Everybody’s a Fundamentalist No. 13

Everybody’s a fundamentalist. Everybody’s a separatist. Everybody has a vision of the good that differs from the visions of others and ends up excluding others from their club.

Everybody limits academic freedom in the next breath after invoking it. Everybody has a conception of the academic enterprise that leaves certain viewpoints out of bounds, no matter how strenuously its representatives insist that those viewpoints count as “academic.”

At least biblical, orthodox Christians can publicly, explicitly, and self-consciously advertise the standards on which they found themselves, by which they separate, and through which they establish the boundaries of academic freedom. The pro-diversity forces have to persuade themselves that their list of acceptable viewpoints counts as “diversity,” that the width of their pluralism is as far as anyone need go to earn the label.

I’ll paraphrase Stanley Fish (my adjustments in bold; original quotation here):

What, after all, is the difference between a sectarian school which disallows challenges to the biblical vision for sexuality and a so-called pluralistic school which disallows discussion of the same question? In both contexts something goes without saying and something else cannot be said (homosexuality is immoral or it isn’t). There is of course a difference, not however between a closed environment and an open one but between environments that are differently closed. (156)

Is homosexuality moral or immoral? Issues of diversity and academic freedom (and consequent disinvitations of campus speakers) are impossible to sort out until we know how we can even answer that question—until we know what moral foundation we’re standing on, and who if anyone is going to keep us accountable for failing to standing on it.

The unified testimony of the Bible and of the church throughout history is that homosexual acts and desires are immoral—because all sexual acts and desires outside the bounds of heterosexual monogamy are sin (see Jesus in Matt 19). When Princeton students deny this, they actually take aim at the the gospel, or perhaps its flip-side, by virtue of delisting the human sins which make us need it. The Bible makes homosexuality (and sexual immorality, and idolatry, and adultery, and theft, and greed, and drunkenness, and reviling, and swindling) a sin that keeps people out of the kingdom of God. And I want you to know that just now as I read 1 Corinthians 6 I experienced a wave of genuine fear—fear of the Lord. I have been guilty of several of the sins on the list. I don’t aim this passage merely at others. I dare not justify my own (heterosexual) lustful thoughts, my own greed, etc., or anyone else’s, lest I alter the biblical terms by which I can be said to be a member of that divine kingdom. Thank God for the blood of Christ and the sanctifying power of the Spirit. I am not as I once was. God has granted me repentance.

The best brief book I know on the topic of homosexuality is still Kevin DeYoung’s What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? And the best endorsement of that book I’ve seen comes from an Amazon reviewer who gave the book two stars:

I did not find this book as useful as I anticipated. It seemed to me to revert back to, “The Bible says it, so that settles it.”

A Profound Contradiction at the Heart of the New Left

Super helpful, from Alan Jacobs, reviewing a book by Roger Scruton:

Scruton gives two reasons for bringing [the subjects of his book on leftism] together here. The first is that they have all identified themselves as leftists…. The second is that “they illustrate an enduring outlook on the world, and one that has been a permanent feature of Western civilization at least since the Enlightenment.” That outlook is composed of two major commitments, or proclaimed commitments anyway: to liberation of individuals from oppressive existing structures, especially political, familial, and religious; and to social justice, usually conceived as requiring the elimination of political and economic systems that create inequality.

Scruton rightly notes that much of the internal tension, at times exploding into hatred, among figures of the New Left arises because these two commitments are pretty clearly not compatible: the more fully people are liberated, the more energetically they will create and sustain various forms of inequality, while equality can only be enforced at the cost of placing strict limits on personal freedom.

Sex and the Christian Vision of the Good

Christianity doesn’t guarantee prosperity of every kind for every individual. Struggles in one’s health, one’s marriage, one’s work, and even one’s faith are par for the Christian course (Jas 1:3).

But, overall, we expect the biblical vision of the good life to produce a better life than the non-Christian vision. And (marital) sexuality is included. The Bible doesn’t deny that sin brings pleasure (Heb 11:25), only that the pleasure lasts or is worth having. Sin is always a denial of love for God and man.

So when I read secular sociologists coming to the same conclusion, I make a note, so that I may be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks me for a reason of the hope that is in me:

Hookup culture, strongly masculinized, demands carelessness, rewards callousness, and punishes kindness. In this scenario, both men and women have the opportunity to have sex, but neither is entirely free to love.

—Lisa Wade, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus

Joy Davidman Lewis’s Brilliant Take-Down of Materialism

Just yesterday I was thinking, “I’ve just got to recover that fantastic quotation from the Joy Davidman Lewis biography I listened to on audio last year.” (The downside of audio books—and the reason I typically “read” only fiction and biography in audio format—is that I can’t take down quotations easily for future use.)

And then today Alan Jacobs comes through for me, quoting the very thing I was wanting to recover. It’s brilliant. Joy, later in life, describes the way she thought as a young, ardent materialist. I love the last line:

Men, I said, are only apes. Virtue is only custom. Life is only an electrochemical reaction. Love, art, and altruism are only sex. The universe is only matter. Matter is only energy. I forget what I said energy is only.

Everybody has an ultimate reference point, whether they’ve thought it out rigorously or not.

Is Your Brain a Meat Machine?

Edge.org is running a fascinating series of articles asking major public figures in science, “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?”

Prominent atheist and evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne’s answer is “Determinism.” In his words, “All matter and energy in the universe, including what’s in our brain, obey the laws of physics.”

And Coyne jumps right to the significance of his viewpoint:

The most important implication is that is we have no “free will”: At a given moment, all living creatures, including ourselves, are constrained by their genes and environment to behave in only one way—and could not have behaved differently. We feel like we make choices, but we don’t.

Of course, the issue of “free will” has been taken up by Christian theologians throughout the centuries; the Bible isn’t silent on this issue. I want to analyze Coyne’s viewpoint and then offer you some biblical suggestions for how to evaluate it.

Every society has a priestly class, the people generally trusted to be arbiters of what’s true. Among educated Westerners, notes one scientist, “doctors and scientists [are] at the top of the list.” And here is one of our top arbiters—Coyne is indeed a very gifted scientist and communicator—telling us that our choice to read his article instead of sneaking some more Nutella was determined by two atoms going bump in the night, long ago, before there was such a thing as night—or ago.

Our brain…is simply a collection of molecules that follow the laws of physics; it’s simply a computer made of meat. That in turn means that given the brain’s constitution and inputs, its output—our thoughts, behaviors and ‘choices’—must obey those laws. There’s no way we can step outside our mind to tinker with those outputs.

Not all conflicts between mainstream Western science and Christian faith are this overt, this direct. But the Bible not only affirms the existence of immaterial beings but says that we ourselves have “spirits” and “souls” and “hearts” and “minds”—which aren’t reducible to the cause-and-effect laws of physics. The “spirit” in the Bible is, among other things, “that which animates or gives life to the body,” (BDAG) because when your spirit leaves you, you die: “Jesus … yielded up his spirit” (Matt 27:50; James 2:26; Ps 104:29). For a very few people we know of in Scripture, God sent that spirit back: Jairus’ deceased daughter’s “spirit returned, and she got up at once” (Luke 8:55; Rev 11:11). “Spirit” in the Bible also refers to at least one narrow aspect of man’s immaterial being: Jesus “sighed deeply in his spirit” (Mark 8:12). But in Coyne’s view, nothing can be any deeper inside you than about six inches.

Coyne doubles down on his view as soon as the natural question arises, like cause and effect: then are people not responsible for their actions?

Realizing that we can’t “choose otherwise” has profound implications for how we punish and reward people, especially criminals. . .. If we can’t choose freely, but are puppets manipulated by the laws of physics, then all criminals or transgressors should be treated as products of genes and environments that made them behave badly. . .. All of them, whether or not they know the difference between right and wrong, have the same excuse as those deemed “not guilty by reason of insanity.”

There’s actually a part of me which sees some real appeal in this line of reasoning, and the Bible has a name for that part of me, too: it’s called the “flesh” (Gal 5:16–21). I can’t deny that that part of me would like a world where I get to give up my guilt in exchange for giving up a freedom it sure feels like I still have. My flesh would willingly sacrifice the pack’s survival on the altar of my pleasure.

But I reject my own flesh. Without taking sides here on the intramural Christian debate between Calvinists and Arminians, I can say with confidence that I and all orthodox Christians believe in the reality of human choices—because the Bible does. Biblical religion teaches that there are constraints on human choices (Rom 7:15–18), but all Old Testament textual critics agree that Joshua did not put “choose” in scare quotes when he said, “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Josh 24:15). All Christians believe in moral responsibility, even for the mere “careless words men speak” (Matt 12:36–37).

All the ways Christians are accustomed to talking about sanctification, repentance, sin, and grace are destroyed in Coyne’s “reductive materialist” view, a fact for which he is glad (he says that given his views, “the Abrahamic religions dissolve into insignificance”). He even makes Christ’s sacrifice for us a sad mistake, for why should an incarnate God die for robots who were only carrying out their programming? But the Bible says Christ died “for the ungodly,” “for sinners” (Rom 5:6), not for automata.

Coyne the fundamentalist

Dr. Jerry Coyne is a rock-ribbed fundamentalist who puts me to shame, because my ribs have some flex compared to his—mine allow me to breathe. I sometimes have to resort to words like “paradox” and “mystery” when I contemplate the interplay of divine sovereignty and the reality of human choices. But Coyne is cock-sure that he has reached the deepest level of reality:

We don’t have any choice about what we do, and we never did. We can come to terms with this, just as we come to terms with our mortality. Though we may not like such truths, accepting them is the beginning of wisdom.

If Coyne gets to quote the Bible in the public square, so do I (if my blog even counts as public). In Not By Chance there’s a valuable appendix full of verses that I find myself going back to regularly. In it author Layton Talbert shows that the Bible simply asserts—often in the very same line—God’s rule and human moral responsibility, the reality of human choice. He quotes a number of Scripture passages in which he bolds statements about the divine will and italicizes statements of human responsibility. It takes only one to show that the Bible takes a vastly different view from that of Jerry Coyne:

My beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil 2:12–13)

Do you see? Not only does this passage assume the reality of human responsibility and choice; it urges human obedience as a logical consequence of the power of God’s will. No explanation is given, only assertion. Other passages do stretch further toward an explanation, but I’d be showing my theological cards if I told you which ones I thought did so. I’m content instead to have you take a look yourself—click this link to see the other passages Talbert uses. If you’re interested in studying further, copy them into Logos 7’s Sermon Editor or a word processor and bold and italicize the text yourself.

On knotty philosophical-theological questions such as divine sovereignty and human responsibility, all Christians should humbly let the Bible speak. And when it contradicts cultural authorities, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).