Philonous Songs

In terms of my creative calling in this world, I am most fundamentally a writer. Before I knew anything about teaching, scholarship, or the formal disciplines of philosophy and theology, I had a strong sense that writing would somehow define my life. This awareness even preceded my conversion to Christianity as a teenager. And almost immediately upon my conversion, I began to pursue this aspect of my calling. During my college career, the contours of my future writing career came more fully into view as I discovered the field of philosophy and eventually adjusted my professional aims in that direction. For the last 25 years I have been publishing my work, mainly in the scholarly realm. But all along I have been a lover of music as well and have developed my songwriting craft as a hobby. I estimate that I have written some 350 songs. Many of these I have recorded, others I have played live in various venues, but most have not been heard by anyone.

So, to ensure that most of these saw the light of day, back in August I began posting demos of my songs on YouTube, which you can check out here. I recognize that I am, at best, only a serviceable guitarist and vocalist, but these demos are about the songs, not the particular performances. I have been posting one song per week since mid-August, and I intend to maintain this pace until I exhaust my inventory and then, perhaps, simply post songs as I write them.

Since in most cases I have not provided any background or explanation regarding the songs, I thought it would be a good idea to do so here. But first, an explanation for my pseudonym. The name “Philonous” derives from two Greek terms, philo and nous, which together mean “love of mind.” This moniker is not original with me but was coined by the eighteenth century Irish Anglican bishop George Berkeley, whose metaphysical idealism has had a more powerful impact on my thinking than anything besides the Christian Gospel. I believe Berkeley’s idealist thesis—that “to be is to be perceived”—offers the best philosophical lens through which to view this world and to make sense of it in biblical terms. Metaphysical idealism asserts that mind is most real, and that everything else is somehow dependent upon and an expression of that mind. Jonathan Edwards, among many other great Christian thinkers, held the same conviction. So I am just one in a long line of Berkeleyans dating back more than 250 years. For more on recent Berkeleyan scholarship, you can look here and here and here.

But I digress . . . sort of. The point is that the Philonous pseudonym is purposeful and reinforces the idea that the entire cosmos, all of human history, and each of our individual stories, are literally the thoughts of God made public. We are all actors on the divine stage, and God is directing this drama with exquisite care and intention to create the most beautiful story possible. I find this to be not only philosophically and theologically rich and insightful, but also an especially inspiring aesthetic perspective which charges all human endeavor and every subject matter with significance.

So that’s a bit of background. Now here are some brief annotations regarding the first dozen songs posted on my YouTube channel:

  1. State of MindThis is my Berkeleyan “anthem” which I deemed to be an appropriate launching song for my YouTube channel because, as I explained above, the metaphysical idealist thesis has driven so much of my thinking about all aspects of the cosmos and human existence.
  2. Government ManThis one was borne out of exasperation with government ineptitude. Politically, I am a conservative/libertarian (or classical liberal, depending on which categories one prefers), and this song reflects that perspective like a few other songs I’ve written over the years.
  3. Little Hitler – As I explain in the song’s description on YouTube, this song is about original sin (echoing such biblical passages as Genesis 6:5 and Jeremiah 17:9, which also are hyperbolic in their emphasis on human depravity). As you might already know, this one caused a bit of controversy a while back. If you’re not familiar with the story, you can look here and here and here.
  4. What it’s Like to be BornThis song is not as straightforwardly about religious conversion as it might appear, though it certainly concerns that as well, obviously playing with Jesus’s metaphor of rebirth. Here I try to highlight the oft-overlooked aspect of this metaphor—that such rebirth is both joyful and painful.
  5. Let’s Start Our Own CountryI have written at least three versions of this song, the first back in 1988. Because the lyrics have always related to current events, the song always dates itself. So I wrote new lyrics for this version this past summer.
  6. Jesus Never Let Me Down – I wrote this one after the fallout from the “Little Hitler” controversy. I have been a Christian forty years, and Jesus has yet to let me down even once. And he is not letting me down through this recent trial, which is very small compared to what other Christians have suffered and are currently suffering around the world.
  7. Out of the Question – This is a sort of wordplay that poses a variety of questions which, though all significant, are in some way or another self-answering. Thus, the answer in each case comes “out” of the question. Even the title is a twist, since the phrase usually means something very different, something along the lines of “beyond consideration.”
  8. Define it AwayThis song is a critical commentary on a cultural trend among leftists to redefine terms and concepts in such a way as to warp or hide certain truths. It is also intended to be comical, though those on the political left will likely be more annoyed than humored by it.
  9. Bend the Rules – I wrote this one many years ago in response to a friend who repeatedly challenged certain standards within our local church and eventually left the church out of exasperation.
  10. What’s Wrong With the Media – This song is a critique of certain aspects of much of the contemporary American media. Obviously, many media outlets and reporters are still doing good, admirable work. The song highlights disturbing general trends.
  11. Secret – I wrote this song about twenty years ago after the death of a good friend. I am convinced he was murdered, but his death was ruled a suicide. Thus, my friend’s murderer “got away with it.” Yet, alas, in the end that killer won’t really get away with anything.
  12. Rainbow – Many years ago I wrote this song about a good friend after hearing some people observe that he always seemed to be living under a cloud and was depressing to be around. The truth was, and is, that he is a beautiful and interesting person, even if most people can’t see this.

Homeland Security

So the past few weeks have been . . . interesting. I feel like the end of August was like a micro-2020 for the Spiegels. We were just going along like any other fall and “Wham!” out of nowhere came a life-altering event.

If you haven’t heard, on August 24, Jim was unexpectedly fired from his tenured position at Taylor University, after 27 years, countless awards and accolades, not to mention decades of relationships and investment. If you want to know more, you can read any number of articles on what happened. Several news outlets have covered the story, including the New York Post, The College Fix, Religion News Service, Ministry Watch, the Todd Starnes Radio Show, and Taylor’s student newspaper The Echo. All I will say here is that Jim is not guilty of any moral failing and has been given the support of an enormous number of Taylor faculty, staff, students and alum.

While I doubt that many of you have experienced the exact same scenario, I am sure you can relate to the feeling of the rug suddenly being pulled out from underneath you. The one-moment-everything-is-fine-the-next-you-are-falling-teacup-over-kettle feeling that comes with a late night phone call, an unexpected diagnosis, or a disappointing fall from grace.

It seems appropriate that I am writing this on the eve of one of our nation’s collective rug-pullings. Anyone old enough to remember can tell you where they were on September 11, 2001 just like generations before us could tell you where they were on December 7, 1941 (the Pearl Harbor attack) or November 22, 1963 (the JFK assassination). I was making pancakes and my sister called. She thought it was just a small plane, and then news started coming in on the radio (we didn’t have a TV at the time). To this day, when I am listening to the radio and I hear confusion in the background, a jolt of fear runs through my veins.

So I am only a few weeks into processing this major life event, which, as major life events go, I have to say is not my favorite. However, it has already taught me something that perhaps I should have learned years ago: “On Christ the solid rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand.” Think you have a solid career ahead of you? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe the company goes under. Maybe you underperform and they let you go. Maybe you post a song on YouTube and they fire you. Think you have a secure retirement? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe a pandemic breaks out and you get trapped in your assisted living facility for months on end.  Maybe you get swindled out of your life savings. Maybe the stock market crashes, taking your dreams of days spent on the golf course with it. Think you have years of health and happiness ahead of you? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe the test comes back malignant. Maybe the other driver doesn’t see the light turn red. Maybe she decides she doesn’t love you anymore. Our achievements, our possessions, our future plans, hopes and dreams. They are all sinking sand. Nineteen years ago, buildings full of people and all of their hopes and dreams crashed to the ground in a heap of rubble and ash.

But there is a solid rock on which to stand. This rock is sure and unmovable. It will not give way and is the cornerstone on which our faith is built. That doesn’t mean it is comfortable. Or even predictable. It is, however, a rock to which we can cling. It is Christ. He is perfect when I am not. He is sure when I am uncertain. He is steadfast when I am weak. This side of heaven, I can hold fast to Him in times of trouble and use Him as a landmark in times of plenty. On the other side of heaven, He will be the foundation on which my eternity is built. Christ is my ground zero. He is my homeland security. Here I stand. I can do no other.

Unmasked by Masks

As we live through one of the most divisive eras in our nation’s history, I think there is something on which we can all agree, that being that 2020 has been one crazy ride and it ain’t over yet. Perhaps you, like me, have listened to the stories of our grandparents who lived through the Great Depression and WWII with just a tinge of envy or seen turmoil and uncertainty of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War era through the eyes of our parents and wished we could have witnessed history in the making as they did. Well, be careful what you wish for, kids. So far, in one year, we have seen a global pandemic, the near-total shutdown of our national economy, and violence and unrest erupting in our streets at unprecedented levels. When we think of those who came before, who lived through deprivation, unspeakable loss and seismic culture shifts, we often think of the ways in which those experiences shaped their character. And this, of course, is true. We all have the crazy (great-) uncle or aunt who lived through the lean times of the 1930s and 40s who saved every Cool Whip container and random scrap of metal because “You just never know when that might come in handy.”

But let us consider for a moment not what we become as a result of our experiences, collective and personal, but rather how our experiences say what we have become. Ironically, I see no greater example of this unveiling than in the various responses to mask mandates; how we react to being asked or required to cover ourselves reveals a great deal about what lies beneath. Here are a few of my observations.

Despite slogans such as “We are in this together.”, nothing seems further from the truth. We seem determined as a nation to label and subdivide ourselves and others as much as possible. You are a masker or an anti-masker. You are a fearful sheep or someone who has no regard for the lives of others. Prior to masks being mandated more broadly, there was a literal visible divide amongst us as we bought groceries, went to church, or stopped at the post office. As someone who is skeptical of the necessity of masks, I felt the stares of those wearing them and felt the instant connection of eye contact with those around me who were unmasked. Now we can argue about masks vs no masks some other day, but my point is no issue should prevent us from extending basic courtesy and respect to one another. Grown women should not yell at small children whose parents have chosen not to put masks on them and they should also not destroy displays of masks or, worse, urinate in stores that require you to wear them. We should look at one another and assume that we are pursuing what seems like the most rational course of action and move on. Isn’t this the era of you do you? I understand that if you are someone who believes that my not wearing a mask is a danger to you there would be a certain resentment on your part, but that’s where personal responsibility comes into play. Just as I choose to avoid stores that require masks while respecting their right to enforce that policy, you have the right to avoid spaces where masks aren’t required. In the age of grocery store deliveries and Amazon, you could avoid leaving the house all together. With the stricter guidelines now regarding masks, I find myself staying home more to avoid having to wear one.

In the course of my job, I meet with people from all over the socio-economic spectrum throughout the day. I look for ways to genuinely sympathize and identify with each of them. Not in a fake I’ll-just-nod-my-head-so-I-sell-you-some-life-insurance way but truly looking for common ground or at least sympathizing with their perspective even if I don’t share it.

Whether you have created a decontamination chamber in your foyer and require your family to strip down every time they enter the house or you are currently on Zillow researching properties in Wyoming and preparing to permanently live off the grid, our current situation should have us all unified in one thought: death comes for us all. What form it will take is unclear. But it will come and I believe that when it does, we will be unmasked before our Creator and asked to justify our actions here on earth. I for one have enough to be ashamed of in my thoughts, words and deeds. I don’t need to add pride, resentment, or unkindness regarding mask mandates to that list. So let’s all look for ways to make the world a little brighter, a little warmer. Smile big under that mask; pray for others while washing your hands and maybe when the masks finally come off, in this life and the next, we will be happier with who we see in the mirror.

Christian Joy

In Galatians 5 we are told that joy is a fruit of the spirit, a virtue that is an important mark of the Christian life. We also know from such passages as 1 Cor 9:24-27 and 1 Tim 4:7-8 that we must train for godliness. The development of such virtues as patience, kindness, faithfulness, self-control and joy is largely intentional, a product of spiritual discipline. So how does one train to be joyful?

Surely, one important part of our training for joy, as for all of the virtues, is imitating Jesus. So what was the nature of his joy? One thing we know for sure is that Jesus’ joy was not based in this world. In fact, Isaiah 53, a prophetic messianic passage, tells us that Jesus was “a man of sorrows.“ Why was he a man of sorrows? Ecclesiastes 1:18 provides a clue: “with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” This disturbing truth follows from the fact that ours is a tragic world where virtue is hated and vice is pervasive. The most righteous people are often the most hated. This is one reason why righteousness is very rare (as Jesus says, the path is narrow and few find it). Being most righteous, Jesus was therefore destined to be hated. And being omniscient and maximally wise, he was also destined to be maximally grieved and sorrowful.

What, then, could be the nature of the joy of Christ given his perpetual condition grief and sorrow? It would have to come down to his hope for the future—an anticipatory grasp of what lay ahead for him. Christian joy, it turns out, is future oriented, a fact that was perfectly personified in Christ. As the writer of Hebrews notes, “for the joy set before himself he endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2).

As fallen human beings we are constantly tempted to seek joy in this world in the form of all sorts of things—job satisfaction, marital happiness, friendships, professional accomplishments, peer recognition, family harmony, physical pleasures, and creature comforts of all kinds. But those are all idols, false gods, since joy is borne of another world. In fact, joy comes only through the denial of the foolish pleasures of this world and embracing (not trying to avoid) its sorrows. This is why C. S. Lewis says joy is actually a kind of longing. Perhaps it is itself a species of sorrow—the sorrow that comes of longing for our eternal home with God. In any case, Christian joy is deeply connected to our Gospel hope.

This suggests another important way of cultivating the virtue of Christian joy and that is by studying biblical eschatology—the Scriptural teaching about the “last things.” It has been said that there is more teaching about eschatology in the Bible than about any other branch of theology. Whether or not that is accurate, it is clear from the abundance of eschatological biblical content that God wants us to dwell on our future hope, to reinforce our faith and to increase our joy. As with Christ, he sets this joy before us that we might be better motivated to endure the crosses we carry in our own lives.

Specifically, it appears that God wants us to know that: 1) the future is written, set in stone as much as are past events (he transcends time and knows the end from the beginning) and 2) the future is good, perfectly good for the people of God. We do know, from such passages as Matthew 24; 2 Thess. 2:1-12; 2 Tim. 3:1-9, and the book of Revelation that the end times will be painful, even excruciating for many Christians. But like childbirth this will all be for a good purpose, as God will be purging sin—punishing the wicked and purifying his people, preparing us for union with our Savior at the great wedding that will take place at the inauguration of his perfect Kingdom. The more we focus on this, the more we will find contentment in this troubled world and truly take hold of Christian joy.

God in the Whirlwind

As Jim will tell you, my mind is generally a whirlwind of ideas, wide-ranging and seemingly disconnected ideas all swirling, and sometimes colliding, in my head. Thoughts about home improvement projects I want done spiraling alongside books I want to read and opinions about current events that make me want to cry.

The other day, I was definitely having a whirlwind-head moment, driving home from work and listening to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I’m not a big fan of contemporary Christian music, but I do have a mash-up playlist of classic hymns, Kayne West and a few CCM songs that I often unwind to at the end of the day. So I’m thinking about the time period in which this song was written, thinking about the times we are living in, and of the ways they are the same. The unrest and uncertainty. The violence and fear. The topic of race and injustice being on everyone’s minds.

I think there is another connection though: God’s uncanny ability to bring beauty out of the ugliest of situations; to salvage and even amplify joy out of great sorrow; to create glory in the midst of the horrific events. That’s what Julia Ward Stowe saw when she declared that her eyes had “seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Consider the America that she looked upon in 1861. I think few of her contemporaries would see glory on the march when they looked out and saw a country torn by civil war, fighting over the rights of all men to be acknowledged as having been created equal. But Howe believed that His truth was marching through the nation and that it would triumph and bring a “righteous sentence” to the guilty.

I want to see with the eyes of Julia Ward Howe and with the eyes of Martin Luther King Jr., who quoted her beautiful lyrics in the last speech he ever gave. He said “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land… I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The union soldiers huddled around their campfires that inspired Howe to write her poem made many sacrifices. Some even laid down their lives, to free America’s slaves and to reunite our country under one flag. MLK wasn’t afraid either. He saw what was coming and stood in harm’s way to further the rights of blacks in the U.S.

There is no doubt in my mind that our country continues to be guilty of a great number of sins, both against God and humanity. You might believe those to be sins of systemic racism; I might believe them to be of the slaughter of the innocent. But something Christians from anywhere on the political or theological spectrum should all agree on is that there are wrongs to be righted in the world, and if Jesus “died to make men holy” we should be willing to “live to make men free…” Free from the bondage of poverty, from oppression and fear; but also free from gluttony and selfishness, from greed and lust. We can sing of liberty all we want but no one is truly free unless they are first free in Christ.

On the one hand, we must not neglect seeking to right wrongs where we see them done and to be the voice of those who have none. “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). On the other hand, we cannot preach for the sake of political power and neglect to preach for the sake of the Gospel. We are told in Luke that Jesus, speaking for one of the first times in public, said that God the Father “anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). Yet he never freed one slave or spoke out against one governmental policy. I believe he left that work to be done by his disciples and those who followed them, but he focused his time on earth in freeing the hearts and minds of those he loved from the burden and guilt of sin. If we do the same, the world will be transformed into his kingdom.

So let us climb the mountain top with MLK and peer over the other side into the promised land. And then let us set about working in our minds and hearts and lives to make that promised land a reality. While God is marching on.

Review of Michael Austin’s God and Guns in America

The recent wave of violent protests has brought in its wake a surge of shootings in major U.S. cities and a spike in gun sales around the country. This prompts, yet again, questions about gun violence and gun rights in America. So Michael Austin’s God and Guns in America (Eerdmans, 2020) is a welcome book at this time. It is a work that provides much needed philosophical-theological analysis of many aspects of this complicated subject. Austin is critical of current American laws regarding gun ownership, but he is not in favor of abolishing the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Instead, he says, “the best way forward is to balance the right to bear arms with our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (14). And he proceeds to explore multiple dimensions of the issue from a distinctly Christian perspective.

In the first chapter, Austin sets the stage for his book’s discussion by elucidating “Christian nationalism” and its problematic connection to the gun rights movement in America. He also highlights some key moments in the legal history of the Second Amendment Supreme Court decisions, most notably the relatively recent SCOTUS recognition of the individual rights view, which “interpret[s] the Second Amendment as protecting the individual right to own a gun” (12). Prior to this, Austin notes, the Court took a “collectivist view” of the Second Amendment, which maintains that the right to bear arms applies not to individual persons but to organized groups or communities. According to Austin, it was the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision which was decisive in this regard.

Austin turns to a discussion of the nature of rights in chapter two, “The Right to Own a Gun.” He helpfully distinguishes between different kinds of rights, most notably legal rights and moral rights. Here he discusses what is likely the strongest foundation for gun rights: the right to life. As Austin puts it, “if a gun is needed for securing someone’s right to life, then we may be able to derive the right to own and use a gun from the right to life” (25). But he rightly points out that “if we accept the argument, it does not follow that the status quo regarding gun laws is acceptable.” Indeed, there must be some limits on the right to bear arms, just as there are limits on other rights. No one believes that individual citizens should be able to own and use missile launchers or nuclear bombs, but nearly everyone agrees that (reasonably qualified) citizens should be able to own and use pistols, shotguns, and rifles. So where does one draw the line? That is the key question in the gun control debate. In the end, says Austin, we need to balance gun rights with other rights and responsibilities, such as the right not to be shot and the moral obligation to use guns in self-defense only as a last resort. It is with this tension in view that Austin discusses stand-your-ground laws, noting a major problem with such laws—that “it is not always clear when one is truly in danger” (29). He concludes this pivotal chapter by granting that “there is a reasonable moral right to own a gun and that this right should be reflected in the law” but that “this is entirely consistent with the placement of legal limits on who can own and use a gun . . . for the purpose of defending life” (31). This is a reasonable, balanced, and popular general position on the issue, of course.

In chapter three, entitled “Guns, Lies, and Bad Arguments,” Austin reviews ten flawed arguments that are frequently used on either side of the gun debate in America. Some of these, such as that “violence is on the rise in America” and that “violence never solves anything” are just patently false. The homicide rate in America at the time of Austin’s writing was comparable to that in the 1950s. And violence sometimes does solve problems, as in the case of the defeat of the Axis powers in WWII and in many lesser known cases where would-be mass shooters have been taken out by security guards or lay people with guns. Other weak arguments make irrelevant points or false dichotomies, such as that “no law can stop all gun violence” and “it’s not a gun problem, it’s a heart problem.” Interestingly, Austin includes among the supposed “bad arguments” the claim that “guns protect us from tyranny and genocide.” While this is surely a common argument, which is no doubt wielded poorly by many people, it is not necessarily a poor argument in itself. But Austin is very critical of it.

Next, Austin discusses the various options for a Christian theology of violence. Here he discusses pacifism and just war theory, noting some of the major proponents of these views in the history of Christian thought. Pacifists generally eschew the use of violence and killing. Just war theorists affirm the justifiable use of violence and even killing, but they advocate a variety of delimiting criteria which must be met in order for violent actions to be morally acceptable. Rather than opting for one of these approaches, Austin advocates what he regards as a third option, which he calls “peace building.” Peace building, says Austin, “allows for violence only as a last resort and includes a very strong preference for nonviolence” (66). This is a curious distinction, since standard versions of just war theory explicitly recognize the exhausting of all peaceful alternatives as a necessary condition for justified violence. So, despite Austin’s suggestion that his view is an alternative to just war theory, it is actually a version of this view which places a particularly strong presumption in favor of non-violence.

Later in chapter 4, Austin discusses the appropriateness of congregants carrying firearms in corporate church worship services. It is a fascinating discussion of alternative perspectives which leads to a discussion in chapter 5 (“The Bible and a Gun”) of a variety of biblical arguments that have been made to justify the use of firearms as a means of self-defense (specifically, 1 Tim. 5:8; Heb. 10:32-34; and Luke 22:35-38). Austin concludes (rightly, I believe) that each of these biblical arguments is problematic, and he wisely comments at the end of the chapter that “many Christians seem to espouse views that are more reflective of one of the kingdoms of this world than of the kingdom of Jesus” (106).

In chapter 6 (“Christ, Character and a Colt-45”) Austin inquires into whether Jesus Christ would carry a gun. Austin concludes that he would not. Moreover, he maintains that “when [Jesus] told Peter to put the sword away, Jesus was disarming every Christian. . . .  They should lay down their lives, dying, not killing, in the name of Christ” (109). Austin’s argument is that such a posture of non-violence and even self-sacrifice is not only more reflective of Christ but is also a better fit for the development of other Christian virtues, including empathy and compassion. In this chapter, Austin wrestles with the challenge of the appropriateness of using guns in self-defense. He grants that this might sometimes be appropriate. But he concludes with this probing question which seems aimed at those who make the self-defense argument for the use of firearms: “Are we trusting in guns for things that we should be relying on God to grant us?” (119). This is challenging, to be sure. However, Austin avoids a likewise challenging counter: Should such reliance on God even extend to refusing to use guns to defend others (such as our own children) whose lives are being threatened? Just as in international contexts the duty to defend the innocent presents the greatest challenge to anti-war pacifism (e.g. defending Europe against the Nazis in WWII), the duty to protect the innocent and powerless in personal contexts presents the strongest challenge to personal pacifism. Presumably, this is one reason why Austin rejects outright pacifism.

In the book’s final chapter, “More Than Thoughts and Prayers,” Austin provides an extensive list of practical legal steps for dealing with our nation’s gun violence problem. These include universal background checks, restrictions regarding who can purchase a firearm, a federal “red flag” law, repealing “stand-your-ground” laws, a federal gun safety course, a ban on high-capacity magazines, and the exploration of assorted technological means of preventing the usability of stolen guns (e.g., the Bison Fingerprint Trigger Lock). Each of these proposals deserves extensive study, of course, but even this brief discussion is helpful. Austin concludes the book with a discussion of some relevant moral-theological considerations, appropriately reminding us that the more fundamental problem underlying gun violence is the human heart.

Michael Austin is to be commended for this much-needed work, which addresses one of the more divisive and complex issues of our time. He admirably strives for balance throughout the book and only occasionally fails in this aim (e.g. in his characterization “Christian nationalism” and his assessment of the anti-tyranny argument for gun rights). As is typical of Austin’s published works, his thinking is clear, organized, and insightful. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in working out a theologically informed stance on gun rights and the problem of gun violence.

Individual Humans as the Primary Source of Sin

Recent discussions regarding racism have prompted an important question: What is the primary source of human sin? Is it individual human beings or is it human institutions, organized collectives of human beings? Or perhaps this is a false dichotomy. Might sin somehow reside neither in individuals nor in institutions in any “ultimate” sense but rather arise simultaneously in both individuals and the collectives we make up? This is essentially the old debate over the relationship between individual and social sin, which might be seen as a variation of the question regarding the chicken and the egg.

In the Christian theological tradition there has been a tendency to see the individual human heart as the primary locus of sin, while also recognizing that individual sins have social ramifications which, in turn, exacerbate and compound individual sins. It is a vicious cycle. As Gregory Baum puts it, “Personal sins . . . generate social sin. Conversely, social sin multiplies personal sins. Marginalization creates conditions that foster resentment and despair in the victims and thus easily provoke irrational responses. More than that, since institutionalized injustice affects all members of society, it creates conditions that facilitate personal sin on all levels.” Baum goes on to note that “because unjust structures are created by sinful humans, it is possible to speak of “sinful structures” and “social sin” in a derived and secondary sense.”

I believe Baum is correct in noting that individual sin is primary, while social or institutional sins are derivative and secondary in nature. This is not to diminish the significance or essential evilness of institutional sins but simply to identify the locus of the root of human evil. But what good reasons can be given in defense of this view? Here are four, mostly theological, arguments for this view.

First, Adam and Eve were both “fallen” individuals before any institutions existed. As individuals, they each succumbed to the temptation to eat the fruit of the tree, as described in Genesis 3. This was prior to any formal human institution. Now one might claim that the institution of the family existed at that point, though only consisting of these first two humans. But even so, Adam and Eve committed their sins as individuals. Their sins were not institutional or systemic in nature. So the Fall itself was not institutional in nature but a matter of individual choices.

Second, we may appeal to the biblical doctrine of original sin, according to which human beings are innately sinful, born into this world with a natural propensity to sin which precedes their entry into institutions. The Psalmist declares, “surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). So not only did the human sin problem begin with the wrongful choice of an individual person, but this basic moral corruption is perpetuated by each of us as individuals at our very conception.

Thirdly, institutions are themselves collections of individuals. The parts precede the wholes. You can’t construct a building without first having the components from which to construct it. And so it goes for human systems and institutions. You can’t create a legal system, an educational institution, or a civil society without first having individual humans. And whenever any people enter into such institutions, they are already sinful. Of course, any such institutions may be poorly or unjustly constructed, but this only compounds the sin problem already infecting those social structures that is a consequence of the fallenness of the individuals involved.

Lastly, Jesus tells us that human defilement originates from within a person, not outside of them:

“Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person” (Mark 7:15-23).

Jesus illustrates this teaching in terms of food, but his broader point is unmistakable. Evil arises out of the human heart. We are not originally corrupted or defiled by things outside of us, and this includes the systems or institutions of which we are a part. Our sinfulness is surely manifested within institutional contexts, and these contexts often occasion more temptations and forms of sin. But the source of that evil is ultimately each individual fallen human heart.

Again, none of this diminishes the significance of unjust institutions or systemic evils. It simply demonstrates that the origins of all such evils ultimately lie in our moral corruption as individuals. Moreover, this implies that any corrections or improvements we make to our social institutions will never achieve perfection. There are significant limits to what we can achieve in our efforts to make our various institutions more just. Even a perfectly designed human institution—if such were possible—would still be flawed, so long as it is composed of fallen human beings.

Open-mindedness, Civility, and Our National Crisis

During the last month turmoil around the nation has been dizzying. From Officer Derek Chauvin’s hideous killing of George Floyd to the wave of protests and riots which followed to BLM’s calls for defunding the police to the CHAZ/CHOP protest occupation of downtown Seattle to a rash of firings and public shaming of college professors and other professionals who have critiqued some of BLM’s tactics. More recently, Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe has been charged in the murder of Rayshard Brooks, and protesters have begun to topple statues and monuments all around the country.

While these events seem to highlight a deepening rift in our nation, one thing about which nearly all Americans agree regarding all of this is that Officer Chauvin’s killing of Floyd was a horrific act which warrants severe punishment. And we should all agree that racism in this country has been and remains a serious problem. But there is disagreement over whether Chauvin’s act was racially motivated or a manifestation of systemic racism, whether Chauvin should be charged with manslaughter or second-degree murder, whether this heinous act is symptomatic of widespread police corruption in the U.S., whether such corruption warrants a fundamental restructuring of law enforcement, whether there is Edward Colston statue toppled in Bristolany merit to the Black Lives Matter call for defunding the police, whether the Black Lives Matter protest tactics are morally legitimate, whether local law enforcement responses to the protests and riots have been appropriate, whether Officer Rolfe’s killing of Brooks was justified, and whether Rolfe should be charged with murder. It is tragic that despite the gravity of these questions, cool-headed, rational discussions have been rare over the last several weeks. Many insist that high-pitched emotions are understandable and appropriate, given the issues at stake. While this may be true, none of us should allow our emotions to cloud our judgment or prevent us from a rational appraisal of evidence and coming to logical conclusions about these issues. Allowing feelings to reign over reason can only lead toward more division and turmoil as many of the residents of cities impacted by the rioters can attest.

Oxford University ethicist Neil Levy has observed that “part of the reason that controversial moral and political questions are controversial is that there is something to be said on each side.” Levy says that a belief is controversial when “conflicting beliefs are held by a significant number of relevantly well-informed, intelligent, and rational people over an extended period of time” (from Open-Mindedness and the Duty to Gather Evidence, Public Affairs Quarterly, p. 56). It is interesting to note that while everyone will readily admit that the above noted issues are controversial, many people will refuse to admit that there is, as Levy says, “something to be said on each side”—and by this I suppose Levy means that there is something reasonable to be said on each side which should be acknowledged and respected by those who disagree. There are, after all, intelligent and well-informed people on all sides of the current debates over racism and law enforcement in the U.S. So why are we seeing so much hysteria and so little respect between people who disagree on these issues?

In recent years I have published several articles and book chapters on open-mindedness and am currently working on a book on the subject. Most people believe, as I do, that open-mindedness is an intellectual virtue. It is a trait which, as virtue epistemologist Jason Baehr would say, involves a willingness to transcend one’s default cognitive standpoint on an issue. This means that the open-minded person is willing to consider that her view on an issue might be false and to seriously entertain evidence which contradicts her perspective. Open-mindedness seems especially appropriate when it comes to controversial issues, for the reasons that Levy notes: whatever view you hold—on say, the nature of racism in America and how it should be addressed—there are well-informed, intelligent people who disagree with you. So, as difficult as it is, you have an intellectual duty to listen carefully, respond patiently, and proceed respectfully as you engage the debate. To do otherwise is uncivil and does little to advance dialogue and productive work toward solutions. If we are going to remain (or return to being) a rational and civil culture, we absolutely must conduct ourselves with at least a modicum of intellectual virtue, especially open-mindedness.

I have despaired at the level of dogmatism and foreclosure when it comes to many of the above noted issues. This is especially dismaying when I consider how many important moral and epistemic questions are being ignored or particular answers to them are being taken for granted (despite the fact that intelligent, well-informed people would demur at those assumptions). Here are just some of those questions. As you read each one, ask yourself: How would I answer that question? And what are my evidence-based reasons for my answer?

  • What is the primary carrier of human sin? Is it systems and institutions or is it individual human hearts?
  • What exactly is “systemic racism”? What are the criteria for ascertaining when a system or institutional structure is racist? Are these criteria statistical? If so, then what are they? If not, then what is the nature of these criteria? In any case, how are they established?
  • Given one’s view on whether the sin of racism is fundamentally rooted in individual human hearts or institutional systems, how does this impact our approach to addressing this sin? In either case, what are the prospects for fully eradicating racist sin from society?

These are just some of the more foundational questions which are being widely overlooked, ignored, or only dogmatically addressed. There are many other questions that are not as foundational but still very important, such as these: Why is it no longer acceptable to question or critique some of the tactics and precepts of the Black Lives Matter organization, even if one emphatically affirms, as we all should, the understatement that black lives matter? Since many college professors and other professionals are being fired for critiquing BLM, how might this affect our national conversation about racial issues? Is the firing of people for raising critical points about BLM likely to make people more or less sympathetic with the BLM cause? Also, what criteria should be used to evaluate the continued display of historical statues and monuments? And how can we balance historical relevance with a desire to atone for past injustices?

Again, these are just some important questions. No doubt other questions come to your mind, perhaps even questions about why I list the questions that I do. That’s fine. The point is that we need to address these and other vital questions in a rational, evidence-based, and open-minded way. Such is essential to the maintenance of a civil society.

In closing, it is fitting to recall the standard set by Martin Luther King, Jr., who consistently demonstrated an evidence-based, rational, and civil approach. It is also noteworthy that he grounded his civil rights work methodology in the biblical themes of imago Dei, unconditional love, and non-violent resistance. (See my recent article on the subject here.) Why are these ideals not prevailing during our current unrest? What would it take for these values to take root (again) in our society? Without these values becoming preeminent today is there any real hope for pervasive racial justice and reconciliation in this country? These, too, are challenging and controversial questions, and they are more urgent than ever.

The Extra Mile

Sometimes my job requires going the extra mile. I’m sure this is true of most people, but for us—agents at American Income Life—it can often mean literally driving an extra mile, or two, or, in my case this week, one hundred. A union member didn’t feel comfortable sharing his info over the phone, so I drove two hours to meet him and go over his options. While on the road, I started thinking about going the extra mile and how making an extra effort is nine times out of ten rewarded in some way. Maybe not in dollars and cents, but I am a firm believer in my wise mother-in-law’s saying that if you cast your bread upon the water, it will come back to you as a sandwich. In other words, the gifts that you give will come back to you in greater proportion than you gave. I have seen this over and over in my own life. In fact, my entire adult life has been shaped by one act of kindness.

As a recent college graduate, an acquaintance needed a ride and I offered to give him one. Now this was no ordinary “Hey, can you give me a ride to the corner store?” ride. This was a 15-hour, 800-mile, two-way trek. I offered thinking he would probably turn it down. But he didn’t, so I drove from Knoxville to Jackson, Mississippi, got out of the car and was greeted by this acquaintance, only to realize in an instant that I loved this man, and we have been married for over twenty-two years now. I can’t imagine my life without that one “Sure, I can do that” and all the many blessings which have followed from it.

Reflecting on that instance has given me a boost of confidence in being, whenever possible, outrageously, foolishly generous. It doesn’t have to be money, or things, or long drives across the country. Maybe it’s the few extra minutes you spend listening to someone who needs a friendly ear. Maybe it’s the card you send or the smile you give or the prayer you offer up.

While driving the extra mile the other day, I was listening to a John Maxwell podcast that had been shared with me. He was talking about how we can prepare ourselves for whatever lies ahead. Along with being adaptable, promoting discussion and humility, he talked about the importance of being open-handed. The closed-fisted will be unable to grab hold of opportunity when it comes their way. I encourage us all to live open-handed and go the extra mile. You never know who or what you might pick up along the way.

Covid-19, Churches, and Hardware Stores

Here is another point about the issue of government bans on Church worship services that in my two previous posts I have taken for granted but which I evidently need to make explicit. Do these bans really accomplish much given how little time each week is devoted to corporate worship? And does the small reduction of risk achieved by such bans compensate for the loss of religious freedom they entail?

Consider the fact that during the pandemic hardware stores like Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Menards are open every day of the week for 11-14 hours each day with thousands of customers coming and going throughout the week, while church services, which average just 75 people, are not permitted to meet for even one hour each week. When it comes to presenting a real danger to a community in terms of spreading the Covid-19 virus, the risks at a small church service are negligible compared to those at such large hardware stores. Yet the former are closed while the latter are bustling with activity all over the country.

One might argue that our society needs hardware stores to stay open far more than we need weekly worship services. First, such a response presupposes that corporate worship is not necessary for human flourishing, which begs the question of my original argument in my April 25 post. Secondly, even if one grants that corporate worship services are not as essential to human flourishing as home improvement supplies, then can we not at least grant that worship services are 1/60th as valuable as hardware stores? If so, then this would warrant permitting a 90-minute worship service once per week (to maintain the proper value ratio vis-à-vis a Lowe’s, Home Depot, or Menards, which are open 80+ hours per week).

So, fellow Christians, if you support the ban on church worship services while you’re supporting keeping open such hardware stores (and your shopping at one of these stores during the week is a tacit admission that you do), then this would seem to imply that you have a rather low view of the importance of corporate worship. For some of my critics, perhaps that is the real crux of our divergence on this issue, and that is fine. But for those who say they place a high value on corporate worship, something has to give here.

If you are really that concerned about human contact hours and the risk this presents regarding spreading the virus, then it would be far more efficient to create a stricter limit on the operating hours of retail stores. Therefore, I would suggest this modest compromise: Reduce the operating hours of large retail outlets by just one hour per day and lift the ban on corporate worship services. This would create a net reduction in the number of contact hours during which the virus can be spread while preserving the public good of corporate worship. Everybody okay with that?