You've reached the shared blog of Michael Mckay and Todd Frederick. Two friends who have worked together in ministry and labored in similar educational endeavors. Please join us as we consider the interaction of Christianity with modern culture...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dad, why? Why, Dad? Dad... why?

I think every five year old child masters the infinite question loop. If you’re a parent, you know exactly what I am talking about. Asking a seemingly straightforward question the child says something like: ‘Dad, why is the sky red at sunset?’ After the parent brain-vomits something vaguely remembered from high school earth science, the child invariably responds: ‘why?’ Thus begins the nightmare. As the near-infinite regress regresses, the parent must invoke a level of causality beyond explanation. Usually God enters the picture as the parent notes that the consistent behavior of celestial bodies represents a manifestation of the divine will. To which the child replies… well, you know.

John Calvin faces a similar situation as he examines God’s role in predestination and providence. He has searched the ancient writings and considered the opinions of the sages. As he opens the topic to his audience, he warns:

"Let us not be ashamed to be ignorant of something in a matter where there is an ignorance which is more learned than knowledge. Instead, let us be quite content to abstain from desiring a knowledge which it is mad and dangerous and even deadly to pursue."

I think Calvin makes an important statement here: At some point, we have to recognize our limitations. For literally thousands of years, philosophers, theologians and regular people have considered the person of God and placed their thoughts on scrolls, papyri and paper. Libraries are packed to overflowing with both good and bad information, enough to spend a thousand lifetimes reading, sifting and debating. At the same time, the advance of theological knowledge often comes from people who question established dogma, asking one more question and spending a lifetime pursuing the answer.

While Calvin warns us to acknowledge our limitations, the absoluteness of his remarks stifle further investigation and should be tempered. Instead of commanding abstinence, he should have urged caution for anyone attempting to understand God’s rule further. Perhaps Calvin’s greatest weakness stems from his inability to accept some who disagreed with him. Sebastian Castellio was one such dissenter on minor points of theology and Bible. As an educated man with considerable facility in the ancient languages, his criticism of Calvin may have opened further investigation. Instead of considering his input, Calvin marginalized him politically and financially.

The unwillingness to accommodate dissent represents a key weakness for Calvin. In a way, it is as if a frustrated father tells his child to stop asking ‘why?’ While we should all recognize Calvin’s important contributions to theology, there may be further questions to ask which don’t actually lead to madness, danger and death.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Competing Views of Religious Works

The Reformation sought to correct grievances against the Roman Catholic Church which had drifted away from Scriptural authority. The Reformers returned to the source languages of the Bible to reestablish its key role in the development of theology. The developing theologies interacted forcefully with established dogma and John Calvin was a leading voice for change.

As Calvin dialogues with the Roman Catholic scholars, he vehemently opposes their view of justification by works. Forming a cornerstone of his theology, he defends the idea that no one can earn a right standing with God by performing good deeds. The Roman Catholic view involves the grace of God enabling works to effect a right standing before God, while no value inheres in the works themselves. Reacting strongly to this view, Calvin advances faith in the person and work of Christ as the sole condition to enter a right standing with God. For Calvin, the works done after coming into the right standing earn a form of righteousness which does not cause a right standing before God.

The role of good deeds takes advantage of human self-interest in both theologies. For the Roman Catholic, the works bring release from penalty through divine-human cooperation. Calvin rejects this view of justification, believing that the works of a believer provide the imputation of righteousness only after he or she already has a right standing. The appeal to self-interest catches my attention, but the contrast in both theologies intrigues me even more.

Catholic theology, from Calvin’s perspective, seeks the avoidance of punishment through good works while Calvin’s theology sees works as a way to earn rewards. Human motivation comes from a complex of emotional, volitional and practical causes and I think many would agree that the highest moral motivation comes through love. I do or do not do something on the basis of my intense affection and commitment to another. At the same time, the most common and perhaps the strongest practical motivation stems from self-interest. I can see the benefits which accrue, now or in the future as a direct or indirect result of my actions. Another common, but weaker motivation develops through a sense of duty or obligation. Avoidance of punishment represents perhaps the weakest of all motivations.

I can see these varying degrees of motivation play out in the extra chores I assign my children. Regular chores done to avoid punishment generally receive less attention to detail along with a lower degree of enthusiasm. Additional work for which my children receive pay generates added enthusiasm, but I still must follow up to correct their oversights. Perhaps the highest level of enthusiasm and attention to detail obtains when they directly perceive the benefit of their labor.
The best example of my kids enthusiastic profiteering comes courtesy of a pair of black walnut trees in my front yard. The first time we cleaned walnuts it was done as a regular aspect of home maintenance with no extra pay. The work required my supervision and was done to avoid trouble with dad. I dislike riding herd over my kids, so the next time I decided to offer pay per walnut. (Thinking a few hundred walnuts would not cost much at 5 cents per nut). The yard was picked clean of over two thousand walnuts in record time. The same task took on a completely different perspective when self-interest came to bear.

Both Calvin and the Catholics see the value of self-interest with different intended results. Acting to receive benefit seems to be criticized today for the sake of ‘justice’ or ‘loving your neighbor’ by equalizing outcomes and not opportunities. Perhaps a more balanced view of Biblical perspectives on the role of self-interest will do more to create a workable economic equality.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Yes, it is possible.....but is it probable?

In the last 6 months or so, I have found myself having a similar conversation with different people in different places. The conversation is about the trustworthiness of the Bible or the truthfulness of Christianity. The person I am talking with will usually make some statement to the effect that we can't trust the Bible/Christianity because we just can't know for sure whether what it is saying is true or not. They usually go on to say that it could be aliens that gave us the Scriptures, or that humans have just been adding to the biblical story for ages and now we have the result. In their words, "All these options are possible." In their minds they then sit back with the hopes of watching me squirm because they have apparently presented an insurmountable argument. Surely no one can "prove" the Bible is true, can they?

One paper I graded recently went along this trail. My comment back to him on his paper is the heading for this blog, "Yes, this is possible, but is it probable?" When we realize that we live in a world where daily we make decisions based on probability, then the felt need for absolute proof for anything starts to die down. Perhaps I can word this another way, "What do you know that has absolute proof for it?" The answer is, "not much" (for those into philosophy, I am aware of Rene Descartes "I think therefore I am" which in his mind provided absolute knowledge of at least one thing: He existed). We all live in a world of probabilities. It is probable that the sun will shine tomorrow; probable that I will go to work; probable that this Sunday I will go to Church; probable that the person running for political office is not entirely a squeaky clean candidate; probable that there is not an invisible unicorn under my bed; probable that my company will pay me on pay day; probable that when I hit "post" this blog entry will actually post, etc. In other words, we make decisions (many of them important ones) based on reasons that help tip the scale in favor of one option over another. When we realize how many good reasons there are for seeing the Bible as God's inspired Word and taking it as truth, the scale in favor of it actually being what it claims to be is enormous; the alien option? not so much.

It is unfortunate that our friends, family and acquaintances have bought into this shallow, deadly shadow of thinking. It has a faint ring of true thinking, but is far from it. And unfortunately the consequences are not trivial. If this shadow thinking keeps people from the Gospel, then the consequences are eternal. As Christians we should not be stymied by this apparent "silver bullet" against Christianity. Nor should most of us spend our time looking for the Holy Grail of apologetic slam-dunkery. Instead we should help unbelievers to see that most of their life is lived in the realm of probabilities. Since their views about Jesus Christ are going to be formed the same way their views about anything else are formed, they need to start examining the reasons for the Scriptures validity. If they don't do this then they are lazy.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Over-awed by God

As John Calvin comments on Scripture and produces his Institutes, a sense of awe and distance pervades his writing. He clearly understands and communicates the ‘transcendence’ of God, who exists beyond our understanding. This pervasive focus on distance represents Calvin’s earnest desire to honor God and understand our proper place before Him. This emphasis minimizes how close God comes to us, His immanence. As Calvin comments on faith, he clearly expresses our weakness in light of God’s majesty.

"It is indeed true that the world considers it very strange when we say that no one can believe in Christ except the one to whom that is particularly given. But this is partly because people do not consider how high the heavenly wisdom is and how difficult it is to grasp, and they do not consider their own ignorance and weakness in grasping God’s mysteries; partly also it is because they pay no attention to the resoluteness of heart which is the principal part of faith."

Calvin recognizes how difficult it is for his contemporary audience to accept this idea. He explains that they do not understand how far above us God’s wisdom is and the intense stupidity that afflicts mankind. These two positions demonstrate underlying influences in his thought: his theological predecessors and contemporary opponents.

As Calvin engages the achievement-oriented Roman Catholic Church, he reacts strongly to any form of human works. In this reaction, he follows Augustine, who engaged the excessive reliance on human achievement taught by Pelagius. Both of these men focus on the transcendence of God at the expense of His immanence. They diminish human ability to the point that man has no participation in the process of salvation unless enabled by God to hear and respond by faith.

Thus opens the wormhole of Calvinistic determinism. As I gaze into the swirling vortex of ideas about the rule of God over creation and man’s ability or inability there are two things that I want to stop and consider: who are the theologians who have gone before me and engaged these same ideas? Writing about the tension between the manner of God’s sovereignty and the extent of human ability has destroyed forests of trees for paper and dried up rivers of ink. Who are these historical sources and what were the tensions they felt? Asking the historical question leads to the contemporary: Who are my opponents and why do I oppose them? Both Calvin and Augustine before him responded to opponents in their time and culture based on their understanding of Scripture and in opposition to ideas that assaulted the Christianity of the time.

I think the first sentence of Calvin quoted above pertains directly to contemporary outreach. We have a dual responsibility to explain God (as best we can) to the world around us and to encourage believers to reach out to those outside Christianity. Along the way, a self-conscious understanding of our forebears and opponents may help us maintain the tension between immanence and transcendence: the distance and closeness of God. While I respect both Calvin and Augustine’s high view of God, I don’t want to diminish how low He stoops to interact with humanity.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Exploding the Sin Scale

The latest weekly installment on John Calvin. The close observer may note that it's posted at a decent hour of the day and two whole days before my prof sees it. I seem to have caught up on short-term projects and can devote some time to the long-term projects... Oh, balance you elude me.

Two years ago we experienced a fire that completely consumed my personal library. Over three thousand volumes perished in the blaze and ever since I’ve been carefully re-building my ‘precious,’ taking careful note of the recommendations of friends and professors. Each volume on the shelf, from the weighty tomes to the small handbooks represents not only the treasure of its content, but also the story of its acquisition. Every time I devote financial resources for the sake of literary expansion, I consider the loss of one well worth the gain of the other.

One of my most recent acquisitions occupies a place of honor on the reference section of my bookshelf. It even has an impressive title; it’s the ‘Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains’. I can be a bit of a snob about my books and I began my quest for this particular gem looking for a new copy. I found one online for the low, low bargain price of 480.00. Choking and spitting, I laid my snobbery aside and began perusing the used copies from various resellers. Descending from three hundred into the two hundreds I began to despair of finding an affordable copy of this must-have resource. Digging deep, I finally found a copy for sixty bucks, shipping included! In my mind, I saved a bundle of money, got the book and preserved a happy marriage.

Everyone uses comparisons to judge the value or cost of economic items. We compare every item we consider purchasing against an internal scale of value, often set by an ‘anchor,’ which can be quite arbitrary. In the case of my dictionary purchase, the new price set the anchor by which to compare other copies. Choosing one thing over another, we decide that possessing it brings us greater utility (value) than retaining the money we use to buy it. Billions of times every day, purchases and trades occur according to that internal value scale.

Comparing the cost of my book to other prices convinced my internal value scale that I had found a bargain, but the scale doesn’t only work for economic costs. We determine the cost of moral behavior in much the same way. As we compare ourselves to others around us, we pleasantly evaluate our good behaviors and decry our weaknesses, the few that we actually find. We even use the Ten Commandments as a set of moral guidelines by which we measure our success or failure. Reading “you shall not murder” leads us to a positive evaluation of our character. This positive evaluation assumes, of course, that we have not taken the life of another human being. John Calvin points out that the negative command also assumes a positive character; and the degree of the command extends in proportion to the prohibition. Wordy, I know, but the meaning is this: If I must not kill, then I must do my utmost to promote life. This expansion of the value scale places comparatively minor sins on the losing side of the equation. Calvin says this:

"In considering vices we are often deceived because we reduce their importance if they are a a little bit hidden; so the Lord draws us back from this deception and accustoms us to putting each fault under a category by which we can better understand how we ought to loath it."

The question for us all is not, “Have I killed anyone today?” nor is it “Have I hated anyone?” These may not be exactly equal, but they exist on the same side of the value scale: the bad side. The real question is, “have I done my utmost to love my fellow man today?” Against this standard, we deeply feel our need for God’s grace and enablement to fulfill the absolute opposite of killing, namely, love our fellow man or woman so much that we do all we can to promote life.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Whipping pigs for tastier bacon?

I am currently teaching an Ethics course at Indiana State Penitentiary. It has been a fun course to teach to that audience. Last week I brought in some ethical dilemmas so that we could test a few ethical theories and see where they took us. One of the dilemmas was whether it was morally acceptable to whip pigs to death if the result was tastier pork meat. Tastier meat would make eaters of pork happy. So, for example, utilitarian ethical theory would state that whatever brings happiness to the most amount of people is the ethically correct thing to do. If the group is pleased by tastier bacon then whipping pigs to death is the right thing to do. What is interesting here is that utilitarians cannot ultimately answer the question of, "is this decision morally correct?" until after they have tasted the bacon. The reason being is that they wont know if the happiness the group experienced from eating the bacon outweighed the potential pain their consciences may feel at torturing pigs. It is very possible that a group would salivate over tasty bacon and then as the whipping goes on, feel nauseated at what they are doing. As they eat the bacon, they may regret what they have done. So what started out as a "moral" thing to do (because the group thought it would make them happy), has now become immoral because of the pain it brought (the group is very unhappy). This is an incredible weakness in the utilitarian argument. If I cannot know my decisions are moral until after the event, then what help is it in deciding which course of action to take before the event?

From a Christian perspective, we are able to utilize God's commands which are based off of his revealed character in His Word. One of the problems for this ethical theory is that the Scriptures do not address every single ethical decision we might need answered. We often have to extrapolate God's ancient commands to today's situations (i.e. think hermeneutics and application of Scripture). I am curious to know how Christian readers of this blog would answer the question, "is it morally correct (from a Christian perspective) to whip pigs to death if it produced tastier pork?" Since the Scripture is quiet about this specific act, what should we base our decision on? I have some thoughts that I will post later.