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.

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.

Kicking the Caffeine Habit

It was 2 a.m., and I awoke in a literal cold sweat. The room was warm, and I was layered in covers, but I felt freezing cold. My body ached as if wracked by the flu. But it wasn’t the flu. It was withdrawals. Not from heroin or some other hard narcotic. It was caffeine withdrawals, and this was the price of my finally kicking a two-decade long addiction. Well, at least part of the price. The next morning would bring a massive headache, which took several days to finally taper off. It wasn’t until day nine that the withdrawal symptoms fully abated and I felt that I was finally free.

220px-Koffein_-_Caffeine.svgMy love affair with caffeine began in the Spring of 1983, motivated by my second-semester Organic Chemistry class. (Thank you, Dr. Kelly.) At first, it was tea, but then I tried coffee and realized that I actually liked the flavor, unlike my father who had an innate distaste for the stuff. From there, I drank coffee periodically until the mid-90s when I slipped into a morning routine that featured coffee and cereal. Then came the Starbucks explosion of the late 90s and I was on-board for the ride, my standard choice being raspberry mocha. A few years later, the dirty chai became a favorite as well. Few things brought me more gustatory delight than these drinks.

So why quit? Why subtract from one’s life such a wonderful culinary aesthetic? It certainly wasn’t because I came to any conviction that caffeine consumption is morally wrong. In fact, now that the dust has settled and I know longer “need” my daily caffeine fix, I do drink the occasional Coke or decaf coffee or tea, which contains small amounts of caffeine. The problem was simply the fact that I was addicted, physiologically dependent on a chemical. The Bible says, “a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him” (2 Pet. 2:19). And caffeine had mastered me, as Amy had pointed out to me several times, usually when I suffered from headaches after going to long without my fix. And reading some classic spiritual works from the early church fathers (e.g., Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, John Cassian) this summer only reinforced the incentive to challenge my physical appetites. I began to fantasize about the idea of being free from the burden of supplying my body with caffeine every day. What would that be like?

So I decided to do it, beginning with a few days of decreasing my caffeine intake and then quitting altogether, which is what brought on the flu-like symptoms. Now that I’ve been addiction-free for over a month, it still feels strangely liberating. I do sometimes miss the morning ritual, which in recent years has featured tea rather than coffee. And I miss the full-bodied flavor of caffeinated coffee when I occasionally drink a decaf alternative. But it’s been worth it.

Why Tattoos Bug Me (and perhaps you)

For as long as I can remember, I have been annoyed by tattoos. Well, mainly the kind that are prominently displayed, especially on people’s torsos. And for as long as I’ve been bothered by them, I’ve wondered why they bug me. After all, people adorn their bodies in all sorts of other ways—with jewelry, piercings, make-up, etc.—and those things don’t usually annoy me. So why tattoos? My frustration at not knowing why they bother me so much has only been aggravated by the fact that, apparently, they bother many other people too. Yet, as I’ve discussed the matter with a lot of folks who feel the same way, they are almost always at a loss to explain their displeasure and usually throw it up to inexplicable personal distaste. Well, recently the reason for my distaste finally dawned on me, and so I will now share it with you, gentle reader.


We’ve all had the experience of encountering the elaborate dragon, butterfly, skull, jungle scene, abstract image or geometrical shape tatted on the back of that guy or gal in front of us at the grocery store, and we’ve been impressed by the exquisite detail or perhaps completely perplexed by what we were seeing. Then when s/he suddenly turned around, we looked away just in time before the person caught us gawking at her/him. Whew. But, then again, while staring at the tattoo, was it really her/him we were looking at?

Tattoos are typically intended to be artistic or, one might say, even genuine works of art. And works of art are supposed to be enjoyable objects of aesthetic pleasure. Art works also welcome study and analysis, and in the case of visual arts this means careful and extensive visual examination. However, the bodies of fellow human beings whom we do not know very well are not properly objects of intensive visual study. To stare at or closely examine another person’s body in public is, well, rude and inappropriate.

And there lies the problem with many tattoos, it seems to me. A prominent, eye-catching tattoo invites or tempts others, even complete strangers, to closely examine the person’s body—that is, to do something that is rude and inappropriate. And the stronger one’s visual aesthetic sensibility, it would seem the stronger that temptation will likely be. Now the tattoo fan will likely respond here by saying “too bad, just ignore it.” Well, of course, that’s just what I struggle to do every time I encounter someone in public who has a prominent tattoo. I restrain myself and look away—anywhere but at that person’s body. But in doing so, I must exert mental energy to avoid doing so. And, the more artistic and aesthetically interesting the tattoo, the more mental energy I must expend and the harder I must work to distract myself from looking at the image.

Now here’s an analogy. We all know—or should know, anyway—that it’s often rude to whistle tunes in public spaces. While the whistler might enjoy the melody s/he is making, it is unwelcome to others and a sonic distraction. Of course, the whistler might say, “too bad, just ignore it.” But that is to give oneself license to sonically impose on others for the sake of their own “art.” Yes, we can ignore it, but many times that’s difficult, and it requires an extra exertion of mental energy to do so. Which is why the whistling is rude and inconsiderate. Similarly, prominent tattoos are an imposition on others—a visual imposition that places a burden on others to exert a bit more mental energy to “ignore” it. And, similarly, it is rude and inconsiderate. But what’s worse in the case of tattoos, the imposition they place on others is also a temptation to do something inappropriate—gawk at a stranger’s body in public. So as annoying as the public whistler is, at least they don’t tempt me to do something inappropriate (assuming their whistling isn’t so bad that I’m tempted to slug them).

In sum, then, prominent tattoos are a rude imposition on others, as they invite people to see the human body as an object and in so doing tempt them to do something inappropriate. That’s why tattoos bug me. And perhaps that’s why they bug you, too.

Disabled to Serve

Recently, my younger kids have become obsessed with the game Five Nights at Freddy’s. I have gathered, through half-listening eavesdropping in the car and around the house, that the premise of this game is walking around a house, scaring yourself silly in that you-know-it’s-coming-but-can’t-keep-yourself-from-jumping-anyway kind of way. It’s described by Google as a “survival horror video game.” Gee, sounds like a barrel of laughs. Who wouldn’t want to play…other than me and most sane adults?

In looking for a silver-lining to this otherwise mind-wasting pastime, I guess there is a bit of life wisdom to be gained from a game designed to frighten you despite your being prepared. Sounds a lot like the reality of living in a fallen world. Learning to survive the unexpected. You know something bad is lurking just around the corner. Only question is when and in what form it will pop out and give you a fright.

Last month, I had one of those experiences. It was a sad rather than frightening event that nonetheless reminded me of this world utter lack of predictability. My aunt, a godly, loving woman, had a massive stroke and passed away. She has suffered from a brain abnormality all her life and despite knowing the odds were not in her favor, I was quite shaken by her death. It was one of those moments, like playing Five Nights at Freddy’s, no matter how much you think you have prepared yourself, it still catches you off guard.

I had the great blessing of growing up surrounded by family. Both my mom’s siblings and her parents lived nearby and we saw them often. My aunt and I were close and in spite of my innumerable failings, she loved me fiercely. When Jim and I got married and had children, this fierce blanket of sometimes near-suffocating love enveloped them as well. I am quite certain she annoyed people on a regular if not daily basis telling them all about our comings and goings. She was this way with all her nephews and nieces not to mention family and friends. She was like Geico—loving people was just what she did.

I knew that when she died, our family would lose our biggest fan. What I didn’t know was the scope of her love for others outside our family circle. Here was a woman who on paper didn’t have a lot to offer the world. Due to a series of strokes, she was no longer able to drive or walk without the assistance of a walker. She had long since retired from her teaching position and for as long as I can remember could not use her left hand. And yet, on the night of her memorial service, we stood for hours while person after person shook our hands and told us of the deep and meaningful impact my aunt had had on their lives. Person after person after person. For hours.

In the eyes of some, my aunt might have seemed to have little value in this world, but through her willingness to serve, she became a humble vessel of God’s love and compassion. She also served as representation of the brokenness that we all carry through life. She was broken physically, but managed to do mighty things for the Kingdom. She taught me that God’s work in and through us all starts at the place where we admit we can do nothing. That we are nothing without Him. Standing in the receiving line, I came to understand that my perspective on what is and isn’t important in life is often bass-ackwards. It is the phone call you don’t put off or the card you send or the small prayer you pray that make the world a far better place than any issue you blog about or book you author or check you write. Those things are needed too, but without a sense of humble service, they will all turn to ashes in the refining fire of God’s judgment.

I can’t talk about my aunt without mentioning my mom. If you look up humble service in God’s yellow pages, I am sure my mom has a full-page ad, though of course she would never have placed it herself. Hopefully, she won’t read this post or I will be in big trouble for putting her in the spotlight. My aunt served and loved many people, but she could never have done so without my mom, quietly balancing her checkbook, driving her to seemingly endless doctors’ appointments or coming over to clean up after my aunt had had an accident. She could have easily seen my aunt as a burden. And being human, I know she had days when she struggled to be patient or kind. But just as my aunt showed me unconditional love that was blind to many of my flaws, my mom has taught me unconditional love that sees you warts and all and loves you anyway. She has taught me that Christian service isn’t for Pollyannas and Suzy Sunshines. Jesus didn’t wash the disciples feet because he thought it would be a fun party game. He got down in the dirt, saw their filth and loved them anyway. He got on that cross because I wasn’t worthy and He wanted to make me so in Him. He died in agony so that I could follow His example and the examples of my mom and aunt, so that I could love as I have been loved. His death made me capable of receiving God’s love and His resurrection makes me capable of showing that love to others.

In the weeks following her death, I have gotten great joy in imagining my aunt, whole in body and mind, doing things that were impossible for her this side of heaven. But I have also come to understand that her disabilities are what made her work here on earth possible. She was able to serve in her unique and God-orchestrated way, not despite her handicaps but because of them.

Her limitations helped her to see the limitations of others and love them anyway. Her limitations also gave others, like my mom, the opportunity to serve. God was glorified in and through and because of her impairment which in the end was not an impairment at all.

I hope to honor my family’s legacy of service by looking for those less capable in whatever way and offering assistance when I can. But I also want to honor them by accepting my weaknesses and looking to see how God might use them to bring Himself greater glory. I want to see where He has disabled me in order that I might serve him more.