Thursday, July 29, 2010

Confusing Legality and Justice

One of the characteristics of the postmodern age in which we live is a great deal of confusion on the issues of morality, justice, right and wrong. This confusion has infiltrated the church, which is not surprising. And one facet of that larger confusion is a tendency to equate legality with justice (or right) and illegality with unjust (or wrong). It came up the other day--among Christians--in this way...

The issue was immigration reform, and the pastor was bringing our attention to the fact that God--in both the Old and New Testaments--seems to care about the alien, the stranger, the foreigner, the displaced person. The pastor shared several passages--and could have shared many more--in which God called/calls His people to speak up for and have compassion upon this group of people. The response by more than one Christian listener was, in effect,
But don't you see, these people are illegal aliens--they are breaking the law.
Now, there are a number of problems with this naive, insensitive, simplistic response, but my point in this post is to point out only one. And that one is that it is a mistake to equate legality with right (moral, or just) and likewise a mistake to equate illegality with wrong (immoral, or unjust).

With a Christian, my response to such a question might be to say, "Oh, so you are in favor of abortions, huh?" Now, most followers of Christ who rightly understand that issue find it morally reprehensible to kill human persons just because they are still in the womb and we're bigger than they are. So I would hope that the Christian to whom I am talking would be taken aback by my assuming that he favors abortion. But my assuming that is my way of granting him consistency in his approach to morality. Because if he deals with the issue of immigration simply by asking himself "What does the law say?" then why wouldn't he do the same with other moral issues, like abortion? In the latter case, the law says that abortion is okay.

No, the reason we think abortion is wrong is because morality, righteousness, and justice are grounded in a higher standard--an absolute standard residing in the mind of the Creator of the universe. As Christians, we speak out against Roe v. Wade because we believe that the resulting human law is at odds with God's law regarding the sanctity of every human life.

And whether one believes in a Creator or not, the fact is that the entire legislative process seems to assume that the law as now written may be inadequate, may be in need of tweaking or improving. The reason we elect legislators is because we believe that there need to be changes made to reflect more closely still what is really right. (Of course, this is one of those areas in which street-level postmodernism is most clearly seen to be absurd. If there is no transcendent standard--no absolute morality found in God or elsewhere--then one cannot carry out legal or moral reform. One can claim to have changed the law, but one cannot claim to have improved the law.)

Immigration is an extremely complex issue, and most Americans recognize that comprehensive reform is much-needed. What bothers me is that the "Christian" voices heard most loudly on this issue seem to be simplistic and unthinking, and not at all in line with the teachings of Christ and the Bible. If there is a uniquely Judeo-Christian perspective that needs to be insinuated into this discussion, it likely has little to do with a sort of political party-line of tightening the laws, and much to do with the image of God found in every human being, including the alien about whom God so clearly reveals His concern in His Word to us.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

In Memoriam

Last week, my mom (Ruth Moak Gerhardt) cast off her earthly body and began to live life more fully than ever before. I had the privilege of addressing nearly 400 of her family and friends, giving them a glimpse at the perspective of her son. On behalf of my two brothers, I shared a few stories and some of her bits of wisdom, just a fraction of the things that have served to mold us into the men we have become.

The three of us boys were blessed in that Mom and Dad adopted a model--common in that day but since fallen into disfavor--in which he worked (in service to other young families as a pediatrician), while she made a home. And in that homemaking, she saw it as job 1 to raise the next generation to be men of character. As I examine my brothers, I see that her hard work was well-rewarded.

I shared three specific things about Mom that made a lasting impression on me. The first was a love of God's creation, the stars, the Earth, the plants and animals. It was through her (and her father) that my brothers and I learned a love of the outdoors, of birds and insects, mammals, and snakes, of mountains and rivers and forests and deserts. (I shared the story of the summer garden party that was interrupted by the discovery that one of the snakes she had allowed me to bring home had given birth, as evidenced by the more than 60 3-inch-long snakelings making their way across the patio and yard.)

Secondly, her love of reading. She modeled reading for pleasure and reading for instruction, and counted among her treasury both a veritable library of P.G. Wodehouse books and a collection of classic (and deep) theological works. The latter she read over and over, underlining, highlighting, and parsing arguments, and indicating on the end pages the dates of each reading and the new insights gained. (As part of the college course that I teach on critical thinking, I share principles from Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book. These principles for getting the most out of reading were modeled in my own life by my mother.)

The third thing about which I shared--needlessly perhaps, since it was obvious to anyone who knew her at all--was the centrality to her life of a very real and vibrant personal relationship with her Lord and Savior. This, too, provided a model that has become a fundamental part of who I am. And in deciding to invest in her spiritual life, Mom did the right thing. Now, the earthly body that had so betrayed her in recent years has been discarded, and she--the soul in which her eternal person resides--is no longer encumbered by a body and brain that no longer served her well.

I know that it has become sophisticated to deny the existence of the soul. This is because many modern scientists adopt--without logical or scientific justification--the reductionist metaphysical view known as scientific materialism. Nonetheless, evidence and reason overwhelmingly support the view (also laid out in Scripture) that we are souls who have (during our tenure on Earth) bodies. The existence of the human soul as an entity that transcends our bodies and brains is supported by common sense (and the total human experience), by a variety of logical/philosophical arguments, and by the relevant evidence from science. The strongest of the latter comes from experiments and anecdotal evidence in the field of neurophysiology and from near-death experiences. Near-death experiences include numerous well-documented cases in which a person's heart and brain have ceased working (and they are declared clinically dead), they have been brought back to life, and can accurately describe in great detail independently verifiable events (elsewhere than the hospital room) that their soul witnessed during the interval in which their body and brain were dead.

In latter years, my mother's body no longer enabled her to get around and do things, and the strokes that had ravaged her brain kept her from focussing to read, from communicating or even thinking as clearly as she had in the past. When her earthly body breathed its last, Mom--the soul that is most truly her--was suddenly freed from the debilitations associated with that body and brain, and she is more truly living than she has ever lived before.

And so her friends and family celebrated her earthly life, but those of us who understand this life aright have even more cause to celebrate--the firm knowledge that her release from this life was to a better and an eternal life, purchased for her by her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Goodness of God

It seems as though everywhere I turn, I find people either arguing against the existence of an all-loving God or trying to defend the goodness of God in bizarre ways. Darwin's theory was esentially a theodicy, an attempt to distance God the Creator from those things in nature that Darwin saw as bad or evil. Modern atheists likewise use bad theological arguments--appeals to 'bad design' or to suffering and death in nature--in attempts to deny the existence of the God of the Bible. Some Christian evolutionists (like Kenneth Miller and Francis Ayala) believe that by postulating God as having designed the evolutionary process--but then allowing it to work without His subsequent intervention--they are absolving God of having created things like parasitism and predatory behavior, and of creatures whose design they consider suboptimal. On the other end of the spectrum, many young-earth creationists deny the vast majority of scientific findings because they, too, cannot reconcile millions of years of animal death and suffering with an all-loving God.

Recently, the issue came up as a discussion thread on a list of which I'm a member. And this is a group of science-minded Christian apologists, men and women who recognize that the Earth and universe are billions of years old and who also largely or entirely reject macroevolutionary theory, recognizing it as based not on evidence but upon philosophical preference. Even some of these (otherwise clear-thinking) folks seem to feel the need to defend God from responsibility for creating 'bad' things.

It began, apparently, with a YouTube video arguing against the existence of a good God, in which the the author appealed to one of the Intelligent Design camp's main evidences for a Designer:
If God created the bacterial flagellum then he cannot be a good God. Why? The flagellum of many types of bacteria allows them to wreak havoc upon the human body. These bacteria cause, among other things, typhoid, cholera, and stomach cancer.
In response to this argument, my apologist friends offered a number of good scientific points in rebuttal. These included the facts that...

Microbes, including bacteria, play and have played key roles in the ecosystem. Given the physics of this creation, it required billions of years of bacterial activity to transform the Earth's atmosphere and oceans to make human life possible, as well as to convert toxic metals into ore deposits that are accessible and useful to humans.

Bacteria play key roles in maintaining human health. As just one example, it is now known that lack of exposure to certain microbes early in life may lead to an increased risk of both autoimmune disorders and cardiovascular disease.

Pathogenic bacteria comprise an extremely small percentage of all known species, the vast majority of which are beneficial or necessary.

Some of the human pathogenic microbes have resulted from host-jumping (e.g., HIV) or from micro-evolutionary changes.

But it seems to me that all of this misses a more important point, which is that the argument itself fails. That is, the argument does not establish a logical link between the existence of disease-causing bacteria and the existence of an all-loving God. Indeed, it seems that the person making this argument has to first assume God-like knowledge of the entire issue, and can thus assert the missing premise, that "there is no possible reason for an all-loving Creator to have included pathogenic bacteria in His creation."

What is really going on here is captured in a passage by C.S. Lewis in his essay "God in the Dock"...
The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defence for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God's acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock.
To put it a slightly different way, the God who has revealed Himself in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures (and in His creation) is far bigger than our petty likes and dislikes. He declares Himself to be the Creator of all things, and unapologetically claims responsibility for predatory behavior in the animal kingdom (as in Ps. 104:21, 27-30; Job 38:39-41; 39:26-30) and for diseases, famines, and calamities (e.g., Is. 45:7).

The existence of the all-powerful, all-loving God of Christianity is supported by overwhelming evidence wherever we look, and that God calls us to seek a deeper understanding of Him and His ways. But complete understanding by our finite, contingent minds of His infinite, necessary one is not to be expected (Is. 55:8-9). It is human pride that seeks to reverse the roles and make the infinite Creator of the universe answerable to the relatively ignorant rantings of the dependent creature. Those rantings seem reasonable only to those who begin by denying or remaining largely ignorant of most of what Scripture and the creation reveal about the nature and majesty of God.