Invisible Things

The gravestone of Immanuel Kant reads, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Today I visited the Getty Villa, a museum in Pacific Palisades.  On display was the Cyrus Cylinder, a 2500 year old clay cylinder Cylindercovered in cuneiform writing.  An edict of King Cyrus, it prescribes freedom of worship and the release of slaves from the conquered Babylon.  This was the king who set the Jews free from slavery to go and rebuild Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-4).  The cylinder is a statement from the ancient world that we have a deep intuition that life and liberty are inherently valuable.

Later, my family and I stopped by the Santa Monica beach and watched the sunset.  I turned to my son and said, “Which is older, the Cyrus Cylinder or the ocean?” He said, “The ocean.”  Then he paused hesitantly and added, “Is that right?” And for a six year old, it is right.  But for a Sunsettheologian, the answer is, “It was a tie.” The beauty of moral values deeply impressed on the human heart and the beauty of a well-painted sunset sprang from one and the same mind before the world began.  I am constantly aware of a compelling morality that makes me conscientious and an awe-inspiring beauty that leaves me breathless.  Both make me look  from the shore, across the waters, at something that seems too far away to see, yet something that I can’t stop looking for.


Muddy Morality


This article was posted on the Download Youth Ministry blog, one of the most well-read youth ministry websites out there.

One of the most and least popular Sunday school classes I ever taught involved a lot of mud.  “Most” popular, I say, because the students always remembered it.  “Least” popular, because their parents weren’t all that happy with the results.

Early on Sunday morning, I walked out onto the church lawn with a hose.  This was one of those formal churches, where the girls where frilly dresses and the boys wore handsome suits.  On the front lawn of the church that day, I made a mud puddle.  And by “puddle,” I mean lake….

Read the rest here.

A Philosophy Lecture

ImageSo I was sitting and listening to Richard Swinburne, the Oxford professor who is perhaps the leading voice in philosophy of religion among Christians worldwide, and I was getting knots in my stomach.  I didn’t want to stand up and ask questions, because I felt like a kindergartner who had wandered into a class on nuclear physics.  But something just wasn’t sitting right with me.

Swinburne believes that morals exist, regardless of the existence of God.  God clarifies morality, and sometimes makes obligatory things that are only neutral otherwise, but morality is just a real thing that everyone knows about.

So when the nice man stood there waiting for questions, and the glazed-over undergraduates with limited experience in philosophy had nothing to say, I felt worse for him than I did about myself, and I went to the microphone.

“If there are logically necessary moral principles,” I began, “then how do you respond to the sweepingly popular atheism in the West that uses those morals to critique the canonical God, who does things like telling Abraham to kill Isaac?” To be honest, there were probably a lot of “ums” and “uhs” in there too.

What Swinburne did next was dumfounding.  He said that the early church used an analogical reading of Scripture to make the difficult texts jibe with Christian morality.  For instance, he said, citing Psalm 137, the early church took the “children of Babylon” to be our evil desires, and the “rock” against which they were to be bashed was of course Jesus.  So some texts don’t have to be interpreted literally.

So there was my answer – difficult passages of Scripture can be written off with flowery and virtually nonsensical interpretations.

That interaction brought me back for his second lecture the next night.  I wasn’t disappointed.  He talked about how it’s beneficial to be governed by Christian moral principles, like the fact that men should be the decision-makers in their marriages and homosexuals shouldn’t marry.

So I hopped up to the microphone again.  “If we believe that passages that don’t jibe with Christian morality can be interpreted analogically,” he nodded as I spoke, “and you’ve said that humanity seems to be progressing morally over time through a process of reflective equilibrium, why can’t we analogically interpret the passages that now run counter to increasingly widespread thinking in the modern Church?”

His answer was a long one, which wove its way through the correct way to analogically read Scripture to the process of canonization to Augustine to the nature of modern ethical thinking.  I’m not quite sure what the conclusion was.

But here’s the deal – on those places where I agree with Swinburne, I come to my views based on a literal reading of Scripture.  Analogically divorcing the God of the Scripture from moral principles that seem more intuitively appealing is just going to create a false, albeit nice, God.  It’s an idol of intuition.  And it’s going to be impossible to hold onto rigid, literal biblical principles on human sexuality while writing off a God who doesn’t behave the way we want him to.

Morality is determined and dictated by the God who can command Abraham to sacrifice his son.  He can tell us who to marry and who not to.  Morals cannot fundamentally exist without God, because morality is, and only is, what God makes it.  The minute we try to soften that God with flowery interpretations of Scripture, we lose God all together.  Without God, we are highly evolved puddles of primordial ooze, and morality is a joke.

Then again, admittedly, I’m not qualified to challenge a mind like Swinburne, and an hour’s lecture with brief Q&A isn’t sufficient to plumb a man’s thoughts.

Atheist Richard Dawkins “has lost”

In a provocative commentary entitled “Richard Dawkins Has Lost: meet the new atheists,” writer Theo Hobson alludes to how compelling the moral argument is.  In recent posts, I’ve presented it’s strongest formulation, and despite nitpicking and name-calling, I think the argument has spoken for itself.  Hobson observes that modern atheists are wrestling with morality: “Rejecting religion is no sure path to virtue; it is more likely to lead to complacent self-regard, or ideological arrogance.” He goes on to describe how secular humanists today have become squeamish about Dawkins’ arrogance and venom, and instead are turning to more nuanced and subdued appeals for humanism.  Once such nuance is the casual admission that atheists are still desperate to find a foundational, unifying moral ground.


Studies have reported that “the single biggest predictor of whether someone will be charitable is their religious participation.”

Experiments in Common Decency

 So I’m looking across the counter at her, and it’s my turn to talk, but I’m clearly not talking.  I’ve just given her $22 for a $12 purchase and I have apparently just rocked her world of simply changing twenties.  The look in her eyes is like a ob-gyn who just delivered a hermaphrodite and who is looking at the father who wants to know how his baby is.  And then it dawns on me.  I am not a nice person.

            In my head is a motherboard overload of responses, none of which would get a star next to my name in Sunday school.  I’m tempted to let loose on this woman like John McEnroe on a referee.  So I’m going to experiment in a way that no self-respecting Gen X, Boomer-hating, unsentimental, non-cheesy, sitting-in-the-corner-and-castigating cynic ever would.  I’m going to be nice.  I’m going to be Hallmark nice.  I’m going to be Miracle on 34th St. nice.  Not just once a day.  In every five minute conversation I’m going to go out of my way to compliment the person I’m talking to.  I’m going cold turkey.  Or nice turkey.

            What will be entertaining is not just the reaction to the unusual.  It will be the reaction to me doing it, which would be like the Statler and Waldorf shouting compliments at Fozzie Bear.

            I tried it with my wife today.  She was talking about…I’m not sure, I wasn’t listening, because I was concentrating so hard on something nice to say.  I remembered that I never notice when she gets her hair cut, and I looked hard at her hair, and it looked shorter than the last time I took a good hard look at it.  So when she was done with whatever it was, I said, “Hey, I like your new haircut.” And she said, “I haven’t gotten it cut in six months.  Nice new shirt, Slick.” My shirt has mustard stains on it.  From college.  So she sat there with her uncut hair, and I with my dirty shirt.  All who give and receive such compliments are the wisest.  Everywhere they are wisest.  They are the magi.