The Theological Significance of Carpentry

I get a spiritual high out of doing home construction and renovation. I know that sounds strange, but its true. Building and repairing things actually makes me feel closer to God. For many years, I didn’t know why carpentry had this effect on me, but I’ve finally figured out why.

It started about twenty years ago when I built my first book case. Then came another and then another. Eventually, Amy asked me to build an entertainment center, and from there my projects expanded to, among other things, tables…

 

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stairs…

 

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beds…

 

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and a buffet…

 

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Alongside my furniture construction there grew an increasing interest and competence in home repair, from basic plumbing and electrical to roofing, drywall, and flooring, especially tiling. My latest renovation project, which I completed just this week, was on our downstairs bathroom in our “new” house (built in 1920) in Upland. Here is the progression of the project…

 

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Of course, these projects are satisfying, if only because they are practical and make a home look better. But I believe the joy I experience in doing (and finishing) this work derives from aspects of carpentry which trace back to the imago Dei in human beings:

  1. Carpentry is creative—As is clear from the first chapters of Genesis and, well, the entire world around us, God is a fundamentally creative. That we humans are divine image-bearers explains why we are also irrepressibly creative. Carpentry is an especially significant mode of creativity, because it features both practical and aesthetic goods. The products, if done right, are both functional and beautiful. That’s an accurate description of the divine artwork that is the physical universe, and to the extent that we engage in creative construction, we mirror this divine creative activity.
  1. Carpentry is redemptive—When you live in old houses, as we have for the last fifteen years, there is always plenty of repair and renovation to do. To repair and improve is essentially redemptive and thus Gospel-like, a fulfillment of the biblical mandate to address the consequences of sin. Construction repair work is the “healing” dimension of carpentry.
  1. Carpentry is a whole-person activity—Carpentry involves not just one skill but numerous particular skills which require competencies with a variety of tools as well as design and measurement tasks. It is physically and intellectually demanding, and it also requires significant value judgments pertaining to everything from finances to aesthetics and even ethics. If being a servant in the Kingdom of God requires challenging and developing as much of yourself as possible, then carpentry is the ideal discipline for such training.

I would add that as a teacher and scholar I also find a special satisfaction in carpentry because the result of one’s construction toils are tangible and, at least potentially, indisputably excellent. Even the most well-constructed lecture, argument, journal article, or book can be disputed or casually dismissed. But there is no (reasonable) disputing or dismissing a superbly constructed table, bed, buffet, or bathroom. Here, again, there is a parallel in divine creation and redemption. God does not offer us mere arguments that he is powerful, wise, innovative, and gracious. Rather, he demonstrates this in his creative and wise construction of the universe as well as his innovative and gracious ministry of redemption on earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And, speaking of him, I wonder if it is just a coincidence that Jesus’ vocation for most of his adult life was apparently that of a carpenter or craftsman of some sort (cf. Mark 6:3). Hmm….


Pod Shots

I have a lot of sitting-at-loose-ends time in my life. Time between one activity or commitment and another; time spent twiddling my thumbs in a doctor’s office and driving hither and yon. Being the task-oriented person that I am, I dislike feeling this time is being wasted. I have become an expert cultivator of zombie killing plants, but one of my New Year’s resolutions was to try to put this time to better use. So I took to Facebook and asked for some podcast recommendations. Below I have reviewed a few of them for your listening pleasure.

This American Life: Given that, according to its website, This American Life airs on more than 500 stations to about 2.2 million listeners and is “often the most popular podcast in the country,” it probably doesn’t need much of an introduction. But in case you have been living in Wi-Fi-less cave for the last ten years or so, here is the basic concept behind TAL: “There’s a theme to each episode…and a variety of stories on that theme. Most logo-v5of the stories are journalism, with an occasional comedy routine or essay.” Pretty sure this was the first podcast I ever listened to. It is my Saturday morning, headphones-in-walking-through-the-grocery-store listening fare. I have made a fool of myself mid-aisle laughing to the point of snorts and awkwardly holding in sobs as well as boring my family and anyone who will sit still to listen to me recap the various episodes. A must-listen to for anyone.

The Phil Vischer Podcast: Being a huge Larry and Bob fan, I was predisposed in favor of Phil Vischer’s podcast, but sadly what works in the produce aisle isn’t nearly as successful without the funny voices and catchy songs. With so many recommendations to get through, I confess that I only listened to this podcast once. It lacked focus and the hosts, Vischer, Christian Taylor and Skye Jethani, seemed more concerned with having a conversation with one another than they did with engaging the audience. I only have so much time and frankly this podcast didn’t seem to respect that fact. Get to the meat and cut out some of the chit chat. The topics covered do seem very interesting though, so maybe I will give it another chance…after I run out of new episodes of This American Life to listen to.

Pass the Mic: Pass The Mic is the premier podcast of the Reformed African American Network which includes “discussions and high profile interviews addressing the core concerns of African Americans biblically.” Hosted by Jemar Tisby and Tyler Burns, this podcast was out of my comfort zone which can be, well, uncomfortable. I don’t like the current trend to constantly segregate people to categories, by race, gender, economic class, political affiliation, etc., but then my race hasn’t defined me in the same way it has defined others so it’s easy for me to say “Can’t we just all be people rather than black people or white people; female people or male people?” I intend to keep this one on my subscribe list. I may have some one-sided arguments with it every now and then, but hopefully listening to the perspective of others will keep me from seeing the world from too narrow a vantage point.

Sheologians: I have really enjoyed this podcast despite the cheesy affirmations and giggles of the hosts, Summer White and her co-host Joy (I worked for about 45 minutes to find her last name and finally gave up.) Their tagline is “Theology for women, no doilies allowed,” and that is a pretty good summary of the show. Jane sheolgians-transparent-logo-smallAusten references abound amidst discussions of a variety of cultural topics including feminism, atheism, and Hollywood’s portrayal of love and atheism. It’s one I am especially looking forward to listening to with our daughter. Love the idea of her hearing strong and well-reasoned women unapologetically expressing their views on important issues. The overall whimsical tone of the podcast balances the seriousness with which they approach the issues discussed and makes it clear that while Summer and Joy don’t take themselves too seriously, they are on a mission to inform and challenge.

The Briefing:  Hosted by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Seminary and Boyce College, The Briefing is a “daily worldview analysis about the leading news headlines and cultural conversations.” The Briefing is like a shorter version of All Things Considered for conservative evangelicals. I like seeing current events through Mohler’s lens and particularly appreciate his thoughtful and rational analysis. Wouldn’t use this as my only news source, but makes for a quick and informative listen.


WANTED: Gay Affirming Christian Scholar from Before 1950

I am currently researching and writing a chapter for an upcoming book on sexual ethics, to be entitled Venus and Virtue (edited by Jerry Walls, Jeremy Neill, and David Baggett and published by Wipf and Stock). The aim of the book is, in the editors’ words, to “recover Christian wisdom about sexuality by exploring again the biblical and theological foundations that teach us how to celebrate sex while seeking sanctification.”

My own chapter, entitled “The Sexual Pluralist Revolution: Reasons to be Skeptical,” will discuss the dramatic shift of perspective that has occurred in the West within the last generation regarding sexual morality—a shift away from the traditional Judeo-Christian ethic of sex as appropriate only within heterosexual marriage and in the direction of affirming any sexual relationship so long as it takes place between consenting adults. I dub this view “sexual pluralism.” I think there are several reasons to be skeptical of sexual pluralism, not the least of which is the fact that there appear to be no gay-affirming Christian scholars (theologians, philosophers, ethicists, etc.) in history until the latter part of the twentieth century. So with this post I am beckoning our readers to help me out here. Can anyone give me a plausible example of such a scholar?

This matter of historical precedent is quite germane to the question of a Christian’s skepticism about sexual pluralism, and here’s why. As Christians we should take seriously the wealth of moral and theological wisdom that has preceded us historically, and where there is strong consensus among our best thinkers about an issue, as there is on the sexual conduct question, then that forms a strong presumption in favor of the prevailing view. Now since sexual pluralism constitutes a rejection of the Christian consensus about sexual ethics, then, to say the least, we ought to be rather skeptical of this view. In fact, it seems to me, to dismiss the strong consensus of all of the greatest Christian minds who have written on the subject down through history is actually quite arrogant or else historically myopic (or perhaps, to a degree, both).

Now it is very clear that there is, as I have said, a strong historical consensus among Christian scholars on sexual ethics until the last few decades. (This point is strongly confirmed in Fortson and Grams’ new book Unchanging Witness.) But what I want to know is whether there is actual unanimity—agreement without exception—among Christian scholars regarding the traditional sexual ethic until the mid-twentieth century. Not that my argument depends on such, of course. One would expect at least a few historical exceptions, given the many thousands of Christian scholars who have weighed in on the issue over nearly twenty millennia. Identifying a few outliers would not undermine the argument. But I am intrigued by the possibility that there are no such outliers and that there really was complete unanimity on the issue among Christian scholars until recently. So again, I beseech your help in identifying an example for me. This would then confirm that I should avoid use of the term “unanimous” in my chapter in describing the Christian scholarly consensus on the issue prior to the mid-twentieth century.

Now, a couple of caveats. First, it will not do to point to a given scholar in history who might appear to have engaged in same-sex practices or to cite historical innuendo in that direction. Not only is this potentially slanderous regarding the scholar in question but it misses the point of my argument, which regards the studied views of Christian scholars down through history, for it is this which carries some epistemic authority for Christians today.

Also, it won’t do to appeal to the dangers of being a sexual pluralist or gay affirming in past times, thus ostensibly explaining the silence of dissenting Christian scholars on the subject. This is because down through history thousands of Christians—scholars and lay people alike—have suffered severely for rejecting other doctrines, even those as relatively minor as particular views on communion and baptism, as well as the doctrine of salvation and creedal matters. (Here is one partial list.) So if some Christian scholars were gay affirming in such dangerous contexts, surely at least a few would have been willing to make this known despite the damaging consequences. Also, the threat of execution or even severe prosecution would not apply to all Christian contexts in all countries down through history. In some places and times, the ramifications for affirming sexual pluralism would be less severe, thus making the supposed “silence” of all sexual pluralist Christian scholars less plausible.


Berkeleyan Idealism and Christian Philosophy: My Overview in Philosophy Compass

Last year saw the publication of the two-volume Bloomsbury series on Idealism and Christianity, for which I was chief editor. My co-editors (Steve Cowan, Joshua Farris and Mark Hamilton) on the two volumes happily discovered that there is no shortage of Christian scholars today who espouse the idealist perspective, whichcoveraffirms that the physical world is entirely dependent on a conscious Mind (also known as “God”) or, otherwise put, consciousness is most real and the physical world is essentially divine ideas made public (i.e., perceivable by finite minds).

So far, our volumes have created just the sorts of conversations we intended to stimulate. In fact, one of our colleagues—Chad Meister, Philosophy professor at Bethel University—recently informed us that he has “converted” to Berkeleyan idealism. And many others are intrigued and attracted to idealism for a variety of reasons.

So these are exciting days for idealism (also known as “immaterialism”). So much so that I was commissioned to write an article for Philosophy Compass on idealism and Christian philosophy. Last week the article was published, and you can access it here. As I note in the abstract, my essay “provides an overview of some of the ways Christian philosophers have deployed immaterialism to solve problems and generate insights in metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, and philosophical theology.” Indeed, the explanatory power of idealism is formidable and is its most convincing feature. That is, at least in my judgment. Perhaps my article will be of some help to you as you look into it yourself.


An Open Letter to Two Dots

Dear Two Dots,

Let me begin by saying that I, as a mother of four busy kids, have very little “me” time. I do have lots of time to kill waiting in orthodontists’ offices and sitting in parking lots waiting to pick up my kids. Since discovering your game a few years back, many of those periods of waiting have been made a little less boring. I love the simplicity and aesthetic of your format and appreciate having my brain challenged a little each day with your clever puzzles.

Two Dots has been a little patch of sunshine in my day…until now. As a political conservative, I was shocked to open my game today and be greeted not by the usual cheery music and playful graphics of your game, but IMG_0580[1]rather by an obvious dig at our President and a plea for my support of the ACLU, a liberal organization which seeks to limit the religious expression of others rather than defend the freedoms of all. I didn’t vote for President Trump and share the concerns of many regarding his moral character, and certainly as a company, it is your right to support a group such as the ACLU if they align with your values and priorities. However, I don’t play Two Dots as a means of entering into political debate. I play it because it is fun.

Have we really reached the point where we have to politicize every aspect of our lives? Does it not concern you that by incorporating a political message and appeal for financial support into the very format of your app that you would be alienating many of your players? I don’t want political slogans included on my grocery or retail bags. I don’t want to get a lecture before being allowed to order at a restaurant. And I don’t want you asking me to donate to the ACLU before I can play your game.

I have deleted your app from my phone. It will be missed, but I guess that is a price I am willing to pay for my principles. I hope you are willing to pay a similar price for yours.

Disappointedly yours,

Amy Spiegel


Hoffman’s Conscious Realism

Recently I learned of this excellent article in a recent issue of the Atlantic. It is an interview with cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman, who endorses an idealist view of reality—the notion that all that exist are conscious minds and their thoughts. He dubs the view “conscious realism,” but that is just his own terminology for what any philosopher will immediately recognize as something akin to Berkeleyan idealism, the thesis that esse est percipi aut percipere (to be is to be perceived or to be a perceiver).

The author of piece, Amanda Gefter, prefaces the interview with a nice summation of how two different scientific fields are converging on the idealist conclusion:

Getting at questions about the nature of reality, and disentangling the observer from the observed, is an endeavor that straddles the boundaries of neuroscience and fundamental physics. On one side you’ll find researchers scratching their chins raw trying to understand how a three-pound lump of gray matter obeying nothing more than the ordinary laws of physics can give rise to first-person conscious experience . . ..

On the other side are quantum physicists, marveling at the strange fact that quantum systems don’t seem to be definite objects localized in space until we come along to observe them. Experiment after experiment has shown—defying common sense—that if we assume that the particles that make up ordinary objects have an objective, observer-independent existence, we get the wrong answers. The central lesson of quantum physics is clear: There are no public objects sitting out there in some preexisting space. As the physicist John Wheeler put it, “Useful as it is under ordinary circumstances to say that the world exists ‘out there’ independent of us, that view can no longer be upheld.”

So Gefter concludes, “while neuroscientists struggle to understand how there can be such a thing as a first-person reality, quantum physicists have to grapple with the mystery of how there can be anything but a first-person reality. In short, all roads lead back to the observer.”

Indeed, this is precisely Hoffman’s view, as he explains in the interview. “As a conscious realist,” he says, “I am postulating conscious experiences as ontological primitives, the most basic ingredients of the world.” But, of

from Psychology Today
from Psychology Today

course, he cannot stop there. For consciousness—first-person subjectivity, awareness, perception, etc.—is not so much a thing as an event or phenomenon that must be had by a thing. Awareness and other forms of thought cannot exist on their own (as Descartes rightly observed). There must be someone who is aware, a mental substrate that is the ontological ground of the conscious events. So it won’t do to stop at conscious experience as an “ontological primitive.” A personal who must lie behind the consciousness what.

Hoffman recognizes this, granting that “objective reality is just conscious agents.” Gefter worries that this emphasis on first-person subjectivity might be a threat to science. Hoffman rightly dismisses this worry, mainly because the best science points in this direction. Others might worry that as a scientist it is not Hoffman’s place to make inferences to such a metaphysical notion as personal agency. But it would be disingenuous to suggest that scientists can avoid making metaphysical claims and assumptions. The real question is when certain scientific discoveries warrant our making particular metaphysical inferences. In this case, it seems to me that such inferences are clearly warranted.


The Best and Worst of 2016

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.

Film Experiences:

Jim: It was such a busy year that I didn’t see as many films as I normally do. But I really liked Dr. Strange—an interesting interface between Western science and Eastern mystical concepts, though it would have been better with more character development and less explosive action and eye-dazzling CGI. I also enjoyed Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which so deftly weaved in connections to the main plotline of the Star Wars films. And Zootopia was a lot of fun—I still go back and watch that scene with the sloths at the DMV. Hilarious. But by far my favorite of the year was Hacksaw Ridge, which manages to wrestle with a serious moral dilemma, powerfully portray self-sacrificial love, and provide a compelling romantic love story.

Amy: I hate to be Debbie Downer, but when I went to consider movies I loved this year, I first thought of movies that disappointed rather than delighted. Kung Fu Panda 3 was a disastrous but memorable night out with the kids, which started with a soggy drive to the theater and ended with a misleading Yelp review of the local Chinese restaurant. Another big disappointment was Star Trek Beyond. I went to see this one by myself in the theater while Maggie and a friend saw Secret Life of Pets. Though I have loved the previous installments of the recent Star Trek series, I am pretty sure I would have enjoyed Secret Life more . . . if the girls would have allowed me to sit in the same theater as them. I saw Magnificent Seven with Bailey and friend who did let me sit with them, maybe because I bought the popcorn, and was thoroughly entertained. Hacksaw Ridge was probably the most powerful movie I saw this year, despite a few flawed and uneven performances, however my favorite experience this year was watching various Jane Austin and Elizabeth Gaskill adaptations (Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Wives and Daughters to a name a few) with Maggie and Andrew. It was like watching them all for the first time and I can’t wait to rediscover more of these beloved period pieces with them.

Jim’s Best Musical Experiences of the Year: My love for Cage the Elephant continued to grow with their latest album Tell Me I’m Pretty, produced by Black Keys front man Dan Auerbach. The band’s sound is less densely textured now, whether due to the departure of guitarist Lincoln Parish or Auerbach’s production. In any case, its still great CTE music. Manchester Orchestra’s Hope was another highlight for me. The album is a more mellow reworking of the songs on their Cope album from the previous year. It is a fascinating demonstration of how much difference musical arrangements and production makes. I also finally picked up the Raconteurs’ Consolers of the Lonely. Another superb record from the ever-expanding Jack White catalogue. I believe he is the greatest rock music talent of our time. The man is a bona fide quadruple threat (singer, songwriter, guitarist, and producer). Other artists I discovered this year—in some cases thanks to my oldest sons, who have become quite the music connoisseurs—include Cloud Cult, Portugal the Man, the Gorillaz, and the incredible Stromae. But the very best musical experience of the year was seeing Bob Dylan in concert in Indianapolis with my daughter Maggie, who is the only real Dylan fan among our kids. As we sat there at the show, she must have said to me at least ten times, “Dad, I can’t believe that’s really him.”

Amy’s Best Food Experiences of the Year: It is sad to say that the more confident I get in my own cooking, the less I enjoy eating out. In fact, one of my highlights food-wise this year would be catering a wedding with one of my favorite people. I love the process from start to finish, coming up with the menu, calculating portions and getting to spend hours and hours with a friend. What could be sweeter? Watching others, whether it is just my family or hundreds of strangers, enjoy food I made is a thrill. The other culinary highlight for me this year was eating with Jim and Bailey at Fogo de Chao, a Brazilian steakhouse in Indianapolis. The food was amazing, but the company was the best.

Jim’s Favorite Sports Moments of the Year: The Chicago Cubs are World Series champions! After suffering with that team for 33 years (and after the franchise itself had suffered a championship drought for 108 years) it has finally happened. What an absolute thrill to see it happen, with my son Andrew—the only truly dedicated sports fan among our kids. After the game 7 victory, we visited Samuel Morris Hall—one of the male residence halls at Taylor—and went from floor to floor high-fiving and chest bumping fellow Cubs fans until about 2:00 a.m. Later, Andrew told one of his friends, “I’m pretty sure some of those students thought my dad was drunk.” And so I was—drunk on the ecstasy of a world championship. The Cubs are champs! Another championship I should mention was that won by my son Andrew’s little league team, which I coached. Not quite at the same level as the Cubs championship, but still thrilling.

Amy’s Favorite Sports Moments of the Year: The Cubs are champs. Nuff said. A close second? Drafting Andrew’s little league team with a dear friend. As Jim mentioned, the team won the championship and I think we all know who to thank for it.

Jim’s Most Disappointing Sports Moments of the Year: With the Cubs winning the World Series, no sports disappointment can spoil my joy for long. But I must admit that watching the Ohio State Buckeyes defeat my Michigan Wolverines in overtime last month was pretty hard to take. And I confess that as I watched there were moments when my feelings for Ohio State bordered on . . . intense dislike. So I confess that I relished Clemson’s trouncing of the Buckeyes last night. Ah, misery loves company.

Amy’s Most Painful Sports Moment of the Year: Both involved our kids. One was literally painful. Nothing prepares you for that text or phone call telling you that your kid has been seriously injured on the field. So thankful nothing was permanently damaged though I am pretty sure I lost a few hours off my life due to elevated blood pressure. The other was a strange mixture of heartbreak and pride as one of the kids sacrificed his pride for the sake of his team. This experience showed me again that sports can play a significant role in the moral development of my kids, however hard it is to watch.

Good and Bad Reads of the Year:

Jim: I did a lot of reading of early church fathers over the summer, and it was really rich. Clement of Alexandria’s Paedagogus and Stromata are moral-theological treatises that are amazingly relevant today. Likewise, John Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences. I also read Athanasius’ Life of Antony, which is one of the most influential books in Christian history, deservedly so. Among contemporary works, my favorite of the year was Mike Mason’s The Mystery of Marriage, which has become something of a contemporary classic. Chock-full of honest and bracing observations about marriage, the book is also a stylistic masterpiece. Mason calls himself a “purveyor of fine sentences.” And so he is. The only negative reads of the year were a few philosophical articles and one book—Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, which was recommended to me by a colleague. I’m not into pop psychology, and Brown seems to epitomize that.

Amy: This year I didn’t read nearly as much as I wanted to but the upside was I loved just about every book I read. I couldn’t stop quoting The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller. I chuckled along as I read All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. Cried through Roots by Alex Haley, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs, and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I also read a few of the James Bond books, which are much better than the movies, as well as some Agatha Christie and Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling.

Best 2016 Family Memories:

Amy: The first half of this year, my nephew Josh lived with us which was a treat, especially given the fact that he and my sister’s family have been living overseas for more than a decade. He helped fill the void left by Bailey who was in Bolivia from January to May. Bailey’s first extended time away from home was a bittersweet experience for me. Missed him terribly, but so wonderful to watch him growing up and to see the Lord working in his life. It was humbling to see others influencing and caring for him while I could not. I am tearing up now at the memory of seeing his smiling face as he walked towards us at the airport. This spring and summer we managed a few family hikes during which the majority of the children refrained from cursing the concept of the great outdoors. This was a major victory. Table Rock State Park is a new favorite destination. Moving was a huge undertaking and while I am glad it is behind us, I will treasure memories of working along side Jim and the kids.

Jim: The best and at times more challenging family experience of the year was moving into our new (or, rather, old—built in 1920) house in Upland, Indiana. September was a zany month, but we pulled it off. I especially enjoyed the excursions I had with each of our kids this past year. In March I visited La Paz, Bolivia where Bailey attended Highlands International Academy for the semester. In July I went on a church mission trip to El Salvador with Sam. In August, I took Maggie to the Dylan concert and I took my Andrew to see the Cubs at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Did I mention that the Chicago Cubs are World Series champions? Yeah!!!

Best Kids’ Quotes of the Year

As usual, the best quotes from our kids this year come from our poet-comedian-dreamer daughter, Maggie (12) and our observant moral theologian Andrew (10):

  • Maggie: “If I were God the world wouldn’t be nearly so complicated.”
  • Andrew: “Everything that has to do with tomatoes is bad.”
  • Maggie: “In the future this will be the past, and I will be glad.”
  • Andrew: “You can’t turn back time but you don’t need to if you make the right decisions.”
  • Maggie: “There are two things I dislike about life: There is no background music and there are no musical montages.”

New Year’s Resolutions:

Amy: To be more prompt and not use my kids as an excuse for being late more often than I should be. To be a good neighbor and friend and not overthink or analyze my interactions with others. To be more intentional in my thoughts, not allowing them to wander . . . sorry, what was I saying?

Jim:  My primary goals this year are moral-spiritual: to be more meditative and disciplined in controlling my own thoughts. And, with regard to this blog, to do more posts that feature biblical reflections and practical theology. I also resolve to do more praying for our political leaders than complaining about them.

Happy 2017 everyone!


The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived

Today we celebrate the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, widely considered the greatest man who ever lived. His teachings are arguably the most profound, insightful and challenging the world has ever seen. He has inspired countless universities, hospitals, and ministries to the sick, poor, and oppressed. He has inspired the world’s greatest literature, art, and music, not to mention the greatest theological treatises and much of the greatest philosophy in history. He has also inspired countless followers to make extreme sacrifices, many even literally giving up their lives, in his service. So great is his influence on human history, in fact, that this itinerant teacher became the reference point for the world’s dating system. That’s remarkable stuff for a man who never held a political office, never led an army, never authored any books or even a single essay, nor did he even travel more than a few hundred miles from his hometown.

So how did he manage to so profoundly impact human history? For Christians, of course, the answer is that Jesus wasn’t just the greatest man who ever lived. He was something far more than this.

“Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy. To the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.” (Jude 1:24-25)


Anticipating a Trump Presidency

A little more than three weeks out from the presidential election, and the anti-Trump riots have subsided, at least for now. This might be the calm before the proverbial storm, if some predictions are correct. In any case, extreme negative responses on the left continue, as do exuberant responses on the right. Such strong reactions among Christians are especially dismaying—suggesting that there is an inordinate hope and trust in political power for human flourishing in this country. We need to heed Augustine’s important reminder that there is only one reasonable Kingdom hope, and that is in the Kingdom to come where Christ is king. Of course, this does not mean we should be apathetic or unengaged in civil matters and political work. But it does mean that we should not be distraught or desperate when those we vote or campaign for do not win elections.

Slate.com
Slate.com

In 2008 many felt a sense of doom when Obama was elected. They expressed the same sort of desperation and distress that some on the left have been experiencing lately (though I don’t recall any rioting as a consequence of this). Well, those eight years passed, and we’re all still here. Will we survive the next four years under a Trump administration? I think its safe to say that we will, that is unless the populous reacts in severe and destructive ways, which certainly seems possible if anti-Trump sentiments continue to grow.

Often in politics the response to a negative situation can be more dangerous than the negative situation itself—like an allergic reaction to a relatively minor health issue can prompt a serious, even fatal condition. As a nation, we need to avoid such a deadly “allergic” response to the Trump presidency. Many of these responses, by the way, seem to be aggravated by media exacerbation of Trump’s vices, which are numerous, for sure, but hardly out of step with those of past presidents—including the severe racism of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson and the womanizing of JFK and Bill Clinton. I didn’t vote for Trump and am disappointed that he is poised to be our next President (though I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton and think she would have been an even worse choice). But I do think we owe Trump a chance to govern and we should apply the principle of charity when it comes to interpreting many of his comments. Just as many conservatives gave Obama a fair chance and responded peacefully while critiquing his policy decisions along the way, liberals should likewise give the Trump administration a fair chance, and this includes responding peacefully even while offering well-reasoned and respectful critiques.


Swinburne, Homosexuality, and the Society of Christian Philosophers

This weekend I attended the Midwest meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers at Evangel University. The theme of the conference was “Christian Philosophy and Public Engagement.” The keynote speakers included Alexander Pruss (Baylor University), Leigh Vicens (Augustana University) and the eminent Richard Swinburne (Oxford University). Each of the keynoters gave thoughtful and stimulating presentations.

Unfortunately Swinburne’s talk sparked controversy, though it really shouldn’t have. In his presentation, entitled “Christian Moral Teaching on Sex, Family and Life” he addressed, among many other moral issues, homosexuality. img_2160  He noted that the inability of homosexual couples to procreate constitutes a “disability” and referred to those gays and lesbians who are unable to develop heterosexual desires as “incurable.” During the Q&A that followed, an attendee named J. Edward Hackett badgered Swinburne with a Foucauldian rebuke, insisting that Swinburne’s constituted “metaphysical violence.” Hackett never addressed his actual arguments but simply made this indignant accusation, to which Swinburne responded with admirable patience and grace.

The next day Hackett posted about it on the Philosophical Percolations blog. Hackett’s piece is a semi-coherent rant that misconstrues Swinburne’s actual remarks, though he is correct in noting that Swinburne believes—in agreement with Christian scholars throughout church history—that homosexual behavior is morally wrong. This was followed just hours later with disclaimers by both the SCP president Michael Rea and img_2162executive director Christina Van Dyke, distancing the SCP from Swinburne’s remarks. Rea’s statement, posted on his Facebook page, is as follows:

I want to express my regret regarding the hurt caused by the recent Midwest meeting of the Society for Christian Philosophers. The views expressed in Professor Swinburne’s keynote are not those of the SCP itself. Though our membership is broadly united by way of religious faith, the views of our members are otherwise diverse. As President of the SCP, I am committed to promoting the intellectual life of our philosophical community. Consequently (among other reasons), I am committed to the values of diversity and inclusion. As an organization, we have fallen short of those ideals before, and surely we will again.

Not surprisingly, this prompted a lengthy discussion with opinions expressing both support and criticism of Rea’s disclaimer. Personally, I side with those who are critical of Rea’s approach, and for several reasons.

First, while Rea would likely insist (as some supporting him do) that such a disclaimer does not necessarily constitute a rejection of Swinburne’s view, such seems to be implied. Disclaimers like this are only issued when an organization regards someone’s views as embarrassing or problematic and thus effectively amounts to a censure. For an academic society to do this to an invited speaker is really bad form, but it is especially inappropriate when the speaker is someone of the stature of Richard Swinburne, who is one of the top philosophers of religion in the world and whose work for the Society of Christian Philosophers for more than three decades has been immense. If I were Swinburne, I would feel humiliated by this. Talk about “hurt” that is worthy of “regret.”

Second, this disclaimer sets a dangerous precedent and chills the academic air for anyone in the SCP who holds the traditional view on the ethics of homosexuality. Will I be the next one to be called out by an SCP officer if I express the same view at a future conference? While surely not intended to censor the advocacy of the traditional view of Christian sexuality at SCP meetings, from a psychological standpoint Rea’s remarks could be tantamount to this. Some Christian scholars active in the SCP, especially those who are early in their careers, may be intimidated into silence about their traditional views on sexual ethics. This is hardly an atmosphere that is desirable for an academic community where the free and open sharing of ideas is crucial.

Third, it is disturbingly ironic that Rea’s disclaimer distances the SCP from what is an historic Christian conviction regarding the morality of homosexual behavior. Would he have posted a similar disclaimer if a keynote speaker had defended a permissivist view on homosexuality? I doubt it. But now that the traditional view is under fire in our culture, he deems it necessary to disclaim a speaker’s assertion of the view—a stance which, by the way, was not as strong as some assertions in biblical passages such as Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 (not to mention the language used in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13). One wonders if Rea would have posted a similar disclaimer if St. Paul himself delivered a keynote address at the SCP. After all, if the apostle simply read the relevant passages from his epistles, his remarks would be no less “hurtful” than Swinburne’s.

I don’t know where this controversy will lead or how this will impact the SCP. But one thing is certain: it is indicative of a dramatic and alarming shift regarding discussions of sexual ethics within the Christian academic community.