It is time to address some specific objections to the Christian moral vision. However, I do not plan to develop an extensive theological framework here. I did that in chapters 23-33 (Pages 82-126) of my book The Thoughtful Christian Life: Essays on Living as a Christian in a Post-Christian Culture. You can read earlier versions of these essays in the April-June 2014 archives of this blog. I want to make only two points in this essay. But first…
Note: This essay has to do with answering moral objections to the Christian moral vision. It contains no advice about what the secular state ought to adopt as policy. In this essay I care only about what Christians should say to defend and explain Christianity’s moral stance. This is apologetics, not politics.
. “The whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19)
First, it is of utmost importance to distinguish between what is right and what is lawful. For Christianity, what is morally right is determined solely by God, the Creator and Lord of the world. Whatever contradicts the will of God is morally wrong even if the whole world should make it legal and declare it right. And whatever the Creator declares to be right will stand even if all nations condemn it. You may be nodding your head in agreement. Good. But we should not underestimate the persuasive and coercive power of law, its ability to confuse the mind and deaden the conscience. The legalization of abortion is a case is point. When the legal authorities solemnly pronounce a law to be in force or strike down a law previously held to be just we begin to doubt our previous judgment. And the cry of the people begins to sound like the voice of God.
To maintain a clear head in such situations we must keep the difference between the world and the kingdom of God clearly in mind. A nation’s legislatures and courts sooner or later will make laws that reflect the moral condition of the people in that land. If the people are corrupt they will demand equally corrupt laws. And though the world is not completely evil—by God’s grace there is a little light and a little good left—it is now, always been and always will be corrupt. This fact should not surprise us. Have we read 1 John lately?
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17).
“We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear Children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:19-20).
If we look at our world through John’s eyes, we will not be so surprised or moved by the solemn pronouncements of human authorities that permit sin and condemn righteousness. “The whole world is under the control of the evil one.” What do we expect?
Let God Judge the World
Allow me to make a related distinction. We are obligated to “obey God rather than human beings,” as Peter declared boldly to the legislating authorities that were attempting to intimidate him (Acts 5:29).When it comes to a choice between obeying a human authority and obeying God, we must obey God and disobey human law. But there is a huge difference between a situation in which a human authority permits sin but does not obligate us to sin and a situation where a human authority mandates sin or makes it illegal to obey God. The authorities of the world have always permitted sin to one degree or another and often celebrated it.
Understandably, Christians would like to live in a world where justice and holiness reign. And because we don’t live in such a world, we may sometimes feel the way Peter describes the Old Testament character Lot as feeling: “a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless–for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard” (2 Peter 2:7-8). But it would be a tragic mistake to think that we are obligated as Christians to force others to obey God. Nor is it fitting for a Christian to coerce by force, intimidation or manipulation obedience to God’s laws. Obedience to God must be voluntary. We are not obligated as Christians to spend our energies in futile efforts to clean up the world’s moral corruption. Keeping our own house clean may be more than we can accomplish! Paul gave some sage advice to the Corinthian church on this topic:
“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you” (1 Cor 5: 9-13).
When Arguments Are Counterproductive
The second point I wish to make may strike you as odd, but I think it contains a very important correction to the way Christians sometimes respond to external challenges to the Christian moral vision. We should take care to observe the following rule: never try to prove something that is self-evident. If someone denies that the tree in front of you really exists or that 1 + 1 = 2 or that you have a mind, don’t argue with them. Don’t attempt to give evidence for the obvious! Attempting to support something self-evident with evidence implies that the self-evident thing is not so self-evident after all. You will be making room for doubt where there was no room before you began arguing. You will be providing an excuse for people to act contrary to obvious truth. If someone denies the self-evident it is best to assume they are driven by an irrational commitment of some kind. We should respond with clear assertions, not with piles of evidence. Arguments and evidence move only those willing to be guided by reason.
Do not be drawn into an argument about whether or not an unborn human baby is really a human being. The humanity of an unborn human being is an analytical truth. It is self-evident. Any evidence you could offer that an unborn child is a human being will only make that obvious truth less obvious. By entering the argument, you tacitly agree that evidence is needed and hence admit that the humanity of this little human being is not self-evident and that this truth is debatable. By obscuring the self-evident truth, you make plausible the notion that each individual has a right to make a judgment and a choice for themselves about the humanity of another human being. But this notion is false because the humanity of a human being is not an obscure and difficult question. It is self-evident. The only real question is whether or not we will honor the humanity of this human being. The only real choice people have is whether to do right or to do wrong. And if we want to critique the notion that abortion is morally permissible we can make no better argument that to assert tirelessly the self-evident truth and articulate a clear demand for a choice between right and wrong.
Do not be drawn into an argument about whether or not there are profound differences between male and female and what they are or whether or not these differences will be and must be manifested in the family, society and church. These facts are self-evident. It is as absurd to argue for the obvious as it is to argue against it. Members of families, societies and churches must converse continually on just how the obvious differences between the sexes should be reflected in the order and operation of these institutions. And particular arrangements must emerge from the conversation and not be dictated by an abstract theory, whether an anti-creation theory of disembodied equality or a natural law theory of fixed roles.
Do not be drawn into an argument about whether or not man was made for woman and woman for man. What argument could add to the self-evidence manifested in our very existence? Arguments that attempt to provide evidence that men are not meant to have sex with other men or women with women only obscure the obvious, create doubt, stir emotions and evoke refutations. It is to admit that there is a real question when there is none. Additionally, in contemporary culture the subjective always trumps the objective. Presenting evidence—other than asserting what is self-evident—from the objective features of men and women for the conclusion that same-sex unions are morally wrong will always be dismissed by a culture that values subjective feelings above objective reality. Indeed for most of our contemporaries, the subjective is the truly real and deserves our utmost respect, but the objective, that is, the body and our material conditions, is merely plastic that we may shape according to our wishes and use according to our desires. Hence, as in the previous issues, the most reasonable argument is not really an argument at all but an assertion of what is self-evident, obvious and objectively factual over subjective obscurity and confusion. We have to insist that the only question to be decided is whether or not we will accept our created existence and thereby honor our Creator. The only choice is between right and wrong. But remember Paul’s words quoted above: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.”
Why the Irrationality?
But if these things are self-evident why do some people argue as if they were not? And why do Christianity’s critics accuse it of hatred for affirming things so self-evident? I addressed the second question in my recent post, “Is Christianity Morally Offensive.” Critics of Christian morality assume that each individual owns their own body and has the autonomous right to do as they please with that body. But Christianity denies this. From within the de-Christianized progressive framework, this denial looms as a threat of violence and oppression. It feels like an attack on human dignity and a mean-spirited effort to deprive people of happiness. Now the first question: how can people deny what is in fact self-evidently true? Because their moral philosophy of individual autonomy demands it, and they wish that philosophy to be true so much that it drives them to deny plain facts when those facts undermine their cherished wishes. Augustine of Hippo speaks about this human tendency in words that I must quote:
“But why is it that “truth engenders hatred”? Why does your man who preaches what is true become to them an enemy (Gal 4:16) when they love the happy life which is simply joy grounded in truth? The answer must be this: their love for truth takes the form that they love something else and want this object of their love to be the truth; and because they do not which to be deceived, they do not wish to be persuaded that they are mistaken. And so they hate the truth for the sake of the object which they love instead of the truth” (Confessions 10. 24; trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford, 1991).
No, I have not forgotten that the Bible’s moral teaching on these subjects is clear, and for Christians the Bible’s authority is decisive and persuasive. But people without faith can simply dismiss the Bible’s commands, which apart from faith in Jesus Christ seem unreasonably strict and lacking in human compassion. In relating to outsider critics we can avail ourselves of the self-evidence of many moral principles and morally relevant facts, such as those I discussed above. Of course some people will even deny self-evident truths and manifest facts, but they cannot really evade the power of that self-evidence and facticity. In the end, reality wins! The conscience can be hardened but it cannot be erased. Hence a strategy of clear assertion rather than of self-obscuring argumentation holds the best promise of awakening deadened consciences.
This essay has to do with answering moral objections to the Christian moral vision. It contains no advice about what the secular state ought to adopt as policy. In this essay I care only about what Christians should say to defend and explain Christianity’s moral stance. This is apologetics, not politics.
Next Week: What about liberal Christianity?
Thanks for this, Ron. Excellent and focused, and, in my opinion, sound. I have been working on a post for my religion and law blog (because readers keep asking me to!) on the Obergefell v Hidges case. This is helpful.
Thank you, Marcus! I worked hard on it hoping to craft it so that it says what I really want to say, no more and no less. But that of course is impossible even for a simple topic. Certainly for one so controversial. And yet, sometimes we have to attempt the (near) impossible for conscience sake. Peace.
Very thought-provoking post, especially for one like myself who has put so much effort specifically into being able to present the truths of Christianity in the everyday public sphere to those who would willfully misunderstand, misrepresent, and mock them. I agree that it is essential to emphasize that these issues have a higher ontological and metaphysical reality that is not even on the same plane as law or politics. In light of that, I have avoided having discussions about the legality or constitutionality of Obergefell because I think such discussions entirely miss the mark. The law presupposes a social-contract theory of marriage, the life status of a human being, gender, and beyond. But by seeing these as ordained by God Himself, we see that no statements, decisions, polls, or rallies of men can so much as touch the plane that these institutions exist on.
What I think I struggle with in the post is the call essentially to remain silent–that is, not to join in the discussion even on that ontological, metaphysical level. It seems to me that responding with assertions to the opposing assertions weakens our own case and position. While I agree with your remarks about not lowering the level of warrant for these issues from self-evident to debatable, I think a dual-warrant model similar to Plantinga’s model for theistic belief would be profitable to adopt here. Our belief *in* the ontological status of marriage, gender, etc. is properly basic, as the truths are self-evident, but we may nonetheless offer additional reasons for those truths as a second source of warrant in discussions for those who may have a hindered perception of these self-evident truths due to irrational prior commitments. On a pragmatic level of discussion, it seems most effective to “prime” a discussion partner with the second warrant of evidences and reasons before concluding by pointing out that they may have prior commitments that are obscuring their perception of self-evident truth.
You misunderstand my intensions (if not my words) if you understood me to advocate silence. Asserting the obvious is not silence. And I was speaking about the church and Christians speaking as Christians with the authority and in defense of the Christian moral vision. I think Christians who are philosophers and citizens can and should make arguments in the public arena. In my view we live in an antirational culture. It asserts the arbitrary will to the exclusion of reason. And by so doing it is opening the gates of Hell. All things will become possible. And Christians may have to bear the torch of reason in the new dark age where reason is used onlyas a tool of the will ambitious to become God, determining good and evil.
For America of my generation, I am inclined to say that we are already there, if the sway and influence of the New Atheists is any indication. My torch is lit and my arm is ready to carry it forth.
Thanks, Wilson. Hope all is well with you and yours!
Grateful for this, Ron. It is almost amusing how many Christians, stridently expressing anxiety over all that has recently transpired, are given pause when reminded that the world is but behaving as Jesus Himself warned us that they would.