Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Naturalness Part 3: The Sinful Nature and the Image of God

In the Christian view of humanity we find a striking confirmation of the idea that naturalness does not equal goodness - if Christianity is correct (which I believe it is), then there is a striking disconnect between how we are and how we ought to be.

Outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, there's been a long debate throughout history over whether humans are by nature good or by nature bad and what the moral and political consequences are because of that. In Chinese philosophy, this was indeed one of the central debates. In the 19th century there was a wide optimism about humanity and its progress towards a bright future - the idea that man was basically good was widely shared. But then came the World Wars and that faith was shaken to its core. Even now, you have people who fall on either side of the question of whether we are good or bad by nature.

In the Christian view, however, we have a unique answer to this question. On this view, the answer is not an unequivocal yes or no but a more nuanced one - to the question "Is humanity by nature good or is it bad?", the Christian can answer yes in one way and no in another. On the Christian view, we were created by a good, perfect God who created us fully good - good in nature (4) and by nature (5). Indeed, we were created in God's image - we were created male and female to express the fullness of God's character. But then came the Fall and that image was corrupted yet never destroyed. Since then we are fully good by nature (5) - who we really are and what we are to be and become and what is really central and important to us and about us is fully good and found in our reflection in ourselves of God's own character. So we are by nature (5) good because we were created by a good God in his own image. But we also possess a sinful nature - from birth (or, better, conception) we are inclined to rule over ourselves rather than let God reign in us; we prefer to form ourselves in our own miscast, distorted image rather than let ourselves be who we truly are as creatures made in God's image. This is the very heart of the doctrine of original sin - we are all tainted by sin from the moment we begin to exist. Though we call some people innocent, all of us already stand guilty and polluted. In 'nature' talk, to have a sinful nature, I believe, means, at the very least, that we have a sinful nature (4) - we are naturally (4) sinful which in turn leads us to be naturally (3) sinful.

So as made in the image of God, we are fully good, but as we are by birth and by choice, we are, as the theologians say, totally depraved. So in one sense we are by nature good and in another we are bad - why, in effect, we are at once both capable of the greatest acts of heroism and mercy and yet also of the greatest acts of foolishness and cruelty. This is why the work of God is to fix the problem of sin - and fixing it by eradicating it. God eradicates sin not merely by eradicating it from the divine ledgerbooks for the Day of Judgment, as it were, but also by eradicating it from our actions in the world. And not merely by eradicating it from our actions in the world but also be eradicating it at the source - in our very persons by healing us and repairing the broken image of our Creator in us. We are perfectly designed works that have become broken and malfunctioning and it is the work of God to repair those of us who assent to it so that we may become whole as we always were meant to be.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Naturalness Part 2: Gender and Biology

The mistake of muddling naturalness and goodness finds itself smack dab not only in the middle of debates over homosexuality or health products but in the study and description of gender as well. For purposes of this post, I'll make use of the last three notions of naturalness I talked about in my previous post. Reminder: natural (3) = statistically common; natural (4) = genetic or biological in origin; natural (5) = in accordance with a thing's telos

We all know that, statistically at least, women tend to have certain characteristics or patterns of behavior and men others. Or, in other words, certain things are natural (3) for women and other things are natural (3) for men. But why is that? According to many different scientists, at least some of these differences are based in biology - in other words, for certain "feminine" traits, they are natural (3) among women because they are natural (4) among women (or, more precisely, naturally (3) natural (4) - for everyone's sake, though, I'll just shorten that and say "natural (4)" when I mean the longer thing), and for certain "masculine" traits, they are natural (3) among men because they are natural (4) among men.

When such scientists present such views or research, not many people protest. Most people see it as an interesting diagnosis of apparent sex differences. But watch what happens when someone in a position of power says something similar: Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard, (presumably) innocently said something like this - explaining the naturalness (3) of a characteristic among women by its naturalness (4). It created a national uproar and he was pretty much run out of his office. What explains this and why would people be mad about such a figure taking such a line?

As you might have already guessed, a large part of it has to do with confusing naturalness with goodness or thinking that naturalness (4) must automatically mean naturalness (5) and that that must automatically mean goodness. The idea is that if a woman has, say, a biological mothering instinct then she automatically ought to settle down as soon as possible and have as many kids as possible, forsaking anything outside the home. In other words, if that instinct is natural (4) it must be natural (5) and part of what the woman is supposed to do.

Take feminism, for instance. Now, there are tons of versions of feminism and I can honestly say I'm not sure what feminism in general is apart from the specific forms - probably something to do with liberation for women from sexism and sex-based injustice or something. In any case, we can describe one kind of feminism - call it equality feminism - which is in favor of political and domestic justice, equal rights, equal opportunity and consideration, equal respect, and consideration as of equal worth as men for all women. This kind of feminism is rather plausible. Now consider a more extreme version of feminism - call it gender feminism - which says that no "feminine" qualities are natural (4) but any of them are only natural (3) among women because they are ingrained by society and culture (often added to this is that we should stop such ingraining). A large part of what motivates people to go beyond equality feminism to gender feminism is precisely the idea mentioned in the previous paragraph - that, somehow, biology is destiny - that biology means purpose and centrality in one's identity. But of course, as we have already discussed, that just does not follow.

If anything, a new appreciation of natural (4) differences between men and women might actually help women to achieve justice and more equality with men in society. For instance, if certain natural (4) differences between men and women at least partially explain why men are common in certain high paying professions (say, because the profession is too demanding on one's time and women, say, are more naturally (4) desirous of family time) then taking that into account may force us to change the way such professions are structured to allow more of an equal opportunity for people of both sexes to get the high paying jobs.

In conclusion, even if people have erroneously used the idea that a particular trait is natural (4) as justification for treating such a trait as ideal and natural (5), that doesn't mean that it really does justify such a move. But treating "feminine" or "masculine" or any sorts of traits as natural (4) is perfectly compatible with equality feminism or all sorts of views. Nor does it mean that just because a trait is natural (4) for me that it is somehow central to who I am or that I have to cave into it. A natural (4) trait is just one of many traits, desires, emotions, values, habits, dreams, intentions, personality and so forth that goes into a person's psychological makeup. And as such it need not be any more important than any of the others - an acquired trait can take precedence, priority, and centrality over natural (4) traits in a person and even suppress them (and for most of us for at least some of our natural(4) traits this is actually the norm). So the scientists that advocate biological bases for natural (3) differences in the behavior of the sexes are not necessarily being sexist when they hold or advocate such views. After all, biology isn't destiny.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

If It's Natural Does That Mean It's Good or Good for You?

Some quick thoughts:

If it's natural does that mean it's good or good for you? That's what a lot of people seem to think and what a lot of advertisers want you to think: Such and such activities are natural and therefore good or at least permissible; such and such a product is all natural and therefore good for you; etc. But is all that really true? Is naturalness equivalent to goodness? Does an activity's naturalness render it good and unnaturalness bad? To think about such questions we need to be clear and separate out the most common notions of naturalness, notions that people tend to confuse:

Natural (1) - due to non-human causes or made from ingredients which are

Natural (2) - capable of showing up in a naturalistic theory (e.g., being physical, being part of the causal network, being spatiotemporal, being a subject of the sciences or natural sciences, or etc.)

Natural (3) - being statistically common or the most common (perhaps: normal or average)

Natural (4) - genetic or inborn, or the result of a genetic or inborn disposition

Natural (5) - in accordance with or at least consistent with a thing's telos (its end, goal, purpose, or function)

Foods or ingested products claim to be natural (1). Obviously, though, something can be natural (1) but not good for you. Various poisons are natural (1) and if all the other ingredients in a pill or recipe are natural (1), that makes the entire pill or recipe natural (1) as well. But clearly if there is enough of the poison, this all-natural ingestible is definitely not good for you. Let that be a warning the next time you want to pick up some unknown, untested (probably herbal) medicine which claims to be all-natural and therefore, presumably, good for you - its naturalness (1) is no cause for approval. Artificial stuff can be just as good as the natural (1) or even better! It all depends on what exactly it is.

Wars and lying are respectively natural (2) and natural (3) but they are not necessarily good either. Few people, though, seem to think that being natural (2) or natural (3) lead to goodness (especially for the former). So what about the last two notions of naturalness?

Take homosexual behavior or being disposed towards such behavior as an example. There's a huge nature vs. nurture debate there - gay activists trying to argue that homosexual behavior is the result of genetic or embryonic dispositions and anti-homosexuality activists arguing that such dispositions are purely choice. The assumption in this debate seems to be that if such a disposition is natural (4) then such behavior must be good or permissible or not blameworthy. But of course that doesn't follow in the least. Someone may have a genetic or inborn disposition towards child molestation or violence but that doesn't mean that such things are good or permissible or not blameworthy. In fact, probably all of us have some sort of sinful disposition inborn in us but that doesn't make things any better for all that. Really, little or nothing of moral consequence seems to follow immediately from the fact that something is natural (4).
Perhaps what is going on here is a confusion of naturalness (4) with naturalness (5). Naturalness (5), unlike the other notions, does have something to do with what is good or with what we ought to do or be like. And I think a perfectly acceptable, consistent, and plausible Christian view of the matter would be to take homosexual behavior (or alcoholism or aggression or infidelity or whatever else you want to pin on genetics or fetal development) as natural (4) but not natural (5). On this sort of view, that kind of behavior would be against our proper function as human persons and bad but still a result of genetic or inborn dispositions. And unlike naturalness(4), there is no reason or evidence to suggest that homosexual (or whatever) behavior is natural (5). So naturalness (4) in this debate is just a red herring. The real question - the philosophical and religious one - is whether such activities are natural (5). And that's a question the Christian tradition, in line with the New Testament teaching, answers in the negative.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Controversy surrounding FBC

The following is an expression of my own personal, fallible feelings on this issue. In no way should it be taken to reflect the opinions of FBC or any of its staff or members. Especially if, as may be the case, it turns out to be too judgmental or not loving enough toward the parties involved (in which case, apologies to those concerned):

There's a big controversy going on right now about our church here in Davis (FBC - First Baptist Church). One of our members, an elected official named Freddie Oakley, has spoken out against the illegality of gay marriage. Apparently she thinks it is unjust/unfair/politically wrong to limit marriage or people's choice of marriage partners. As far as I know, she has not said anything at all to indicate that she thinks that gay marriage is morally permissible - for all she's said, she may very well think it is wrong or sinful, just that it is a matter of political justice that the state has no right to interfere when it comes to marriage. In other words, it may be wrong, but it is unjust for the state to force someone to accept that it is wrong or act as though it were. Everything she's said publicly has been perfectly compatible with such a combination of views (and, indeed, such a combination of views is not entirely uncommon, especially among people with more of a politically liberal or libertarian bent). After all, plenty of people think JW's are wrong in what they believe but most of the same think it'd be unjust to block them from attaining a place of worship. All this is just to say that though Oakley may be politically in favor of allowing gay marriage, that doesn't directly translate into moral approval or a moral condoning of it (and indeed, some of her comments might seem to support this particular interpretation of her views - look at what she says about how religion ought to be kept out of the law - presumably she has in mind her own religion, Christianity, which is morally against homosexual relationships).
The past two weeks, a group from Placerville called the Church of the Divide (an unintentionally apt name!) has been protesting at FBC because they feel that the church in general, and the staff in particular, have been lax in publicly disciplining Oakley for her "sinfulness". Apparently, they are unaware of the possibility of the combination of views described above. Or maybe they just think that anyone who disagrees with their political stance must thereby be sinning! The former seems pretty likely to me - people quite often confuse moral and legal matters (which is not to say that there is no connection - just that they are not the same). This group has taken FBC's refusal to bar Oakley from worship as moral approval of gay relationships, as evidenced by the sorts of signs they brought to the protest and many of the things they have said. This is, of course, ridiculous, as FBC, in line with the Bible, is against homosexual practices and the pastor has explicitly said as much.
The group sent a letter to FBC, the following being an excerpt:

Due to your apparent refusal to speak with us privately about this issue dealing with the purity of the bride of Christ, His church, we will be following Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18 and will publicly expose your inaction in exercising proper church discipline on a member’s open, public sin. (“Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, TELL IT UNTO THE CHURCH.” Matt 18:15-17)

This is quite the wacky application of these verses, to put it mildly. Jesus is here speaking about the goings on within a particular group of believers (probably originally the local synagogue - its a bit misleading, though hermeneutically still appropriate, to translate the Greek word ekklesia (meaning "assembly") here as "church", though since the local church is just a continuation of the local synagogue the principles still apply). Specifically, this is about interpersonal relationships between members of the same local assembly. More specifically, it's about one individual member personally wronging another individual member - such as through fraud, exploitation, gossip, abuse, etc. Clearly this does not support the Church of the Divide's actions. No one in that group, as far as I know, is a member or even an occasional attendee of FBC nor has any of them been personally wronged by any member of FBC. So there is no Scriptural basis in this passage for them to bring this matter up with our church.
Check out their article on the controversy and the protest here: http://www.churchofthedivide.org/FBCOakleyProtest.htm

If you read what is written on both websites and watch their video, they are hardly loving - they seem to be taunting FBC staff and volunteers and acting in general in a rather immature manner (notice how the cameraman takes up the issue of setting foot on the property in a rather childish way, reminding me a little of a bratty kid talking back to its parents). They seem to be completely belligerent, arrogant, and uncharitable. They twist everything and interpret everything into the worst possible light without even considering more charitable (and more plausible) interpretations of what is being done and said by FBC staff or members.
It's highly ironic that their website's motto is "Expressing God's Love in a Whole New Kind of Way". This new way seems to be the old "Pharisaic" way of judgment, condemnation, and self-righteousness. Notice how they even describe someone as an "aged, obese bicyclist" - if that's not deliberate malevolence, I don't know what is!
Here's a quote from their site:

Upon arrival, Church of the Divide was met with a hostile crowd of "First Baptist Church" (FBC) personel

I highly doubt it was really hostile. As far as I know, they told the group to leave and endured the group's taunting without uttering any hostile words and in general keeping quiet - how is that hostile? As an aside, it's funny that they talk about "FBC bodyguards" as if we had big, burly tough guys of questionable character and violent tendencies standing about. It's hilarious to think of Jon ("Papa Jon" to his grandkids) as an official "FBC Bodyguard". Maybe they should get an official t-shirt.
Notice the following quote from a man from the group who was asked to leave the property:

"Not very 'welcoming' if you ask me," he added. "I guess only Freddie Oakley gets welcomed here - Bible-believing Christians apparently are not."

That's about as uncharitable as you can get. There's no notion here that perhaps the staff thought that this person was really here to protest and disrupt the service or accost the pastors or parishioners or film what was going on in order to edit and twist the words and actions of the people in the church (which was pretty likely what would have happened - notice on the video that one man who was kicked out of the service had a camera in his hand and kept talking about having gone into the service to speak to the pastor). Instead, if they aren't allowed on the property it must, of course, be because they are Christians and, of course, FBC doesn't want Christians on its property! All this, of course, is getting things almost completely backwards. Any group which is about respect for its members and being welcoming and having an uninterrupted service without its members being molested would precisely not want to welcome such protesters. They are not welcome precisely because they are, in an extremely confrontational and public way, not acting as Christians.

As already mentioned, their use of Scripture in support of their position is piecemeal and not very well executed to say the least. Take some of their signs: "I have this against you - "You tolerate that woman Jezebel (Freddie)" Revelation 2:20". Anyone who knows anything about Revelation or its context should find this laughable - last time I checked, FBC is not located in Thyatira in the first century AD nor is Freddie Oakley a leader at our church attempting to lead the rest of the church into pagan/proto-Gnostic practices. Another quote from them: "I told him [Pastor Glen] homosexuality is a sin of great consequence stemming from the destruction by God of Sodom and was brought up in the Bible, including by Jesus, over 30 times; the judgment of homosexuality is not just individual but societal." Now, I don't remember Jesus ever explicitly bringing up homosexuality, but it's important to remember that the Bible never says that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because of gay relationships. That undoubtedly added to their guilt, but Scripture indicates that they were generally very depraved, not just in wanting to have sex with other people of the same gender but in all sorts of ways. They tried to rape some angels, violate norms of hospitality and justice, etc. Scripture indicates that it was because of their wickedness that they were destroyed - it never pinpoints that wickedness as solely or even mostly to be found in gay relationships. So it is hard to say, as they seem to think, that homosexual activity is somehow a greater sin than all others - Scripture just does not support that. If any sins are held in greater contempt at all (which may be disputed), Scripture sees injustice and idolatry as the greatest sins - not homosexual activity. Scripture does see such activity as a grievous sin, just not something somehow at the top of the list. In any case, Oakley wasn't even engaging in such activity nor was she explicitly condoning or supporting it - so the seriousness of homosexual activity as a sin isn't relevant in any case.

Anyway, Scripture is not altogether clear on what all of our political views should be - moral views yes, political views no. In such a gray area, we should be charitable and allow people to differ in their opinions so long as they hold true to the faith and affirm what the Bible is indeed clear about. Even if Oakley were to publicly speak out in favor of the moral permissibility of homosexual relationships, it still is not clear that she should be kicked out of the church - Paul in 1 Corinthians speaks of removing the people who are committing public sexual sins and remain unrepentant, not removing the people he condemns for merely approving of it.

The ultimate problem seems to be that these people think that sinners shouldn't be let into the church. This of course is connected to an ancient heresy opposed by the rest of the church (the Church Father Augustine prominent among those who opposed the heresy). The Church of the Divide apparently believes that Christians can and should be completely sinless. One member told a curious FBC-goer that he personally had been without sin for 28 years or something like that. Of course, this contradicts 1 John "He who says he is without sin is a liar". And so since they think Oakley is a sinner, they think she should go - only the sinless should be allowed in church! But, as Pastor Glen has said, in that case none of us (Dividers included) would be allowed inside!

Monday, February 19, 2007

"Blog": Genealogy of a Word

blog - What are the origins of this word? What does it mean? The obvious answer, of course, is that a blog is really quite like a log, the only difference being that a blog is a log with a 'b'. This is to be differentiated from a hive-carrying log which may contain MANY bees. So unless you empty your honey bear into a blog, the only thing sweet you'll find in one will be some nice crunchy termites or perhaps a bit of maple syrup (of course, you'll have to open the bottle to get the syrup out). The word 'blog' of course comes from the Anglo-Saxon word 'Kerblog' which is in turn derived from the Old German 'Kerbloggen' which is in turn, as everyone knows, derived from the Indo-European 'blech'. Since the Romans were the first ones to use the word, it is not very important to see how or why they pronounced it the way they did or where they got it from. Many philologists speculate that the Romans were attempting to describe the sound that a 'b' infested log makes when it hits the ground. Other philologists say the first philologists are idiots and that everyone knows that logs make the sound 'kerPLOP' NOT 'kerBLOG' when they hit the ground. In response, many theorists have proposed that in Roman society, such logs did not in fact make a 'kerplop' sound as they do nowadays but that in fact, since Roman physics were perhaps different, it made a 'kerblog' sound instead. Many experiments with togas, vomiting during meals, and woship of pagan gods have been attempted in an effort to recreate the correct setting in laboratory situations in order to simulate the Roman context. Unfortunately, all such experiments have failed to yield any 'kerblog' sounds. As research volunteer Jamey Bob Lee Thornhill says, 'It durn done went 'kerplop'. I didn' hear no 'kerblog', no siree nohow.' This merely reinforced critics of the theory in their denunciations of such theorists as complete idiots, to which some researchers have replied that it is not THEY who are idiots, but the Romans who were idiots (THEY were the ones who thought that logs went 'kerblog', after all). As noted German scientist Adolf Heinrich Von Schwartzenntumelhofferheim III has so eloquently put it, 'The Romans are old and old things and old people aren't cool. They're stupid. We are obviously much superior to those people from other races, er...I mean, times.' As reasonable as such a position is, the origins of the word 'blog' still remain a subject for debate. As for those detractors of this entry who will insist on carrying on the fabricated story that 'blog' is simply short for 'web log', I point out to them the incontrovertible evidence to the contrary that I have tried many times to insert a log into the web, but unfortunately the severed pieces of tree body only succeeded in breaking the screen of my monitor. Clearly, logs can be in your computer monitor, but certainly not in the web!

Philosophical Orthodoxy

So this is my new blog - I've been meaning to set one up for a long time so that I can write down all my weird ideas, or just strange things that I think are really funny (but most other people might not). This is for politics, religion, philosophy, science, history, and just utter strangeness (examples of some of the preceding should follow soon). Let's see how long I actually keep this up.

By the way, the wife says I should mention her here. So I just did!