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.]


Mar 7 2012

Of Magick and Miracles

When atheists are looking to blame Christianity for all that is wrong in the world, they are inclined to run through the usual litany of crimes against humanity, including the Crusades and the house arrest of Galileo.[1]

My first reaction is to say that this has nothing to do with New Testament Christianity. My second reaction is to point out that much of what we think we know about these events comes to us from people who have an axe to grind against the medieval Catholic Church, Christianity, religion, or all the above. Real historians have done their best to set the record straight, which the New Atheists blithely ignore as they regale the unfaithful with sordid tales of Christians acting unchristianly.

The same rap sheet usually includes the witch-hunts of the late 1500s and early 1600s. According to some estimates, around 110,000 people were tried for witchcraft, and as many as 60,000 may have been executed.[2] Critics blame these horrors on what they take to be the inherent evils of religion. In the Enlightenment, the medieval church was faulted for its irrational belief in witchcraft. Today, in the cultural morass we call Postmodernism, the medieval church is faulted for using witchcraft as an excuse to pick on lonely elderly women, or practitioners of pre-Christian pagan beliefs, or both. The first angers the feminists, and the second has become a cause célèbre of New Age Wiccans.

Again, I would reply that the witch hunters were hardly following the teaching of Christ and His apostles. Nor were they following legal precedent from the so-called Dark Ages. In 785, Charlemagne enacted martial law on the newly conquered pagans of Saxony. Article 6 of that law blamed belief in witchcraft on the deceits of the devil, and imposed the death penalty on anyone who burned a witch.[3] Misguided vigilantes posed more of a threat to life and property than a few pagan “witches.” So much for the Dark Ages.

Charlemagne and his contemporaries wrote magic off as a pagan fantasy. In this respect, they were closer to the Christian worldview. From a Biblical standpoint, nature works in a regular way until God intervenes. There is no room for magic and witchcraft because God reigns supremely over both the natural and the supernatural. The great witch hunts of later centuries undermined this view by giving witchcraft a newfound credibility.[4]

The whole point of magic – or maybe that should be magick – is that there are hidden forces within nature that can be manipulated for good or evil. Don’t get this confused with magic used as a plot element in Lewis’ Narnia series or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And don’t get this confused with the stage magic used by entertainers who pull rabbits out of their hats. To claim that magick is something more – that it is metaphysically real – is to deny the Biblical worldview.

This is why the Bible takes a no-holds-barred approach to magick, sorcery and divination. Under the Old Law, sorceresses were put to death (Exodus 22:18). This may sound harsh, but sorcery represented a clear and present danger to God’s chosen nation. If the Israelites could be conned into thinking that a pagan sorceress had real gifts of sorcery, then perhaps they could be conned into accepting her prophetic guidance as well, which could lead the people into soul- and life-threatening situations.

This helps us understand a potentially difficult passage in 1 Samuel 28. On the eve of his final battle, Saul consults the medium of En Dor. He asks her to conduct a séance with the dearly departed Samuel and, indeed, the spirit of the prophet appears in their presence. But is Samuel’s appearance a genuine piece of sorcery, or the work of God? The woman’s reaction gives it away: she cries out in a loud voice (vs. 12). She is shocked because she has never been able to summon the spirits of the dead. Her mediumship is a fraud, and she knows it. This is the work of God.

The same skepticism holds throughout the New Testament, and especially in Acts. Luke repeatedly draws a distinction between the real power of the apostles and the fraudulent claims of people like Simon and Elymas (8:9-25; 13:4-12). The apostles’ miracles are not tricks; they are not demonic; they are not self-serving. Their power is from God, just as the Gospel they are preaching is from God.

Mystics and charlatans were not the only ones with a magic problem. Christians in Ephesus still clung to their magical scrolls (19:18-19). Their worldview was confused and incomplete.

It has to make us wonder: How much stock do we put in black cats and four-leaf clovers? Maybe it’s not witches or magick for us. Maybe it’s something else, like astrology or evolution. But clearly there are consequences for not building a thoroughly Christian worldview.

[A version of this article appeared in Think, March 2012, p. 8.]



[1] Bertrand Russell, Why I am Not a Christian. London: Routledge, 2004[1957], pp. 22,123,161; Richard Dawkins, The Devil’s Chaplain. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, pp. 148,159; Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. London: Bantam, 2006, pp. 1,37,41,166,308,312. Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell. New York: Penguin, 2006, 30,43,408; ad nauseum.
[2] Edward Peters, “Witchcraft,” Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution. New York: Garland, 2000, p. 1069. Peters’ figures are at the high end of estimates.
[3] See Arend Quak, editor, Speculum Saxonum. Rodopi: Amsterdam, 1999, 34 fn. 21. Article 6 reads as follows: “If anyone, deceived by the devil, believes, in the way pagans do, that some man or woman is a witch (strigam) and eats people and if for this reason he burns her and gives her flesh to be eaten, or eats it himself, he is to suffer the capital punishment.”
[4] Karen Jolly, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. London: Athlone, 2002, pp. 23-26.

Feb 7 2012

Whatever happened to faith?

Faith has a bad reputation, and it is our fault. By “our” I mean those of us who confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. In a terrible twist of irony, people of faith have turned faith into a dirty five-letter word. Not all of us have done this, of course, but enough of us to attract the attention of the wider world.

“Faith,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, is a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” At least this travesty appears several notches down from the primary definition. The same cannot be said for Webster’s New World Dictionary, which gives the following definition top billing: “unquestioning belief, specif. in God, a religion, etc.” Keep in mind that most dictionaries list the most common meaning first. This is why we don’t want preachers using their dictionaries to define important Bible words.

Needless to say, you will not find similar entries in dictionaries from a century ago, although the rot was already spreading into the pew from seminaries and the writings of prominent theologians and philosophers of religion. Astute skeptics certainly took notice. Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, put these words into the mouth of Pudd’nhead Wilson: “There are those who scoff at the schoolboy, calling him frivolous and shallow. Yet it was the schoolboy who said ‘Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.’ ”[1] Clemens’ wry observation turns into a battering ram for Sam Harris in a book appropriately titled The End of Faith: “every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable. This put the ‘leap’ in Kierkegaard’s leap of faith.”[2]

Ah, and now we get to the heart of the matter. It is easy to find simplistic or unfair characterizations of Søren Kierkegaard’s writings. His “leap of faith” is often portrayed as a momentous force of will to believe in God and the central claims of Christianity. This makes the Christian faith look bad in every possible way. How can anyone just decide to believe anything? And how could anyone hold such profound, life-changing beliefs in the absence of evidence or, even worse, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

It doesn’t help that Kierkegaard is notoriously hard to read, even in the best English translations. It doesn’t help that he never used this precise phrase, “leap of faith,” or its Danish equivalent. And it doesn’t help that he wrote some of his most important works (mostly in the 1840s) under a pseudonym, which leaves us wondering whether they represent Kierkegaard’s “official” view.

Despite all that, philosopher Jamie Ferreira tries her level best to offer a sympathetic reading of Kierkegaard’s leap.[3] [By the way, no one should use “Kierkegaard” and “basically” in the same sentence as I am about to do, but here goes anyway…] Basically, Kierkegaard envisioned a huge gulf between the historical claims for Christianity on the one side and the actual experience of Christianity on the other. The categories of knowledge and faith are so far apart, he thought, that we could never bridge the gap by piling fact upon fact. Evidence can lead us up to the edge of the abyss, but it can never take us all the way. Kierkegaard’s approving quote of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81) gives us a strong sense of where he was going with all of this:

“If God held the truth enclosed in his right hand, and in his left hand the one and only ever-striving drive for truth, even with the corollary of erring forever and ever, and if he were to say to me: Choose!—I would humbly fall down to him at his left hand and say: Father, give! Pure truth is indeed only for you alone!”[4]

And so, standing on the precipice, it is possible to find oneself “infinitely interested” in God. All of sudden, as Ferreira puts it, one can “dare to be radically changed,… to take a real risk, to put oneself out over seventy thousand fathoms.”[5] In this very moment we leave behind the objectively uncertain proofs of Christianity and embrace the subjectively passionate striving after God. This is more a leap to faith than a leap of faith.

But so what? Whether we take the cruder version of the leap or the more nuanced version, Kierkegaard is working with a number of faulty assumptions.

For a start, while Kierkegaard makes room for reason and evidence, he doesn’t make room enough. He is overly impressed, it seems, by attacks on the proof of Christianity coming from people like Hume, and attacks on the historical Jesus coming from people like Strauss.[6] But if we think that reason and evidence are on our side (they are), and if we think that Biblical faith is richer than Kierkegaard imagined (it is), then there is no need to separate the certain from the uncertain, the subjective from the objective, and make a leap from one to the other.

And in what sense is faith an instantaneous transition? This is where we need to distinguish between the subjective and the objective. From God’s objective standpoint, either we are born again or we are not (John 3:3-6). Either our sins were buried in baptism, or they were not (Romans 6:1-11). At no moment prior to this point are we somewhat saved or mostly forgiven. This is conversion to the faith of Christianity; the transformation that follows within that faith is something else again (Romans 12:2). The subjective experience of faith varies from individual to individual. Belief, which is the beginning of faith (Romans 10:14-17), might come suddenly, as it did to the Emmaus-bound disciples (Luke 24:31). Or it might come reluctantly and with a demand for more evidence, as it did for Thomas (John 20:24-29).

Speaking of evidence, some of our arguments will be inductive and issue in conclusions that fall short of certainty, but are nonetheless highly probable. Other arguments will be deductive and issue in conclusions that are certain (because the conclusion must be true if all the premises are true). For instance, design arguments tend to be inductive and probabilistic; cosmological arguments tend to be deductive. Christians have no problem with strong inductive arguments. When Paul appealed to the many eyewitnesses of the resurrection, he was effectively making an inductive argument (1 Corinthians 15:1-4; Acts 26:26). Not  only was it a strong argument, it was the only argument that adequately explained the facts at hand.

Kierkegaard was offering a false dichotomy: either Christians can build their faith entirely on deductive reasoning, and risk losing everything in the face of seemingly convincing counter-arguments, or they can ignore the arguments and make a leap to faith. In reality, deductive arguments for the existence of God have proven remarkably resilient, and inductive arguments have grown stronger as the amount of evidence accumulates in their favor (in areas like genetics, microbiology, archaeology, etc.). Even if the evidence for Christianity only ever rises to the level of “highly likely,” I can still have a reasonable, evidence-based faith.[7]

However, Kierkegaard was right in this one respect: we cannot build a scaffold to God out of facts and figures. As James reminds us: “even the demons believe–and shudder!” (2:19). Clearly, there is something more to Biblical faith than intellectual assent to the right number of propositions.

Faith in its fullest sense is not a risky leap, but a confident walk (1 John 1:7). It is not a confidence in what we see now, but in what we know we will see later (Romans 8:24-25; 2 Corinthians 5:6-8; Hebrews 11:1). It is a confidence that is grounded, not on wishful thinking, but on the historical reality of the resurrected Savior. Atheists are welcome to attack the straw man of dictionary faith, but it has nothing to do with Biblical faith.

[A version of this article appeared as “Leap of faith?” in Think, February 2012, p. 8.]



[1] Mark Twain, Following the Equator. Hartford, CT: American Publishing Co., 1897, p. 132.

[2] Sam Harris, The End of Faith. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004, p. 23.

[3] M. Jamie Ferreira, “Faith and the Kierkegaardian leap,” in The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 207-234.

[4] Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009, 90fn56.

[5] Ferreira, pp. 220-221.

[6] George Pattison, “D.F. Strauss: Kierkegaard and radical demythologization,” in Jon Stewart, editor, Kierkegaard and His German Contemporaries: Theology. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2007, pp. 233-257.

[7] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, Third Edition. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008, pp. 55-56.


Nov 11 2010

Pop Paganism

Church bashing, pagan priestesses, and religious pluralism – Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (1982) has it all. Offering yet another take on the Arthurian legend, Bradley’s fantasy has been praised for its feminist narrative and honored with its own miniseries on basic cable (2001).

The strongest women of Avalon – all devotees of the mother goddess – hold the destiny of the High King in their hands while fending off the dual threats of Saxon invasion and Christian conversion. The “official” version of the new religion gaining ground in Arthur’s world is cold, misogynistic, hypocritical, and meddlesome. Not all is gloom and doom, however. Bradley, in the voice of Morgaine, offers hope by uniting the two religions under one Gnostic banner. If Morgaine has her way, the most enlightened heirs of Camelot will understand that the Christian God and the Celtic goddess are male and female aspects of a single, nameless Divine. The good old days are behind us, she laments, but the goddess survives in the guise of Mary, mother of Jesus.

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Jul 18 2009

Can Humanists Offer the Good Life?

[tab:Introduction]

Though we consider the religious forms and ideas of our fathers no longer adequate, the quest for the good life is still the central task for mankind. Humanist Manifesto I, 1933 [1]

Happiness and the creative realization of human needs and desires, individually and in shared enjoyment, are continuous themes of humanism. We strive for the good life, here and now. Humanist Manifesto II, 1973 [2]

Remy, the star of Ratatouille, is in love with food. His rat family is in love with food, too, but in a very different sense. Remy loves food for its smell, texture, taste and color. He loves food as an end in itself. He loves food as a medium of art. He loves food for the experiences it creates in others. For his brother rats, food is nothing more than a means to an end. Food satisfies their basic needs. Food relieves the pain of an empty stomach. Clearly, Remy stands out from the pack. He is inspired by the great Chef Gusteau who is spreading a bold and surprising message: “Anyone can cook.” If ‘anyone’ includes rats, Remy reasons, then there is nothing to stop him becoming a cook as well, and so the adventure begins.

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