut God loose. Just because I need some metaphysical moral leverage working on me. I can't let go of the prophets. And I know I'll not respect the voice of another human. I'm too pig-headed and vain. So, I stay with Christianity, building into my moral life the potential for moral critique. To guarantee that I'm shook up, morally speaking, on a regular basis.

In short, I stay with Christianity because I've found there, more than anywhere else, that I have a better chance of my Nathan showing up.

On Why We Need God, Part 1: The Moral Core of My Faith

I want to thank all of you who have and who are still commenting on the two prior posts about religionless Christianity. Your openness and intellectual depth--Theist and atheist alike!--are amazing. I'm honored that you take the time to visit here.

(PS-As I mentioned in my Dietrich Bonhoeffer post I could not find the important parts from his letters on religionless Christianity on the Internet. So, I typed them up so that people could find them, copy them, and forward them to others. Please copy the interesting parts of those letters onto your blogs and start discussions there. That is why I typed them up.)

Given some of the comments to my last post, and as I like to push one way and then another in this blog, I thought I'd take this week, across three posts, to explain why I think we need God (and even church).

To start, note that I'm going to argue why I think we need God. Not why I believe in God, but why I think I need God. Which is a different focus then what we are used to. That is, the issue will be pragmatic, not metaphysical. What I hope to argue is that even if God doesn't exist I think the idea of God is still helpful. Which is to say that I'll be arguing that the idea of God is even of use to an atheist.

To start, I want to say this: There are lots of reasons for acknowledging how believing in God leads to bad outcomes. Please read Sam Harris' book The End of Faith for a good analysis. So, I don't begin by saying believing in God is an unmitigated or noncontroversial good. My goal is more modest. I want to simply argue that there is a good facet to believing in God, perhaps even a morally necessary facet. I hope to convince you of that this week. Quite a job, huh? (Oh, and I fully expect to fail in this.)

Let us begin.

If you read this blog you know that I define my faith morally rather than metaphysically. So, as this analysis will be partly autobiographical, we need to start there, with my moral focus. More specifically, I define my faith by three overlapping moral foci:

The Kenosis Focus: The mastering of ego and pride and selfishness.
Key Virtues: Humility, eschewing hierarchy/status, submission, egolessness, servanthood.
Key Jesus Teaching: To enter the Kingdom of God you must become like little children (i.e., a powerless and marginal one).
Key Jesus Example: Washing the disciples feet.

The Ahimsa Focus: Primum non nocere ("First, do no harm.")
Key Virtues: Non-violence, pacifism, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation.
Key Jesus Teaching: Turn the other cheek. Do not repay evil for evil, but pray for your enemies.
Key Jesus Example: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

The Solidarity/Embrace Focus: Solidarity with victims (from Girard and Moltmann) and embrace of the other (from Volf)
Key Virtues: Radical hospitality, aid, protection, justice, care.
Key Jesus Teaching: The parable of the Good Samaritan and the Sheep and the Goats.
Key Jesus Example: Welcoming the unclean and sinner to table fellowship.

Okay, so what I call faith/religion/Christianity is this focus: Kenosis, ahimsa, and solidarity/embrace. I'll shorten this to KASE.

Now, as I've explored various religious, metaphysical and philosophical perspectives to support KASE in my life I've found three which, in my opinion, do a good job of aiding the development of KASE in me. These three perspectives are:

Liberal Humanism

I've looked hard and studied hard (and still study hard) in all three of these areas. And the mutual study of all three has been very helpful to me. I highly recommend this tripartite study. The best in buddhism, liberal humanism, and Christianity overlap in very helpful and reinforcing ways. I see lots of overlap between Jesus and the Buddha and feel that, in many ways, they are the great thinkers behind liberal humanism.

But at the end of the day, I've found that Christianity, for purely pragmatic reasons, has done the best job of fostering KASE in me. Thus, at the end of the day, this is why I'm a Christian.

Why does Christianity do such a great job of fostering KASE in me? I'll get to that in my next post.

Musings on Religionless Christianity

My thoughts on this topic were stirred by an amazing sermon by Landon Saunders at this year's ACU Lectureship. Landon (whom I've never met but is a good friend of some good friends) spoke of the pivotal time in his ministry when he decided to base his ministry on the "outside." Landon spoke of taking the gospel out of the hands of the religious brokers and placing it in the hands of the outsider. But to do this Landon said he needed to gain the confidence of the outsider. Landon observed that the first thing one has to do to gain credibility on the outside is to "speak the truth about religion." Whatever religionless Christianity is it is this: It pitches its tent on the outside and speaks frankly about the failures of religion.


From How (Not) to Speak of God concerning the Costa-Gavras film Amen (pp. 63-64):

The film explores the failure of the Catholic and Protestant Churches when confronted with the terror of the death camps during the Second World War. We are presented with two religious figures, a Protestant youth pastor and a Catholic priest...The response of the priest is of particular interest. At one point he wonders aloud to the Cardinal whether it would be possible for every Christian in Germany to convert to Judaism in order to stop the horror, for the Nazis couldn't possibly condemn such a huge number of powerful and socially integrated people at that stage of the war. The idea is, of course, utterly rejected. Then, in complete frustration, and with a crushing sense of obligation towards the persecuted, the priest takes his own advice. In tears he turns from that which he loves more than life itself--his own faith tradition--and becomes a Jew. By taking on the Jewish identity he suffers with the persecuted, voluntarily taking his place on the trains that run to Auschwitz.

For this priest, the singularity of the horror required an unprecedented action, one which cut at the heart of his tradition. It was his very tradition (or rather his interpretation of that tradition) that demanded that he should give up that tradition...The most powerful way for this priest to affirm his Christianity is to lay it down...And so this priest gives up his Christianity precisely in order to retain his Christianity.


A recent comment I left on my friend Chris Heard's blog:
I sometimes wonder if the most Christian act I can muster is the rejection of Christianity. To reject Christianity in the name of Christ as it were.

If so, I guess I’d be a Christian atheist.


My favorite parts from Bonhoeffer's letters (some slightly edited):

People as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore.

Those who are "religious" don't act up to it.

"Christianity" has always been a form of religion.

Are there religionless Christians?

How do we speak of God without religion?

Is religion a condition of salvation?

I'm reluctant to mention God by name to religious people.

The church stands in the middle of the village.

To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way.

Live in the godless world without attempting explain its ungodliness in some religious way.

Live a "secular" life.

The Christian is simply a man, as Jesus was a man.

Bonhoeffer's Religionless Christianity

Toward the end of his life, while in a Nazi prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote some tantalizing letters to his friend Eberhad Bethage. In some of these letters Bonhoeffer wrestles with a notion he labels "religionless Christianity."

The letters in question were written in 1944. Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazi's in 1945, just before the Allied Forces were to take control of Germany. Since the writing of those letters, theologians have hotly debated exactly what Bonhoeffer meant by "religionless Christianity." I, personally, have wrestled with the same question. Thus, I'd like to devote a post or two to the question: What is "religionless Christianity"?

I've looked online for copies of the letters but cannot find them. Thus, I've pulled some of the relevant sections from three of Bonhoeffer's letters from prison.




What do you think "religionless Christianity" is?

To Eberhard Bethage, April, 1944:

What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience--and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving toward a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as "religious" do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by "religious."

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the "religious a priori" of mankind. "Christianity" has always been a form--perhaps the true form--of "religion." But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless--and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any "religious" reaction?)--what does that mean for "Christianity"? It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our "Christianity," and that there remain only a few "last survivors of the age of chivalry," or a few intellectually dishonest people that we are to pounce in fervor, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? If we don't want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the Western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity--and even this garment has looked very different at different times--then what is a religionless Christianity?

The questions to be answered would surely be: What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we speak of God--without religion, i.e., without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even "speak" as we used to) in a "secular" way about God? In what way are we "religionless-secular" Christians, in what way are we those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean? What is the place of worship and prayer in a religionless situation?

The Pauline question of whether [circumcision] is a condition of justification seems to me in present-day terms to be whether religion is a condition of salvation. Freedom from [circumcision] is also freedom from religion. I often ask myself why a "Christian instinct" often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, but which I don't in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, "in brotherhood." While I'm often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people--because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it's particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable)--to people with no religion I can on occasion mention him by name quite calmly and as a matter of course.

The transcendence of epistemological theory has nothing to do with the transcendence of God. God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village...How this religionless Christianity looks, what form it takes, is something that I'm thinking about a great deal, and I shall be writing to you again about it soon. It may be that on us in particular, midway between East and West, there will fall a heavy responsibility.

To Eberhard Bethage, July 18, 1944:

[Religious man] must therefore live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. He must live a "secular" life, and thereby share in God's sufferings. He may live a "secular" life (as one who has been freed from false religious obligations and inhibitions). To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man--not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.

To Eberhard Bethage, July 21, 1944:

During the last year or so I've come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but simply a man, as Jesus was a man...

“God is always in your future”: A Universalist Reading of Hosea

A few weeks ago my wife and I were discussing universalism on a trip to see her family in Dallas. As we drove, Jana asked me about the biblical support for universal reconciliation. We discussed the various New Testament passages and then turned to the Old Testament. I stated that in the Old Testament there isn’t a lot about life after death and little about heaven or hell. But I noted that in the Old Treatment there is this recurrent rhythm that after the worst of God’s punishments there will be restoration. Punishment is never the last world. Restoration is always the last word.

I thought of this again as I prepared for my adult bible class this week. We are working through the book of Hosea.

After the first three chapters of Hosea, where the extended metaphor of Hosea and Gomer is recounted, we find three of Hosea’s sermons. Scholars believe that each sermon was given in response to various military and political events in Judah and Israel.

Each sermon shares a similar structure, roughly as follows:

Part 1: Accusations of Sin
Sermon 1 (4:1-19), Sermon 2 (6:7-7:16; 10:1-15), Sermon 3 (11:12-13:3)

Part 2: God’s Punishment
Sermon 1 (5:1-14), Sermon 2 (8:1-9:17), Sermon 3 (13:4-16)

Part 3: Message of Hope/Reconciliation
Sermon 1 (5:15-6:6), Sermon 2 (11:1-11), Sermon 3 (14:1-9)

A running motif in each sermon, carrying over from the Hosea/Gomer saga, is that each sermon uses the language of a divorce proceeding. That is, Hosea is formally articulating God’s warrant for divorce from Israel.

The main metaphor in Part 1 of each sermon is whoredom. Israel has gone lustfully after other “lovers” (the Canaanite gods).

Given Israel’s unfaithfulness in Part 1, God goes on to describe in Part 2 how he will punish Israel. These descriptions are some of the most shocking in all of Scripture. For example:

Otherwise I will strip her naked
and make her as bare as on the day she was born;
I will make her like a desert,
turn her into a parched land,
and slay her with thirst.

So now I will expose her lewdness
before the eyes of her lovers;
no one will take her out of my hands.

For I will be like a lion to Ephraim,
like a great lion to Judah.
I will tear them to pieces and go away;
I will carry them off, with no one to rescue them.

Ephraim's glory will fly away like a bird—
no birth, no pregnancy, no conception.
Even if they rear children,
I will bereave them of every one.
Woe to them
when I turn away from them!

Give them, O LORD—
what will you give them?
Give them wombs that miscarry
and breasts that are dry.

Ephraim is blighted,
their root is withered,
they yield no fruit.
Even if they bear children,
I will slay their cherished offspring.

This language of punishment in Hosea is some of the strongest in Scripture. It makes your hair stand on end.

But, miraculously (and I’ll come back to this word in a moment), after the harshness of the Part 2 declarations of punishment we see songs of love break out in Part 3. It is difficult to overstate the shock of this transition. The change from punishment to love seems inexplicable, unpredictable, spontaneous, and, thus, utterly mysterious. For example, after the shocking punishment language God starts talking like this:

"Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the desert
and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.
There she will sing as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt….

I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.

"When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
it was I who healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love;
I lifted the yoke from their neck
and bent down to feed them.

"How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboiim?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim.
For I am God, and not man—
the Holy One among you.
I will not come in wrath.

What is going on in this crazy abrupt transition from punishment to love? I think there is a deep clue in 11:9 (“For I am God and not man”).

Specifically, it appears to me that the link between Parts 1 (Sin) and Parts 2 (Punishment) is logical, like cause and effect. Given the “marital agreement” between God and Israel God’s responses (as harsh as they are) are predictable, even expected, given Israel’s unfaithfulness.

What is unpredictable and inexplicable and, yes, even miraculous, is the transition from Parts 2 (Punishment) to Parts 3 (Love). The songs of love, tenderness, forgiveness, and reconciliation come from out of nowhere. Further, they are God’s unsolicited acts. Israel isn’t doing anything to get this response. We see this pattern enacted in chapter 3 where God tells Hosea to “go love a woman who has another lover.” That is, God initiates the act of love and reconciliation. It is an act of unpredictable and spontaneous grace.

And, interestingly, 11:9 locates the source of this grace in the very character of God. The movement from Part 1 (Sin) to Part 2 (Punishment) is human. The movement from Part 2 (Punishment) to Part 3 (Love) is divine. God acts in loving spontaneity because he is “God and not man.”

This brings me to my universalist reading of Hosea.

I believe one of the messages of Hosea is that, although the punishment of God will be apocalyptic in its savagery, in the end God’s love will be the Final Word. And this final word will be spontaneous, inexplicable, unpredictable, and mysterious. That is, our theological systems will not be able to anticipate nor articulate this Final Word. All we have, as humans, are the logical links between crime and punishment. We don’t have the words to articulate the Final Word of grace. This is why I believe the universalist vision is not clearly articulated in Scripture. It can’t be written down in any obvious way. To write it down would decouple the proper links between crime and punishment. Thus, all our theological systems will be restricted to the crime/punishment conversation. Consequently, any talk about universal salvation will appear disconnected, random, and inexplicable when framed in human terms and categories. Grace transcends theology and will not be tamed by it.

The other message I take from Hosea is this: God is always in your future. That is, no matter the punishments, as severe as they are, God is in Israel’s future. I think this is one of the deepest truths of Scripture: No matter what, even if the punishments are hellish, God is in your future. Part 1 (Sin) and Part 2 (Punishment) will always be followed by Part 3 (Love).

That is the vision I believe in: God is always in your future.

Purity as Harm?

The area of moral psychology is exploding right now. Lots of this work is being done by Jonathan Haidt from the University of Virginia. You may recall George linking us all to a recent article by Haidt. You can find that piece and a lot more at Haidt’s UV website.

Haidt’s recent work is on moral foundations. Specifically, after considering cross-cultural and anthropological sources Haidt suggests that humans base their moral judgment on five moral criteria. That is, the reasons we offer for something being “wrong”, morally speaking, tend to fall into five distinct areas. According to Haidt these are the five moral foundations:

Harming others, failures of care/nurturance, or failures of protection are often cited as reasons for an act being “wrong.” Some virtues from this domain are kindness, caretaking, and compassion.

Inequalities or failures to reciprocate are often cited as evidence for something being “wrong.” Some virtues here are sharing, egalitarianism, and justice.

Failure to support, defend, and aid the group is often cited as evidence for “wrongness.” Virtues include loyalty, patriotism, and cooperation.

Failure to grant respect to culturally significant groups, institutions, or authority figures is often cause for sanction. Virtues include respect, duty, and obedience.

Anything that demeans, debases, or profanes human or religious dignity or sacredness is also a cause for sanction. Virtues include purity, dignity, and holiness.

The interesting observation Haidt makes about these domains is that conservatives and liberals differ in how they deploy the five moral criteria. Specifically, liberals use only the Harm/Care and the Fairness/Reciprocity foundations. That is, liberals will tend to only cry foul when someone is being harmed or when something is unfair/unjust.

By contrast, conservatives deploy all five foundations when they adjudicate between moral acts. This might make conservatives seem “more” moral, but it is more accurate to say that they have a greater range for moral offense. For example, an act might not lead to harm or injustice (making it fine for the liberal) but it might violate one of the other three domains for the conservative: Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity. All this implies that liberals and conservatives will systemically differ in how they feel about morality.

The perfect example is homosexuality. Here is how a liberal sees it:

Question: Is homosexuality a sin?

Harm/Care violation? No harm when the parties are consenting adults.

Fairness/Reciprocity violation? Yes, homosexual couples are being discriminated against.

Ingroup/Loyalty violation? Irrelevant.

Authority/Respect violation? Irrelevant.

Purity/Sanctity violation? Irrelevant.

Conclusion: The only immoral action that is involved with this issue is the unfair treatment of homosexuals.

By contrast, here is how the conservative looks at homosexuality:

Question: Is homosexuality a sin?

Harm/Care violation? No harm when the parties are consenting adults.

Fairness/Reciprocity violation? Yes, homosexual couples are being discriminated against.

Ingroup/Loyalty violation? No.

Authority/Respect violation? Yes. Failure to respect the commands of Scripture and the marriage tradition of Western culture.

Purity/Sanctity violation? Yes. Homosexuality is unnatural.

Conclusion: Although homosexual couples are being treated unfairly this is warranted by the fact that homosexuality is unnatural, sinful, and an undermining of the Western conception of marriage.

The take home point is that liberals and conservatives tend to talk past each other because they are playing by different rules. That is, three of the moral criteria deployed by conservatives are deemed irrelevant by liberals. For liberals the only moral criteria of any worth are harm and justice. The rest is superstition and dysfunctional tradition.

I want to reflect on a few different things.

First, how did this happen? Haidt makes it clear that the liberal focus on harm and justice is a relatively recent phenomenon in the human drama. Specifically, the liberal focus is the product of the Western Enlightenment. Prior to the Enlightenment, and still in most places unaffected by it, all five moral foundations were (or still are) in force. Only after the Enlightenment do we see morality narrowed to issues of harm and injustice.

So, my first question is: Has this development been a good thing? Has the moral movement of the Enlightenment been driven by divine or secular forces?

Although the example of homosexuality complicates things for some, the moral trajectory of the Enlightenment has, in the main, been a very good thing. It has ended slavery and emphasized the human dignity of all persons. Its egalitarian notions have benefited the poor and women. All these developments seem consistent with the gospel message.

But what are we to do with the three other moral foundations? Are they relevant? Should we heed them? Particularly if that foundation is found in the bible?

I’ve actually done some writing on this. In a recent paper of mine, I’ve suggested that one way of reading the moral trajectory of the New Testament is to see purity categories trumped by or folded into harm categories. That is, I’ve argued that purity categories are a form of harm. It is dehumanizing to consider another human being to be a pollutant or contaminant. And when these attributions do emerge we see all sorts of harm following, with genocide as the nadir. Thus, I’ve argued that in Jesus we see purity reconfigured. Specifically, impurity is defined as harming. To harm is to be contaminated. To care/love is to be pure. In this conflation the purity language remains but has been subsumed by the harm criteria. If this argument is accurate then perhaps the moral choices of liberals can be made consistent with Scripture.

I don’t know if this argument is correct. It is all food for thought. Your impressions on Haidt’s work, the liberal/conservative impasse, or my purity-as-harm paper?

The Greatest Virtue, Part 4: Altruism Exists

Do truly altruistic motives exist?

This is one of those late-night Starbucks conversations. Do we ever do anything purely for selfless motives? Or, are all our motives to help governed by self-interest?

Christians hear this a lot from critics of religion. The criticism basically states that because Christianity has external punishments (hell, God’s disapproval) and rewards (heaven, God’s approval) for pro-social behavior this undermines the Christian standard of agape (self-sacrificial) love. Specifically, if pro-social behavior is motivated to either avoid hell or gain heaven then the motive is selfish and, thus, isn’t self-sacrificial or altruistic.

This dilemma is only slightly changed if we try to internalize the motives. Few of us explicitly consider heaven or hell as we make pro-social choices. Rather, we respond out of our character, from feelings of sympathy, pity, shame, or guilt. Lots of behavior is motivated by shame and guilt, a feeling of not being able to live with ourselves if we didn’t help. But again, getting right within yourself might be a fine motive to help but it is still, at root, a selfish motive.

But the question, although acute for the Christian, can be generalized to all forms of pro-social behavior. How do we know if selfishness isn’t at the root of all pro-social behavior? If we are misanthropic or cynical (two temptations of mine) we can dismiss all acts of helping, even Mother Teresa’s, as so much self-interest. We can ask, darkly, would Mother Teresa do what she did if a life with God weren’t in the offing?

Motivations are tricky things to study. How could you tell if your motives are pure or mixed, selfish or altruistic? Self-report is woefully inadequate for this type of research. People are generally either self-deluded or unreliable reporters of their true motivations. To complicate things, we rarely act from a single motive. When we help we are motivated by a host of factors. If so, can selfish and altruistic motives both be in play when we offer aid? Does the mere presence of a selfish motive contaminate the altruistic motive rendering the whole self-interested? Or can the selfish and altruistic motives stand apart, even when co-occurring?

But here’s the deal. Human motivations are not the stuff of theology and moral philosophy. The existence altruistic motives isn’t a theological or philosophical question. It’s a psychological question. If you want to know if altruism exists then you had better leave the library and the Starbucks. This issue cannot be solved philosophically. You have to take it to the laboratory.

The person most responsible for taking this question to the lab is social psychologist Daniel Batson. Batson has summarized his years of research on the subject of altruistic motivation in his book The Altruism Question.

The long and the short of it is this, due to some ingeniously designed experiments Batson and his colleagues have been able to dissect motivations in the laboratory, teasing apart self-interest and altruism. They do this by allowing subjects, under a variety of conditions, to “escape” from various potential helping situations or to work to participate in a helping activity. Typical manipulations involve escaping in the face of social observation versus being unobserved. Subjects are exposed to helping under high-cost and low-cost manipulations. More specifically, this is the “cost” of not helping. For example, a “high cost” for refusing to help would be having to see the person you didn’t help the very next day in a face-to-face encounter and they know you didn’t help them (awkward!). A “low cost” manipulation allows you to pass on helping but no one knows you could have helped (you can see that person the next day with no social “cost”). Batson has also measured how hard someone will work to either help or qualify to help. This last is important for teasing apart internalized motives such as shame from truly altruistic motives. Specifically, in some studies subjects were exposed to a “qualification condition” manipulation where they could work to qualify to help a person. The experimenters varied the standard the subjects would have to reach to qualify to help. Psychologically, the logic for this manipulation is as follows. When the standard is set very high (i.e., it is hard to qualify to help) the subject is given an “out.” That is, they can try to qualify but there is no shame/guilt if they cannot, most people don’t qualify. Thus, the experimenters were able to “turn off” the internal guilt/shame mechanism, that notorious motive of self-interested action.

Generally, we suspect altruism is present when someone:

1. Works very hard to qualify to help
2. When the standard is very high
3. When no one is watching and there is no cost for not helping

Think this about this list and the situation it describes. No one is watching you. No one knows if you are helping or not. Thus, you pay no social cost for not helping and no one will pat you on the back if you do. Further, if you fail to qualify to help you can easily explain your failure: The standard to qualify was too high. You tried your best, right?

So, can you see that situation? Well, Batson and colleagues put people in that situation and they watched them try to qualify. And guess what, some people work their butt off in that situation. Killing themselves to get a chance to help.

Now why would they do this? You will get no social gain for helping or stigma for refusing to help. You’re alone in this. Further, why chase after that ridiculously high qualifying standard? Why push so hard?

The only plausible answer seems to be this: Altruism. You simply want to help for no other reason than wanting to help. The motive isn’t selfish, internally or externally. Externally, the carrots and whips have been removed. And internally, you’ve been given every reason to expect to fail to quality, the perfect out for all that shame/guilt standing at the ready.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, guess what. What do you think produces those altruistic motives?


Over many studies Batson has clearly linked empathy with altruism. In our textbooks it is called the empathy-altruism model. And it basically says this: When we empathize with a person in need our altruistic motives increase. When we feel empathy we simply want to help. For no other reason than to help. In the language of the studies, we’ll work crazy hard to help when no one is watching, when we’ll get no reward or punishment, and when we’ve been given every reason to think that we’ve done enough.

Altruism. Apparently, it exists. And empathy is what makes it go.

The Greatest Virtue, Part 3: Empathy, the Veil of Ignorance, and Justice

In my opinion, every church member should hear about John Rawls and his Justice as Fairness formulation. I've been wanting to write about Rawls for some time.

John Rawls is considered to be one of the most influential political and moral philosophers of the last 50 years. Most of his reputation rests on his magnum opus published in 1971, A Theory of Justice. For the purposes of this post I'm going to be simplifying greatly, aiming to simply introduce you to Rawls's ideas.

The core of Rawls's theory of justice is that what is just is what is fair. Thus, to create a just society we should strive to create a fair society.

So far, so good. But how are we to define and operationalize fairness? Rawls's answer is in the form of a thought experiment. Imagine, he says, a group of people facing the prospect of creating a new society. In this pre-decision moment the people are in what Rawls calls the original position. In the original position the people are to negotiate amongst themselves what kind of society they should create. We can further imagine that the people are self-interested actors.

Now, the next facet of Rawls's original position negotiations is that these deliberations take place behind a veil of ignorance. The veil is Rawls's most powerful idea. Specifically, we are asked to imagine the negotiators in the original position as disembodied souls. That is, as they discuss the creation of their new society they don't yet know where they will end up in that society. For example, the soul of Person A might, after the negotiations, be assigned to the body of a poor black women with an IQ of 85. Person B might be assigned to the body of an upper-class, white, male with an IQ of 140 who has rock-star good looks. Person C might be assigned to the body of an illegal immigrant from Mexico with an IQ of 90 and congenital health problems. Person D might be assigned to the body of a person with Down's Syndrome.

The point of the veil of ignorance is this: As the people create a society they do not know where they will emerge in that society. They could end up black or white, rich or poor, high IQ or low IQ, beautiful or ugly, healthy or ill, and on and on.

To get a feel for this, imagine the following. You are in the original position and you've just created a society that looks just like modern America. Now, would you be willing to be born into the body of a poor, low IQ, black woman? Probably not. (Note that I'm not trying to be rude about my example here. I picked three demographic factors--IQ, socioeconomic status, and gender--that are associated with being in a compromised versus advantaged position in modern America.)

The point is, if you don't know where you'll end up in society it behooves you to negotiate behind the veil to configure society so that if you WERE to be born into a position that is compromised safeguards are in place that would help you achieve happiness in the life you were to lead. For example, if you were born into a low IQ body there is little chance you'll end up being a doctor or lawyer. You'll be working blue collar jobs most likely. If so, you'd want to make sure that if you were born into that situation you would have a good wage, job security, health benefits for you and your family, good schools for your kids, and the ability to have time off work to pursue creative and leisure activities.

Thus we see the power of the veil of ignorance: The people in the original position will make sure that EVERYONE in society is guaranteed to have an equal chance at having a fulfilling life. Why do they do this? Their self-interest demands it. Since I don't know where I'll end up in society I must have all the safeguards in place before I'd be willing to roll the dice and get born into that society.

This, then, is Rawls's operationalization of fairness: A fair society is the one created by the participants in the original position behind the veil of ignorance. Or, more concretely, a fair society is the one the participants agree to be born into if they didn't know where they would end up.

Obviously, when we look around American with the glasses fashioned by Rawls we see a lot of unfairness/injustice. Too many of us start off in this life in deeply compromised situations. Too many are swimming upstream. Fighting too hard for the basics of the good life: Good schools, health care, good pay, job security, time for leisure. By contrast, I get to be a college professor and I'm typing at a computer in a nice air-conditioned house. Why? Because I got lucky. I have a decent IQ. I was born in America. I happened to have college educated parents. And I'm male and I'm white. Yet, I chose none of these things. But I benefit from them all. Any one of those things change and it's a good bet I'm not where I am today.

So, should I benefit from my luck while others suffer in this life? No. That wouldn't be fair. Consequently, through my actions as a Christian and my vote as an American I try to push my society be more fair and just.

What does all this have to do with empathy? Well, although Rawls's veil of ignorance helps us define fairness it is impossible to start from scratch and stand in the original position. The game has already started and we can't start over.

But if we can't ever truly stand in the original position how can we begin to "see" justice from that vantage? What looks fair from that perspective? If we don't have the veil how can we begin discussions of fairness?

The veil is a theoretical paradigm, but in practice we will need to start from what we have: Empathy. Without a true veil of ignorance to guide notions of justice empathy is the best replacement we have.

Why do I say this? Because, if I can't ever stand in the original position to negotiate what life should look like if I were to be born into the body of an illegal immigrant, I must do the next best thing. Specifically, I should stand where I currently am--a white male college professor--and try to IMAGINE, as best I can, what life is like for the illegal immigrant. I must try to empathize, to the utmost of my ability. And as I do this, and the better I do it, I begin to approximate the view from the original position behind the veil. The view of fairness and justice.

The point is, the only way to create a just and fair society is to imagine what it is like to be other people. What is it like to be poor with kids who need flu shoots? Or a single mother? Or an inner city family who wants to have their child learn the violin but the band program was cut at their school? What is it like to be born with a mental illness? Or less than beautiful? Or prone to addiction? The list goes on and on. So in the end our ability to create a just and fair society is directly tied to how fully we empathize with others. If we can't empathize with the poor or the mentally ill how could we possibly begin to know what they fairly and justly need and require to thrive and flourish?

To conclude, I've been calling empathy the Greatest Virtue. We now have another reason in hand for this designation. Specifically, via the connection with Rawls's veil of ignorance, we see empathy as the prime mover in defining justice and fairness in society at large.

And as empathy goes, so goes this nation and any who claim "justice for all."