Jun 2 2014

Hear Me Roar!

Around 1 BC, a lovely fellow by the name of Hilarion writes a letter to his pregnant wife Alis:

I ask and beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I receive payment I shall send it up to you. If you are delivered of a child, if it is a boy keep it, if a girl discard it.

This is a reference to the very common practice of exposure in ancient Greece and Rome. Fathers favored bouncing baby boys; girls and sickly boys, not so much.

Romulus and Remus

Infanticide played a central role in Rome’s founding myth. Twins Romulus and Remus are thrown into the River Tiber by their great uncle, survive, and are raised by a wolf [credit: CellarDoor85/Wikimedia].

Exposure was was not always fatal. A few infants were picked up and sold to be raised as slaves, beggars, prostitutes, and gladiators. A fortunate few might have been adopted into good families.

Ancient writers took special note of practices that went beyond the norms of Greco-Roman culture. Aristotle observes that Jews rear all their children, not just the ones they want. Josephus makes exactly the same point four centuries later when he defends the Jewish way of life against its pagan critics.

In this tiny snapshot of family life we see a truly staggering difference between the prevailing pagan worldview and the Biblical worldview. The Hebrew Scriptures show a deep respect for family and children. Adam and Eve are instructed to be “fruitful and multiply” (Ge. 1:28). The Mosaic Law specifies penalties for babies who are harmed by violence (Ex. 21:22-25). Josiah is marked out as a good king for cracking down on child sacrifice (2 Ki. 23:10).

Naturally, as Jews converted to Christianity, they brought these Biblical values into the early church. It is hard to imagine that they would countenance the practice of exposure among their Gentile brethren. The New Testament builds on this respect for children. Jesus shows compassion for children (Mt. 19:13-15). Fathers are warned against inciting anger in their children (Eph. 6:4). And, most of all, the nativity accounts of Jesus show that life begins at conception and never depends for its value on the judgment of men—neither betrothed husband Joseph nor murderous King Herod.

These attitudes must have had a profound effect on pagan women who came into contact with Christianity. As a man, I can hardly put myself in their position. Even so, it must have been heart breaking for a woman to carry a child to term and give birth, only to be told that her beautiful baby daughter is to be discarded because she is (like her mother) “only” female.

Christians not only had a different view of children, they had a different view of men. There was no double standard on sexual behavior: men were just as accountable as women (Heb. 13:4). Divorce was limited and rare (Matt. 19:9). Although husbands were the head of the family, they were expected to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25). They were to treat their wives as fellow heirs of the grace of life (1 Pet. 3:7).

Early Christianity was pro-life across the board and so, in a very real sense, pro-women. Sadly, the benefits for women declined over time, for two important reasons. First, church interests became increasingly entangled in state interests. As the imperial church came to mirror the world, it lost its distinctive appeal to society’s most vulnerable groups. And second, theologians began to develop views on marriage and women that flatly contradicted Biblical teaching (which Paul anticipated in 1 Tim. 4:1-3). Priests, forbidden from marriage, would simply avail themselves of concubines which, by the way, were a vestige of pagan Rome.

Some might argue that the modern state now protects the interests of women and children to a degree that the early church never could. Even if the average Christian woman of the 1st century was better off than her pagan neighbor, she would still have to submit to her husband at home and to male authority figures within the church. This continues to get under the skin of radical feminists, which is why they will always push for more state involvement in marriage, family, and faith.

Feminists have all but won the culture war on this front. “I am woman, hear me roar,” right? And yet, when we look at the price of victory—abortion (the new child sacrifice), divorce, homosexuality, population decline in the West (just like the Roman Empire in its waning years), sex selection (biased against girl babies in many cultures), legalized prostitution, sexual promiscuity, rampant STDs, cohabitation (the new concubinage), men avoiding marriage, etc., etc.—we have to wonder whether winning the culture war simply amounts to winning back the pagan past.

Is that a good thing? Are we, as a society, better off for all of that? And especially, are women and children really better off now that the radical feminists have everything they ever wanted, and more?

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think magazine, January 2013, p. 19.]


Feb 1 2013

Take Sweden

Although I have never been there myself, I hear that Sweden is a great place to live. I hear it a lot. People rave about the country’s cradle-to-the-grave social welfare system.

Apparently, big government is good for Swedes, and Swedes are good for each other. More than 80% believe it is safe to walk alone at night. A majority donates to charity, and a majority is very trusting toward others.[1] They sound like good people. We might even say that they sound like good Christians, except that Sweden is supposed to be one of the most secular nations in the world.

By some estimates, only 2-4% of Swedes attend worship services every week.[2] Only 23% say they believe in God.[3]

Swedish church

Atheists look at these numbers and conclude that it is indeed possible for good people to do good things without believing in God. Listen to biologist and militant atheist, Jerry Coyne,

Nor should we worry that a society based on secular morality will degenerate into lawlessness. That experiment has already been done—in countries such as Sweden and Denmark that are largely filled with non-believers and atheists. I can vouch from experience that secular European nations are full of well-behaved and well-meaning citizens, not criminals and sociopaths running amok.[4]

But is Sweden largely filled with non-believers and atheists?

In addition to those who believe in God, another 53% believe in some sort of spirit or life force. Only 23% say there is no God, spirit or life force. These results come from a survey conducted by the European Commission in 2005. Like a lot of surveys on religion, the wording of these questions leaves a lot to be desired. Are more than half of Swedes now pagans and New Agers, because they confidently assert a belief in spirit beings and occult forces? Or did they choose this option because they are not really sure what to believe, but are willing to admit that there is more to this world than meets the eye?[5] No matter how you read the results, this is a long way from non-belief and atheism.

As usual, the picture gets more complicated as we dig deeper. For instance, around 74% of Swedes are registered members of the Church of Sweden. A significant proportion of the population continues to rely on the national church for christenings, confirmation, marriage, and funerals.[6] In one very detailed study of Enköping—a small city west of Stockholm—64.8% describe themselves as either “Strong Christian” or “Mildly Christian,” and another 19.7% identify with “Non-Confessional” churches. In other words, almost 85% of the city’s residents consider themselves to be Christian in some sense or another. Only 10.9% consider themselves to be “Atheists.”[7]

None of this is really surprising. The Swedish state and the Lutheran church were bound together for over four centuries. Being a member of the Church of Sweden was compulsory until 1952. It was not officially divorced from the state until the year 2000.[8]

So, when someone like Coyne visits Sweden, he is going to feel safe, and he is going to enjoy the fact that people are not packing the pews on Sunday. It may be secular, but it is hardly an atheist’s paradise.

Modern Sweden is secular because its people never really had to fight for their faith. To be a citizen of Sweden was to be part of the faith community. It had little to do with right beliefs, right worship, and righteous living. Next, Sweden is secular because the state gradually took over the responsibilities of the church. This is easy to do when church and state are so closely connected. And Sweden is secular because the official church grew increasingly out of step with its own people. An irrelevant monopoly is still a monopoly. The viable and legal alternatives were few and far between.[9]

But the underlying morality of Swedish society was baked into the country a long time ago. It had a lot to do with the church. It also had a lot to do with Sweden’s tremendous sense of national unity. It is easier to be nice to people who share your language, culture, and heritage. It is easier to pay your fair share of taxes when you know all your neighbors are paying, and using, their fair share of taxes, too.

If you want to highlight a country for its secular morality, and want to live there, you are going to have to look elsewhere. May I suggest Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, for starters?

Atheists like Coyne benefit tremendously from living in a diverse, multicultural society with a strong Christian heritage. E pluribus unum—“Out of many, one.” But how can we be one if we do not share a common morality? Without God, there is no way to decide what that morality should be.

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think, February 2013, p. 24]

 


[1] “The 2012 Legatum Prosperity Index.” The Legatum Institute. http://www.prosperity.com/CountryProfile.aspx?id=752

[2] Byron J. Nordstrom, Culture and Customs of Sweden (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010), p. 41.

[3] Eurobarometer 225: Social Values, Science and Technology. European Commission publication, 2005. http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_225_report_en.pdf

[4] Jerry A. Coyne, “As atheists know, you can be good without God.” USA Today. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2011-07-31-atheism-morality-evolution-religion_n.htm

[5] See also Rodney Stark, Exploring the Religious Life (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), p. 126.

[6] Nordstrom, pp. 32,41.

[7] Nordstrom, pp. 41-42. Again, the devil’s in the details. Identifying oneself as belonging to a church, especially the Church of Sweden, is not the same as believing in what the church teaches.

[8] Nordstrom, p. 31.

[9] Richard F. Tomasson, “Religion is irrelevant in Sweden,” in Jeffrey K. Hadden, editor, Religion in Radical Transition (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1970), pp. 111-127.


Nov 14 2012

Ordinary Miracles

According to Bill Gates, we need a miracle to fight global warming. Specifically, we need an energy miracle.  Gates quickly explains: “When I use the term ‘miracle,’ I don’t mean something impossible. The microprocessor is a miracle. The personal computer is a miracle.”[1]

Like any good speaker, Gates knows what his audience is thinking when he uses the term ‘miracle.’ They will naturally think that the Nerd-in-Charge has thrown up his hands in defeat. A technological solution would require a miracle and, as everyone knows, miracles are impossible. But not to fear: if we think of “miracles” as solutions to difficult problems then, all of a sudden, the impossible becomes possible.

Clean energy is a long way from Moses parting the Red Sea or Jesus turning water into wine. Apparently, if we want to borrow quaint religious words from the Bible then we have to lower our sights, a lot. We have to start thinking in terms of perfectly ordinary miracles.

The modern attack on miracles can be traced to an obscure Jewish philosopher by the name of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1688). According to Spinoza, all of nature is God, and so the laws of nature are as fixed and unchangeable as God himself. As Spinoza put it, “nature cannot be contravened.”[2] If anything, claims of miracles distract us from our faith because they point beyond nature, and hence, beyond God.

David Hume (1711-1776), the Scottish skeptic, gave us the version that most college students are forced to read and adopt today: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature.”[3] Hume had no time for Spinoza’s pantheism, but the line of reasoning was the same: the laws of nature cannot be broken; miracles, if they happen, would have to break the laws of nature; therefore, miracles cannot happen.

We know we are in trouble when apologists buy into the same underlying premise. Sure, an unbreakable law of nature cannot be broken, these guys will concede, but God is the great lawgiver. He “can make or break it” as He sees fit.[4]

This takes us into a dangerous rhetorical minefield. Do we really want to insist that the great lawmaker is also the great law breaker?

And then there is the whole problem of God decreeing the laws of nature. Unlike Spinoza and Hume, we no longer view the laws of science as fixed and unchangeable, and we no longer view the universe as a mechanical clock. Newtonian gravity and other laws have been replaced or modified over the years. With some humility we have come to realize that the laws of science are our best attempts at describing the observed regularities of God’s amazingly complex and often surprising creation.[5] Miracles are exceptions to these regularities, not violations of immutable natural laws. Every law of nature includes the possibility of God’s intervention, but intervention is not the same as contravention.

Besides all of that, the Spinoza-Hume approach begs the question. One way to beg the question is to restate in your conclusion what you already stated in your premises. In this case, by claiming that miracles break the unbreakable the skeptics already have their conclusion, namely, that miracles are impossible.

Before the skeptics came along and told us what our own words should mean, theists had a pretty good understanding of miracles. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) offered the following definition: “Those things must properly be called miraculous which are done by divine power apart from the order generally followed in things.”[6] The keyword is ‘generally.’  A law of nature is a generality, and no more.

So let us not speak of the miraculous when we really mean to speak of the pleasantly wonderful: of spontaneous cancer remissions, of lone survivors and, of all things, microprocessors. The miracles of the Bible were neither ordinary nor quaint. They communicated a clear message, were consistent with God’s character, and always had a sound theological footing.

[A version of this article appeared originally in Think, November 2012, p. 7.]


[1] “Bill Gates on energy: Innovating to zero!,” TED video, February 2010, 7:10-7:28. [Online]  http://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates.html

[2] Baruch Spinoza, “Of Miracles,” Theological-Political Treatise, 6:5.

[3] David Hume, “Of Miracles,” An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 10:1:90.

[4] Paul Little, Know Why You Believe, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008, p. 139.

[5] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008, p. 262.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, “Of Miracles,” Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.101.


May 1 2012

Once, Twice, Three Times an Immigrant

Ground Zero mural

Ground Zero mural commissioned by Yakov Smirnoff

As Yakov Smirnoff would often say, “I love this country.” The Ukrainian-born comedian built a sizeable career on this line and his signature Russian reversals.

In America, you always find a party.
In Russia, Party always find you.

For Smirnoff, these jokes were only partly tongue in cheek. They reflected an abiding appreciation for the economic and personal freedoms of his newly adopted country. On July 4, 1986, Smirnoff took the Oath of Allegiance on Ellis Island with a scale-size model of the Statue of Liberty in his hand. After the 9-11 attacks he used $100,000 of his own money to mount a patriotic mural near Ground Zero.[1]

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Apr 29 2012

The Family Plan

Hollywood movies often carry this disclaimer as the credits roll by: “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” The same disclaimer applies to the three families I have profiled below. In this fictional world, all the parents are Christians, all the marriages are intact, and all are members of the same congregation. And yet, how could they be so different?

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