December 30, 2002

A year ago I wrote out a resolution for 2002. It was really more a prayer than a mere resolution. So how did my 2002 live up to its aspirations? As I read over that text, I can see areas where I generally lived up to it, and areas where I often didn't. But overall my faith survived 2002, which in many ways has been a very trying year.

Yesterday at church we looked forward to 2003 as a year for building ourselves up jointly and individually. The staff is strongly encouraging everyone to do common daily Bible devotionals with a standard list of scriptures to read, reflect upon, and journal. It is a wonderful idea, a combination of lectio continua, church-wide lectionary, and evangelical devotion. I should join in (and if I do, I may just blog the journal entries here). I frankly do not see myself fulfilling that commitment considering my schedule, but I will probably give it a try.

Yesterday's sermon used, among other texts, Romans 12:2: "Do not be conformed to this age but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." In the context of the sermon, it was not necessary to stress the context of this verse, but it is right to mention it here. This sentence follows Paul's long argument in Romans 1-11 that God has not abandoned Israel and that the nations are now beneficiaries of its blessings through Jesus Christ. It introduces the ethical material in Rom. 12-16 on the Church's calling to lives of Christlike love even in the face of evil (Rom. 12), to Christlike peaceableness under Caesar (Rom. 13), to the then (and in some places, still) unfamiliar strength of Christlike tolerance (Rom. 14), to Christlike hospitality, and to Christlike discipline (Rom. 16). These things comprise a common life of acceptable, holy, rational, living sacrifice.

Since the spring and especially during the fall I have been suffering from a growing malaise. There are many factors compounding it that I have mentioned before (work pressures, the stresses of a new child and home and job). But these only intensify the feeling; they do not cause it. In days where the pressures are lighter, my spirit is still heavier than it should be, heavier than it has a right to be.

At church, meditating on Rom. 12:2, I found the right way to describe both the symptoms and the cause: Conformity to this age.

As I told a friend yesterday, I have not given up hope. But lately I have been clinging to it rather than walking in it. In my attitudes towards students, family, world events, friends, and strangers I have not been manifesting the Christlikeness we are all given and called to. I have not been living on the basis of Rom. 1-11, so I have not been living in the pattern of Rom. 12-16. I have been letting contingencies, issues, threats, stresses, and disappointments get the best of me. I have been habituating myself to their bad news rather than to the good news.

Realizing this has come as something like a reawakening. It is not the world's ways of defense and achievement and victory that prove the will of God, but only the transformation of Christ.

I guess it's resolution time. What am I going to do about it? I guess if Paul has diagnosed the problem, I should let Paul prescribe the remedy: "Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them" (Rom. 12:6). It is in acting in proportion to our gifts, rather than below or beyond them, that we show what is good, acceptable, and perfect (Rom. 12:1-8). Only when my acts precisely match God's gifts is each of us doing our proper part. (Pelagians and fatalists would do well to meditate on that.)

To be frustrated and depressed in spite of gifts and opportunities is inexcusable, however limited they may be. I repent. Not because January is upon us, but because in late December I finally figured it out.

With Advent (not January 1), a new Christian year began. On Epiphany (January 6), a new semester begins. Every Sunday inaugurates a new week in resurrection light, and every morning brings a new day. May God grant me time that I steward according not to my desires but to the Kingdom's responsibilities. May God grant me opportunities to teach according to my abilities to teach. May God grant me opportunities to be a father and a husband according to my relationships with my children and with my wife Kim. May God grant me opportunities to read that I meet not with the sensational headlines, unsettling news stories, and hopeless weblogs of this age, but with the eternal wisdom God would have us shout from every roof. May God grant me opportunities to write according not to my fear and greed but to that great message of salvation God has entrusted to all his witnesses.

As we sang at the end of the service:

I will never be the same again
I can never return
I've closed the door
I will walk the path
I'll run the race
And I will never be the same again

Fall like fire
soak like rain
Flow like mighty waters
Again and again
Sweep away the darkness
Burn away the chaff
And let a flame burn
To glorify Your name

There are higher heights
There are deeper seas
Whatever You need to do
Lord, do it in me
The glory of God fills my life
And I will never be the same again

I am profoundly grateful for 2002, but I am not especially proud of what I made of it. I pray that I can be proud of 2003, and that you can too.

11:25 AM

Something about this story was mystifying me until I thought a little more about it.

Muslims believe that Muhammad is not the only prophet; he is, however, the "seal" of the prophets. His message is the culmination of the messages of all the messengers God sent before him: Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, John the Baptist, Jesus, and others in and out of the biblical cast. All prophets are worthy of Muslims' honor. In fact, in keeping with the Muslim ideal of prophethood, these other prophets' Quranic stories are cleansed of the moral failings and weaknesses revealed in the biblical traditions. For instance, the Quran rejects the biblical tradition that David was an adulterer and murderer. The Quran's Moses (like the Moses of Prince of Egypt) is no murderer of Egyptians. Even the Quran's Jesus does not suffer.

Every nation has its prophets, Muslims say. Why then do the world's Muslims protest only the defamation of Muhammad? Why do they tolerate the routine defamation of Jesus in the West?

I think Durkheim offers a possible answer: Muhammad is functioning more as a center of social identity for these Muslims than as the Seal of the Prophets. Muhammad's uniqueness anchors a Muslim social identity that distinguishes itself from Jews and Christians rather than accepting (let alone celebrating) even the tenuous links in the Quran and learned Islamic tradition.

When Muhammad changed the qibla (the direction of prayer) from Jerusalem to Mecca, he rewrote the whole story of God. He did what Christians, for all our anti-Judaism, could not bring ourselves to do: He 'solved' the stubborn and inconvenient story that Israel tells of itself by simply editing it out of the canon and out of the faith. Since then, many Muslims have eased their cognitive dissonance by mentally editing out the millions of flesh and blood Jews (and Christians) who stubbornly refuse to go away.

The Quran's Muhammad calls on Jews and Christians to consult their scriptures for proof that he speaks for God. When I suggest that it follows from this that Moses' Tawrah ('instruction') and Jesus' Injil ('gospel') are still in force, Muslims generally stare back at me with an expression familiar to me from my years of teaching. It is the shock of a thought not rejected, but never before considered. What hath Mecca to do with Jerusalem? Why bother with Moses or Jesus when we have Muhammad?

Sure, Jerusalem matters to Muslims – but more as a rival to its storytelling than as a constructive part of it, more as a Muslim Babylon than a Muslim wilderness. That is why (as Daniel Pipes shows) historically Muslims have ignored Jerusalem except when Jews or Christians have showed interest in it.

For this school of Islam, Moses and Jesus and all the rest are ultimately dispensable. Whether they even came is unimportant. Even more readily dispensable are their stories, their nations, their testaments, and their dead and living witnesses. The social symbol of Muhammad blots out our past – my past – as well as our future. We infidels can trash Jesus all we like, for he is our social symbol; but we had better stay away from their Muhammad. For people who insult Muhammad are really insulting what he stands for: Muslims themselves. It is pride, not piety, that is being injured here.

For a Christian who adores Jesus while tolerating those who blaspheme him, that is a clarifying observation.

8:15 AM

December 26, 2002

As Advent ended and Christmas began, the feeling that overwhelmed me this year was one of gratitude. Our world didn't end in 2002. No great calamity followed 9/11. In fact, my own little world got a little bigger: God worked good out of evil and gave us a beautiful and perpetually happy fourth child.

However, I can't shake the conviction that disaster is looming. Every new day is a welcome postponement of the nearly inevitable. War is coming. In fact, war is already here.

My Christmas began at an eleven o'clock service at a church I once attended and still formally belong to – a megachurch in the conservative evangelical tradition. I have moved theologically and in many other ways in the twelve years since I last attended there regularly; the church seems exactly the same. That makes for a strange, only somewhat comforting experience. Attendance numbered in the thousands; our remembrance of the nativity was accompanied by a special orchestra; there was no communion; the center of the occasion was a (typically) didactic sermon interpreting the identity of Jesus according to Isaiah 9:6: "he shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." Each name got five to ten minutes of unpacking in-between one or more carols or choir performance pieces.

As we prepared to welcome Christmas with the last song of the service, the pastor closed his message with the point was that peace will ultimately come only when Jesus comes again at the end of the age, but that while we wait you and I can have peace with God now through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He is right on both counts, but his dispensationalism kept him from saying more, and I desperately needed to hear more. The angels proclaim "peace on earth" to the shepherds at Jesus' first coming, not just his second. Matthew's gospel does not resolve the awful contradiction of a newborn prince of peace arriving and growing up in a world of trouble, then dying at its hands, then rising and departing while the violence and oppression persist. The peace has come, but the wars continue. Two thousand years later, what was on my mind at our Christmas Eve service was not chestnuts roasting on an open fire or tomorrow's gifts, but nukes in North Korea, WMDs in Iraq, and sponsors of terror all around the horrible new Muslim world Saudi Arabia is creating.

As if the cognitive dissonance were not already unbearable, the pastor's appeal to Christological quietism was crowned by the signature piece of the evening, an amazing juxtaposition of "Silent Night" and "Peace, Peace" that has long brought tears to my eyes:

Peace, peace, peace on Earth
And goodwill to all
This is a time for joy
This is a time for love
Now let us all sing together
Of peace, peace, peace on Earth

Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
'Round yon virgin mother and child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

As we sang we passed a flame from the Christmas candle from worshiper to worshiper until the entire church was aglow with our little testimonies that Jesus is the light and the hope of the world. Awesome.

But the pastor's words haunted me. Psychological peace now through the first coming, social peace only later at the second coming. What a perfect formula for a sentimental, consumerist Christmas in wartime America.

Meanwhile, at liberal churches across the West, another strange Christmas mutation was propagating. Down the street at the church of my baptism the sermon was undoubtedly about the troubles America was bringing the world by its warmongering. That gospel's peace on earth is the work of diplomats, negotiators, and appeasers – as if Jesus had been born to attend a summit with Pontius Pilate and broker a successful Roman-Jewish peace plan. How convenient: America the aggressor, Jesus the activist, NPR the angelic chorus.

The conservative Jesus offers me psychological peace while America maintains peace through strength. The liberal Jesus offers me peace in our time. One is an opiate, the other a hallucinogen. The answer is: none of the above. The Messiah of the prophets and apostles offers more than either of these exercises in willful naivete.

Why was he so hard to find this season? Can we no longer believe the herald angels? Have two thousand years of strife emptied their promises of all plausibility? God, I hope not. The gospel is all I have.

And ultimately, I think not. There are other, better reasons than some failure on the gospel's part that our country can't make sense of Christmas.

As I surveyed the room full of pilgrims holding their candles high, I thought of a poignant line we had sung earlier that evening: "He came to his own, and his own received him not" (John 1:11). The line applies literally to first century Judaism, but it applies allegorically to all peoples. We have received him not. Chesterton was right: The gospel has been found difficult and left untried. The quietist gospel and the activist gospel attract us through their easiness. We can incorporate either one without fundamentally having to change our plans. We can light our Christ candles and sing our Christmas carols, then go back to business as usual.

They received him not. That one line surpasses the whole sermon in making sense of Christmas. Christians are right to carve out a little liturgical space for celebrating the beginning of our deliverance with food and family and friends. But we are wrong to make Christmas stand on its own. While secular America makes Christmas palatable by divorcing it from Jesus' arrival, 'Christian' America often makes Christmas palatable by divorcing Jesus' arrival from the rest of his life. Jesus' silent night is only a breather as God campaigns to retake a rebellious world with love. Herod is already plotting. Baby Jesus and his family are soon on the run. He grows up to face not one but two nations as enemies. Jesus' reign and the tyrannies of caesars do not coexist as parallel realms in different worlds, nor do they meet at a bargaining table to learn to get along. They collide on a cross, and the blood that flows there is God's own. That, not your next credit card balance, is the real cost of Christmas.

The world has rejected the gospel, and this year the world will reject it all over again. War is coming; war is here. Yet the angels are exuberant. "Do not fear," one tells the terrified shepherds, "for I bring you good news of great joy ... peace on earth among those God favors." Do not fear. There is peace already – peace not just with God, but with all those who enjoy God's favor.

"To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God who were born not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of humanity, but of God" (John 1:12-13). If the world rejected him, it will reject his disciples. To bear a candle Christmas Eve is to bear a cross during Lent. To offer light to the world is to make oneself a target in the darkness. If you share his good news, you share his sufferings. And his victory.

The Church is called to be the front line of the Kingdom's eternal peace. Baptism has already killed and raised us, so we face our trials without losing heart (2 Cor. 4:16). All those who would snuff our Christmas candles are too late to do lasting damage. The angel and the apostle were right. We need not fear.

Christmas is a big deal here in America, but for Christians it is just a prelude to the far greater drama of Holy Week. If you celebrated Christmas, you started something that will see you through whatever comes in 2003 – but only if you finish what you started. He came from heaven to earth, from the earth to the cross, from the cross to the grave, from the grave to the sky. So come to Bethlehem, but then go to Galilee, set your face to Jerusalem, wait in the city until you receive power from on high, and then go to the ends of the earth.

9:06 AM

December 24, 2002

There are many ways to be alone on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. You might be alone in a studio apartment, or in a capacious empty-nest wood-frame house. You might be alone in solitude, or alone surrounded by people whose worlds are too different from yours for you to inhabit the same social space. (I remember a few strange adolescent Christmases, when I felt stuck with my family while my forever-best-friends-from-school were stuck with theirs. Ahh, the blissful narcissism of youth.)

You can also be alone ideologically: unsure what to do with a day that suddenly proclaims the coming of a new, different, eternal world, and unsatisfied with the transitory trinkets our culture tries to substitute for it.

Maybe the worst form of Christmas solitude is to be alone in nostalgia for the past, or alone in regret for a lost alternative present or future, living for some world now withheld because of others' harshness, your own poor decisions, or plain old bad luck.

Well, there are a few more hours to exchange all that alienation not for the quasi-fellowship of others' words on a computer screen, but for the real fellowship of smiles, handshakes, a common cup, and a place with Christ himself at his table. Emmanu-el: God is with us. You are not really alone – or at least you don't have to be. Go to Church. Share your Christmas with God's royal family and with the King himself. Look others in the eye and see them as God sees them, for who they really are:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, heirs according to promise.

My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God (Gal. 3:28-4:7).

Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever you think of this world and its many gods, God has placed under Calvary's tree the inheritance of heaven itself, and put your name on the tag.

Have a very merry Christmas.

12:44 PM

December 21, 2002

Thanks to Peter Nixon of Sursum Corda for his kind words about this weblog, and also for his exasperated words about his struggles to teach theology to his four-year-old:

“Joseph, do you know why Jesus died on the cross?”


“Uh…to take away our sins.”

“What are sins?”

“Well…uh…well there is a lot of meanness in the world and God wanted to take the meanness away, so he—“

“But I don’t want God to take the meanness away because I want to be a pirate.”

Marvelous. I've been there, brother.

The problem is that Joseph has a really good point. Being a pirate is fun. Many years ago I discovered my oldest son Jeremy, then four years old, pulling out handful after handful of the hair of his his two-year-old brother Daniel while he pinned him to the ground. Daniel, beyond crying, could only whimper. The memory still shocks me. After the time-outs, the spanking, the taking away of lots of toys, and the long theological lecture from Dad, Kim asked Jeremy why he had tortured his little brother. "It felt good," he said matter-of-factly.

That was when Jeremy was too young to lie about something we all know is true. If the world's meanness went away, our societies would lose many of our main forms of entertainment.

Perhaps if Joseph were one of my kids (and I had a nice long time to compose my answer before he lost interest!), I would say something like this:

"On Good Friday, the whole world played pirate, only for real. We made Jesus walk our plank. And though it hurt him terribly, he let us all be mean to him. Only Jesus hadn't done anything wrong. In fact, Jesus turned out to be the captain of God's ship! And after God saved him, Jesus had every right to fight back and make us walk his plank.

"That was a very scary time. It was then that playing pirate stopped being fun.

"Only Jesus wasn't mean back to us. He forgave us. Then he made us officers on his ship – imagine that! – and taught us a whole new game to play. It's called the Way. We're still on a ship, we still sail around and adventure, but now we help people instead of hurting them. God even helps us play! Some of the people who see us playing start wanting to play too, and we let them.

"To people who still think playing pirate is fun, the Way sounds boring and silly. But to us, it's the best game in the world. It's hard to go back to a ship of your own when you've served on God's ship. It's hard to enjoy being mean, or even just pretending to be mean, when you remember how people hurt Jesus and he wouldn't hurt them back. It's no fun once you know that hurting other people hurts Jesus most of all.

"And that's one of the many ways that Jesus saved us from our sins on the cross."

Then I might read him Acts 2, of which this account is a very loose paraphrase.

Finally, come to think of it, I think I'd take my copy of VeggieTales' Lyle the Friendly Viking – which elegantly makes many of these theological moves – and show it on the tractor beam in our family room while my wife and I get thirty minutes of peace.

1:58 PM

December 20, 2002

Grades are in, and Trent Lott is out. It's shaping up to be a good day.

Stay tuned.

12:40 PM

December 17, 2002

Two more days until grades are due. The stack of ungraded papers, once eight inches thick, is now less than two. Time for a quick blogging break.

APU is a "Holiness" school. It lies in a Wesleyan tradition that distinguished itself in the nineteenth century by its stress on "entire sanctification," the teaching that Christian life could grow progressively free from sin until love pervades the whole life of a believer (and, I hope more fundamentally, a community of believers).

Every Christian tradition's teachings are vulnerable to corresponding abuses. The Reformed tradition's stress on God's sovereignty can be misread as a license for human passivity. Catholic sacramentality can be misunderstood as mechanistic magic. The Dr. Jekyll of Wesleyan Holiness Christianity morphs into the Mr. Hyde of petty individualistic legalism.

One of my teaching tasks here at APU is to convince students brought up in Holiness traditions that the Good News is a lot more than just a prescription for keeping people out of hell. Another is to convince them that holiness isn't just living a life that would be rated "G" if someone were filming.

It's not easy. Their friends and parents and youth pastors have taught them too well.

Refusing to drink and smoke and swear may be good things, but alone these practices only create Pharisees, not Christians. God becomes someone to strive for, not someone to depend on. Then, when practitioners fall back into their old sins, there is nothing but guilt to fall back on.

No! Holiness is Christlikeness. It is not a moral achievement. It can only be given – in a divine bestowal of grace that shocks those who receive it more than anyone.

Holiness is a good Samaritan who can't believe what he just did. Holiness is a poor old woman who gives her last penny, knowing full well that the authorities will fritter it away. Holiness is a Savior amazed at his own forgiveness of a tenacious foreign woman. Holiness is an apostle who finds himself in a Gentile's house, breaking the hallowed customs of his own beloved people. Holiness is a community of every tribe and tongue and nation, many of whom still drive each other crazy.

A truly holy community doesn't look like a Mormon Boy Scout Troop. A truly holy community looks like this football team – foul mouths, common communion cup, and all.

May we all be given such a gift this Christmas.

Even Senator Lott.

11:26 AM

December 11, 2002

Bad news: The war against Iraq just stopped being just, at least according to historical Christian criteria.

(Augustinian just war theory forbids the intentional targeting of civilians.)

8:06 PM

It's grading season, so don't expect more than one quick post every few days.

Andrew Sullivan makes the following remark this morning about those who would defend Trent Lott by attacking Robert Byrd:

It's a sign that you cannot defend someone when you respond by attacking someone else.
Yes it is.

This is why remarks about medieval Islam's moral superiority to Europe in the ages of the Crusades, the Inquisition, Colonialism, and the ghetto, however accurate, are not effective as defenses of the goodness of Islam in the face of Islamist violence.

This is also why Christians should not allow the education we westerners have been getting about Muslim conquest, dhimmitude, slavery, hypocrisy, and the rest to become an apologia for Christian misbehavior, past or present.

As to when this rhetorical strategy will stop, I am not holding my breath. But "but he did it first" works no better on Judgment Day than it does in my young family, so it will stop someday.

Thanks for your patience, readers. Talk to you soon.

6:57 AM

December 3, 2002

I give Camassia nightmares. Well, the term "nightmare" is mine, but a dream like this does seem rather "Night Gallery"-like:

I was in a natural-history museum that I had been to before but that had recently been redone, and filled with large models of animals. There was a large room towards the front, right past the entrance way; and as I peered around the edge of the door, I saw the tip of a raised red-and-black leg.

I knew what it was. It was a huge model of a spider – and I mean huge, the size of a truck – attacking some sort of prey. Now understand that, in waking life, I am terrified of spiders. The movie scene that probably freaked me out more than any other was at the end of The Fly, when a fly with a man's head is caught in a spider web and about to be devoured, as he screams, "Help me!". It's cheesy, but man, I wasn't right for days after that.

So as you can imagine, I wasn't about to be able to look at this thing. I walked around and looked at other exhibits, even in the same room as the spider, but kept my eyes averted. When I tried to go deeper into the museum, though, I found it was closed, dark.

I can think of more than one reason why I had this dream at this particular time, but one of them, strangely enough, is Telford Work.


Acts between members of the same species like murder, rape, torture, war and even adultery (yes, those faithful pair-bonding birds sometimes cheat) are fairly common in animals and probably predate humanity by hundreds of millions of years. And we ourselves are animals; so connect the dots. Is saying that trivializing sin? I don't know, but I wonder how trivial it would seem if you were being impaled by a saber-toothed cat.

I do not mean to say that evil or selfishness is the only "natural" condition. As I said in yesterday's post, our sympathy with animals is as innate as our desire to eat them. But despite that post's cheerful conclusion, my dream reminds me that balancing one's predatory nature and one's empathic nature is never easy. And the slide between preying on animals and preying on each other is all too easy.

This goes to a basic problem I have with Christianity. There may well be a powerful force for good in the world. It might even have raised Jesus from the dead. But is it the omnipotent creator of this world? Eh. This world is not only full of nasty stuff, it would cease to exist without the nasty stuff.

In our culture this is an extraordinarily powerful argument against the Christian faith. One of the qualities that gives it such persuasive power is that the world's fundamental nastiness seems to lift objectively right out of the fossil record. However, our expectations for nature arise out of a story that (in the west, anyway) triumphed over the Christian story a long time ago, and is now simply a given for the educated. Let me quote, at length, Nancey Murphy's chapter "Science and Society" in Jim McClendon's Witness: Systematic Theology vol. 3:

As is well known, ethical views have ben (and continue to be) derived from evolutionary biology. What is not equally well appreciated is the extent to which Darwin's account of natural processes was itself a product of the economic and ethical theories of his own day (100).

Our interest [in Darwin] here is not so much in the scientific evidence for Darwin's theory as in the sources of his language: "natural selection," "struggle for existence," and "survival of the fittest." A large role was played by Darwin's reading of Thomas R. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). But an important context for this reading was the natural theology Darwin had studied at Cambridge in preparation for the ministry (107-108).

... William Paley's Natural Theology (1802) was at that time still a standard work. Paley argued that, just as a watch evidently must have a maker, so must there have been a Maker for biological organisms. ... God's goodness was shown both by the fact that most biological contrivances are beneficial and by the fact that animals have been designed to feel pleasure.

This optimistic view of the benignity of God and nature contrasted sharply with one that had appeared only a few years earlier in Malthus's Essay (1798). In it, Malthus had proposed his principle of population: If unchecked, population will increase geometrically but food supply can increase only arithmetically at best. Struggle, competition, and starvation are the natural result. The first edition was written against currently popular utopian views regarding the infinite perfectibility of the human race, transcending, through the use of reason, the limits of organic nature. Such writings had "affronted Malthus's sense of reality." Against them Malthus had brought about in nineteenth-century readers an essential change in perspective, placing humankind squarely within nature once and for all.

Malthus was an Anglican clergyman who wrote, as Paley did, within the received eighteenth-century heritage of natural theology. His book, therefore, was a (pessimistic) statement on the place of humankind in nature, but also a statement on the divinely appointed role of struggle, strife, and inequality. His work was a theodicy of sorts, justifying suffering and death as the natural outcome of the tendency toward overpopulation, but also as the result of divine providence, in that evil produces exertion, exertion produces mind, and mind produces progress. (108-109) ...

Note that this is not what Christians mean by "redemption." This tradition of natural theodicy does not describe the God of Jesus Christ.

So Darwin set out on the Beagle expecting to find (Paleyan) evidence of the adaptation of organisms to their environments, and he was not disappointed. But was divine design required to account for this adaptation? No. Adaptations could be accounted for as the result of two factors: variation and selective rates of reproduction. ...

This newfound ability to account for biological facts in terms of laws of nature would have been no challenge, in itself, to Christian theology. In the wake of Newton's physics (Principia, 1687), many educated Christians had long since concluded that a God who governs by natural law, not by 'meddling,' is a grander God. ... What Darwin, influenced by Malthus, produced was a new perspective on the 'moral character' of nature – a worldview changed from harmony to a scene of struggle and discord. Malthus's theory of riotous population growth, now bolstered by Darwin's authority, buttressed as it was by research, came to dominate the perception of the mood of nature and society, and has done so up to the present. The image of Paley's "myriads of happy beings" was replaced by Alfred, Lord Tennyson's image of "nature red in tooth and claw." Darwin's popularizer Thomas Henry Huxley wrote that "[f]rom the point of view of the moralist, the animal world is on about the same level as a gladiator's show." Huxley went on to draw theological conclusions, condemning Christians for worshiping what was plainly unworthy of worship: a God who had created evil, including evil humanity itself (109-110). ...

Another of Darwin's contemporaries, George Romanes, vacillated between theism and skepticism. Would a merciful God have instigated such a tortuous, wasteful, bloodstained scheme? Romanes drew a poignant contrast between the personality of the deity as inferred from evolutionary biology and the qualities of love, mercy, and justice as proclaimed in religion. The two sets of qualities, he wrote with a sense of despair, were almost exact opposites.

This is the point of tension Camassia has put her finger on. The character of God as appreciated in my Foursquare Pentecostal church is not the character of God as appreciated in Huxleyan natural theodicy. This would not be a problem if my church were Gnostic (as many evangelical churches now functionally are; they solve the problem by subtly rejecting Christian orthodoxy and re-framing the world as "the Matrix"). Yet my church worships God as creator. Who wins this contest of stories? Who is the better interpreter of God? As long as our culture accepts the Huxleyan story as the unbiased scientific one, its people see my church's story as wishful thinking. For some, even the anomaly of Jesus' resurrection is apparently not enough to contradict that conclusion.

But why do we take the Huxleyan story as given? Why does the gospel, not it, bear our culture's burden of proof? Murphy thinks it is because our culture's natural theology remains Malthusian.

... What accounts for the powerful cultural ramifications of Darwin's scientific achievements? The answer is that Darwin had drawn the language of his theory from his cultural context. ... There are three crucial phrases in Darwin's account: "struggle for existence," survival of the fittest," and "natural selection." The first two of these connote conflict. ... Fitness referred to comparative rates of reproduction – by Darwin's definition, the most fit are the ones that leave behind the most offspring – and he, at least, was careful to avoid attaching any other values to the term. But "fitness" was unlikely to be read as the neutral, technical term Darwin intended when it was paired with the conflictual image of struggle.... The unused or uncontrolled elements in metaphors such as "struggle for existence" took on a life of their own (110-111).

If the Malthusian context of Darwin's revolution predisposed him and his followers to perceive a natural world "red in tooth and claw," so the Paleyan context predisposed his readers to attribute this terrible state of affairs to God. "Natural selection" is the most important term in Darwin's theory. It is a figure of speech, pairing terms whose literal meanings are mutually contradictory. The tension in the metaphor lies in its depiction of selection in nature as it were by choice; 'selection' presupposes a selector – a conscious agent doing the choosing. Yet, as early as the seventeenth century, the canons of scientific method had banned purposes, intentions, and anthropomorphic expressions from descriptions of nature. ... It is not the anthropomorphism, however, that raises theological difficulties. Rather it is the attribution of selective power to nature combined with the tendency to speak of Nature with a capital 'N.' ... Darwin had retained the rhetoric of design.

Huxleyan cosmology, then, gains its persuasive power from the covert theology of our modern Enlightenment culture. Huxley's god is the god of natural rights, social Darwinism, the market, and self-help – the god in whom America officially trusts and the god to whom America constantly turns for its security. It is the god in whom even our atheists believe – the god astronomers strive to see with telescopes and particle physicists with accelerators and PBS's televangelists preach on Nova: the god of Nature.

Perhaps that god is all there is after all. In that case, our culture caught a very lucky break in developing evolutionary biology at precisely the time Europe's faltering Deism had relinquished divine conscience but not yet intelligent design. Still, I am sympathetic for the creation scientists who believe Huxley's god has enjoyed a free intellectual ride for far too long, even if I do not consider creation science's god as its appropriate challenger.

What most evolutionary biologists and most creationists miss is the possibility that the mechanics (rather than the teleology) of evolutionary biology might be compatible with the story of the God of Jesus Christ. After discussing the connections between Darwinian cosmology and nineteenth century social theory, Murphy closes her chapter answering these questions:

(a) To what degree does the conflictual language in which Darwin expressed his theory prejudice or distort scientists' observations of nature itself? and (b) What corrections are needed in the presumed theological implications of evolutionary biology (116)?


A recent book by ethologist Frans de Waal, titled Good Natured (1996), nicely illustrates current [scientists'] reactions against images of nature that overemphasize conflict. De Waal points out that

[i]n biology, the very same principle of natural selection that mercilessly plays off life forms and individuals against one another has led to symbiosis and mutualism among different organisms, to sensitivity of one individual to the needs of another, and to joint action toward a common goal. We are facing the profound paradox that genetic self-advancement at the expense of others – which is the basic thrust of evolution – has given rise to remarkable capacities for caring and sympathy.
De Waal is convinced that Malthusian influences have biased scientists' perceptions of animal behavior. ... [Among others, Murphy here cites Dawkins.] (117-118)
As Murphy lists animal behaviors that resemble caring, prefer the weak and terminally ill in a group, and console losers, she anticipates Camassia's move in acknowledging both 'niceness' and 'nastiness' in nature, as well as their interdependence:

So is nature better captured in Paley's "myriads of happy beings" or in Tennyson's "red in tooth and claw"? Obviously both are natural, and the picture is complex: the same animals that comfort one another and share food also cooperate in hunting and killing prey. De Waal points out that animals that share food tend to do it when the foodstuff is highly valued, prone to decay, too much for individual consumption, procured by skill or strength, and most effectively procured through collaboration – in short, the food most likely to be shared is meat killed in a hunt. He speculates that this tendency, shaped among social animals by evolutionary necessity, creates a predisposition among humans for sharing (120-121).
Just think about that next time you take communion!

All this is to say that Camassia's questions, at first so apparently threatening to faithful Christian theology, are in fact right where some profound Christian theologizing has lately been happening. (Murphy and I will still distinguish carefully between 'nastiness' in general and sin in particular. Theology calls these 'natural evil' and 'moral evil,' respectively.)

The last paragraph I cited even suggests that orthodox Christian faith may be a more helpful theological matrix for evolutionary biological ethics than the old modern Malthusianism that brought us satanic mills, workers' paradises, Reichs, and cultural revolutions. Likewise, careful natural science may be a more promising conversation partner for Christian natural theology than the Tennysonian pessimism that validated the staggering human costs of these social visions.

While I have deconstructed Camassia's question in what I hope is a helpful way, I still haven't answered it. The next section of Murphy's chapter offers a "theology of nature" in Murphy's own "small-b baptist" tradition, which I will describe and comment on in my next post.

11:03 AM

December 1, 2002

Camassia came to church today again, and we had time for coffee at the local doughnut shop while my wife and kids squirmed at the next table. In between those two events she waited patiently while I (a) helped pick up the kids from Kids Church (the church wisely avoids calling it "Sunday School," since it is much more), (b) guided them to the minivan, (c) got them all buckled in, (d) unpacked and herded them through the doughnut ordering and table finding process.

When I first found myself around new parents, it felt extremely awkward to wait while they interrupted themselves or me, often mid-sentence, to deal with some family thing. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and I am the one pressing "pause." When Kim and I are with fellow parents, we all know the etiquette, but it is still unnerving to do it to people who aren't used to it.

Our generation is infamous for its tradition of so-called "parallel-processing," but that skill rarely works here. Kids take the CPU to 100%. You have to handle the interrupt in the old-fashioned way: halt the current process, cache it to disk, uncache the new routine, and run it while the other one hangs. Sometimes you finally get back to the old task and find a way to go on, but other times the user has clicked about five random things in the unresponsive app and the conversation goes off in a new and chaotic direction.

Camassia is very good at resisting the temptation to hit Escape or Control-C while my disk churns. If I were she, I would have hit Ctrl+Alt+Delete and ended the task long ago.

What takes seconds in conversation lasts anywhere from hours to weeks elsewhere in life. My family, students, and readers have had to wait while new courses at a new school, a stretched family, and regular professional responsibilities have preoccupied me, filled up evenings and weekends, and taken me out of town. Their frustrations are growing and showing, my disk is spinning, and the app isn't repainting.

Both their waiting and my churning are graces I don't want to take for granted. I'm grateful for the tasks in the foreground, the tasks in the background, and those who wait with needs so important that it is hard to set them aside even for a few seconds. I am equally grateful to be a user of their scarce CPU time as I wait while they work through their own overloads, and pray for the same patience they – you – grant me.

We are a busy people in an impatient culture. The best gift you can give someone this Advent is patience. Whoever you are, thanks for yours.

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:78-79).

12:56 PM


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