Intimations of “God”

As promised, here are my thoughts on a hypothesis propounded by Robert Wright, briefly excerpted in a previous post.

  1. Ultimately, Wright’s argument is bound to disappoint theists and anti-theists alike.

    Most believers are committed to a particular scripture and a particular understanding of God. As Wright comments, “They don’t want to just hear that some conception of a god might be defensible, or that a personal god is defensible as some sort of approximation of the truth.”

    Meanwhile, anti-theists are dismissive of all arguments for God’s existence. They see no direct evidence of God’s existence, and no need to appeal to God as an explanation for any phenomenon — including the moral order.

    Thus Wright’s book is likely to annoy many people and satisfy few.
     

  2. But Wright’s argument may have some appeal to a certain class of believers — people like me.

    I have come to the conclusion that the traditional “proofs” for God’s existence are anything but. For example, the resurrection of Christ. It might have sufficed as a proof in the first century, when you could investigate the event for yourself by talking to the various eyewitnesses — Peter, John, James, Paul, etc. But 2000 years later, the resurrection is merely an article of faith rather than a compelling demonstration of the truth of the Gospel.

    Meanwhile, the theory of evolution, substantiated by a solid body of evidence, and subsequently corroborated by discovery of how DNA works — these scientific insights have provided an alternative explanation for the world that we inhabit. The ancient proof from nature — “The heavens declare the glory of God / the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1) — is no longer the only explanation on offer.

    What evidence, then, can we still appeal to — those of us who accept the conclusions of science, yet stubbornly persist in our belief in God? In my view, we are left with intimations of God’s existence rather than proofs.

    Wright is offering exactly that — an intimation of God’s existence — when he describes God as the source of the moral order. Wright interprets human history as a long arc toward a higher morality. To give some examples of my own choosing (I’m not sure what examples Wright would offer) :

    • “an eye for an eye” has been supplanted by, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44);
    • a love that was circumscribed — reserved for fellow tribesmen — has been superseded by the ideal of the “brotherhood” of all humankind;
    • a reflexive human tendency to organize people into castes, with kings and landowners at the apex, and common labourers near the bottom, and women as slaves to the slaves — has yielded to our democratic norms:  i.e., that every person is entitled to one vote, and women can rise to any office in the nation.
    • the arbitrary and absolute power of despots has been called to account by an international recognition of human rights:  “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”; “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”; “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law”, etc.

    Too often, the above ideals are honoured in the breach rather than in the observance. Nonetheless, Wright is correct to recognize a remarkable trajectory from a dimmer understanding of morality to relative moral illumination.

    Wright then intuits “God” behind this remarkable display of moral progress:
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The End of Tolerance?

Post by nebcanuck, Stephen’s son:

One of the fascinating recurring realizations I’ve had throughout my university career is that culturally, we’ve lost an understanding of what it means to be tolerant. The word, one of the most overused ones in our society, is amusingly twisted in the face of true tolerance. And one recent example demonstrates it perfectly: The recent controversy over Miss California in the Miss USA pageant.

Consider the following video:

Without entering into the foray of whether the sentiment about gay marriage is right or wrong, I think this video is interesting because of what it shows about our culture beyond the specific values. It brings up questions like: What does it mean to be tolerant? What role do Truth, faith, and opinions have in politics? Is it possible to be the “perfect Miss USA?

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The personal dimension of marriage

(Part two of a series. Part one is here.)

Contemporary Westerners regard marriage, first and foremost, as a personal matter. The two people must decide for themselves whether their relationship has the right stuff, such that they wish to spend the rest of their lives together.

The government, the Church, the couple’s neighbours — all of them should basically butt out of a matter that is not really their business.

The legitimacy of this emphasis on personal choice seems self-evident to us Westerners. We are aware that other cultures practice arranged marriages, but we would never submit to such an arrangement ourselves.

This is really only half of the equation. As I will soon demonstrate, there is an essential social component to the institution of marriage, even here in the West.

But even the phrase the institution of marriage is liable to grate a little. To us, marriage is not so much a social institution as it is a private agreement between two individuals.

In ancient Israel, the scales tilted in the other direction. Ancient Israel placed tremendous emphasis on the social dimension of marriage.

Accordingly, Israelite marriages were typically arranged by the parents of the bride and groom. The parents’ primary consideration was the social connections that would result from their child’s marriage.

Nevertheless, parental authority was not such as to leave no room for the feelings of the young couple. There were love marriages in Israel. The young man could make his preferences known (Gn 34:4; Jg 14:2), or take his own decision without consulting his parents, and even against their wishes (Gn 26:34-35). It was rarer for the girl to take the initiative, but we do read of Saul’s daughter Mikal falling in love with David (1 S 18:20).

Actually, young people had ample opportunity for falling in love, and for expressing their feelings, for they were very free. 2 M 3:19, it is true, speaks of the young girls of Jerusalem being confined to the house, but this text refers to the Greek period and to an exceptional state of affairs. The veiling of women came even later. In ancient times young girls were not secluded and went out unveiled. They looked after the sheep (Gn 29:6), drew the water (Gn 24:13; 1 S 9:11), went gleaning in the fields behind the reapers (Rt 2:2f.) and visited other people’s houses (Gn 34:1). They could talk with men without any embarrassment (Gn 24:15-21; 29:11-12; 1 S 9:11-13).

Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions, p. 30.

Wherever young men and women come into contact with one another, sexual attraction is liable to follow. Parents in ancient Israel were not so hard-hearted as to completely disregard the romantic longings of their children.

Still — the social dimension weighed more heavily in ancient Israel; whereas the personal dimension weighs more heavily with us.

Conclusion:

Proponents of same sex marriage prefer to emphasize the personal dimension. Their position is, Who I marry is no one’s business but my own.

It’s a strong argument. It is consistent with our Western emphasis on individual rights and freedoms. For example, freedom of conscience suggests that individuals can decide for themselves what is right and wrong, and order their lives accordingly.

Some people deny that the prohibition against same sex marriage is discriminatory. Homosexuals are free to marry just like anyone else, they claim:  they can marry someone of the opposite sex whenever they choose to do so.

It’s a facile (even contemptuous) argument. Sexual orientation is deeply personal and evidently involuntary. (That is, homosexuals do not choose to find people of the same sex attractive, any more than heterosexuals choose to find people of the opposite sex attractive. It just is that way.)

If a woman is attracted to others of the same sex, of course that is who she would choose to marry. To deny her that option is, indeed, to discriminate against her. It is to deny her the personal choice that is open to heterosexual couples.

On the other hand — proponents of same sex marriage can’t deny that there are three other dimensions to marriage:  the social, the religious, and the statutory. Those dimensions also must be taken into account.

Marriage is not solely a personal matter, and it can’t be treated as such. That will be our focus in the next post on this topic.

The four dimensions of marriage

Marriage has four dimensions:  personal, social, religious, and statutory.

This post is a follow up to our recent discussion of same sex marriage. Same sex marriage is a contentious issue precisely because of marriage’s four dimensions:

  • Personal:
    Same sex couples maintain that the decision to marry is a personal one. No one outside of the relationship should tell them whether they can or cannot marry.
     
  • Social:
    Some opponents of same sex marriage assert that changing the definition of marriage affects their marriages, too. It’s a weak argument, in my view. But it is true that all citizens have a stake in the institution of marriage:  it is a fundamental building block of society.
     
  • Religious:
    Traditionally, church officials are the public figures who solemnize marriages. Some churches insist that the state cannot change the definition of marriage because (in their view) the definition was established by God.
     
  • Statutory:
    The state is responsible for giving legal recognition to marriages. The state is obligated to treat all citizens equally. On the other hand, there may be public policy reasons for protecting and promoting one kind of family arrangement over alternatives to it.

Each dimension can come into conflict with one or more of the other dimensions. But all of the dimensions must be preserved and respected. In other words, we can’t resolve the same sex marriage controversy by pretending that marriage is one-dimensional:  for example, by emphasizing the personal (as same sex couples tend to do) or the religious (as Christians tend to do).

I intend to explore marriage’s four dimensions in a series of posts. As part of our discussion, I will outline the available data on marriages in ancient Israel.

Too often, Christians have a vague idea that Western traditions about marriage are derived from the Bible. On the contrary:  each culture has a distinctive “take” on marriage. We shouldn’t expect to find a close correspondence between the traditions of ancient Israel and the traditions of contemporary Western democracies.

In any event, when we consider marriage from the perspective of a different culture, that information will clarify the issues we’re debating in contemporary society. What did the four dimensions of marriage look like in ancient Israel?

My primary source for ancient Israel’s traditions will be chapter two ("Marriage") in Roland de Vaux’s book, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions, 2nd ed. (translated from the French by John McHugh; published in London by Darton, Longman and Todd, 1968).

On Abortion

Abortion, argues Andrew Sullivan in his book The Conservative Soul, has been made the pre-eminent political issue not by rational citizens, but by fundamentalist Christians. Their position, he claims, flies in the face of reason, and seeks to undermine the principles of freedom upon which our society has been based. While conservatives maintain freedom of choice for the individual, the fundamentalist demands social adherence to a strict set of rules, which go above and beyond human judgement. And the abortion argument — that all people should have to ascribe to a zero-tolerance policy — is an affront to choice and part of a larger theoconservative project of restructuralization.

And yet, of all the issues Sullivan could have chosen to attack, the abortion issue is probably the least plausible. Others which he focuses on are much more feasible. Taste in music? A choice of individuals. Religious beliefs? A choice of individuals. Homosexuality? Also arguably a choice of individuals, although the “choice” argument is as often used against them as for them. But the one issue he seems most intent on confronting is the only one where a black and white overruling of individual choice seems to be logical. And in the same line of thinking, it is actually reasonable for abortion to be made into the most important issue in an election, as some Republicans have attempted to make it over the last decade.

Take Chris Selley’s position in a recent blog post at Macleans.ca:

I’ve long argued (not here, but elsewhere) that despite legitimate concerns over how Canada’s legal vacuum on abortion came about, ours is the single most logically coherent way for any nation to allow its citizens freedom of choice. A fetus is a fetus, and subject to the choices of its host, until it’s entirely outside the mother, at which point it’s a human being. The other pro-choice frameworks out there in the world aren’t without virtue, but they suffer from arbitrariness. In Sweden, for example, restrictions kick in at the 12th week, well before any definition of fetal viability. Why 12? Ten’s an even nicer round number, surely. And in systems that bestow protection on fetuses at or around the point of viability, such as in the UK, the arbitrariness is revealed whenever gaggles of politicians, very few of whom are OB/GYNs, start campaigning to lower it.

Canada doesn’t mess around with any of that. And as Cynthia Gorney pointed out in a brilliant piece in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, neither does Sarah Palin. Her views, says Gorney, represent “abortion opposition at its most coherent.”

If a fetus is genuinely a child from the instant of conception, then the law can’t permit killing it for any reason except the extraordinary circumstance of an emergency to save a woman’s life (and in some right-to-life circles there’s argument about that, too, or whether equal measures should be taken to save woman and unborn alike).

Selley misses the ball in a few ways. But his overall point is sound. If a position on abortion depends on the humanity of a fetus, it is logically a black and white issue. There is no grey if the core reasoning depends on a yes or no conclusion. For this reason, Sullivan and other realists like him are missing the mark when they say that yes, there is a logical middle ground that the extremes should be ascribing to.

However, the debate is clearly not quite as black and white as this. There are many factors which contribute to one’s thoughts on abortion. And I’d like to consider these, and through this dialogue justify what I think to be the right position on abortion. Consider it a response to my father’s post a couple days ago if you like, or a response to some of the comments on my own post slightly earlier. It’s an ongoing discussion, and I don’t hope to sway many people, but what I really aim for is to justify the theoconservative position on abortion, and hopefully show that we “fundamentalists” can think, too.

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Intractable ignorance

Large numbers of people are ignorant, even in the well-educated West. And it’s a serious problem.

Here’s an example. Chris Selley of Megapundit summarizes an Ottawa Citizen column by John Robson:

John Robson … is sick of ignorant, selfish people who demand antibiotics for non-biotic illnesses, the doctors who indulge them, and genuinely sick people who don’t follow the directions their doctors and pharmacists helpfully provide — all of which, of course, contributes to antibiotic resistance. “I don’t want to die of some wretched superbug because people were too lazy or insolent to follow simple directions on a bottle, or had a misplaced sense of entitlement that the universe owed them a cure for the common cold,” he writes. We couldn’t agree more.

I agree, too, but what’s the fix for this problem? The misuse of antibiotics, and its connection to superbugs, has been widely discussed in the media. Every doctor I’ve ever seen has emphasized the importance of taking all the antibiotics in the bottle, even if I start to feel better part way through the prescription. Ditto for the pharmacists who dispense the medicine.

The public’s ignorance is intractable. I read the other day that 25% of Americans, including many Democrat supporters, continue to believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim. How far do you have to have your head up your ass to believe that, this far into the process, given how much coverage Obama’s candidacy has received? Similarly for the widespread view that Saddam Hussein actually did have weapons of mass destruction, etc., etc.

If secularism is a kind of religion, education is supposed to function as the means of salvation. This is an easy way to define and compare religions. Every religion proposes (a) a diagnosis of why there is so much misery in the world and (b) a way of salvation. For example, Christians claim that sin is the ultimate source of misery and atonement is the means to set things right. Secularists substitute ignorance for sin and education for atonement.

But (as in every other religion) the secularist’s proposed means of salvation demonstrably fails to deliver the goods. OK, more education is effective to a point. But beyond that point, the iron law of diminishing returns takes hold. There is a reservoir of profound ignorance among the public that more education won’t drain.

I don’t have a better alternative to propose. But if the question is, Will the informed, rational people of the world one day be destroyed by events set in motion by other people’s ignorance?, the answer is You betcha!

I don’t think there’s much point even writing about it. I’m sorry I wasted your time with this blog post. Blame it on Robson and Selley, who sent me off on this snipe hunt.

You’re Not Alone… seriously!

Ever seen that bus ad that reads something like “Pregnant? Afraid? You’re not alone!” I think it’s a birthright helpline ad or something like that. But its message has taken on a whole new meaning in this day and age.

An article on Slate.com recently pointed out that our perception of single mothers is more than a little bit off-base. That those who are a bit older and pregnant unexpectedly really are not alone!

We still think of the archetypal unwed mother as a Jamie Lynn Spears—a dopey teenager who dropped her panties and got in over her head. A generation and more ago, that’s who most unwed mothers were. But according to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, teenagers account for only 23 percent of current out-of-wedlock births. That means the vast majority of unwed mothers are old enough to know what they’re doing: Unwed births are surging among women ages 25 to 29.

In the last 50 years, there has been an extraordinary decoupling of marriage and procreation. In 1960 about 5 percent of births were to unwed mothers; that figure is now a record high of nearly 40 percent. Out-of-wedlock births used to be such a source of shame that families tried to hide them: Singer Bobby Darin was born to a teen mother and raised to believe she was his sister. But now out-of-wedlock births are greeted with a shrug. Some say they’re an understandable response to economic realities. Others say they’re a liberating change from the shotgun-wedding ethic that shackled two unsuitable people together for life.

I was pretty astounded to hear some of those later statistics. I don’t know what countries/regions are figured into those numbers, so I can’t say for certain that they reflect the nature of Canadian or American society. In fact, since I believe Slate is based in England, it’s probably not linking to our cultures directly. However, that effect is undoubtedly still present in the world more immediately around us. So they’re worth noting.

The article is worth a read, since it goes on to defend that marriage is still the optimum choice for children:

Readers also like to rebuke me for my preference that two decent people who are committed to each other and find themselves procreating without intending to should provide the stability of marriage for their child. “Having a child will be stressful and life altering enough. Parents need to work on their relationship on their time schedule.” “I feel that a baby is its own blessing. Have that blessing before you get married.” “How dare you imply that an unexpected pregnancy should lead to marriage? You are simply out of touch with modern culture.”

That may be. But it also means that modern culture is out of touch with the needs of children. Some researchers identify out-of-wedlock births as the chief cause for the increasing stratification and inequality of American life, the first step that casts children into an ever more rigid caste system. Studies have found that children born to single mothers are vastly more likely to be poor, have behavioral and psychological problems, drop out of high school, and themselves go on to have out-of-wedlock children.

Single mothers are a major issue in our politics classes. Not only do they have the time crises associated with raising kids and earning a salary alone, but generally speaking they end up with low-end jobs compared to men or childless women, who can take more time to focus on their linear career. And yet, they’re a growing portion of society, and can’t be ignored. What needs to be done?

Well, I think the author is onto something when she focuses on the response of the readers. There’s this sense that the most important factor is what the couple wants to do — which is almost never the case! Yes, it’s understandable that you don’t want to subject yourself to years’ worth of torture with a partner you don’t appreciate. But the kids aren’t going to benefit from a decision based purely on what is “ideal” for the emotions of the couple. And do the couples move on to find a more emotionally satisfying relationship that they’re willing to commit to? Sometimes, I’m sure. But I’m skeptical that it’s a majority that succeed.

I can’t speak as much for women. But I do believe that a good portion of the issue here is the perception men have of a relationship. I don’t think that men are brought up thinking that the point of dating someone is to look towards marriage, anymore. Rather, they see it as something parallelling their relationship to their friends, their dog, and their Xbox: a relationship is something to benefit/entertain me!

Somehow, I don’t think women see it quite the same way. I think that most women know that if the relationship ends, they’re the ones who have to make the choice about the baby, and, should they choose to keep it, they’re the ones who will have to provide for it. As I am not a woman, I can’t say that with 100% certainty. But I know if I were in a position to have a baby, I would appreciate it if I could find a man who sees me as more than a joyride. Speaking to my female friends, I hear an overwhelming chorus of voices that say “I just can’t seem to find a really good man!”

So, though it would not solve everything, I wonder if all of the factors mentioned in the article — political pressure, economic pressure, media pressure, etc. — should be twisting the arms of the young men to get married, more than the young women. And more than just get married, but get their butts in gear and view the world as a bit more than just having one party after another.

And of course, there’s another pressure which I myself consider pivotal, even if it’s not as much so to a good portion of the population: The Church. Too much of the Church has abandoned young men, figuring that their obsession with video games and the likes is impossible to overcome. It’s not. Most of the people I know who are feeding off of video games are suffering within, wanting something a lot more substantial to do with their lives. Biblically, that should involve getting married and raising kids. Seemingly that would be good for society, too, if one follows the arguments on Slate!

How do you get the men to respond? There’s no perfect answer for every one, of course. But mentorship and living a positive lifestyle are part of the answer, to be sure. Those men who know what it’s like to be in a positive, committed relationship should share that knowledge with the next generation of men. And women, of course, can encourage those youthful women they come in contact with to be serious when dating, and not allow their guys to treat them like a video game! When you begin the cycle at 13, it can be aweful hard to break out of at age 25!

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