On Butler’s Argument for Immortality

This semester I am teaching a course entitled “Philosophy of the Afterlife,” which covers a range of issues, including the concept of human immortality, near-death experiences, reincarnation, the doctrines of heaven, hell, and purgatory, and the prospect of achieving immortality via computer technology.  Since this is my first time to teach such a course, I thought it would be fun to post some of my thoughts along the way.  I begin with a critical reflection on one of Joseph Butler’s arguments for human immortality.


In his 1736 book The Analogy of Religion, the English bishop and apologist Joseph Butler offers some arguments in defense of life after death.  His overarching aim with these arguments is not to prove that human beings are immortal but rather to show that we have no good reason to believe that our lives end with the death of our earthly bodies.  Here I will explain and critically assess one of his arguments.

from Wikipedia
from Wikipedia

Butler asks us to “consider what the analogy of nature” might suggest to us regarding what death truly entails.  And he observes that throughout nature we find immense variety, constant change and “degrees of life and perception” among living things.  And in each individual human life we find a vast transformation from our lives in the womb to adulthood.  Thus, Butler concludes, “that we are to exist hereafter in a state as different (suppose) from our present as this is from our former is but according to the analogy of nature.”

Furthermore, Butler argues, there is no evidence that death brings complete extinction of the self.  What we do observe is merely “the dissolution of the flesh, skin, and bones,” but “these effects do in no wise appear to imply the destruction of the living agent.”  Such physical decay indeed “destroys the perceptible proof which we had before their death of their being possessed of living powers, but does not appear to afford the least reason to believe they are then, or by that event, deprived of them.”  In other words, when person dies, the destruction of her body only eliminates positive evidence that she is still alive.  But it does not prove she is no longer alive.  This is an important distinction.  Lack of evidence for X does not necessarily constitute evidence for not-X.

In this way, Butler defends what I will call the “survival thesis”—the notion that human beings survive death in the sense that their conscious lives continue somehow despite the destruction of their physical bodies.  So what are we to make of his claims?  While Butler’s argument is carefully nuanced, aiming just to show that we have no good reason to reject the survival thesis, as opposed to positively arguing for that thesis, some counter-arguments might rebut his defense.

First, one might argue that Butler’s analogy from nature has been rendered irrelevant by the advance of science.  As many naturalists have pointed out, neurophysiology reveals a much more specified analogy that points in the direction of extinction of the self.  As a person develops from infancy to adulthood and then to old age, her cognitive capacities correspond entirely to her brain functionality.  As brain function deteriorates, so does one’s mental function.  And where there is serious damage to the cerebral cortex, there is likewise damage or even complete elimination of the cognitive operations for which that part of the brain is responsible.  What this suggests is that with the complete destruction of the brain there will likewise result complete cessation of cognitive function, and this is tantamount to extinction of the person.

Second, one might challenge—as again many naturalists have—Butler’s assumption that the burden of proof is on the naturalist to show that the survival thesis is false.  Why make this assumption when arguably there is no independent philosophical or scientific evidence to suggest that the survival thesis is true?  Presumably, Butler helped himself to this assumption because at the time and place of his writing—early 18th century Europe—belief in life after death was far more widely affirmed among scholars than it is today in the West.  So this presupposition regarding evidential burden was not controversial for his readers.  Things have changed dramatically during the intervening 280 years, however.  These days most Western scholars are religious skeptics, and a large number are bona fide naturalists.  Accordingly, among scholars today the burden of proof regarding the survival thesis seems to rest squarely on the shoulders of those who affirm it.  One wonders how Butler’s approach to the issue would be different were he writing on the subject today.

The Fates of Jesus Killers

It is interesting to note the fates of those who would destroy Jesus Christ. These included Herod the Great, Judas Iscariot, and Pontius Pilate.

Herod the Great was the Roman king of Judea who reigned from 37 B.C. to 4 or 1 B.C.  He was so brutally ambitious that he even killed his own wife and children.  But his most notorious act was the so-called “Massacre of the Innocents” in Bethlehem and its vicinity, ordered by Herod in an attempt to destroy Jesus in his infancy.  By the time the order was carried out, however, Joseph had been warned

from Wikipedia
from Wikipedia

in a dream to leave the area, which, along with Mary and Jesus, he did, foiling Herod’s plan.

It was not long after this that Herod experienced what the ancient historian Eusebius calls a “terrible end”:

He had an overpowering desire for food, which it was impossible to satisfy, ulceration of the intestines with agonizing pains in the lower bowel, and a clammy transparent humour covering the feet.  The abdomen was in the same miserable state, and in the genitals mortification set in, breeding worms.  Breathing was constricted and only possible when sitting upright, and it was most offensive because of the heavy stench and feverish respiration.  He suffered in every part convulsions that were unbearably severe.  (Ecclesiastical History, 1.8)

A maggot infestation of the scrotum?  Ugh.  No wonder Herod went on to attempt suicide.  But as the Jewish historian Josephus tells us, Herod was prevented from doing so by his cousin.  In any case, Herod’s demise soon followed his torturous illness.

Fast-forward about 33 years, and we find Judas Iscariot attempting to waylay Jesus.  Unlike Herod, Judas succeeds.  For thirty silver coins, Judas betrays Jesus into the hands of the Romans, who would subsequently crucify him.  The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Judas felt extreme remorse for this, saying “I have sinned for I have betrayed innocent blood.”  Matthew then notes that “Judas threw the money into the temple and left.  Then he went away and hanged himself” (Mt. 27:4-5).  According to the book of Acts, Judas first

from Wikipedia
from Wikipedia

purchased a field with some of that money.  Presumably, that’s where he hung himself, and where eventually “he fell headlong and all his intestines spilled out” (Acts 1:18).

It was Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea, who presided over the trial of Jesus.  Seemingly reluctant to condemn Jesus, Pilate declared, “I find no basis for a charge against this man” (Lk. 23:4).  Nevertheless, he eventually succumbed to the pressure of the crowd and Jewish leaders, sentencing Jesus to be crucified.  Still, he insisted, I am innocent of this man’s blood” (Mt. 27:24) while washing his hands in front of the crowd.

So what became of the duplicitous Pilate?  Apparently he met the same fate as Judas—suicide.  Eusebius explains that, Pilate “was involved in such calamities that he was forced to become his own executioner and to punish himself with his own hand.” (Ecclesiastical History, 2.7)

Herod the Great, Judas Iscariot, and Pontius Pilate—three (would-be or actual) Jesus killers.  It is a macabre coincidence—whether or not mere coincidence—that each died the way he did.  Herod attempted to kill Jesus but failed, though his attempt brought much misery.  Likewise, he attempted to kill himself but failed, and his failure extended his own extreme misery.  Iscariot and Pilate, on the other hand, both succeeded in putting Jesus to death.  Likewise, they both also succeeded in putting themselves to death.

Talk about poetic justice.  To condemn the Source of Life is to condemn one’s own life.  To attack God is to attack oneself at the most foundational level.

The Best and Worst of 2015

It’s been another exciting year, and we want to thank you all for reading and, if applicable, posting comments on our blog. Once again, we would like to close out the year with some summary remarks about good and bad stuff related to film, music, books, sports, food, and family.

Best Film Experiences:

Jim: This was a big year in film, and I was fortunate to catch a lot of good ones, both at the theater and on DVD. A highlight in the latter category was watching Richard Linklater’s amazing Boyhood twice in as many days. All of the superlatives critics have laid on this one—“masterpiece,” “extraordinary,” “historic cinematic achievement”—are accurate. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. Another highlight was the new Star Wars film. With The Force Awakens, J. J. Abrams has saved the Star Wars legacy. He managed to achieve the same organic feel, character-centric storytelling, and campy wit as the originals, all while advancing a narrative that will hopefully keep us captivated for years, if not decades, to come. I also enjoyed Inside Out, which deserves accolades for its unique premise as well as its fine execution. Another major highlight was M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, which proved that, after a few stinkers, he can still make a great thriller.

Amy: It feels strange to say I am having a hard time remembering good movie experiences this year. While I loved The Visit as a film, the audience Bailey and I shared the theater with nearly ruined it for me. I wasn’t blown away by Star Wars. I mostly enjoyed things on the smaller screen. The Man in the High Castle for serious-minded alternate reality and Tommy and Tuppence for pure fun. There were some good PBS series this summer and I am holding my breath in hopes that Downton Abbey and Sherlock won’t disappoint this winter.

Jim’s Best Musical Experiences of the Year: The year started slowly but finished strong in terms of discoveries of good artists or new albums from artists I was already into. In the latter category, I finally got Manchester Orchestra’s Cope, which is even more addictive than their albums usually are for me, which is saying a lot. Also, after many recommendations from friends, I picked up an Arctic Monkeys album—Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.  I was not disappointed. And I’ve been getting into the new albums by Alabama Shakes (Sound and Color) and Twenty One Pilots (Blurryface), as well as several albums by Cage the Elephant, which is my most exciting musical discovery in years. A virtue that all of these bands have in common is that they (or, anyway, their main songwriters) have something significant to say. That’s refreshing in an era of predominantly mindless musical fluff.

Amy’s Best Food Experiences of the Year: This year most of my food experiences have been in my own kitchen, the remodeling of which was a major highlight. I have done some experimenting, catered a friend’s wedding and decompressed with some serious baking. We also hosted our first Thanksgiving meal at home and though my rolls were undercooked and I was not impressed with the addition of cinnamon to my usually yummy pecan pie, filling our table with beloved faces and laughter was quite satisfying.

Jim’s Favorite Sports Moments of the Year: I am sincerely hoping that my favorite sports moment of 2015 is yet to come.  This would be Michigan State defeating Alabama in the Citrus Bowl tonight, which is also the NCAA football playoff semi-final. We’ll see. Go Green, roll over the Tide! But if that doesn’t happen, then I would say that watching the Cubs make it all the way to the National League championship series—just a few wins shy of the World Series and thus breaking the “goat curse”—was the 2015 sports highlight for me.

Amy’s Favorite Sports Moments of the Year: Hopefully, Jim will forgive me for this one, but my favorite moment was randomly choosing to represent the Spartans while Jim cheered on the Wolverines in the Michigan intrastate rivalry game and then watching their unbelievable last second win. I felt slightly guilty cheering in his stunned face, but since he is rooting for MSU against Alabama, he must have gotten over it.

Jim’s Most Disappointing Sports Moments of the Year:  I’m not even going to comment on that tragicomic finish in the UM/MSU game… This NFL season has been chock full of disappointments, as none of my three favorite teams—the Colts, Lions, and Saints—will make it to the playoffs.  (Yes, three favorite teams—Amy calls me a promiscuous fan, but I own it proudly). And, regarding baseball, it was pretty deflating to see the Cubs bow out to the New York Mets in the NLCS. However, this made it all the sweeter to see the Kansas City Royals beat them in the World Series.

Amy’s Most Disappointing Sports Moment of the Year: Every year, I tell myself that a true Cubs fan knows they are cursed, has no hope, but cheers for them anyway. Still, hope will find a way to creep in and whisper sweet nothings in my ear only to give way to disappointment…again. This year hurt.

Good and Bad Reads of the Year:

Jim:  As usual, my reading this year was almost exclusively non-fiction, and primarily scholarly stuff, especially having to do with ethics and philosophy of religion. Robert Reilly’s Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior is Changing Everything (Ignatius, 2014) is one of the best books dealing with ethics, not just sexual issues, that I’ve read in years. Reilly takes a natural law approach to the issue, and the book is replete with bold observations and profound insights. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the LGBT issue, whatever one’s perspective might be. My most disappointing read of the year was Thomas Jay Oord’s The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (InterVarsity, 2015).  This book has been touted by some as a step forward for open theism. It is anything but that, as the author’s thesis (that God is essentially limited both in terms of knowledge and power) is problematic in itself. But he also commits glaring mistakes along the way in making his argument (if one can call it that). Steer clear of this one, folks.

Amy: So many good reads this year it’s hard to know where to start. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick Dewitt. The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. Ghost Boy by Martin Pistorius. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls. Most of the things that I read and didn’t like, I wasn’t really expecting to like in first place. Some disappointing mysteries and less than stellar fiction, but overall this has been a great year of reading for me. Check out my Good Reads page or Book Blurbs here on Wisdom and Folly to see more reviews.

Best 2015 Family Memories:

Amy: The kids and I had some good outings this year. Maggie, Andrew and I visited Dayton, Ohio and took in some Wright Brothers sites as well as Wright Patterson Air Force Museum. We also went to the Dunes in Michigan in the Fall and had a great day climbing in the sand and watching Penny bark at the waves. Teaching Bailey to drive has been memorable, to say the least. Having my niece Rachel living close by as a freshman at Taylor has been pure joy.

Jim: I had lots of good sports (baseball, soccer, and basketball) memories with the boys.  And it was fun to see Maggie become an obsessive Beatles fan. Growing to love our new family member—our standard poodle named Penelope Lane Spiegel (or “Penny Lane,” for short—get it?), whom we adopted a little over a year ago—would probably top the list for 2015. And hiking the Smokies with Amy, the kids and my in-laws was another family highlight.

Best Kids’ Quotes of the Year

As usual, most of the best quotes from our kids this year come from our poet-comedian-dreamer daughter, Maggie (11).  But Andrew (9) got off a few good ones as well:

  • Maggie: “If I were God, the world wouldn’t be nearly so complicated.”
  • Andrew: “Make-up is for people who can’t accept the truth about how they look.”
  • Maggie: “If animals could talk, the world would have a lot more good stories.”
  • Maggie: “This is my favorite hair on my entire head.”
  • Andrew: “Everything that has to do with tomatoes is bad.”
  • Maggie: “A poor man’s wisdom is a rich man’s folly…I’m not sure that that means, but it sound right.”
  • Maggie: “Punching someone in the face is on my bucket list. If I have to, I’ll punch the nurse at my death bed.”

New Year’s Resolutions:

Amy: Not to sweat the small stuff and to keep showing up every day. Maggie and I are embarking on a Bible reading plan this year. Getting through five months with Bailey a continent away (as he attends school in La Paz, Bolivia this Spring) feels like quite the hill to climb so I suppose learning to entrust my kids ever further into God’s plan for their future should be among my loftier goals.

Jim:  Last year my resolution was to read half as much as my wife did this year, which would have meant reading 25 books. I didn’t quite pull that off. Okay, I didn’t even come close. So next year, since it is 2016, I resolve to read at least 16% as many books as Amy. I think I can pull that off, then perhaps add a percentage point each year. By the time the goal becomes unrealistic again, I’ll be able to blame my failure on senility. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Happy 2016 everyone!

On Lying to Children about Santa Claus

Have you seen this story about a ten-year-old girl, Belle Adams, whose belief in Santa Claus was dashed by her mother?  My wife texted me little Belle’s letter with the comment that the story “confirms one of our parenting decisions.”  That decision, which we made early on (when our oldest son, Bailey, was a toddler), was that we would not lie to our kids about Santa Claus but rather tell them the story while also informing them that it is a popular Western myth.  And to reinforce the fictional nature of it all, I would sometimes throw in extra narrative flourishes, such as that: 1) Santa is a chain-smoker and 2) Santa cheats at golf.  (These additions were not themselves lies, of course, since we were admittedly dealing in the realm of fiction.  When trafficking in cockamamie myths, why not augment along the way?)

Seriously, though, our reservations about participating in the Santa deception (despite the fact that some good friends of ours have done this) boiled down to a few fundamental concerns.  First, it constitutes a lie to one’s kids.  From the start, Amy and I have been committed to being truthful and as trustworthy as possible with our kids, whether regarding ole St. Nicholas or the weightier issues of life.  Being a systematic lie, the Santa deception certainly defies commitment to truthfulness and, when that lie is exposed, parents’ trustworthiness is necessarily undermined.  Little Belle Adams’ furious letter to her parents demonstrates just how serious the impact of this can be.  We might be tempted to think, “Oh, that’s just an immediate reaction; she’ll get over it.”  But, as the testimony of several adults I know confirms, in some cases the recovery is not so swift, and anyway a child’s “getting over it” emotionally is no guarantee that her trust in her parents is not damaged to some degree.  And that is a serious thing, no matter how much fun and silliness might be involved in perpetuating the deception.

Secondly, the Santa deception could set a child up for religious skepticism.  Consider the mythical attributes of the portly fictional elf.  He is omnipotent (as implied by the notion that he can travel at the speed of light and flawlessly deliver billions of presents to children worldwide in just a few hours); he is omniscient (“he knows when you are sleeping; he knows when you’re awake”); and he is omnibenevolent (he’s a moral judge, distinguishing the “naughty” and “nice” —“he knows when you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!”).  Notice that these are all essentially divine attributes.  So when a child is eventually shown that her “faith” in Santa was misplaced, an unfortunate precedent is set: when it comes to testimonies about a wondrously wise, powerful, and loving being, don’t believe it, even if the reports come from the authorities in your life that you trust most—your own parents.  Such stories are just too good to be true, a set-up for disappointment.  As they say, fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.

I’m not saying that participating in the Santa deception will necessarily turn your kids into agnostics or even incline them at all in the direction of religious skepticism.  But, again, I’ve had adults tell me that their enlightenment about the Santa story did prompt them to consciously entertain doubts about God for just this reason.  And this, too, is a serious thing, however much fun parents and their children might have along the way.

But perhaps, after all, I am the one who is taking Santa Claus too seriously!  I mean, come on—it’s just a fun story that adds to the magic of the Christmas holiday, right?  To that I say:  Is the real Christmas story not magical enough?  Who needs a goofy cultural myth to add to the joy and wonder of the Lord of the universe taking on human flesh?  What good is a remote bearded elf in a funny suit visiting us once yearly when we have an omnipresent Lord who attends to our every prayer?  Who needs an imperfect judge to dole out toys or lumps of coal, depending on one’s degree of goodness, when the real Judge of the world is also the way of atonement, the one who suffered, died, and rose again on our behalf?  In short, why pollute the greatest story ever told with the most kitschy tale ever told?  So, in the final analysis, perhaps the best reason to scuttle the whole Santa story (at least as anything more than a cultural myth) is an aesthetic one:  to emphasize St. Nick over the baby Jesus is to exchange a profoundly beautiful narrative for an insipid one.  Santa Claus might not be a chain-smoker or cheater at golf, but he’s an incomparably less interesting character than the Christ child.

Book Blurbs

The Martian by Andy Weir: When I saw the preview for the Matt Damon movie based on this book, my thought was, “Bet that is a great story that will be turned into a mediocre movie.” While I can’t give an opinion on the film, I loved the book. If science fiction and action adventure had an alien baby with a good sense of humor and a bit of a potty mouth, it would be The Martian. Enough science to keep 9780804139021this chemistry dummy on my toes and with enough drama to keep me turning the pages as fast as I could read them. If you haven’t seen a preview of the movie or heard of the book, the plot is simple. Mark Watney is separated from the rest of his crew during a mission to Mars. Believing Watney dead, the crew begins their journey home only to discover that he is, in fact, alive. My favorite aspect of the book, besides the fact that the main character is a Chicago Cubs fan, is Watney’s perspective on the obstacles standing in the way of his safe arrival back to earth. While author Andy Weir infuses Watney’s quest to survive with breathless suspense, he never tips the scale in favor of melodrama. The book reads more like a guide on alien planet survival, calmly presenting one’s options when trapped in outer space. A huge thumbs up.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt: Finally! A contemporary author, other than J.K. Rowling, whose book releases I will now mark on my calendar. I tracked this book down after hearing the author being interviewed on public radio and when I finished, I promised myself to be kinder to NPR regarding its antidotal news coverage. Wow. If Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson got together and wrote a book and then Alfred Hitchcock edited out most of the stylized violence, language and sex, the book would be something like this. Well-developed and gripping characters inhabiting an engulfingly reality of showdowns and amazing discoveries. I don’t even want to summarize it for you for fear of robbing you of the joy of discovering the plot and characters yourself. Just go out and read it. Now.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough: How does he do it? David McCullough has the gift of taking monumental figures and moments in history, fleshing them out and making them feel like the neighbors next door, all without losing site of the big picture. I the-wright-brothers-9781476728742_hrliterally could not stop recommending this book to people. The Wright brothers are the kind of men you wish we had more of these days. Clever, hard-working, loyal and principled. I took some of the kids to Dayton on fall break to visit their cycle shop and museum. Thanks to McCullough, as we walked around Huffman Prairie, where they practiced with and perfected their flying machine, I felt like I had been there before. The man makes history come to life in the best possible fashion.

Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear: For me, mystery novels are like comfort food, I try not to overdo it, but indulge in them as often as I can. This series is a bit of an enigma. In an attempt to help Maisie Dobbs stand out in a crowded sea of detectives, the author has muddied the waters a little too much for my taste. The main character is part detective, part psychologist, part clairvoyant, and sometimes you can’t tell if you are reading a mystery novel, a study in psychology, or supernatural historical fiction. Having said that, I keep reading them so there must be some merit there after all. Like Grandma’s cheesy potato casserole, too good to turn down, but after a while you just have to say enough’s enough.

Finding Mom by Stephen Messer: One of my book club’s selections this year, this book was written by a Taylor University history professor who graciously led our group discussion. When he was only six years old, Messer’s mother committed suicide and after 50 years of silence, he set out on a journey to discover more about her life, family and struggle with depression. Finding Mom is a quick read which helps you see the tragedy of suicide from all sides. An inspirational story of healing that kindled a desire for many of us in the group to discover our parents outside of their role as mom or dad and more as people in their own right.

The Mighty and the Almighty by Madeleine Albright: I have to confess the pickings were slim in the audiobook section when I chose this book. I also have to confess I only had a vague recollection of who exactly Madeleine Albright was before I started. The topic, the role of religion has played in foreign affairs past and present, as well as Albright’s opinion of what role it should play in the future, is an interesting one. It was made more interesting to me coming from the other side of the political aisle. There were your predictable jabs at the right and not surprisingly all the examples of good diplomacy came from the left, but I appreciated Albright’s desire to present a fair and balanced case for religion in the public square. Nothing earth shattering and somewhat outdated given the current state of the affairs in the Middle East, but it was a good exercise in walking a mile in someone else’s political viewpoint.

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedmen: This book deals with a classic case of good people making a very bad choice. An interesting story centering on the isolated yet beautiful life of a lighthouse keeper and his wife off the coast of Australia. It will probably come more to life when I get a chance to discuss it with the person who recommended it to me. A few unconvincing characters and turn of events, but I would read it again.

The Night of One Hundred Thieves by Devon Trevarrow Flaherty: This book is by a friend whom I both love and respect, as a person and a writer, so I have no excuse for having taken this long to getting around to reading it. When I saw Devon recently after several years, I thought, “I love everything she has to say! Why on earth have I not read her book?” The genre, medieval fantasy (is that really a genre or did I just make that up), is not really my cup of tea so it should speak to the book’s quality that I read it. A bit Chaucer meets Tolkien. Devon has created a world that feels real with a character who feels the same. Looking forward to making up for lost time and reading her other novel, Benevolent.

2015 Ethics Bowl Regional Champs

This past Saturday, November 21, the Taylor University Ethics Bowl team won the Central States regional championship for the 5th time in the history of the program.

Photo by Jim Garringer
Photo by Jim Garringer

Twenty-six teams from fifteen colleges and universities participated in this year’s Central States regional competition, which once again was held at Marian University in Indianapolis. The other schools involved were Belmont University, DePauw University, Illinois Wesleyan University (two teams), Indiana University (two teams), IUPUI-Fort Wayne, Marian University, Millikin University (three teams), Mount St. Joseph University (two teams), Northern Kentucky University, Ohio Northern University, Slippery Rock University, St. Mary of the Woods College, University of Arkansas (two teams), University of Southern Indiana, Xavier University, and Youngstown State University.

As usual Taylor entered two teams, and the rosters were as follows:

Team I:

  • Veronica Toth (Senior, English Writing)
  • Blair Hedges (Junior, Political Science)
  • Jackson Wilcox (Sophomore, Accounting)
  • Sarah Manko (Freshman, Exercise Science)
  • Caleb Holleman (Freshman, Math and Philosophy)
  • Loyal Juraschek (Sophomore, Philosophy)

Team II:

  • Kasey Leander (Senior, History and Political Science, Philosophy, & Economics)
  • Sam Moore (Junior, Philosophy and Biblical Studies)
  • Gabriel Harder (Freshman, Philosophy)
  • Chin Ai Oh (Sophomore, Political Science, Philosophy, & Economics)
  • Bo Thomas (Freshman, History and Philosophy)
  • Gloria Talbot (Sophomore, International Business Systems)

The top finishing teams qualify for the national tournament. At the competition each team competes against three other teams, and our teams had a combined record of six wins and no losses:

  • TU team #1 defeated Marian University (149-131), DePauw University (158-149), and Indiana University II (163-141)
  • TU team #2 defeated Univ. of Arkansas II (160-136), Ohio Northern Univ. (158-136), and Mt. St. Joseph Univ. I (149-139)

Taylor now has a combined 18-match winning streak, dating back to nationals earlier this year and regionals last year.

As is typical of Ethics Bowl competitions, very timely issues were debated in the various matches. These included the following:

  • Do religious freedom laws (protecting, say, a baker’s right not to make a cake for a same-sex wedding) properly balance constitutional rights?
  • Is the “Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights” (providing that law officers can’t be forced to make a statement within ten days of an incident) morally justifiable?
  • Does the American Freedom Defense Initiative (which ran the “Muhammad cartoon contest”) practice appropriate free speech or unacceptable intolerance?
  • Is the composting of human corpses, as advocated by the Urban Death Project (for environmental reasons) an acceptable way of disposing of the dead?
  • Is the Indian Child Welfare Act (mandating that social services place displaced Native American children with tribal relatives) morally appropriate?

These were just five of fifteen cases that all of the teams had to prepare to address. Other cases pertained to issues as wide ranging as the ethics of physicians’ prescribing hard narcotics to their patients, sexism in video games, a New Zealand species conservation case, special taxes on parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, the ethics of human egg freezing to delay motherhood, and the ethics of forcing parents to have their young teenager undergo chemotherapy. You can find a complete list of cases as well the competition rules and guidelines here.

In the regional competitions (unlike nationals) wins and losses do not impact teams’ overall scores. Rankings are determined entirely by scores awarded by judges. The top five at the conclusion of the day were as follows:

  1. Taylor University I
  2. St. Mary of the Woods College
  3. Illinois Wesleyan University I
  4. Indiana University I
  5. Taylor University II

The national Ethics Bowl competition is scheduled for February 21, 2016 and will be held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Reston, Virginia (near Washington, DC).  A total of 36 teams will participate, and Taylor will be striving to defend its national title.

Thoughts on Divine Wrath–Part 3

Another distinction regarding forms of divine wrath is that between what may be called natural and special wrath. By “special” divine wrath I mean any case where the wrathful event is somehow extraordinary, unique, or out of step with the usual course of nature or human events, though not necessarily a violation of the laws of nature. Thus, the cases of the worldwide flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Egyptian plagues, Elisha and the bears, and the sudden deaths of Ananias and Sapphira would all qualify as special divine wrath. These are all strikingly special events in that there was nothing routine or predictable about them. Each occurred, as it were, “out of the blue” and, thus, was more easily identified as being divinely orchestrated.

In contrast, what I am calling “natural” wrath does concern events that are in some way ordinary, routine, and predictable, because their natural causes are—at least at this point in scientific history—easily traced and analyzed. However, they may have just as much of a corrective and deterrent effect on those involved as cases of special wrath. They are the sorts of cases to which the biblical proverb applies which says, “there is a way that appears to be right but in the end it leads to death” (Pr. 14:12 and Pr. 16:25) and to which the apostle Paul refers when he declares, “a man reaps what he sows” (Gal. 6:7; see also 2 Cor. 9:6-7). The basic idea is that if you engage in particular kinds of bad behaviors then certain negative consequences will follow. In addition to these general biblical statements we find specific illustrations in Scripture, such as where the deadly effects of adultery are guaranteed in this passage: “For a prostitute can be had for a loaf of bread, but another man’s wife preys on your very life.  Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned? Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched?” (Pr. 6:26-28).

This is what we might think of as a divinely ordained moral law of reciprocity, in the sense that certain forms of conduct bring very unpleasant consequences. Some extra-biblical examples might include the negative effects—physical, psychological, and relational—of alcohol abuse and the tendency of sexual promiscuity to result in venereal disease or other STDs as well as emotional and relational distress.

This distinction between natural and special wrath is potentially controversial. This is because, depending upon one’s view of divine providence, one will be more or less inclined to accept the natural moral law of reciprocity as featuring enough specific divine intent for the pain and suffering that follows from bad behaviors to properly qualify as divine wrath. (For more on the providence debate, see my book The Benefits of Providence.) Those who hold a “high” view of providence which affirms God’s meticulous governance of all things will no doubt be more amenable to this distinction.

Thoughts on Divine Wrath (part 2): Direct and Indirect Wrath

In my first post about divine wrath (Sept. 11, 2015) I suggested that God’s chastisement of people, though painful and often even involving death, always serves a redemptive purpose, such as rebuke, discipline, and purification. Such ends are valuable for prodding people to greater virtue. And since to love is to be interested in a person’s growth in virtue, it makes sense to say that divine wrath is consistent with perfect love.

Now there are some distinctions to be made that are potentially helpful in analyzing and categorizing particular instances of chastisement.  Thus, we may distinguish between direct and indirect wrath. By “direct” divine wrath I mean those cases where God immediately causes death or suffering, whereas in cases of “indirect” wrath God uses some other agency, whether human, animal, or angelic. Biblical examples of each of these categories are plentiful. Beginning with instances of indirect wrath, we find plenty of wrathful deployments of human beings, such as God’s use of the Israelite army to bring “vengeance” on the Midianites in Numbers 31. Similar instances are to be found throughout the Old Testament and God explicitly declares as much in such passages as Isaiah 10:5 (“Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath!”) and Ezekiel 25:14 (“’I will take vengeance on Edom by the hand of my people Israel, and they will deal with Edom in accordance with my anger and my wrath; they will know my vengeance,’ declares the Sovereign LORD.”)

As for divine use of animals to execute wrath, here is one memorable example:

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. (2 Kings 2:23-24)

Another case is where the Lord struck the Israelites with venomous snakes in response to their grumbling and complaining during their desert wanderings (see Numbers 21:6).

And as for third category of indirect wrath, where God uses angelic beings to execute his wrath, biblical instances include Exodus 33:2 where God  promises to “send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites” and 2 Sam. 24:15-17, where the angel of the Lord strikes the Israelites.

Possibly the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is an instance of divine deputizing of angels, as regarding the city of Sodom the angels declared to Lot, “we are going to destroy this place” (Gen. 19:13). There are also references to God’s use of a “destroying angel” to execute judgment in such passages as 1 Chron. 21:15, Ps. 78:49, and 1 Cor. 10:10.

As for cases of direct divine wrath, apparent examples include the worldwide flood (Gen. 6-9), the Egyptian plagues (Exod. 7-12), the plague on Israel because of their golden calf idol (Exod. 32:35), and the case of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). I say guardedly that these are “apparent” cases of direct divine wrath because it is possible that God deployed some deputy agency as well to bring these chastisements, though the texts do not inform us of this. This possibility seems evident in the fact that many of the aforementioned cases of indirect wrath are referred to elsewhere in Scripture (and among extra-biblical writers) simply as cases of divine chastisement without any mention of the secondary finite agencies involved. If it makes sense to refer to these cases in such terms, then it is conceivable that all divine wrath is similarly executed through secondary causes.

The ELT Statement and Responsible Animal Care–Part 2

Most Christians who would push back on the position expressed in the Every Living Thing statement would resist the idea that animals have real moral standing and that, therefore, we have no real duties toward them. The ELT statement provides good biblical grounds for affirming such duties. I would echo this reasoning and expand upon it in light of two further considerations:

  1. Divine Ownership – We have a duty to respect God in all that we do. God owns everything, so disrespect towards any aspect of nature is disrespect towards God.  Cruel treatment of animals is disrespectful towards them, so we have a duty to treat them humanely. See Psalm 24:1 and Psalm 50:10-11.
  2. The Hierarchy of Being Beings differ in terms of their various perfections and may be hierarchically arranged accordingly. The propriety of our treatment of any being may be assessed according to its place in the hierarchy. Given the sentience and consciousness of animals (and their relatively high place on the hierarchy of being), they should not be treated cruelly.

The upshot is that humans have a two-fold moral duty toward animals, specifically to care for them in a way that is respectful of their divine owner and to do so in a way that is appropriate to their nature as conscious beings with needs and the capacity to suffer.

This has some important practical implications. Generally speaking, we ought to treat animals humanely. Accordingly, we should reconsider our support, directly or indirectly, of:

  1. Factory farms — Animals in huge factory farms are commonly slaughtered carelessly and cruelly.
  2. Circuses – Animals are frequently trained through torturous mistreatment (e.g., Ringling Bros. elephant training).
  3. Trapping Traps used to catch animals for their furs are often very cruel.
  4. Animal research – Animals are often tortured for the sake of questionable research (such as for cosmetics products).

The videos to which I’ve provided links above are hard to watch, but such is necessary to raise awareness about how animals are treated in our society. Hopefully, these will provide further motivation to take seriously our responsibilities regarding animals, even to the point of making significant lifestyle changes.

The “Every Living Thing” Statement on Responsible Animal Care

What duties, if any, do we have toward animals? A new statement on responsible animal care addresses this question in a balanced and biblically informed way. It is being called an “evangelical statement” and appears to be the first such formal document of its kind.  You can read and, if you wish, sign the statement here. (Note that clicking on the “sign the statement” button does not commit you to signing it but merely takes you to the page where you can read the statement and have the option to sign it.)

I signed and strongly endorse the statement because I think it achieves a proper moral-theological balance when it comes to animal welfare. There are two extreme positions regarding this issue. There is the No Moral Status view, which says that animals deserve no moral consideration, and humans have no duties regarding them, except as impacts other humans. Modern philosophers such as Descartes and Kant took such a view, still popular today, which encourages us to see animals as natural resources like any other aspect of nature. On the other hand, there is the Strong Animal Rights position, which affirms that animals and humans have the same inherent value and deserve equal moral consideration. Contemporary moral philosophers such as Peter Singer and Tom Regan take such a view, which is championed by activist animal rights groups like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Advocates of this approach maintain that all use of animal products for food, clothing, experimentation, or entertainment is immoral.

Somewhere between these extremes is a moderate position which affirms that animals have significant moral status, but not the same status as human beings. Accordingly, we have a duty to treat animals humanely. We ought not to treat them cruelly.  And by “cruel treatment” I mean the causing of severe and unnecessary suffering. On this view, it is morally appropriate to use animals for food, clothing, experimentation, and entertainment, but only if the animals are not treated cruelly in such contexts. The Every Living Thing statement on responsible animal care effectively achieves such a balance.