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I recently finished reading a book, “No Other Standard: Theonomy and its Critics” and have been thinking about it ever since. Theonomy is the belief, among some Christian theologians, that Moaic law, indeed all the laws in the Bible, should be followed to the letter. There is no room for interpretation or for believing that certain laws are outdated and can no longer be followed in a modern society. There are think tanks, seminaries, churches, and many individuals committed to this idea. One of the best known organizations is the Chalcedon Foundation.

This group is focused on “rebuilding the theological foundations of Christian civilization.” This foundation believes that humanism and secularism have ruined the world and if only the whole world would accept what they believe, then we would have a great civilization.

When I first started reading the book, I was looking for some logical inconsistency, some reason for why theonomy didn’t make sense, some way to demolish the arguments. I couldn’t. Every question I had, every objection I could make was answered.

Does this mean I was converted to the theonomic worldview? No. The reason is simple. You have to accept a few basic premises. Once you accept those premises, then I think you must accept theonomy. The premises are as follows:

  1. The Bible is the inerrant word of God.
  2. Human reason can be used to interpret and understand God’s word, but not to question it.
  3. The Old Testament laws must be followed, unless they are specifically rescinded in the New Testament.

If you accept these premises, then you must accept the conclusion. I do not accept the premises, therefore I cannot accept the premise.

  1. While the Bible may be divinely inspired, this is the most that I am willing to grant. The Bible is a flawed document, written by men and women who were trying to express their stories and their ideas as best they could. But, I have trouble believing that the Bible is absolutely without fault and is the direct word from God.
  2. Human reason, whether it’s a gift from God or a byproduct of evolution, is a wonderful tool, flawed and limited, but always capable of pushing the limits further and further. We should use our reasons to fully understand and even question our faith and the faith of others. We cannot simply accept that a divine being has provided us all the answers, but must investigate it for ourselves.
  3. This only makes sense in the context of premise 1. Otherwise, if you look at the Old Testament in a historical context, some of the laws make sense for that time period but simply do not apply to our modern times. I simply cannot abide by the idea that homosexuals should be killed, among other laws.

I may be wrong and the Bible may be the inerrant word of God, in which case I would have to accept theonomy. But, I don’t think I am.


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A reply to Archbishop Naumann

I recently read Archbishop Naumann’s on theleaven.org. In it, he criticizes Tim Kaine for holding a personal opposition to abortion even as he legislates as a pro-choice candidate and senator. I think the abortion debate in this country is generally pretty ugly and dominated by religious reasoning. I am pro-choice for a few reasons, one of which is that even if abortion was criminalized, abortions would still happen. However, they would be much more dangerous, hidden, and committed without any regard for the life of the mother. I also take issue with some of the typical arguments used by pro-life advocates, namely that every human life is sacred and must be protected at all costs. And, no, this does not make me “pro-abortion”, a terrible slander that is used to portray pro-choice advocates as heartless murderers. Believing abortion should be legal, and hoping that abortion would never be needed are not contradictory.

If you are religious and you are pro-life because you believe that is what God wants, then you may as well stop reading. How can human reason compare with God’s? I don’t have an argument against religious reasons for opposition to abortion, because nothing can be said to overcome a sincerely held religious belief. I do not have religious reasons for being pro-choice, and so I am fully committed to weighing arguments on both sides and deciding what I think best. Thus far, I have decided that the pro-choice argument makes more sense to me, but I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise.

Anyway, to Archbishop Naumann. He states that Senator Kaine stated all the usual “made-for-modern-media sound bites” and then listed two sentences that are perfectly reasonable and another one that has only come up because Donald Trump made an ill-advised comment.

  1. “It is not proper to impose his religious beliefs upon all Americans.”
    • Since when is this a sound-bite? This has been a fundamental principle since our founding.
  2. “He trusts women to make good reproductive choices.”
    • Should we not trust people to make their own reproductive choices? Again, if you are a strict Catholic (or other strict Christian), then you believe that there is no option other than procreative sex and nothing else, but that is a choice that each individual makes. When, how, and with whom to have sex are personal questions that each person has to answer. This statement again, does not seem unreasonable.
  3. “Do we really want to criminalize and fill our jails with post-abortive women?”
    • Donald Trump said that there should be some type of punishment for women who seek an abortion. He later walked it back and I think that he simply thought it was in keeping with what pro-life people wanted to hear, but the vast majority of pro-life people have never wanted to jail women who seek an abortion, so this is being used as a scare tactic by Democrats to whip up votes.

The Archbishop then proceeds to talk about how Senator Kaine has no problem imposing his religious beliefs with regard to “the church’s opposition to racism or our preferential treatment for the poor.” While it is true that the Church has recently embraced these things, it has not always been the case. The Church has embraced racism at various times (slavery, anti-Semitism, to name two instances) and their treatment of the poor has been uneven. Should the Church not do as Jesus commanded and sell all they have and give it to the poor? I imagine St. Peter’s Basilica could house, clothe and feed a lot of poor people. Or is the Archbishop advocating to remove the tax-free treatment that churches receive, so that those tax dollars can be used to better fund anti-poverty measures?

“He appears not to be conflicted with our public policies mirroring the Ten Commandments with regard to stealing, perjury or forms of murder, other than abortion.” You do not have to be religious to understand that stealing, perjury, and murder are  harmful to society. Does Archbishop Naumann really believe that people were constantly murdering, stealing, and lying before the Ten Commandments were revealed? Of course not, Adam and Even never would have made it out of Eden if this were so.

“Our founders actually believed that the right to life is given to us by our Creator, not the Supreme Court.” The founders also believed that you could be deprived of life, liberty, and property under our laws. So, the right to life is not an absolute right. Additionally, the founders also believed in slavery and that women were inferior, so perhaps we shouldn’t assume that just because the founders thought it, it must be right.

“[A]t the moment of fertilization a new human life has begun with his or her own distinct DNA.” While the biology of this is technically correct, why the emphasis on human life? What makes a fertilized human egg a life worth protecting? This gets into a fundamental philosophical question about what life is worth saving. Most people would agree that all human life is worth saving, until we get into the details. If we try to look at particular cases of horrible people, then we may not agree that all human life is worth saving, such as rapists, murderers, enemy combatants in war, etc. Now, you could try to make an innocence argument, that the humans in the womb are necessarily innocent. Depending on what Christian doctrine you subscribe to, you may believe that all humans are stained with sin from conception, tainted and therefore not innocent. Looked at in this way, babies in a womb are no more innocent than the rapist. I personally think this is ridiculous and would be a sign of a horribly unjust God.

“Does anyone really have the choice to end another human being’s life? Our choices end where another individual’s more fundamental rights begin.” This is a climax of the argument and meant to be a final blow to anyone who could disagree with the author. However, we can follow this down to its logical conclusion and end up in a pretty terrifying place. First, the state and the military clearly have the choice to end another human being’s life. Both of those groups do it all the time. Before we quibble about how those are organizations and not ‘people’, let’s be clear that people have to perform the action. An executioner has to perform the execution. The state did not kill someone, a person did. The military as an organization did not kill an opposing army’s soldier, our soldier did it with a gun (or drone).

If we follow the choices argument, then we need to think much more carefully about our choices. Do you have a smartphone? Then you took away someone’s fundamental rights as the enslavement and horrific working conditions of people manufacturing these smartphones has been well documented. Did you spend money eating out, when you could have donated that money to the poor and potentially prevented someone from starving to death? Did you invite a homeless person into your home to stay warm on a freezing winter night? If not, then you may very well have made a choice that killed someone. Nobody would ever hold you personally responsible for these deaths, but we cannot simply say that we cannot make a choice that ever infringes on someone else’s rights. We would be left unable to take any action.

“[G]uilt and unresolved grief that inevitably resolves from abortion.” I take issue with the qualifier “inevitably”. This is saying that every abortion results in grief and guilt and I am sure that is not the case. You can easily find stories of women who chose to have an abortion and do not regret it or feel grief.

There is a long paragraph about how Senator Kaine has imposed his beliefs on others by forcing religious institutions to provide contraception, which is false, put florists out of business if they don’t support gay marriage, which is partially true, and force every American to fund abortions. To all of these I say, you live in a society and part of the social contract is that you have to abide by certain rules. Religious institutions can simply say they don’t want to provide contraception and they don’t have to. Florists and other businesses cannot discriminate. If you want to discriminate, don’t start a business. Our tax dollars go to support a lot of things that you or I don’t agree with. But, this doesn’t mean that you get to stop paying taxes. Taxes are the price you pay for living in a society.

Lastly, the author gives an endorsement for Donald Trump without mentioning him by name. I can understand how Christian conservatives cannot vote for or support Hilary Clinton. I get it. But to endorse Donald Trump cedes any moral high ground that you may have had. I’ve been considering leaving the presidential ticket blank and simply voting for all of the down-ballot races. This seems perfectly legitimate. Trump and Clinton are both flawed, but Trump is much more flawed and dangerous than Clinton.

This was a long post and I’m sure some people will be angry and others may agree with me. Again, I want us to think rationally about abortion. It’s an issue worth talking about and I am willing to admit I may be wrong. However, if you want to say, “God says x, y and z”, then I don’t really have anything to say. God may indeed say all those things and maybe after we die, we’ll find out what the truth is.

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The Essential Plotinus

Plotinus was a neo-Platonic philosopher during the Roman Empire (born 204/5 CE). His works are extremely important in developing the history of Platonic philosophy. Of course, Plato inspired Plotinus and inspired works by Christianity, and you can see Plato very clearly in Plotinus and Christianity.

For instance, the idea of a perfect unified God looks remarkably like the Plotinus’ concept of the One. A perfect being that is beyond being in some ways, a being greater than that which can be imagined. Sound familiar? The Christian God is usually portrayed as absolutely unified, perfect, transcendent, so far beyond and above any human endeavor that it is impossible to even consider with our mere human brains.

Plotinus’ writings were rather obtuse. I’m not sure if he was being intentionally difficult or if he was trying to really go further than Plato in getting deeper into what these transcendent forms can be. Plato is relatively easy to read (at least most of his dialogues) while Plotinus is not. However, if Plotinus is trying to add something to Plato, I can understand why his writing is difficult to understand because how can you add to what Plato said? It has often been said that all philosophy is a footnote to Plato.

One thing that struck me with Plotinus and connects with Plato and with Stoicism is the idea that the purpose of being human is simply to contemplate, to think, to use your reason. These philosophers believe that what sets us apart from animals is that we have reason and can go beyond our instinct. This is what truly sets us apart and so what makes us a better human being is to live a life of reason and rationality.

While many people may agree with this if it is clarified, I am not sure that people consciously think about it (ironically). It is difficult to imagine a person who simply does not think throughout their day, but how many people do you know who seem to merely go through life by following their urges. I’m hungry, so I’ll eat. I’m thirsty so I’ll drink, etc. After you get home from work, you just want to “veg out” so you simply watch TV or play on social media. How often do we truly exercise our mind and try to expand our horizons?

Perhaps a way to start would be to read some Plotinus.

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Rhetoric vs. Knowledge

Politicians and evangelical preachers have two things in common; they almost never stop talking about God, and they talk a lot without saying anything of value. I heard someone speak recently and within about 3 to 5 minutes, I already knew the ending, because it was basically content-less. Within 5 minutes, I already knew that I didn’t need to listen anymore.

There seems to be a general problem in our discourse, and if I had to sum it up, it would be that people mistake rhetoric for knowledge. Let me define these terms first. By rhetoric, I mean speaking well. Public speaking is a skill, and a valuable one at that. I don’t want anyone to think I disdain people who speak well. However, some people focus solely on speaking well that they lose sight of the greater point of speaking. If you are placed in a position where you are able to speak to large groups of people and those people generally respect your opinion, or at least respect you enough to listen to what you have to say, then it seems to me that you have a responsibility to respect your listeners by providing them with something new to think about, some new fact or opinion with which we can agree or disagree. Public speaking should encourage further conversation, not end it.

Knowledge is, to my mind, greater than mere information. Knowledge involves more than the recitation of facts, but also the weaving together of a narrative to make sense of those facts. This too, requires skill. While rhetoric may help people learn how to vary their tone, their pace, their rhythm and cadence, knowledge (and the imparting of that knowledge) requires different skills, intellectual skills. Put frankly, a moron can be gifted at rhetoric, while a brilliant person could be a terrible rhetorician. Why does this matter? Paying attention to rhetoric without focusing on content is pernicious to any society.

Every culture or discipline has its buzzwords. Christianity (especially evangelicals) have words like ‘saved’, ‘grace’, ‘Christ-centric’, and so on. Politics has ‘death tax’, ‘tax and spend’, ‘middle class’, etc. Simply speaking these words makes it sound as though you are talking about something real. It sounds as though you belong to the club and it sounds as though you have something important to say. But really, you could simply be repeating some rote phrases and allowing your audience to fill in the gaps with their own ideas. Then, we cease to question our rhetoricians because they said the phrases we expected them to say, instead of looking for some new ideas or opinions.

I sympathize with both evangelical preachers and politicians. Both of them have to keep the faithful happy. Both have to adhere to a certain orthodoxy at risk of being kicked out of the tribe. But, if we are being honest with ourselves and with our spiritual and political leaders, we would hold them accountable to higher standards and focus on whether they have anything worth saying, not on whether their delivery was nice.

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“Christian Materiality” by Caroline Walker Bynum

This monograph is a return, of sorts, for me to my first passion in history, that of iconoclasm and the problem of religious images. Bynum does a remarkable job of commenting on and describing some of the finer points of the medieval Christian practice of icon-worship and the unique way in which Christianity dealt with material objects.

Everything we see has been created by God and yet the flesh and worldly objects are evil and used by the devil. So goes the thinking of many Christians, past and present. Matter and material objects are a paradox and Bynum explicitly talks about this paradox throughout the book. How are Christians to reconcile this? Bynum argues that it is largely a question that goes unanswered, or at the very least that context matters more than anything else. When a consecrated host bleeds, it could be showing that it is alive and well, therefore eternal (aka good) or it could be surviving an attack by a Jew (also showing its eternality, but for a bad reason, not necessarily for a good one).

The idea of material objects being alive, having some sort of power may seem strange to us today, because we generally treat objects with disdain, to be used today and thrown away tomorrow. But, there are some objects, mainly religious objects that people view with some sort of reverence. Even if one does not believe that the object will begin spontaneously bleeding or in some other way show its life, many do treat objects as though they were more than mere matter.

And yet, this is not quite what Bynum has in mind when she describes Christian veneration of objects. It is not merely that the image or object represents or symbolizes something, but that the object actually becomes that which it represents. One can see that this can be very problematic for theologians. To claim that a statue of Mary is Mary?!

I have argued that iconoclasm was a response to the objects as objects of power. That icons were destroyed and defaced in a very systematic way in response to a feeling that the object had some sort of power that had to be nullified. There are examples of iconcolasts taking an object out of the church to destroy it elsewhere, only to bring the object back and place it unharmed back in the church. Why would they have done this? Perhaps they felt that the object itself had some sort of power that would harm the iconoclasts or would prevent the object from being harmed in the first place? There’s not as much documentary evidence as we would hope, but it seems clear that there was more than mass violence and hysteria when it came to Protestant iconoclasm. I think Bynum’s work provides some evidence for this, even though her work does not deal with the issue in any great detail.

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“Letters from a Stoic” by Seneca

I had a remarkably productive weekend of reading and finished Seneca and an article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel titled “Death”. To the casual observer, it may appear that these two works would have nothing common, however, they are both concerned with the brief span of our lives, and while Nagel is not overly concerned in this article to discuss how we should live, if we can accept that death is the end of our life, that entices us to ask, “How should we live?”.

This is a question that philosophy and religion has spent a great deal of time an energy trying to answer. I think philosophy has offered a better solution to date. Most religions offer the promise of an afterlife as an enticement to good living in the present while we are here on earth. It’s similar to the parental trick of using Santa Claus around Christmas time. “Act well and you will be rewarded!” the thinking goes. Philosophy, especially ancient Greek philosophy, and even more specifically, Stoicism, offers no afterlife (although it does not expressly forbid thinking about an afterlife) but focuses on the here and now, life before death, instead of life after death. So, we should act virtuously now because we will have a better life. If acting virtuously also leads to a better afterlife, then all the better!

Seneca is a remarkably cogent writer and I often felt that he was writing just yesterday, instead of 2000 years ago. For those who don’t know, Seneca was writing right around the time that a little Jewish rebellion led by a fellow named Jesus was happening. He details the way people lived in debauchery and I swear he knew exactly what people today would do! Drinking, entertainment, prostitutes, spending vast sums of money on the most ornate houses and chariots (or cars); how is this much different from today? I think what Seneca shows us, in part, is that humans have not changed much in 2000 years. We may like to think that we have evolved and we are much better than the ancient Romans, but really we have not changed that much.

Stoicism offers a life of simplicity, a life of joy, and a life of stress-free (or at least less stressful) living. I have recently begun to attempt to practice some pieces of Stoic philosophy, namely attempting to control negative emotions, not allowing jealousy or anger to take a foothold, focusing on living simply and not extravagantly, desiring the things I already have instead of trying to gain more things, and I have begun thinking about loss more.

Thinking about loss is an important Stoic process. Thinking about losing your cherished possessions, about losing your loved ones, about losing your own life is an important part of becoming a better person. This may seem counter-intuitive, but the person who keeps the thought that everything they love can be taken away at any time is more likely to enjoy what they have and focus on what’s really important. I think about all the times I, or people around me, get upset at the smallest things at work, and I realize that if I could keep in mind that which truly matters, then I wouldn’t allow these things to bother me! They simply don’t matter in the larger context of my life. It is better for me to spend time with my family or doing the things I truly enjoy, than fuming about what someone said in a meeting earlier that day. Stoicism helps us keep our eye on what’s important.

In general, I highly recommend Seneca’s works both as literature, and as reading that may well change your life.

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Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God

John Calvin is a magnificent theologian from the Protestant Reformation. His most misunderstood theological idea is that of predestination. While predestination was an idea that was not new with Calvin but had been an idea in Christianity since almost the beginning. It was only around the time of the Reformation that people began to doubt this idea and question its validity.

In this work, Calvin clearly lays out the reasons for predestination. He also includes counterarguments, with his refusals embedded within. While many people associate Calvin with predestination, it was not his most important contribution to Christianity. Calvin was most important as displaying and arguing for the absolute sovereignty of God. God cannot be questioned and is the most powerful being. It is difficult for the human mind to fathom absolute perfection, but that is God. There can be no question that God is always in command of the universe.

Predestination is a logical subset of God’s sovereignty. If we truly believe that God is omni-omni (in other words, omni powerful, knowledgeable, etc.) then we must believe in predestination. God must know everything, must be in control of everything, must realize who will be saved and who will be damned. This simply cannot be denied if you accept the logic of Calvin’s argument.

Before everyone thinks that I am a complete sycophant, I do think that Calvin’s thought is eminently logical. But, I am not convinced that God has planned out the entire history of everybody on the planet. I am somewhat unsure of what I feel and think, but it is difficult to let go of control and believe that I may not have influence over where I go after I die (whatever the implication). I suppose that we all have to wrestle with these questions.

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