Whom the Gods Would Destroy, They First Make Mad

Monday, 12-09-2019

 

To keep the government from doing bad things, James Madison and the other supporters of the Constitution proposed relying not so much on written prohibitions as on checks and balances.  Other governments had used checks and balances between the social classes.  The Framers proposed using them between the branches.

It was a daring idea.  The aim was not to abolish conflict, but to institutionalize it.  We were to rest our hopes for the common good not on getting along, but on fighting fair.

For a check is a kind of weapon. 

But the idea of a balance based on fighting fair raised a profound question, which the supporters of the new Constitution never answered, or even, so far as I know, addressed.  The permissible checks and balances are themselves spelled out in written rules.  So if written rules are nothing but parchment barriers, why shouldn’t we pronounce the same damning verdict upon those rules?  Aren’t the written sentences that spell out the permissible checks and balances also just parchment barriers?  What is to prevent a political player from going outside the rules completely, fighting dirty instead of fair, competing with the others by unconstitutional means?

The only possible answer is that the Framers thought they had drawn up such good rules that each political player would find it in his interest to keep playing by them.  If he did play by them, he would win some, lose some.  If he didn’t, he might, conceivably, win everything -- but it would be much more likely that he would lose everything.  So he would think it more to his advantage to stay within the rules than go outside them.

This is not always the case.  From time to time, situations arise in which some players think – correctly or incorrectly – that they have less to lose by playing outside the rules than by playing within them.  And so they do play outside them.  When this happens, we have a Constitutional crisis.  That is what is happening now.

Of course, to defuse Constitutional crises, we have other Constitutional mechanisms.  The failure of certain checks and balances is compensated by other checks and balances.  But if they fail too, a Constitutional crisis can go on for a long, long time.

If it goes on for too long, then the side that first began playing dirty may become more and more desperate, partly because it persuades itself that victory is almost within its grasp, partly because the consequences of losing now would be unthinkable.  Consequently, it throws caution to the winds, violating the rules more and more gravely and openly.

The more it does so – and this, I think, is what all men of good will must remember – the more frantic and furious the other side may also become, so that it begins to wonder whether it ought to play dirty too.  Once it reaches that conclusion, both sides come unhinged, losing even what little was left of their principles.

Not even those who do play dirty want the populace to turn against them.  Therefore, even the most extreme acts, short of assassination, are dressed in the garments of legitimacy.  This is an easier set of clothes to put on than one might think, because few citizens understand the Constitution anyway.  It is hard enough that checks and balances are so complicated, and therefore confusing.  Making matters worse, those who play dirty have a deep stake in making the Constitution as baffling as possible.

It took the Romans years to realize that they had lost their republic.  By that time they didn’t want it any more.

 

Away With the Manger

Monday, 12-02-2019

 

Query:

Everyone in my family except me is an atheist.  At Christmastime, they deck the house out in Christmas stuff and play Christmas carols round-the-clock -- but at the same time, they make a point of mocking Jesus and His followers!  Back in high school, my decision to become a Christian provoked such serious arguments with my father and stepmother that I'm on don't-talk-about-faith terms with them.  Even at other times of year the situation can be difficult.  Once, when my stepsister saw a bumper sticker that said “Jesus loves you,” she exclaimed that she hated the driver for it.  But it gets worse when I'm home for the holidays.

I love my family and it hurts me to hear them talk like this. Please, give me some idea of how to speak for Jesus in such a way that they won't mock what I say and shut me out!  I'd love to be able to take a stand without seeming obnoxious or self-righteous, but I know that if I do they'll get angry, and I'm afraid I won't be able to handle the situation gracefully.

 

Reply:

I sympathize.  The situation sounds unpleasant.  Here's how I advise you:  To be charitable, humble, grateful, and forbearing toward your family; to rejoice in their good qualities, and show your appreciation for them; to be actively helpful by doing things like running errands and washing all the dishes without being asked; to go on about your Christian business, like worshipping at church on Christmas Eve, without calling attention to yourself; and not to try to force your family to be what they aren't.

Besides all those things, do one thing extra:  Pray for your family.  Do it without ceasing.  Leave it to God Himself to decide how to answer your prayers.

I know you want to do something more.  You want to hurry God.  You want to “make a stand.”  My heart goes out to you.  But believe me, practicing love to your family is making a stand.  They know you're a Christian; it isn't necessary to talk Christ if they aren't yet ready to hear Christ.  If they grow irritated with you even for loving them, just love them even more.  I mean genuinely – not obnoxiously.  Because being obnoxious about loving them might be a temptation.

By the way, if they want to sing Christmas carols, join them!  Why not?  You might ask them some year why they sing them, but don't fret about the fact that they don't believe them.  Don’t you believe them?  Besides, there may be more going on in their hearts than you think.  Considering how angrily they fight against Jesus, perhaps they are feeling His pull.  Would you rather that they be indifferent?  Who knows what the Holy Spirit can do?  You may all end up saints.  Have a blessed Advent and a merry Christmas.

 

Related:

God Rest Ye, Melancholics

That Mourns in Exile Here

To Believe

The Object of Uttermost Desire

The Multiverse Argument

Monday, 11-25-2019

 

Physicists know that if certain physical constants did not happen to lie within an extremely narrow range, the universe would be inhospitable to biological life.  Consider for example those heavens of which the psalmist speaks so eloquently.  If the gravitational constant were minutely stronger than it is, stars would burn up too quickly.  If it were minutely weaker than it is, they would never be able to ignite.  The universe seems to have been fine-tuned for the possibility of life like us.

"Fine-tuned," of course, is another word for "designed."   Even the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Fred Hoyle wrote, “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.”  Curious words for an atheist, but that’s what he wrote.

One of the most popular attempts to discredit the cosmological fine-tuning argument proposes that what we call our universe is really only one member of an infinite ensemble of universes, in each of which the physical constants have different values.  Of course the values in ours are hospitable to life, the argument runs -- if they weren’t, we wouldn’t be here observing them!  However, it goes on, this is no more surprising than the fact that if you go into a room, hang up a target on the wall, then fling an infinite number of mudballs in an infinite number of directions, at least one of them will hit the bullseye.  No doubt the winning mudball thinks it is the product of miraculous aim, but it isn’t.

This argument against fine-tuning sounds rather good at first, but it is fallacious.

In the first place, whatever happened to Occam's Razor?  “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily,” wrote William of Occam.  All other things being equal, simpler explanations that assume fewer things should be preferred to complicated ones that assume more things.  Yet instead of the hypothesis of just one God, the multiverse argument hypothesizes an infinite number of universes -- all of them, by the way, unobservable.

Besides, even if we do allow the multiverse proponents to “multiply entities unnecessarily,” the multiverse argument doesn’t explain what it is supposed to explain.  It resorts to the hypothesis of a multiverse to account for this universe having the queer properties that it does – but how does it account for the even queerer properties of the multiverse itself?

For who made the room?  Who hung the target on the wall?  And who flung all those mudballs?

___________________________________________

The quotation is from Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections,” Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics 20 (1982), p. 16.

 

Why Doesn’t God Make Decisions Easier?

Monday, 11-18-2019

 

Query:

Professor, I have a question about general theology.  How does God's sovereignty work?  Please allow me to use my situation as an example:  I have spent the past few months struggling with loss since I broke up with an immature boyfriend who would never commit to anything, and I am wondering – did I ruin God's plan for my life by making a choice?  If so, how do I get back on track?  More generally, how does God's sovereignty work amidst our choices?  I'm just not sure how I am supposed to decide or how I am supposed to guarantee that I pick "God's path" for me.  I never really thought decision-making could be hard if we are seeking God -- I always thought God meets us as we step out in faith, redirects us, and in unseen ways, leads us toward his best for our lives, but right now, considering how it looks like I've messed up, I'm just really unclear about how this works.

 

Reply:

Your letter – I’ve shortened and anonymized it for this post, of course – doesn’t give any reason to think that you actually have made bad choices.  After all, you did say the young man was immature and would never commit to anything.  I also notice that you don’t ask whether you ruined God’s plan by making a bad choice – you ask whether you ruined God’s plan by making a choice.  As the Old Testament book of Sirach says, “God left man in the hand of his own counsel."  That is why He gave us rational minds that are unlike the minds of the beasts.  Making choices is what He intends us to do; we would oppose His plans for us if we didn’t make choices.

The great thing to do, with His help, is make good and wise ones.  Sometimes, unfortunately, we don’t, but it’s not unfaithful to think so.  He doesn’t absolutely prevent us from doing foolish things.  Learning to do wise ones required discipline and experience.

As to “getting back on track” -- that can be taken in three different ways.

If you ever find that you have acted contrary to God’s law, for instance by stealing or by acting unkindly, then, of course, the way to get back on track is to repent, confess, and make amends with the persons whom you wronged.

Suppose, on the other hand, that you choose to do something that is not in the least incompatible with God’s law, but is simply unwise.  In that case, the way to get back on track depends on the nature of the unwise choice.  Some unwise choices can simply be reversed -- for example, if you choose a career in accounting, but only then discover that you are no good at arithmetic, you can be retrained for a new career.

Other unwise choices can’t be reversed.  Even then, though, you can make the best of them.  Suppose, for example, that instead of breaking up with that immature man who wouldn’t commit to anything, you had married him.  It would be wrong to try to “get back on track” by seeking a divorce, but there are at least three other things you could do.  One would be to overcome the immaturity on your part that led you to marry such a man in the first place.  The second would be to encourage him to become more mature himself – lovingly, not nastily, and not blaming yourself if he doesn’t respond.  And of course you could offer your suffering to Christ, so that you could become more perfectly conformed to Him in what He suffered for us.

But getting back on track can also be taken as meaning getting back on track emotionally.  How do we get off that track in the first place?  One reason, of course, is that we suffer from bad decisions.  A drug addict suffers because of the decisions that led him to become addicted.  A young woman attached to a young man who has the Peter Pan syndrome because of her bad choice of boyfriend.  If I am no good at acting, but give up everything and go to Hollywood in hopes of becoming a movie star, I suffer needless failure and disappointment.

The other, more surprising reason for the need to get back on track emotionally is that sometimes we suffer even when we have made good and wise decisions.  The drug addict will suffer dreadfully from withdrawal after giving up the drug, but he was right to give it up.  The young woman may feel brokenhearted after breaking up with the unsuitable man, but that doesn’t mean she was wrong to break up with him.  If I discover that I have no acting talent, and so give up my lifelong dream of being a movie star in order to do something better with my life, I might suffer just because the dream meant so much to me -- but that wouldn’t imply that I should have continued trying for a career I am not suited for.  What it would imply is that I need to learn what kind of dreams to dream!

Since suffering can result from good decisions as well as from bad ones, it’s also important to avoid thinking that our decisions must have been bad just because we do feel wretched afterward.  Shall we apply this to you?  I suggest that you think more carefully about the reasons for your own present sadness.  How often people go back even on good decisions just because afterward they are unhappy!  And how often they experience far greater suffering by doing so!  A wise decision made for good reasons does not become a bad decision just because flowers do not spring at our feet the next day.

How then does a person get back on track emotionally?  Part of your own sadness will take care of itself, because people do get over failed relationships.  Hard as that seems to believe while the heartbreak is going on, it is really true.  The great thing is not to hang onto the sorrow.  Don’t cherish it, don’t coddle it, and don’t make a pet of it.  You should also remember that if God does intend that you marry – He may, after all, have something better in mind for you, such as the life of consecrated celibacy -- then in time, if you choose wisely, you will find a suitable husband.

I don’t mean that every kind of sadness “takes care of itself.”  Some doesn’t.  But you can do something about the various sadnesses that don’t take care of themselves too, so that they become manageable, and even so that they work to your good.  Suppose, for example, that through no fault of your own, a beloved brother cuts off his relationship with you and the rest of your family.  The first thing you can do is refuse to blame yourself for his bad own decision.  The next thing you can do is pray for him.  This prayer should include a plea to God that the door to reconciliation with your brother may some day open, and that when it does, you will recognize the opportunity and know what to do.  Still another thing you can do is continue to intend kindness to your brother, even if he is no longer kind to you.  And finally -- just as in the other cases, so in this one -- you can offer your sorrow about the rupture with your brother to Christ, so that, by His grace, it may be united with His suffering for us.

Now about Christian decision-making being so much harder than you expected.

You are not wrong to think that God meets us on the path, and that if we cooperate with Him, He leads us.  But this does not mean that decision-making with God is easy.  In fact, it is just as hard for us as it is for non-believers -- but in a different way.

Consider the story of Elijah’s grief in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings.  I’m thinking of chapter 19.  Elijah has just experienced his greatest victory over the prophets of the false god Ba’al.  He has acted well, and God is pleased with him.  Yet he is in utter misery.  He thinks that his life has been a failure and that his work is at an end.  Losing his nerve, he runs away into the wilderness, holes up in a cave, and complains to God, “"I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away."  God doesn’t magically make Elijah happy.  But He doesn’t leave him alone, either.  He makes Elijah aware of His presence, gives him time to mourn, makes him go back, and gives him new work to do – not only for the present, but also to prepare for the future.

You ask about God’s sovereignty.  His sovereignty means that He rules.

It doesn’t mean that He keeps us from doing stupid things.  Yes, He assists us in learning from these mistakes, not just in the light of earthly prudence, but also, by His grace, in the light of eternal wisdom.  But He doesn’t keep us from committing them.

It doesn’t mean that He will make all our decisions easy.  Yes, He will always help.  But there will times when we don’t recognize the help that He gives – at least not at the time that He is giving it, because sometimes it becomes clear to us only long afterward.  You don’t have to feel his hand on your hand to walk with Him in obedience and faith.

And it doesn’t mean that He always makes us happy in this life.  Although we bring much of our suffering upon ourselves, we will experience sorrow and real loss even when we are doing everything right.  St. Paul says in Romans 8, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”  When he writes these words, he doesn’t mean that our Lord and Master stops the freezing rain for us.  What he means is that our Lord and Master, who rules everything, can use even the freezing rain for our ultimate good.

All of which is inconceivably wonderful.  Not just in heaven.  Now.

Some years ago I wrote a short dialogue for college age Christians trying to figure out God’s will for them:  “Who’s Calling?”  The original target audience was a little younger than you, but perhaps you will enjoy it.  It’s a conversation between a young student and his mentor, an imaginary, idealized professor named Theophilus, who is much cooler than me.

 

The God of the Gaps

Monday, 11-11-2019

 

The God of the Gaps

Atheist to theist:  “You believe in a God only because you haven’t yet discovered a naturalistic explanation for the existence and properties of the universe.”

The Murderer of the Gaps

Atheist to forensic pathologist:  “You believe in a murderer only because you haven’t yet discovered a naturalistic explanation for the bullet-shaped holes in the dead man’s back.”

The Thief of the Gaps

Atheist to policeman:  “You believe in a thief only because you haven’t yet discovered a naturalistic explanation for the disappearance of the cash from the strongbox.”

The Author of the Gaps

Atheist to editor:  “You believe in an author only because you haven’t yet discovered a naturalistic explanation for the existence of the manuscript that came in the mail.”

The Sculptor of the Gaps

Atheist to anthropologist:  “You believe in a sculptor only because you haven’t yet discovered a naturalistic explanation for the human-shaped chunk of marble you dug up in the ruins of the city.”

 

Sex and Logical Reasoning: Difficult but Not Impossible

Monday, 11-04-2019

 

Query:

I personally find teleological arguments about sex compelling – the sort of arguments that identify the purposes of the sexual powers (procreation and the union of the procreative partners), and then draw the inference that we should behave in ways that cooperate with these purposes instead of, as you say, undermining them.  On the other hand, so many people seem to be able to wave such arguments away.  So do you think the arguments are really strong?

 

Reply:

I do think consider teleological arguments strong – both valid and compelling.  The significance of the fact that many people refuse to take them seriously is psychological, not logical.  If they refused to take them seriously because there were actually something wrong with them, I would worry.  But there seems to be nothing wrong with them.  The problem lies in not wanting to be persuaded.

I am reminded of a student some years ago who had just heard an explanation of what counts as a valid argument.  He asked, “But what if the premises are true and the reasoning is sound, but I just know the conclusion is wrong?”  I answered, “Then you change your mind.”

Well, other arguments about sexuality are available.  Then should you give up on this one and only use them?  That would be silly; after all, people irrationally reject the other arguments too!  Besides, even when the barrier to accepting a teleological argument does lie in the will rather than in the intellect, often something can be done to get past a person’s defenses and render the argument accessible to his mind.

Example:  If I simply ask someone, “What is the natural purpose of the sexual powers?” he is likely to reply, “Pleasure.”  This is a poor answer; if it were their natural purpose, then pleasure alone would be the criterion of right and wrong (and in fact that is how people think).  But suppose, instead, I first warm up the other fellow’s power to think teleologically.  Then he is likely to answer differently.

“What is the natural purpose of the eye?” I might ask.  “Seeing,” comes the reply.  “How about the purpose of the heart?”  “Circulating blood.”  “How about the respiratory powers?”  “Oxygenating it.”  “How about the thumb?”  “Grasping.”  “How about the power to become angry?”  “Getting me ready to defend something.”  Now if I ask “How about the sexual powers?” he is likely to reply “Procreation.”

Suppose he adds, “But isn’t pleasure a purpose too?”  I comment, “All of the voluntary powers are pleasurable.  It’s pleasurable to take a deep breath.  It’s pleasurable to flex the muscles.  It’s pleasurable to eat.  Does that fact that eating is pleasurable make pleasure the natural purpose of eating?”  He answers, “No, its purpose is nutrition.”  “So pleasure isn’t the purpose of the power to eat?”  “I guess not,” he might answer, and I agree.

He might protest, “Even so, I’m not happy that pleasure has been left out of the picture.”  “It hasn’t been left out,” I respond.  “Then where is it?” he asks.  “Just because pleasure isn’t the purpose of eating,” I reply, “it doesn’t follow that the pleasure itself is useless.  What purpose might it have?”  “I suppose its purpose would be to encourage us to take in the nutrition we need.”  “So pleasure isn’t the natural purpose of the power to eat, but only a motive for using it?”  “Apparently so,” he replies.

“But in that case,” I might add, “we can draw an analogy.  The purpose of the sexual powers isn’t pleasure, but procreative union.  But the pleasure of the sexual powers has its own purpose, because it encourages us to seek procreative union.”  Although my conversational partner may still dislike the conclusion, he now finds it more difficult to evade.

Suppose he asks, “But why should I care what the natural purposes of the sexual powers are?  Using them in other ways doesn’t hurt anyone.”  I might answer, “Are you so sure of that?  When we use them in other ways, we disorder human life.  For example, we produce offspring without giving them the assurance of being raised by their moms and dads.”  He might reply, “So why shouldn’t we just worry about that consequence?  Why drag in natural purposes?”  I might reply, “Aren’t the two things connected?  Even if you could avoid that particular undesired consequence, through drugs or something, you would still be missing the point of sexual union.  You would be using the bonding power without intending a bond.  You would be generating connections without commitments, connections that you may later tear apart.  Besides, purposes are the flip side of meanings.  It’s easy to say that sex doesn’t have to mean anything, but if use powers full of meaning without meaning anything by using them, we diminish ourselves.  What a recipe for loneliness, alienation, and resentment!”

There is plenty to talk about right there.  If the other fellow is willing to keep talking, though, I might bring up another consideration.   “Suppose we are gluttons, who eat to the detriment of the nutritional purpose.  Either we make ourselves enormous, or else, just to keep that from happening, we gorge, purge, and gorge again, keeping it up just as long as the pleasure of gorging lasts.  What would you think of this sort of behavior?”  Most people reply, “I would consider it disgusting.”  I might answer, “Isn’t it curious that we are disgusted by the use of the eating powers against their natural purpose, but not by the misuse of the sexual powers against their natural purpose?  If disgust is appropriate in one of those cases, then why not in both?  Every previous generation saw the parallel.”

Some people will agree in identifying the purpose of the sexual powers as procreative union, but then balk, merely because a conditioned reflex kicks in.  For many of us were drilled in the motto that “An is can’t imply an ought.”  Although these days most philosophers consider the motto discredited, word hasn’t got around.  Yet it is possible to get past this mantra too.

I might ask the objector, “So are you telling me that because an is can’t imply an ought, I shouldn’t derive normative conclusions from the natural purposes of things?”  “Right, that’s what I’m saying.”  “Fine.  But think about it.  Aren’t you deriving an ought from an is?”  “How am I doing that?”  “You’re telling me that that because it is the case that an is can’t imply an ought, we ought not make use of such inferences.”  “I guess I am.”  “So really you agree with me that an is can imply an ought.

If he still balks, I might tell him a story.  “You visit your ophthalmologist.  He says, ‘You’re much more nearsighted than the last time I examined you.’  You reply, ‘Would new eyeglasses clear up my vision?’  He answers, ‘Yes, completely.’  You reply:  ‘Could you make them for me?’  He answers, ‘Certainly.’  You reply, ‘Then I guess I ought to have you do it.’  Ophthalmologist (puzzled):  ‘Why?  After all, an is can’t imply an ought.’”  I conclude the story with a question:  “Wouldn't you look for a new ophthalmologist?”

And so the discussion might go.  We humans are odd birds.  Odd, because if rocks are dropped on our heads, we can expect them to make dents in our skulls – but if valid arguments are dropped on our minds, we can’t necessarily expect them to make dents in our understanding.  The whole art of reasoning with someone who is confused about sex is to get him to see what is right in front of his eyes.

This sort of discussion has the greatest punch when it is developed in the context of a personal relationship, so that the other fellow is not so concerned about saving face.  Little pieces of the argument may have to be presented many times, in many ways, on many occasions, before they all sink in.  You have to discern carefully which valid lines of reasoning can get past the other fellow’s defenses and which can’t, and you have to listen closely to know when there is no point in talking and knock off.  This isn't how they taught argument to us in graduate school.  But it's how human beings are.

And we have to keep our eyes on the ball.  The point of the discussion isn’t to have snappy comebacks for everything, but to elicit the lovely vision of what human beings are.  We are unions of body and soul.  The meanings and purposes of our biological powers are constitutive properties of our embodied personhood. They are inheritances, not encumbrances; enrichments, not impoverishments. They are not things to be struggled against, but things to be cherished as gifts.

 

 

Washington Post Reports Hitler's Death, 1945

Monday, 10-28-2019

 
Photo acknowledgement.  The parody is original, but the Hitler photo itself is from Bundesarchiv Bild, colorized on Wikimedia Commons.