Theology: November 2008 Archives

Peter Kirk takes Obama's conversion experience as evangelical (but see his comment below resisting the seemingly-uncontroversial inference from having an evangelical conversion experience to being an evangelical). The interview Peter links to in support actually leads me to conclude that he's definitely not an evangelical, and a case can even be made that there's nothing distinctively Christian in his personal faith. Let me first outline what I think the boundaries of evangelicalism can include, and then I'll look at some of the things Obama says that make me think he's outside the realm of evangelicalism and perhaps even not very specifically Christian. Much of the content here is adapted from comments in my conversation with Peter in the comments.

Theologically liberal views (at least compared to the status quo in evangelicalism) would include people who reject the substitutionary element of the atonement but retain a penal element (e.g. my co-blogger Wink), who support open theism but insist that God has a plan and will win in the end (e.g. philosophers Dean Zimmerman and Dale Tuggy), who are universalists of the sort that they're convinced everyone who goes to hell will eventually repent and follow Christ once they see the consequences of not doing so, and thus evangelism is still urgent, and hell is still real but just not eternally populated (e.g. Keith DeRose), who are inclusivists of the sort where Christ's sacrifice in fact atones for some in other religions because general revelation teaches them that God must provide a solution to the sin problem and trust him to do so (e.g. the C.S. Lewis view), that a homosexual lifestyle is morally ok but who feel the need to reinterpret scripture to defend such a view (e.g. I have a friend who holds such a view and is clearly an evangelical) rather than saying the Bible includes an immoral prohibition.

There are some who deny inerrancy (but really affirm it and just deny a straw man that they think inerrancy is), but I think actual denial of inerrancy is harder to maintain while being an evangelical. The Fuller Theological Seminary model makes an effort by still insisting that scripture is infallible on any moral teaching or theology within its pages. (Some at Fuller don't actually follow this. I know of one who thinks Paul was a complementarian but insists that we shouldn't be, and I think that moves out of the range of evangelicalism.) But I think you can say that there are errors in dates and place names in the Bible and still count as being within evangelicalism, just on the fringes. Once you start explicitly questioning the plain moral and theological teaching of scripture without trying to reinterpret it so that you at least believe scripture teaches your view, it's hard for me to see that as even on the fringes of evangelicalism. That's just theological liberalism in its most plain form.

So I'm certainly open to finding liberalizing tendencies within evangelicalism, even if one is on the fringes for holding certain views. Some of these are closer to the fringes than others (e.g. Wink's view of the atonement doesn't seem very extreme to me, just extreme-sounding to those unwilling to think very hard about what they've been taught). Those who combine several of these are more on the fringes than others. But one can be an evangelical and hold such views. It's a separate matter whether someone is a Christian but not an evangelical. I'm not saying here that one must be an evangelical to be a Christian. I know plenty of people whom I would not consider evangelicals but who do lay claim to being more broadly Christian. Very few Catholics are evangelicals, in my view, although I personally know a handful who I think are evangelical Catholics. I do think pious Catholics are Christian in a perfectly normal English usage of that term. I know a number of people who I think are Christians in mainline denominations who aren't evangelicals by the criteria I've outlined above. Some evangelicals want to restrict the term 'Christian' so that it only applies to evangelicals, but it's linguistically inappropriate to do that given what the term has come to mean.

But suppose someone denies the reality of hell and then expresses skepticism even about the existence of an afterlife in heaven. What if you say you pray, but then when you go on to explain what you do when praying it becomes clear that you're just maintaining an internal dialogue evaluating your life? What if you talk about a power that goes out of you when you speak the truth (rather than inflating your ego or playing rhetorical games), and then when your interviewer asks you if that's the Holy Spirit, you prefer to speak instead of just seeing a common recognition of truth outside of you? What if you're willing to talk of Jesus as your personal means of bridging the human-God gap but think of that in terms of reaching something higher rather than as the solution to a problem of sin? Speaking of sin, what if you admit to believing that there is such a thing but then define it entirely in terms of going against your own convictions, as if hypocrisy is the only sin? In the above-linked interview, Barack Obama did all these things.

Divine Supererogation

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Supererogatory actions are things that would be good to do but aren't morally required. In some sense, there are lots of good things that I could do that aren't morally required. I can't do every possible good deed I could do, for instance, because I only have a limited amount of time. But the difference with supererogatory acts is that they're supposed to be above and beyond the call of duty. They're actions that would be wonderful to do but are not required in the sense that I would be a better person if I did it, and the action is better than what I end up doing instead, but I still have no obligation to do it.

I've argued that Christians should not accept the category of supererogatory acts. I'm not changing my position on that, at least when it comes to human actions. I don't think there are any cases where I'd be doing a better thing if I did something different but am nonetheless perfectly ok not to do it. If I'm doing something less good, I'm failing in my responsibility to be perfect as God is perfect. I don't see how Christians can accept biblical teaching on ethics and accept this category for human action.

What hadn't occurred to me when I wrote the aforementioned post was to ask about whether certain actions are supererogatory for God. I think the standard Christian view has been that some things God actually does are supererogatory. It's hard to see grace as anything but supererogatory. It's undeserved favor, and how can God be morally required to bestow undeserved favor? I'm not going to question that line of reasoning, so I think it's fair to say that I need to revise my view. I'm not denying that any actions are supererogatory in general. It's just that human beings ought to do the best action in any circumstance.

One way to get such a result pretty easily is to take a page from Immanuel Kant, who speaks of a divine lawgiver as the sort of being who would have no obligations to begin with. His argument is that it doesn't make any sense to think of God as having obligations, because obligations make sense only if the being with the obligations could possibly fail to do the things the obligations require them to do. (William Alston interestingly applies the same line of thought to beliefs. God directly knows every truth, and therefore he must not have beliefs, because beliefs imply that the beliefs could be false, just as obligations imply that you could fail to fulfill them.) If Kant is right, then God is never obligated to do anything, and so every action God performs is supererogatory, but it still might make sense to say that no human act is supererogatory.

But I don't think that explanation is sufficient. I want to say that some things God does necessarily result from his moral perfection, and other things are a gift that his nature doesn't make him do. I want to say that he didn't need to create and would have been perfectly good had he not created. I don't want to say God is morally better for creating, and I don't want to say God is morally better for choosing to save people from the eternal destruction we all deserve. But even if all that is true, it seems that there are some things that are inconsistent with God's nature, such as making a promise and not keeping it or allowing the universe to be intrinsically bad overall. That means that something the concept of supererogation was supposed to capture is true of God in a way that it's not true of humans, and it doesn't just result from God's having no obligations.

I think the difference has to lie in some explanation why it isn't better for God to do this thing that seems like it would result in a better world, whereas it is better for me to do things that would lead to better consequences. That difference has to lie in God's nature. God would be perfectly good without even creating, so it doesn't make God's character or nature better to create. Also, God is infinitely good, so it doesn't make the totality of things better if God creates things and doesn't just exist on his own. On the other hand, I am imperfect, and there are always ways to be better. I have an obligation to seek to be better unless I am perfect. That seems to me to be the real reason why it isn't even better for God to do better things, while it's any merely human being's obligation to do the best thing possible.

Voting and Calvinist Prayer

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A lot of people think it's irrational to vote if your vote isn't going to have an effect on the outcome. I live in an extremely blue district of a slightly red county in a very blue state. In local and statewide elections, my vote has so little an effect that it's not worth voting if the only point of voting is for my one vote to have an effect on the outcome. New York is overwhelmingly going to continue to support Senators Schumer and Clinton, and they tend to vote Democratic in governor elections except when there's a very moderate Republican like George Pataki on the ballot. County-wide races are closer, and so is the U.S. House district, which was almost a toss-up in 2006. Things were even more one-sided when I lived in Rhode Island.

But it simply isn't true that voting is only worth doing if you're going to be the deciding vote. There are other reasons people give for voting, some better than others. One that often occurs to me when it seems hopeless for my candidate is that if everyone voting for the other side thought it wasn't worth voting because the outcome is assured then my candidate might have a chance. Other reasons include that it helps you psychologically to feel like you're contributing and that it's simply your obligation to do what you can to influence things for the better even if what you can isn't by itself going to make the difference in who wins the election.

Any of those responses would be sufficient by itself, except perhaps the psychological benefit one (at least if that involves self-deception, and if it doesn't then it's not a distinct reason but depends on one of the others). I think there's an even better reason to vote, and I think it might actually be what motivates me most, but I hadn't actually thought about it in these terms until today. It takes a page from Calvinist responses to the objection that if the future is already determined then there's no point in praying.

Calvinists come in several varieties, but the most common sort of Calvinist (which isn't the same as being the most noticed kind on the internet) is compatibilist about human freedom and divine predetermination. If God has a plan that includes everything I'm going to do, everything every other person is going to do, and an outcome for every prayer I ever pray, then is it worth praying? My prayer isn't going to change anything, after all. Of course, my prayer would also be in this plan, and if I didn't pray then a different outcome may well have been in the works. Compatibilists about divine predetermination and human action are going to insist that God works through our choices and doesn't just force things outside our control. Our prayers are part of how God's plan works itself out as history unfolds.

One thing Calvinist sometimes say is that praying is not so much for the outcome but for us. God wants us to pray because of what God will do in us because we pray. I don't want to deny that, but it's certainly not the emphasis in scripture on reasons to pray. The emphasis seems to be on two things. One is that prayer does affect things. It doesn't change them, because the future can't be changed anymore than the past or present can. If the future is a certain way then it can't be changed. Even open theists don't think the future can be changed. Why should someone who thinks there's a definite future think it can be changed? But for the reasons in the previous paragraph, the future can be influenced. It can be caused by things in the present, and I can be part of that process of bringing it about. A compatibilist should have no trouble saying that sort of thing.

But there's another reason in scripture for why we should pray, even though God has worked out the end from the beginning, and this one (unlike the previous one) does have some relevance for voting. God wants us to communicate our dependence on him and to express our desires to him. He wants us to see him as the Father who cares for us and meets our needs and our wishes, provided that our wishes are righteous and as long as there isn't some other reason beyond our ken for why God wouldn't grant a particular wish (as there may well be). As Jesus points out, what father when presented with a request from a child for bread or fish will give a snake? God wants to bestow good things on his children and delights when we come to him with requests, for the same reasons a giving parent delights in such things. Given that, it's a privilege to call him Father, which is why it's a big deal that Jesus starts out the Lord's prayer with "our Father". Those who don't avail themselves of that title in addressing him are missing out on something great. Those who don't address him at all are missing out on even more.

The same dynamic plays out in a smaller way with voting. I'm privilege to live in a country that seeks my opinion on who should occupy certain offices. Even if my vote doesn't have an effect in putting someone in office, it's a privilege to be able to contribute my thoughts in the process of the communal decision that an election involves. I don't believe voting is a moral right. But I think I'd be wasting an opportunity to express my opinion if I didn't vote, and wasting a privilege is at least unfortunate (and I would even argue that it's immoral). This seems to me to be a much better reason to vote than any of the more common ones that I hear, even if most of them are good enough reasons.

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