In Defense OF DEVILS

How’s this for a lighthearted proof of the devil’s existence: there is no reason that a person cannot at one and the same time have a robust moral code and charity towards those who fail to satisfy its rigors. That is in fact what Christianity has always demanded. Likewise, there is no reason one cannot have both a commitment to systematic foundational doctrines and openness to other perspectives and even to revising one’s own most basic beliefs in response to new evidence or insights. Yet for some mysterious reason, despite numerous individuals and even small sub-cultures demonstrating that these ideals can be achieved, they have never been realized by any society in recent recorded history, nor have any of the ancient societies that have claimed to have achieved some utopic vision at some point in their history been able to maintain the achievement.

Western society before the Enlightenment had a comparatively exacting moral code and a strong commitment to certain doctrines, including but not limited to those of Christianity, yet it was decidedly unchristian in its responses to moral infractions and religious dissent. There is no reason it could not have progressed towards tolerance and openness while keeping its faith. That is exactly what Christianity’s law of love required, and I think it was desire for power far more than for truth or for God that caused intolerance and dogmatism to be so dominant for so long. Martin Luther King Junior’s message, though not all aspects of his life, perfectly demonstrated the possibility of remaining fully Christian while moving away from dogmatism and intolerance, and he is only one prominent figure within a multitude of whom the same could be said. Their stories are the leaven within the story of civilization. “I have seen the promised land,” he claimed–and for my part, I believe him. 

But we have not followed Martin Luther King’s message of brotherhood. Instead, we now have a society that is relatively tolerant and open to all opinions (as long as they don’t purport to be more than opinions)–but deeply suspicious of any moral or doctrinal system that claims any transcendent authority. We have attained tolerance at the cost of morality; we have achieved open-mindedness at the cost of conviction; we lack any unity worthy of the name of brotherhood. Our society can no longer be called a Christian society in any rigorous sense.

What but some malevolent force bent on humanity’s misery could prevent the natural progress of mankind from grace to grace by using our momentum against us, and casting us from one extreme to another, exacting as the apparent price of progress towards virtue in one area a concurrent regression towards vice in another. Once the majority of people lived in what we would now call poverty but knew exactly where they belonged in the world and in the cosmos; the majority of people now live among luxuries unimagined by the kings of former centuries, but they languish spiritually without any sense of place or identity within the larger order of things. 

All history seems to bear out similar patterns. We first traded freedom for security–the move from nomadic flocks to farms and then to walled cities with kings–from Caanan to Egypt. We then regained freedom and obtained wealth and ease but lost our souls when these became our idols. Many poor children in Africa today dance and sing and are happy but are also stuck in poverty, while rich children in America play video games and are miserable with the wide world before them. The one has not enough food to eat; the other contemplates overdosing on the mind-altering drugs prescribed by the doctor. The devil exacts his price for progress and laughs as we congratulate ourselves on our newly acquired virtues–our tolerance and diversity and equality. The least part of hell’s inside joke is that every monument we erect to our progress is initially shiny and beautiful but destined to be sullied by wickedness, worn by time, and ultimately replaced by other monuments with the same fate. Ozymandias is their father and their type, and they will sink through the sands of time to join him and all the golden calves of history in hell, as the devil slowly lays claim to all that is his own.

I offer this “proof” half jokingly: it is really only one theoretical reading of history that I find convincing. But truly I can see no reason why progress must inevitably entail regression, and why humanity keeps slipping back in a thousand different directions from the promised land that so many have glimpsed–no reason except that the forces of evil are real. The scriptures teach that history will not obtain the promised land until the forces of evil are violently conquered–not by man’s “progress,” but by God’s final, decisive intervention in history. And for my part, I believe them.

Ambiguity and [Un]healthy Sexuality in the World and in the Church [3]

PART 3: UNHEALTHY SEXUALITY IN THE WORLD

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights (triptych), c.1515

“The World” here is defined in contradistinction to “the Church.” The fundamental difference for present purposes is that the Church recognizes the authority of God’s commandments respecting sex while the World follows its desires regardless of God’s commandments. People do not divide neatly in the World and the Church, but at the same time the distinction is more than theoretical. I am sure that there are atheists who eschew sexual whateverism and, for their own reasons, promote faithfulness within loving dual gendered marriage as the only ethical expression of sexuality; but I cannot think of a single person I actually know who fits this category today. The vast majority of those who remain unmoved by the sexual and ideological revolutions of the last century are the religious–and most major religions (including at least Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, and Judaism) have historically spoken with virtual unanimity on the subject. Buddhism, of course, considers liberation from all desire and attachment the ultimate goal, and it therefore has perhaps an even less permissive stance towards sexuality than the other major religions.

While the nearly unanimous consensus of the world’s major religions is so strong an argument in favor of traditional sexual morality as to be, in my judgment, very nearly conclusive, I do not insist on traditional sexual morality for present purposes. What I insist on is that people must attempt to comply with a moral and philosophical system that is dictated by reason and conscience and not by desire. Desire must bow to Right (“as God gives us to see the right”), not Right to Desire. To the extent that a rigorous and conscientious atheist regulates his sexuality by the morality that seems to him correct and yet denies the authority of God’s purported commandments, he is outside the Church but also outside the World. Continue reading

Ambiguity and [Un]healthy Sexuality in the World and in the Church [1]

PART 1: SEXUALITY AND AMBIGUITY

Our actual experience of sexuality is full of ambiguities. There are at least three major sources of ambiguity that I can discern:

  1. The gap between reproduction itself and the bodily and mental processes associated with reproduction. 
  2. The slippage inherent in language.
  3.  Differing world views and philosophies of sexuality.

There can be no serious claim that sexuality lacks ambiguity, because intelligent people and cultures interpret it so differently. I am not an anthropologist, but I know just enough to know that anthropology furnishes precious few universals across cultures within the realm of sexuality. The few that do exist, according to Wikipedia’s page on cultural universals, include a prohibition on incest, some form of cultural dress code (sexual modesty is described as a “cultural universal” here), and some form of marriage. Continue reading

How Can Dunking A Body In Water Save A Soul?

I recently wrote a three-part series of posts (Part One linked here) on the Atonement of Jesus Christ in which I used some alternate metaphors to attempt to render acceptable to reason what seems like an absurd doctrine at the core of Christianity: that Jesus saved mankind and satisfied justice by taking our sins on himself. I would now like to address what is perhaps the next strangest doctrine, situated immediately next to the core: that baptism (a ritual dunking of the body) is not only a useful and instructive rite but actually essential for full participation in Jesus’s sacrifice and a necessary precondition for entering God’s kingdom–that it is, in a word, a salvific ordinance. The call of Christianity can be summed up as follows: Jesus has atoned for our sins; therefore repent and be baptised. The only part of the call that makes intuitive sense to a contemporary mind is the “repent” portion. Of course we should stop doing bad things and do good things. But what does the suffering of God or a dunk in water have to do with it? Continue reading

Is It Possible To Transition Genders?

There are two competing claims in the debate on transgender issues. The first is the historical norm of Western culture: one’s gender should be considered the same as one’s objective biological sex. The second is the core assertion of the transgender movement: a person’s gender should be viewed by others and by the law as a matter of subjective identity. Both claims are defensible, but both cannot be right. I will refer to these two views as the objective and subjective views even though I admit these terms are problematic. My conclusion (spoiler alert) is that both views should be respected, since (among other reasons) there is no possibility of any public proof that either is right or wrong.

The clearest thinkers on both sides of the debate acknowledge a valid distinction between (1) the mere fact of biological differences between males and females and (2) the things that culture and psychology do with the concepts of “male” and “female.” This culturally and psychologically generated construct has come to be distinguished from biological sex and called “gender,” though the terms are still often used synonymously. Acknowledging this theoretical distinction, the practical issue of what to do about the possibility that an individual’s gender identity may differ from the individual’s biological sex remains entirely unresolved.

Continue reading

What Is Needed To Heal Our Democracy Is Not Impeaching Trump But Fixing Our Rhetoric

There is widespread acknowledgement that political acrimony and partisan polarization are at a record high within living memory. “Americans are more divided than ever,” proclaims the Associated Press. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton noted in her concession speech that “We have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought.” And then the last four years happened, culminating in the Capitol Riot and the second impeachment of Trump.

I do not believe that our nation is about to die, but I do think that our democracy has been growing increasingly unhealthy. And in the long run – by the time my grandkids are old – I do believe that our democracy will have fallen apart at the seams unless current trends are reversed. Continue reading