Talking about Transgenderism 4: Biology and Morality

Talking about Transgenderism

Earlier in this thread, I wrote that there are some things for Christians that don’t change, here.

Then I wrote about feelings of squeamishness and their role in moral thinking, here.

Then I wrote about some of the key biblical texts that come up in conversations about gender, here.

A Very Bad Argument

For my final (I think) post about transgenderism, I want to talk about science and morality. I’m going to start by pointing out a bad argument that conservatives and liberals use with equal frequency, and I’d like to disarm both of them. I’ll name it and then I’ll explain it.

It’s called the naturalistic fallacy.

Put simply, you can’t argue from the biological to the moral. What occurs naturally in the world is never essentially good by virtue of it being natural. The fact that someone is born in a certain way or with certain unchosen inclinations does not make that state or those inclinations good or even morally permissible.

We are born with all kinds of inclinations that are blatantly bad. We can be born with an inclination to addiction or to anger. We can be born with mental disorders and physical abnormalities. Anyone arguing that the state of a person at birth (usually with a dumb catchphrase like, “God don’t make junk”), doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Babies can be born with heart defects that kill them a few hours after they’re born. If that which is natural is intended by God, then God has a sick sense of humor.

We use surgery, medicine, and counseling to correct all kinds of natural things. Cleft palates, heart defects, crooked teeth, wisdom teeth, inflamed appendices, hermaphroditism, vision problems, inclinations to depression, and hundreds of other problems with which one can be born are things that we correct. Recommending that a pregnant woman eat healthy is itself an attempt to control the natural and the impacts of nature. The natural is not the moral. Our biology isn’t inherently good.

Morality is the control of natural inclinations. That which is most praiseworthy in moral thinking is that which requires self-discipline. When someone does something good because they get a personal thrill out of it, simply for the sake of their own happiness, we usually don’t admire them quite so much as someone who vigorously restrains destructive impulses and practices the good to make it a habit. The moral is the control of the natural.

So…

The liberal inclination to say that sexual inclinations that are natural, unchosen, and consensual must therefore be good or even permissible is nonsense. This applies to transgenderism, gay marriage, and every other gender or sexual expression. If a behavior is found to be permissible or good, it must be on grounds other than biology and nature.

The conservative inclination to say that the natural order shows that God means for certain things to be a certain way is also ignorant. If surgery can be used to correct cosmetic issues like crooked teeth, or to enact lifesaving procedures like heart surgery, or to alter biological issues related to gender like hermaphroditism, and if you want to be logically consistent, you can’t say that there is a special category of natural things that can’t be medically corrected. (Furthermore, the natural order itself doesn’t show that God created a simple gender binary – there are species in the animal kingdom that naturally change genders and can reproduce as male or female.)

Nature doesn’t determine morality. Not at all. Give this argument up. I’m tired of hearing it.

The Morality of Transgenderism: Three Options

One researcher has come up with three helpful options for talking about the science and morality of transgenderism, and it doesn’t require the naturalistic fallacy.

First, perhaps the inclination to change one’s gender is a sin. Though the biblical case isn’t clear here, some have tried to argue that physical gender as it appears (as when the doctor says, “It’s a boy!”) is tied irrevocably to identity, and our identity is connected to the image of God, and to reject our God-formed identity is to reject God’s will. The solution is to repent, bear one’s cross, and fight with the discontent and desires.

Second, perhaps gender dysphoria – the feelings of discontent with one’s own gender – is a mental illness. Some sort of confusion, be it genetic, brought about through hormone imbalances, or caused by painful life experiences, makes people dislike their gender. The solution is to seek counseling and wrestle with the feelings to find mental peace.

Third, perhaps transgenderism is part of a diversity of life, without moral implications. The approach here is to accept it.

The Non-Conclusion and the Conclusion

I’m not going to choose for you. I don’t think the Bible clearly answers this one. I don’t think there has been sufficient research into genetics, neurology, psychology, and endocrinology to explain exactly where transgenderism comes from. I don’t think there’s been sufficient research into gender transitioning to talk meaningfully about the help or damage that it does. Sectors of American society have been too eager to condemn change, and others have been too eager to endorse and enforce change.

The way Christian morality works, in broad brush strokes, has three steps:

  1. If God speaks to a subject, his will is definitive.
  2. If there is not clear direction from God, Christians seek to act from virtuous motives, doing what Jesus would do, with love governing the virtues. The implications of the Scriptures are applied as best they can be discerned.
  3. With all else equal, Christians seek to maximize kindness to others and limit harm, living to draw attention to Jesus.

On the issue of transgenderism, I personally am stuck in #2. If transgenderism is a case of biology not jibing with its design, it is analogous to hermaphroditism. If it is a case of psychological woundedness, it is analogous to depression.

What I am certain of, which is exactly where I started this series of posts, is that when religious people rise up to castigate and cast out people who don’t fit social norms and expectations, Jesus stands beside the rejected to defy the religious. The Church should have always been a place of such overwhelming love that outsiders would have known it to be a safe place. Instead, it has been a bastion of Pharisees eager to condemn. If a transgender person can’t walk down the center aisle of a church and worship in the front row, there’s something wrong with the church, not with the person standing outside its doors.

Brothers and sisters, love one another, because love comes from God. Everyone who loves knows God, and those who don’t love don’t know God.

Talking about Transgenderism 3: The Bible

Talking about Transgenderism

Earlier in this thread, I wrote that there are some things for Christians that don’t change, here.

Then I wrote about feelings of squeamishness and their role in moral thinking, here.

For Christians, the Bible is unquestionably the definitive source of information about the mind of Jesus. There is no other place to start in asking what he wills. Christians have disagreed about how the Bible is complemented by scientific investigation, common sense, and the inner voice of the Holy Spirit, but all Christians appeal to this book.

What does the Bible say about transgenderism?

The relevant texts

The uncomplicated answer is that the Bible doesn’t discuss transgenderism, because hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery didn’t exist 2000 years ago. Now let’s complicate things. The Bible addresses issues surrounding gender. A few are worth considering:

  1. The Creation narrative pairs Adam and Eve and holds this up as a model for human relationships. It offers itself as the universal origin story (Gen. 1-2).
  2. The complementary gender pairing then runs throughout Scripture as a model, a metaphor for other relationships, and a norm. The prophetic voices compare God’s relationship to humanity with a husband and wife. Song of Songs expresses erotic affection between a man and a woman. Jesus reiterates the gender pairing of Genesis – a man will leave his parents and be joined to his wife (Mt. 19:5).
  3. In addressing same-sex attraction (which, it should be noted, is not the same moral question that transgenderism poses and honestly shouldn’t be lumped with it) the Bible is negative on the subject the four or so times it mentions it (Rom. 1:26-27). In LGBTQ, the “T” is distinct from the rest because the rest concern attraction, and “T” concerns self-perception and identity independently of attraction. I only mention homosexuality here because it falls in the broader category of gender relations.
  4. In addressing transvestitism, which, again, is not the same as transgenderism, the Mosaic law condemns it (Deut. 22:5), and it otherwise doesn’t receive attention in the Scriptures. This subject is also different than transgenderism per se, because transgendered people say they are seeking their true identity, whereas cross-dressing is intentionally posing as the opposite gender.

More can be said, but those are generally the texts that are discussed surrounding the issue of gender.

Surprisingly, theologians do not follow a simple conservative-liberal split on their study of these texts. Some otherwise traditional exegetes have landed at the conclusion that the Bible doesn’t address transgenderism sufficiently to rule it sin. Others find the male-female gender pairing so overwhelmingly normative that an alternative that must be brought about through human medical intervention has to be wrong.

But what about…?

Here’s the analogy that matters.

Christians believe that the world is fallen. It is broken by sin. Sin is not simply a list of bad behaviors, it’s a state of brokenness into which everyone is born. We come off the assembly line not working right, so to speak. We are not born innocent, and then somewhere around the age of ten start to sin (I have kids – they start to sin way before the age of ten).

Biology itself is broken. We can be born with congenital heart defects, appendices that can kill us, cleft palates, hermaphroditism, genetic predispositions for destructive tendencies, and the like. Surgically, we fix some of those. We intentionally amend the biology to make it work closer to its intended design and for healthy life.

Transgenderism rests on the assumption that gender can be broken in exactly that way. We can, it is suggested, be born with a biological confusion between what we look like on our outsides and how we were wired on our insides. It simply asks for the same kind of surgical correction to pull closer to the intended design and to healthy life.

Transgenderism does not necessarily challenge the male-female complementary pairing. It doesn’t have to do with same-sex attraction. It isn’t spawned by a desire to wear the other gender’s clothes. It is fundamentally the belief that one’s biology isn’t quite right and that it can be corrected medically, as we do with so many other kinds of biological issues.

The question is really whether or not that is a correct description of what is happening with transgenderism. Is it possible to show that the biological wires are crossed (and can be corrected), or must this merely be a mental state of confusion causing a person to want to be something different than what they really are? This is at the heart of the true moral question, and it can’t be resolved with a quick Bible quote, a commonsense appeal to biology, or a gut-level reaction of discomfort. We actually have to lovingly and faithfully think this one through. In the next post, I’ll talk about the case for the biological wiring of transgenderism.

Talking about Transgenderism 2: “Ew”

Talking about Transgenderism

In the first of a series of posts on this topic, I address some things that don’t change, here.

Moral philosophers and psychologists discuss a profound influence on the act of making moral judgements, an influence which is pervasive, convincing, and irrational: the phenomenon the literature calls “disgust.” Everyone knows the experience of whiffing rotten milk or witnessing crude behavior. There are experiences that just make you say “Ew!” In some cases, we then attach moral weight to that feeling. The problem is that this powerful intuitive sense isn’t always right. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to explain why it triggers us the way it does.

Consider a series of examples:

  1. Eating bugs. Normalized in many cultures of the world and arguably good for the global environment, many of us get squeamish at the idea of ingesting creepy crawlies, even cooked.
  2. Eating synthetic meat. Scientists can, in a lab, grow a steak. Using cells of a living animal and a regenerative stimulant, scientists can recreate this dietary staple, and do so in a way that neutralizes much of the concern about cruelty to animals. But given the choice, many (even non-vegetarian) people are too turned off by the idea to give up the real thing.
  3. Eating synthetic human. Think this through. #2 can be replicated with a swab of the cells of a human cheek. No one dies, and there’s nothing fundamentally unhealthy about it, but scientists could plausibly create edible human matter. See? That’s the feeling of disgust you’re having right now. Such an idea is, and I’m carefully choosing the scientific term here, super-gross, and I’m never going to try it, but it’s hard to explain morally why it would have to be morally wrong.

So what is that phenomenon of disgust that we feel? Being overpoweringly revulsed by something feels a lot like a moral intuition, but if one tries to discern a moral principle that lies behind the feeling of disgust, or the moral facts that disgust identifies, it’s hard to pin them down. That’s because there aren’t any. Disgust alone is not a moral radar.

Disgusting Research

Jonathan Haidt, professor at New York University, has been studying disgust for decades. In The Righteous Mind (2012), Haidt identifies six different loci of moral decision making, and one of them he calls “purity.” We make moral decisions about what we think is pure. From a sense for purity comes the reaction of disgust. He and other evolutionary psychologists trace a sense of disgust back to a survival-instinct’s self-protection against pathogens, but over time it has been transferred to a moral inclination to protect the social order. Haidt has developed the “Disgust Scale,” an instrument for measuring to what degree individuals experience disgust (spoiler alert: we don’t all experience it to the same degree or at the same things). He says, curiously, that feelings of disgust are stronger in people who vote conservatively rather than liberally.

Discussing Disgust

Disgust is a good indicator of one thing – it tells you how you relate to a subject. I dislike bugs…deeply. I feel it whenever I see one in the bathroom and call out for my wife or children to come and kill it. I am perfectly willing to endure the household ridicule as long as I don’t have to touch bugs. What disgust is not a good indicator of is the moral worth of the subject. God made bugs, and for all I know, loves them. I can’t see how, but maybe. They certainly aren’t evil, even the ones that look like they crawled out of hell (to take up lodging in my bathroom). Disgust doesn’t tell me anything about the value of the thing in itself, only the nature of my relationship to it.

It’s also entirely possible to be disgusted by something that is actually morally wrong. There really is a sense of propriety that we develop, and violations of it will set off our disgust alarm. Some of this comes from the psychologically healthy, genetically encoded inclination towards empathy which makes us dislike seeing someone else being unjustly hurt. We may be disgusted by injustice. But the moral wrongfulness of someone being unjustly hurt is something that can be explained rationally on moral principles; it doesn’t rest on negative feelings alone. If anything, the negative emotions are a healthy trigger that make us investigate the moral value of a state of affairs, but they can’t be left on their own to answer the question.

Think about ways that disgust goes wrong or is inconsistent:

  1. Watching an autopsy can make one feel totally disgusted, but scientific research on cadavers has made vast contributions to medicine.
  2. It’s not that long ago in American history that people responded with disgust to interracial marriages. In certain cultures today, romantic relationships across social castes are met with disgust.
  3. People with OCD, especially fixated on cleanliness, feel disgust at things and to degrees that a healthy person would not.
  4. A 1997 study (by Rozin) of vegetarians shows higher feelings of disgust towards meat among vegetarians motivated by ethics than among those motivated by health concerns.

In sum, disgust alone can’t lay a moral foundation.

Transgenderism, Disgust, and Morality

The relevance of the phenomenon of disgust to the discussion of transgenderism is that disgust (or choose a term that suggests a milder aversion – any feeling that it must be wrong without a rational grounding) is that this feeling doesn’t get to cast a deciding vote on the issue. If, for the Christian, transgenderism is a moral issue, it can’t be a moral issue based on feelings of squeamishness. Nor can a thinker with any integrity try to craft a rationale around the feeling to justify it; any moral argument must stand independent of feelings of unease.

This is not to suggest that everyone who deems elective gender transitioning immoral is motivated by feelings without rationale (I’m going to move on in other posts to look at those rationale). But some are. For some people, the whole idea of gender transition just feels weird and wrong. I’m trying to sweep this mistake out of the way before we get to the heart of the issue.

Issues of gender and sexuality are often linked to intense feelings, social mores, guilt, anxiety, self-esteem issues, and the like, and it’s hard to get through that river of emotion to do the hard work of moral reasoning. But the truth is, when we talk about people with gender dysphoria, we’re talking about people who are made by God and loved by God, and they deserve that difficult river-crossing. We owe this slim minority of people, a fraction of one percent, the compassion it takes not to condemn them to silence and alienation, abuse and suicide. For the Christian, whatever moral conclusions we draw on the issue, it’s not enough to feel disgusted and walk away. We have to get past those feelings to ask what is really right and wrong and how we know.

“When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.” – Luke 7:39

Talking about Transgenderism

Talking about Transgenderism

I had a first-in-a-lifetime experience this week. I got together with a circle of other pastors and we talked about transgenderism and the church’s approach to people who experience gender dysphoria, the experience of being uncomfortable with one’s own gender. I have things to share on the topic, but not in this post. In this post, I want to talk about talking about it.

I sat in a circle of other pastors who don’t necessarily agree on the issue, what it means, what the Bible says about it, and how churches should address it. We questioned each other, debated a bit, talked about what Jesus said and would say. We prayed together. We weren’t trying to come to a final agreement between ourselves; we were trying to understand each other. We agreed that the church historically has been horrible to minority groups, outsiders, people whose lives were held questionable by society at large – basically everyone Jesus associated with. We agreed that we don’t want to contribute to that horror. There was no risk that any of us were going to stop talking to each other when it was over. We weren’t going to rule anyone a heretic or begin an excommunication trial. I’m so deeply thankful for these committed leaders who were willing to think, pray, and be gracious together. I cherish them. I hope that the tone we set together grows increasingly normative for conversations of its kind.

One thing I noted when we were done, after more that 90 minutes of talk, was that if a small group of theologically-trained friends took a lot of work to simply begin a conversation on such a weighty topic, it’s hardly imaginable what that conversation is going to look like spread over a congregation, much less a society, much less a globe.

While Christians continue to stumble along trying to talk about ethics in the abstract, minority groups continue to live lives of isolation and silence, abuse and suicide. Before we even get to sorting out the hard subjects, should it not be quickly obvious that the only way for Christians to talk to each other, and anyone else, is from a deep reservoir of love for all of God’s children? Shouldn’t that come first? When you follow the one who taught that we should not only love our neighbors, but love our enemies, not only our own kin, but prostitutes, adulterers, traitors, diverse ethnicities, and people who hurt us, how can you approach people with anything but love? There should be no question from the public that the last place you would find someone eager to throw rocks at you would be church. And yet, that’s exactly what people have come to expect from churches. And aren’t they often right?

For all of the panicked declarations echoing out of the stained glass windows about what a flaming dumpster society has become, it might be time for Christians to realize that a significant contribution to the public’s disinterest in the church’s prescription for a better world is the demeaning tone in which it has been preached. The world would be better off with more of Jesus, and a primary obstacle to that is his followers’ callous misrepresentation of him.

I remember talking to a self-declared atheist who nonetheless attended church events. I asked her why. She replied, “They’re Christians. They like you anyway.” The day could come when everyone thinks the same.

History of the Next Decade

drew-beamer-xU5Mqq0Chck-unsplash.jpgHere are 29 of the influential events, trends, and markers of the last decade (what would you add?). I only capture this selective list to refresh the memories of those of us who lived through it and don’t realize that some of the things on this list are less than 10 years old. Then I will humbly offer some predictions for the next decade.

2001- US war in Afghanistan/Iraq ongoing

2008- Great Recession

2009-16 Obama

2010 iPhone 4

2010 Tesla IPO

2011 Borders Books closes

2011 First Chromebooks ship

2011 Osama bin Laden killed

2011 Japan Tusnami

2012 Facebook IPO

2013 Pope Francis installed

2013 Boston Marathon bombing

2014 Bill Gates retires from Microsoft

2014 Russia moves into Ukraine

2014 Amazon Alexa release date

2015 Gay Marriage in the US via Supreme Court

2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris

2015 The Force Awakens

2017- Trump

2017 Self-driving car tests spread

2017 Amazon acquires Whole Foods

2017 The Last Jedi

2017 iPhone X

2017 #MeToo

2018 Xi Jinping President of China without term limits

2018 Immigrant caravans from Central America

2019 Hong Kong rebellion

2019 Trump Impeached

2019 The Rise of Skywalker

(So, the Star Wars episodes might not be all that world changing….)  Now, I’m going to over-confidently predict a few things about what’s coming:

  1. Increased automation – jobs will continue to be replaced by computers and robots, including the rise of self-driving automobile fleets and almost entirely unstaffed shopping experiences.
  2. Autonomous homes – Google, Amazon, and Facebook will compete for control of the home that you don’t have to leave. Work, shopping, and some forms of entertainment will all revolve around the home.
  3. Big box apocalypse – given the first two, lots of malls and stores will cease to exist. People will leave home for restaurants, shows, the gym, and church.
  4. Muslim-non-Muslim conflict – ongoing struggles between self-proclaimed Muslim terrorists and the post-enlightenment society will come to a head. Something’s got to give.
  5. Overpopulation – the world will have to choose an option for for the problem of the expanding population on a planet with limited space and resources. Do we a) populate the moon, b) forcibly limit the birthrate worldwide, c) assume things will take care of themselves?
  6. Approach of worldwide government – tribalism and nationalism will continue to wane as global enemies like climate change, human trafficking, and poverty will pull humanity towards global consciousness. Scholars and politicians will lean more eagerly into global management systems.

Hopeful optimist or wild conspiracist – add your own!  What should we prepare for?

The Anti-scientific Dogmatism of Atheism, (or: Why Harvard Professor Steven Pinker is a Big, Fat, Stupidhead)

Pinker.jpgSteven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is a 2018 bestselling book from the hand of a Harvard professor of psychology which triumphs the accomplishments of science, reason, progress, and humanism. The values of the Enlightenment, he says, have worked. We’re a better species for all of these intellectual developments, which have led to tangible improvements in all human society – longer lives, better healthcare, less violence, more education, broader knowledge, and more happiness. Critics have piled praise on this mega-seller. Bill Gates has called it his “favorite book of all time.”

Not everyone likes it. Pinker claims that liberal and conservative critics of his work alike are offended at his ideas and “really hate progress” (52). In fact, his critics don’t generally hone in on his pollyanna pronouncements. They focus on the fact that he attributes progress to an overly simplistic cause-and-effect relationship with the values that Pinker favors. The Atlantic calls attention to the fact that the scientific establishment upends the emotional attachments and longings of the hometown suburbanite (Gopnik, 4/18; also cf. Szalai, NYT, 2/18), but longing for traditional family isn’t one of the values that Pinker perceives to be contributing to human flourishing. Vox points out that the true challenges to Enlightenment Now are “reasonable points made by knowledgeable professionals about what one needs to prove to give a convincing account of the impact of the Enlightenment” (Hanlon, 5/18), professionals like David Bell, Princeton historian, who questions why Pinker doesn’t engage in any real analysis of Enlightenment thinkers. Rousseau, for instance, was one of the most popular Enlightenment thinkers and didn’t believe in the progress Pinker panagyrizes, and Enlightenment thinkers didn’t oppose religion the way Pinker says enlightened people must. The critics aren’t cynical. They’re rightly confused.

Me too.

My concern is a different one, speaking as a pastor and at least casual theologian. Pinker makes sweeping dismissals of anything he disagrees with, and does so with disregard for science and reason. He attempts to steal ethics from religion and hand it to science, despite the deplorably unethical uses to which science has been given historically, and his treatment of religion is exactly the kind of polemical, polarized nonsense that he is so critical of in the world of politics.

Pinker likes reason when it works for him and otherwise sets it aside – exactly the behavior that he so articulately chastises.

When it comes to ethics, there is a rigorous body of moral commitments which Pinker depends upon. However, it’s not entirely clear where they come from. “The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person – one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism – requires a clean break from religious conceptions of meaning and value” (477). So not from there. He tips his hat to the reality that science cannot make definitive ethical prescriptions either, but he seems to hold on to the hope. Elsewhere, Pinker has claimed that maybe ethics can be found in the nature of morality, because evolution produces progress (it doesn’t actually), which is of moral value because Pinker says it is (“Evolution and Ethics,” Intelligent Thought, 2006, 150). Omitted is any consideration of the fact that modern racism was propped up by scientific theories spanning from Charles Darwin himself through the well-educated scientists of the Third Reich. The problem here is not that the science was bad, but that the scientists were bad, and bad scientists will always use the tools of science to forward evil achievements. Science is ethically neutral.

Likewise, on the subject of religion, the optimistic professor says unequivocally, “There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers…” (477). Notice the deceptive grouping of the mainstream – answered prayer – with the not so much – spells. It’s like saying, “You know…science, with its gravity, evolution, aether, dark energy, leeching, feminine hysteria, Chernobyl, and Piltdown man.” More importantly, notice that he gives no reason, evidence, or science behind his claim. In a 2004 lecture to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Pinker calls the Bible “a manual for rape and genocide and destruction.” He then goes on to say that he is not aware of any scientific enquiry into the claims of religion, and tries to account for the ubiquity of religion through a quirky, piecemeal explanation that leans on psychological vocabulary without doing any science.

So here’s the kind of scientific evidence I want Pinker to account for. Scientists study first-hand evidence right under their own noses and then account for it. Some time ago, I was leading a Bible study in a room of about 40 people. We were reading miracle stories from the Bible and asking if we should have similar experiences today. A friend of mine, a medical doctor, raised his hand and told me, “Jim, I think God is telling me to pray for someone.”
“Good for you,” I said. Pastors are supposed to encourage these things, but I didn’t know what to do with that.

“I mean right now,” he said.

“Oh,” I said. This is getting weird.

“Someone in this room has trouble clenching his left hand all the way,” he said. I had no experience in such things, and only knew them through televised fundraising charlatans. Fortunately, my thoughts were interrupted.

“That’s me,” said another guy at the back of the room. “I haven’t been able to close my left hand all the way for about 20 years.” He said it didn’t bother him much, and only hurt occasionally. I sent the doctor to pray for the man in the back of the room and made plans to sympathize when nothing happened.

The next day, the man with the injured hand called me on the phone. “I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “My hand has been healed. Not only that, but when that guy started talking, I felt a warm sensation flow upwards from my feet through my whole body.”

Here’s the deal, Steven Pinker. Both of these guys are still friends of mine. Both can tell you the story. I’ll give you their phone numbers. A medical doctor is not a tribalistic anti-intellectual. Nor am I, actually. Nor are most Christians in America, though you seem to think they are. Furthermore, you can’t write this account off as lacking witnesses, because there was a crowd, nor coincidence, because the doctor described the situation before it happened. You can’t complain that the experiment is irreplicable, because it was, itself, a repeated test of former cases, the ones in the Bible.

The problem with Pinker’s book, and Pinker himself, generally, is that reason goes out the window on the subject of religion. Pinker claims that “we know” religion isn’t true. The problem is that there are Christians at his Harvard, and throughout the Ivy League, and not just among the student body – among the faculties. Neither John Lennox at Oxford, nor Alister McGrath at King’s College, nor Robert George at Princeton, nor Nicholas Wolterstorff at Yale, nor Michael McConnell at Stanford, nor Alvin Plantinga at Notre Dame, nor Martin Nowak at Harvard know that religion isn’t true.

They, like the values that you don’t subscribe to, simply don’t count.

1919

As I make my morning pour-over, I call out to my central heating system through my voice-automated virtual assistant to take the chill out of the air. My toes are cold. It occurs to me to look at what the American household was like 100 years ago to see where we’ve been, an exercise I can complete in a few seconds.
 
1919. My grandparents would be born in just a few years. The Great War had just ended (“Great” because there was only one). There were no TVs. Radio was just about to catch on. Alexander G. Bell had just made the first phone call. Frigidaire had begun mass producing refrigerators the year before. The first rudimentary planes were beginning to leave the ground. Einstein’s name was just beginning to spread. The life expectancy in the US was around 55. Today it is almost 80.
 
That year, Dec. 23rd, the first patent for the central heating system was given to Alice H. Parker, an African-American woman from New Jersey. Women had just gained the right to vote that year, and women rarely had been given the opportunity to receive U.S. patents, particularly women of color.
 
“Alexa, who was Alice H. Parker?”
 
In terms of what science-fiction writers were dreaming about, the first robot appeared in film that year alongside Houdini, named Automaton. You can watch the 3 hour silent film on YouTube.
 
I wonder if we’ve even begun to dream about what 2119 will look like. Guesses?
1919

Science and Faith

monkeyThe Galileo Affair

There’s a little event that happened in 1633 which is an important conversation piece in Christianity today.  There was a guy named Galileo who studied the stars and who wanted the world to look through his new telescope.  Apparently, he said, we’ve got it wrong.  The earth goes around the sun and not vice versa.

The Catholic Church of his day was doing a little investigation called the Spanish Inquisition, in which they were forcing people to accept Christian doctrine or face torture.  They read the passage in the Bible, Joshua 10:13 that says that the sun stopped in the sky.  Well, the sun can’t very well stop if the sun isn’t the one that’s moving.  So they told Galileo to take back his doctrine, which he did.

To this day, that story is told to high school students to emphasize the fact that religious legends can be destructive tools that oppose the pursuit of truth.

One of the most destructive things a Christian can do is make decisions out of fear.  Fear doesn’t help you determine scientific facts.  And fear-based decisions will make your worldview look ridiculous to thoughtful people.

Darwin and the Church

Fast forward 220 years. In 1859, Charles Darwin published “The Origin of the Species,” in which he proposed that the history of the world doesn’t orbit around humanity.  In fact, the history is much longer, and humans are a late arrival.  Furthermore, we arrived by a long and strange route, through adaptation and survival.

This immediately sent shockwaves through Europe and America, first among the universities.  At Princeton Seminary, my alma mater, there was a division in the ranks.  One professor, Charles Hodge, wrote “What is Darwinism,” and in it said that evolution is atheistic.  He rejected it and spent his life arguing against it.  However, his colleague BB Warfield, a staunch defender of biblical inerrancy, wrote that one did not have to give up the Christian faith to believe in Darwinism.  He wrote, “I do not think that there is any general statement in the Bible or any part of the account of creation, either as given in Genesis 1 and 2 or elsewhere alluded to, that need be opposed to evolution.”

Atheists however quickly took up Darwinism as their rival creation story.  Thomas Huxley went around promoting Darwin before the scientific community had even weighed in.  He took to calling himself, “Darwin’s bulldog.”  Since then, atheists have continued to promote Darwinism for philosophical rather than scientific reasons.

I’m sort of the Forest Gump of Darwinism.  You remember how Forest Gump keeps showing up in the middle of huge, significant political events without realizing what was going on?

When I was in college, a friend of mine was an intern at the church.  He was staying at the house of a family in the congregation.  I used to go over to the house, and we would watch VHS tapes listening to Christian philosophers debate about important things.  The house was owned by a Berkeley professor.  That professor was upstairs writing a book about Darwinism, and I went to his initial book launch and signing.  The professor’s name was Philip Johnson, and he wrote the book Darwin on Trial, which launched a lot of the modern debate on Darwinism.  The intern was named Tom Crisp, and he’s now the chair of the philosophy department at Biola University.

Then I went to Princeton Seminary.  While I was there, I took part in a series of seminars on Christian apologetics, exploring a defense of the Christian faith in the modern world.  One of the other students setting those up was a guy who already had two PhD’s, a guy who was particularly interested in Darwinism.  His name is William Dembski, and he has written or edited many of the great books debating Darwinism in the last 20 years.

Creation Science

Some time ago, my friend Kyle invited me to give a lecture to high school students at Mariners Church, a megachurch down in Irvine. I talked about science and the story of faith.  There was, that evening, a kid sitting in the back row next to the door.  I always pay attention to the people in the back row looking like they want to get away, because they are usually the ones to whom God wants to speak most clearly.  Eventually the kid raised his hand and he asked, “I don’t get it.  Hasn’t Darwinism just disproven Christianity?”

“That’s an interesting impression,” I said. “But actually, I think that the Bible is full of science.” I was just stalling, because I didn’t know what I what to say.  But then I realized, I think the Bible really is full of science.

I said, “Look at Genesis 1 and the story of Creation.”

On Day 1 God created light.

On Day 2 God separated the sky from the land.

On Day 3 God created the plants.

On Day 4 God created the moon and the stars.

On Day 5 God created the animals.

On Day 6 God created humanity.

I asked him, “Do you see the science?”

On the first day, God created physics, brought the mysterious particles and waves that are the grounding of all things tangible into being.

It was good.

On the second day, God brought hydrogen and oxygen molecules into the bonded union that would give texture to the tangible.   On the second day, God created chemistry.

And it was good.

On the third day, God created geology and botany.

He created clay and rock and sand.  He grew palms and pineapples, cocoa and coffee beans.

So you know that day was good.

On the fourth day, God created astronomy.  He dressed Orion in a belt and admired Saturn and said, “If I like it then I better put a ring on it.”

And it was good.

On the fifth day God created zoology.  He made the majestic eagle, the prickly porcupine, and the misconstrued platypus (which is kind of like making lunch out of the whatever leftovers you find in the refrigerator.)

But it was still good.

On the 6th day, God created anthropology. He created little minds to contemplate the great mind, hearts to feel, fingers to reach out in need and in fear and in love.

And it was so good.

And on the 7th day he created philosophy, the mother of all sciences, a day on which to contemplate it all.

A thinking God created thinking beings to bear a thinking faith.  People of God, the world gains nothing from Christian cowards who turn off their brains when they hear ideas that scare them.

Evolution and God

If God wanted to bring about humanity through millions of years of evolution, who is the clay to tell the potter how to do his work? God can bring about his creation in any way he should do.  And Bible verses about the beginning of humanity shouldn’t silence scientists any more than Bible verses about the sun stopping in the sky.

If what the church offers to society is fear and ignorance, the church deserves to be ignored.

If evolution is wrong, that should be a scientific decision, and scientists should be open to all questions.  Scientists like Michael Behe and Stephen Meyer are making a case for why they think Darwinism is insufficient to explain the fossil record and the intricacies of biology.  Even atheist scholars like Thomas Nagel believe Darwinism is insufficient to explain life.  But let that be a debate for the learned, and if you want to be a part of the debate, study the issue before you speak, unlike so many Christians whose approach is “Panic first, ask questions later.” But the Bible doesn’t require a rejection of evolution, and fearful arguments to the contrary do not honor Jesus.

Hospitals and Schools

Look at how much good Christians have done when they have embraced empirical science as a tool to honor God.

The great universities of Europe and America, the Oxfords and the Harvards, were founded by Christians who believed that God’s fingerprints were all over the world, and the work of God was worth studying.  They believed that by advancing knowledge they were honoring the work of God and doing what God wanted.

The great hospitals and modern medicine were founded by Christians who wanted to heal broken bodies, believing that alongside prayer, and not instead of it, God had given us tools to understand and repair the physical world.

Furthermore, great scientists have embraced faith.

Isaac Newton, who postulated the gravitational constant, wrote more about Christianity than science.

Gregor Mendel, father of modern genetics, preached sermons at his church.

Louis Pasteur, who made milk drinkable, said that he prayed while he worked.

Lord Kelvin, who formulated the laws of thermodynamics, gave lectures defending the Christian faith.

Francis Collins, modern leader of the human genome mapping project, calls Jesus his Lord and Savior.

Faith has never flourished by hiding its head in the sand. People of faith ought to embrace the honest explorations of the scientific community, and the scientific community ought to be open towards honest exploration of the story of Jesus.

I remember going to a church camp when I was in high school, a fiery Baptist camp held in deep in the woods in the Texas hills, so that you could not get away.  And I remember asking a guest preacher a string of questions about faith and science.  Midway through my questions he got tired, and just scolded me, “Sometimes you just need to stop asking questions and believe.”

That’s a bunch of trash.  Pursuit of truth leads to Jesus, and if you stop asking questions, you won’t end up at Jesus, you’ll end up with an idol.

Believing Thomas

Look at how Jesus treated questions when they came from one of his own disciples.

JOHN 20

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 

27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Thomas is not an enemy of the faith.  Thomas is merely a scientist.

Jesus’ message to Thomas isn’t scolding, it’s giving Thomas the empirical evidence that he’s asked for.   Stop doubting and believe – because I’ve now given you sufficient evidence to stop doubting.

Don’t be afraid of where the pursuit of truth will lead you if you believe in the guy who said, “I am the truth.” To pursue truth is to pursue Jesus.

If you want something to be afraid of, I’ll give you something to be afraid of.  If you raise your kids with a kind of fundamentalism that requires them to hide their heads in the sand, one day your kids will get out in the world, and they will listen to the news, they will talk to their peers, they may go to college, and they will realize that brilliant minds have come to believe in things that are different than what they’ve heard from you.  If you tell them that the Christian faith hangs on their rejection of the findings of science, you will put them in the position of holding onto ideas so rigidly that their ideas will one day break them.  Kids aren’t leaving the faith because of Darwinism.  They’re leaving the faith because parents, churches, and pastors are telling them that Christianity and science are opposed to one another, and they have to choose either science or Christianity.  They’re going to choose the one that is most serious about the pursuit of truth.

Shouldn’t that be the Church? Shouldn’t we be the ones who love truth more than our secular friends?

Let me remind you of a teaching of Jesus that he said was more important than all the rest – Love God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. Do that and you will be faithful.

Six Signs of Calling

 

Calling.png

When I’m seeking to discern what God is calling me to, there are a few biblically-based signs that tell me really clearly that I’m on the right path.  For anyone who is searching for a job, praying over a move, or considering a significant change, these are worth reviewing.

The places to which we are called usually involve these six factors.

  1. Joy: Calling brings you joy.  Jesus said that he promises us abundant life.  The guy who turned water into wine at a wedding isn’t amassing an army of the miserable. (John 2:1-12, John 10:10)
  2. Service: While calling brings us joy, it’s something that we do to make the world a better place, and specifically to love other people.  This ensures that the joy calling brings us is not merely selfishness, and that we don’t gain the world only to lose our souls. (Mt. 16:24-27)
  3. Gifting: Calling uses the gifts that God has given us.  Some people are made to be teachers, some to be administrators, some to heal and some to help.  Calling employs exactly that mix of tools that we carry in our belts.  It shows us that we were made for a purpose and that we serve a valuable role in the world. (1 Cor. 12, Rom. 12, Eph. 4)
  4. Inadequacy: Despite the fact that we may be gifted for calling, a true calling from God is always bigger than we could handle on our own.  God told Gideon to whittle down his army to the point that it was unwise to enter into battle, and that inadequacy served to prevent Gideon from taking credit when he actually won. (Jdg. 7)
  5. Confirmation: The community around you, the people who know you best, ought to confirm that you’re on the right path.  Our friends sometimes know us better than we know ourselves.  To forge ahead when everyone around us tells us we’re on the wrong path is foolhardy.  It’s exactly like dating.  When friends tell someone that she’s dating the wrong guy, the friends are always right.  She may say, “You just don’t know him like I do.  He told me that when he plays video games all day, he’s only thinking of me.” But the friends can see the situation objectively, and if the friends say, “no,” the friends know what they’re talking about. (Gal. 2:1-3)
  6. Commitment: Nonetheless, calling is that thing you’re going to do no matter what.  Even if no one around you confirmed it, it’s that thing you can’t live without doing.  There is a church denomination that used to ask its pastoral candidates one final question before they could be ordained.  After batteries of tests, exams, theological essays, and psychological interviews, the last question each candidate was asked was, “If we told you we wouldn’t ordain you, what would you do?” There was only one acceptable answer, and every candidate was expected to say the same thing in a sort of litany.  “I’ll preach it anyway,” was the correct response.  Calling is like that.  I’ll do it no matter what. (Gal. 1:11-17)

So those are the six criteria I use to evaluate whether or not I’m on the right path as I pursue my calling.  As you can see, they exist in three pairs, and each of the two members of each pair stand in tension with one another: joy but service, gifts but inadequacy, confirmation but commitment.  It’s in exactly that tension that calling seems to balance.  I’ve encouraged a lot of people to pray over these six things when they make decisions.  I’d encourage you to as well, or share it with a friend who is making big decisions.

 

 

2019, Six Signs of Calling, James W. Miller