Who gets to say what is right and what is wrong?

Who gets to say what is right and what is wrong? Is there such a thing? And if there is, on what basis can anyone claim the moral authority to judge it?

Those questions underlie a recent and very public debate. When the New York Times published Fort Lewis College Professor Justin McBrayer’s op-ed titled, “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts,” the Times website fielded nearly 2,000 comments.

In his piece, McBrayer wrote that an overwhelming majority of college freshman “view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.” He found the source of this belief in public school curricula designed to meet Common Core standards.

To this assertion, Daniel Engber writing in Slate, responds, “It’s total crap.”

Engber faults McBrayer on his methodology, claiming that he relies on “the philosopher’s favorite tools: anecdotes and intuition.” He then argues that surveys of students and young adults show that younger children believe in moral absolutes before entering their late teens, then fall into a moral relativism until they reach their thirties.

According to Engber, these survey-based studies prove that Common Core has nothing to do with the descent into moral relativism. If it did, wouldn’t younger students also be moral relativists? And besides that, studies suggest that students who were in college fifty years ago, long before the introduction of Common Core, were already more likely to be morally relativistic than were their elders or juniors.

I think Engber succeeds in refuting the idea that Common Core is the primary cause of moral relativism among college freshman. Still, the all-or-nothing approach he takes is ironic, given that he faults McBrayer (and philosophers in general) for adopting an absolutist view of things. From his all-or-nothing vantage point, Engber cannot see that Common Core might be a contributing factor to relativism among the young, even if it is not the primary cause.

It is fascinating to me that McBrayer, the “absolutist,” appeals to reason based on experience to construct his case, while Engber (whom I take to be a relativist) repeatedly appeals to a higher authority to support his views. It is just the opposite of what one would expect.

To what authority does Engber appeal? This is the most interesting feature of the dispute, and the one that best identifies the differences between them. Engber appeals to the authority of the pollster and the survey-taker. He gives no credence (at least in this essay) to either Church or reason. The weight of authority rests upon the shifting opinions of the general populace, as discovered by the social scientists and “experimental philosophers” who conduct the surveys.

This suggests that the real difference between McBrayer and Engber and the philosophical camps they represent is not that one believes in right and wrong and the other doesn’t. The real difference lies in the source of moral authority to which they turn and on which they rely.

In the past, the Church and/or the Bible was the source of moral authority for western civilization. If the Church or the Bible said it was wrong, it was wrong. Then came the Enlightenment, when God was relieved of the obligation of making moral pronouncements. That duty fell to human reason. Yet the luminaries of the period, men like David Hume and Immanuel Kant, were nevertheless convinced that reason could discover and declare moral certainties.

But neither the principles of reason nor the canons of Scripture control today’s moral high ground. Rather it is the cannons of current opinion, roaring deafeningly through omnipresent media. And, disturbingly, it not just current opinion but the forecast of future opinion that directs private conduct and public policy. It was once true, as the author of Judges wrote, that “everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” but now the media tells us what is right in everyone’s eyes. That is not the rule of law, but the tyranny of popular opinion.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/21/2015

A few additional thoughts: If the final paragraph in the article above accurately portrays the situation in America today, it will not be the philosopher or the priest to whom people are listening, but the pollster.

The philosopher and priest work from sources of authority in which they have confidence: from natural and/or special revelation. The pollster and experimental philosopher also work from a source of authority in which they have confidence: the revelation of public opinion.

Special revelation comes from God through prophets and apostles. Natural revelation comes through reason. But from what source (or sources) does public opinion come? Certainly not from the Church or the Academy.

And what are the themes of this new revelation? Old age is disgusting; youth alone is beautiful; one must follow his or her feelings and desires to be authentically human; truth changes with the times; humanity’s corruption will be cured through education; morality is not in any way fixed, but evolves with human wants and needs; and many others.

In this current climate, men and women who believe what Jesus believed, do what he said, and live like he lived will “shine like stars in the universe” (Philippians 2:15). There are no quick fixes for our situation. What the world needs is truth; truth that is not merely proclaimed but lived.

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Fascinating: the role of emotions in human life

Would Captain Kirk skip out on Mr. Spock’s funeral? Not on your life. So when William Shatner, who played Kirk in the Star Trek franchise’s television show and movies, missed Spock actor Leonard Nimoy’s funeral, people were outraged.

No, Kirk would never miss Spock’s funeral; but then, the writers wouldn’t let him. This time Shatner and Nimoy weren’t handed a script. They had to play this drama out as it occurred. Shatner, who was at a fundraiser in Florida, explained that he would not be able to attend the funeral and announced that his daughters would be representing the family.

But Trekkies weren’t buying it, and reacted in a very un-Spock-like manner. They called Shatner names, including “Captain Jerk.” It was, as Mr. Spock might have said, “very illogical.”

And “fascinating.” Where does this loyalty and love for a fictional character come from? Wherever it comes from, it started early. When Star Trek first aired in 1966, Nimoy thought the show was unlikely to amount to anything. He was as surprised as anybody when fan mail – most of it addressed to “Mr. Spock” – began pouring in.

People loved Spock. Could it be that they identified with his ongoing battle to keep his emotions under control? And wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone waged the same battle, if everyone endeavored to be as emotionless and logical as Mr. Spock?

Probably not. God gave us emotions for a reason. For one thing, emotions help us make decisions. People who have lost their emotions due to orbito-frontal brain damage have found it impossible to make decisions, even small ones. It takes more than logic to make a decision. There’s a reason that Spock, the embodiment of logic, does not sit in the captain’s chair. For that you need someone who has feelings.

Feelings are not auxiliary to human life. They’re standard equipment for the human model. We need them. Without them we are defective.

But that doesn’t mean that feelings are all that matter, as so much modern art and literature suggest. Film writers love to tell us that the only way to live authentically is to follow our feelings, even when they’re destructive to relationships and morals. And on TV, parents are always telling their lovesick adolescents that they will “know” (translation: they will feel) when the time is right to have sex. As if every libidinous teen’s feelings are intrinsically reliable.

Feelings are an important part of what makes us human, but assigning feelings the responsibility of directing our lives – a serious theme in Existentialism, but also a recurring them in popular culture ­– is a fool’s game.

When a person’s life is directed primarily by feelings, it will soon be in a shambles. When his feelings become his identity, life will spin out of control: addiction, broken relationships and instability will characterize him. Feelings play an important role in our lives, even in decision-making, but if they’re all we have to go on, we are in big trouble.

Feelings are like a thermometer, but we often treat them as if they were a thermostat. We think we can somehow adjust our feelings without changing the conditions that gave rise to them in the first place. But if we try to change our feelings without changing the conditions that generated them, we are doomed to fail.

Feelings are not under our immediate control. (This is entirely demonstrable: just try telling yourself not to be afraid when you hear a strange noise in the middle of the night.) Positive feelings can be cultivated, but only by changing our thoughts and circumstances.

Rather than trying to change our feelings, either by will power or by pharmaceutical power (though the latter is sometimes appropriate), we would do better to focus on changing the conditions – relational, spiritual, vocational, physical or other – that underlie our feelings.

To that Mr. Spock would surely fold his arms, nod his head and say, “Logical.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/14/15

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One place even God will not go

In “Burnt Norton,” the first poem in T. S. Eliot’s celebrated Four Quartets, the renowned poet writes, “…human kind cannot bear very much reality.” Eliot seems to have been thinking specifically of the deep-seated reluctance to face the end to which humanity is always moving. But his assertion is equally true as a generality. Facing reality is not something we’re good at.

As if to illustrate Eliot’s point, a very different kind of poet, contemporary singer-songwriter Ne-Yo, has written: “I don’t want reality. Actually, reality stinks. How about we just pretend…? I don’t wanna know what I know to be true. What I need you to do, tell me another lie.”

The philosopher Dallas Willard has written, “We can never understand human affairs at any level without taking [denial] into account.” He calls denial a “great world-historical force” and goes on to say the human will is incapable of sustaining itself for any length of time while knowingly resisting the truth, and so “it must deny and evade and delude itself.”

As Ne-Yo says, “How about we just pretend?”

Why deny the truth? Because truth is often uncomfortable. It demands change; insists upon it. It often alienates us from others. “Truth,” as Georges Bernanos wrote, “is meant to save you first, and the comfort comes afterward.” Sometimes long afterward.

Nevertheless, giving comfort priority over truth is costly. C.S. Lewis was right: “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth – only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.”

I’ve watched couples close their eyes to reality, even as their marriage shipwrecked on the unmovable rock of truth. I’ve talked to people with just hours left to live, who refused to face the possibility that they might die. I have seen apologists for both theism and atheism use logic like a weapon, a sword, which they’ve inevitably buried in the heart of truth.

This is particularly troublesome when the person wielding the sword is a Christian. Biblical faith places the highest value on truth. The Psalmist says to God, “You desire truth in the innermost being.” Jesus taught his followers that the truth would set them free.

In an odd turn of phrase, the Apostle John cautioned against those who claim knowledge of God but do not “do the truth.” The Apostle Paul warned that even among Christian leaders some would “arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.” This is seen as the worst kind of betrayal – the betrayal of truth. The “godless and wicked” are identified as those who suppress the truth. The person excluded from the joy of the age to come is precisely the one “who loves and practices falsehood.”

God requires us to be real. He knows there is no other way for us to be with him. He will be with us in trouble. He will be with us in hardship and persecution and famine and nakedness and danger. He will be with us in life and in death. But he will not be with us in denial. It’s one place even God will not go. But if we will stand in the truth, even the truth that our confidence in God is shaky, he will stand with us.

The Christian must remain open to truth, even when it’s not a truth he wants to hear. He must never ignore facts to serve his own opinion, or distort an opponent’s arguments simply to win a debate – even if the debate is over the existence of God. He may win the debate, but he will not win the debater, and he may damage his own soul in the process.

The follower of Jesus must not let his desires dictate his thinking, “especially,” as Willard says, “the desire to prove we are right.” He or she must guard against the temptation to make the facts fit the interpretation, rather than the other way around. The idea that a person can love and honor Jesus without loving and honoring truth is utterly false. Jesus, after all, said, “I am … the truth.”

First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 3/7/15

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The boot is now on the other foot

During the 1990s, a person couldn’t turn around without bumping into the word “tolerance.” Tolerance was everywhere: tolerance for people’s sexual orientation, tolerance for people’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof), and tolerance for people’s choices regarding career and family, to name a few.

In the past, to have tolerance for people simply meant that you tolerated them. You might not like them, you certainly didn’t agree with them, but you afforded them the right to think and act according to their own beliefs. But during the 1990s, tolerance took an evolutionary step forward.

It morphed into a different kind of thing. Tolerance no longer meant putting up with a person whose beliefs were, in our opinion, badly mistaken. Rather, it meant affirming that person’s beliefs and values and granting them a kind of approved status. If beliefs were currency, the new tolerance insisted on setting equal value on every denomination of belief.

Of course that was a lot of nonsense. To say that the beliefs of a man advocating pedastry – an ongoing sexual relationship between an adult and a minor – are somehow equivalent to Mother Theresa’s beliefs regarding minor children is balderdash. Everyone knew it, but not enough people were saying it.

But something has happened. Tolerance has fallen out of favor. You’re about as likely to find tolerance in today’s public square as you are to find a Goth in the spring fashion shows. Tolerance ruled during the 1990s and early 2000s, beginning with the institution of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), which protected people from being booted out of the military because of sexual orientation. But DADT was repudiated, and the proverbial boot is now on the other foot.

For example, when a gay couple asked a Colorado baker to make them a wedding cake and he, on religious grounds, refused, they sued and the court ordered the baker to violate his conscious or face fines. There was no tolerance for conscientious objections based on religious beliefs. The same kind of thing has happened to photographers and florists. The boot is not only on the other foot, people are using it to kick those who disagree with them.

Consider Brendan Eich, the founder and CEO of Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser. When it was discovered that he had, years earlier, contributed a thousand dollars of his own money to the Proposition 8 ballot initiative that supported traditional marriage, he was publicly shamed and forced to resign from his position. Where is tolerance now?

After Eich’s ouster from Mozilla, a correspondent at Slate urged readers to go further and “punish” everyone – he was talking about thousands of people – who supported the ballot initiative. “Why do these bigots still have jobs?” he asked. “Let’s go get them.” Tolerance?

When the president of Chick-fil-A discussed his views on marriage – his personal views – the mayor of Chicago joined one of the city’s aldermen in renouncing the company and blocking their plan to open a store in a Chicago neighborhood. It should be noted that no one was discriminated against. There were no accusations of injustice or mistreatment. The man merely expressed his personal views on marriage. Again, what happened to tolerance?

Tolerance was good – in fact, it was a god – when the minority was demanding their way. Now that the minority view is in the ascendancy, tolerance has been forgotten. Tolerance may have been a god in the nineties, but it is a broken and discarded idol now.

What should people do in this hostile climate? It’s a novel idea, but how about this: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:37). If we were to act this way – whether we are conservative or liberal, gay or straight, Republicans or Democrats – our nation would rise above tolerance, the way love rises above civility and justice rises above mere legality.

(A helpful read on the subject is J. Paul Nyquist’s book, Prepare: Living Your Faith In An Increasingly Hostile Culture, Moody Press, (C) 2015, J. Paul Nyquist)

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/28/2015

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Whoever exalts himself will be humbled

NBC anchor Brian Williams stopped reporting the news and became the news after several soldiers contradicted his sensational account of a 2003 trip to Iraq in which, he says, the helicopter he was in was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. The way Williams remembers it, the chopper was forced to make an emergency landing, and he and the crew had to be rescued from the enemy by U.S. troops.

Not so, say the soldiers who were with him. The chopper was never fired on. The whole account is fictitious.

Williams’s fellow-journalists are confused about why the veteran reporter would make up such a story. Some are coming to his defense, supporting his claim that he “misremembered” the event, but most are simply at a loss to explain it.

But Williams is not the only one making up stories. Bookstores around the country are pulling the book, “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven,” about six-year-old Alex Malarkey, who claimed to have seen angels and met Jesus during the two months he was comatose following a car-accident. Malarkey, now 16, has admitted to making the story up.

The book, which reached the New York Times bestseller list in 2011, was promoted by the publisher as “…the true story of an ordinary boy’s most extraordinary journey. As you see heaven and earth through Alex’s eyes, you’ll come away with new insights on miracles, life beyond this world, and the power of a father’s love.”

Alex, who co-wrote the book with his father, now says that he made the whole thing up. “I did not die. I did not go to Heaven. I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention.”

He goes on to castigate the people who have made considerable money from the sale of his book. “People have profited from lies, and continue to … Those who market these materials must be called to repent and hold the Bible as enough.”

Remarkably, Alex’s mother has been saying the same thing since at least 2012, but no one would listen to her. She contacted major booksellers, telling them that Alex had recanted his story, but was ignored.

How is it that a Christian publisher whose mission is to “minister to the spiritual needs of people, primarily through literature consistent with biblical principles” failed to pay attention to the warning signs? And why did major Christian retail outlets ignore Alex’s mother’s claim that the story was false?

One wonders whether the Christian publishing industry has fallen victim to its own success. Most of the Christian publishing houses and the booksellers who market their product were founded to serve the larger Church in communicating the good news of Christ to a wider audience. Have business plans somehow displaced mission goals? Has their model of success been reshaped in the mold of their secular counterparts? Has the focus shifted away from spiritual impact to issues of retail strategy and market share?

It has recently come to light that Christian authors (or their publishers) have been buying their way onto the New York Times Bestseller list by hiring marketing firms to purchase their books in bulk – enough books to earn a listing and thereby attract publicity. Some authors have defended the practice as a common sense marketing tool. Others have called it manipulative.

The fact that authors are defending the practice is itself a caution against the seductive power of success. It is also a reminder of one of Jesus’s most memorable teachings. After advising people against self-promotion, Jesus bluntly warned: “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” He was right, as always.

First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, February 21, 2015

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The power of love, the power of marriage

Too often people get married with a demolition permit in their back pockets, and for some reason it doesn’t dawn on them that their children will be in the home when it comes crashing down. It was never meant to be that way.

Christians and other people of faith believe that marriage was God’s idea, and that he intended it to last. Because that’s true, marriage has always been envisioned as a covenant – the strongest of agreements into which two parties could enter.

Covenant haunts the wedding ceremony the way King Hamlet’s ghost haunts Elsinore Castle – though of course some people don’t believe in it any more than they believe in ghosts. Yet the spirit of covenant materializes at one spot in the wedding ceremony, disappears, and then shows up in another. If you know what you’re looking for, you’ll see covenant repeatedly at any traditional wedding.

What is covenant? It is an ancient practice in which two parties – they could be individuals, groups or nations – enter into a do-or-die agreement with each other.

Where is covenant? It’s everywhere in the wedding ceremony. It appears first in the guests, who are present “to witness and bless the joining of this man and this woman in holy matrimony.” To “witness” is covenantal language. Guests serve as covenant witnesses.

When the officiant says, “Now that this man and this woman have given themselves to each other by solemn vows, with the joining of hands, and the giving and receiving of rings…” he or she is using covenant language to describe the components of covenant.

The joining of hands is a covenant act. When couples take their vows, it is customary for them to take right hands. Taking right hands – the handshake – comes out of covenant ceremony. People used to say, “We shook hands on it; that’s enough for me.” They understood the power of covenant.

In ancient covenant there was always a sign – a token that revealed to the world that two parties were in covenant together. In the wedding ceremony, and in the marriage that follows, the covenant token is a ring. It lets everyone know that this man and woman are already in covenant with someone else.

The vows are at the heart of every covenant: solemn promises made before witnesses that will be kept no matter what the cost. Marriage partners promise “to have and to hold each other from this day forward, no matter what: for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until [they] are parted by death.” There are no disclaimers here, no legalese backdoor escape clauses; just “’til death do us part” promises. That’s covenant.

When the ceremony is over, people go to the reception and eat. That too is a carry-over from covenant. Covenants were ratified with a meal. So when God entered into covenant with the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, the biblical author writes, “Moses and … the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel …” – and then the most unexpected thing: “and they ate and drank.” They did what? They ate and drank? Yes. They were ratifying covenant.

People can see (and Hollywood often reminds us) that it takes the power of love to hold a marriage together, but they often fail to see that the power of marriage can hold love together. Previous generations understood this. There are times when a person keeps the marriage vows not because he or she wants to, still less because he or she feels affection for a spouse – that may not be the feeling at all – but because he or she has entered covenant before God and witnesses.

If they will keep their promises then, in spite of their feelings, and continue to keep them, affection will probably return. But keeping promises in spite of hard feelings is difficult, and to do it they’ll need a covenant in their hearts, not a demolition permit in their back pockets.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/14/2015

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Give your message “street cred”

When my children were still young and I was pastoring in another city, my wife and I took the kids downtown one Sunday afternoon and walked around the square and up and down the street. Downtown was unusually empty that day, but as we lingered in front of a store, a lone woman approached us.

She was holding something in her hand, a pamphlet of some sort. Not knowing that I was a pastor, she offered and I accepted it, and found that it was a religious tract. I looked it over briefly and then asked her, “What church do you belong to?”

She answered (in what seemed to me a rather haughty tone) that she did not belong to any church. It was her opinion that the churches in the community all had problems. (Of course as the pastor of one of those churches, I already knew that.) She had not found one that met her standards for orthodoxy or moral uprightness, so she chose to do the Christian life on her own.

I tried to engage her further in conversation, but she had another sinner in her sights and was targeting him for the gospel. She left us almost immediately.

I’ve thought about that encounter many times over the years. That woman, God bless her, was offering a salvation that was disconnected from day to day life. And is it any wonder? She was herself disconnected – from a church family, certainly, but also from the people to whom she gave her tracts. She said, in effect, “I’m offering eternal life, but I don’t have two minutes to spare.” It seemed weirdly incongruous.

How much a healthy church family could have benefitted her! She had grown crooked. She lacked the balance that comes from being in contact with different personalities and different viewpoints, and so her life grew at an angle. She needed other people to balance her, to smooth out her rough edges and broaden her narrow perspective.

And what benefit she might have brought to a healthy church family! She had a passion (and perhaps a gift, though undeveloped) for evangelism. She might have stirred up a local church, inculcated in it a concern for others and got its people outside the walls of their building and into the streets with the good news of God’s love.

A connection to a healthy church would also have made a tremendous difference in her success in spreading the news of God’s love. Because God’s love is relational, it is best understood in a relational setting. When people hear about God’s love in the context of a loving faith community, it makes sense to them in a way it does not when they hear about it in isolation.

There is a fine example of how this works in the Bible. People were responding in great numbers to the news that God loved them and had acted on their behalf through the sacrificial death of Jesus. That message had enormous impact because people could see the kind of love and sacrifice that church people attributed to God expressed naturally in their everyday lives.

The Bible says that the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had … with great joy and generosity.”

It was the love those early church members had for each other and the sacrifices they made for each other that helped their friends and neighbors believe that the message of God’s love and sacrifice might be true. The message and the medium blended seamlessly, and provided convincing proof of the validity of the good news the church proclaimed.

Contrast that with the woman I met on that downtown street. Their message was presented against the backdrop of a loving church family, where people enjoyed one another’s company and willingly sacrificed for each other’s good. Hers was given in total isolation from such expressions. Their lifestyle gave their message a street cred that hers utterly lacked.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 2/7/105

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