The Ethics of Opening

There is a furor of misinformed passion about whether we must stay at home, because it will save lives, or we must return to work, because it will save the economy. I think this is a false dichotomy – those are not the only two options, nor are the reasons given for these two options the actual or complete explanation for them.

Why We Don’t Close When We Don’t Close

California Governor Gavin Newsom insists, “We will let science, not politics, must be the guide” to when we reopen the economy, businesses, and public spaces.

Look at these numbers:

Deaths in California in a year (2017, CDC)
1.  Heart Disease                               62,797
2.  Cancer                                     59,516
3. Stroke                                             16,355
4.  Alzheimer’s Disease               16,238
5.  Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases 13,881
6.  Accidents                                13,840
7.  Diabetes                                9,595
8.  Influenza/Pneumonia        6,340
9.  Hypertension                                5,596
10.  Chronic Liver Disease/Cirrhosis  5,325

Coronavirus (4/15/2020)                         790

It’s not clear to me that science is calling the shots when we shut down the world’s economy for a killer that pales in comparison to a number of others, some of which, like heart disease, would actually be affected by public policy that controls people’s behaviors in a smaller way, such as making smoking illegal. We don’t run tickers on the front page of the LA Times of how many people have died of the flu each year. It seems that, in addition to science, fear, posturing, liability, electability, mental health issues, and a host of other influences are the guides. We’re not following one alone – we’re being pulled by a team of horses, and they don’t all want to run together.

Demonizing Instead of Discussing

A current Pharisaism comes from those defending the lockdown, insisting that opening things up again is an Ebenezer Scrooge kind of move, brought on by coveting money more than caring for people. The people who try to level this charge are ignoring the fact that they take part in the same kind of cold utilitarianism every single year, when, in the US, 30,000 people on average die of the flu, and they never even raise alarms about the fact that hand-shaking is an arbitrary and unnecessary custom. We all tacitly accept the fact that there are fatal infections loose in the world, and we don’t bat an eye at the fact that we contribute to their spread.

Claiming that coronavirus is worse than the flu is a bizarre kind of hypocrisy. Why is 30,000 annual deaths acceptable, and where is the breaking point where the number of deaths becomes unacceptable? The reality is simple – we’ve accepted the fact that we can’t do much to stop the flu without crippling society, and we’re not willing to cripple society to stop those tens of thousands of deaths. So maybe let’s put an end to the self-righteousness about how advocates for staying at home are heroes, when, on this subject, everyone is in one way or another using some kind of utilitarian calculus.

The Experts Agree…virus.jpg

No they don’t. This mantra is getting tired. Professor of Medicine at Stanford University, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, recently said, “Per case, I don’t think it’s as deadly as people thought…The World Health Organization put an estimate out that was, I think, initially 3.4 percent. It’s very unlikely it is anywhere near that. It’s it’s much likely, much closer to the death rate that you see from the flu per case.” Dr. Knut Wittkowski, former head of the Department of Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Research Design at the Rockefeller University in New York, said that we could wipe out coronavirus by going back to public life and only sheltering the vulnerable parts of the population (Rockefeller has distanced itself from his views). This flies in the face of other purported exports who warn of disaster should the world return to public traffic too soon.

More to the point, there is more speculation than data in our current climate. Because tests are not widely available, we don’t have accurate data on how many people have been infected, which means the mortality-to-infection ratio is necessarily lower than what has been reported, maybe much lower. I don’t know; I won’t speculate. I only mean, again, that the self-righteousness of the social media warriors who think they know everything is overblown.

Money or Mental Health?

The claim that people who want to reopen the public sphere, sheltering the vulnerable from the public rather than the public from the vulnerable, are greedy, ignores several other factors that are affected by a long timeline to reopening. The most important

money.jpg

of these is mental health. Domestic abuse has risen worldwide during the pandemic. Social isolation, stress, and depression are factors that affect suicide ideation. Estimates suggest that around 20% of the population of the US, 1 in 5, struggle with anxiety disorders, which can be aggravated and intensified during this season. Reopening is not just about money, it’s about mental health. That’s a scientific consideration about which I’m seeing far less data. No one is talking about bending curves in that field, though clearly there are some exponential increases on the relevant graphs.

What Wouldn’t Jesus Do?

For Christians, the ethics are all the more difficult here, because we follow the guy who touched lepers, was confident about his ability to heal, taught his disciples to heal, and said that his followers would do even greater things than they had done back then.

I don’t hear Jesus advocating for avoiding the sick.

On money, he has unilaterally negative things to say. Apparently, the goal of amassing wealth and storing it away is foolish, according to Jesus.

I don’t hear Jesus advocating for the economy.

On government, he has precious little to say. He never advocates for a fiscal policy, doesn’t seek to overthrow Caesar even when they want him to, and refuses kingship. His single clearest statement about government is the recommendation that we pay our taxes – hardly the revolutionary material most of us were hoping for. Paul’s charge in Romans 13 to obey the governing authorities is clearly just to smooth the waves so that he could go about his evangelism, not some kind of subsuming of the government’s will under God’s will. Someone who got arrested and thrown in prison more than once was clearly marching to a different drummer than the local authorities.

I don’t hear Jesus creating public policy.

If I had to extrapolate, I would guess Jesus would go about his business as usual. When he would have us do the same is less clear. But I am clear about three things Jesus wouldn’t do.

  1. Jesus wouldn’t endorse our self-righteousness. Self-righteousness about knowing the right thing to do, and the consequent finger pointing at those who disagree, is clearly wrong-headed and out of place. Science is only a decent guide when it itself is guided by humility. The illusion that science is just a collection of objective facts untainted by those who use its findings needs to be dispelled.
  2. Jesus wouldn’t be afraid, either of sickness or poverty. Fear is not from God. God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and of self-discipline. Don’t be afraid! God is with you wherever you go.
  3. Jesus wouldn’t act from any motive but love. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. We might well faithfully and lovingly seek to reopen the public sphere, sheltering the vulnerable, for the sake of a greater overall utility, with deep concern for the impact of mental stress and strain on the world. That’s nothing to demonize, and the motive isn’t money.

Food

shelves.jpg

 

Some of us, as of this week, now face a moral dilemma.

 

Temptation and Fall

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The temptation that caused the fall of humanity in the Jewish narrative came in the form of unnecessary food. They already had all they needed. But this food promised to allow them to sort out right and wrong for themselves, to create their own system of weights and measures, so they no longer had to depend on God to provide for them.

Daily Bread

As the Israelites marched through the desert, away from Egyptian slave-drivers and towards a homeland, the tension between God and his people was again food.

“If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.”

God proved again that he could provide for them exactly what they needed, supernaturally. Bread fell from the sky. They called in “Manna,” which meant, “What is this stuff?” They were told to collect each morning only enough for the day. If the Israelites took more than what they needed for a day, it would rot. They didn’t have to store up. In this way, God called them back into dependence and rewarded them with providence.

The Bread of Life

Jesus draws on the lessons of his heritage. He says things like:

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink.

Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

He teaches his disciples to pray:

Give us this day our daily bread.

And he says of himself:

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never go hungry.

It is perhaps more than coincidence that his birthplace, Bethlehem, is a Hebrew word that means “House of Bread.”

The most natural, healthy relationship between God and humanity is when we are dependent every day for our basic needs, and we live without fear that a good Father will provide for us when we ask him.

Hoarding and Sharing

Instead, in crisis, we stockpile food that we don’t need, escalating anxiety and tension in our communities. That leads us to the moral dilemma.

If you have taken more resources than you need this last week, in fear not only of a virus which is not particularly remarkable, but also in anticipation of the fear of your neighbors, you now have a moral imperative. This is from the Lord, not me.

If you over-bought this week, take food to your neighbors. Give it to them and say, “I’m trying an experiment here. I’m giving this to you to see if Jesus will take care of me.” What will happen is that you will experience the relief of knowing that a good and powerful God watches over you. You will be set free from a spirit of fear. You’ll experience the joy of providing for others. You’ll make new friends. You’ll live a story that will be worth telling.

The other choice is to continue running with the herd, and exposing sins of which we will have to repent in the next generation.

The choices here are between faith and fear, panic and peace.

Try Jesus. He’ll give you what you need.

The Panic of the Faithful

You know what will really convince the world that Jesus is the good and loving Lord of all creation? It would be if all of his children absolutely go insane whenever there is a public crisis and then lead the way in running, hiding, blaming others, and over-reacting.

About Coronavirus

Here are three things Christians ought to be thinking about as the world reacts to aspreading sickness.

1. Don’t go crazy.

Every year in the US alone, the flu kills on average 30,000 people. In the 2018-19

Virus.jpg

flu season, it killed 61,000. The coronavirus has killed 3,000 in the world, out of 7.7 billion. It is admittedly stronger than the flu, but it is not the medical version of a nuclear bomb. The stock market is spiraling, organizations are cancelling conferences and gatherings, and Japan and Italy have temporarily closed their schools. Whereas the mass of humanity is led by animal instincts, Christians are bearers of the Spirit of God and ought to swim against the current, not get swept up in it. We have not been given a Spirit of timidity, but of power, of love, and of self-discipline. The Christian response is not, “Where can I hide?”, it’s “God is bigger than this.”

2. Ask the right questions.

The first questions I hear as a pastor is whether or not churches are safe places to gather and whether we should all stay home. At least we should receive the eucharist through a doubly-secured air-lock, and the Pastor can stand behind that thick plexiglass like the bank teller. The first question that the Spirit would have Christians ask would be, “If it gets bad, how will we help?” Danger is the opportunity for the Christian to demonstrate faith, not fear. Crisis is the opportunity for the Christian to demonstrate compassion, not cowardice. First questions first – no matter what the state of the world, followers of Jesus don’t run and hide.

3. Be wise.

Coronavirus-response is not going to be the modern, bio-chemical equivalent of snake-handling. Everyone should practice good hygiene – wash your hands, sneeze on your elbow, and don’t go to school if you’re sick, even if there’s a math test. These rules should apply during the ordinary flu season, and not just because it kills 30,000 Americans a year, but because it’s gross when you sneeze on your hand and then hold it out saying, “Nice sermon today, Pastor.” Thank you for that.

Colors

I went to a prayer meeting tonight. During the session, a guy was supposed to pray for me while I prayed – both of us silent. As I prayed, I saw images of the stained glass in our sanctuary, and then bigger images of stained glass like the Rose Window in Notre Dame. When we finished, I asked him if he heard anything in prayer.

He said, “I saw a crazy amount of color. There was color everywhere, like splashed on the walls. Then I saw cans of paint all around, and Jesus picked up a can of paint and began to pour it. And he was waiting on you to pick a color. You hesitated, and you took a long time to pick it. But when you finally picked one and poured it alongside his, it was royal blue. You two painted a big wall together, and on the wall I saw the word ‘LIFE’ in all caps and in white. Then you two sat on the wall enjoying what you had done together.

Does that mean anything to you?”

RLLA in blue

Life of the Mind

Telescopic Thinking

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 of its own now 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.

bookTo 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 facts.  And fear-based decisions will make your worldview look ridiculous to thoughtful people. We should have let Galileo’s telescope enlarge our view of the biblical text.

I want to address what I think is one of the most grave ills of the Church in this generation. And that is – that the Church is filled with educated people who don’t know what learning is for.

Education is Worship

The standard American church is filled with people whose decisions about education have been informed by their socio-economic standing and not by their theology. We learn because it pays – through qualifications, jobs, and the consequent salaries. We don’t learn as a form of worship. I would suggest that education is not a means to a material end – it is an expression of worship.

Did God give you your brain to make money, or did God give you your brain to explore the creation that he has made, to marvel at its beauty, to mold it into works of art, engineering, and medicine, and to find him in it, because, indeed, he is not far from any one of us (Acts 17:27)? The mental life is designed for reflection and contemplation, not to be used as a tool for material gain. It’s more like an incubator than a hammer; it allows things to grow within it rather than pounding out the world around it.

I was in a two-week long retreat with Dallas Willard and twenty other pastors at the Sierra Madre retreat center. Dallas began the conversation by saying, “You often think of Jesus as loving, as holy, and as powerful. But do you ever think of him as smart? Because Jesus was smart.”

What would society look like if people saw the Christian church and immediately thought – “They really know their stuff!”? “They are truth seekers, and they are not lazy. They read. They study. They write. They teach. Their people are at the heads of every department in academia.” If it came to a debate between a Christian and an atheist, you could trust that the Christian was well-studied and not just quoting the Bible at people.

I hold out to you that that’s not just how it could be, it’s how it should be, and it could be so in a single generation, if we will take this message seriously. There are four things we can do to turn the tides on this failure, and I’ll lay those out in a next blog, but for now, I just want to impress upon you one thing: education is a form of worship.

What Will The Kids Think?kid

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 no one could 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, “Jim, 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.

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 wring your parental anxieties out of you, try this. 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 to love truth more than our secular friends?

Let’s recall a teaching of Jesus that he said was more important than all the rest – Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.

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.

Six Signs of Calling

 

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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