“In our age I think it would be fair to say that the ease with which a scientific theory assumes the dignity and rigidity of fact varies inversely with the individual’s scientific education. In discussion with wholly uneducated audiences I have sometimes found matter which real scientists would regard as highly speculative more firmly believed than many things within our real knowledge; the popular imago of the Cave Man ranked as hard fact, and the life of Caesar or Napoleon as doubtful rumour. We must not, however, hastily assume that the situation was quite the same in the Middle Ages. The mass media which have in our time created a popular scientism, a caricature of the true sciences, did not then exist. The ignorant were more aware of their ignorance then than now” — CS Lewis, The Discarded Image
I’m reading a bit of stuff CS Lewis wrote on writing, in this case an essay called On Science Fiction. He has this little gem of a rule buried in the essay.
“Of articles I have read on the subject [science fiction writing] (and I expect I have missed many) I do not find that I can make any use. For one thing, most were not very well informed. For another, many were by people who clearly hated the kind they wrote about. It is very dangerous to write about a kind you hate. Hatred obscures all distinctions. I don’t like detective stories and therefore all detective stories look very much alike to me: if I wrote about them I should therefore infallibly write drivel. Criticism of kinds as distinct from criticism of works, cannot of course be avoided… But it is, I think, the most subjective and least reliable type of criticism. Above all, it should not masquerade as criticism of individual works. Many reviews are useless because, while purporting to condemn the book, they only reveal the reviewer’s dislike of the kind to which it belongs. Let bad tragedies be censured by those who love tragedy, and bad detective stories by those who love the detective story. Then we shall learn their real faults. Otherwise we shall find epics blamed for not being novels, farces for not being high comedies, novels by James for lacking the swift action of Smollett.
“Who wants to hear a particular claret abused by a fanatical teetotaller, or a particular woman by a confirmed misogynist”
“Even if it is a vice to read science fiction, those who cannot understand the very temptation to that vice will not be likely to tell us anything of value about it. Just as I, for instance, who have no taste for cards, could not find anything very useful to say by way of warning against deep play. They will be like the frigid preaching chastity, misers warning us against prodigality, cowards denouncing rashness.”
“Do not criticise what you have no taste for without great caution. And, above all, do not ever criticise what you simply can’t stand. I will lay all the cards on the table. I have long since discovered my own private phobia: the thing I can’t bear in literature, the thing which makes me profoundly uncomfortable, is the representation of anything like a quasi love affair between two children. It embarrases and nauseates me. But of course I regard this not as a charter to write slashing reviews of books in which the hated theme occurs, but as a warning not to pass judgment on them at all. For my reaction is unreasonable: such child-loves quite certainly occur in real life and I can give no reason why they should not be represented in art… And I would venture to advise all who are attempting to become critics to adopt the same principle. A violent and actually resentful reaction to all books of a certain kind, or to situations of a certain kind, is a danger signal. For I am convinced that good adverse criticism is the most difficult thing we have to do. I would advise everyone to begin it under the most favourable conditions: this is, where you thoroughly know and heartily like the thing the author is trying to do, and have enjoyed many books where it was done well. Then you will have some chance of really showing that he has failed and perhaps even of showing why. But if our real reaction to a book is ‘Ugh! I just can’t bear this sort of thing,’ then I think we shall not be able to diagnose whatever real faults it has. We may labour to conceal our emotion, but we shall end in a welter of emotive, unanalysed, vogue-words — ‘arch,’ ‘facetious,’ bogus,’ adolescent,’ immature,’ and the rest. When we really know what is wrong we need none of these.”
I’m on a committee with the Presbyterian Church of Queensland (PCQ) that was once called the Public Questions Committee (PQC). For obvious reasons relating to our acronym (PCQPQC), we changed our name to the Gospel In Society Today Committee (if you get my GIST). This significant step represents a transition from being an initialism to being an acronym. So we should all rejoice on that front, but it also involved some gear shifts in terms of how the committee sees itself, and its function, within the church. We want to provide resources for people to think about issues from a Gospel framework, so they can participate, in an informed way, in our democracy. We write stuff (rarely) to speak as ‘the Church’ — but the real payoff, according to our philosophy, is in helping people understand current issues as they relate to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, as these events reveal both God’s plans for the world and the pattern for a good, flourishing, human life in this world.
The committee is full of people who are smarter than me (and often clearer than me too), and so its resources are worth checking out. There’s a newly minted page on the PCQ website featuring our first batch of ‘position papers’ on the Gospel, humanity, abortion, sexuality, and how we believe the Westminster Confession (a sort of theological guide for Presbyterian ministers) should shape the way we speak to governments, and what we say. I won’t link directly to those files because the URLs may change with subsequent updates.
Image: A town crier in the public square, From this fun post about why they dress the way they did
Next week I’m taking a group of students from my old stomping ground, Queensland Theological College, to my new stomping ground, South Brisbane. I had to think of something that a wet behind the ears graduate church planter person could possibly hope to offer these guys that is valuable. And that isn’t just grunt work like door-knocking (the bane of college missions, I can say this now that I’m a graduate and a minister, not a whining student — don’t treat college mission students like an army of grunts who really need to learn how to doorknock or do some suitably mundane thing, make mission interesting and helpful). So we’re going out on an excursion to South Brisbane to exegete the suburb. To read the culture. To think about how we might speak the Gospel into this culture, and live the Gospel as part of this culture. (So, maybe I’m getting them to do my market research, but at least it’ll be fun — as you’ll see below, it’s really just going to involve them drinking coffee and using their eyes and ears).
In Christian parlance we use the word ‘exegete’ to describe the task of reading, interpreting, and understanding a text. In my circles this means interpreting a passage using a framework that we bring to each text — where we ask what God is saying in that passage through the person who wrote it to the people he’s saying it to, the people who first read it, and by extension, us. We ask how it fits in the bigger picture of God’s story, The Bible (Biblical theology), particularly with a view to how it helps us understand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and how it fits with what we know about who God is via the rest of the Bible (systematic theology). We’re guided by trying to understand the historical context, including the language originally used (Hebrew, and Greek). We’re guided by trying to understand the literary context — the genre, the author, the audience. Exegesis is really important for drawing sound conclusions from the Bible in order to point people to the truth it contains.
Good preaching, good evangelism, requires good exegesis. A good understanding of God’s word, and the Gospel.
Exegesis. It’s a good word. Even if it sounds a bit fancy pantsy.
Good evangelism also requires good listening. Good loving of the people we’re speaking to. Not just belting people on the head with what we think.
To be good proclaimers of the Gospel we need to conduct an exercise similar to the exercise we conduct with God’s text, the Bible, with the people we speak to. We need to exegete the culture we hope to speak to — just as loving God’s word leads us to carefully interpret it, loving the people we hope to speak to leads us to carefully interpret them. Exegesis is a sort of attentive listening. We can’t just bring our own pre-conceived agenda to a text, reading it on our terms and bringing our own meaning (that’s called eisegesis). That’s not treating the text with respect. In the same way, we can’t simply shout (or speak) our message to the people around us. We need to listen to, and respect, the people we’re speaking to in order to love them, as much as we need to tell them our good news in order to love them. And we’ll tell them our good news, about the life changing death and resurrection of Jesus in a way that makes it clearly good news if we understand them better.
We need to exegete the people in the places we’re sent to share the Gospel. The best, clearest, picture of what this looks like is found in Paul’s visit to Athens. It’s there in the text of Acts 17, but it’s also beneath the text (and we can make this picture richer through good exegesis). This post isn’t ultimately exploring Paul’s methodology in Acts, its trying to give a guide to what applying this methodology might look like in our time and place. But I’ve bolded the bits here I think are really important for building our own model. The odd bits I’ve bolded in his speech at the Areopagus are where Paul quotes important philosophers and poets from the world of his hearers (and his own world — one is a philosopher from Tarsus). Paul carefully splits his audience by quoting some people he knows appeal to certain thinkers, and then showing some inconsistencies in the tests they’re trying to apply to his message — his good news — about ‘Jesus and the resurrection’… Even as Luke writes he demonstrates, himself, a familiarity with the lay of the land in Athens and with who was who in the Athenian zoo. He knows what parts of Paul’s time in Athens are significant to observe and record for the sake of those looking to Paul’s methodology for a model for our own presentation of this good news.
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus,where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else [note: Paul is articulating a common, stoic, belief about God here, as well as a Jewish/Christian belief]. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ [Paul is quoting sources his audience is familiar with, though the ‘in him we live and move and have our being’ also has Old Testament roots]
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others. — Acts 17:16-34
Paul’s evangelism is pretty savvy. It’s savviness doesn’t guarantee wholesale conversion, but this is Paul speaking in an environment that is hostile to Christianity, and because he lovingly pays attention to the people he is speaking to, and takes the time to connect, he gets a hearing for the Gospel, and some people, by God’s grace, and through the work of the Spirit, hear what he has to say and believe. They’re left wanting to hear more about Jesus and the resurrection.
Anyway. How might we do a Paul? Do we need to read ancient philosophers? Or was Paul doing something more like watching reality TV and being an astute observer of culture? It would be easy to make this sound hard, but I suspect as a Tarsus born Roman citizen, as well as being an educated Jew, Paul was simply bringing who he was and what he knew to the act of lovingly and carefully observing the people he spoke to. It’s not rocket science. Evangelism is simply a matter of carefully listening to the people you love, in order to lovingly offer the Gospel as a better path to human flourishing. That’s what Paul does. He says you guys really want to find God. You long for that. Well here he is.
Our modern idols might not be statues — but they tap into, and represent — similar longings, and are part of similar frameworks or philosophies. We’re creatures of desire. Part of presenting the Gospel is understanding these desires as they take shape in different places. You could do worse than checking out the TV guide for the Lifestyle Channel. But desires manifest themselves differently in different places and amongst different demographics. Place is important. Paul operates differently in Athens, Corinth, and Jerusalem (though both require a careful exegesis of where he is, and he’s equally lovingly incisive in each place).
This isn’t hard. We invent all sorts of labels for this, like contextualisation. But what we really mean by this is loving the other person. Listening. Understanding. And doing this before we speak. The only reason that’s hard is because our default is still to put ourselves and our truth first. We’re meant to put Jesus first, and then the other. That’s meant to flavour how we speak. So Paul says in Philippians 2:
“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” — Philippians 2:1-5
Listening well, loving well, involves humility. Christ shaped humility. That’s part of living out and speaking the Gospel. It’s the humility that leads us to put others first in the way we speak about Jesus. Because the way we live and the way we speak should line up. Like they did for Paul, in Athens, and in Corinth, where he ‘resolved to know nothing but Jesus and him crucified’ and later says:
I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. — 1 Corinthians 4:17
As I mentioned in a recent post, I love the idea from philosopher Iris Murdoch that loving goodness, virtue even, requires us to unselfishly try to truly see the world around us, and to understand what drives the people around us in order to understand them in a good and loving way. That’s what Paul does, and its at the heart of a virtuous approach to sharing the good news (and its why bashing people over the head with what we believe about them, rather than engaging with what people believe about themselves is frankly an unloving way to undermine our message by through methods that don’t match up).
“…goodness is connected with knowledge; not with impersonal quasi-scientific knowledge of the ordinary world, whatever that may be, but with a refined and honest perception of what is really the case, a patient and just discernment and exploration of what confronts one, which is the result not simply of opening one’s eyes but of a certain and perfectly familiar kind of moral discipline.” — Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good
I collected some advice from smart people on social media, and I’d written a thing on ‘exegeting a place’ a few years back with my public relations hat still on, which turned out to actually be somewhat sage advice. So. Here’s what I’ll be asking this team of students to ponder as they wonder the streets of South Brisbane (bonus points if you’re a QTC student reading this ahead of time. The reason I’m posting this now is to ask you, the hive mind/brains trust to suggest better questions to ask when reading a place.
Questions to ask when exegeting a place
I reckon these are some good questions to guide us in ‘walking around’ and ‘looking carefully at the objects of worship’ in a place.
Where do the people here come from? Are they locals? Do they work here? Or is this a ‘third place’ (somewhere they come to play, rest, eat)? What are people doing with their time? Are the cars parked on the road new or run down? What demographics of people are here?
How does life here match the stats? Where would you find stats about this area? See if you can find some. What stands out? How would you find out about the future of this area? Who could you talk to to understand life here?
Are the people working or running businesses here busy? Optimistic? Happy? Satisfied?
What would it be like to live here? Where are the key places/nodes? Transport? Services?
Count the cranes in the skyline. Investigate. What are they here for? What is being built? How does this make locals feel? How might it shake up the fabric of this area?
Where are the marketplaces where ideas are discussed? What are the idols? What are the longings that create these idols? What are the “common objects of love” here? The things that bring people here, and bring people together? Where are people forming community? Where is shared life happening within this community/place? What are the ‘rituals’? What are the ‘festivals’? What is the default spiritual practice?
What is ‘life’ like? What’s On? What’s trending? What looks new? What looks old? What looks run down? What looks empty? What looks popular? What art is being produced, displayed, and celebrated here? What are people photographing in this location online (Instagram etc)? What are they reviewing on trip advisor? Beanhunter? Urban Spoon? What are they saying?
What are people spending money on? What are people giving time and attention to?
What are the loves driving people in this place? What are the obvious needs? What stories do you imagine people living in this setting? Where are the ‘philosophers’ behind these stories? What is being advertised on location specific ads here (advertisers do demographic research so you don’t have to)? What does local media talk about (find a copy of the West Ender)? What is the history of this place, how is it present in the present?
What observations can you make about this place that would help shape how you proclaim the Gospel here? What sort of things would you do in this community to help people hear about Jesus and the resurrection?
“People of Rome, we are once again free!” —Brutus, after the death of Caesar
I keep reading that the problem with Aussie politics is politicians keep turfing/knifing/assassinating one another without going to the people for a vote/voice. I keep hearing media pundits who are angry about leadership changes, but don’t acknowledge the blood on their own hands. Like Karl, in these two clips from the Today Show this morning.
I keep hearing politicians blaming the media. But I’m pretty sure this is a problem with the vox populi. The voice of the people. It’s too loud. It’s too selfish. It’s too powerful. And both the media and our politicians — people who should know better, and should have roles to uphold in public life — are too reactive to this voice. And not active enough in calling us, the public, to match our voice with actions. To do more than just sit on the couch and (loudly) express our discontent as we consume media, which exists, at least in part, to fuel our desire to consume our politicians. It’s a vicious cycle, and this viciousness is at least, in part, our fault.
I think the problem is that our voice is now too loud. It’s amplified by social media, by polling, by a media that increasingly makes us part of their coverage (check out the number of news stories featuring impromptu vox pops via Twitter, or report on discussions on social media as though they are substantial, or required for substantive coverage of a complex issue).
There’s a certain amount of the 5 Prime Ministers in 5 years story that is down to political opportunists within their parties — but most would be leaders want to lead, and have some sense of how that leadership should happen. Rudd and Abbott were both, in some measure, brought down because they concentrated too much power in the hands of an unelected few — their staffers — at the expense of their elected colleagues. Both parties appear to play a game predicated on holding on to government, rather than governing well. But they can be excused for doing this, because our political parties, and parliaments, are actually full of people who’ve put their hands up and said “we want to make a difference” and “we believe in something” and power in a democracy is fundamentally based, and held, on providing good government. Or so it should be. People who want power for power’s sake either already have billions of dollars, and treat parliament with contempt, or they get weeded out by the system. I’ve met quite a few politicians from local, state, and federal politics — as a trainee journalist, in my role with an economic development lobby group in North Queensland, and through various connections — and just about every one of them, from all sides of the political spectrum (including Bob Katter) have been more than decent. They’ve been people of character and virtue seeking the good of their neighbours according to their ideologies. You wouldn’t know it from our media, or from the public perception of politicians — but I think public perception drives the way politicians are portrayed in the media as much as the media drives public perception of politicians. Plus. We make it so difficult for politicians that they constantly walk on egg shells, we nail them for deviating from whatever script we think they should be following, and then complain that they’re ‘robotic’ or ‘inauthentic’… We also tend to believe that government, managing the competing priorities of individuals and community groups, and managing an economy, is simple. I’ve been guilty of this myself.
Why is it that making good decisions and making popular decisions seem to be at odds when they should be synonymous? It’s that we, the people, are typically driven by one agenda. Selfishness. It’s almost politically impossible to bring in unpopular policy that is good policy. And part of that impossibility is the 24 hour news cycle (and its in built cynicism about people who hold public office). This news cycle bombards us with story after story about policies that potentially come at our cost. And so, opinion turns. With social media we don’t just get the media we deserve, we create it. People share outrageous things, and express outrage, as a default.
But good government costs us, and it requires selflessness, rather than selfishness.
We’re facing a population that, on average, will be much older than populations of the past. We’re unhealthier than ever because we stuff our faces with convenient junk food. We are selfish with our money and don’t want to pay more tax in order to pay down spiralling debt. We want government spending on quick fix solutions, or entertainment precincts, where we see an immediate benefit rather than long term infrastructure projects. These problems require tough solutions that come at our cost. But try selling those to the electorate. As Ross Gittins says, we’ve become a nation of selfish contradiction.
People lay the blame for our political unrest at the feet of the media, there was a hint of that in Tony Abbott’s gracious concession speech, but the media is feeding a demand that we create. We buy more, watch more ads, and engage more when there’s a hint of blood than we do when things are business as usual. My Facebook feed last night is evidence of this.
Your voice has not been taken away. Sure, you might never have been polled personally, but polls work because they reflect the people who respond to them, and they get responses from enough people (though only around 6% of people who are asked, are prepared to respond) to give an accurate picture of public opinion. And if it’s not accurate, that’s probably as much the fault of the 94% of people who don’t care enough to respond when polled. Having your voice heard might start with never saying no to an opinion poll, even if the call comes at dinner time.
Even without polls. You have a voice all year around. It’s not just contained in the very small percentage of people who are polled, so that the media know who we want in office. You know what speaks louder than polls? Being active in public life. Writing letters. Calling talkback radio. Speaking out. Serving. Volunteering. Joining a party and becoming part of the process of forming policy. Working in the public service. Meeting your local member. Loving your local member, regardless of ideology. Thanking them for serving you even if the knife is never far from their back, and the electoral precipice that we’re so keen to tip them over, is never too many steps ahead.
Our say has never been taken away. It’s been amplified. Our political turmoil is a reflection of politicians who react too quickly to public sentiment, and a media that is getting really good at quickly gauging public sentiment, but also increasingly good at shaping it. Stop being shaped by the media and start shaping it. Read beyond your circle. Selflessly pursue truth, and share it. Share ideas you disagree with, with grace and charity, not just to show how engaged and superior you are to those who are governing. Be charitable to people on both sides of the political divide rather than immediately, and naively, adversarial. Converse. Find common ground. Try to understand why people hold ideologies other than your own. This stuff isn’t rocket science, but our public square, and the players in it (increasingly including us via social media) are actively working against these ends.
Until we make it clear that we don’t actually want to be governed by a popular politician we’re going to be increasingly subject to a media (and a social media) that is increasingly reactive, and increasingly able to quickly take the whimful pulse of an Australian public. We’re not just driven by whims, we have short attention spans, we love outrage and controversy. We’re fickle. We turn against people quickly on the basis of what we read in the media — be it traditional media, or social media — that has a vested interest in serving us up material that conforms with our ideology (whether we pick our media outlet, or a social media algorithm picks who is serving us up content), and wants to keep us outraged because outrage is sexy, and it sells.
We need to break this cycle which is, at every level, built on the selfishness of the public. Politicians can’t govern well for us because we are selfish. The media caters to our selfishness and self interest because it exists to sell products, and hold an audience. And we, the audience, keep coming back. If we want our voice to be heard in the public square, maybe its time we earned it by working for the good of the public, not our own good? Maybe it starts with a better public square. A better conversation. Maybe it starts with this idea the ABC’s Scott Stephens shared at a recent conference on Faith and Public Office.
Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.
This idea was caught up with giving the public voice its proper place, and including the excluded voices from that public voice. But Stephen’s vision for the public square went beyond this, it involved a move from the sort of public square that relies on people reflecting the public’s already entrenched (selfish) views back at itself to reinforce them. It involved stepping beyond cynicism into the realm of the imagination, fanning our ability to imagine and work towards something better than we have, rather than just trying to toss out stuff we don’t like. The problem with how things currently play out is that our media reflects our self interest. Stephens expanded his vision for this virtuous public broadcaster with the below, but social media might give us this opportunity. Instead of being an opportunity for more of the same, just without the code of ethics and the professionalism of the mainstream press, these aren’t direct quotes, they’re notes I belted out as Stephens spoke, but they do articulate a picture of something better that we might be a part of:
Is it the role of the broadcaster to give people a vision of what they already think on whatever device they want. The moral responsibility of a public broadcaster has to be something larger than that.
More than any other thing, cynicism is killing us. Doubt. Secularism. Forget those. Cynicism is killing our common life. Our inability to trust one another and look for and hope for the best from our public figures is destroying the bonds that ought to hold us in common.
All journalists want their watergate moment. Changing your mind is condemned as a betrayal of public trust. We are killing the ecology of the public conversation. It’s not vested interest that is corrupting public life. It’s lack of imagination. It’s laziness. It’s the inability to have our imagination stimulated by a desire for something more.
Maybe if we start modelling this our politicians will listen, and so too, will the media. Maybe we should, whether we’re part of the church or not, take on this picture of a virtuous contributor to the public square. We have an opportunity via social media to be a new kind of public broadcaster…
Maybe the first step is being comfortable with silence. Using it to contemplate, rather than looking to fill it with arguments and new information that we assess through the prism of our selfish, unimaginative, hearts. The things we tend to imagine, at least in my experience, tend to be caught up with our own self interest, and our idols, rather than the common good and what such a good will cost us (though the common good, itself, can be an idol).
It’s not just our politicians and our press that have blood on their hands. We do too.
23 stab wounds create a fair bit of blood, so you can imagine that as Brutus proclaimed a freedom the Roman people hadn’t asked for, in the aftermath of the assassination of Caesar, he had pretty bloodied hands. Unlike the people of Rome who locked themselves in their houses when Caesar was deposed, and disposed of, because they didn’t want responsibility for his death, we locked ourselves in our own houses last night to watch the execution of a leader. With popcorn. And pithy insights. The blood is on our hands because the assassination, in part, was of our making. A product of our selfish, fickle, hearts, and the self-interested, fickle, public square this creates via the media and political scene that sets itself up and operates according to our whims.
But let’s, for a moment, imagine a different way forward — a different path to freedom. A different sort of blood on our hands.
People of Australia, we won’t be free until we stop crying for blood, we won’t be free until we’re prepared to start spilling our own blood for others.
Those of us who follow the crucified king have a model for a contribution to public life that involves blood on his hands, and our own. And it’s not through the knifing of others. It does involve the death of a king though — and its in this death, and this story, that we see what it might actually cost us to break the hold of selfishness on our hearts, and our minds. It’s this model of open-handed, sacrificial, love that will undo our grasping, and get our hand off the knife. The great irony, of course, is that the execution of Jesus was an example of grasping human hands wanting to usurp the rule of God, and it was an expression of those grasping hands at the start of the Bible, in Eden, that reached out, again, to push God from the picture. Grasping like this is part of the human condition. It shouldn’t surprise us to find the blood of a leader on our hands because we don’t like tobe lead. Selfishly, we love our autnomy. We’ll kill for it — and we’ll end careers for it. It’s why we have blood on our hands. It’s why we grab for the knife. It’s why politics in our country is a fraught business. And it’s why something’s got to give. We’ll always have blood on our hands — the choice is whether its someone else’s, taken for our own good, or ours shed for the good of others, just as his blood was shed for us. The suffering servant, the one who gives of himself, and his comfort, for the sake of others, is a famous picture from Isaiah the prophet in the Old Testament that very clearly describes Jesus, is the real “shepherd of the public square” and keeper of the moral ecology.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. — Isaiah 53:5-6
It’s in Jesus that we see this play out. In his approach to power, in his failure to ‘grasp,’ in his being bloodied on our behalf. This is the pattern we might follow if we want to end the bloodshed, and change the public square for its good, at our cost. It is, too, how we might come close to solving some of the big political dilemmas of our time. Dilemmas created by human selfishness. Because its where we see love that brings freedom in all its bloody-handed fullness.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.— Philippians 2:5-8
It’s a scary picture. A bunch of Syrian refugees in Germany gatherer around the hideous black ISIS flag. Clashing with police. Way to throw such a loving and hospitable welcome back in people’s faces right?
Or not. In that, it’s not a bunch of Syrian refugees from the latest influx gathering around this flag. It’s some German ISIS supporters, a year ago, waving a flag that Germany has since banned.
This image that’s doing the rounds on Facebook via some fear-mongering race-baiting watchdogs is from a year ago. Here’s a blog post from 2014 featuring the same image that is being shared online as though it happened two days ago.
This is something of an Internet false flag. It’s becoming increasingly common for people to take pictures out of context and harness them for agendas, often to create fear and outrage. Or fear and loathing.
And that’s dangerous.
Truth is so important. Especially in fraught and complex geo-political situations where millions of people have been displaced by evil regimes hell bent on genocide.
Wikipedia calls a “False Flag” action one that:
“False flag (or black flag) describes covert operations designed to deceive in such a way that the operations appear as though they are being carried out by entities, groups, or nations other than those who actually planned and executed them. Operations carried out during peace-time by civilian organizations, as well as covert government agencies, may by extension be called false flag operations if they seek to hide the real organization behind an operation. Geraint Hughes uses the term to refer to those acts carried out by “military or security force personnel, which are then blamed on terrorists.”
In this case, militant websites with an anti-refugee agenda are conducting operations on social media that are then blamed on terrorists. And if you share these images without verification, you’re aiding in their dark arts.
Truth is especially important for Christians because it’s part of how we love —both how we love our brothers and sisters, and our enemies. It’s important when we’re dealing with genuine refugees, including brothers and sisters in Christ, and our Muslim neighbours who are fleeing a violent and destructive regime.
Welcoming refugees involves cultural change. It involves giving something up. It involves sharing the hard fought and hard won prosperity that our country enjoys thanks to the work of previous generations. But love costs. And love always involves change. And change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it certainly hasn’t been bad historically. Australia benefits from multi-culturalism. Though the Indigenous population in Australia have legitimate complaints about the way they were treated by a bunch of boat people. Most messages to the contrary are fear driven.
And look, it’d be naive to suggest refugee resettlement doesn’t come with some social costs — there are massive issues trying to accommodate multiple cultures in different places, there may even be criminals who take advantage of our generosity, but that’s not a good reason not to be generous. The key to minimising these difficulties is loving and inclusive communities, not panic-driven fear mongering.
A word for Christians
This is especially true for Christians, and sadly it’s those wanting to protect a “Christian” way of life who share stories like this. So let me speak directly to Christians for a moment, not because Australia is a Christian nation and we should want to protect that, but because we’re meant to be imitating Jesus in our engagement with the world. And listening to him. It may be that some ‘enemies’ of Australia, or of Christianity, come to our shores as refugees (or to European shores). Our nation will decide what to do with refugees, and fear might be part of that decision, but that shouldn’t be a result of our fear.
Here’s how Jesus says to respond to this.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. — Matthew 5:38-48
Sounds unrealistic right. But it’s what Jesus calls for us to do, and what he demonstrates, on our behalf, at the Cross. You were the evil person. Your heart is the sort of heart that lead humanity to kill God. To crucify Jesus. And yet, while you were still a sinner — an enemy — a Godkiller — Christ died for you.
There will be costs for loving and welcoming refugees. But we should be most willing to pay them.
You might be afraid of what these costs will mean for you and your children. And that’s normal. But we shouldn’t respond to fear the way the world does. Our ‘fears’ have a different perspective. Or, again, as Jesus puts it…
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. — Matthew 10:28.
Interestingly, that same chapter has something to say about providing welcome to those in need —especially those who also belong to Jesus (but all people ‘belong’ to Jesus in one sense, don’t they, whether they know it or not. That’s kind of the point of the “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” — what has Caesar’s image on it — and “give to God what is God’s”…). This is what not fearing the one who can kill the body looks like… Taking up our cross. Following Jesus. Costly love for his sake.
Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” — Matthew 10:40-42
The sort of love Jesus calls us to give our neighbours, this sort of welcome, is what he also calls us to give to our enemies, in the hope they’ll become our neighbours. The apostle, John, seems to have these bits of Jesus’ teaching in mind as he writes to the church. It’s interesting to see what he does with fear, and how he values truth and love, in these words. If only we were more inclined towards pursuing truth and love, rather than fear, when it comes to what we share online.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. — 1 John 3:16-18
And here’s the bit about fear — which again nails a failure to love our brothers and sisters. Which, again, is a warning that we might need to take seriously if a significant percentage of Syrian refugees are followers of Jesus, and we might also need to take seriously if we’re called to love our enemies like Jesus did… And that’s the basis of the sort of love Jesus calls us to.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear,because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. — 1 John 4:16-20
Truth and love are so important in a fear driven world, especially where social media exists to amplify people’s outrage and loathing, where fact checking comes a distant second to opinion sharing. Please. Please. Don’t join in false flag activities as a Christian. We have a flag. We have a standard bearer. It’s the Cross, and the one who carried it first. Carry that online. Make that your true flag. Be known for holding out the love of Jesus, even to our ‘enemies’…
This is the last in a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention, next, we considered that social media works to show us things calculated to appeal to our selfishness, then whether we have a moral obligation to notice or pay attention to disorder, and where we might or might not be culpable for failing to be outraged, then the link between a dead lion and Planned Parenthood — our disordered hearts, we considered the purpose of outrage, then some ancient Greek visions of virtue.
Remember Cecil the Lion?
How about Kony 2012?
What about Aylan Kurdi?
How quickly do we move on from that which outrages?
Cecil the Lion was a shot almost two months ago. His was the story that sparked this series in which I consider why we get outraged, what our tendency towards outrage might teach us about the world and our humanity, and what a more virtuous, loving, and constructive response to our disordered world might look like.
It turns out that outrage has a shelf life. The dentist who shot Cecil is going back to work this week. It also turns out that there’s a saturation point where people stop caring about information released in chunks (probably including this series of posts — but hey, I like to write for the “long tail” not the cheap virality of a sensationalist piece). So onwards into this question of outrage, and how we respond virtuously — with love — to those at the heart of outrageous events — be they victims or perpetrators. Because I think it’s this sort of radical love for people at both sides of something outrageous that defines a Christian response to disorder in the world. Here’s what Jesus says…
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:43-48
But what is love? What is love in the face of disorder?
Love and Virtue as attention seeking understanding in a virtually connected world
In the first few posts in this series I’ve basically suggested that outrageous events should propel us towards God and acting virtuously not towards forming lynch mobs or misdirected anger.
How then, should we define what is ‘good’ or virtuous— not just for ourselves, but for the community we’re part of? And what is this ‘community’ in the global age? Aristotle’s view of virtue was very much limited to proximity, you could only be concerned about those in your sphere, and only be assessed as a virtuous/moral agent based on how you treated people in your orbit. This obviously worked in his media culture which was transitioning from exclusively oral to oral and written. You found out about disorder as you experienced it, immediately, or as you were told, a long time after the fact. The media landscape we live in has fundamentally changed because space and time aren’t the limiting factors they once were for us in terms of forming communities or connections with people around the globe, or for being confronted with disorder and given the capacity to respond.
We may feel like solving world events is beyond our control, but the changing nature of ‘connectedness’ or community doesn’t just bring more awareness of problems, it brings more opportunities for us to communicate, relate, and love, beyond geographic boundaries. A solution to something outrageous may involve us sacrificially directing our attention, or love. This direction of love may involve activism, it may involve a movement towards physical proximity via a flight (we’re also more geographically connected than ever before), it may involve us giving money…
But the new media landscape means we’re actually bombarded with outrageous events, almost faster than we can possibly receive them, let alone respond to them. And there’s still plenty we don’t see because media agencies filter the least palatable material from global conflict and disaster so that we don’t have to see things as they really are.
If Aristotle was right about our moral responsibility resting with causes that we’re proximate to, and able to change, what is our moral responsibility when our new connected landscape means we’re just a mouse click away from outrageous events, and potentially a mouse-click away from a solution to these outrageous events?
What does virtuous or moral action look like in this connected and obviously disordered world? What do we need to do in order to be loving? And how do we decide what to love? It’s a question I grappled with in a more specific sense when people were changing their profiles to a ن in response to ISIS persecuting Christians, and tried to apply practically here. But it’s still a question I’m trying to unpack a little more.
In the last post in this series I looked at how Aristotle’s concept of virtue and arete (moral excellence) and the form of virtue promoted in the New Testament revolved around contemplation and knowing, the sort of contemplation and knowing that produces right actions. I’m going to suggest here that contemplation and knowing, via the application of loving attention, is the first virtuous act that we should bring to the table when we’re trying to respond to outrageously disordered events in the world, and that this should form the basis of whatever moral actions we take in response (and this will necessarily mean ‘outrage’ and forming an outraged mob is not the right, loving, response. This sort of love is the foundational virtue we should bring to the table, and because I’m a Christian, I’m going to suggest this love should be understood as “Christlike love.”
And I’m going to suggest that the act of love is an act of giving true attention, whether you’re a Christian or not.
From Aristotle to Augustine: Love, contemplation, and order
A few posts back, I suggested that most of the disorder we’re responding to the world is a result of our disordered hearts — our disordered love — hearts that orient humanity towards self-love at the expense of others. Virtue, or re-ordered love, will necessarily break this default pattern and seek order, rather than disorder. There are non-Christian accounts of virtue that seek to break this default, which I’ll get to below, but there’s also a sense that current visions of virtue, in the secular west, are derived from Christian moral philosophers who spent time reflecting on thinkers like Aristotle. If you were handing out jerseys to people who were influential thinkers on this front, after Aristotle and the New Testament, Augustine would definitely get a run in the team. People are still unpacking the implications of the stuff he wrote 1,600 years after he wrote it.
Augustine pinpointed the source of disorder in the world — the sort previously attributed to self-loving hearts — to hearts that reject God’s purposes for creation and humanity because they are hearts that love things in the wrong order. Disorder is a product of us paying attention to, and seeking satisfaction in, things that are not capable of satisfying our desires because they aren’t God. He saw the path to virtue as involving re-orienting, and re-ordering our love of objects in this world — people or otherwise — by loving God first, and having our love for other things ordered by this love.
And thus beauty, which is indeed God’s handiwork, but only a temporal, carnal, and lower kind of good, is not fitly loved in preference to God, the eternal, spiritual, and unchangeable good. When the miser prefers his gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing. For though it be good, it may be loved with an evil as well as with a good love: it is loved rightly when it is loved ordinately; evilly, when inordinately. It is this which some one has briefly said in these verses in praise of the Creator: “These are Thine, they are good, because Thou art good who didst create them. There is in them nothing of ours, unless the sin we commit when we forget the order of things, and instead of Thee love that which Thou hast made.”
But if the Creator is truly loved, that is, if He Himself is loved and not another thing in His stead, He cannot be evilly loved; for love itself is to be ordinately loved, because we do well to love that which, when we love it, makes us live well and virtuously. So that it seems to me that it is a brief but true definition of virtue to say, it is the order of love; and on this account, in the Canticles, the bride of Christ, the city of God, sings, “Order love within me.” — Augustine, City of God, Book 15, Chapter 22
Then, in On Christian Doctrine, basically his version of the sort of ethical/rhetorical work which envisaged the ideal person as the ideal orator or teacher (following in the tradition of people like Cicero who spelled out his own vision of the virtuous person as a seer, knower, and speaker of truth in works like On The Ideal Orator (De Oratore)), Augustine wrote:
“Now he is a man of just and holy life who forms an unprejudiced estimate of things, and keeps his affections also under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love, nor fails to love what he ought to love, nor loves that equally which ought to be loved either less or more, nor loves less or more which ought to be loved equally. No sinner is to be loved as a sinner; and every man is to be loved as a man for God’s sake; but God is to be loved for His own sake. And if God is to be loved more than any man, each man ought to love God more than himself.”— Augustine, On Christian Doctrine I. 27. 28
When it came to defining what love actually means, Augustine started with the love he saw on display within the Trinity from person to person of the Trinity. His understanding of what love looks like was built from the Trinity up, and so, in a thing he wrote reflecting on the Trinity, called De Trinitate, he unpacked a series of links between knowledge, love, and the will. After establishing this same point about God being the first object of our love, saying “so God is to be loved, not this and that good, but the good itself…” he turns to how this sort of love shapes and defines a mind so that it can be called “good” — our minds, he suggests, are shaped by the things we love, and the things we love are the things we seek, and I’d suggest this seeking, for Augustine, is a sort of attempting to understand a thing accurately within our mind.
And to what can it turn itself that it may become a good mind, except to the good which it loves, and seeks, and obtains? And if it turns itself back again from this, and becomes not good, then by the very act of turning away from the good, unless that good remain in it from which it turns away, it cannot again turn itself back…
For Augustine, truly loving God (and by extension true loving) was a matter of seeking to truly know God in our own minds, by applying our minds to knowing and perceiving God (and by extension, whatever it is we seek to love).
But who loves what he does not know? For it is possible something may be known and not loved: but I ask whether it is possible that what is not known can be loved; since if it cannot, then no one loves God before he knows Him. And what is it to know God except to behold Him and steadfastly perceive Him with the mind?
The sort of love Augustine pictures here — both directed at God and others — is a love that seeks to know the mind of the other, not simply a love that loves another on our own terms. It essentially seeks to picture, or understand, the mind of the other within the mind of the self. This process begins with trying to understand God’s mind, and one’s own mind…
What, then, is love, except a certain life which couples or seeks to couple together some two things, namely, him that loves, and that which is loved? And this is so even in outward and carnal loves. But that we may drink in something more pure and clear, let us tread down the flesh and ascend to the mind. What does the mind love in a friend except the mind?
“For the mind cannot love itself, except also it know itself; for how can it love what it does not know? Or if any body says that the mind, from either general or special knowledge, believes itself of such a character as it has by experience found others to be and therefore loves itself, he speaks most foolishly. For whence does a mind know another mind, if it does not know itself?”
For Augustine, perhaps unlike Aristotle, this sort of mindful love occurs as a response to seeing, paying attention to, and knowing those you love, but can also come through hearing about some other person removed from your immediate proximity…
“For whence is the ardor of brotherly love kindled in me, when I hear that some man has borne bitter torments for the excellence and steadfastness of faith? And if that man is shown to me with the finger, I am eager to join myself to him, to become acquainted with him, to bind him to myself in friendship. And accordingly, if opportunity offers, I draw near, I address him, I converse with him, I express my goodwill towards him in what words I can, and wish that in him too in turn should be brought to pass and expressed goodwill towards me; and I endeavour after a spiritual embrace in the way of belief, since I cannot search out so quickly and discern altogether his innermost heart…
But those things themselves we either touch if present by the bodily sense, or if absent remember their images as fixed in our memory, or picture, in the way of likeness to them, such things as we ourselves also, if we wished and were able, would laboriously build up: figuring in the mind after one fashion the images of bodies, or seeing bodies through the body; but after another, grasping by simple intelligence what is above the eye of the mind, viz., the reasons and the unspeakably beautiful skill of such forms
This, of course, is interesting where we now hear and see things that we are not physically proximate to almost instantly. For Augustine this hearing could take place generations after the fact, and could also happen as someone received word about the plight of a person who seemed a world away. Our senses are now bombarded in a manner that does away with physical proximity, or time, as a barrier for knowledge. We form images of others — and see images of others — faster than ever before. Faster than we can possible process and understand with the sort of attention Augustine relished. The answer to navigating the complex mix of disorder that hits our eyes, I suspect, is caught up with rightly ordering our loves, and rightly understanding ourselves and our capacity to respond with love to others. We need to choose to weigh up the needs of those who can be pointed out to us by a finger, or who we see with our own eyes, and those whose presence is mediated to us via a screen, and presented to us via algorithms designed to hold our attention by presenting us with things we are likely to be outraged by — be it the dead squirrel in our yard, a dead lion, dead unborn children, or a dead child tragically washed up on a beach, or any number of meaningful or trivial things — the algorithm has an interest in fanning the flames of our hearts, and stoking our imaginations, in order to grip our attention.
This sort of bombardment of things to love, or respond to, leaves us in an interesting web of relationships with those we know and those we don’t.
Virtue as love, and love as the acts that flow from unselfish true seeing by paying attention
What’s the best we can hope to do amidst this complication? I think it’s caught up with the idea of the ethical life being the virtuous life — the life that isn’t as much focused on responding out of a sense of duty, but simply caught up with the idea of responding as a virtuous agent. Responding to whatever it is we see with a rightly ordered love. A love, for Christians, that starts with loving God, but moves to loving our (global) neighbour (or enemy) as we love ourselves. And I think the way to love, at least in this complicated world, is to love by paying attention in order to see things, and people, truly.
I think this model actually works without God too. Because I think it’s the most virtuous initial response to something happening a world away, because this true seeing underpins truly loving actions. It helps us know what is best. This is the sort of ‘good’ life that David Foster Wallace called people to live in his speech This Is Water
But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: the only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship… — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water
I think it’s a really nice picture of what I understand to be a model of virtuous living without God, and even a model for life with God. David Foster Wallace is the secular world’s CS Lewis. The beauty of his writing, be it fiction or non-fiction, is that it practices the sort of virtue described in This Is Water. He notices things. This virtuous attention to detail, an attempt to describe things and people as they really are, not just as you’d like them to be, is a virtuous and loving approach to writing, and to life. It means we must pay attention to things other than ourselves.
This idea of attention as virtue is interesting, it was a seed planted for me when I was reading something comparing two of my favourite writers— David Foster Wallace and Nicholson Baker — as I grappled with what it is I like about their writing, and the thing I like is that they are attentive to, and bring out, detail. The thing these guys might have in common is that they share a vision of goodness or virtue with novelist/moral philosopher Iris Murdoch. There’s an essay that examines the moral philosophy of This Is Water that suggests a link to Murdoch’s framework, and Baker is an avowed fan. I like the idea that novelists (like Wallace, Baker, and Murdoch) can teach us how to see and perceive the world morally, by asking us moral questions but also by inviting us to pay attention to life through the eyes of their characters, here’s a little paragraph from a Slate article about Baker, its the paragraph that sent me off to read Iris Murdoch because it intrigued me… For context, this comes as the piece discusses Baker’s expressed desire to preserve factoids and articles marked for deletion on Wikipedia (you can read Baker’s Wikipedia essay here).
“That same instinct for preservation underpins the way Baker writes. Ever since his first essays and stories appeared in the early ‘80s, he has always been noting things deemed non-notable by others, gently urging them towards us with his precise, delightful language. His style is deeply moral—not in a preachy sense, but in the sense that it emerges from the way he sees the world. His ethics are absorbed into his aesthetics, and vice versa.
In all this there is the flavor of one of Baker’s favorite authors, Iris Murdoch, who centered her moral philosophy on the idea of “loving attention”—the idea that looking at a person or situation with intense care and imaginative sympathy is, in her words, “the characteristic and proper mark of the moral agent.” The lovingly precise descriptions Baker offers of even the most fleeting things that he comes across are a way of doing justice to those things—of honoring their dignity, if that’s not too grand and religious-sounding a phrase to use. (Baker is an atheist, and also a pacifist.)”
Murdoch unpacks this vision of virtue and morality in a book called The Sovereignty of Good, like Baker, and perhaps like DFW (nobody can really pinpoint exactly where he landed on the God question), Murdoch sees no need for God to form part of defining morality.
It’s hard for me to go this many words, in any written thing, without quoting Cicero, so here’s how he defined virtue. Which I think is important too. Especially the “habit” bit.
“A habit accompanied by, or arising out of, deliberate choice, and based upon free and conscious action”
Murdoch agrees, but suggests this habit starts with the application of the senses, and the mind, to things beyond ourselves. A conscious act of “unselfing”…
“The love which brings the right answer is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking. The difficulty is to keep the attention fixed on the real situation and to prevent it from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy, and despair… Of course virtue is good habit and dutiful action. But the background condition of such habit and such action, in human beings, is a just mode of vision and a good quality of consciousness. It is a task to come to see the world as it is.”
“But I would suggest that, at the level of serious common sense and of an ordinary non-philosophical reflection about the nature of morals, it is perfectly obvious that goodness is connected with knowledge; not with impersonal quasi-scientific knowledge of the ordinary world, whatever that may be, but with a refined and honest perception of what is really the case, a patient and just discernment and exploration of what confronts one, which is the result not simply of opening one’s eyes but of a certain and perfectly familiar kind of moral discipline.”
“Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the ‘unself,’ to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness, in the light of the idea of perfection. This is the non-metaphysical meaning of the idea of transcendence to which philosophers have so constantly resorted in their explanations of goodness. ‘Good is a transcendent reality,’ means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.” — Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good
This fits with how Augustine, and the “Augustinian Tradition” understood love based on God’s love within the Trinity, and towards creation, or, as Oliver O’Donovan puts it: “The term by which the Augustinian tradition expressed the idea of an originally committed attention is “love.” This idea of “love as committed attention” means true seeing involves both understanding and being oriented towards a right response. This, I’d suggest, is what virtue looks like in the face of outrageous events in a disordered world. First knowing who we are, and who we are to love, and then acting according to our judgment from this basis. Or, as O’Donovan explains it…
“To know any thing is to grasp its inherent intelligibility, which is its good: but to grasp its intelligibility is to grasp it and, in grasping it, to cling to it in love…”Thinking morally” is a much wider activity than thinking toward decision. It includes an attention to the world which is both affective and evaluative…Our whole world of beings and events is known to us only as we love and hate. At the root of moral thought is a necessary taking stock of the world. a discrimination prior to any decision we may subsequently make to influence the world. We shall call this taking stock “moral reflection,” to distinguish it from moral deliberation, which is directed toward decision. The metaphors contained in these two words suggest the distinction: `reflection” is “turning back” to look on something that is already there, an existing reality, “behind you,” as it were; “deliberation” is “weighing up,” facing an alternative, looking at possible courses of action that have not yet occurred…Moral reflection is not without a practical significance but it is nor oriented to any action in particular, but to the task of existence itself. In reflection we answer the question ‘how shall we live?” not “what shall we do?”
“By relating ourselves cognitively and affectively to the good and evil that we see within the created world around us, we adopt a posture that is the source of all our actions, but is not itself another action, or a summary of actions, but an affirmation of what we are.” — Oliver O’Donovan, Common Objects of Love
David Foster Wallace thought this sort of seeing of the world necessarily produced a freedom from the selfish default, and simultaneously tapped us in to some deeper sense of connection with “some infinite thing” — I’d suggest this infinite thing is caught up with our created telos — the purpose and sense of the divine written on every human heart.
“… The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water
So how does this seeing, this giving of committed attention, work? What governs how we understand what we see via our attention, and how we respond? It’s all caught up with the narrative we use to see our lives — the equipment we have for processing outrage — and this is a product of what we worship — what we place at the centre of the narrative.
David Foster Wallace also understood this act of deciding how to see the world as an act of worship, and something which frees us to decide what it is to worship — the thing, other than ourselves (and for some, the self) that helps us not just see the world, but how to interact with it well. This sense of true seeing and true acting being based in something other than ourself is important if we are self-aware enough to believe that we shouldn’t be setting the universal standard of our own accord. And our selfish default, when we recognise it, should be enough to prevent that sort of self-belief. It’s what
Virtuous seeing begins with a realisation that we are people-in-community, or people-in-relationship, not just selves running around existing in isolation. Christian moral philosopher Stanley Hauerwas says:
“The self is fundamentally a social self. We are not individuals who come into contact with others and then decide our various levels of social involvement. We are not “I’s” who decide to identify with certain “we’s”; we are first of all “we’s” who discover our “I’s” through learning to recognise the others as similar and different from ourselves. Our individuality is possible only because we are first of all social beings. After all, the “self” names not a thing, but a relation. I know who I am only in relation to others, and, indeed, who I am is a relation with others.” — Stanley Hauerwas
Hauerwas sees ethics about truly seeing the world, but he locates our ability to do this in looking beyond ourselves to a bigger story, starting with God’s story and what it says about us…
Ethics… is not primarily about rules and principles, rather it is about how the self must be transformed to see the world truthfully. For Christians, such seeing develops through schooling in a narrative which teaches us how to use the language of sin not only about others, but about ourselves
This “language of sin” stuff is really, in one sense, a description of the realisation of our default selfishness, and also the realisation that left to our own devices, we produce outrageous events, we don’t just witness them. The narrative Hauerwas calls us to find ourselves in is the Gospel narrative, the narrative that rewires our default, and reorients our sense of self through that commandment Augustine loved so much (and the one from the start, the words of Jesus that call us to love our enemies).
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.” — Jesus, Matthew 22:37-38
Seeing and acting is the basis for Christian loving that follows in the footsteps of Jesus. It’s what we’re called to do as “children of God” in 1 John. It’s how “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!… This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. — 1 John 3:1, 16-18
For Christians, our response to the outrage we see in the world is meant to mirror God’s response to the outrage he saw in the world, and our lives, sacrificial, costly, getting amongst the mess because we are motivated by love. Love isn’t just about attention, or “words and speech” — outpourings of outrage from behind a keyboard. It’s hard stuff that costs us. Actions. Truth. True seeing leads to true actions, and true seeing, linked with the truth of the Christian narrative — both the outrageous truth it reveals about us, and the outrageous love shown to us to change our narrative — reshapes the way we respond to outrage. We pay attention to the stories and the people involved because they have dignity and are worthy of love, and seeing truly is important for true actions. We avoid outrage and knee jerk reactions. We extend grace and love to those who are disordered, because we were once disordered, and we extend grace and love to those who are victims of disorder, because that too, is how God first loved us.
This doesn’t necessarily help us when there are 1,000 things commanding our attention and our pity, responding to this bombardment involves:
- Prayer as our attention is drawn to things, which costs us time, but takes us to the one who can provide solutions, and we’re confident of this because of the solution we found in our own lives,
- Seeking truth, and being known to be credible givers of attention, rather than simply believing every unverified rumour shared on social media, and gives us pause to check the truth of what we say before we say it, or post it,
- This means looking for truth beyond the headlines and the soundbites. Paying the sort of attention to detail we see in the work of virtuous novelists to the characters in these stories.
- Continuing to pay attention long after the attention span of the self-loving community moves on. How many people still have ن pictures as Facebook profile pictures? How many people are still crying out for justice against Kony? How many people care about dead lions? How many people are going to care about Syrian refugees in six months when they might actually be arriving on our shores.
- Speaking truth, and thinking about the nexus between love as committed attention and action, and considering what actions might be appropriate for us in the communities we belong to.
- It involves discipline and discernment. Knowing our limits and avoiding being desensitised to the chaotic disorder in our world, we actually can’t respond to everything, and outrage will be just about every where we look, so we may need to moderate where we look based on where we are able to act, though this doesn’t mean being interested by geographic proximity, rather it involves being limited by where we’re able to respond. That we can respond with prayer does significantly broaden the geographic scope.
- It involves costly action in response.
It’s worth checking out this Centre of Public Christianity interview with the ABC’s Scott Stephens about the moral responsibility that comes from disturbing images.
Here’s the CPX blurb.
“Scott Stephens argues that, in a visually saturated culture, images can both move us and dull us to the plight of others. There exists then a moral dimension to our exposure to images that requires a careful and intentional response.”
A thing I wrote for the Bible Society about the impending arrival of City On A Hill went online last night. It’s in the print copy of this month’s Eternity newspaper. Eternity has just started a local Queensland section in print editions distributed up here that I’m excited to be writing for occasionally.
Here’s the last paragraph.
City On A Hill will change the church ecosystem in Brisbane. It’ll make life uncomfortable for existing churches. Any new animal introduced to an ecosystem causes disruption. I learned that in grade nine science. City On A Hill is a new animal. But if we want our city disrupted by the Gospel of Jesus, we need to keep welcoming new animals into the ecosystem. We want the ecosystem we live in to change – that’s why we’re part of God’s church.
It would be really easy to be anxious about City On A Hill coming into Brisbane’s CBD. Planting a church and reaching Brisbane is pretty hard and “competition” can be a scary thing. I had a recent experience on Facebook where someone moving to Brisbane was looking for church recommendations and heaps of interstate people who love and know Dave Miers were keen to recommend City On A Hill, and it could be disheartening for me, for other ministers, and other church planters in particular, to have a sense that people outside of Brisbane don’t know much about Brisbane’s church scene, but know City On A Hill and know Dave. It could be disheartening if our church strategies were built on securing transfer growth, not on telling people who live in our city about Jesus.
Here’s the stark reality facing the church in Brisbane.
Brisbane’s population is steadily growing. In the 5 year period from 2008 to 2013, the South East Queensland region’s population grew by 2%. If our churches aren’t growing at that rate, they’re actually shrinking. Between now and 2020, Brisbane’s population is projected to grow from 2.1 million people (2013) to 3 million people (2020) — there are some issues with population statistics in this document having different breakdowns between local government areas, and the area treated as “South East Queensland” which includes the Gold Coast, and the Sunshine Coast… but the stats all tell the same story. Our local governments — like the Brisbane City Council — are trying to figure out what infrastructure is required to facilitate this growth, and even just keep pace with it. The church in Queensland needs to do this too.
Queensland is growing faster than most churches in Queensland are growing. Brisbane is growing faster than most churches in Brisbane are growing. Which means we’re actually shrinking.
This new growth means higher density living in some parts of Brisbane, and upgrades to existing infrastructure and networks to keep pace with the growth — a shift in the make up of existing parts of Brisbane. But it also means new suburbs, new roads, new connectivity — new things being built to cater for growth.
Our existing churches should be keeping pace with growth, but we also need more churches to keep pace with this growth. Both more density in high density areas, and more churches in these green field developments.
It’s not rocket science.
Our church infrastructure — which is really a question of human resources, not building resources —needs to be constantly reinvented in order to meet the needs of our growing city and state. The status quo isn’t going to be sufficient if we want to keep pace with growth, or better yet, outpace growth.
That’s why we need City On A Hill, and many more workers for the harvest up here. There are plenty of great churches looking for staff — and the output of our colleges up here isn’t enough to supply the demand (yet). Check out, for example, this job that’s currently going at another inner city church plant. Village Church.
The Centre for the Study of Science, Religion, and Society is a bit of a mouthful, but it’s worth learning how to wrap your tongue around the multiple syllables, or trying to remember the acronym (CSSRS). It’s based at Emmanuel College at the University of Queensland (where Queensland Theological College also resides), and is headed up by Dr Leigh Trevaskis. A top bloke with PhDs in science and theology. It’s aiming to provide an interface between the academic world and the classical Christian faith, and has regular events and a website that will (hopefully) have increasingly valuable content as these conferences take place and fill the digital airwaves (pixelwaves?) with content.
The Centre just held a conference on Faith and Public Office, I tagged along in my capacity as a member of the Presbyterian Church’s committee that thinks about the intersection between faith and public office (and to write a news story about the day that will maybe one day feature in the Eternity newspaper). I don’t want to steal the thunder of that story too much, but a 650 word news story (I can still write in less than 6,000 words) is bound to miss some goodness from the stellar line up of panelists. It was a terrific conference, and I’ll be keeping an eye on upcoming CSSRS events.
Image: The Trial of Galileo, a picture of faith and public office coming together in a possibly not so helpful way, and the banner image of the CSSRS.
1. A beneficial public square is a public square that hears all voices. A public square that silences dissenting voices and views, or establishes a common denominator that excludes richness is a path to catastrophe.
This was a sort of universally agreed upon point. Former Deputy PM John Anderson gave the opening speech, kicking off a theme that carried through the day. The public square benefits from people of faith bringing their views to the table – not just ‘natural law’ arguments or arguments based upon an agreed upon set of common assumptions – because hearing all views is vital to a liberal, secular, democracy. The suggestion that views need to be evidence based and speak only of things that everyone agrees on, especially when it is used to silence faith based voices, is not secular but secularist.
If only voices that speak according to an already established general consensus are allowed to be heard, then that consensus will never be able to shift. Anderson gave the example of voices from outside agreed upon norms that have achieved great change, and present examples that should be heard in order to provoke thought. He suggested William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, and secular ethicist Peter Singer would all be ruled out of contributions to public life on the basis of the assumption that conversation must start with common agreement, rather than seek it.
In speaking of the need for a better public square, many of the contributors acknowledged the challenges presented by social media, as well as the tendency for people to shout down views they’re opposed to with increasingly vitriolic methods. But more on that below.
2. Public life, and public office, based on reason, evidence, and the rule of law alone is not enough to stoke the fires of the imagination.
We need a more comprehensive narrative and a fuller view of humanity that speaks to the heart and soul, not just the mind. The conference was co-sponsored by UQ’s Law School, and the head of the Law School, Professor Sarah Derrington opened the festivities with the observation that public life becomes soulless if it just emphasises the bones and foundation of the rule of law and rationality. If that’s all we have, she said:
“The aching of the soul finds no relief in secular politics; civic life has become a farcical drama”
Others observed that the imagination will only be fired if people in the public square introduce counter-narratives that both have a place for the use of the imagination and the heart, and fire those parts of our humanity up in the process. These aren’t exclusively the domain of the Christian, but the Christian has a pretty good story that’ll do this.
3. We need virtuous heroes to speak into this public square to remind us of what has shaped the good parts of where we are today.
It’s not really enough to just be a good political strategist. A few of the panelists, especially those closest to the political scene, moved the discussion about the ideal politician from someone bound by duty to represent the will of the public, to someone elected on the basis of virtue. Fiona Simpson spoke about virtuous servant leadership using Kathleen Patterson’s model of servant leadership, which lists the virtues as:
- agape love
I’m all for virtue ethics. I found her presentation interesting when it was paired with Michael Cooney’s presentation on The Faithful Partisan in Public Office. Cooney is Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre and former speechwriter for Prime Minister Julia Gillard. He’s a church going, card carrying, member of the Labor movement. He talked about a few things but his basic thesis was that the pursuit of political neutrality, or fence sitting, doesn’t really serve anybody all that well. There’s a bit about the implications of this when it comes to commentators trying to appear objective below, but he suggested there’s a real moral challenge for partisan stakeholders when they’re participating in a party that requires holding to a party platform you might disagree with. There’s some interesting ground to unpack here on the Catholic roots of the Labor Party and its approach to ‘excommunication’ versus the Coalition’s less strident position on floor crossing outside cabinet. But Cooney spoke about the challenge of being a faithful partisan – in being both faithful to God and the Party – he talked about political martyrs, those who disagree with a party’s position, and walk away. He said it’s easy to find your way out of politics, with integrity via martyrdom. What’s harder is finding your way still in. Staying in the party. He discussed this harder way using a political dilemma, the Dirty Hands metaphor. This is for cases where a political actor is forced to choose between two bad options. Cooney doesn’t think martyrdom in the face of dirty hands is the best way to serve the public, or a partisan ideology. It’s not enough to just wash your hands of situations like this to avoid being confronted by the mess of structuring messy lives via politics. He quoted this article by Michael Walzer which posits a “suffering servant” leader as the ideal actor through messy dirty hands scenarios, one who knows they are sacrificing themselves and the cleanliness of their hands, for the sake of others. For Cooney (and Walzer), the virtuous partisan political decision maker navigates the dirty hands that come from being involved in the system by being someone of virtue, conviction, and conscience, someone who we can be confident acts as rightly as they can because when they do the wrong thing, they know and believe its a wrong thing, not the best thing. Importantly, Cooney made the point that the partisan doesn’t just operate on behalf of the party, but also the partial. He said “the party is not your city” – partisan participation in politics isn’t just a question of “right politics” but the “good society” and the way to really achieve that, as a partisan, is via humility and repentance. Rather than opting for martyrdom, he suggested partisans should be penitents rather than saints. This is his picture of a political hero.
John Anderson’s vision of the virtuous political actor – the hero – is somewhat embodied by William Wilberforce (and the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury), but also drawn from a speech by Churchill. He loves the way Wilberforce approached politics seeking to bring about social good as the fruits of his faith, rather than detaching them in a secularist sense.
This is what it looks like to be remembered as a virtuous hero. Churchill’s hero, and Anderson’s, is mindful of history and speaks truth to people who are all too willing to forget history – in this context people who are wilfully ignorant of the fact that a liberal secular democracy – and all the things we love about the system – is, historically, the fruit of Christian principles about human dignity being applied to politics.
“One of the signs of a great society is the diligence with which it passes culture from one generation to the next. This culture is the embodiment of everything the people of that society hold dear: its religious faith, it’s heroes… when one generation no longer esteems it’s own heritage and fails to pass the torch to its children, it is saying in essence that the very foundational principles and experiences that make the society what it is are no longer valid. This leaves that generation without any sense of definition or direction, making them the fulfillment of Karl Marx’s dictum, ‘A people without a heritage are easily persuaded.’ What is required when this happens and the society has lost its way, is for leaders to arise who have. It forgotten the discarded legacy and who loves it with all their hearts. They can then become the voice of that lost generation, wooing an errant generation back to the faith of their fathers, back to the ancient foundations and bedrock values.” – Winston Churchill
What’s interesting, I think, is that all these models of talking about virtuous servant leadership talk a little around the example of Jesus, rather than self-consciously being shaped by the example of Jesus. As much as we need to keep acknowledging the gap between our leadership and Jesus’ perfect servant leadership, we are being transformed into his image, and we are united with him by the Spirit (this isn’t necessarily the lynchpin of Catholic theology, and Cooney, at least, was speaking as a Catholic). Jesus is the real virtuous suffering servant, who embodies the true forms of Patterson’s virtues and remembered human history perfectly, drawing on it in order to speak rightly. Anderson did make a bit of a deal about his political heroes consciously seeking to base their actions in the Gospel, and the imitation of Christ, but he turned to Churchill, rather than Jesus, to provide the framework.
In the panel at the end someone, I think the ABC’s Scott Stephens, made the comment that virtues are taught by example. By story. Not by rules and regulations. We need more people leading by example.
4. Winsome and thoughtful contributions that assume the validity of our faith based framework are necessary, because actions are shaped by ideology.
I think it’s interesting given point 2, above, and the desire expressed by the speakers for truth-speaking, virtuous political actors and a public sphere that accepts all voices, that so many Christian voices buy into secularist assumptions and speak into the public sphere using natural law arguments, or arguments devoid of soul, imagination, and an attempt to articulate the divine mind. We’ve accepted the secularist position as the secular position without challenging its assumptions. And now. It’s coming back to bite.
Dr Joel Harrison is a law lecturer at Macquarie University, he spoke about the problem this presents in the legal sphere, where jurists now reject any transcendent rational for behaviour in the real world, the legal system is increasingly dismissive of reasons for behaviour that are not based on common assumptions, and (in a technical sense “more immanent”) evidence based (meaning empircal, science based or logic based) models, for human flourishing. Harrison cautioned that we need to find ways to speak into this world, but we also need to be modelling winsome alternative visions of the good that accommodate a sense of the transcendent. Part of the reason he gave for the legal system moving this way is how poorly such alternatives have been argued in the legal sphere, and in past cases. He suggested contributions that re-introduce, or assume, the validity of the Christian narrative might be a way forward. He suggested Nicholas Aroney’s presentation on The Role of Oaths in Public Office was a good example of what this might look like. It’ll be worth a read when it gets released or published.
5. We must match political arguments with an ‘eloquent life’ in public
Anderson quoted Wilberforce’s epitaph. Which I love.
“He was among the foremost of those who fixed the character of their times; because to high and various talents, to warm benevolence, and to universal candour, he added the abiding eloquence of a Christian life. Eminent as he was in every department of public labour, and a leader in every work of charity, whether to relieve the temporal or the spiritual wants of his fellow-men.”
6. The media’s pursuit of ‘objectivity’ leaves the media commenting on and highlighting questions of political strategy rather than substance and issues (lest they be seen to take sides).
Cooney made this point as he spoke about the common belief that somehow fence-sitting or non-partisanship is somehow a greater good, or a more ethical and virtuous position. Cooney’s broader point was that rightness and wrongness can’t easily be assessed from a disinterested position or the centre. He suggested that in not actually digging to the bottom of issues (to avoid being accused of being partisan) the media has to comment on less substantial issues.
7. The media has a self interest in defining the public and reflecting the public’s views back at itself as a new orthodoxy. This process is dangerous.
Scott Stephens, from the ABC’s Religion and Ethics portal, gave a terrific presentation on the nature of the public, and the public press, and the public square. I hope it gets published somewhere because he crammed three hours worth of great content into 45 minutes. He outlined the process by which the press enlarged, empowered, hollowed out, and then dismembered the public. Here are a some of the questions he raised (and largely answered, though some of them remained questions, and a couple of the points he made that outline this story of the relationship between the media and the public. These are in quote marks to show they come from Scott, but they’re hastily typed notes, not verbatim.
The rise of the public happens alongside the rise of the media. The media never tires of repeating this story, because the media is the hero of the story. The heroic narrative is the story of the throwing off of the old order, the regime of monarchy and church. The press fuelled the revolution, then gradually took its modern form, where it became the medium by which common ideas were debated.
If the popular press is a plebiscite in permanence, then what happens is the press becomes the vehicle that extracts what people think, and turns around and tells people, “this is what you really think”… ?
The more people see themselves reflected in the public press, the more interested they become in the public press. In order for the popular press to be the popular press, the people need to become actors in the public square.
How does this help when it comes to issues that are extraordinarily complex? When you actually want expertise not populism?
This all led to opinion polling, which enshrines the plebiscite in permanence function. When polling started there was a rapid uptake by the public. People polled responded more than 80% of the time, but there was a slow uptake from the media. Now. 6-7% of people polled respond to polling requests, but the stories about opinion polls are the major drivers of stories.
8. Journalists have adopted cynicism as something intrinsic to the role of journalism, this is dangerous to the ‘public’
This is another part of the media story which explains why giving the press the role we have is a little dangerous to both those in public office, and those of us who make up their “public”…
Young journos who came of age during the cold war really wanted to get back into “muckraking” – not offering the sort of faith to public figures that they’d had in the past, but instead to view public officers with skepticism and distrust. Inspired by Watergate (and All The Presidents Men) the journalist became the modern hero. At the expense of the politicians. Keep tabs on how many ‘-gates’ we have these days as journalists hunt for their own version.
Cynicism became a journalistic virtue. Once you take cynicism and disrupt the big channels of communication, and begin to disaggregate the way people get their information, that’s the perfect storm. You’re supercharging it. It’s a climate of suspicion and doubt.
More than any other thing, cynicism is killing us. Doubt. Secularism. Forget those. Cynicism is killing our common life. Our inability to trust one another and look for and hope for the best from our public figures is destroying the bonds that ought to hold us in common. All journalists want their moment. Changing your mind is condemned as a betrayal of public trust. We are killing the ecology of the public conversation. It’s not vested interest that is corrupting public life. It’s lack of imagination. It’s laziness. It’s the inability to have our imagination stimulated by a desire for something more.
9. The church might have a role to play (along with an ethically minded public broadcaster) in shaping the public square in a way that is beneficial to society and especially for voices at the margins.
This was perhaps my favourite quote from my favourite presentation at the conference…
Could it be that the role of the church (and the public broadcaster?) is not so much to be one ideological warrior among many, but the shepherd/keeper of the moral ecology of the public square itself. The defender of whomever is excluded from the public square itself.
This is probably a good way of articulating a big question that I’ve been grappling with both in my own head, and in some recent posts. This is the virtuous and heroic thing for us to do, according to the views of public heroism outlined above, but it’s also the thing that will ensure we maintain a voice at the table even as the public shifts away from us.
10. Social media might be part of the solution. But it is dangerous.
A few speakers, both in their presentations and in the panel discussion at the end, expressed a sense of dismay about the state of the public square, and the way social media seems to be an amplified version of some of the problems with traditional media, where people angrily clamour at one another belting out screeds using keyboards that are sent to wide audiences via ubiquitous screens. There was a sense of optimism from some people that social media could be a game changer, and I believe it could be something the church (and the public broadcaster) use to play the role Stephens articulated above. But it’s a question of creating a platform that genuinely invites all voices to be heard, and that’s harder than it sounds. Cooney, who often belts out partisan opinion pieces in a couple of hours for the ABC’s The Drum, and a few others, acknowledged that there are heaps of online platforms that function just like Q&A, where people go hunting for an ideological champion. People on the panel generally agreed that The Conversation is a pretty good model of what this sort of platform looks like (even if it is a little high brow).
Michael Cooney reckoned the biggest game changer in social media is that it changes the way we receive content. It’s not the concentrated editorial policy of a publication with an agenda (and he, as a partisan, acknowledged there are commercial media outlets both sides expect favourable treatment from), but articles shared by friends and people you follow as trusted curators. I think this is certainly true if you can navigate the noise of Twitter. But Facebook is a little more pernicious. The “filter bubble” effect means you’re just as likely to become entrenched in your views on social media as you are in the mainstream (see this piece on coverage of the Israel v Palestine conflict in the newsfeed of various Facebook users), unless you deliberately give voice to people you disagree with, or who have a different perspective to you, and pay attention to them. This means combating the default settings of Facebook’s algorithm (and to an extent, Google’s search algorithms).
The question I wanted to ask the panel was:
Given that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg says his social media platform functions with the underlying principle that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” and given online media is increasingly curated via algorithms that create this ‘filter bubble’ that are designed to give us what we want to see, how might we play the role Scott Stephens suggests as “keeper of the moral ecology” – the giving and protecting of voices, especially marginalized voices, in an age where new media exists in a ‘filter bubble’? What does this look like?
This, I think, is the question the church absolutely needs to grapple with if we want to play a significant role in the public square, and even, I think, if we want to have a voice in the public square into the future.
11. We need more silence. The Media (and social media) operate as Kierkegaardian “irresponsible speech”
Scott Stephens spoke about Kierkegaard’s (very negative) view of the press, and the sense that moral thought is something that comes through silence as a person considers what is right and true, not through simply speaking opinion without any responsibility or obligation being attached to your words. Both the media and social media function as noisy echo chambers that don’t give people the silence they need to consider moral questions, and worse, they simply entrench opinions people already hold (this is even more dangerous if the social media world is shaped by algorithms and filter bubbles, but Stephens didn’t get to speak much about that). He did speak about the problem with the media as typified by panel discussion shows…
The debate itself, the nature of the conversation, destroys the conversation. The way in which the conversation is had pulls down all sides. It’s about appealing to one’s constituents rather than persuading. All people do is appeal to their constituents so audiences now expect a champion to speak for their point of view well, not to be persuaded. WE don’t get the best versions of the arguments but cardboard cutouts. You already know what people are going to say. The point is that an already fractured audience can look at the panel and say “there’s my champion” and “there’s the person I love to hate”
12. Politics is a tricky business. And we need more people of character. More prayer. More understanding. And more politicians following the ‘golden rule’
In her opening address to the conference, the head of UQ’s Law School, Professor Sarah Derrington, talked about how people of faith in public office have come up with a common agreement about a golden rule that guides their contributions to public life. I tried to capture as much of this golden rule as I could, but I missed a couple of bits.
The Golden Rule involves always showing respect for the other, acknowledging the limits of one’s understanding, listening patiently, using precise language, trying to understand the experience that led to the other person’s views, looking for mutual agreement. Praying for leaders. Not using inflammatory words or derogatory names, not delighting in difficulties, not assaulting character or falsely assuming motives, not demonizing, not questioning the patriotism of others.
Derrington quoted a prayer from Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary General of the United Nations, as a prayer that is a model for how faithful office bearers might pray.
You who are over us,You who are one of us,You who are also within us,May all see you-in me also.May I prepare the way for you,May I thank you for allthat shall fall to my lot,May I also not forget the needs of others.Give me a pure heart-that I may see you.A humble heart-that I may hear you,A heart of love-that I may serve you,A heart of faith-that I may abide in you. Amen.
I like this. One thing I was reminded, hearing from various people engaged in public life, in various roles, in a most excellent conference, was that one way the church is meant to serve those who serve us — be they people of faith or otherwise — is through prayer. Faithful prayer because we have a virtuous suffering servant as our true king, who marks out our true citizenship, defines virtue by example, and calls us to live where we are as exiles who live good lives for the sake of our neighbours and enemies. Here’s how Paul puts it in 1 Timothy 2…
“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.”
Just a heads up — there’s an image at the end of this post that’s incredibly shocking. But that’s absolutely the point and you need to see it.
I have a three year old daughter. Her name is Sophia. I love people to know about her, to hear about her, and to meet her. Because she is a delight. A living breathing smile. Mostly. A picture of much that is good about the world. A delight, but at times, a terror. Her behaviour is so typical of the mixed bag of humanity, one moment she’s cuddling her little sister, the next she’s sitting on her little brother. The same voice that sings beautifully jangled jingles from Disney movies and Colin Buchanan, and Playschool, is occasionally used for dishonesty, but also for honest apologies and that sweet phrase “I love you”… I’ll never tire of that. I see so much of what is good about life and humanity in my kids, and I hope others do too.
Kids are precious. My three year old is precious to me. But she’s not just a terror, she (and my other two children), terrify me. Or more specifically, the thought of something horrific happening to them terrifies me. I’m a significantly more anxious person now that I’m a parent. I’ve taken to caring more for my own well being simply because I want to be around for longer, but there’s this enhanced sense, or an enhancement of my senses, that comes with this new role, and responsibility, to keep my progeny safe and breathing, and to give them whatever I can (but not whatever they think they want) to enable them to flourish in this world. I want them to seek refuge in their home, in me and my wife, and ultimately in God. My children need refuge, they need a home, they need security. And I want to provide that through whatever means possible.
I say this all because despite my heart being so caught up with the delight, and the terror, of parenting, I can’t begin to fathom the life of parents whose existence is so fraught that they must risk their own lives, and the lives of their children, to seek refuge elsewhere. Families like the Syrian family of three year old Aylan Kurdi, whose body just washed up on the shores of Turkey.
We need to do better. The international refugee crisis is a massive and complex issue. There’s no easy solution. But the thing that will stop us finding solutions is the comfort that comes from not being confronted by these issues.
I was trying really hard not to see the picture of Aylan on social media today because I knew it would make me feel incredibly uncomfortable. And it did. But I’m thankful for the people sharing it because me feeling comfortable, and others feeling comfortable, with not paying attention is what stops change happening.
This is Aylan Kurdi. He was three years old. Just like my Sophia. And his parents wanted the best possible life for him. Just like I do for my kids, and if you have kids, just like I hope you do for yours.
This is Aylan Kurdi, who will no longer delight his parents, but instead will bring them grief as their terror is realised. Their very worst fear. UPDATE: It turns out his mother and brother also drowned. Tragedy upon tragedy. Grief upon grief.
This is Aylan Kurdi on the shore of a Turkish beach. Shores where the Gospel washed up with the Apostle Paul back in the first century. Shores close to the churches who received John’s letter of Revelation.
I hate death. And this is a universal tragedy. It transcends religious belief and it feels trite to get all preachy in response. But I have nowhere to turn but God when this sort of tragedy happens. Nowhere but God and his promises for a better, death-free world. No thing to turn to but writing, the attempt to articulate my hope for a better future — as an alternative to grief and despair.
Here’s what John records as a promise from Jesus at the end of his letter, in chapters 21 and 22.
“I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place[a] of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new…
…He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”
Yes. Come Lord Jesus.
But in the mean time, we can do better, but only if we are confronted with pictures and stories like this and forced from our comfort.
An education system is a powerful thing. I’ve perhaps not thought so hard about that power because I spent most of my time in institutions trying to avoid becoming institutionalised. Such is the contrarian streak that runs through just about every fibre of my being.
Australian schools are pretty contested fronts in a bunch of ideology wars — I was only vaguely aware of the “history wars” back when John Howard was Prime Minister, but at the moment there’s a “worldview war” going on for the hearts and minds of our nation’s youth.
It’s interesting, and worth chucking in up front, that Christians have long known about the importance of educating kids. One of the big reforms Martin Luther championed in the Reformation was in the education space. You couldn’t tell people they should be able to read the Bible for themselves, robbing the priesthood of some of its mysterious power, like Luther did, without teaching kids to read. The early schools in the Australian colony were also, often, set up by churches (eventually becoming public schools), and there are still Christian schools all over the place. Christians love education because education is powerful — in some sense, we should have no fear of education if we are confident that what we believe is true and stands up to scrutiny and comparison with other world views. But we should also realise that education isn’t ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ because curriculum are typically set as an expression of a set of values — we should realise that because we’ve been doing it at least since Augustine told Christian teachers to make sure they got a robust classical education so that they could understand God’s world in order in order to preach the Gospel of Jesus well in De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching). This was published back in the year 397. Education served the church’s agenda well for a long time.
It turns out Christians aren’t the only ones who know that education is a powerful tool for deliberately shaping the way our young people see and interpret the world. A Sydney school, Burwood Girls, which happens to be the school my mum went to as a girl, kicked off a massive round of controversy this week when they decided to make a screening of Gayby Baby compulsory for students, who were also to “Wear It Purple“ as an act of solidarity for the LGBTQI community. According to the Wear It Purple “about us” page, the student-led organisation believes:
“Every young person is unique, important and worthy of love. No one should be subject to bullying, belittlement and invalidation. We believe in a world in which every young person can thrive, irrelevant of sex, sexuality or gender identity… We want rainbow young people to be safe, supported and empowered in each of their environments.”
This sounds like a pretty noble aim to me, so long as there’s room in the rainbow spectrum for people who share different visions of human flourishing. I desperately want my lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer and intersex neighbours to thrive, and I want to love them, but I also want an Australia where those neighbours are able to love me. And where we’re able to disagree, charitably, about what place sex and sexuality play in true human thriving. I’m not sure how a kid at Burwood who didn’t share the same framework for achieving a noble aim like this for their LGBQTI friends would feel about being forced to wear purple. I think regimes that force people of different views to wear different colours, historically, are fairly dangerous and not great at providing an environment for human flourishing.
The clothing thing seems almost impossible to enforce as ‘compulsory’ anyway. Doesn’t it? The screening of the documentary, at least in the initial proposal at Burwood Girls, was compulsory. And this raises some interesting questions. Here’s the trailer for the doco.
Mark Powell, a Presbyterian Minister, was quoted in the Daily Tele
“This is trying to change children’s minds by promoting a gay lifestyle… Students are being compelled to own that philosophical view by wearing certain clothes and marching under a rainbow flag. Schools are supposed to be neutral and cannot propagate a political view.”
I’m curious about what change in children’s minds the screening of this movie was attempting to achieve. I’m sure there are dangerous ‘mind changes’ that could be involved (as outlined above), but I’m equally certain there are mindsets about homosexuality in our community that still need to be changed. A Fact Sheet from the National LGBTI Health Alliance presented by Beyond Blue, contains the following picture of the landscape for young LGBTQI Aussies… Perhaps we do need to change children’s minds… and perhaps normalising the gay lifestyle is part of that…
“Lesbian, gay and bisexual Australians are twice as likely to have a high/very high level of psychological distress as their heterosexual peers (18.2% v. 9.2%). This makes them particularly vulnerable to mental health problems. The younger the age group, the starker the differences: 55% of LGBT women aged between 16 and 24 compared with 18% in the nation as a whole and 40% of LGBT men aged 16-24 compared with 7%”
Same-sex attracted Australians have up to 14x higher rates of suicide attempts than their heterosexual peers. Rates are 6x higher for same-sex attracted young people (20-42% cf. 7-13%).
The average age of a first suicide attempt is 16 years – often before ‘coming out’.
The elevated risk of mental ill-health and suicidality among LGBTI people is not due to sexuality, sex or gender identity in and of themselves but rather due to discrimination and exclusion as key determinants of health.
Up to 80% of same-sex attracted and gender questioning young Australians experience public insult, 20% explicit threats and 18% physical abuse and 26% ‘other’ forms of homophobia (80% of this abuse occurs at school)
I didn’t go to Burwood Girls. And I finished school 15 years ago. I went to co-ed public schools. But I’m pretty sure I would have benefited from seeing a movie like Gayby Baby when I was at school. In my public schools it wasn’t uncommon for sexual slang about homosexual acts to be used to insult and belittle people, with little regard to how the pejorative use of ‘gay’ or ‘poof’ or any of the litany of terms associated with homosexuality might be heard by those in my year group, or in the school community, who were same sex attracted. Many of the people I know who identify as gay, or same sex attracted, came out after High School, and while I’m sure there are many reasons that are part of this decision for any individual, I can’t help but think the uneducated masses of people they might have had to confront in the school yard who spent years using words associated with their sexual orientation to demean others, was a barrier to having the sort of open conversations about their identity that might have been of benefit to them, to us, and to me. Perhaps I would have been better able to love my neighbour if the environment had been more conducive to my neighbour being truly known? It’s not just Christians who are nasty to gay people, and its not just religion that causes homophobia (and not all disagreement with a sexuality is a phobia).
Is it possible that more education might actually make life at school more comfortable for LGBTQI kids or kids with same sex parents? I would think so. Is it possible that sex education that presents homosexuality as a normal human sexuality might lead to less anxiety, depression, and suicide in the gay community? It seems possible.
Aren’t these good outcomes?
Why then are we Christians positioning ourselves against such education — be it Gayby Baby, or the so-called ‘normalisation of homosexuality in schools’?
I understand a certain stream of Christian thought that wants no sex ed in schools, but in the age of pornography, when kids are educating one another, and you can’t just leave it up to parents to encourage healthy practices, I’m not in that camp.
I don’t think you can truly love a person without truly trying to understand them. I love the idea that love is caught up with truly seeing a person through paying them attention. I love the idea that love is an exercise of subjectifying, not objectifying, the other in a sacrificial seeing of the person and their needs, and in an act of offering a way to meet those needs… based on that seeing. The true seeing won’t always mean agreeing with how the person you love sees themselves, we might actually be able to see a person’s needs in ways that they can’t imagine. But it will always involve seeing how a person sees themselves and the world in order to build a connection between their needs and your offer of love.
So, with this picture of love, you can’t love a kid who is working out their sexual identity, or a kid with same sex parents, without trying to understand what its like to be that kid, and without helping other kids in that kid’s network develop that same ‘seeing’ or that understanding. You can’t keep that kid as an “other” or as an “abnormal” kid. I think this is true in a secular sense, but I think its even true for Christians, even as we seek to point people to alternative identities and visions of flourishing, especially an identity built on who Jesus is, rather than who we want to have sex with.
This sort of understanding — the understanding required for love — actually comes through education. It comes through education that comes packaged up with different agendas.
It doesn’t just come through the application of our own agenda, or our own framework for how we assess other people based on what we’re told is true about them in the Bible. As true as that framework might be. It comes seeking to understand people on their own terms in order to have a conversation about these different frameworks. Our different ways of seeing. This education comes through hearing stories, through understanding more of the experience involved with ones sexuality, or family background, the sort of stories Gayby Baby presents. If this is the sort of change of mind Burwood Girls was trying to achieve, then who can blame them?
I’m not sure a documentary, or even the act of being forced to wear purple can achieve the second half of Powell’s suggestion — compelling students to own a philosophical view — but I do think coercive practices are problematic, whatever agenda they serve. Be it the ‘gay agenda’ or the ‘Christian agenda’.
I can understand the suggestion that Gayby Baby serves an agenda other than education, that it ‘promotes an ideology’, but it does also seem to serve a valid educational purpose given that there are families in our schools where children have same sex parents. People who believe education should be agenda, or ideology, free should have a problem with the screening of this film on the basis of its agenda. But that’s a pretty naive view of the way education functions, and has functioned, in our world. There’s a reason governments fund education, it produces ideal citizens according to a pattern, there’s a reason churches fund schools… But in a secular democracy it can be pretty dangerous for the liberty of our citizens (whatever the age) if one ideology is presented unchallenged. What if the best (both in terms of possible outcomes and desirable outcomes) that we can ask for in this contested space is that all voices are given a platform, in an appropriate context?
Which is interesting, because the Gayby Baby furore is kicking off exactly as governments around the country consider whether or not to follow Victoria’s example to remove Special Religious Education (known by other names around the country) from school life. There’s a particularly vocal group of activists, Fairness in Religion in Schools (FIRIS) who are campaigning noisily to remove the special privilege religious institutions enjoy when it comes to access to the schools. Christians I’ve spoken to have been pretty upset about the removal of this privileged position — occasionally arguing from the historic involvement the church has had with education in our country, occasionally disappointed that this mission field has been lost (because if you’re genuinely concerned about the ‘flourishing’ of our children, as a Christian, you want them to hear the Gospel and have the opportunity to follow Jesus), while others have been angry at this further evidence that the church is being pushed to the margins in our society. Angry that our education system is being hijacked to serve a liberal, anti-Christian agenda. It’s incredible to me that SRE still exists in any form in public schools (and what a privilege), and I’d love it to continue to exist for many years. I’m not sure it can last, but if it is to last, if we are to maintain that seat at the table, we need to be prepared to offer space to other minority voices, with other visions of the good life. If we want to continue having the ability to speak to children in our schools to articulate a vision for human flourishing that centres on the reality of a good creator God, and his good son Jesus, who invites us to follow a pattern of life that will deliver a version of flourishing that will last for eternity, then we might need to be prepared for people to offer a vision of human flourishing more consistent with our age, and more in keeping with the church’s marginal position in the social and moral life of our country. We might have to let our kids hear about sex that some of us don’t think of as “normal”… and to hear about families that fall outside the statistical norm… and this giving others a voice might actually be a good and loving thing, and it might also be good for our kids, if we want them to grow up understanding and loving their neighbours and living together in community.
By the by, I feel like the real indicator of our ‘position’ in the education system isn’t so much in the SRE space, but in the chaplaincy space, where we agreed to be neutered in order to maintain a position of privilege. We agreed to give schools the benefit of a Christian presence, so long as that presence was not coupled with a presentation of the Christian message. What could be a clearer indicator of our position in modern society, as exiles, than a government and a population who are still prepared to use us to care for kids in crisis, but not to present an alternative, positive, view of the world that centres on Jesus. But I digress. Let’s return to why, as a Christian parent, I’d want my children watching Gayby Baby, and why I want them to learn, from their schools, that homosexuality is normal.
The idea that homosexuality is normal is one that offends a certain stream of thinking that wants to equate ‘normal’ with ‘God’s pattern for flourishing’ or perhaps more accurately, ‘normal’ with ‘natural.’
This Gayby Baby initiative seems to fit with the Australian Marriage Forum’s (AMF) anti-gay marriage argument that a change in the definition of marriage will change our educational agenda to “normalise” homosexuality. This is seen by this particular lobby group, and presumably others, as a problem. The AMF does not believe there is any reason to focus on sexuality when it comes to anti-bullying initiatives, and especially no justification for ‘normalising’ homosexuality.
In other words, there are many reasons to be bullied at school – for being too smart, too dumb; too fat, too thin; or for standing up for other kids who are being bullied. That is something we all go through, and the claim that homosexual people suffered it worse appears to be “taken at face value”.
There are less insidious means to address the perennial problem of bullying – for all students – than by normalising homosexual behaviour in the curriculum.
Is it just me, or is this saying “there are other forms of bullying, so we shouldn’t tackle this one”? Even if its true that other forms of bullying are out there, if there’s a genuine belief in the community that the mental health outcomes for same sex attracted people are due, in part, to bullying, shouldn’t we try to stop that bullying to see if the correlation is causation? Shouldn’t it be enough that bullying in any form is wrong, without the greater risk?
Dr David Van Gend, a spokesperson for the Australian Marriage Forum, disputes the link between mental health and suicide in the LGBTQI community and bullying or homophobia, he provides a list of other possible causes to suggest there’s no need to ‘normalise’ homosexuality as a result. In its 2012 submission to the Australian Government, as it considered an amendment to the Marriage Act, the Australian Christian Lobby argued against the redefinition of marriage for a variety of reasons, including the argument that such a change would ‘normalise’ homosexuality in our education system.
“Some educators in Australia are effectively seeking to normalise homosexuality under the guise of “anti-homophobia” campaigns. ACT Education Minister Andrew Barr opened an anti-homophobia art display at a Canberra school, at which one student’s poster read “Love is not dependent on gender, what’s your agenda?
Although no one would object to the condemnation of homophobia, promoting homosexuality in this fashion is something many parents would not be comfortable with. Redefining marriage will increase these incidents, as schools would be required to teach the equivalency of same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. The principal public school teacher’s union, the Australia Education Union, actively promotes homosexuality among its members and in schools. Its policy document, Policy on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex People, says it is committed to fighting heterosexism, which involves challenging “[t]he assumption that heterosexual sex and relationships are ‘natural’ or ‘normal’”.
The change to the Marriage Act hasn’t happened (yet), but these words from the ACL seem almost prophetic (except that Biblical prophecy is all about pointing people to Jesus ala Revelation 19, which says: “Worship God, because the testimony about Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” — but now I really digress). The problem with the Australian Marriage Forum and the Australian Christian Lobby is that they’re speaking against one view of human flourishing, one view of “normal”, without actually providing a viable alternative. “This is not natural” is not an alternative argument to “this feels natural to me.” And the argument is not one that Christians should really be making when it comes to trying to have a voice at the table, and in our schools, in terms of a real picture of human flourishing. The AMF’s slogan is “keep marriage as nature made it,” the ACL submission uses the word natural 9 times and nature 4 times, and normalise or normal 10 times, while containing no mentions of God, creator, Jesus, or Christ. It’s an argument for one view of what is ‘natural’…
The problem, as I see it, is that homosexuality is totally normal. And it will appear totally natural to people. And I’m not sure we’re being true to the Bible if we say otherwise.
The “New” Normal
Here’s what I don’t get. When I read Romans 1, I get the impression that for a Christian who takes the Bible seriously, we should have no problem acknowledging that in our world, a world that readily swaps God for idols, like sex, homosexuality is the ‘new normal’… If you don’t take the Bible seriously then the normality of homosexuality seems uncontested (which, would ironically prove the point the Bible makes). And if you do, then the only people homosexuality is not normal for are the people who have had their sexual ethics redefined out of worldliness, by God. Check it.
Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. — Romans 1:22-31
This is normal. Education doesn’t make homosexuality ‘normal’ — we do — and God does it to us because humanity collectively bailed on his design.
People in this picture aren’t given a choice about what to believe about the world. God chooses it for them. God acts to create a new normal for humanity because humanity rejects him. This downward spiral is the story of humanity that plays out through the pages of the Old Testament, and in every human culture since. Including ours. Claim to be wise. End up as fools.
So far as Paul is concerned, this is the new normal. This is the default view of the world. This is what our worldly schools should be teaching, so long as they are worldly schools. To suggest otherwise misses the role and place of the church in such a world entirely. Our job is to preach the one message that enables a new normal. A new identity. A new view of the world, and the things we are inclined to turn into idols.
If we want a picture of human flourishing that doesn’t look like the things in this list, we actually need a counter story that points towards a different normal and a new nature. That’s the problem with AMF and the ACL and the push to not let our schools treat homosexuality as normal. It is normal. Until someone has a reason to believe otherwise. And that reason isn’t ‘nature’ — it’s Jesus.
The Better Normal: Paul, Athens, giving others a voice, and God’s picture of human flourishing
Let’s briefly recap. I think a summary of the important bits from above is that education is important because it allows us to truly see, and truly seeing allows us to truly love. When it comes to (secular) public education in Australia there are multiple voices wanting to be heard offering multiple pictures of human flourishing. One obstacle to any version of flourishing (except very twisted understandings of that word), would seem to be the plight of LGBTQI students in our schools, and also the children of LGBTQI families in our community. These families, by any measure — Christian or secular — are actually normal. Hearing stories from these families and creating a space to truly hear from these young people is necessary in order for us to love and understand them… But these families may not be the ideal setting for human flourishing, and embracing one’s normal sexuality may not be the best path towards that end. It may be that purple is not the colour on the spectrum that represents the best solution to the experience of LGBTQI students and families in the community, or the very best pattern for life in this world.
If Christians are going to get a voice at the table, in schools or in politics, what is the voice we really want being heard? What are we going to say? We may not have that opportunity for very long in the form of SRE, and we certainly won’t if we keep rattling cages by shutting down alternative voices, and alternative normals, rather than presenting our own, and graciously be asking for the opportunity to do that… Should we be mounting an argument from nature that it seems God himself is foiling by making things that are unnatural seem natural and desirable? Or should we be trying to better understand the link between the rejection of God, the pursuit of alternative gods (idols), and what this does to how people picture the world and how to flourish in it?
“Which gets to the heart of the matter – the matter of the heart. The separation of church and state simply papers over the reality that whether we be secular materialists or secular religionists, we are all worshippers. We were built to worship, and worship we will. Jesus and David Foster Wallace line up on that one. We want an ultimate thing. We desire something that arrives at a climax. And sex will do that just nicely in lieu of anything else. It’s an exceptional idol – and an instant one to boot. Sex is a mainline drug, and is a heaps cheaper experience than an overseas trip. Hence to challenge its hegemony in our culture is to challenge a dark, insatiable god.”
I love Debra Hirsch’s conversation with her husband Alan about what heaven will be like, in her book Redeeming Sex (have a read – it’s worth it). I love it because my wife and I had the same conversation and arrived at the same conclusion, a conclusion that gets to the core. When she asked Alan what he thought heaven would be like, his reply? “One eternal orgasm”.
That’s not trite. Not trite at all. In fact it gets to the heart of why, in the end, sexularism will win out in our culture. After all, you need as many guilt-free, culturally, politically and legally endorsed orgasms as you can if – in a manner of speaking – there is nothing else to come. If this is the pinnacle then the best thing to do is to reach the zenith as many times as you can in the here and now. Anyone threatening, questioning, or legislating against that, is tampering with the idol; threatening the order of things by refusing to bow to the image.
I’m struck by what Paul does when he enters a city full of idols. Athens. The city of Athens exists in the world of Romans 1. If Paul followed the power-grabbing, take-no-prisoners, God’s-way-or-the-highway methodology of Christendom (or ISIS, in its iconoclasm), and the church defined by a vision of the world loosely modelled on Christendom, he’d have entered the city with a sledgehammer. He’d have used that hammer to destroy every statue and altar set up in opposition to the real normal. He doesn’t. He walks around. He seeks to understand. He speaks to people in the marketplace. He preaches Jesus and the resurrection. He gets an invitation to the Areopagus, a seat at the table, if you will. And he uses it to speak about the city’s idols with a sort of ‘respect,’ in order to ultimately speak about God’s vision for human flourishing as revealed in Jesus. Sure. He absolutely nails the hollowness of idols in his alternative vision, he pushes back at their version of normal… but he doesn’t do this by knocking the statues over, or even by treating the people who follow these idols as complete fools.
He speaks to people whose view of nature has been clouded. He even does it in a way that demonstrates the value of a good secular education, quoting a couple of ancient, non-Christian (non-Jewish) poet/philosophers.
This is how to speak in a world, and city, whose view of normal is dominated and defined by idolatry and heads and hearts shaped by the normal human decision to turn on God. Because this is how to offer people a path back to God, and his version of human flourishing.
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” — Acts 17:22-32
Paul allows Athens a voice even though he believes his God made the entire universe.
Paul really understands.
And this understanding gives him an opportunity to love by offering an alternative. He offers them Jesus.
That’s why I want my kids to watch movies like Gayby Baby, and listen to the stories of people in their world. Because this is the pattern of engagement I want them to follow in this sexular age. I want them to love like that. Even if they, like Paul, are laughed at by most…
It’s a few months now since my brother-in-law Mitch and I reviewed Born This Way, a book touted as the book the church needed to help us think through ministry to same sex attracted people. It’s fair to say we disagreed with the approach the book took. Now. Months later. Here is the book we both think is the book the church needs on homosexuality. Ed Shaw’s The Plausibility Problem. And here are 10 reasons why we believe this is the case.
But first. On book reviews and conversations
Before getting into the meat of the review, I (Nathan. To be clear, when this post uses “I” it’s Nathan, when it is “we” it is us) just want to make a couple of observations about the widespread criticism our first review received from people because it didn’t treat the book on its own terms (or on the author’s terms). I’m tacking them on here because they are actually pertinent, in some way, in terms of why we think this other book is the book for our times.
Before we get too far along — the original review of Born This Way has been updated a couple of times since posting, one of the significant updates was to include a link to a review of Born This Way by Liberty Inc’s pastoral worker Allan Starr. Born This Way’s author Steve Morrison has responded to this review with a gracious counter argument…
I guess the question I’m still grappling with, and I think Mitch might be too, is when a book is billed as “the book the Church needs” on an issue, just how much of that hyperbole should be allowed to go unchallenged? How much should we review a book on its own terms, and how much we should review it in terms of the way it is being used or positioned in a wider conversation. A conversation that we are passionate (and interested) participants in?
It was both the nature of Born This Way, and the nature of the feedback to our review, that made me quickly come to grips with a couple of generation gaps that I don’t think us Aussie reformed evangelicals are bridging. These are labels that apply to Matthias Media (the publisher), Steve Morrison (the author), and Mitch and I as reviewers. This is the sort of tribe we all belong to, with a few geographic and denominational quirks… my observation is that there’s a generational turning point where people either generally agreed with our review, both in its substance and style, or thought it was terribad — the main criticisms of these older types were that we did not take the book on its terms and assess it accordingly, and that we wrote such a substantial critique, posted it online, and included stuff like the promotional material around the book in our treatment of the book as though they have equal weight. On this last point, I wrote something a while back about how the media is shifting to talking about a thing as though it’s the main thing, to talking about and participating in conversation, as though that’s the main thing… all of this is to say I think there are a couple of clashing worldviews operating, even within this ‘tribe’ we all belong to, which explains many of our problems with the book. I think the reason there’s such a sharp contrast between people of profoundly different demographics is because a shift happened somewhere in the last 40 years or so (this figure bleeds out at the margins — there are older people who go one way, and younger people who go the other— because it’s an environmental thing too), and this shift has two significant factors for the conversation surrounding these books, and homosexuality more generally:
- People grew up, and were educated, in a society that is profoundly post-modern.
- People on the younger side are what media sociologist types call ‘digital natives’ — a loose demographic grouping of people who believe that media is democratised. And that eyeballs and internet attention are the metric that matters. The people who watch a video online matter as much as the people who read a book, so long as they are participating in the online conversation. The implications of this are that anyone can have a platform, a book is part of a conversation just as much as a blog post, a video, a Facebook discussion — and more people might interact with the latter than the book itself. Anyone can have an opinion — expertise is ok, but not essential, ‘truthiness’ in a sense that something resonates with our experience or feelings is more compelling than traditional ‘authority’ (the sort that might come from publishing a book).
Which dovetails nicely with the thrust of our critique of Born This Way (apart from the damage we think it does to the people it talks about). Born This Way is a thoroughly modernist book written to an increasingly post-modern world. Our review was a thoroughly post-modern review of a modernist book (we broke almost all of author John Updike’s rules for graciously critiquing a book — though I think there are some new rules for people graciously reviewing books that might fit nicely with the shift described here, and I suspect giving the author a continued voice in the conversation — should they want it — is a big part of graciousness).
Born This Way’s approach to the issue is essentially: Want to know what to think about homosexuality? Here’s what words must necessarily mean (prescriptive terminology is essential). Here’s some science facts. Here’s some Bible verses. Here’s a conclusion with some important prescriptive terminology changes. Go and do what you must do when you draw some conclusions from these propositions.
This is the way our tribe tends to approach issues. Our authority, quite rightly, is the Bible. But the way we use it (and I think this is less definitively ‘right’) is as an atomised bunch of propositional statements (which is easier when it involves clear imperatives — rules and regulations). We’re also happy to draw conclusions from what Augustine called God’s second book — the world around us, via science — so long as the Bible guides our interpretation of said ‘book’…This is all well and good if you think faithful Christianity overlaps with a modernist view of the world. If that is you, and you want to reject the ‘evils’ of post-modernity, then Born This Way might be the book for you… except for the hurt it might cause people you love, who it talks about, but even that sort of concern is a bit post-modern. And it’s this last bit that we think makes Born This Way not just a book that the church in this age doesn’t need, but instead, a book the church should not want. Why would we want a non-pastoral book trying to speak objectively into a subjective space where people need pastoring? The Plausibility Problem takes a different tack, and one we believe is much more helpful. It is, in many ways, the anti-thesis of Born This Way, where Born This Way goes left, it goes right, at every turn. I felt like one of the criticisms of our review was that we hypothesised an alternative and impossible book in our criticism of Born This Way, and that this was unfair because such a yardstick does not/could not exist. But here it is, and given the choice between the two, in terms of meeting the needs of the church in ministering to same sex attracted people (and creating communities where same sex attracted non-Christians might give the Gospel a hearing), We’d pick the Plausibility Problem for every person, every time.
I’ve noted elsewhere recently that post-modernity is more interested in a quality, plausible, story. A story where someone can see themselves as an actor, and see the narrative fitting with their own view of the world, and their self-identity. Story trumps proposition. Luckily the Bible is, I think, better understood as one grand Christ-centered narrative of God’s relationship to his world and humanity, rather than a bunch of rules and regulations (even the rules come in the context of a story, and often as stories). So our authority actually lends itself to this approach.
So. What does a book for this sort of world look like? It looks like Ed Shaw’s The Plausibility Problem: the church and same sex attraction. Here are 10 reasons why this is the book the church needs in order to reach the sort of world and worldview outlined above.
1. It identifies the ‘plausibility problem’ and emphasises Jesus’ story as the solution. But this is also Ed’s story
Where Born This Way attempted to be objective and deal with the facts from science and the Bible, The Plausibility Problem takes a narrative approach from start to finish. It’s about replacing the world’s narrative about sex, identity and fulfilment, with God’s narrative. Where we suggested the Gospel was something like a tacked on extra in Born This Way, it’s the foundation of Shaw’s approach.
From the world’s perspective, Christ’s call to a wholehearted, sacrificial discipleship seems implausibly unattractive for anyone, regardless of their sexuality or particular circumstances. If we are to persevere in the life of discipleship ourselves and persuade anyone else to join us, we must somehow communicate that what is offered is not a set of rules, but a dynamic relationship with the living God. — The Plausibility Problem, Foreword.
One of the other problems we had with Born This Way was its attempt to be objective meant that the author never declared how what he was writing related to his own experience. This was deliberate, but it also created what we perceived to be significant issues with the book in terms of its pastoral application (or lack thereof), because pastoring is interpersonal, and its lack of understanding of some of the complexities of same sex attraction. Being objective about something subjective (like attraction and associated feelings and desires) doesn’t intuitively work. We’d also argue that objectivity is a sort of modernist myth, that it doesn’t actually serve anyone to remove yourself, your experience, or your agenda from what you’re saying. Shaw avoids these problems by acknowledging his bias, and his experience, straight up.
I write this book as an evangelical Christian who experiences same-sex attraction. Ever since the beginning of puberty, my sexual desires have been focused on some members of my own sex. What I thought might be just a teenage phase has never gone away and I remain exclusively same-sex attracted in my mid/late thirties, despite all my best efforts and prayers to change. So the plausibility problem is my problem… I believe that the Bible is God’s inspired (and thus inerrant and authoritative) Word to the people he’s both created and redeemed. Through its pages, my loving Father God tells me everything I need to know about everything that matters to him (2 Timothy 3:16–17). And those pages very clearly say that homosexual practice is wrong in his sight – remember the proof-text parade in the previous chapter. I am absolutely convinced of this, despite my own same-sex attraction and those who now tell me God never really says that, or has recently changed his mind. But it’s not even those famous individual verses that I find most persuasive.
Quoting his friend (and fellow same sex attracted author) Wesley Hill (via Washed and Waiting), Shaw says “I abstain from homosexual behaviour because of the power of the Scriptural story.” The Plausibility Problem invites the church to become a place where people can discover the power of this story.
Shaw’s basic premise, one we agree with, is that our conventional (modernist) approach doesn’t work in a post-modern world, it leaves those of us who do believe what the ‘proof texts’ in the Bible say about sexuality with the titular plausibility problem. Our inability to produce relationships in our church communities that make living a life that is faithful to this teaching possible means people aren’t listening when we tell them to live this way. He identifies a generation gap where a new generation of people aren’t prepared simply to accept the “just say no” approach.
The evangelical church’s basic message to them: ‘Just Say No!’ just doesn’t have any real credibility any more. It embarrasses many of us to even ask them to do it. It sounds positively unhealthy. It lacks any traction in today’s world – simply producing incredulity from the majority. Melinda Selmys (a Catholic who experiences same-sex attraction) communicates this well: Negative chastity, the kind of chastity that limits itself to saying ‘Thou shalt not,’ has consistently failed to persuade the postmodern world because it is madness.
2. It uses ‘story’ as a mode to provide an alternative and plausible counter story to the stories we’re bombarded with by our world
Sometimes it feels like the Devil has all the good stories.
We Christians have been trying to combat real stories from the gay community of love, injustice, and real emotions, with cold hard facts and rational arguments. In a post-modern world, feelings trump thinking, and stories trump facts. Shaw attempts to counter this by providing stories that demonstrate the possibility of a life shaped by the Gospel — his story, and the stories of others who also experience same sex attraction.
This mode supports his basic premise, that real stories of the plausibility of life as a same-sex attracted follower of Jesus… Being part of the Gospel story actually works. We believe it. Because we see it in Shaw. And we’re invited to imagine how this might work for others — for those in our church community, and those not yet part of our church community.
Shaw sets up the book by telling two powerful stories of Peter and Jane. Peter and Jane are Christians lured away from faithfulness to God’s story by the competing stories of our world, and invites us to see the problem this way. We’re bereft of alternative narratives and bombarding somebody feeling the lure of these stories with a bunch of science and proof texts from the Bible will only really convince one type of thinker — a modernist — and a modernist who is prepared to let their head rule their hearts, and their sex drive. A modernist who is also prepared to critically think through and ignore the counter-messages our world smashes them with. In short, we’re not sure the modernist approach works for all that many people any more, which helps answer a question about ‘what the book the church needs’ on this issue looks like…
“How can you look Peter in the eye and deny him sex forever? How can we ask Jane to turn her back on the one human relationship that has brought her joy? It just won’t seem plausible to them. It doesn’t sound that reasonable to us either. And what doesn’t help them or us much is the standard evangelical response to what they’re facing. We’ve basically adopted the slogan from the 1980s anti-drugs song: ‘Just Say No!’ That’s often all we have to say – exacerbated by the proof-text parade if anyone raises any objections… That used to convince. That used to be a plausible argument for most. To be an evangelical has always meant holding to the truth of ‘The divine inspiration of Holy Scripture as originally given and its supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct’. And when it comes to homosexual practice, those Scriptures are pretty clear; evangelicals like clarity, and those verses were more than enough clarity for many, for years. We all knew where we stood.”
3. It focuses on the relationship between sexuality, Jesus and identity
One of the interesting implications of approaching life in this world using a story framework is we’re invited to consider the motivations behind actions, not just the actions themselves. That’s how and why stories are compelling. This question of motives, character, or identity, also seems to be more consistent with how the Bible approaches questions of sin.
Sinful behaviour is produced by sinful hearts. The Plausibility Problem doesn’t shy away from the truth that our sexuality is broken by sin, it is especially strident in its criticism of the widespread idea, both from the wider world and the more liberal end of the church, that something being natural necessarily makes it good. In this sense it deals more helpfully with the born this way concept than Born This Way.
‘How can being gay be wrong if you were born gay?’ That’s a question I’m asked a lot. And it’s a good one: my same-sex attraction feels part of me in that sort of way. As a theory on the origins of homosexuality, being born gay works for me better than any of the others on the market today, although every same-sex attracted man or woman will, no doubt, have their own personal take on this most complex and controversial of areas… whether you agree with the ‘gay gene’ theory or not. It is certainly the one that fits best with my lived experience of same-sex attraction (if not everyone’s). It is the most powerful case for affirming homosexuality today. And, I guess, that’s why some evangelical Christians have put a huge amount of time and energy into fighting the idea that same-sex attraction is genetic or innate… I want to argue, even if the ‘gay gene’ were found tomorrow, we would still not need to worry about this particular battle being lost: a genetic basis for homosexuality would not make it right… You see, one of the central truths of the Bible is that we are all naturally sinners from birth and yet are still held responsible for our sin.
Our actions are the products of our identity, and realigning our identity to line up with God’s story is what the Gospel invites us to do. It changes the character we play. Or, in Ed’s words, the Gospel tells us who we are. The Plausibility Problem makes the sexuality question a question of identity, and asks us to consider what we’re going to put first.
What I most want to avoid is any other identity that might attempt to displace my fundamental identity as a Christian. For the thing that defines me most in life is not my sexuality but my status – in Christ – as a son of God.
This Gospel tells me that I am – in Jesus – a child of God. That is why I can call him Father. That is why I can call Jesus my brother. That is what his Spirit confirms by dwelling inside of me. That is who I am: God’s own dear son. And thinking like that is crucial to living the Christian life… When people say, ‘Relax, you were born that way.’ or ‘Quit trying to be something you’re not and just be the real you,’ they are stumbling upon something very biblical. God does want you to be the real you. He does want you to be true to yourself. But the ‘you’ he’s talking about is the ‘you’ that you are by grace, not by nature.
4. It invites us to tackle this problem together, as a church (because it’s a problem we’ve created together)
One ofThe Plausibility Problem’s greatest strengths (and its most important insights) is that it invites us to move this conversation away from being an issue for a particular individual to solve, and instead, to think of it as something to work through together. Our new identity in Christ isn’t a new identity that simply applies to us as individuals, becoming a child of God brings us a host of brothers and sisters in Christ. Shaw’s diagnosis takes this issue away from the realm of the same sex attracted individual, and gives responsibility for our same sex attracted brothers and sisters to all of us.
… when a same-sex attracted Christian embraces a gay identity and lifestyle, we need to recognize that it might be, to some extent, not just their fault, but ours too.
Shaw invites us to stop placing responsibility for change on the individual sinner, and invites us instead to be a changing community where this shift in identity is both plausible and desirable, because it’s a new identity we’re all invited to share as we leave an old story behind.
I know that too often, church meetings have encouraged me to let my sin, rather than my Saviour, define me. That I have left those meetings reminded more of my same-sex attraction than my new status in Christ. They have unintentionally encouraged me to spend too much time contemplating my love of some men rather than contemplating God’s love for me. I need to hear a more biblically balanced message. One that does not brush my continued sin under the carpet, and which must keep encouraging me to repent of it (1 John 1:8–10), but which prevents my sin from ever defining me.
If the primary identity that all our churches commended to all our church members was our shared identity in Christ, that would do more to defeat this plausibility problem that we all face than almost anything else.
5. The plausibility framework offers an alternative way forward
What can we do about it? Well, this is where this book is designed to help. Its basic premise is simple: we just have to make what the Bible clearly commands seem plausible again. We need to remind ourselves, and remind Peter and Jane, that Jesus says this to us all: I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10)
Shaw sets about doing this with practical on the ground examples of what a more plausible church community might look like. He diagnoses the problems — or missteps the church has taken—based on his own experience and the experience (and testimony) of many other same sex attracted Christians. These missteps aren’t just related to same sex attraction, they describe fundamental problems with what (and how) we normalise in our communities, and ask us to consider what happens to people who fall outside those norms.
The missteps include buying into the world’s stories that:
- Your identity is your sexuality
- A family is mum, dad and 2.4 children.
- If you’re born gay, it can’t be wrong to be gay.
- If it makes you happy, it must be right.
- Sex is where true intimacy is found.
- Men and women are equally interchangable.
- Godliness is heterosexuality.
- Celibacy is bad for you
- Suffering is to be avoided
None of these missteps, or false stories, are raised without Shaw also offering solutions based on the Bible’s story, a theology of church as people being shaped together by the Gospel, the thoughtful work of others, and his own experience. The stories he tells give us lived examples of how to respond to these missteps in a way that makes life as part of the church plausible, and one way we know it is plausible is because it explains why Shaw, and others, stick with Jesus. The structures he invites us to re-build and rely on are:
… the pre-eminence of our union with Christ when it comes to forming our identity; the reality that church is our one everlasting family; the doctrine of original sin; the full authority and total goodness of God’s Word; friendships, not just sex, bringing us all the human intimacy we need; marriage being all about the union of Christ and his church; godliness being all about Christ-likeness, not who you are attracted to; the fact that singleness is truly a great gift; and the reality that following Jesus means taking up your cross and suffering like him.
6. It invites us to see singleness within the church community as a plausible alternative to marriage and sex
The call to sexual purity isn’t just a call for the same sex attracted. It’s a call for the married heterosexual. It’s a call for the unmarried heterosexual. And being a church where it’s plausible to feel fulfilled and truly human while not having sex is a massively difficult thing if all the church says is “sex is a good part of our humanity and you need to get married to do it” or buys into the idea that fulfilment comes from finding completion in another person, your “other half”… Shaw has experienced life in a church culture that does this, that buys into the idolatry of marriage and heterosexual sex. And he calls us out of it. Part of that call is the call for all of us to pursue godliness, rather than heterosexuality, which is a really important note to hit when it comes to thinking about our sexual orientation.
7. It acknowledges that the struggle is real (but worth it)
The book is breathtakingly honest. Shaw is real about his attractions, his temptations, his struggles. He confesses and he invites us to confess too because confession like this is what will make this issue real for people, and helps identify Jesus as the real way forward. The struggle is real. Suffering is real. Self-denial is costly. It would be misleading to over-simplify the cost of following Jesus in this area, but it’s refreshing to not just see the cost, but think about how we might be invited to bear the cost together with those we love who experience these sorts of moments because they’ve decided not to pursue the fulfilment of their natural desires for the sake of the Gospel.
I have what I call ‘kitchen floor moments’. I call them that because they involve me sitting on my kitchen floor. But I’m not doing something useful like scrubbing it, although it could always benefit from that. Instead I’m there crying. And the reason for my tears is the unhappiness that my experience of same-sex attraction often brings. The acute pain I sometimes feel as a result of not having a partner, sex, children and the rest.
8. It invites us to consider intimacy apart from sex
One of the best and most pastoral problems Shaw diagnoses with our implausible church communities is that we’ve bought into the worldly narrative that intimacy is sex. He mentions that this conflation of two separate concepts has killed our ability to properly be friends with people, and to properly see intimate friendship without suspicion. Boundaries are great for stopping bad sexual stuff happening, but it’s possible that we’ve over-corrected. One piece of evidence he cites on this front is the growing belief in scholarly circles that there must have been something sexual going on between David and Jonathan. He urges us to rediscover friendship and non-sexual intimacy as a way forward. One of his really helpful points, even for married couples, is that our spouses can’t possibly fulfil all the needs we have for human love or intimacy. This is part of the idolatry of marriage and the spouse – the expectation we might bring that they will fulfil some desire of our heart that they’re not equipped to fulfil which will ultimately lead to disappointment.
The world in which we live cannot cope with intimate relationships that aren’t sexual – it makes no sense, it’s just not possible. So I’ve had to pull back from deepening friendships with both men and women out of fear that they are being seen as inappropriate. None of them were – but the supposed impossibility of non-sexual intimacy meant we felt under pressure to close them down. That’s been very hard at times. But what’s been hardest is how the church often discourages non-sexual intimacy too. Our response to the sexual revolution going on outside our doors has sadly just been to promote sexual intimacy in the context of Christian marriage. And to encourage people to keep it there by promising this will then deliver all the intimacy they’ve ever wanted.
If we’re wired for relationships, intimate loving relationships, the sort that reflects the intimate, loving, relationships of the Trinity, then for life to be plausible for single people in our churches, including the same sex attracted, we need to be much better at intimate friendships. This might mean more hugs, more deep and meaningful conversations, and more attempting to truly know someone by looking them in the eye and paying attention so that you actually understand them – with people other than your spouse.
9. It suggests same sex attraction is a part of one’s personhood that can be valued and that can help one understand God, and reminds us that all sexuality is broken
This isn’t a main point of the book, by any stretch, but in articulating a path towards faithfully finding his identity in Christ, and the love of God, Shaw has this to say as an aside.
To be fully human and follow Christ faithfully, there are many things we must do, but among them must be some sort of embrace of sexual difference. I somehow need to embrace what the Bible teaches about the importance of sexual difference, despite the restrictions it puts on my preferred expression of it. To view sexuality as a good thing, even though God bans me from acting out my desires in a sexual relationship with another man… But then surely my sexuality can be nothing more than a negative aspect of my life – if there is no prospect of me changing enough to be able to consummate a heterosexual marriage? Not if I pay attention to these precious words of pastor John Piper: …the ultimate reason (not the only one) why we are sexual is to make God more deeply knowable. The language and imagery of sexuality are the most graphic and most powerful that the Bible uses to describe the relationship between God and his people – both positively (when we are faithful) and negatively (when we are not).
My sexuality has allowed me to understand and appreciate the incredible power of the sexual language that God uses there and elsewhere: to communicate the passionate nature of his love for people like me! My sexuality might not lead me into a loving marriage, but it does consistently lead me into a greater appreciation of God’s love for me in Christ. That is one of many reasons why I’m profoundly grateful for it…
Most evangelicals are getting to the stage where we don’t expect ‘conversion therapy’ or ‘reparative therapy’ to produce an orientation change (while we also want to acknowledge that sexual orientation can be relatively fluid for some people). Shaw’s honest reflections about his own experience, coupled with his constant emphasis on the Gospel and his identity in Christ, should help us frame our language and expectations here too. Even if the aim is ‘celibacy’ rather than ‘heterosexuality,’ same-sex attraction might not be something to be ‘cured’ at all. Rather than asking somebody to flick some sort of switch that turns their attraction off, perhaps its more helpful to think about what it might look like for an exclusively same sex attracted person to maintain that attraction, but have it defined first by their attraction to Jesus. This is where the attempt to make attraction or orientation the same as “temptation” and thus something to be resisted, rather than re-oriented around a greater love and attraction, so misguided in Born This Way. Shaw gives a picture of the challenges presented to our same sex attracted friends when we get this wrong… the goal for Christian godliness for the same sex attracted individual is not heterosexuality, or asexuality, it is Christlikeness.
If heterosexuality is godliness, the big change that’s most been needed in my life is for me to become heterosexual. And so I’ve prayed hard and searched hard for an effective antidote to my same-sex attraction. The pursuit of holiness has nearly always equalled the pursuit of heterosexuality for me. What has so often encouraged me to give up on the Christian life has been my lack of progress in becoming heterosexual. I’ve never been sexually attracted to a woman. Yet every so often, a short period of not being sexually attracted to a man for a while has given me hope – only to have that dashed when my type of good-looking man has walked onto my TV screen or into my life. As a result, I’ve kept feeling I’m making no progress as a Christian – still struggling with the same wrong sexual desires I did back when I was sixteen. That’s when it has felt least plausible to keep going as a Christian. Feeling like you have made no steps forwards for twenty years makes you unwilling to keep going. Remembering the call to be like Jesus in everything has shown me not only the countless other ways I’m not like Jesus, but also the progress I have actually been making in becoming more like him over the last twenty years. This progress has often come in the midst of, and as a direct result of, my enduring struggle with same-sex attraction.
Shaw expresses a desire that the sort of focus we put on godliness for same sex attracted people with their sexuality be spread to other forms of sexual brokenness in the church. Getting this picture of human sexuality right helps us understand that heterosexuality does not necessarily equal godliness, and it certainly won’t in sinful people. Ever. The problem we create when we present our married heterosexuality as unfallen, or less fallen, than same sex attraction is that we isolate those around us who are not married heterosexuals.
All sexual relationships are marred (Genesis 3:7) There has been no perfect sexual relationship since then. Even the ‘perfect’ heterosexual Christian couple who keep sex for marriage have plenty to be ashamed of and embarrassed about their sexuality and their use of it. When I share those feelings of imperfection as a same-sex attracted Christian, I should not be made to feel alone.
Shaw’s plausibility cure for this is honesty. He calls us to spur one another on towards Christ-likeness with our sexuality, same sex attracted or not, and for us to be prepared to be honest (in situations of trusting relationships, but also in open, frank, honesty like the kind he presents in this book, by those who want to lead us in this area).
“… when I have to confess my sexual sins to you, don’t be afraid to confess your sexual sins to me. In that way, we can spur each other on to Christ-likeness, and on to love and good deeds through the triumphs and tragedies…
…Greater honesty about the challenges of being sexual beings has been one of the upsides of the so-called ‘sexual revolution’. Unlike many of the downsides, this honesty has yet to spread to the church. Some of us same-sex attracted pastors have recently taken a lead, but we have yet to be followed by the brothers and sisters in Christ who struggle with internet porn, who have survived the pain of adultery or who live in sexless marriages… until some go public with their private struggles (or, at least, until we start to recognize publicly that they are issues with which many church members are grappling), the church will continue to be perceived as sexually self-righteous and sorted – rather than a place where all who are sexually broken (which is all of us!) can get the help and support we need. Many will have to struggle on alone in silence.”
10. It is pastoral.
Shaw’s use of stories, both the stories that make his own experience incredibly real and raw, and stories of how his real needs are met by Jesus, and by his church, give us concrete examples to duplicate in our own lives and as we love and care for those within our own community. This book is profoundly pastoral. It’s purpose is to help us love people in our communities, and wants people in our church communities to know the love of Jesus. Not the cold facts. It speaks into the subjective reality of the same sex attracted person, but more than that, it speaks into the subjective reality of the whole church. It invites us to think, feel and respond. It gives us patterns for that response through stories, and through the lens of the eyes and words of one for whom this advice has been effective.
I (Nathan) found the chapter on church as a family for single people particularly helpful in thinking through some of the ways my own nuclear family can start to include single friends in the rhythms of our family life. Shaw mentions the way many people within his church family provide different aspects of the family experience for him that prevent his life being one of isolation. There are people who hug him. People who eat with him regularly. People who call him to talk about life. People who arrange parties to mark milestones for him, and others who supply meals for him when he’s sick. There are people who invite him on family holidays, or to hang out and play with their kids on Sunday arvos. There are other single people he chats with. The vision of church he describes is one where love is evident, where a sense that family could be something bigger than other narratives allow, and it’s one that seems doable, where I can pick off a couple of those roles to play for a couple of people in a way that might make the life they are called to just that little bit more plausible.
The beauty is that it’s not just the responsibility for plausibility that gets shared through these sorts of relationships, but the benefits as well.
And, crucially, this new family benefits us all – there is give and take from all of us, all of the time. It strengthens single people, but it also strengthens marriages. It allows children to grow up in an environment where there are multiple adults parenting them. It’s not perfect – there are constant ups and downs. All human relationships get messy at times, but they are a mess worth making. For when it works, it is the most wonderful of experiences for all of us. I pinch myself at times. And the plausibility of the life that I have chosen is closely tied to this experience. When church feels like a family, I can cope with not ever having my own partner and children. When it hasn’t worked is when I have struggled most. The same-sex attracted Christians I’ve met who are suffering most are those in churches that haven’t grasped this at all and that don’t even notice these individuals.
I can’t imagine the sorts of conversations that might be happening in households around the world this week after a group of hacktivists unleashed a public sort of hell on millions of cheaters, and would be cheaters, by naming and shaming them as members of an online infidelity service. Well. I wouldn’t have been able to imagine it, except that some commercial radio hosts in Australia told a caller on air that her husband was an account holder. And her response:
I don’t listen to commercial radio, because I’m old. And lame. I listen to the ABC. On the radio this morning the consensus on talkback on the Ashley Madison data dump is that it’s not so much the sex that matters when it comes to infidelity, it’s the lying.
We’ve tangled and contorted ourselves into a weird sort of moral knot if we somehow think that the problem here is not more complicated than lying. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure my wife would appreciate me honestly telling her that I seriously wanted to sleep with other people if only she’d give her blessing. I think that desire, itself, is a problem for one’s marriage vows. But maybe that’s where the dishonesty rests… in those vows.
This breach of security and privacy does throw a bunch of interesting ideologies into the mix. It invites us to consider just how coherent a view of morality based on ‘harm’ and individual liberty really is in the scheme of deeply enmeshed human relationships. It’s easy enough to ask “where’s the harm in a bit of consensual sex between adults” but much harder to ask that question so flippantly when one or both of those adults is already enmeshed in a relationship where their actions are not simply their own, but actions of a person-in-relationship. It’s interesting to consider what privacy really is, and whether its something to protect and pursue, or at least whether its something you can ever assume. Someone called this the “wikileaks of personal data.” There are some who feel the really egregious sin here is the breach of privacy. Others have asked about the place of vigilante justice for moral, not criminal, failings (the whole vigilante thing makes me uncomfortable, be it wikileaks, or Anonymous). The company behind Ashley Madison released a statement on the breach that says:
“The criminal, or criminals, involved in this act have appointed themselves as the moral judge, juror, and executioner, seeing fit to impose a personal notion of virtue on all of society. We will not sit idly by and allow these thieves to force their personal ideology on citizens around the world.”
The question of competing visions of personal virtue and what this looks like in a society where some aspect of life is shared is interesting. I think. I’m not sure you can speak of concepts of ‘society’ and ‘citizenship’ without trying to establish a sense of virtue, or some parameters, tht hold people in a society, or people group, together.
It also invites us to ask what is really private, and whether the thoughts, desires, and private acts of one’s ‘inner-man’ or ‘inner-woman’ are morally distinct from public acts. There’s a whole bunch of modern moral theory that says its only what you do that matters, what you think is private and its your own little kingdom with your own rules. That you can’t be morally culpable for thought crime. But doesn’t this just invite us to extend our private kingdoms as far as we can? To get away with as much as we can short of actually doing something? And where do we then draw the line? What’s the moral difference between fantasy and pornography? Between signing up for a cheating account with every intention of using it, and actually using it? What difference does it make if you are in a relationship and the private ‘inner world’ denies, dishonestly, your changed status?
If an Ashley Madison account exists but nobody is there to see it, is it still ‘cheating’?
It’s pretty easy to jump up and down and point the finger at these exposed men (and women, though nobody can really tell what percentage of Ashley Madison accounts were really real, and really women). Lots of people are doing it. We love it when some horrible person gets EXPOSED. Imagine that text as a rubber stamp graphic being thumped onto your TV screen in one of those Current Affair exposé episodes. We love a good finger point. Somehow a crass commercial exercise like exposing a cheating husband on radio is something to delight in or be fascinated by, even as a family’s life potentially disintegrates in the voyeuristic ear shot of hundreds of thousands of listeners.
But what if it were me, and my inner man in the spot light?
What if my thoughts were projected on a screen, captured, hijacked, and released to millions of voyeuristic ears and eyes baying for blood?
It’s a horrible thought. Isn’t it. My hidden desires. The stuff that I would consider doing if I thought there was any chance that nobody would ever know. That nobody could ever find out. That my privacy was guaranteed… What is it for you? Where would you go given the cover of darkness? What would you do if you had Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak? I know I’d be dangerous with that sort of power… and that sort of opportunity.
I hope I’m not alone in acknowledging that if the very worst of my thoughts were captured, catalogued, and released online I would be terrified that anyone could download a database and search for my name. Least of all that my inner thoughts would be exposed to my wife, and the nation, in a radio interview.
I feel like most of us would be destroyed if this happened, most of our relationships — at least those built on the assumption of total honesty rather than love, grace, mercy and forgiveness — would disintegrate with the voyeuristic eye of the public turned on us. I don’t want to give the guys on this database a free pass. Signing up for a terrible website offering a terrible product is a terrible and disgusting thing to do. I’m not interested so much in excusing them, but in remembering to number myself amongst the transgressors. Not because I have an Ashley Madison account, but because the account that I do have, in terms of my desires and thoughts, is not clear. My guess is neither is yours, nor any of those jumping in to condemn the cheats. We’ve all got some sort of ‘account,’ a record that if revealed to the world would cause that sort of visceral response (so long as we’re prepared to forget our account when we judge others).
For the record, just so we’re clear, Ashley Madison is destructive, its destruction would be terrific if it didn’t involve so much collateral damage, and if the collateral damage wasn’t the result of an outraged mob baying for the blood of these “disgusting” clients. Cheating, or attempting to cheat is disgusting.
But so am I.
And I don’t want my disgustingness exposed. The thought profoundly terrifies me. The cost would be excruciating.
And so. I empathise with these guys who have been exposed.
I understand the desire to keep our desires private. Uncovered. Hidden in darkness. Held in encrypted digital vaults rather than published for all to see. I wish I had that sort of control. The ability to keep things hidden. But I don’t. I can’t.
What’s perhaps most shocking is that while I may never be accountable to other people for the workings and perversions of my inner-man (so long as I keep them in check and don’t sign up for, or use, web services where I can be exposed), I will certainly be accountable to God.
The God of the Bible who has a little something to say about adultery that should put all of us on notice, and invite us to not be so quick to point fingers of judgment at those ‘disgusting’ folks who have been caught out using a disgusting ‘service’ (to call it a ‘service’ as though it provides some sort of beneficial act for its customer is to be a little too generous). Jesus says the life of the inner person counts. The stuff that you think is private, and secret, isn’t. And it’ll be exposed.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. — Matthew 5:27-28
In another passage, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus warns against hypocrisy because nothing ‘hidden’ stays hidden.
There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. — Luke 12:2-3
When it comes to God, I don’t have secrecy. But I do have grace, love and forgiveness. I might try to keep the worst of my thoughts and desires from the people around me, this desire for secrecy and darkness to get away with stuff is fundamental to our humanity — it’s exactly what Adam and Eve do when they hide from God in the garden, and its what people do over an over again in the Bible. But I should be able to trust the people who love me with this part of me, and trust their ability to love and forgive me, just as God does — often its the desire not to hurt others that rightly prevents people from oversharing the depths of their brokenness. I hope that this love and forgiveness would be offered in my marriage (I’m not seeking to test the limits), but ultimately, I know and have a promise from the one who intimately and completely knows my “inner man” that the disgusting stuff has been seen, but the record, the account, is as good as destroyed because Jesus took on the cost of my disgust, the shame, the public humiliation, and the punishment, for himself. He wore it. He owned it. He took it.
That’s good news for me, and perhaps it might be good news for the hundreds of thousands of Ashley Madison account holders in Australia, or the millions around the world, facing an uncertain future at home this week. Your account can be wiped. You can start again. Trying to hide behind ‘privacy’ and secrecy is something that should decrease over time as you follow Jesus, both because shameful behaviours should decrease, because hiding is a path to hypocrisy, and because you simply realise that Jesus bringing us into the light we no longer need darkness to feel loved and secure. That pattern of our humanity is broken because guilt, shame, and their cause — our disgusting behaviour — are taken away.
King David was an adulterer — not just in the ‘inner man’ sense — he committed adultery and like an Ashley Madison customer tried to get away with the ‘perfect’ secret ‘leave no trace of lipstick’ act. He tried to cover up his actions (and used murder to do it).
And God exposed his heart, and his ‘hidden’ actions. David, more than anyone in the Bible, knows the ins and outs of the experience a bunch of blokes around the world are going through as the nightmare of having their ‘disgusting’ hearts exposed. A prophet is pretty much the equivalent of an Old Testament wikileaks, or a group of hacktivists, and David’s sin was brought out into public and recorded in the books that went on to become the Bible. A book that has been read for thousands of years. EXPOSED. You don’t get much more exposed than this. And yet, David found forgiveness and love and mercy in God, a taste of what was to come through the Cross. He wrote:
The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us. — Psalm 103:8-12
I’m praying some of the Ashley Madison customers thrown into the emotional abyss by this exposé find comfort in this picture of forgiveness, and find this sort of forgiveness in God through Jesus, and expressed by his people, the Church.
The invitation you’re extended, by Jesus, is to step out of darkness and secrecy, and to come into the light. You have nothing to fear when it comes to being exposed if you’re absolutely prepared to be exposed, and to point to Jesus, the one who is not disgusting, and was free from guilt and shame, as the basis of your security.
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. — John 3:19-20
Is it possible that Christians spend far too much time trying to decide whether a particular action or thought is sinful, and not enough time thinking about what sin really is, or what goodness really looks like as an alternative? We’re worried about our hands and eyes, where perhaps we should be more worried about our hearts. Is it possible that we’re obsessively worried about sin, when perhaps we should be excited and thankful that despite our inability not to sin, God forgives us and changes our hearts through Jesus, and invites us to follow his example. Is it possible this worry comes through in the way we present the ‘good’ news of the Gospel?
Sin and defining ‘good’
In the beginning, God looked at the stuff he made in this universe and declared it ‘good’ — but what does ‘good’ mean?
I’ve always injected a bunch of my own understandings of the word ‘good’ into the first chapter of the Bible, which typically revolve around my fairly modern assumption that goodness is a sort of material quality, perhaps even an aesthetic quality. God made a good world like IKEA does not make a good table. God made a good world like an artisan specialty coffee roaster makes a good flat white. It’s good because of what it is, and how I experience it.
But what if ‘good’ means something other than that the universe was, as declared by God, materially excellent? John Walton is a guy whose looked at what the ancient world understood the existence of a thing (the nature of ‘being’ — the fancy word is ‘ontology’). He suggests that if you were trying to define something in the ancient world, the world in which Genesis was composed, you would define a thing in terms of its function, and a declaration by someone who made something that this thing was ‘good’ would be caught up with it being able to perform a function. When God declares the world he makes ‘good’ he is declaring it good for the purpose for which he made it. Walton thinks that Genesis invites us to understand the world being created as God’s cosmic temple, with Eden functioning as the sanctuary in the Temple, and us humans functioning as God’s living images in that temple. The creation of the Temple later in the Old Testament has huge echoes of this creation week, this isn’t a controversial proposal, but it does significantly alter the way we have to read the early chapters of the Bible. Walton’s proposal is one I spent a fair bit of time interacting with in my thesis, and one that I am convinced by (and convinced has massive implications for what it means to function as God’s image bearers, or what being made in God’s image actually means). It’s interesting because our first response as modern readers is to, like I always have, read Genesis as answering ‘material’ questions about the universe, when in fact we should be answering ‘functional’ questions about the universe if we want to treat the text as a product of its world, answering questions its earliest readers were asking (as well as answering questions we should be asking).
When we’re repeatedly told that “God saw that it was good” in Genesis 1 we’re being told that the world God makes is meeting the function he has designed for it. When God makes us humans he gives us a vocation — described in Genesis 1 — which outlines the function of humanity (our function is also caught up in the word used for image, and how that word was understood, and in the description of how he forms and places Adam in Genesis 2). We have a good job to do, ruling God’s good world, according to its inbuilt purposes, for and like God. Presumably being fruitful and multiplying, and extending God’s presence as his image bearers also meant extending the garden sanctuary across the whole world. What’s important here is that the nature of what it means to be human — at least in the Genesis 1 sense — involves a created function or purpose. Our own goodness is a product of whether or not we achieve that purpose.
If you had to answer the question “what is sin?” from the first two chapters of the Bible it would be a failure to be ‘good’ in the sense of failing in this divinely appointed vocation. A failure to bear God’s image and represent him. In Genesis 2 we see Adam bearing God’s image by naming the animals (just as God has named the things that he made). All is good in the world. Except that Adam is alone.
The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
This aloneness doesn’t fit with the Genesis 1 picture of ‘goodness’ — or the function God envisages for humanity. In Genesis 1 God describes humanity’s image bearing capacity, our ability to represent the loving triune God, and ability to be fruitful and multiply caught up in us being made male and female. Not alone. So this ‘not goodness’ is fixed in Genesis 2 when Eve is introduced. Eve is also introduced in the narrative because none of the animals is suitable for the function God’s purposes require. The declaration ‘not good’ is a declaration that God’s created purpose is not being met. So God fixes things.
Proposition 1: God defines what ‘good’ is.
Then we break them. If part of God’s purposes for the world was to defeat evil — especially evil as it is embodied in Genesis 3 by the serpent — by creating and spreading his temple and presence in the world through his image bearing people then things seem to go very wrong in terms of God’s purposes in Genesis 3. Genesis 3 is where we get our first picture of sin. Our first sense of how to answer the question ‘is X sinful’ — but Genesis 3 also massively changes the playing field for answering that question because it massively changes us. Presumably prior to Genesis 3 everything about who we are as people is aligned with God’s function — our hearts, our desires, our thoughts, our actions — after this point, it seems none of those things line up with the idea of being fruitful and multiplying God’s presence as we live out his purposes. At least according to the way the story of the Bible works, from this point on, we all live out our own purposes. Our hearts and desires become evil, oriented to ourselves and to things other than God.
So if ‘goodness’ is about God’s purposes being met by the things he has made, and ‘not goodness’ is a frustration of those purposes, then what is at the heart of Adam and Eve’s sin in Genesis 3? I think there are actually a bunch of things they do wrong in Genesis 3, but the fundamental ‘wrongness’ is actually a failure to live as image bearers of God when push comes to shove. When the serpent enters the scene what he tempts them with, and what they display, is a life where its their own purposes that define ‘good’… and this, is sin.
Proposition 2. God defines what good is, sin is when we come up with our own definition of good, apart from God.
The classic answer to the question of ‘sin’ in Genesis 3 is to identify the specific act of transgression. Adam and Eve disobey God’s clear instruction and eat the bad fruit. And that’s certainly a sin. But sin is more than simply a disobedient act. I think we get into massive problems as the church — and massively confuse people about what sin is — if we run around looking for equivalent acts of transgression, rather than talking about the hearts that produce those transgressions. Here’s something interesting in Genesis 3.
Notice here, in the same words we’ve read already in the first two chapters of Genesis, it’s now Eve deciding what “good” is, and its the opposite of what God tells Adam to do in order to be meet his purposes.
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
Adam and Eve desired what the Serpent promised — that they would be like God (a thing they already had). I reckon they’ve failed to ‘guard and keep’ the garden, the literal instructions God gives Adam in Genesis 2:15, simply by letting the Serpent in. I think they’ve given the Serpent’s lies more weight than God’s truths, and before they eat the fruit — which is where most people think they sin — they’ve already replaced God with themselves and are living and making decisions according to their own purposes. This becomes evident in their actions, which are the fruit of their hearts. But its their hearts that are oriented away from God and his purposes first. And any action from a heart like this is an action of a person not living according to God’s purpose for humanity.
According to the rest of the story in the Bible, the result of this Genesis 3 failure is that we’re now genetically predisposed to be just like Adam and Eve. To not live like God, but to live for ourselves. Their mistake repeats in every human life, but now its because we’re born inheriting this pattern of life, and born outside the sanctuary of Eden, not image bearers formed in the garden-temple, but people with hearts ready to reflect whatever it is in God’s world that we want to replace God with. The image we’re made to carry, and God’s purposes for humanity, aren’t totally wiped out by our autonomy, that’d give us too much power. His common grace, and his love for people, means that there’s something written into our DNA that means we live and breath and love and do things that seem good, even though our motives always have something of our own interest or desire to autonomously define ‘good’ involved.
Proposition 3. Hearts that define their own ‘good’ define their own gods (and are defined by those gods).
Sin is any product of a disordered heart — a heart that sets its own agenda and produces actions according to that agenda — even if the things we do appear to be obedient to God’s purposes, even if we look like we’re living, breathing, images of the living, breathing, God, if our hearts are pointed towards our own ends as we do those acts, are those actions not infused with and given life by our disordered hearts? In the Old Testament these disordered hearts lead us to produce idols in Isaiah this is literal… and its a parody of Genesis 2 which leads to dead images (and ultimately dead people). Images and idols are conceptually linked through the Old Testament, because when God made us we were meant to be his living images that represented him in his temple — which is exactly what other religions did with their dead idols.
All who make idols are nothing,
and the things they treasure are worthless.
Those who would speak up for them are blind;
they are ignorant, to their own shame.
The carpenter measures with a line
and makes an outline with a marker;
he roughs it out with chisels
and marks it with compasses.
He shapes it in human form,
human form in all its glory,
that it may dwell in a shrine.
They know nothing, they understand nothing;
their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
and their minds closed so they cannot understand.
Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him;
he cannot save himself, or say,
“Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”— Isaiah 44:9, 13, 18, 20
The “they” here is a little ambiguous, and speaks both about the idol and the idol-maker. Psalm 115 makes this connection explicit.
But their idols are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see…
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them. — Psalm 115:4-5, 8
In Ezekiel we’re told idols aren’t just physical things a person carves, but the product of hearts turned away from God.
“‘When any of the Israelites or any foreigner residing in Israel separate themselves from me and set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet to inquire of me, I the Lord will answer them myself. I will set my face against them and make them an example and a byword. I will remove them from my people. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” — Ezekiel 14:7-8
In Romans 1, Paul talks about the human condition in this way too, suggesting that our hearts are darkened because we turned away from God and worshipped the things he made instead.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. — Romans 1:20-21
In Paul’s logic in Romans all the things we might use to classify different Xs as ‘sin’ — the moral categories we might use to assess our actions— are said to flow from this fundamental cause. Us exchanging God for stuff God made.
Proposition 4. Hearts that are turned away from God are hearts that are darkened and turned towards death.
All our hearts do this. It’s why God promises to step in and replace hearts shaped by stone idols with living hearts shaped by his Spirit. Interestingly, the sort of process described here (washing, restoring, and a sort of ‘re-breathing’ ritual) is what countries in the Ancient Near East did if their idols were taken during conquest by another nation to re-establish them in their temples. This is a promise to restore God’s people to their created purpose.
“‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. — Ezekiel 36:24-27
Focusing on symptoms rather than the disease
Just to be clear, I think the answer to the question “is X sinful” is always yes, in this world.
So long as our hearts are still tainted by sin.
Some acts that are clearly disobedient to God and his revealed standards are more clearly sinful than others, but any failure to live as image bearers of God, any failure to appropriately imitate God are failures to live up to the purpose we were made for, and that failure is caught up in the idea of autonomy, or living as though we’ve replaced God, where we live as though we get to make declarations about what the ‘good’ for a thing God has made is (including defining what we think is good, according to our own desires). These failures which definitely include those moments of direct disobedience to specific commands, but will also include disobedience to general catch-all commands like ‘be perfect,’ ‘be holy,’ and ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart.’ In Genesis 3, immediately after they’re caught, but before they receive God’s response — the curse — the way Adam and Eve speak about their bad decision, and each other, shows that their hearts have already changed. They are acting out of self-interest, and not according to God’s purposes. They’ve defined their own good, and their judging each other accordingly.
Proposition 5. From this point on our hearts are a mixed bag. Humanity is still made in the image of God, but we keep remaking ourselves in our own image, and conforming ourselves into the image of our other gods.
A good summary of the Old Testament’s view of humanity (a fancy word here is anthropology) is that we’re a complicated mix of people made by God to do one thing, and we know what that thing looks like, but our hearts have been so frustrated by evil so that we do another. God is patient and good though, and merciful, so he keeps providing guidelines to help people try not to be evil (this just keeps looking like a to do list though). It’s unhelpful, then, to say that sin is simply not obeying the list of rules in the Old Testament law, as though its all about a moral code, when the defining principle for God’s people, following in the footsteps Adam and Eve should have walked in is to “be holy because I am holy”…
I think we get sin massively and unhelpfully wrong when we try to write a list of actions that are, or aren’t, sinful. Our actions indicate our hearts, and whose image we’re bearing, but its this question of whether or not our lives are aligned with God’s purposes that actually determines whether or not we’re sinning.
If all this is right, there are interesting implications in this for how we answer this question, especially in how we deal with the difference between experiencing the results of a broken and cursed world, and deliberate decisions to express our autonomy through actions that have no redeeming features. I can see how this could be heard as being massively pastorally unhelpful when people ask the question “is X a sin?” with an agenda or with a lack of self-insight (such that asking the question is sinful). Often this question has been used to demonise, rather than humanise, another person (and often the people answering the question have not been particularly ‘human’ in their responses). A couple of examples are when people ask “is same sex attraction a sin” or “is anxiety a sin”… it is massively unhelpful to say “yes” to these questions without the massive caveats that “all human sexuality as we experience it from autonomous broken hearts is sinful” and “all views of life in the world from autonomous hearts are sinful”… but I think its safe to say that the diagnosis of the human condition in the Old Testament is pretty consistently a diagnosis that our hearts are fundamentally oriented away from God’s purposes, and that orients us as people away from God’s function.
The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. — Genesis 6:5
Proposition 6. Sin is: taking a good thing (including people and abstract things like love) that God has given a good function and created to serve a good purpose and using it for some purpose other than the purpose God created for us, in line with our own hearts.
I’ll get to this below, but I think the human reality everywhere, in every heart, this side of the new creation God promises at the end of the Bible, is that every thing we do will involve some bit of our self-seeking, sinful hearts as a motivating factor.
Proposition 7. This is a universal problem and a description of the human condition for all people.
It becomes less and less a motivating factor as we’re conformed into the image of Jesus, but it’ll still be there. Everything we do on our own steam is sin. This is true for things we do for ourselves, and things we do for others. It’s true for things we do by ourselves, and things we do with others. Our collective actions will be a mix of the goodness God made in us raging war with the self-seeking (or not-God seeking) desires of our hearts.
Proposition 8. Because this is a universal problem, and we are affected, we can’t perform heart surgery on ourselves, neither can other sinners.
What wretches this means we are. Who can save us?
How Jesus both cures our sinful hearts, and shows us what healthy hearts looks like
Proposition 9. The answer to Paul’s question posed above — who can save us? — is Jesus.
I think, according to the above framework and the way Paul’s use of Adam seems consistent with it in Romans, that Paul’s description of human thought and life in Romans 7 is about the dilemma we experience as people made in God’s image who are infected with sin — and his cry for help is the cry of the human heart to be restored.
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. — Romans 7:22-23
Paul wants out of this way of life.
Which happens when Jesus makes it possible for us to be children of God again through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8), as we are transformed into the image of Jesus.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
One of the fundamental promises of the Old Testament is that God will intervene with the human condition to give us ‘new hearts’ — reoriented hearts — hearts not shaped by the ‘stone’ dead idols we worship, but by the living God (cf Psalm 115, Ezekiel 36:26), hearts that allow us to obey God — or meet his purposes again (cf Deuteronomy 30, Jeremiah 31).
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. — Ezekiel 36:26
Proposition 10. Jesus came to fix our hearts because our hearts are the heart of our problem, and make what we do sinful.
Proposition 11. The way Jesus talks about the problem of sin shows that it is a problem of the heart not properly loving God, not a question of a list of rights and wrongs, or Xs that are sinful, or not sinful.
Some people who operate with the assumption that sin is specific transgressions against a particular rule have a hard time accommodating Jesus’ ‘new ethic’ in the Sermon on the Mount. For these people, suddenly thought crime is a thing. But what if Jesus isn’t bringing a new ethic to the world, what if he’s showing people that they’ve got the old ethic wrong, that the way to understand the Old Testament law was that sinless humanity required imitation of God, and what if this is why the Old Testament had a ritual of atonement built into the law, because imitating God and fulfilling God’s purpose for the law is impossible for sinful us. So the rich young ruler who says “I’ve kept all the laws” might be right, but this doesn’t make him sinless? What if Jesus as God’s real image bearer, the one who sees God truly, does fulfil the law in terms of its purpose by ‘being perfect’…
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them…
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” — Matthew 5:8, 17, 48
What if the point of the Sermon on the Mount is that X is always sinful, but its the wrong question? What if Jesus isn’t worried about answering the question “is X sinful” at all, but about offering the transformed heart promised by the Old Testament so that “is X sinful” is the wrong question? What if the other bit where Jesus talks about the law and the prophets is related to this idea of fulfilment, and Jesus is the one who perfectly loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and loves his neighbours as himself?
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” — Matthew 22:37-40
Just remember, the point is not that any individual action is not sinful, but that every action from a heart that doesn’t truly imitate God is sinful. The point of the picture of humanity in the Old Testament is that nobody loves the Lord their God with all their heart, and soul, and mind. Even in their best moments. Even the best of people. And this is the ‘greatest commandment’ which helps us understand the purpose of all the other commandments, and the law, and the prophets, and so, the purpose of our humanity. This is what living life in God’s image looks like, and its what Jesus does — and in doing so, what he secures for us in him through his death and resurrection (as well as making payment for our failure as a substitutionary sacrifice. We still need atonement, just like people in the Old Testament. Because there’s a gap between how we live and how we were made to live that is expressed in our every action.
Here’s a cool thing. I’ve been grappling with this sin question for a while and wondering how what I think fits with this emphasis on the heart fits with a verse like:
If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Matthew records this bit of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, where it fits with this idea that we are imperfect from the inside out, it comes right after Jesus says:
“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.“
The heart, mind, eyes and hands are all connected in this picture of what being a person looks like. Matthew puts it in the Sermon on the Mount, Mark puts this bit in some of the things Jesus teaches on his way to Jerusalem. He says:
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.” — Mark 9:43-47
The word behind ’cause to stumble’ in the NIV which is often translated as ’cause to sin’ (see ESV etc) is the Greek word which transliterates as scandalise (σκανδαλίζῃ), it means what we think it means in English, carrying a sense of causing offence. One thing to remember is that the Bible describes sin using a bunch of different words, and we lazily translate them all as ‘sin.’ These passages might seem to support the idea that sin is simply a wrong action (or thought) and leave us legitimately trying to solve for X. So that we know what to chop our hands off for, and pluck our eyes out for… except… in both Matthew and Mark Jesus lays the blame for sin somewhere else. Both Matthew and Mark record this as Jesus answering the Pharisees questions, and correcting their understanding of, the point of the law… The Pharisees are playing the “is X sinful?” game and coming up with some incredibly stupid things to ask the question about, leading them to add stuff to what God has commanded that leaves them imitating man, not God.
So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Then the disciples came and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?” He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” — Matthew 15:6-20
Mark doesn’t do much more with this, he too records Jesus quoting Isaiah, and then saying:
And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” — Mark 7:14-23
We don’t need to chop off our hands, or gouge out our eyes. These don’t actually cause us to sin at all, they are instruments controlled by our hearts. Defiled hearts cause scandalous hands. We need to chop out our hearts. Or rather, we need Jesus to do that for us.
Jesus’ judgment on the Pharisees and their approach to the law — predicated on deciding that X is sinful, but missing the point of the law — is that their hearts are hard. That’s why he says Moses wrote the law (he’s specifically answering a question from the Pharisees about why the law allows divorce) in Mark 10, and again shows they’re missing the point when they essentially ask “is X sinful” (where X=divorce) and Jesus’ answer is essentially that they should be looking internally for sin…
“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. — Mark 10:5
Matthew says plenty about the heart too — and the link between who we are as people, and what we do being a reflection of who we are (though also being that which indicates who we are).
“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” — Matthew 12:33-37
What we do comes from who we are — if we’re what Paul calls “in Adam” or reflecting the image of Adam, this means we’re a mix of autonomous God-replacing desires and people who bear the image of God, if we’re in Christ it means we’re a mix of this and the Holy Spirit, which is conforming us into the image of Jesus, a transformation that will ultimately be completed in the new creation.
Jesus also rebukes the Pharisees and their approach to their God-ordained purpose in Matthew, but he makes it clear that he is the way back to a new heart he quotes Isaiah and puts himself in the picture as the solution to the problem with our humanity:
For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’ —Matthew 13:15, which is a slight adaptation of Isaiah 6:9-10 that presents Jesus as the answer to the question “how long O Lord?”
Proposition 12: Jesus came to heal calloused, idolatrous, sinful hearts, and to offer a way for people to be ‘good’ living images of God again, representing him in his world.
A healthy approach: getting the balance right between disease treatment and health
For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation… For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. — Colossians 1:13-15, 19-20
There’s a bit of a conversation happening online in Aussie circles at the moment about whether we adequately present the Gospel when we emphasise penal substitutionary atonement at the Cross — that’s the thing Colossians 1 describes above, where Jesus swaps his perfection for our imperfection at the Cross, making atonement for us. The Cross certainly does this. But it does a little more than this, and simply treating the Cross as an antidote for sin leaves us emphasising sin as our problem, and may leave us asking the question “is X sinful” as we live in response to the Cross. But what if the Cross isn’t just about a substitution? One other stream of thought is that the Cross is also our example — often this is held up against substitutionary atonement, almost as an alternative Gospel. But what if we’re actually meant to hold them together, and what if our emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement is caught up in our obsession with the wrong thing? Not sinning, rather than imitating God. They’re linked. Obviously. Because God doesn’t sin, but sin is also, if the above is correct, the result of not imitating God.
If sin is a heart disease, our emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement is like fighting heart disease by emphasising the need for a heart transplant. But when you get a heart transplant you also need to know how to live. You need to know the pattern of life that comes from a healthy heart, and keeps it healthy. We can’t hold our need for atonement apart from what the ‘good’ life is meant to look like. Our version of Christianity sometimes feels more like “don’t be sick” than “this is what it looks like to be well” — and I think that’s because we tend to focus on penal substitutionary atonement, rather than holding it alongside the example of Jesus (what, in latin, gets called Christus Exemplar). Sometimes the thing we emphasise when we talk about the good news of the Gospel as substitutionary atonement is the Gospel’s implications for us (typically as individuals) rather than the Gospel being centred on Christ. It is good news about him, first, isn’t it?
Proposition 13. The Cross is where Jesus gives us new hearts to re-shape us and recommission us into God’s (and his) image bearers again while taking the punishment for our darkened hearts, and where he shows us what it looks like to live ‘good’ lives as image bearers.
The story of Jesus’ life and his mission for hearts and minds as recorded in Matthew and Mark culminates in the ultimate expression of humanity defining its own good, of humanity rejecting God’s vision of ‘the good’ and what his plans for the world look like. The story of Jesus is not a different story to the story of Genesis 1-3. Jesus is the real image bearer, and we see Adam and Eve’s behaviour fulfilled at the Cross, where humanity collectively (but especially Israel and Rome) rejects Jesus, God’s king. God’s image bearer. We kill God’s divine son. This is Adam and Eve’s autonomous redefining of the good writ large.
Proposition 14. The Cross is sin in its purest form. This is the desire of our hearts being expressed — life without God. But it’s also God’s heart being expressed in its purest form, and his ‘good’ victory being won. It’s where the good purpose of the world is revealed.
The Cross is why Jesus came. It’s, at least according to John (see below), and Peter, the moment the world was made for. And it’s where God’s offer of healing and a new heart is made reality, the Spirit arrives in people’s hearts because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Cross is Jesus imitating God. God’s character is defined by this act of self-giving love for one’s enemies. This voluntary sacrifice —the giving up of everything — is Jesus showing what it looks like to love God, and his neighbours — with all his heart. Perfectly imitating God and fulfilling the law. It’s also where Jesus defeats evil, and through the resurrection and its promise, Jesus re-kindles the hope and promise that God’s kingdom will spread all over the earth.
The Cross is humanity being evil, and Jesus being good, simultaneously. It is victory. It is where God defeats evil. And its an incredible picture of God’s temple harking back to creation as his image bearer dwelling in his world to give life. It’s the moment the world was heading towards, and the moment the serpent is defeated. Jesus succeeds where Adam and Eve fail. John describes this aspect of God’s plan as Jesus being “the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8) and in the picture John paints of the significance of the Cross he sees this being the decisive moment that guarantees that the serpent, the Devil, loses and God wins (see Revelation 20).
I wonder if the question “is X sinful,” while well-intentioned, misses the point that in this life our hearts are still tainted by sin, and still a work in progress. We’re fairly constantly called to flee particular sorts of sin in the New Testament, but every one of the sins we’re called to flee is linked to idolatry, which is linked to the orientation of the heart. The sins we’re called to flee are products of our poisonous hearts, and really fleeing this behaviour actually requires us to live life — to act — out of the new part of our heart, not simply to stop doing that other stuff. Christians are post-operative heart transplant recipients. The permanent internal change has taken place but still working their way through our bodies and our lives. I wonder if we’re better off asking questions about what the fruits of our new nature look like — the part of our humanity that is now the product of the Holy Spirit transforming us into the image of Christ.
Paul describes this new aspect of our humanity in 2 Corinthians 3. The internal work of the Spirit on our hearts is different and better than the Old Testament law, because human readers of the Old Testament law miss the point of the law without the Spirit, because our nature — our hearts— get in the way.
You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
… Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. — 2 Corinthians 3:2-18
We’re no longer simply a bifurcated mix of image of God and sinful heart — we’re people whose hearts are being transformed by the Spirit into the image of Jesus. To fixate on the broken bit of our humanity misses the sense that we’re also called to imitate Jesus as he imitates God, not just by not doing bad things, but also by doing good things. This, I think, is the right way to think about the social implications of the Gospel (for this to make sense, read Stephen McAlpine’s excellent review of a book by a guy named Tim Foster who suggests the key to reaching urban Australians is to move away from substitutionary atonement and towards what he describes as a telic Gospel (it’s also worth reading Tim Foster’s reflections on some of the reviews of his book, especially this one). This series of posts essentially asks what the Gospel is, and how we should preach it in our context. I know some people (like Richard Dawkins) say substitutionary atonement is an ugly doctrine, but I think our problem is that its an incomplete Gospel. It’s not ugly. It’s too individual in its emphasis, and to focused on the disease and not enough on the cure and the new life the cure brings. The life we’re inviting others to find, the life God created them for. We get Jesus’ perfect life in exchange for our diseased one, and we’re invited to join him in living it. Forever. That process starts now. We’re reconnecting with God’s vision of what ‘good’ is. This is an invitation to have a ‘good’ life.
I think, given the above, I want to go back to Martin Luther, who was big on a Christian anthropology being simul justus et peccator (which in English means simultaneously justified and sinful). I think our anthropology is threefold, and we’re calling people in our world to rediscover God’s purpose for the bit of them that still reflects his image, by connecting themselves to Jesus. In a letter to a preacher friend Luther suggested preachers need to express their real humanity in their preaching. Including their sin (rather than obsessing over is X sinful, perhaps).
If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.
I’d want to add, as Paul and John do, that justice does reside here a little, in the form of the love of the justified. In us. As we imitate Christ. Especially the Cross. Through his death and resurrection, and the heart-changing gift of the Spirit, Jesus frees us to bear God’s image again as we bear his image. As we imitate him.
Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. — Ephesians 5:1-2
Or, as John puts it in 1 John 3… What “not sinning” as God’s children looks like is loving like Jesus loved…
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister. For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. — 1 John 3:2-11, 16-24
People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…
This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention, next, we considered that social media works to show us things calculated to appeal to our selfishness, then whether we have a moral obligation to notice or pay attention to disorder, and where we might or might not be culpable for failing to be outraged, then the link between a dead lion and Planned Parenthood — our disordered hearts, we considered the purpose of outrage.
So how do we put outrage in its place? How do we prevent ourselves from becoming defined by our outrage, and whatever it is we’re outraged about at any given moment? How do we respond rightly —love rightly — when we are confronted by or experience disorder? What stops us getting outraged and allows us to offer love as a corrective and comfort?
I think the answer to all these questions is tied up in being people, or communities, of character — or virtue — which means figuring out what it means to be good, or loving in a disordered but increasingly outraged world. If we talk of outrage having a purpose, or telos, in helping us live in and understand things about the world, we’re already sounding like little Aristotles.
Aristotle, arete, divine contemplation, and internet outrage
Aristotle might seem pretty irrelevant to figuring out why we react with outrage, whether its constructive, and what a more virtuous response might look like, but while he’s an old dead Greek guy, his understanding of ethics, telos, and virtue were influential for influential Christian thinkers like Augustine, and even influential secular moral philosophers. So it’s worth getting our moral bearings by looking at some of his thinking first.
The ancient Greek’s had this word arete which carried the sense of excellence, in a sort of moral sense. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics its most often translated as virtue. In Aristotle’s exploration of what exactly virtue is, he ultimately settled on contemplation or the pursuit of knowledge as the highest virtue, the telos of human intelligence. According to Aristotle, virtues in other aspects of life involved identifying the ‘mean’ between two extremes” — you could only do this with a mind capable of choosing what the right course of action involved.
“Virtue then is a settled disposition of the mind determining the choice of actions and emotions, consisting essentially in the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by principle, that is, as the prudent man would determine it.
For example, the effect of excellence in the eye is that the eye is good and functions well; since having good eyes means having good sight. Similarly excellence in a horse makes it a good horse, and also good at galloping, at carrying its rider, and at facing the enemy. If therefore this is true of all things, excellence or virtue in a man will be the disposition which renders him a good man and also which will cause him to perform his function well.” — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 6
This is why it is a hard task to be good, for it is hard to find the middle point in anything: for instance, not everybody can find the center of a circle, but only someone who knows geometry. So also anybody can become angry—that is easy, and so it is to give and spend money; but to be angry with or give money to the right person, and to the right amount, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way—this is not within everybody’s power and is not easy; so that to do these things properly is rare, praiseworthy, and noble. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 9
Modern moral philosophers can’t really speak of virtue without speaking of love, and earlier I put forward the conclusion I’m working towards earlier — back in post one of this mini-series (talk about giving the game away) — that virtue looks like loving attention. Aristotle isn’t so interested in love as the supreme virtue, certainly not when it comes to charting a virtuous response to the disordered world, when that disorder is beyond our ability to influence (he was writing before clicktivism), but he does lay a platform for the idea that virtue and attention, or contemplation, overlap, and this sense that moral excellence (arete) is tied up with us living out our purpose/function, our telos.
Aristotle has his own version of the dead squirrel, he limits the span of our virtuous giving of attention, or deliberation, to that which we can effectively change through our own actions.
As for Deliberation, do people deliberate about everything—are all things possible objects of deliberation—or are there some things about which deliberation is impossible? The term ‘object of deliberation’ presumably must not be taken to include things about which a fool or a madman might deliberate, but to mean what a sensible person would deliberate about…
Well then, nobody deliberates about things eternal, such as the order of the universe, or the incommensurability of the diagonal and the side, of a square. Nor yet about things that change but follow a regular process, whether from necessity or by nature or through some other cause: such phenomena for instance as the solstices and the sunrise. Nor about irregular occurrences, such as droughts and rains. Nor about the results of chance, such as finding a hidden treasure. The reason why we do not deliberate about these things is that none of them can be effected by our agency. We deliberate about things that are in our control and are attainable by action…
But we do not deliberate about all human affairs without exception either: for example, no Lacedaemonian deliberates about the best form of government for Scythia; but any particular set of men deliberates about the things attainable by their own actions. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 4
Our ability to love, a bit like our ability to contemplate, deliberate, or give our attention to something is limited by proximity and our capacity, beyond a certain number of relationships that involve real love, Aristotle reckoned we just loved what we got from people, be it something in return, or just the pleasure of their company.
It is not possible to have many friends in the full meaning of the word friendship, any more than it is to be in love with many people at once（love indeed seems to be an excessive state of emotion, such as is naturally felt towards one person only); and it is not easy for the same person to like a number of people at once, nor indeed perhaps can good men be found in large numbers. Also for perfect friendship you must get to know a man thoroughly, and become intimate with him, which is a very difficult thing to do. But it is possible to like a number of persons for their utility and pleasantness, for useful and pleasant people are plentiful, and the benefits they confer can be enjoyed at once. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 8
There was a sort of love Aristotle thought you might offer to people outside this sphere, more an analogy to this love, a virtuous ‘mean’ that involved a “habit of approving or reprehending properly” — the person who does this will be “similarly affable to those whom he does not, and to those whom he does know, this is a sort of loving attention, the appropriate application of one’s attention and efforts based on your assessment of your ability to both relate to a person, and control an outcome in the situation.
Aristotle believed that the exercise of our intellect through contemplation is both what separates us from the animal kingdom, and takes us closest to the divine (or is the activity of the “divinest part of us.” Contemplation is the path to real happiness, and to imitating God and thus, to being favoured by the gods.
And it seems likely that the man who pursues intellectual activity, and who cultivates his intellect and keeps that in the best condition, is also the man most beloved of the gods. For if, as is generally believed, the gods exercise some superintendence over human affairs, then it will be reasonable to suppose that they take pleasure in that part of man which is best and most akin to themselves, namely the intellect, and that they recompense with their favours those men who esteem and honour this most, because these care for the things dear to themselves, and act rightly and nobly. Now it is clear that all these attributes belong most of all to the wise man. He therefore is most beloved by the gods; and if so, he is naturally most happy. Here is another proof that the wise man is the happiest. Aristot. Nic. Eth. 10.8
Arete and the Christian
Arete features prominently in Aristotle, so you’d expect other ethical texts from the ancient world to play with it a bit. It’s worth noting, briefly, that Aristotle would not have treated Jesus like a virtuous person. Jesus might have the ability to contemplate the divine mind, but his life — especially his humility (including his failure to pursue personal honour), and his giving up of power and status for the sake of the weak, means Jesus is everything Aristotle’s vision of arete is not. This sharp distinction between Aristotle and Jesus is important, because it might help us understand the way the New Testament — Paul and Peter specifically — use arete. For Paul, arete is not the act of contemplation, but the focus of our contemplation… the bolded words in the following passages are, in the Greek, arete (or αρετη).
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. — Philippians 4:8-9
For Peter, arete is the character of God, and God’s people exist to proclaim these ‘excellencies’… contemplation is a means to this end, first we think about God’s excellencies, then we proclaim them…
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. — 1 Peter 2:9
Peter brings these together in his second letter. Our knowledge of God, through his glory and arete is what we need in order to add arete to our faith. This sort of knowledge based arete is the basis for our virtuous living and our productivity (remember, Aristotle linked arete to efficiency and our ability to achieve our telos.
His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. – 2 Peter 1:5-9
It’s interesting that in terms of a progression from arete, Peter moves from arete to knowledge, to self-control, all the way to love, which Peter, unlike Aristotle, seems to see as the ultimate virtue (amongst other virtues). It’s interesting that like Aristotle he sees arete as very closely linked to the divine nature. For Aristotle, the contemplative life is virtuous because it enables the contemplator to figure out the virtuous mean in any situation, for Paul and Peter, the contemplative life is about reflecting on the character of the God who reveals himself in Jesus, and this reflection on God’s nature (and our ability to participate in it) pushes us towards being effective and productive “in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Peter seems to place love as both fundamental to God’s nature, and the telos of the virtuous, arete displaying, human.
But what is love? And how does our understanding of love start with God’s nature (and how do we then apply this understanding of love to the question of outrage (especially if the purpose of outrage is also potentially, to point us from human shortcomings and disorder to God and his nature)?