The Practicality of Nonviolence

Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in Culture wars and Current events, War and Peace | Posted on 27-07-2014

Violence-PeaceIn my myriad discussions over the years, with friends and acquaintances who are dubious about the idea of Christian nonviolence, a recurring objection has been raised that often comes in a form much like this:  “Yes, your theory is all well and good, but in the real world people are violent and evil, and can only be dealt with by force.”  On the surface this objection seems to make a great deal of sense … after all, who can honestly say that the world wasn’t better off after Hitler was defeated (which is the usual example)?  But I think that the example of World War II has perhaps enjoyed a little too much favor in this regard, and the more I observe history, the more I begin to wonder if perhaps that war (itself not nearly the clean case some would like to make it) may be a historical anomaly rather than the rule.

The objection to nonviolence is essentially theoretical.  I say this for the simple reason that it has hardly ever been tried.  People reject the notion of a nonviolent response to a Hitler or a Stalin or a Mao or a Saddam — or Hamas or ISIS or Israel — on the basis that they are (were) so violent/evil that they must be stopped.  The failure of nonviolence is hypothetical, not historical.  By contrast, if we only bother to look, history suggests pretty strongly that violence has a rather dismal track record.  In no particular order, some examples:

  • Israelis and Palestinians have been at each others’ throats for over seventy years.  In this time neither the suicide attacks of the Palestinians, nor the massive–often disproportionate–military actions of the Israelis have been able to materially tip the balance.  If anything, they have merely increased the rancor, added grudges, and hardened the perspective of each side.  If any present conflict on earth calls into question the efficacy of violence, this one should, regardless of which side you think is in the right.
  • The much-vaunted “victory” of the US in Iraq led to the disintegration of the country into sectarian and tribalistic factions that have been unable to come together and in fact are rapidly falling apart.
  • Ten years of American action in Afghanistan resulted in a weak central government whose elected leaders couldn’t dispense with their own sectarian biases, and are now collapsing under the onslaught of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a group so extreme that even Al Quaeda and the Taliban consider them fringe.
  • Very few historians dispute that the “War to End All Wars” laid the foundation for the rise of Hitler and the Second World War.  What they acknowledge less frequently is that much of the partition of Africa and the Middle East that led to many present-day conflicts, also came out of WWI.

If anything, it seems to me that the critical lens ought to be focused, not on the theoretical futility of nonviolence, but on the repeated, demonstrated futility of armed intervention to solve nearly anything.

Now of course, from the perspective of a follower of Jesus, there is another vital point, and that is to say that “success” as defined by the world is never guaranteed.  There are, in point of fact, things that a follower of Jesus may or must do, and others that she or he may not or must not do, and I believe that participating in the armed conflicts of this world falls into the latter camp.  But that’s not really the point of this post; I’ve addressed that idea elsewhere (feel free to browse War & Peace on this blog for more).

The point for now is that even from a strictly-secular perspective, it seems to me that advocates of nonviolence need not assume the burden of proof their opponents often demand.  While we don’t, in fact, know that nonviolence would work in any given situation, history provides a great deal of bloody evidence to suggest that violence is an abject failure.  Next time anyone tells you that peace is impractical, ask how violence has worked out for them.

Why do I believe? Part 10 — By their fruits …

Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in Apologetics, Justice | Posted on 31-05-2014

grapesA couple posts back in this series, I wrote how the character of Jesus himself is a major reason why I choose Christianity.  Closely related to this reality, I find myself attracted to Christianity because of what it is capable of producing in people.  Note carefully, I said “capable of producing,”  not “produces.”  I am the first to admit that an awful lot of people who bear the “Christian” label are not people I want to associate with, let alone emulate.  I’ve even been known to say that if all I knew of Christianity were Christians, I quite likely would not be one.

Nevertheless, when it comes to evaluating a philosophy or faith or tradition, I honestly don’t think it’s fair to judge it solely (or even mostly) by its poor application among those who bear the label.  I mean this for any system of belief, not just Christianity.  If I want to know something about Islam I look to those Muslims who are trying to make peace, not to Osama Bin Laden and his crew.  For Buddhism, I find the Dalai Lama to be a better and much more attractive source than the extremists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.  Gandhi tells me more about Hinduism than the factions in India who’ve been attacking both Christians and Muslims in that country.  I am not kidding when I say that there is good to be found, and good people produced, by many (and maybe most) of the great religions of the earth, and among atheists and nonreligious folks as well.  Though there is plenty of evil in these groups too (Christians most definitely included), credible cases can be made and have been made by adherents of all of them, that what their faith actually teaches is incompatible with violence and should motivate people toward good.  I tend to believe the peacemaker of any faith, who tells me s/he came to a position of peacemaking through their faith, and who repudiates violence committed in the name of that faith by other practitioners.

Charity is an important practice in most major religions.  Islam teaches it; giving alms is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.  Judaism has the wonderful concept of Jubilee, though I have yet to encounter any evidence that it’s ever been practised.  For an unbiased overview of the basis for giving in several major religions, have a look at this article on Harvard University’s website.  I affirm the impulse to give, regardless whence it comes.

Having said this, it appears to me that there is something particularly distinctive about the way of Jesus that really is different from all the other philosophies and religions that motivate good in some people.  The self-giving way of the cross … sacrificing one’s own well-being for the good of another who might not even be family/friend/fellow-citizen, seems to be a particularly Christian teaching.  Not, to be sure, that most Christians live that way, or that nobody else does; but that at its best, Jesus seems to motivate–even demand–an other-directed focus that I do not see replicated anywhere else. With all its faults, the church seems to have at least partially gotten the message too.  I’ve not traveled nearly as much of the world as I’d like, but in the places I’ve gone, I’ve seen more relief, development, and human aid ministry being done by Christians than by any other group.  The hospitals, water projects, AIDS treatment facilities, orphanages, etc. that I’ve seen are more likely to be run by Christian agencies, or Christians serving in secular agencies, than by other groups…at least the ones I’m aware of (and I admit that may be sampling bias, though I don’t think so).  Disaster relief, while done in significant measure by government agencies, has a heavy proportion of Christian agencies as can be seen in this listing of respondents to the earthquake in Haiti.

It’s no scientific survey, but the nonsectarian charity website GuideStar’s Directory of Charities and Nonprofit Organizations, in it’s “Religious” subcategory, lists over 84,000 Christian charities, 4,400 Jewish ones, and less than 2,000 each for Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist groups.  Now this directory is of agencies registered with the American Internal Revenue Service, so it stands to reason that there would be more Christian charities in the US, proportionally speaking, than in a country such as India or China.  I wish this table at the World Bank included religious affiliation so I could do a count, but they don’t and I don’t have the inclination to visit every website listed.  A quick scan though, turns up what appears to me a preponderance of Christian organizations as opposed to those of other faiths.  I would welcome evidence to the contrary, but it seems that Christianity spawns faith-based organizations that do charity and not just proselytizing, at a rate not replicated by other faiths or philosophies.

This is not a contest.  I’m not trying to sell anybody else on why one faith is “better” than another, and the last thing on my mind would be to denigrate the compassionate work of any faith but my own.  There’s plenty of need in the world, and far too few people meeting it for me to quibble over whether the hungry are being fed by a Buddhist, a Muslim, an atheist, or a Christian.  I’m quite certain the empty belly appreciates food equally no matter what sort of blessing–if any–was said over it and by whom.

Still, to me, it seems that the way of Jesus at its best, invites its followers to a level of altruism and others-directedness deeper and more comprehensive than that on offer anywhere else I’ve looked.  Most of us never rise to the challenge … that remains indisputable.  But we could, and some do.  And those that do have made and continue to make their mark.  I find that attractive.

“Who Really Cares?” Arthur Brooks Book Review – Repost

Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in Culture wars and Current events, Justice | Posted on 29-05-2014

whocaresBack before I started blogging in 2008, I read and then wrote an online review of Arthur Brooks’ book Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism.  I’m reposting it here with some updates, because I continue to find people citing Brooks’ study as evidence that conservatives are more compassionate than liberals.

In short, Brooks’ book is a highly flawed diatribe posing as a rigorous statistical analysis.  Anyone who has taken basic social science or statistics should easily be able to see through his poor use of numbers and data, but unfortunately it’s become somewhat of a touchstone anyway.

First of all, Brooks states on several occasions that his goal with the book is (if I may paraphrase) to get liberals off their high horse about conservative greed and selfishness, and to motivate them (the liberals) to give more. However, he has so completely intermixed conservative political opinion with his statistics and arguments, that the only ones who are going to be around to hear him are either masochists like me or the already-converted conservatives. If one REALLY wishes to motivate liberals to greater charity, spending a large portion of the book talking about how deluded, misguided, and selfish they are is probably not the most effective strategy. The book as written is far more likely to reinforce conservative Americans in their smug, self-satisfied opinion of their goodness, than it is to spur any liberals to good works.

Secondly, although I suspect that a number of the statistical claims Brooks makes may be true (although any beginning statistics course will emphasize that correlation is not the same as causation), they are compromised by other places where he frankly plays fast and loose with the numbers. One of the most egregious examples is his discussion of the estate tax on page 102 (hardcover edition). Brooks cites as proof that taxation hurts charitable giving, the statistic that someone who inherits $20,000 will give an additional $82 to charity; someone who earns that same $20k in the stock market will give $48, and someone who just gets a $20k salary increase will only give another $18. He lets us digest those figures for a few pages, and then on page 113 announces “Even if the estate tax’s demise did redirect donations toward heirs, these would be especially likely to give much of it away.” (emphasis mine).

Now, I don’t know about your math, but in my calculations $82 is not MUCH of $20,000. Even if the estate tax were only 10% (and it’s much higher than that), the tax revenue (admittedly not the same as charity) would be $2,000. If “generosity” is defined as giving less than 1% of anything, God preserve us from the stingy folks!   Of course, Brooks’ argument here also suffers from the reality that no estate in the U.S. is taxed until it exceeds $5.34 million (it was $2 million when Brooks wrote the book), so that $20,000 differential he’s talking about is on top of a bigger chunk of change than most Americans will ever see, but I digress.

Additionally, it has been noted by at least one reviewer I read elsewhere, but it merits repeating, that a good deal of the giving behavior of religious-vs-nonreligious folks comes from a survey of self-reported behavior, not observational studies (which are admittedly harder to do). I doubt that it would fully explain the difference, but I know that religious folks (and I am one) tend to answer survey questions according to what they “know they ought to do” in at least some cases—that is, when self-reported “good” behaviors are compared to observable criteria, there is almost always an over-reporting of the “goodness.” Since non-religious people are (I am assuming, as is Brooks) less likely to feel a moral compulsion to give, they may also be less likely to over-report their giving. I doubt this could explain away the entire difference, but it is a potential source of bias that is worth examining.

But the most wrongheaded elements of the book occur when Brooks leaps from statistics to policy. Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt, that every statistical claim he makes is correct, valid, and supported by the data, his conclusions don’t follow. I am one of his “rare bird” religious liberals. . .actually I’m an even rarer bird, as I’m a morally-conservative but politically-liberal Protestant/Evangelical Christian (yes, we do exist!). Brooks concedes that we “religious liberals” give nearly as much as the religious conservatives (I actually give more than a lot of conservative friends of similar age and income in my own church), and that both give a great deal more than the nonreligious of either stripe (of course, whether even this difference is inside or outside the margin of error, we can’t tell since Brooks has not disclosed his methodology).  He makes it abundantly clear that religion trumps every other indicator, and then uses his numbers on the generosity of conservatives to justify and advance a conservative political agenda that is at odds on nearly every point, with the perspective of us “religious liberals.”

He also makes the fallacious implication, when arguing taxation-vs-charity, that taxes are primarily (both in intent and effect) directed at the redistribution of income, and secondly that these taxes are spent in largely the same spheres as charity, such that one would supplant the other. Both implications ignore the fact that the U.S. federal budget includes vast sums—all paid for by taxes—that can’t be classified as charitable causes under the most expansive of definitions. Defense, debt service, agricultural subsidy, commerce, public health (disease control, not medical aid) and even the basic operations of government itself are items that together add up to vastly larger sums than anything that can be construed as being in the same competitive space with charity. These things still require funding, and that funding comes from taxes. Much of the debate over taxes, therefore, is not a question of taxation vs charity, but rather: “Given these public expenses, how are we going to distribute the burden of paying for them?” This is an ethical question, and compassion can and does play into some people’s answer to that question, but it is not necessarily correlated with the compassion of charitable giving. It is not for this reason any less-valid a concern from a compassionate point of view.

Yet another fallacy in Brooks’ reasoning is that all giving that is legally defined as “charity” (a term he never actually defines), is in fact motivated in any way by compassion.  The vast majority of many religious people’s giving is, I rather suspect, spent on the institutions and facilities that service their religious practice.  This is true in every church I’ve ever attended.  To really get at the question of charity, one would have to analyse giving that is actually directed toward charitable purposes … this is an analysis Brooks does not do.

In the final analysis I, too, would like to see charitable giving increase. I do think that Brooks makes a valid point that anybody who’s crowing about compassion should put his/her own money where their mouth is and pony up real donations of time and cash. But particularly if charity is to fill the gap of that minority portion of government spending that IS in the same space, EVERYONE—conservatives, liberals, religious, nonreligious—will have to give a LOT more than they give today to make the slightest dent in the problem. Far from soothing complacency for the “compassionate conservatives,” Brooks should call his own people (a majority, he says) to greater good works and not merely heap scorn on those outside his fold whom he deems hypocritical.

A Few Thoughts About Marriage and our “Rights”

Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in Culture wars and Current events | Posted on 09-03-2014

WeddingI have recently observed or participated in several discussions about Christian marriage in the blog/Facebook world, that have troubled me mightily.  On one hand, I see (mostly male) Christians holding forth the position that sex is so important to marriage that any wife who denies her husband his “rights” or “needs” in that regard, is sinning and violating Paul’s commands in 1 Cor. 7:1-5.  Some have gone so far as to state that repeated or long-term sexual denial is grounds for divorce (citing Martin Luther among other sources).  Among commenters on that particular thread, I have even seen several (males again) state that sex is the only thing that differentiates spouses from roommates, or that sex is the principal (or a principal) reason for marriage.

On the flip side, I have seen women reacting in egalitarian outrage, blasting the men for failing to recognize the wounds inflicted upon them by the “purity culture” of churches that, in order to teach girls to be sexually abstinent, use shaming terms like “slut” and “whore” to refer to any unmarried girl who explores her sexuality.  With some legitimate grounds, they point out that the shame toward sex projected on girls before marriage, is then revised to the shame of not being sexual goddesses after marriage.

I’m not going to solve this issue…as if anything I say ever could.  I know there’s a lot of hurting people out there, some of whom feel sexually starved, others of whom feel inadequate or afraid or unloved or wounded.  I’m also not claiming to be an expert:  I’ve been happily married to my first wife for 24 years and love her more today than I did on our wedding day, but we have often observed that this fact has more to do with some combination of insane luck and undeserved blessing, than it is owing to any skill or wisdom on either of our parts.  But I can’t escape the nagging feeling that too much of the argument from both sides has been about each person’s individual needs, desires, fears, wounds, etc., and virtually none has been about each spouse loving and caring for the other.  And when giving and loving has been mentioned, it’s all been of the form “if he/she loved me, he/she’d do this for me.”  Not once have I seen “if I loved him/her, I’d do (or sacrifice) this for him/her.”  Not from the men, and not from the women.  Not from the sexually frustrated, and not from the sexually wounded.

Ladies and gentlemen, if the first things you think about marriage have “I” or “me” in the subject, you’re probably talking about a doomed marriage.

Since the apostle Paul has been appealed to already in this storm (I do not call it a debate), perhaps we’d do well to look at a few of the other things Paul said relative to marriage.  Things like how submission of wives to husbands (Eph. 5:22) must be in the context of mutual submission “to one another” (Eph. 5:21), and in the context of husbands loving their wives “as Christ loved the church, giving himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25) and even loving them “as their own bodies” (Eph. 5:28).  And let’s not forget how Paul described love in 1 Cor. 13:4-7, in which we learn that love does not insist on its own way (v. 5) and keeps no record of wrongs (v. 6).  Furthermore, right on down in 1 Cor 7:10-11 Paul repeats the prohibition on divorce, which makes the notion of using verses 1-5 as grounds for divorce doubly ludicrous.

I really think all this argument about sex is really a proxy for a much deeper question, which is whether anyone or anything, including our spouses or our faith, is important enough to be worth sacrificing what we need or expect or desire.  We’re Americans dammit, and if there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s standing up for our “rights.”  It doesn’t really matter whether the “right” in question is our “right” to be sexually satisfied, or our “right” to space to deal with our sexual wounds … in both cases the focus is on me as an individual, and that focus is fundamentally toxic to marriage.  To give oneself to another in marriage is, in a very important sense, to suborn our “rights” to the privilege and duty to serve and love that person who becomes our spouse.  The two “becoming one flesh” (Gen. 2:24, Mark 10:8, Eph. 5:31) is so much more than the physical joining of two bodies; it’s about loving another person so much that their good becomes our greatest wish.

There’s one final point I wish to highlight.  All those biblical commands about submission, love, and the rest are commands given to us as the “submitter” and as the “lover.”  Never can the words of Jesus (or those of Paul) be used legitimately to tell anyone “you should submit to me” or “you should love me.”  Paul said “husbands love your wives; he did not say “wives, your husbands ought to love you.”  That difference is not an insignificant one.  To any of you who are a husband or wife, your biblical call is to love and submit to your own spouse, not to remind him/her of the duty to submit to or love you.  It is my job to love my wife, not to analyze or critique whether she’s loving me appropriately (she is, by the way).  The moment I start pointing out how my wife ought to treat me if she really loved me, or how she ought to behave if she’s a true Christian wife, I have lost focus on how I ought to conduct myself as a Christian husband.

I’m not saying it’s easy.  Self-giving never is.  I’m not saying it’s always rewarding or that such love will always be reciprocated.  This side of the resurrection, very little is promised in Scripture.  But the way of Christ is the way of giving up, not demanding, our due (Phil. 2:5-7).  This applies to marriage too.

Why do I believe? Part 9 – Popular apologetics I don’t buy …

Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in Apologetics | Posted on 11-01-2014

scalesWhile I’ve already laid out a variety of reasons for my faith position, the world of apologetics includes several popular arguments that I don’t find as compelling as most apologists seem to wish.   Two of the most popular were both advanced by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity (neither, so far as I know, was original to Lewis, but he is possibly the most popular or famous among their adherents).  These are the “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” (sometimes described as “Lewis’ Trilemma“)and the “Objective Morality” arguments.

Before we look at these lines of reasoning themselves, I would remind the reader of my Parenthetical Apologia in this series.  As I pointed out then, part of my issue with conventional apologetics is the (I believe, indefensible) notion that by reason anyone can be backed into a corner where they must accept the truth of Jesus–either by presenting them with a solid argument for faith, or by rationally defeating their arguments against it.  I do not accept this approach, and I am certainly not attempting to practice it.  Rather, I am trying to explain how I arrive at or remain in the faith position I occupy today.  So when I say that these two arguments are not compelling to me, I am actually saying two things.  The first and most obvious is that they don’t do much to move me up the certainty scale of my own Belief Matrix.  Your mileage may vary, as the car commercials say, but they simply don’t deflect the needle much in my case.  But secondly (and the first is at least partly a consequence of this), I find both arguments logically flawed … which is an unfortunate thing for a line of reasoning that purports to be logical.  If I, as a believer, find the reasoning weak, it comes as no surprise to me that many atheists find it laughable.

So to the first argument.  Lewis said it thus in Mere Christianity:

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic–on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to.”

This argument was restated and re-popularized by Josh McDowell in his book Evidence That Demands A Verdict, as well as numerous lectures and presentations over the years (I recall seeing a version of McDowell’s lecture on 16-mm film in the 70s).  It remains popular among Evangelicals; in fact, I heard a friend using it just the other day.  Problem is, it’s just too leaky to hold water.  First of all, it depends upon Jesus having actually said the things he’s represented to have said in the Gospels.  If Jesus never said them–if, for example, the apostles embellished the story later–then the argument fails on false premises.  I happen to believe he did say substantially what is written; I’ve written before that I hold Jesus’ words in the Gospels as the highest authority we have in the church.  But I accept the testimony of the Gospels because of my faith, not the other way aroundEarly in this series, I said that from an evidentiary point of view, the Bible is inadmissible until the God of the Bible makes the text relevant.  I stand by that statement.  From an apologetic point of view, the premise “Jesus claimed to be God” is simply not accepted by many (most?) who are not already believers.  As such, any line of reasoning that begins from this premise is dead on arrival.

A related problem with the Trilemma argument is that even when using the Gospels as authoritative texts, the claims Jesus made aren’t as open and shut as the apologist might wish.  Take for example Jesus’ forgiveness of sins in Mark 2:1-11.  With the scribes in Mark 2:7, both Lewis and McDowell ask “who can forgive sins but God alone?” and claim as a consequence that Jesus, in forgiving the paralytic’s sins, was claiming to be God.  But that’s not what Jesus said.  Rather, in Mark 2:10 he defends his “authority” to forgive sins by healing a man.  He does not validate or dispute the scribes’ objection, he sidesteps it completely.  So to presume that Jesus’ action in this case represents a claim of divinity, with all due respect to Lewis and McDowell, does not necessarily follow from the evidence.

One more objection is made quite cogently in Jim Perry’s article The Trilemma– Lord, Liar Or Lunatic? over on the The Secular Web (  I encourage the reader to pay serious attention to Perry’s entire article, because the tone in which it is written is highly respectful and even-handed…not at all the hostility and contempt displayed by (for example) Hitchens or Dawkins.  Perry states:  “it is not the case that there are three and only three precisely-defined choices to be made here, but rather a vast continuum of possibilities.”  He’s right.  As he continues:

“We don’t know with any level of confidence precisely what Jesus as a historical figure claimed for himself, and in any event if whatever he claimed was false there are a great diversity of possibilities, which include liar and lunatic (which McDowell has not successfully ruled out) but which also include many other options which do allow Jesus to be considered a sage or moral teacher and no more.

The trilemma argument does not support any particular opinion one way or another concerning Jesus. If one already believes that Jesus was the Christ of the Christian faith and hence Lord, then naturally one is disinclined to believe that he was anything else, and may favor the idea that other options are untenable. This argument, however, provides no logical support for one who doesn’t already believe to choose the “Lord” option out of all the others. (emphasis mine)

So on to the second argument, that of Objective Morality.  In simple terms, Lewis (again in Mere Christianity) argued that when humans refer to things they “know” to be right or wrong, just or unjust, they’re basing such claims not on their own subjective definition of right and wrong, but rather on an objective truth that stands outside us, and that all humans understand (with some variation to be sure) at a fundamental level.  Lewis, and many before and since, take the fact that we refer to things as “good” or “bad,” “better” or “worse,” as evidence that there really is a fundamental, extra-human standard against which we judge such things.  He then goes on to conclude that for such a standard to exist, someone external, non-human (i.e. God, though not necessarily the Christian God) must have established it.

William Lane Craig makes the argument far more directly when he frames it as:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

This argument is formally correct; that is, the structure “If not A, then not B; Not B; Therefore, not A” does follow the rules of logic.  However, I see two significant problems with this argument, and they are the two premises.  Let’s start with number 1.  As nearly as I can see it, premise 1 really states the desired conclusion in the premise.  “If God does not exist, objective morals don’t exist” is true if, but only if, you have presupposed that the only possible source for objective morals is God.  Or put a different way, upon what grounds is #1 is true?  One possible basis for establishing Premise 1 would be:

  1. Anything that exists is created by God.
  2. Objective moral values and duties exist.
  3. Therefore, objective morals and values are created by God.
  4. And therefore, if God didn’t exist, neither would objective morals or values (or, for that matter, anything else).

And #4 really shows the impossibility of this line of reasoning, because it essentially leads us to “we exist, therefore God must exist,” which may mean something to the theist but is entirely unconvincing to the atheist.  So once again, we find ourselves contemplating a circular line of reasoning…Craig has stacked the deck.

The second problem I have with the Moral Argument is Craig’s Premise 2, “Objective moral values and duties do exist.”  While I instinctively believe this is probably true, instinctive belief is not sufficient for an argument based on logic.  Unfortunately, it appears to me that the basis for most apologists’ acceptance of the truth of Premise 2 are emotional or intuitive, not rational.  Lewis bases his argument largely on the fact that people who object to objective morality or “Natural Law” turn right around and prove by their behavior or arguments that, in reality, they do believe there are things that are right or wrong in other than a subjective, relativist way.  It shouldn’t take much thinking to realize the fallacy of this argument.  We as humans behave as if a lot of things are true, that we ourselves believe are objectively not true … for example, most people claim to believe that “money can’t buy happiness,” yet spend their lives pursuing money for the very purpose of achieving happiness (and believing they’d be happier if they were rich).

Craig’s own justification for Premise 2 is even more problematic:  in the above-linked article he opines that “there’s no more reason to deny the objective reality of moral values than the objective reality of the physical world.”  That sort of argument only works with a logical foundation of true-till-proven-false.  Just because we haven’t got the goods to deny objective morality, does not mean for a moment that we have established grounds to affirm it, and Craig should know better.  And as nearly as I can piece together, Craig seems to acknowledge that moral ontology is rooted in God: i.e. that good is good because God said it’s good (with which I happen to agree); but then he turns around and says the existence of objective good (which we just said is rooted in God) can be known by other means (maybe, maybe not, I’m thinking) that then provide proof of God’s existence.  There lies classic circular reasoning.

A third line of reasoning I’ve found a lot among those who advance the Moral Argument is a completely emotional one, and tends to run along the lines of “it’s horrible to contemplate a world in which raping a child is not objectively evil.”  Since nearly everyone (myself included) agrees that raping a child is morally reprehensible, nobody stops to recognize that just because the alternative (prohibition of child rape is merely a relativist consensus of society) is awful or disgusting does not make a thing objectively true.  In fact there is a great deal about our world that is awful and disgusting.  Unfortunately, “it would be terrible if X weren’t true” is a completely insufficient basis upon which to conclude that X is objectively true.

And herein lies the real problem, not only with the Objective Moral Argument, but with most “gotcha” apologetics I have yet seen (I would add atheist apologetics are often guilty of the same fallacies) … arguments set up as exclusive possibilities, lists that aren’t at all exhaustive, or just plain nonsequiturs.  Frequently, they’re as silly as saying that if the sky is not blue, it must be red…and while it’s true a non-blue sky may in fact be red, they completely ignore the entire remainder of the color spectrum.

One final caveat.  I have not said, nor do I mean, that people have not come to faith through contemplating the Trilemma or the Objective Moral Argument.  In fact I have personal friends for whom both have been quite persuasive.  I appreciate what N.T. Wright said in a truly-excellent critique of Mere Christianity:  “a lot of people have become Christians through reading Lewis and, though, like me, they may have gone on to think things through in ways he didn’t, they retain, like me, a massive and glorious indebtedness.”  Just as many have found important truth through reading Lewis, many have been shown to Jesus through these two arguments, and not for one moment do I disrespect the path that led them there.  But we must learn to make a distinction between things that may be helpful to some people (even things God uses), and intellectual arguments that establish the truth of our philosophies.  As logical proofs, neither the Trilemma nor the Objective Moral Argument withstand the test.


Lies, Damned Lies, and Apologetics: The Latest Evolution “Controversy”

Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in Apologetics, Culture wars and Current events, Evolution | Posted on 16-12-2013

evo-apeSeveral times in the past couple weeks, friends and acquaintances on Facebook have pointed out an article in World Magazine, in which the headline breathlessly proclaims that a “Fossil Finding Shakes Evolutionary Theories.”    Similar articles have appeared in the Christian News Network’s website, including Unprecedented Skull Discovery Raises Serious Questions Over Evolutionary Premises on November 4, and Groundbreaking Genetic Discoveries Challenge Ape to Human Evolutionary Theory on June 17 (please note: links are for reference not endorsement).  Each of the articles refers to an actual scientific discovery which, to quote the November Christian News article, “has thrown the proverbial monkey wrench into the theory of human evolution.”  Simplified (as things frequently are) on Facebook, the message is this:  Scientists have just discovered proof they’ve been wrong about evolution!

Now I have opinions about the creation/evolution debate … I discussed them somewhat here if you’re interested … but that’s really not the point of this article.  In fact, for the moment, I actually don’t care whether you, the reader, are a young-earth creationist, old-earth creationist, theistic evolutionist, atheist evolutionist, or any other “…ist” you care to propose.  I do, however, care a great deal whether you tell the truth about others’ opinions when you make your argument.

The Christian reporters in the articles I linked above have done a terrible job of representing the science upon which they presume to report.  Whether their misrepresentations are through genuine ignorance of science, or willful distortion of facts they know their readers will not bother to verify, I cannot presume to say.  I have my suspicions though, when I see the World article state that one of the researchers,  Juan Luis Arsuaga, told the New York Times that “the baffling discovery of DNA evidence that does not fit with current theories of human evolution is causing scientists to rethink the whole story of human biological development.”  It’s true that Arsuaga was interviewed by the Times; you can read the article here, and it’s true he said “we have to rethink the whole story,” but the “story” to which he is referring is certainly not the very foundation of evolution.

The actual journal publications upon which these stories base their claims, certainly give no hint that they’ve knocked the props out from under evolutionary biology.  But to understand this, you really have to read the original publications.  Only one of them is freely available on the internet (scientific journals are pretty expensive), but anyone who’s interested enough can get the others through the library of a local college or university (many of whom may allow you to request the articles online).  Here are the citations:

There is no doubt that each of the articles presents some new evidence that challenges scientists to reconsider their earlier theories.  That’s actually one of the cool things about science … good science takes a look at available evidence, tries to fit it into what we already know (or think we know), but candidly faces the fact that new discoveries sometimes demand new explanations.  True scientists are actually excited when a discovery rattles previously-held theories, because that means they get to do more science.  But to state that any of these researchers makes the slightest suggestion that evolution in general is false, is simply playing loose with the facts.  Each, in reality, discusses their findings in the light of the principles of evolution:

  • The Meyer article reports on a study of mitochondrial DNA in some 400,000-year-old hominin (human-like) bones from Spain, and discovers that the DNA is more like the Denisovian branch of hominins than it is like Neanderthals.  This discovery challenges the timing of both evolution and migration (from Africa to Europe) of different proto-human species, and the authors propose “several evolutionary scenarios” that might explain their discovery.  If there’s one obvious take-home from the article, it is that the picture is more complicated than they thought, and merits further research.
  • Lordkipadnidze and his colleagues reported on a 1.8 million-year-old hominid skull found in Dmanisi in the Republic of Georgia.  Combined with five other skulls they found in the same area and from the same time, the fossils present a diverse range of size and brain size within a single species … more so than earlier researchers had thought possible.  These finds do scramble a number of evolutionary timelines, as they provide solid evidence that we need more than just measurements of skulls to determine the species of a hominid fossil.  But again, the implications are discussed in wholly evolutionary terms.
  • Farre and her colleagues dig into the details of the role genetic recombination (the way genes in chromosomes sort and resort themselves during replication) may play in “speciation,” the process whereby organisms diverge enough to actually represent different species (for example, how a single species of simian ancestors gradually evolved into humans and chimpanzees).  The researchers compared human, orangutan, and chimpanzee DNA to see what genetic sequences are common and what ones are different, and perhaps as importantly, where the same gene sequences appeared to have broken off one chromosome and attached to another in one of the species.  This article is probably the most difficult of the three for a layman to read (and not being a geneticist, it’s a tall order for me).  However, it’s quite clear that the authors, far from “challenging ape to human evolutionary theory,” are merely providing evidence that current thought on the mechanism for genetic evolution needs to be revised.

The important point for us to face is that the scientists from each group represented above, are working from within a scientific framework in which evolution is completely accepted as true … and what they are doing with their research is to add new data to refine the “how,” not the “if” of human evolution.  When they say, as each does at some point, that their discoveries shake up the status quo, they are not suggesting that they were wrong all along, and “biblical Creationism” was true after all.  They are merely suggesting that there are elements of the evolutionary model that need to be re-examined in the light of new evidence.

Not every Christian–not even every conservative Christian, considers the battle over “creationism” as a key to their apologetics.  However, there is a subset that seem to be under the fallacious impression that if one small piece of “the Evolutionists’” theory is shown to be wrong, the whole (godless) edifice must of needs come crumbling down.  To be fair, many orthodox Christians seem to have a similar attitude toward the truth of Scripture.  Greg Boyd discussed this “house of cards” perspective in his recent (and excellent) book Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty, when he said:

“…I was taught that if the earth was not created in six literal days and if Adam and Eve were not literal, historical people, then the whole Bible may as well be a book of lies.  Flick this one card out, and the whole structure of faith collapses.”

Boyd goes on to explain why the “house of cards” analogy is an unhealthy way to look at faith.  But it appears to me that Creationists may be using a similar rationale when they pounce on scientific articles such as those discussed here.  They certainly seem to think that if they can prove the scientists wrong about one thing in evolution, they’ve effectively demolished the whole of evolutionary biology.  But science doesn’t work like that, and no responsible scientist would accept such a line of reasoning.  The reporters for Christian News and World Magazine may not understand this, but the scientists from the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis, whom they quote, certainly should know better.  People with PhDs may not all believe alike, but they ought to know how to read a scientific journal.

I began by saying that I really don’t care whether readers of this article are “creationists” or “evolutionists.”  It’s mostly true, I don’t.  But when Christians, in an attempt to buttress their theology, flat-out misrepresent science, it is no surprise that people in the sciences don’t take them seriously.  As I already stated, I don’t know if the Christian, Creationist writers are deliberately distorting the scientists’ reports; that is, whether these misstatements are actually lies or just bad apologetics.  But either way, it does no benefit to the truth of the gospel, to make blatantly untrue statements about the discoveries of its putative opponents.

Orthodoxy and Defining God

Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in Challenging conventional doctrine, Creeds, Open theology | Posted on 16-11-2013

bibleI’ve been having a variety of discussions with friends lately on the topics of orthodox dogma, the creeds, and related concepts.  Regular readers of this blog are well aware of my objection to creeds generally, and to the Nicene Creed in particular.  I have recently realized that part of the problem with credal and dogma

Book Recommendation: Four Views on Divine Providence

Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in Apologetics, Open theology, Sovereignty of God | Posted on 09-09-2013

4views-coverAlong with a study group in my local church, I just recently read the book Four Views on Divine Providence.   Edited by Stanly N. Gundry and Dennis W. Jowers, it’s one of Zondervan’s “Counterpoint” series on theology.

In his introduction, Jowers then points out that “Scripture … supplies grounds for a range of answers to significant questions about God’s providence.  Does God ever foreordain evil acts?  Does God always get what he wants?  How can one reconcile human beings’ moral responsibility with God’s sovereignty over their acts?  More broadly, how does God influence the affairs of the world at all?”

Jowers presents a helpful–and quite dispassionate–accounting of the history of the church’s positions on providence.  If for nothing else, this introduction is worthwhile because it illustrates that the issues Christians wrestle with have changed quite considerably over time.  Today’s controversy may not even have been on yesterday’s top ten list, and when people get themselves hot and bothered over one or another point of theology, this is a helpful reminder.


The core content of the book addresses the question of divine providence from the perspective of four authors, each of whom writes an essay summarizing his own view, and then responds to the other three essays in turn:

  • Paul Kjoss Helseth presents the classical Calvinist position of divine omnicausality (“God causes all things”)
  • William Lane Craig advocates Molinism (“God directs all things” by way of a concept known as “middle knowledge”)
  • Ron Highfield presents a modified form of omnicausality he describes as “God controls by liberating” (while Highfield’s tone of worship to God is undeniable, his argument is the least coherent in the book)
  • Greg Boyd presents the Open Theist perspective (“God limits his control”)

“Four Views” is a worthwhile study for what it really means for God to providentially rule creation, and the implications of that for the problem of evil and sin.  It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been reading this blog to know that I find the open view most compelling.  But that’s not why I am recommending this book.  The most important contents of this volume, to me, come in the introduction and conclusion by editor Dennis Jowers.

But the take-home message of the whole book, for me anyhow, comes in the concluding essay where Jowers summarizes areas of agreement and disagreement between the contributing authors.  It is an essay that exudes respect for the positions, and the Christian commitment, of all four authors.  While recognizing the significant areas of disagreement between them, Jowers observes “… the commitment to Scripture’s authority and inerrancy that this volume’s authors share is rare in the upper echelons of contemporary academic theology and, to this extent, worthy of notice and celebration.”  The overall tenor of Jowers’ analysis of all four positions … pointing out strengths and weaknesses in each … demonstrates a generous attitude I don’t often encounter in theological debates.  We could do with more like Dennis Jowers in the world.


Why do I believe? Part 8 – The testimony of witnesses

Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in Apologetics | Posted on 25-08-2013

Crucifixion of apostle Peter, Rome, AD 69 (Eeghen 663) from "Martyr's Mirror," illustrations here.

Crucifixion of apostle Peter, Rome, AD 69 (Eeghen 663)
from “Martyr’s Mirror,” illustrations here.

There is no question in my mind that one of the most compelling reasons to believe specifically the accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings is the testimony of those who were there.  This is, I’m quite sure, a problematic claim for those who object to faith; I’ve encountered many rants on the unreliability of the gospel accounts, though I find that the same people who protest about the unreliability of the gospels tend to be far more credulous when looking at any other ancient written histories.  But there are two particular things about the Apostles and other first-century Christians that I find highly compelling.

The first is specific to the Evangelists who wrote the four canonical gospels (and I really do mean the canonical ones; I’ve read a number of the others and they differ so much in character that the judgment of the councils in rejecting them seems to me quite sound).  C.S. Lewis probably said it best in his 1959 lecture “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism:”

“I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one [of the stories in the Gospel of John, for example] is like this… Either this is reportage – though it may no doubt contain errors – pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.” (see the full essay here; quote on p. 155)

Put perhaps a little more simply, the gospels just don’t look like anybody else’s idea of what mythical or divine characters ought to be, do, or say.  Weird and off-center as they might seem now, they were even weirder and less-probable in the time they were written.  Things only turn out that oddly if they’re either real (truth really is stranger than fiction) or very creatively written.

But even more compelling to me is the fact that the authors and their other compatriots were willing to die for the truth of what they had written or said.  And die they did, in some pretty horrible ways.  According to tradition and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563):

  • Philip was crucified
  • Matthew was “slain with a halberd”
  • James the brother of Jesus was beaten, stoned, and clubbed to death
  • Matthias (elected to replace Judas) was stoned and beheaded
  • Andrew was crucified
  • Mark was “dragged to pieces”
  • Peter was crucified upside-down
  • Paul was beheaded
  • Jude was crucified
  • Bartholomew was beaten and then crucified
  • Thomas was speared
  • Simon the Zealot was crucified
  • John was “cast into a cauldron of boiling oil,” survived, and was later exiled to the island of Patmos; “He was the only apostle who escaped a violent death.”
  • Barnabas is said to be martyred, though the means of his death is not reported.

These guys, unlike later generations of Christians killed by the thousands under various rulers, knew exactly what they were dying for.  They claimed to have seen and heard it themselves.  If they were faking it, they sure were willing to take their deception to a really crazy, extreme end.

I’m not saying that death alone testifies to truth.  Many hundreds and thousands have died for falsehoods throughout history … I think of the infamous Jonestown mass suicide in the 70s … but the difference, at least as I see it, is that these people were deluded by a charismatic leader who ordered them to their deaths.  Jesus did no such thing, and in fact he was already dead and gone (if we presume fakery) or dead and raised (if we accept the Gospels) before any of the apostles faced their deaths.  These men went willingly to gruesome deaths because they couldn’t recant the truth of what they’d spent their lives teaching.

There are, of course, many more martyrs since the first century.  While I have no desire to diminish their testimony, it seems to me that it’s of a different category.  Except for however they may have experienced the Holy Spirit in their own lives, the thing for which they died was removed from them in that they no longer could testify to having seen Jesus with their eyes, heard his teachings from his very lips with their own ears, and even sat and broken bread with him.  No one, however intense their experience, has had the same level of personal, experiential linkage to Jesus Christ that those first-century apostles had.  And when they were invited to either confess to their lie or die in pain, they insisted it was no lie and accepted the consequences.  Two millenia later, that testimony remains, to me, difficult to refute.

Loving Our Enemies in an Age of Terrorism

Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in Culture wars and Current events, Islam, Justice, Kingdom of God, War and Peace | Posted on 09-07-2013

World Trade Center -- 9/11Oklahoma City, New York City, Riyadh, Aden, Sandy Hook, Boston.  Timothy McVeigh, Khalid Sheik Mohammad, Osama Bin Laden, Adam Lanza, the Tzarnaev brothers.  While parts of the world have experienced random violence against civilians for years, it seems that agenda-driven mass violence — terrorism—has touched the United States in this generation, more than ever in our history.  Some even say we’ve entered an “age of terrorism.”

There’s no doubt that our nation is afraid.  We mask it in bluster, anger, and threats, but underneath our most bellicose language lies the frightened notion that we can either fight them “over there,” or we’ll have to fight them “here.”  And when the “they” turn out to be “us,” or at least living among us, the fear multiplies as we scramble to arm ourselves, to strengthen our surveillance and weaken legal restraints that might compromise our security.  Whether or not this is an age of terrorism, we certainly are a generation terrorized.

Into this atmosphere of terror, Jesus’ command to love our enemies is baffling.  How, Lord, are we to love those who hate our nation so much they want us dead, or even worse, want to harm or kill those we hold dear?  Half a world away in geography, we (most of us, anyway) can’t reach out to touch them.  A universe away in philosophy, we can only satisfy them by dying.  What, Jesus, are we to do?

There’s a bumper sticker I have seen from time to time that says “when Jesus said to love our enemies, he probably meant ‘don’t kill them.’”  That’s a start.  But not-killing is by itself a passive non-action, and hardly rises to the level of love.  Perfect love, the Apostle John says in 1 John 4:18, casts out fear.  While none of us loves perfectly, it seems logical that even imperfect love reduces or controls fear.  We might even say the two are inversely proportional—the more love, the less fear, and vice versa.  John goes on in verse 20 to say that if we don’t love those we can see, we’re lying if we claim to love the God we can’t see.  Clearly, this stuff matters.

But maybe in John’s explanation we can find a way to do this thing.  Maybe the way out of our fearful hole is to start loving those we do see, who get caught up in our broad definitions of “enemy.”  When we Americans focus on radical Islamist terror, all too frequently our Muslim neighbors become part of the hated enemy by association.  When the focus shifts to government-hating American militiamen, our hatred spills over onto isolationist conservatives.  All too easily, fear of the few metastasizes into fear and even hatred of the many.  At its extreme, our fear walls us off from anyone we perceive as not like us.

The call of Jesus is to smash those walls we’ve built, to reach through the breach, to touch and meet and serve those we thought were enemies.  Not just the ones halfway around the world, but the ones in our neighborhoods and towns who may be hiding in fear themselves.  We may never understand and connect with the radicals of al Qaeda in the Middle East, but that might not matter quite so much if we just learn to love and respect the ordinary people worshiping at the mosque just down the street.  Just maybe, we might discover that people others told us were our enemies, are just as scared as we are.  Perhaps love can drive out not only our fear of them, but theirs of us too.

Or perhaps not.  One of the great fallacies of our modern life is the assumption that we have the right to live in peace and security.  Though I tremble to say it, the plain truth is that Jesus never promised us safety in this world; quite the contrary.  We need to get serious about the fact that—practically speaking—the way of peace does not always “work.”  Those who love sometimes die in the process.  Jesus did.  So did many who’ve come after him, and so, frankly, may some of us.  Jesus did not say “love your enemies, for in so doing you will find they love you back.”  Instead, he said “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” (Matt. 5:44-45).  While love can and often does bring healing, sometimes it will simply give us the strength to face the threats of our enemy, without fear, and without threat in return.

It may well be that we cannot stop terrorism.  But in the perfect love of Jesus Christ, we can stop being terrorized.  May all of us learn that love.

This article was originally written for RELEVANT Magazine and published in their online edition on June 25, 2013.  The original post is here.