The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: Part 8, In Praise of Taboos

Chapter 3 of Louise Perry's The Case Against the Sexual Revolution is entitled "Some Desires are Bad."

In Chapter 3 Perry argues that taboos serve a positive function in society, and that when we lose taboos, those bright moral lines in the sand, the moral fabric of a society can quickly unravel. This argument, of course, cuts against the progressive grain of the sexual revolution, which has prided itself on breaking and transgressing sexual taboos. 

Perry starts the chapter by discussing the moral foundations research of Jonathan Haidt. I expect many of you are familiar with Haidt's work. For our purposes, Haidt's research has shown how the moral code of liberals and progressives reduces to concerns about harm and equity. This is why the moral sensibility of the sexual revolution reduces to consent. If no one is being harmed, then no one should object about what consenting adults are up to in the bedroom. If everyone is consenting, you can do anything you're into. There are no taboos.

And yet, human societies possess moral sensibilities beyond harm and equity. One of those sensibilities is the distinction between the sacred and profane. This domain tends to be regulated by taboos, actions that are strongly prohibited to protect the dignity of persons and the moral compass of society. As Haidt has shown, conservatives, due to their religious sensibilities, want to protect the sacred. Liberals, by contrast, see respect for the sacred as an oppressive powerplay, inserting religious values into a secular, pluralistic public space. Liberation is achieved, rather, by throwing off traditional sexual constraints and transgressing sexual taboos.

There's a lot to debate here. Think, for example, about traditional taboos regarding divorce. Getting or being divorced was once very taboo. Today, divorce is much less taboo. Even among Christians. Has this been a good thing or a bad thing? Well, it's a mixed bag, isn't it? Divorced people in my church are not shamed or stigmatized. Divorced people can even serve as elders, the role in my church reserved for the most spiritually mature among us. And all this is a good thing. And yet, as Perry will discuss later in her book, the loss of the taboo surrounding divorce has also had negative social consequences. Study after study has shown that the best thing for a child is living in a home with both biological parents. Study after study has shown that the most vulnerable children are children being raised by a single mother. And study after study has shown that the most dangerous person in a child's life is a step-parent. The loss of the taboo about divorce has had demonstrable effects.

What is difficult for us, in our highly polarized world, is an honest and balanced accounting of these gains and losses. While Perry admits that the sexual revolution liberated us from oppressive sexual mores, she wants to point to some of the damage that has been done as well. Specifically, as a society we've lost the collective ability to say "some desires are bad." And while there is a liberation with an "anything goes" sexual ethic, there's also a correlated unraveling, as the bare ethical minimum of seeking consent isn't able to capture moral sensibilities that fall outside the narrow categories of harm and equity. Some values ground and structure society, and those values might need a wee bit of protection. And I'm sharing Perry's concerns here as someone who holds progressive views on many culture war issues. 

To make her point, Perry cites a famous passage from G.K. Chesterton:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
As Perry goes on to comment:
Chesterton points out that the person who doesn't understand the purpose of a social institution is the last person who should be allowed to reform it. The world is big and dynamic--so much so that literally no one is capable of fully understanding it or predicting how its systems might respond to change. The parable of 'Chesterton's Fence' ought to encourage caution in would-be reformers, because there is such a thing as society, and it is more complex than any of us can fathom.

Jesus is the Reason: Part 4, The Pursuit of Excellence

In my talk to the Christian coaches, from yesterday's post, I was really just describing a particular example of a larger phenomenon. 

I work in Christian Higher Education. I'm a professor at a Christian university. And one of the things that I've noticed about Christian Higher Ed, and I'm not alone in this assessment, is that working at a Christian university isn't all that different from working at a public, secular university. 

To be sure, there are differences. For example, we pray before departmental meetings. We sing hymns and have devotionals at our university pre-sessions. We have departmental chapels with our students. A devotional and pietistic thread runs through our campus life. But a lot of times, this piety can feel performative. What makes a meeting "Christian" is tacking on a prayer. What makes a mission statement "Christian" is invoking God. A lot of what makes a Christian university "Christian" is devotional and rhetorical, the words we sprinkle around our work and decision-making. Work and decision-making that often isn't all that much different from the work and decision-making at public, secular schools. 

Let me put it this way. The "Christian" at a Christian university should affect the engine, how the car runs and operates. But far too often, the "Christian" at a Christian university feels more like the paint job, how the car looks from the outside. 

If that's so, what is configuring the engine? 

Christian universities are competing to sell their product in a highly competitive and stressed marketplace. Consequently, Christian schools adopt the metrics of reputation and success of this marketplace. Broadly speaking, these metrics of reputation and success can be gathered under the banner "the pursuit of excellence." This "pursuit of excellence," with "excellence" being defined as the performance metrics of the Higher Education marketplace, directs and shapes the work of Christian universities. We play the same game everyone else is playing, advertising all the metrics of success we achieve in contrast to competing institutions.

This is why life and work at a Christian university can feel just like life and work at public university. For example, the tenure and promotion process at my school is pretty much the same as that at a public university. You have to demonstrate "excellence" in the classroom and with scholarly productivity. And at the larger, institutional level, we keep a very close eye on enrollments, budgets, endowments, and college rankings.

Warrant theology shows up here by providing our schools with the Christian warrant for this pursuit of excellence. Jesus is the reason we pursue excellence. Jesus is the reason our US News & World Report ranking is going up. Jesus is the reason our enrollments and endowments are growing. Jesus is the reason we secure external grants. Jesus is the reason we are so productive and successful as students, athletes, teachers, researchers, administrators, and scholars.

I hope you can see the problem here. When Jesus becomes the reason for the pursuit of excellence, the life and work at a Christian university becomes pretty much identical to the life and work at a public institution. We're all pursuing the exact same metrics of success. We want our football team to win. We want our professors to publish. We want our endowments to grow. We want our rankings to go up, up up. The engine under the hood is exactly the same. Only the paint job is different.  

Now, am I suggesting that Christian schools should stop caring about endowments and enrollments? Of course not. At the end of the day, a university is a (non-profit) business. You need to be taking in as much money as you are spending. Am I suggesting that professors at Christian schools be hapless in the classroom and poor scholars? No, of course not. The issue here, rather, is the same one I raised with the Christian coaches. There's no problem with "the pursuit of excellence" in and of itself. The problem comes when we never allow Jesus to interrogate or trouble our definition of excellence. And the reason this never happens is due to warrant theology. When Jesus is only ever the "reason" for being excellent, we're tempted to default to how the marketplace defines "excellence." We end up pursing the same metrics as everyone else. But when Jesus is allowed to become the end, rather than the means, it creates the opportunity to select metrics of "success" and "excellence" that are uniquely and distinctively Christian. Beyond enrollments, budgets, publications, football wins, and rankings, we might measure "success" a bit differently. And our schools might become more Christian as a result. 

We might stop fussing about the paint job to lift the hood and take a look at that engine.  

Jesus is the Reason: Part 3, A Talk to Christian Coaches

Last year I was invited by a friend, who is a High School Athletic Director, to address all the coaches of the school at their start of year orientation meeting. The topic I was asked to address for the gathered coaches was this: What makes a High School athletic program Christian? And by "Christian" we mean unique and distinctive as compared to athletic programs in public schools.

I started by asking the coaches to share their coaching values and commitments. What is it that you say as a coach, over and over and over, that captures the goals you have for your athletes and team?

In my experience with sports, in High School and college, along with watching my eldest son play three sports during his High School years, I'd suggest that the values expressed by most coaches boils down to one of three things. The first is effort and commitment. Coaches want you to be "all in" and to give "110%", and they have a variety of sound-bite ways of communicating this to the team year to year. A second theme is a team-first commitment over selfishness. As coaches say, "There is no I in TEAM." And finally, the are aspirational commitments. As Ted Lasso's famous sign in the locker rooms declares, you have to "Believe."

Effort. Team First. Believe. Broadly speaking, in various packages, these are the value commitments among athletic programs. And these were the commitments among the coaches I was speaking to.

Knowing that, I asked the coaches a question: "Would you find these same commitments--Effort, Team First, and Believe--in the athletic programs of public schools?" And the answer is: Of course you would. And if that is so, what's the difference between a Christian school athletic program and a public school athletic program? Not much at all, when you look at their values and commitments. The public school values are the same as the Christian school values. Christian and public schools say exactly same thing: "Here at this school we give 100% effort, we play unselfishly, and we believe."

The reason we don't find differences between public and Christian school athletic programs is because of warrant theology. In the Christian school context we don't change the values of the program--Effort, Team First, Believe--we just change the warrant. We do exactly the same thing as everyone else, we just do it for different reasons. What makes the Christian school "Christian" isn't the goal but the warrant.

Let me give an illustration of this. Perhaps the most common devotional talk you hear in Christian athletic programs is a reflection about the Parable of the Talents. In the parable the servant who is given many talents invests those talents. This servant is praised. By contrast, the servant who buries their talents is chastised. In the hands of Christian athletic programs, this is a parable about effort, about a commitment to excellence. Given our opportunities and talents we must "be good stewards" in getting a maximal return for the gifts we have been given. 

For this post, I don't want to discuss if this is, in fact, a proper interpretation of the parable. I simply want to use it as an illustration of warrant theology. The goal of this type of devotional talk isn't to point me toward a distinctive Christian telos or goal. The goal of the devotional talk is to keep the goal of Effort but provide that goal with a Christian warrant, that God wants us to "be good stewards" of our opportunities and gifts. 

Now, of course, God wants us to be good stewards. I'm not denying that. I also think young people need the virtues shaped by Effort, Team First, and Believe. We want to keep these things. But the challenge I put before the coaches in my talk was this: If you only keep Jesus as warrant you never get around to thinking about or forming uniquely Christian outcomes for your program. Christian athletic programs lack Christian distinctiveness because all we do is change the warrant. Like the public schools, we want a commitment to excellence, but we pursue excellence because of the Parable of the Talents, not for "secular" reasons.

A uniquely Christian athletic program, I shared with the coaches, moves away from warrants to look at goals and outcomes. We stop using Jesus to do exactly what everyone else is already doing. Instead, we look toward programatic outcomes that are distinctively Christian. I nudged the coaches to ask themselves this question, "What are you doing with your team that only makes sense in light of your Christian commitments?" Such questions move you away from warrant theology to think about Christ-shaped goals and ends. 

Jesus is the Reason: Part 2, On Being a Good Person

Before getting to some examples that might be new to readers of this blog, I have to at least name check an example of warrant theology I've written about in Hunting Magic Eels and quite extensively on this blog. In fact, I've written about this issue so much you may be wearying of my beating this drum. 

Recall, warrant theology is an instance when we use Jesus as a means to an end, as a reason for a course of action. And perhaps the biggest example of warrant theology, as I describe in Hunting Magic Eels, is using Jesus as political or ethical warrant.

As I described in the last post, the issue here is subtle and tricky. It is absolutely true that we pursue love, peace and justice because we are seeking to imitate and follow Jesus. The example of Jesus sits before us and we pursue him. Jesus here is the goal, telos, and end of our striving.

By contrast, the pernicious temptation of warrant theology is to posit some ethical and political good and then claim Jesus as the reason for pursuing this good. To be clear, I don't think this is a huge tragedy. If people are doing good things in the world I really don't care all that much about what motivates them to do those good things. 

And yet, as I describe in Hunting Magic Eels, warrant theology does undermine the witness of the church. If the goal of faith is to be a good person, and Jesus is used as the warrant for being that good person, then being a good person becomes the goal, end, and telos. Jesus is just the means to reach that goal. And if you're a good person already, then Jesus becomes irrelevant. As I argue in Hunting Magic Eels, this "moralization" of faith, Jesus as moral and political warrant, is the biggest threat to the church in the modern world. As I've said numerous times, you don't need Jesus to be a social justice warrior. You can reach that goal by many other pathways. And I say this as a huge fan of social justice warriors.

Given this now familiar complaint of mine, what might be a remedy for this problem?

What I've attempted in my speaking and writing is to work very hard at keeping any moral and ethical goal deeply Christological and cruciform. Work to keep Jesus as target rather than warrant. The temptation of warrant theology is to use Jesus to legitimize our preferred politics. We can resist this temptation by inviting Jesus to trouble and criticize our preferred politics. You see this move deployed in almost all my books, from Stranger God to Hunting Magic Eels. We don't use Jesus to legitimize where we're already standing. Jesus pulls me into places where I'd rather not go. 

This is an insight that goes way back to my first book, Unclean. Jesus dismantles the affectional walls I've erected in my heart. Crossing those boundaries is hard, and can even feel wrong. Just like how the Pharisees recoil when Jesus touches a leper. When you're pursuing your lepers you're pursuing Jesus. When you chase Jesus "being a good person" becomes challenging, hard, difficult, and transgressive. This is because we're no longer using Jesus to justify where we currently stand in the virtue signaling game of "being a good person," but are being dragged into places where we'd rather not go.

Jesus is the Reason: Part 1, The Pernicious Problem of Warrant Theology

This is a series devoted to drawing attention to a widespread and pernicious theological habit. I shall coin a name for this theological tendency. We will call it "warrant theology."

By "warrant" I mean the justification, reason, cause, rationale or basis for making a claim or taking action. Like we see in a police warrant, the warrant states the justification/reason/cause for your arrest. Similarly, if you draw a conclusion from some observations, we can ask: Is your conclusion "warranted" by the evidence? That is, is your conclusion justified and founded upon good reasons?

So, what is "warrant theology"? 

Warrant theology uses the logic that "Jesus is the reason" for doing something. Jesus as warrant. Jesus as justification, reason, cause, and rationale. We do X in the world "because of" Jesus.

The reason warrant theology is so pernicious is that, most of the time, it works. For followers of Jesus, Jesus is the reason we do everything in life. So, what's the problem here?

There are many related ways to describe the potential problems with warrant theology. A common problem is that warrant theology can tempt you into mistaking the means for the end. This is the problem I'll most focus on. 

When we say "Jesus is the reason" what, exactly, are we saying? We could be saying that Jesus is the end, the telos, the target and the goal. We are doing X to move toward Jesus. We are imitating Jesus. We are conforming to the image of Jesus. This is good. Jesus as "end."

But the phrase "Jesus is the reason" could also imply that Jesus is being used, not as the end, but as the means, as the justification for doing X. This framework--Jesus as means toward an end--is much more problematic.

Here's a crude example. Let's say you want something in the world. You want to make money. You want to become successful. You want to get a divorce. Now, to justify this to yourself and others, you need a reason, a justification, a warrant. And so, we use Jesus. Jesus legitimizes our pursuit of what we want. 

Consider the Prosperity Gospel. Is Jesus being used as end or means in the prosperity gospel? That is, is the pursuit of wealth a Christlike goal and end? Or is Christ being used as a religious justification for the pursuit of wealth?

Consider Christian Nationalism. Is Jesus being used as end or means in Christian Nationalism? That is, is the pursuit of political power a Christlike goal and end? Or is Christ being used as a religious justification for the pursuit of political power?

I hope these examples illustrate the point. Of course, Jesus is the reason Christians do everything in the world. But there is some ambiguity in that phrase "Jesus is the reason." Is Jesus my goal? Or is Jesus being used as justification for something I want? 

First Sunday of Advent

As regular readers know, over the years I've written and shared poems during the weeks of Advent.

Two years ago, as a gift to readers, I gathered these poems into a PDF booklet entitled "Glory Here in Straw and Blood": Poems for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany

I also wrote an introduction to the collection to share why I've written these poems each year.

So here again, on the first Sunday of Advent, I wanted to share this booklet of poems, hoping that you find in them some blessing during this beautiful and holy season.

Here is a link to the PDF booklet and it is embedded below: 

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: Part 7, A Natural History of Rape

As discussed in last week's post, Louise Perry in Chapter 2 of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution uses evolutionary psychology to describe how men and women are "different." We reviewed some of the arguments from evolutionary psychology last week, and Perry will appeal to those arguments throughout the book. This is a controversial move on Perry's part, as the arguments of evolutionary psychology are hotly contested by many feminists. 

The controversy is basically this. If we argue for a "natural" inclination, for any psychological or behavioral inclination, this has the potential to reduce moral culpability. This is the materialistic version of the religious "the devil made me do it." But in this case, it's not the devil, it's evolutionary history. Your biology, your brain chemistry, your genetics caused you to act a certain way. Darwin made you do it. 

In moral philosophy this is often called "the naturalistic fallacy" or "the appeal to nature," which is related to Hume's dictum that you can't get an ought from an is. That is to say, there is a temptation to think that if something is "natural" then that something is "good." But as we know, natural things aren't always good. Think of food. Rocks are natural, but it's not good to eat rocks. In the world of social psychology you can make a strong argument that our fear of strangers is natural, wired into our psychology through genetics and evolutionary history. But xenophobia, while natural, is not a virtue. Our natural wariness toward difference is, rather, a moral obstacle that we have to do a lot of work to overcome. 

All this is background to set up the second half of Chapter 2 in The Case Against the Sexual Revolution when Perry turns to the issue of sexual assault and rape. Specifically, Perry describes how, as a feminist, she encountered the book A Natural History of Rape by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, a book, not surprisingly, that held a lot of interest for a woman working, as Perry was, in a rape counseling center.

A Natural History of Rape is a controversial book in the way it extends the evolutionary account of male sexual psychology I sketched out in last week's post. If you missed that post, I encourage you to read it. But the basic argument of A Natural History of Rape goes like this. If the sexual strategy of males, from an evolutionary standpoint, is to have as many sexual encounters as possible, and thereby pass on their genetic material in potential offspring, then some males may resort to pressure, force, coercion and violence to secure those sexual encounters. In short, the controversial conclusion of A Natural History of Rape--and this is a very, very dark conclusion to state out loud--is that rape is pursued by some men as a sexual/adaptive strategy to secure genetic offspring. 

At this point, alarm bells go off. Some might object that this is an argument that "all men are potential rapists." But that's not what the argument is saying. The argument is that some men might opt for this strategy. And, in fact, some men do.

The common objection from feminists regarding A Natural History of Rape is that, in feminist discourse, rape is about "power" rather than sex. That is, rape is used to perpetuate and enforce the patriarchy. A Natural History of Rape argues against that view, saying that rape is really about sex (as an evolutionary sexual strategy).

Now, I know many of you read this blog in the morning. So I expect you're not thrilled to be reading about sexual assault over your morning coffee. My apologies. But I do want to follow the thread of Perry's argument to reach the point she wants to make about the sexual revolution.

Before we get to the controversies about A Natural History of Rape, what I think we can all agree on is that our free and liberated sexual culture is haunted by darkness. Bluntly stated, it's not safe out there. There are sexual predators who seek out victims, men who head out into the night with plans to use drugs or violence to secure sex. And there are other men who will seize an opportunity for sex should that opportunity ever present itself (e.g., being alone with an intoxicated women). 

Perry's appeal to evolutionary psychology is to make the point that this dark aspect of male sexuality is a durable feature of the species that can't be eradicated through "teach men not to rape" or "seek consent" curriculum. This observation is not an excuse that absolves men from responsibility. Nor is it the claim that we give up teaching men about seeking and securing consent. It's just the claim that, for women, sex is always going to be haunted by risk, and that women need to take this risk seriously. 

Now, speaking as a Christian, we have names for all this. Evil. Wickedness. Depravity. Sin. No serious Christian denies the blackness that exists the heart of man. Jesus knew it, and withheld his trust of men accordingly.

But what does this pessimism about human nature, male sexuality in particular, have to do with Louise Perry's case against the sexual revolution?

Simply this: The darkness that haunts male sexual psychology blows up the naive, progressive utopianism that tends to characterize feminist discourse about sexual freedom and liberation. The sexual revolution sends young women out into the world of hook up culture, a world of bars, parties, and clubs where alcohol is flowing freely and drugs are widely shared, with the impression that these are pleasure-filled playgrounds. Enjoy yourself, young women, because everyone will be playing by the enlightened rules of the sexual revolution in seeking your consent. Our workplace and campus sexual harassment trainings will keep everyone safe.

Only they don't.

Perry's point is that while we all wish that the world was otherwise, that the risks of the sexual revolution fell equally upon both men and women, they don't. The risks are asymmetrical, and durably so. Feel free to blame either Darwin or the Devil, but our educational and resocialization efforts will not eliminate these risks entirely. And if that's the case, Louise Perry wants young women to hear about, face, and internalize those risks so they can take appropriate action in keeping themselves and their friends safe. Which dampens the "Girls Gone Wild" party vibe, of course, but grim realism might help keep more women from harm. Perry summing up her argument at the end of Chapter 2:

If we accept the evidence from evolutionary biology and move beyond the Brownmiller model [that rape is always about power and not about sex], then we can understand that rapists are really just men who are aroused by violence, have poor impulse control, and are presented with a suitable victim and a suitable set of circumstances. Those circumstances can include a victim who is drunk, high, or otherwise vulnerable, the absence of witnesses, and no fear of any legal or social repercussions...

If you wanted to design the perfect environment for the would-be rapist, then you couldn't do much better than a party or a nightclub filled with young women who are wearing high heels (limiting mobility) and drinking or taking drugs (limiting awareness). Is it appalling for a person even to contemplate assaulting these women? Yes. Does that moral statement provide any protection to these women whatsoever? No. I made this mistake many, many times as a young woman, and I understand the cultural pressure. But, while young women should feel free to get hammered with their girlfriends or highly trusted men, doing so among strange men will always be risky.

I think we all know this, just as we all know that it's risky for young women to hitch-hike, travel alone, or go back to a strange man's house. The sorry truth is that something in the region of 10 per cent of men pose a risk, and those men aren't always identifiable at first sight, or even after long acquaintance. So my advice to young women has to be this: avoid putting yourself in a situation where you are alone with a man you don't know or a man who gives you bad feelings in your gut...

Other feminists can gnash their teeth all they like, accuse me of victim blaming, and insist that the burden should be on rapists, not their victims, to prevent rape. But they have no other solutions to offer, since feeble efforts at resocialisation don't actually work...

Is all this profoundly and infuriatingly unfair and inegalitarian? Yes. Does facing the dangers of the sexual revolution dampen the progressive, utopian hopes for a free, liberated sexual future for women? Yes. But according to Louise Perry, facing these facts and taking appropriate caution is the only reliable way women can protect themselves. The alternative is to trust in the consistent and guaranteed virtue of men. But even Jesus knew better than that.

The World is Make Holy by Thanks

In 2016, I shared this Thanksgiving meditation concerning gratitude and the Christian life.

Gratitude is an important theme in my book The Slavery of Death. As I argue it, when life is treated as a possession that can be taken from us, damaged, or lost our lives become infused with fear, causing us to cling, protect, hoard, defend and aggress.

The antidote to this fear is gratitude, viewing life--the whole of life--not as a possession to be defended but as a gift to be shared.

Treating the whole of life as gift has become an important spiritual insight for me. Consequently, I was struck by Peter Leithart's commentary on 1 Timothy 4.4-5 in his book Gratitude. The text:
For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.
This seems like a pretty bland and straightforward text. Be thankful. Got it.

But there is an idea at the heart of this text that is very profound if you let the implications sink in. And the idea is this: Gratitude sanctifies the world. Gratitude makes the world holy. Nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thankfulness, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

Think about that. Think of everything you possess, everything that is yours in life. How can we live with these things in a way that doesn't entangle us? In a way that isn't possessive or sinful? That answer is to receive them as gifts. When we handle the things of the world as gifts they become holy, consecrated and sanctified. Gratitude--thankfulness--marks the boundary between the sacred and the profane.

In the Slavery of Death I argue that gratitude accomplishes this because the object in question--which includes not just possessions but also things like your time, attention, status, and your very life--is relocated in the mind by thankfulness, making us able to "lose" and "let go" of the object as we live for and share with others. Thankfulness sanctifies the world because thankfulness creates the capacity to use things--by letting them go or sharing them--in holy ways.

Here is Peter's commentary from Gratitude about this text, linking thankfulness with the priestly use of the world:
[This is the logic behind] Paul's claim that everything is "sanctified" by thanksgiving. Since all things are good and all are to be received with thanks, all things are gifts from the Creator. By giving thanks for all that comes to hand, the Christian correctly identifies the character of created things as created gifts. For Paul, thanksgiving has a performative effect on the things received. Receiving God's gifts with thanks does not merely identify them as gifts but also sanctifies them, consecrates them as holy things. The world is sanctified, made holy, through thanks. To say that created things are "made holy" by thanks is to say that created things, already God's by virtue of creation, become specifically his possession by the prayers of the people. Given Paul's regular identification of believers as "holy ones" the logic seems to be this: Christians are holy ones, indwelt and anointed by the sanctifying Spirit of Jesus, priests to God and to Christ. As such, they ought only to touch, eat and use holy things. If they receive any thing that is is impure, their priesthood will be defiled by it. Purity and holiness "taboos" continue to operate in the New Testament. Holy people must have holy things. But for Paul no elaborate rite of sanctification is required: only the giving of thanks. Once consecrated by thanks, a thing may only be used for God's purposes. Holy food could be only eaten by priests in the Old Testament, holy implements could only be used in the sanctuary, holy incense could be used only on the altar. If Christians consecrate whatever they receive by thanks, they are not only claiming it as God's own but also obligating themselves to use it in a particular way, to use it with thanks. Thanksgiving is thus the liturgy of Christian living. It is the continuous sacrifice that Christians offer. Gratitude to God is the continuous sanctification of the world.

Jesus, Remember Me

I've shared some recently about my week in Taizé, France. During that week I had many spiritual "moments," if you will. What follows was one of them.  

We were singing the song "Jesus, Remember Me." As you know, these are the words spoken to Jesus by the thief on the cross. And to his request Jesus responds, "Today you shall be with me in paradise."

As I've described, the simple, repetitive nature of Taizé music really helps you settle into the words. Instead of moving through new verses with new words and meanings, Taizé keeps you still, hovering over the same words. Like a musical mantra, you linger, you remain. And after a while, the lyrics come to immerse you, like slowly slipping into a pool of water.

So as I sang, over and over, the petition "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom," my thoughts turned to the thief on the cross. Tears began to well up in my eyes as a conviction settled in my heart, "This is me. This is my petition. I am the thief on the cross."

Here's what that moment meant for me. I spend a lot of time trying to build up my moral portfolio. Deep in my heart I have this conviction that I might be able to give a good showing before the Lord when we meet, at last, face to face. I want to commend myself. "Here, Lord, are all the good things that I have done. I've written these books. Shared many words on my blog. Spoken on stages before large audiences. I've served my church--as an elder, teaching Bible classes, helping with the children, and feeding the poor. I have visited the prisoner." 

But as I sang the petition of the thief on the cross, I faced the reality that, in the end, all is grace. In the moment of his request, the thief on the cross had nothing to commend himself to the Lord. Even worse, he had no chance, no opportunity, to add anything to his moral resume. He couldn't do a quick update of his spiritual LinkedIn profile. The thief was, quite literally, nailed down. His situation was morally frozen. He couldn't, in his final moments, help an old lady across the street or give some money to a homeless person. To do even one small act of goodness, he is denied. And so, the thief on the cross is about to die with a zero in the "goodness" column. Pinned to the wood, like an insect in a specimen case, he is absolutely helpless, unable to do anything other than ask for grace. And so he asks. "Remember me." And Jesus does.

As I cried in France, that was what moved me to tears. Grace. My hope, my only hope, is in the love of Christ. As Martin Luther said at his death, "We are all beggars." At my death, I, too, shall be a beggar. Like the thief on the cross, I will come with my petition and my only hope, "Jesus, remember me." 

And the words shall come, "Today you shall be with me in paradise."

Christian Humanism: Part 3, Made in the Image of God

The first pillar of my Christian humanism is a Christological vision of the human being. Human nature being what it is, we point to Christ as our normative definition of what it looks like to be a human being. 

The second pillar of my Christian humanism is the belief that each person is created in the image of God and the moral and political demands that creates for society. Because human beings are created in the image of God each person is imbued with inviolate dignity, value, and worth that must be recognized, respected, cared for, accommodated, and protected. 

In 2020 I shared a very good reflection on this topic, Glenn Tinder's 1989 essay in The Atlantic, "Can We Be Good Without God? On the political meaning of Christianity." 

In his essay, Tinder explores if the values modernity inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition, especially the value of universal human dignity, can be sustained going forward without the metaphysical worldview that gave birth to those values. As Tinder asks at the start of his essay, "Can we affirm the dignity and equality of individual persons—values we ordinarily regard as secular—without giving them transcendental backing?" For this series we might ask the question this way: Can humanism survive if it isn't Christian

Tinder starts his essay with a consideration of Christian agape and how that call to love is rooted in the Hebrew confession that humans are created in the image of God. Love is the moral response to human dignity. Here's Tinder:

The nature of agape stands out sharply against the background of ordinary social existence. The life of every society is a harsh process of mutual appraisal. People are ceaselessly judged and ranked, and they in turn ceaselessly judge and rank others. This is partly a necessity of social and political order; no groups whatever—clubs, corporations, universities, or nations—can survive without allocating responsibilities and powers with a degree of realism. It is partly also a struggle for self-esteem; we judge ourselves for the most part as others judge us. Hence outer and inner pressures alike impel us to enter the struggle. 

The process is harsh because all of us are vulnerable. All of us manifest deficiencies of natural endowment—of intelligence, temperament, appearance, and so forth. And all personal lives reveal moral deficiencies as well—blamable failures in the past, and vanity, greed, and other such qualities in the present. The process is harsh also because it is unjust. Not only are those who are judged always imperfect and vulnerable, but the judges are imperfect too. They are always fallible and often cruel. Thus few are rated exactly, or even approximately, as they deserve... 

Agape means refusing to take part in this process. It lifts the one who is loved above the level of reality on which a human being can be equated with a set of observable characteristics. The agape of God, according to Christian faith, does this with redemptive power...Agape raises all those touched by it into the community brought by Christ, the Kingdom of God. Everyone is glorified. No one is judged and no one judges. 

When we look on others with love we ignore all observable metrics of worth, of aptitude, achievement, or endowment. We refuse to judge or evaluate others using criteria of worth. When we love these metrics of worth are ignored as we embrace the inherit value of the other person. Christianity universalizes this vision, demanding that we love all people. And this ethical demand, according to Tinder, flows out of the the Christian vision of what he calls "the exalted individual." Tinder describing this: 

To grasp fully the idea of the exalted individual is not easy...It refers to something intrinsically mysterious, a reality that one cannot see by having someone else point to it or describe it. It is often spoken of, but the words we use—"the dignity of the individual," "the infinite value of a human being," and so forth—have become banal and no longer evoke the mystery that called them forth. Hence we must try to understand what such phrases mean. In what way, from a Christian standpoint, are individuals exalted? In trying to answer this question, the concept of destiny may provide some help. 

In the act of creation God grants a human being glory, or participation in the goodness of all that has been created. The glory of a human being, however, is not like that of a star or a mountain. It is not objectively established but must be freely affirmed by the one to whom it belongs. In this sense the glory of a human being is placed in the future... 

Destiny is not the same as fate. The word refers not to anything terrible or even to anything inevitable, in the usual sense of the word, but to the temporal and free unfoldment of a person's essential being. A destiny is a spiritual drama. 

A destiny is never completely fulfilled in time, in the Christian vision, but leads onto the plane of eternity. It must be worked out in time, however, and everything that happens to a person in time enters into eternal selfhood and is there given meaning and justification. My destiny is what has often been referred to as my soul... 

The agape of God consists in the bestowal of a destiny, and that of human beings in its recognition through faith. Since a destiny is not a matter of empirical observation, a person with a destiny is, so to speak, invisible. But every person has a destiny. Hence the process of mutual scrutiny is in vain, and even the most objective judgments of other people are fundamentally false. Agape arises from a realization of this and is therefore expressed in a refusal to judge. 

The Lord of all time and existence has taken a personal interest in every human being, an interest that is compassionate and unwearying. The Christian universe is peopled exclusively with royalty... 

According to Christian metaphysics everyone has a destiny. Our life has a "plot," giving it purpose and meaning. And this story is a story of glory, no matter how small or ignoble our lives might be judged by others. Our destiny makes our life, and every life, "count." Given this metaphysical vision of the exalted individual, Tinder turns to unpack the political implications: 

What does this mean for society? 

To speak cautiously, the concept of the exalted individual implies that governments—indeed, all persons who wield power—must treat individuals with care. This can mean various things—for example, that individuals are to be fed and sheltered when they are destitute, listened to when they speak, or merely left alone so long as they do not break the law and fairly tried if they do. But however variously care may be defined, it always means that human beings are not to be treated like the things we use and discard or just leave lying about. They deserve attention. 

This vision of human dignity and worth--each of us exalted, royal, loved, and destined--is Christian humanism. 

Christian Humanism: Part 2, The Training to Become a Human Being

Before pushing on to a second pillar of my Christian humanism, a post to pause and note an implication of the last post.

Specifically, in describing human nature as pliable and adaptable, I stated that human nature requires direction and education. Christ, in Christian humanism, is both that direction and education. We see this in Christ's preferred self-description as the Son of Man. As students of Hebrew know, "Son of Man" simply means human, or human being. Taking that cue, the CEB translation translates the traditional "Son of Man" as "the Human One." Jesus comes to us as the Human Being. We become human was we emulate the Human One.

The implication here is that it takes training to become a human being.

I've told this story before, how a man once shared with me the journey of his father. When this man was younger, his father was, well, not very pleasant or kind. But as the father aged he grew into a different person. In his final years a beautiful and gracious person had come to replace the meanness of his youthful self. Reflecting on the change the years wrought in his father, the son shared with me, "It takes a lifetime to become a human being."

Yes it does. That is what I mean by training and education. Of course we're born human, but that humanity is immature and very much a work in progress. Let's all reflect back on the person we were when we were younger. The humanity latent in each of us takes time to grow and mature. Like that father, we become more and more human.

This is how Christian humanism differs from what I described as "naive humanism." In naive humanism we take human nature, all of it, as "human." And from a biological perspective, that is certainly true. Anything humans do is human. The serial killers, the sex traffickers, the child abusers. The meanness, the bullying, the indifference. All this is human. By contrast, Christian humanism spotlights the moral and spiritual aspects of human nature, the proverbial "better angels" of our nature. That which is humane within our humanity. Our capacities for the true, the beautiful and the good. Our moral courage. Our ability to love sacrificially. These are the virtues that make us human. 

Of course, most humanists would agree with this sentiment. But why? What justifies setting the Judeo-Christian vision of the human above other possible humanities? More, if you agree with the Judeo-Christian vision of "the human being," what does your humanism provide by way of training and virtue formation? Where are your teachers, syllabi, schools, and curricula? Or are you expecting true, beautiful and good human beings to just spontaneously emerge as we wander from screen to screen in this digital age, everyone clicking their way into wisdom, humility, generosity and love? 

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: Part 6, Men and Women Are Different

We now reach the second chapter of Louise Perry's The Case Against the Sexual Revolution entitled "Men and Women Are Different."

If you've followed this series we've mentioned a couple of times how Perry claims that the sexual revolution works well for men but not so well for women. The reason for this, according to Perry, is that men and women are different. Men and women have distinctive and unique sexual psychologies, and these differences intersect with the sexual revolution in particular ways.

Conservative Christians might be quick to jump in here to say, "Of course men and women are different! That's how God created them." But again, Perry isn't writing as a Christian. In this chapter Perry will describe the origins and differences between men and women by appealing to evolutionary biology. Which, I'm guessing, is not the move most conservative Christians would make.

Much of Perry's argument is well known. The basic idea goes like this. In the ancestral environments where human evolution occurred, men and women faced different adaptive challenges when it came to reproduction. Key to understanding these challenges is knowing that evolution is driven by reproductive success, creating genetic offspring. Survival of the fittest is more about having as many children as possible than about being strong or fast. 

If having as many children as possible is the driving imperative, men and women, due to their reproductive biologies, face different challenges. For example, women are biologically limited in how many children they can bear in a lifetime. Men are only limited by the number of sexual opportunities they have. In ancient cultures, a single woman could only ever have a handful of children. Men, by contrast, could have dozens, even hundreds, of children. For example, the Bible says Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. If we assume an average of one child per woman, that's the potential for 1,000 children. You can vividly see the reproductive asymmetry. No wife of Solomon could have 1,000 children. But Solomon could.  

Beyond reproductive capacity, another asymmetry women faced was the risk, cost and burden of bringing a child to term and raising it to independence. Before, during, and after childbirth women were in vulnerable situations. Less able to forage for food, travel, work, and generally fend for and protect themselves. Facing that challenge, it makes adaptive sense to look for a mate who will invest in protecting both you and your children. Putting all this together, evolutionary psychologists argue that women developed a sexual psychology biased toward relational intimacy and pair-bonding. An affectional bond with a caring and committed mate would help women solve the adaptive challenges of female reproduction in primitive contexts. Women who eschewed this psychology, by contrast, who were willing to have sex with any available man, were going to give birth to a lot of children she would be left to care for all on her own. That would be a reproductive disaster, for both the woman and her children. They would all die. And so, a sexual rule was instilled in female sexual psychology: Sex needs love. 

Male reproductive success, by contrast, was governed by different rules. If the goal is to have as many children as possible, then the male sexual strategy is straightforward: Have as much sex as possible. And given that males faced very little risk or burden in childbirth, natural selection provided little pushback on male promiscuity. If anything, promiscuity--because more sex equals more children--was rewarded rather than punished. I hope you see the point: male sexual psychology evolved in the exact opposite direction as female sexual psychology. For men, love doesn't need to be attached to sex as sex itself created the opportunity for reproductive success. Even worse, linking sex to love will limit your reproductive opportunities. Love is bad, given this adaptive logic. Sex, then, becomes decoupled from relational intimacy and commitment. 

In short, because of this evolutionary history, men and women are different. 

The critical point of all this for Perry's argument is to push back upon the "blank slate" assumptions concerning human nature often evoked by liberal feminists. The female desire for intimacy, to be loved and taken care of by a committed partner, is taken as evidence that women have internalized patriarchal gender norms. Not so fast, says Louise Perry. Female desires for romantic intimacy aren't due to culture but are rooted, rather, in evolutionary biology. It's nature, not nurture. 

Liberal feminism rejects that view and suggests that human nature--female nature, in this case--is a blank slate that we can shape at will, like play-doh, if we just raise our girls differently. And there is a whole lot of good and necessary truth to that view. Culture can and does enshrine oppressive and patriarchal gender norms. Plus, the nature versus nurture issue is complex. It's not either/or. Human nature displays radical plasticity, but it can also be stubbornly resistant to change. 

Perry's argument is that the sexual revolution--our liberated and loveless hookup culture--is perfectly suited to male sexual psychology. Males thrive when there is more and more sex with fewer and fewer relational strings attached. Men today can even outsex King Solomon. Wilt Chamberlain, for example, reported in his autobiography that he'd had sex with over 20,000 women. As Chamberlain noted about his sexual history, "We're all fascinated by the numbers." I guess we are. Hugh Hefner was more modest in his estimates, claiming he'd slept with over 1,000 women. And while we might question the accuracy of Chamberlain's memory, he's making the biological point perfectly clear for us. For men, sex is a numbers game. The more, the better.

By contrast, argues Louise Perry, the sexual psychology of women is ill-suited to a sexual marketplace built for the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Hugh Hefner. The sexual revolution is forcing women to "have sex like men," which means "liberated" sex stripped of love, intimacy, and commitment. Given their sexual psychology, rooted in a biological past, women emotionally suffer in this environment. Sex, for most women, longs for love, for some intimacy and attachment. 

Which brings us to another sad irony about the sexual revolution. According to Perry, the great irony of liberal feminism is how liberal feminism shames women for wanting love. Liberal feminism tells women that their longing for love in sex hurts the cause. If women want to make progress in the world women need to stuff their feelings and have sex like men. 

And so, that is how we raise our girls today: You will be free if you have sex like Wilt Chamberlain and Hugh Hefner. And thus equipped with the enlightened advice of the sexual revolution, we send young women out into a world full of hurt, pain, and monsters.

Christian Humanism: Part 1, Christ and Human Nature

There's a theological perspective described as "Christian humanism." For my part, I would describe myself as a Christian humanist.

Regarding the "humanist" aspect, this flows out of my perspective as a psychologist. I'm very much concerned with how theological beliefs, church structures, and readings of Scripture promote or harm human flourishing. The human being and the human condition has a huge "say" in how I think theologically. In the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, experience plays a large role in my discernments. 

And yet, I'm a Christian humanist. And while there are divergent views that sail under that flag, let me share with you my particular take. 

Specifically, while I'm deeply concerned with human nature, I don't think human nature is a steady or reliably virtuous thing. Due to the radical plasticity, malleability, and receptivity of human nature, human persons can become deformed and twisted. Due to our cognitive biases and limitations we're prone to becoming lost and confused. We're also prone to environmental influences of all sorts that can capture and distort our attention and choices. Just ponder how social media is radically capturing and reshaping human nature and society. There was human nature before social media, and there is human nature after social media, affecting our mental, physical, social, and political health.

Consequently, I reject what might be called a "naive humanism," the view that human nature as it stands is steady and reliably tuned to health and virtue. Human nature is, rather, a bit of a sponge and a choose your own adventure. Human nature can become almost anything. That's its nature, its open-endedness, a potentiality that is both blessing and curse, promise and peril.  

And so, human nature needs a target, a vision of what "being human" should mean. Human nature requires a teacher and an education. That's where the Christian humanism shows up. For a Christian humanist, Christ is the vision of what "being human" should look like. Christ is the teacher, the syllabus, the curriculum, the classroom, and the exam. 

Pascal summed it up nicely: "Outside Jesus Christ we do not know what is our life, our death, God or ourselves." 

The Natural Desire for God: Part 6, Fall and Redemption

Last post in this series. In this final post I want to reflect on the major source of controversy in the Catholic debate regarding a natural desire for God.

In yesterday's post I described the criticism of de Lubac and others regarding "two-tiered Thomism." But for their part, what do those same Thomists have to say about de Lubac regarding a natural desire for God?

Their main complaint is this. If there is a natural desire for God then there is a concern that God would "owe" nature the gift of grace. God would be obligated by the first gift to give the second gift. You can see the point: It would be mighty hard for God to implant the desire for Himself in human nature, only to have God not satisfy that desire. In giving us the desire God seems morally "on the hook" to give us grace.

So why's that a problem? I think a lot of people would be okay to say, yes, God has some moral "responsibility" to creation, especially if nature was intrinsically "unfulfilled" and "lacking" in some way all on its own. But if that is so, if God is obligated to give grace to nature, then this damages our definition of grace. Grace isn't given because of an obligation. Grace is grace because it is free, unexpected and gratuitous. 

So that's the concern. If humans possess a natural desire for God God would owe nature grace and that obligation would destroy our theology of grace.

How to respond to this criticism? 

There have been a variety of responses to this criticism among Catholic theologians, and I won't inventory them here. I only want to share, in my limited knowledge and expertise, what I think are two missing issues in much of the literature I have read about this debate.

Specifically, in many of these conversations regarding the relationship between nature and grace what I often find missing is how the fall and redemption history affects the whole conversation. It seems to me that the fall interrupts nature in away the ushers in the story of salvation. Any "lack" in nature isn't due to deficiencies in the "first gift" of creation. The "lack" we experience is a wound created by the fall. And given that the fall occurred out of human freedom, God is not obligated to follow with the "second gift" of grace. And yet, God does. Which makes grace grace.

Another issue that I think complicates this debate is the working assumption among Catholics that grace isn't universal. That is to say, some of humanity, perhaps a large portion of it, will not receive the second gift and will be eschatologically "lost." That some will be lost puts pressure on the argument for the natural desire of God as these lost souls would have a quibble with God on judgment day: "You made us with a longing for you and you never gave yourself to us in grace." Again, some Thomists might worry that these souls would have a claim upon God's grace if they possessed a natural desire for God. But I think this worry evaporates if we have a more general and universal vision of God's grace.

Specifically, if it is true, as 1 Timothy 2.4 proclaims, that God "desires all people to be saved," then God's grace pre-exists any claim a creature might lay upon Him. God created all people and, because God is gracious, God desires all people to be saved. That the first gift of existence is followed by the second gift of grace after the fall of humanity is not because God "owes" us anything but because God always acts generously and gratuitously. In short, the issue of God "owing" grace to nature is only possible if there is some sector of nature where God's grace is forever withheld. But if God's grace will, in the end, reach all nature, then there will never be occasion for nature to lay claim to grace as its due. The first gift doesn't create an obligation for a second gift. Rather, all is grace, start to finish, simply because of who God is. God is always gracious, and after the fall we needed rescue. And so, God effects a rescue. As it says in the gospel of John, we receive from God "grace upon grace." God is always giving us gifts.

Again, I'm no expert in these debates, but it seems to me that attention to both the fall and redemption history addresses the Thomist concern about nature being "owed" grace. In summary, there is a natural desire for God, but because of the fall we cannot, on our own, actualize that desire. God, being true to His nature, and not wanting to lose any part of his creation (1 Tim. 2.4), acts in Christ to reconcile all things to Himself (Col. 1.20). As sinners, we are not owed this grace, but God gives us this "second gift" graciously and gratuitously. Which means that, for all of humanity, our natural desire for God will reach its supernatural end. Not because of obligation, but simply because God is, and will forever be, all in all.