Monday, October 29, 2012

Nika Asks me about Mary

I once read that a father can undo a world of damage done during the day with a good last few minutes at bedtime. As a dad who makes more than his fair share of mistakes, I jumped on this like a get out of jail free card from Monopoly. In addition to using the Jedi mind trick on the kids making them forget bad daddy from earlier (this isn't the daddy that yelled at you), we have some genuinely interesting conversations about God and life.

Tonight I was laying with Nika. Nika recently decided her mother and I do not need a full night's sleep and that the only way for my precious 4 year-old to deal with her “bad dreams” is to wake us up and either sleep in our bed or enlist one of us to return to hers with her.

She shared how she needs someone because she is scared when she wakes up and sees things in the night. We make her feel safe. I asked her, “Do you know who watches you every night while you sleep?” She shook her head no. “God watches you, and your brother and sister and all of us and keeps us safe.”

She looked a little confused and asked, “I thought he slept at night like all of us.”

“No, honey. God is not like us. He does not sleep and nothing is hidden from him. He never stops watching you.”

She thought about this for a moment. “What about Jesus? Does he sleep?”

“Well he did when he was here, but now that he has gone back to the Father he is like the Father and always aware. He is God and he never stops watching.”

She chewed on that and I started to run my next answer about the Trinity as it looked like we were headed that way. She threw me a curve ball.

“What about Mary?” She just smiled at me with the expectant look and gleam in her eyes that said handle that smart guy.

A few non words leaked out of my mouth as I mulled over how to approach this question. I am a Protestant that has many Catholic friends and if my daughter was already fostering an appreciation for Mary I didn't want to undermine that. At the same time, I didn't want her to get confused about Mary's role and place in the Christian belief system. Preparing myself for a deep and carefully navigated discussion with my daughter I took a deep breath and said, “Mary huh?”

Without missing a beat she replied, “Yes. Mary. With the lamb. The little lamb. Does she sleep?”

She giggled and laughed at how funny she is. I just let out a sigh of relief and assured her that neither Mary nor her lamb were watching her while she slept.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

What is True vs. What we are for or against

After hours of engaging the student body of a major US university on the issue of abortion and the value of human life, a young man who had previously been coming after me pretty hard held back and waited to talk alone. His demeanor had noticeably changed and he asked just one question. “Why are you a Christian?”

The answer I offered him is the only answer I can think of that makes any sense. “Because I believe it is the truth.”

I understand the emotional issues discussed in Brian McLaren's piece at The Huffington Post (Why We're Leaving the Church: A Report from the Nones) on why young people are leaving the church. This phenomenon is a preoccupation for me and my friends working in Christian apologetics. Students, parents, and friends frequently share their struggles regarding their faith and so many times – not always to be certain but more often than not – the pressures of pluralism play a major role. In this context, they don't like the idea that people they enjoy, people they trust and love, people they like more than the Christians in their lives are portrayed as enemies of the church in general or - even worse - enemies of God.  If Christianity as widely practiced appears to put us at odds with others we like then there must be something wrong with it. 

As a former “other” talked about in the McLaren article, I was on the receiving end of a fair amount of dislike from the Christian community. In my wayward days, the overwhelming majority of Christians in my life made it clear that (1) they disapproved of me and (2) wrote me off for a bad guy to be kept at a distance. They very rarely felt the need to dissuade me from the path to hell – presuming they believed such a path was truly real - and most often seemed comforted that I wouldn't be messing up their heaven. There were exceptions but they were just that – exceptions.

I thought it was all nonsense anyway, so I didn't spend much time fretting over it. I gave as good as I got in the disapproval department, a point that is routinely glossed over by those wringing their hands about how horribly Christians talk about the “others.” The “others” are often neck deep in the ugliness. Yet - no matter how profane and vitriolic their attacks become - they are innocents naturally responding to judgement from Christians. What else could they do except cuss and swear and make abundant use of ad hominem attacks on every forum available to them regardless of the age of the audience or the appropriateness of the attacks given the context of the event? They feel judged so they are deemed perpetually innocent by our hand wringing brothers and sisters.

Ultimately, I changed my mind because evidence persuaded me that Christianity is true. Not because I became convinced that we can all work together without having to change each other. Certainly not because I decided the differences between us were unimportant.  It was the simple recognition that what I observed to be true about the world fit most comfortable in a theistic and particularly a Christian worldview.  I recognized this without any concern for whether or not I had good feelings about the people that claim to represent that worldview.  In fact, I still didn't like Christians for quite some time after I became one.

After a recent event in Hamilton, New Zealand three young people stayed back to talk.  A young woman asked, "I assume coming from outside the faith there was a period of adjustment where you felt weird?"  I told her absolutely and her friend asked me how long it took me to get past feeling like an outsider.  My answer?   I have never stopped feeling like an outsider to some degree or another. My belief in the truth of Christianity neither translated into an all consuming comfort with church culture nor any desire on my part to become something I wasn't to please others. But so what? I understand the reasons why I am a Christian and grasp the concept that those reasons are not dependent on the behavior of any group of people or that group's acceptance of other people. It simply is not a proper criteria by which to judge the truth of the Christian claims. It is a proper criteria to judge the individual Christians or church bodies, but it fails to address the truth of the Christian worldview at all.

My own church has never taught us to hate anyone, though our pastor does clearly state that behaviors like premarital sex, adultery, dishonesty, homosexual sex, greed, and yes the hatred of other people are all categorized sinful according to biblical teaching. As a result, people who have been unfaithful to their spouses, are sexually promiscuous, or identify themselves as homosexuals expressed to me that they feel disliked or judged by those messages. I explain that we must be able to separate evaluation of action from personal hatred. Truly hateful attacks should not be accepted by anyone and deserve broad  ecumenical condemnation. However, simply identifying a behavior as biblically sinful is only hate speech to the radically sensitive who are desperate not just for tolerance but for universal acceptance and approval.  As has been pointed out numerous times before, in order to tolerate one another we must first disagree.  

Students excited about Mr. McLaren's message shared how they hoped that we could build our collective faith on what we are for rather than what we are against. I propose that we build our collective faith on what is true and not stress so much about how we feel from moment to moment. Emotions are unstable things.  C.S. Lewis once talked about marriage saying the love feelings can come and go but it is the commitment that binds the couple. The commitment makes it possible to endure dry seasons and fall in love all over again or remember the love that brought you together. In the same way, a commitment to truth can carry you through confusing emotionally trying spiritual struggles especially those set off by the ever confusing way that people of all sorts relate to one another.

Certainly we are emotional beings, but when my heart waivers the total love of the Lord our God with all my mind is still sufficient. What happens when we fail to emphasize the importance of truth and the intellectual rigor of apologetics arguments like the minimal facts of the resurrection of Jesus, the cosmological arguments for the existence of God, the moral arguments for the existence of God, arguments from consciousness, and textual criticism affirming the reliability of the scriptures? Do we instead encourage a faith built on deemphasizing what is particular about Christian faith for the sake of getting along? If so, we cultivate an environment that also deemphasizes the idea that the particulars of the Christian faith are important at all. If that is the case, then there is no longer any reason to remain a Christian.

To put it simply, if it isn't true then it doesn't matter. If it is true, then how I feel about that fact is less important than what that truth means to us all.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Dr. Bering Becomes What He Has Beheld

Language warning. Dr. Jesse Bering took the time to carefully craft his piece on Dan Cathy and included his graphic name calling presumably to make clear how angry and hurt he is by the reactions over the Chick-fil-A controversy. As a result, I am including all of his original language.

Dr. Jesse Bering produced a masterpiece example of how not to convince those who disagree with you that they are wrong. It is also a masterpiece example of an attack piece we can only assume is meant to lash out at the forces he feels are determined to intimidate and hate innocent homosexuals. I often enjoy Dr. Bering's work except when I don't, and today I don't. It is less because of the insults and guilt by association attacks directed at people like me and my friends than it is because as an argument for his position this piece is trash.

He shares that at first he was inclined to dismiss Dan Cathy as a southern rube, a Christian idiot in the mold of the Crouches and the mindless Alabama widows that fund TBN. That nasty polemic is a more polite summary of his version. Here we start off with the first mistake. Physician heal thyself. Of Cathy he says:

of course, but for him to be such a perfect caricature of scornful, Americanized Christianity, was a welcome diversion from whatever it was I was writing at the time. Imagine if Elmer Fudd had a love child with Jesse Helms’ mother, and there, I thought to myself, you have Dan Cathy.

And how quickly Dr. Bering becomes a caricature of the cruel intolerant liberal ever belittling those who disagree with him. A little poisoning of the well does start us off with the proper note. Pay no attention to the other side, they are either harmless superstitious morons fleecing the gullible with big hair and chicken or something far more nefarious.

You see Dr. Bering suddenly realized that Chick-fil-A is using their profits to fund “hate groups” (among those listed are Focus on the Family) and that the overtly Christian people that run a company that closes every Sunday to honor God hold views on homosexual marriage that are in accord with traditional biblical teaching. Shocking. Then after a little fictional dialogue where the freedom loving idiots come off poorly against the rational and compassionate detractors of Chick-fil-A we step into a little false equivalency:

There was a time, not so very long ago, when business owners in Southern states proudly poured their riches into segregationist causes. These investment strategies (and the political fruits they bore) helped keep “Negroes” in their place as second-class citizens. And just as we’ve been seeing with the enthusiastic support for Chick-fil-A by the “moral majority,” the racist business models of those segregationists rallied local social conservatives... After all, just as same-sex marriage is today, the rights of blacks were a “political issue.” People spoke of “personal beliefs” about whether blacks should vote, marry outside their race, drink at public water fountains, swim in public pools, attend schools with white students, or sit in the front of the bus. Those whose “personal belief” was that blacks should be socially quarantined from whites felt absolutely no reason to apologize. People were “entitled to their opinions.”

This is an accurate account of a sad and troubling part of our nation's past as it concerns the battle for civil rights. It is also in no way reflective of magnitude of the current issue facing our country today. Certainly there are crimes against innocent homosexuals motivated by irrational hatred just as there are still racially motivated violent crimes and religiously motivated violent crimes. Dan Cathy – however - did not argue that homosexuals should not be allowed to vote, swim in public pools, drink from water fountains, go to public school, or sit anywhere they want on a bus. If he did any or some of those we would have comparable situations. If fire hoses were being turned on homosexuals in the streets during pride rallies and police dogs attacking them for trying to eat with heterosexuals it would be accurate to say “just as same sex marriage is today” so it was then with segregation. But neither Dan Cathy nor any of the reasonable people supporting Chick-fil-A appreciation day advocated for anything so hateful. The attempt to raise the current issue to that same level is a mistake whether intentional or not. We will need a slippery slope later to get us the rest of the way toward Dr. Bering's nightmare, but we have a stop in ad hominem town before then. (attacking the person and not their arguments)

Dr. Bering writes extensively on biological and psychological arguments for human behavior in some of the most prestigious science magazines. Those who disagree with him could better understand what motivates religious belief and human sexual behavior if they read his work. That is if they weren't either (a) too stupid to understand him or (b) too lazy and complacent to read even if they are actually intelligent enough to do so. Rather than have you think I am exaggerating:

Now, for many subject areas in science, such cognitive dullards and intellectual sloths are easy to ignore, even when they display remarkable naivete. To be unaware of the chemical composition of water, for instance, is certainly sad, but such ignorance is usually pretty harmless. But with a basic scientific understanding of sexual orientation, ignorance can be sinister.

Here we arrive at our slippery slope (because of A & B then here comes X, Y, & Z)  with more than a touch of guilt by association (if obviously bad people support Chick-fil-A then all people that support Chick-fil-A are the same). Dan Cathy is making more aggressive hate acceptable. You want proof? Well all you have to do is go on Twitter and combine Chick-fil-A with gay epithets and you will find all the proof you need. Proof positive that if you look for idiots on Twitter you will truly find them. (didn't Lincoln say that?) This obviously demonstrates nothing about the validity of Robert George, Patrick Lee, and Gerard Bradley's arguments for the Conjugal View of Marriage (see here, here, and here) or whether government officials threatening to abuse their permit powers by blocking the expansion of a business justifies peaceful protest by buying chicken. It does ramp us up for the argumentum ad misericordiam in the big finish. (arguments from pity or emotional appeals that fail to address the central disageement)

All of us who went to Chick-fil-A on August 1st contributed to the depression and tragic suicides of closeted gay teens struggling with their sexuality. They are “watching in silent terror.” There is no room for disagreement or dialogue. Supporting Chick-fil-A is literally sending a message to confused and frightened teens dealing with sexual confusion that we hate them. Save your arguments because whatever their substance they hurt children. Wow.

Here is the saddest part to me. What is the language of Dr. Bering's enemies? They are profane hateful people who yell “faggot” and “dykes” at kissing homosexuals. They tell homosexuals exercising their Constitutional right to criticize Chick-fil-A to “shut the fuck up” and tweet about “queers.” So how does a Dr. Bering respond to such wanton displays of hateful idiocy. Unfortunately he gives as good as he gets. If you prefer not to be called a homophobe over “semantic objections” about not fearing homosexuality then you are free to take the title of “bigoted asshole.” Opponents of gay marriage are stupid, slothful, intellectually inferior and culturally backwards imbeciles bullying young gays with “raw hate.” He ends with a lovely message to those who hold the position that the traditional view of marriage ought to be preserved. “Oh, and by the way, fuck you, if you’re one of them.”

If your desire is to dial back the escalating emotions over this pseudo controversy this is not the way to go. Certainly you will never convince people that disagree with your position by arguing with so little regard for them and their actual arguments. We can only assume that Dr. Bering is angry and looking to lash out. If that is the case then mission accomplished. The problem is that such attacks serve very limited purposes. They marginalize your opponent through mockery and derision and attempt to silence discussion by intimidation. More simply put, they seek to accomplish goals through bully tactics.  

That is why I wrote this post.  Because as much as I personally dislike when people talk about shaking our fists at God and God's judgement on our society (we have had great evils in our society from day one and will have them as long as we exist.  God can judge us any time for any number of valid reasons), I hate the current climate of cussing at and attacking the people we disagree with on the pivotal moral issues of our day.  Quite frankly, I post little lately out of my distaste for the profane attack trolls that search far and wide over the internet for someone on which to let loose their foul typing.  But not posting this response would have been because I wanted to avoid a certain kind of unpleasant response and it occurred to me that this might have been the precise goal of Dr. Bering's article.