I do not believe that I can add much to what my guest poster has said by way of introduction. She is an amazing human being and a fantastic artist. You can find her work and blog here:
I am honored to have her post.
In the interest of full disclosure let me give some background before I begin. My name is Kristen and I am a Gutenberg College alumni, class of 2008. When I first attended Gutenberg I was nineteen going on twenty. The school was like a breath of fresh air, but perhaps in ways different than might be expected.
To this day I have strong positive feelings and memories about much of my time at Gutenberg, the tutors themselves, and the life long friends I made during my four years as as student. As a child, I was homeschooled until the middle of third grade. I then attended two different private Christian schools for a year each, after which I moved to public school in the sixth grade as a result of the fact that a) kids at private school were mean and b) it was quite expensive. So off to public school I went. I walked there every day with my neighbor and socially it was a much better situation that either of the private schools had been.
When I was thirteen my family moved to Oregon where I attended public middle school and high school in Eugene. After high school I moved into the Mckenzie Study Center following a welcoming interview with two of the four house managers at that time (Tim & Corrie) wherein I told them I was “not really a Christian” and to which they replied that was perfectly fine and not a requisite of living at MSC. I did have to attend Tuesday night classes if I lived at the house though, to which I thought, “no problem, I’ve been dealing with church my whole life, I can deal with this.” I just wanted a place where I could live in peace and quiet away from any partying while I attended LCC.
[MSC is a living environment/ housing program associated with Gutenberg College. Gutenberg College was, at that time, housed in the same building as most of its students, but is technically a separate entity from MSC- Editor]
Two of my earliest memories involving the tutors were with Ron and Jack on separate occasions. My experience with Ron involved listening to a lecture he was giving on a Tuesday night. He was talking about the verse (Corinthians 11 I think?) where Paul is talking about women’s hair and head coverings and things of that nature. Verses which seemed to me the kind of thing you would want to avoid if you were trying to make sense of Christianity.
I found it impressive Ron was taking this passage on and attempting a rational explanation of how historically this sort of thing could make sense within the culture, considering people’s biases back then, and how in the present we have developed different ways to express similar sentiments. Because the sentiment itself is actually good. It wasn’t a passage degrading women, it was about respecting your husband, a notion that still makes sense in the modern world (because all women should respect their husbands and all husbands should respect their wives, right?). Anyways, I did not leave feeling pissed off. I left feeling I could appreciate the fact that these people were working to reconcile the bible’s most controversial passages in comprehensible ways.
My other memory involves the first time I met Jack at a social function. I must have had some impression of his teaching because at the outset of our conversation – practically after I told him my name – I added “ and I’m not a Christian.” I guess I wanted to be honest. Anyways, Jack looked at me and said “oh, ok!” in a awkward but quite friendly fashion (how do you not respond awkwardly in that context?). And that was it. I might as well have said, “I have brown hair!”. And it occurred to me that no one here hated me because I didn’t think the same things as them and they didn’t mind having me around. So I stayed.
My first year living at the house convinced me that not only were there people who did not mind my presence, they actually liked having me around. So many people, but a few in particular, were exceptionally welcoming. I am sure they know exactly who they are. These people went to great lengths to make sure I knew I was cared for. They dragged me out of the dark den of a room I hid in and got to know me. We had things in common. We had similar interests. I liked them a lot. And their compassion without pity changed me. And for the first time in many years it seemed maybe Christians could be something other than hypocrites.
I continued to attend LCC for a year while attending Tuesday night classes. Then one day after the presidential election in September (I had begun attending LCC for a second year) I had a very strange experience while I was at school. I should mention at this point politics were not a topic of much discussion at my house as far as I can remember. Probably because there were people who who held strongly opposing opinions living under the same roof and who didn’t want to create a more adversarial environment at home than already existed. My values were largely informed by whatever information I was naturally exposed to through my family, friends, school, and church or that I gathered myself during adolescence and early adulthood. Politics were confusing to me then and they remain confusing to me now.
Unexpectedly in the middle of an afternoon class I was suddenly overwhelmed with regret. I wished I had not voted for Kerry. I simply wished I would not have voted at all, or at least voted for a minority or third party leader who more accurately represented my own values. But I had voted for a mainstream party member because I did not want Bush to win. But he did, so did it even matter that I voted? Thinking of this made me desperately unhappy. And for whatever reason, I felt an enormous amount of fear, like I had done something wrong by voting for someone I had not felt convicted about. In retrospect, I hadn’t. I had done what seemed like the only logical thing to do at the time. But that is water under the bridge.
For whatever reason, all of this conviction and guilt led me to wonder if perhaps there was an objectively right way to live, a world where even if our actions did not make the kind of difference we wanted them to, we would still have made a decision that mattered on another level. And so I began to actively entertain the possibility of the existence of a good God and objective morality once again. Please note that I had never denied the possibility of a divine entity or even fully dismissed all my ideas about the Christian God. I would not have described myself as an atheist. And I certainly never stopped being terrified of being damned to hell. I had stopped actively trying to make sense of the Christian God because I was so exhausted by the hardships of life, frustrated by the hypocrisy of the church, and overwhelmed by the difficulty of making sense of biblical text. But I was ready to take on the challenge anew.
At this point I talked to someone about the possibility of starting at Gutenberg although it was already halfway through the fall term. The reason for this decision was because a) I had actually wanted to attend Gutenberg straight out of highschool but didn’t feel mentally or emotionally stable enough to commit myself to the curriculum in a way I wanted. I now felt stable enough. And b) because Gutenberg was a place where we could discuss everything in the universe while also considering these things in relation to the plausible existence of a good God. I would not have to make an argument at the outset of every discussion about why I was even considering a god of some sort in relation to the topic. I could expect other people to want to investigate things from this same perspective, and yet the jury could still be out! It was great. I could not have been more excited. I wanted to find out what the world looked like if in fact, a good God existed. Plus we read primary sources, my absolutely most favorite way of learning.
So I started late, attending two schools at once. I studied simultaneously at both institutions for around three weeks. It was crazy making and I do not recommend it. I made up almost every single reading and learned the greek alphabet along with some grammatical basics over winter break. And I studied Euclid and Aristotle over the next summer or two. Studying Aristotle by yourself is awesome by the way. And hilarious. Oh winged things, how can I forget you. ❤
I loved it. I loved learning everything. Over the next two years (the first western civ cycle) between work, school, and friendship I did as much background reading as I could sanely manage. I bought extra books whenever I could afford them. In general, I was bat shit crazy about learning the history of western civilization, literature, and philosophy. The world felt like it was beginning to make a bit more sense. The final two years of my degree were more complicated for a variety of reasons which I won’t discuss right now. In many ways they were not as enjoyable as my first two years, but they were probably just as influential.
After college I married my BFF Mike O’Malley Mohr (ceremony performed by Mr. David Crabtree himself) who attended the University of Oregon obtaining an undergraduate degree in Classics. Some of you might know him or be familiar with his participation in the ongoing discussion of Jack’s present lectures. After this we promptly moved to Ann Arbor where he obtained a J.D. from the University of Michigan while I helped manage a small cafe. We presently live in Portland, Oregon where I am a practicing visual artist and take continuing ed. workshops and classes at PCC. Mike is a practicing attorney. We have cats, smoke hookah, and spent a stupid amount of time talking about life, the universe, and everything. I wondered if these topics might get old at some point, but they don’t. Aren’t we lucky?
Anyways, now that you know a little more about me and where I am coming from, I’ll share some of my thoughts on how I first experienced the school. This is not written to be an attack on Gutenberg or anyone affiliated with it. It is meant to be both expressive and informative. It is also an opinion piece, obviously. Moving along.
While Gutenberg was a place open to discussion about all manner of material, I still felt pressure to conform. I cannot say whether this was an self imposed pressure or something external. It may have simply stemmed from my own desire to be fully accepted as someone who thought the “right” way. I have always been someone who desires acceptance and have gone to great lengths to find it in the past. I am trying not to do that anymore, but to live more honestly.
It’s important to state very clearly that no one was twisting my arm into believing any one thing in particular. Apart from all our studies about the history of the western world, Christianity was presented through reasonable argument as the ultimate Truth (capital T, meaning the type of truth that represents the ultimate nature of the universe). If for whatever reason you did not follow this same line of logic, it stood (and still stands) to reason you might not come to the same conclusion. Which was fine. But if this was the case, that your reasoning did not lead you down the same general path to Christianity as Truth, you might be destined to find yourself wandering through life as a vessel of wrath as opposed to a vessel of mercy. But, we were also told this was not cause to despair. Because it was possible for us to graciously accept that both vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy are equally important to the fulfillment of God’s ultimate plan for the universe. A plan which is morally good in nature in accordance with the necessity that God himself is good.
But if I am honest, I imagine no one wants to be a vessel of wrath, whatever that happens to mean. And if you can graciously come to terms with your reckoning, aren’t you actually a vessel of mercy after all?
All of the tutors at Gutenberg were Christians of some flavor. But we didn’t have to be Christians, or at least the same “kind” of Christian, to go there. We didn’t have to be determinists and there weren’t any rules about going to church on Sunday or referring to the bible as an infallible text. We were there to ask questions about all those things: why should we pray if we believe in Calvinistic determinism? How can the bible be infallible given that it was a cannon put together by far-from-divine humans years and years after the life of Christ? If the second half is radically different from the first and there are all these other parts that some people left out while others kept in, how do we know all the right pieces ended up in the version we have now? Etc. You get the idea. It was a place to ask questions freely about Christianity, how Christianity could be true, what it meant for us if it was true, and how, if we accepted Christianity, should we refer to the bible as a relevant guide when it is the year 2000+ and we have stuff like computers and woman teach in protestant churches?
As a culture (and perhaps especially protestants) we have decided that freedom of choice is important .At Gutenberg, freedom of choice was very important. Just wait until you read Kierkegaard. He, the gadfly of Denmark, nearly tore himself to pieces over the importance and necessity of every individual’s ability to make personal decisions honestly and consciously.
The existential decision to freely choose Christianity has become important to many adults throughout modern Christendom, just as Kierkegaard would have wanted. And while these adults may sincerely desire – even desperately desire – their children to find themselves vessels of mercy as opposed to the other less savory aspect of this binarism, they know that only through a free choice can one be certain of whether they are in fact a vessel of mercy (saved) or a vessel of wrath (something else). If we don’t honestly know our own hearts, how can we make a truly honest decision to either turn towards or away from God?
But I wonder if when faced with this choice – to orient oneself towards or away from goodness – can we honestly say we want anything other than “goodness”, unless to be divisive? Especially when this is merely a hypothetical and poetic question being presented verbally as opposed to the actual moment in which a decision is made. Is there anyone in this world who honestly believes with complete certainty in a supremely good being and chooses to verbally reject them/it when posed with the question? I don’t know. But I don’t think so.
This situation brings us to a question we all face regularly and which is especially important to making an informed existential commitment defined by action as opposed to words: how does one rightly determine “goodness”? The short answer given by Gutenberg in the current lectures is through reference to the bible. Which leads us to several other big questions at the heart of Gutenberg’s project which were the focal point of discussion while I was in attendance: How can we know the bible is infallible and how can we know what the bible is really saying? This assumes we value authorial intent in our interpretation of a text. I did and I still do. And the short answer, to the best of my recollection, is this: we can know what the bible is saying, and we can say we know it with certainty through a hermeneutic defined by careful individual reading, translation and exegesis in accordance with our faculties of reason, common sense, and experiential knowledge. We can know the bible is true because of all texts, it most accurately represents reality and the moral nuances of reality. To explicate further, Jesus is the best example we have of a moral teacher and as such his word is trustworthy. The biblical story is more resonant than other story in recorded human history in that it accurately identifies the problems of human nature and the solutions to those problems which are found through rightly orienting ourselves towards God.
Most (all?) of the controversy surrounding Gutenberg presently, and to which some alumni are openly responding, stems from both the paper Jack presented at the last Summer Institute and the ongoing weekly lecture he is currently giving entitle Biblical Sexual Ethics. If you have even gotten this far into this post, you probably know what I am talking about.
While I attended GC, Jack’s interpretations of scripture were discussed in Tuesday night classes in the same way that other members of the community presented their own views. Maybe he got more air time, maybe he didn’t. In my opinion, Jack’s views were not given preferential treatment within the school’s curriculum. Or at least this was true when I started at the school. It is fair to say this changed during my attendance when we suddenly became required to take a “biblical capstone” or “biblical philosophy” class taught by Jack instead of what had traditionally been a year of Kant microexegesis. I was very excited to read Kant and this sudden change in an otherwise set curriculum (shorter individual readings changed occasionally, but year long subjects generally didn’t) made me upset. The class focused solely on Jack’s biblical interpretation. Apart from this, Jack’s viewdid come up in his lectures and discussions (as many of the tutor’s views did), but this was also partly due to the prompting of student questions. I think it is also fair to say that Jack spoke and continues to speak authoritatively, and he does not seem afraid to do so.
None of Jack’s views in particular seemed unwarranted since no view was unwarranted in the sense that we were there to discuss varying interpretations of all sorts of writing. Let me stress the learn part here. We were learning. We were fledgling adults. We were taking the opportunity to decide what we thought. I did not want to be pressured into accepting another pre-packaged opinion. Although in retrospect I think I was too terrified of God, the rejection of my family, and the notion of hell, to completely step outside a view of the universe involving Him. But this was the beauty of the idea of Gutenberg, in theory we could discuss all these ideas without judgment from the tutors or our peers and would be allowed to make up our minds about what we thought was true on our own.
In Tuesday night lectures specific scriptural exegesis was often the topic. The method of teaching often involved distributing handouts of the translation. The lecturer would then go through the passage line by line, verse by verse, explaining things in terms of historical context, sharing the various interpretive problems surrounding certain words and phrases, and generally doing their best to create a coherent picture of what a particular passage was saying without leaving anyone in the dark. At the end we all asked questions.
The sermons (well, lectures) at Reformation Fellowship followed a similar format. [Reformation Fellowship is the church associated with Gutenberg College. The tutors from the school collectively pastored the church, taking turns speaking. -editor] Apart from the people who went there, the method of these lectures was one of the things I liked most about MSC, Gutenberg, and Reformation when I first encountered them. It seemed to me that we were being given the clearest possible explanation of specific Biblical passages and discussing how to incorporate the moral principles of those passages into a coherent biblical worldview. We were not discussing theological “concepts” independent of biblical reference. There was too much of that in my life growing up. I did not want to go back there.
We were working inductively, from the bottom up, or from specific observations to broader generalization and theory – exegeting scripture and extracting relevant moral principles. If the the premise is true, the conclusion drawn from it should also be true.And then there is deductive reasoning or working from the top down, working from a broad spectrum of information to a specific conclusion. I imagine this could mean using the framework of a “biblical worldview” to find moral principles which are not explicitly stated within scripture or to argue for the application of previously “outdated” moral principles found in scripture.
Here are some picture to help clarify these two terms:
At this point it needs to be said that both inductive and deductive forms of reasoning have their uses. One is not bad while the other is good. They are simply methods without moral affiliation. I thought using the inductive method with regard to interpretation of the bible made a lot of sense. I was okay with that. I am not inclined to think deductive reasoning is as good a method to determine moral truth via the bible.
Let me return to one of the projects at the heart of Gutenberg, or at least at the heart of some of Jack’s teaching: How can we know the bible is infallible? A deeply important and harrowing question for many Christians or people interested in Christianity who are actively seeking to reconcile their own experiential knowledge, common sense, and reason with the biblical text itself. Using an inductive method, we can say something like this: the teachings of Jesus resonate with my own experience of reality more powerfully than anything else I have encountered by way of authoritative moral teaching. They accurately reflect an idea of goodness that corresponds to the way I perceive goodness according to my experience. Therefore, I think this moral principle taught by Jesus is true and I will apply it to my life as such.
After this some people will further conclude that because we trust Jesus with regard to his moral teaching, we may also trust that he is who he said he was, the Son of God. I believe the argument goes something like this: it is difficult to imagine that someone endowed with as sound moral wisdom as Jesus could also be delusional. So he must be who he says he is. And in turn, we can also regard the same authorities he trusted as authoritative ourselves.
This is all fine and well in that it is a line of reasoning most people can probably follow. But I personally take issue with the validity of this argument. I am not convinced that because Jesus had common-sensical moral wisdom to offer, it means everything he said is true. I don’t think entertaining the possibility that Jesus wasn’t of completely sound mind is an irrational conclusion in any way. Were the teachings of Jesus truly something that only someone who was divinely inspired could have come up with?
Many of the things Jesus taught were not new ideas. Confucius: “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” (Analects, pt.15). This sentiment or something very similar is evident in many ethical traditions.
Ethical traditions are not necessarily religious. They often contain moral sentiments which we now broadly associate with major religions as opposed to governments or other culture shaping forces like art and literature where they have been found since very early times. See the Code of Hammurabi and the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Forgiveness is a concept found in Hinduism recorded in Hindu texts (such as the Rg Veda) dating back to 1500-1200 BCE. Here is a quote from the Bhagavad Gita regarding forgiveness and salvation from the 2nd century BCE or even as early as the 5th century BCE, the actual date of authorship has not been determined.
Though a man be soiled with the sins of a lifetime, let him but love me,
rightly resolved, in utter devotion. I see no sinner, that man is holy.
Holiness soon shall refashion his nature to peace eternal. O son of
Kunti, of this be certain: the man who loves me shall not perish.
Bhagavad Gita (Hinduism) 9.30-31
Solon is rumored to have instituted debt relief in Ancient Athens. Jainism (which dates back to the 5th century BC) literally has a “Forgiveness Day.”
Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and Rhetoric exemplify a pre-Jesus discussion of philia, brotherly love or true friendship.
Of this we might ask, were the early Greek’s influenced by Jewish tradition and culture, the heritage of N.T. teaching? It certainly seems that way, but I don’t think this implies ethics of love were something unfamiliar to humans apart from Jewish tradition. And aside from this, the ethics governing the behavior of the Jews at the time of the O.T. were significantly different than the ethics governing the teachings and behavior of Jesus and his disciples.
Morality is not purely the concern of religion, it is a fundamentally human issue whether or not religion is involved. For instance, the Epic of Gilgamesh not only has parallels to the bible in its narrative structure, contains many examples of early concepts of justice, yet is not regarded as a religious text. We might ask ourselves: do these parallels exist because the bible is True or could they exist because these are ideas and principles which originate uniquely within humans evidenced in religious, literary, and legal texts from early times all over the world of which the bible is one example?
Here are a couple other links I found interesting pertaining to the above topics. I am sure you can do a simple internet search to find a wealth of information on most of the primary sources listed above.
Forgiveness in general: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forgiveness
More about Jainism: http://www.herenow4u.net/index.php?id=67777
Getting back to the point: I don’t think it is strange to suggest Jesus was not of sound mind, especially considering he was making such a bold claim as to be “the Son of God”. There are a lot of people in this world who have profoundly good things to say, but who then say other things that are difficult to reconcile with everything else they have said and done. I can think of people in my own family who exemplify this type of paradox.
For me, the conclusion that the bible is infallibly true does not follow from me agreeing that Jesus indeed both taught and exemplified wise examples of ethical behavior. But I don’t want to stop here. Let’s assume that because I think Jesus was right about certain types of claims, he is also right about other types of claims. And after further biblical exegesis I will eventually conclude that the bible (the original version) must be infallibly true if in fact it is the Word of God. Perhaps we conclude this out of rational necessity or conviction, I am not entirely sure. But this is a conclusion not uncommonly drawn.
To me, what this means is that even if sound biblical teaching contradicts whatever internal sense of morality has been fostered within me, I should accept those teachings as both true and morally right.
I have trouble with this. I cannot accept that the method of inductive reasoning which first inspired me to entertain the validity of Jesus’ teaching seriously and find them resonant should then be discarded in favor of a deductive method of reasoning which that argues that we ought also to accept all other parts of the biblical canon even if through inductive thinking we find scripture elsewhere that contradicts our intuitive sense of morality. I cannot accept that once the inductive method has served its initial purpose we are supposed to set it aside in favor of biblical infallibility whether or not it contradicts our internal sense of morality.
And so now we need to talk about how our internal sense of morality is formed, otherwise known as “conscience.” Fortunately there was actually a discussion of what conscience is in the lecture two weeks ago.
Paraphrased or transcribed directly from the recording during the closing comments/questions (around 1:22:02) of Sexual Ethics in the Bible, session III:
(Jack) The Christian life is not about not making mistakes in any way, including sexually – we have all been perverse and wrong sexually.
It’s about coming to the self knowledge; where did my mistakes and evil come from? From me. It’s a problem built into the very nature of who I am, God have mercy on me.
We can’t reform society,
We can’t reform ourselves,
We can’t change ourselves,
We can’t purify ourselves,
We can’t transcend our sinfulness,
Any christian teaching that says we can is a diabolical lie.
We are helplessly trapped in the depravity and evil that defines us from the get go, but are we willing to admit it?
Are we willing to call our depravity depravity, our sin sin, our evil evil?
That is the real life and death issue that we all need to come to terms with.
(Question posed by a member of the audience) So figuring out my moral and immoral choices is not necessarily in my conscience?
(Jack) What we call conscience is a cultural artifact.
“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of our mind…” (Paul) could be rewritten as “do not be conformed to this world, train your conscience.”
Your conscience is no good, it needs to be trained.
Conscience is the product of cultural forces, it tells us what to get excited about what not to get excited about.
I can feel completely not guilty about things I should feel guilty about. And vice versa.
I grew up thinking the conscience is basically infallible. If it made you feel guilty, it was wrong. If it didn’t, it was right.
My conscience is a product of cultural forces, therefore my conscience needs to be trained by the bible so it will be aligned with true moral judgement and sound moral judgement.
After hearing something like this I usually have a lot of questions running through my mind. I have gone ahead and written them down so you can start to understand where I am coming from.
My questions prompted by this exchange
I am taking “conscience” to mean an inner sense of right and wrong felt both emotionally and perceived on an intellectual level. You describe it as the product of the influence of popular ethics within any given subgroup of a culture. Is this correct? Is this what you mean by conscience as a cultural artifact?
You also said that to have a properly functioning conscience, it needs to be trained by the bible so it will be aligned with true moral judgement.
I am understanding conscience then as our personal “morality gauge”, an internal indicator of whether we are doing something (or about to do something) right or wrong. And this determination of right and wrong is calibrated by whatever culture we are apart of.
If this is the case, do humans have any way to understand or know true morality apart from reference to biblical text? Do we have any innate sense of true and accurate morality that belongs to us solely by nature of existence, or is true moral sensibility solely a derivative of biblical exposure and study?
Considering morality in this way, could we say it is an epistemological model in the same way rationality is an epistemological model? A theory of knowing, considering morality is not simply something felt as an impulse, but also something thought and considered in relation to decision making? Are the two synonymous? Meaning that the morality one derives from the bible is equal to a form of rationality?
How does one determine that the bible is the one true source of moral knowledge and wisdom if one must make this determination before already having accepted it as the one true source of moral knowledge? Is this not a decision made through some personal, intuitive sense of morality/rationality (or conscience) as it has been enculturated? Or is it innately within us apart from (or pre) biblical exposure?
If we do not determine these decision based on rationality, conscience, or morality apart from biblical reference, what then is our criteria for determining what is true knowledge and a true reflection of goodness before we accept the bible as authoritative?
If reason as a method of thinking is the most fundamental (first) tool we have to determine that the bible is the best tool for determining true wisdom and knowledge, why should we choose to set aside our opposing moral sensibilities and rational thoughts when they are they very tools we first used to recognize the validity of Jesus’ teaching?
If there are discrepancies within the biblical text which cause us to give pause and question the moral certainty of its teaching, should we not be ready to address those concerns, concerns which stem from our pre-established sense of moral rightness and goodness, the one which led us to consider the bible seriously in the first place?
If you say that it is through some intuitive sense or innate wisdom we are aware we must set aside these uncertainties and questions posited by our “conscience”, why would we further choose in any other life circumstance to ignore what seemed to us to be this same innate wisdom that offered an answer contrary to scriptural authority? How is this innate wisdom different than our “conscience”?
By what criteria do we trust our intuition and moral sensibilities in some circumstances, but not in others? Why should we be convinced that Christianity is not also a cultural artifact with no greater influence than any other popular system of ethics?
On the other hand, if the bible is perfectly rational in the sense that we need not put aside our intuition and conflicting moral sensibilities (our reason) to accept it’s ethical and moral consistency, shouldn’t we be able to come to these rational, ethical, and moral conclusions without the aid of the bible? Especially when we consider the main subject of the bible is the imperfection and fallibility of humanity, a subject we have ample experience with and exposure to?
What does being obedient to God have to do with “morality” as a set of principles to live by? Is not obedience to God the only true moral law within an internally consistent biblical worldview?
If the only way we know the bible is the one True source of moral knowledge apart from rationality is because God has written the correct intuition on our heart, are we actually talking about “rationality” in the way I thought we were? What is rationality in relation in Christianity? What is rationality if not a faculty contained within the self? If divine influence is necessary for rationality to function properly, should we still be referring to it as “rationality”?
Relevant addendum from this week: should we be referring to unconscious decisions as “choices?” or is there another force at work in these instances and should we be using a different word?
What I see happening in the present lecture (BSE) is that the inductive method has been set aside in favor of reference to deductive methods and conclusions that have not been “confirmed” or even observed on the level of biblical reference (yet, I think this will change next week). This is my view. It may not be what is happening. Also, I have not taken logic classes so forgive me if I am using this language improperly.
First I want to pose a few questions regarding the Biblical Sexual Ethics series as a whole (not just epistemological ones). First, since the lectures have not defined Biblical Sexual Ethics as a subject, I am going to assume it means something like “a lecture series about any type of sexual behavior with contextual evidence of moral judgement found in the bible.”
The first question is this. Why would one seek to find anything more in the bible regarding the nature of morality or sexual morality beyond that which is clearly stated? And second, why must a biblical worldview be inclusive of a particular biblical sexual ethic when clearly the “sexual ethics” found in the bible regarding sexual attitudes, say, towards women – where there is a lack of the concept of consent, a notion highly valued today, even within many Christian worldviews including those held by the teachers at Gutenberg/MSC I assume – contradict many beliefs held by Christians at present about the nature of right sexual relationships between men and women? Does a modern biblical worldview exclude other moral imperatives found in the bible? Do we have new views surrounding sexual relationships between men and women than those presented in the bible? By what criteria have we made these decisions to include extra-biblical values or exclude scriptural values to form our “biblical worldview”?
Why are we not investigating sexual ethics with regard to the treatment of women as it is found in the bible? Why are we not discussing the concept of consent? Why are we talking about what Biblical Sexual Ethics are not as opposed to what they are? Isn’t this akin to negative theology, a form of theology that was described during my years at GC as unhelpful with regard to actually knowing the true nature of God? (See Via Negative and Cloud of Unknowing. And I believe it was talked about this way because we were interested in discovering how we could know who God was by his visible aspects, not through negation). I do realize the question I pose above regarding consent is also a negative type of question, I simply want to know why we aren’t also talking about since it has an established place in modern Christian culture although it lacks a sound biblical basis.
Why, in our investigation of “sexual ethics” are we using harmful language to describe the behavior of people whose sexual orientation and activity does not fall within the morally good spectrum of our biblical sexual ethic? Is “viscerally repulsive” a modern way of understanding the word “abomination”? As far as I can tell, this phrase boils down to some version of being exceptionally wicked or sinful, an evaluation which is equalized when we acknowledge that the wages of all sin are death, no matter how small or less abominable the sin might be in human terms. But in the lecture the exceptional part is being emphasized.
I myself am not about to argue that all harm is of equal value or that it all deserves the same punishment. And this is part of the reason why I think the language being used to discuss homosexuallity in the BSE lectures should be seriously reconsidered. I don’t think most people truly evaluate all “sin” as equal, despite how it will be judged by God. Individuals face and have faced significant alienation, discrimination, violence, and bullying due to non heterosexual orientation. When marginalized groups of people are discriminated against in this way, I think it is important to be sensitive and empathetic in the way we are discussing them simply because they already face heightened physical and psychological harm due to a part of their own identity they cannot help. And even if such cruel behavior towards individuals with homosexual orientation was condoned, why should we not choose to view this evaluation as a culturally contextual discrepancy we may disregard considering our cultural advancement? What is the moral principle underlying homosexual activity that should compel me to see it as “sinful” in all epochs?
While these lectures might be intellectual and philosophical discussions and have no intention of harming others, it is my perception that the nature of the language used in the lecture is priming the mind of listener’s towards singling others out and devaluing them as morally lesser beings. As adults who have the ability to choose to consent or not, we have no more to fear from people who are homosexually inclined than we have to fear from any other anonymous person with any type of sexual inclination, so why would we compare the moral equivalent of their actions to someone who would eat or rape our child? Even if you are only linguistically comparing the moral valuation of these behaviors, the comparative terms are regarded as heinous criminal activity within American culture, and as such are met with harsh punishment as is endorsed by the American legal system. Is consensual homosexual activity, even if you view it to be viscerally repulsive, a similar morally qualitative type of behavior as child rape according to your “conscience”, whatever it is trained by?
I find the attempt to rationally equate moral valuation of homosexual activity with that of child rape incredibly insensitive at the very least. What is happening here is that we are assigning dispositions that are not inherently harmful with moral valuations. I believe comparing these criminal behaviors (even if only the moral valuation) with acts of homosexuality engenders ideas of moral inequality and criminality among persons who do not deserve these designations. It propagates a view of the world wherein not all are created equal and that some of us are endowed with more viscerally repulsive qualities than others, categorizing their moral “level” alongside that of child rapists. The afterthought is that we each equally deserve to be put to death for our moral transgressions.
The final thing I have to say with regard to the present lectures is that I find it qualitatively different from the lectures I found most memorable and important via MSC and Gutenberg. I think the main reason for this is because from what I can tell, deductive reasoning is playing a significantly larger role than inductive reasoning. So far in this lecture we have not looked directly at scripture to see what it says regarding homosexuality in particular. We have not started out by asking ourselves, “how can I further inform my biblical worldview based on these scriptural references?” Instead this lecture is being presented as, “we have a formed a worthy roadmapthrough careful inductive study. This is our biblical worldview through which we can further deduce what God’s moral stance is on issues of sexuality which the bible does not coherently expound on.” Or maybe the bible does coherently expound on them. Either way, thus far the lecture has not focused on scripture with regard to the specific moral issue in question. Fortunately it sounds like we are going to be hearing about what Paul has to say on the matter next week.
If this is a misrepresentation of what is actually happening, please feel free to recharacterize the situation.
The reason I was initially drawn to the teaching at MSC/Gutenberg after my initial exposure to the community was because I felt it was defined by intellectual integrity with regard to study of the bible among other things. We began with scripture and from there asked ourselves, “does this teaching resonate with my own experience, does it strike me as true and is it consistent with my other perceptions of reality and what I innately understand goodness and morality to be?” I think this is both a good and right criteria to set out when studying anything for moral guidance. But even so, for me the answer to questions regarding the resonance of biblical content is not always yes.
Because of this, I cannot form a coherent biblical worldview. And I can definitely not form a biblical worldview from which I feel comfortable deducing moral principles which may or may not actually be present in the bible. And beyond that, certain moral issues that are contained within scripture have already been deemed out-of-touch even by the MSC/Gutenberg community. So why then, if through our faculty of reason we have been able to assume which of the bible’s teachings are inclusive in a true biblical worldview and which are not, should we set aside our faculty of reason in the judgement of this one issue in particular? And at this point I should say that deeming homosexual activity as immoral is not the only part of the bible I take issue with. Now just happens to be a time when an open discussion about these things has arisen and I am feeling brave enough to participate.
If it is true (and this was an idea discussed at Gutenberg and a premise of many of Jack’s arguments while I was in school) that morality is the most fundamental aspect of our humanity, the thing which defines us most essentially as created beings, why would morality be presented in such an obscure manner as to contradict the methods by which we reason? Especially if reason is one of the key tools by which we come to know the Christian God is the True God. If we are knowers and the world is meant to be known, why would God not present us with a recognizable sense of morality that appealed to our human sensibilities, being both thought and felt? He was willing to send Jesus as a man, so why not this?
This probably doesn’t need to be said, but I will say it anyways. Just because something has taken sway culturally does not mean it is morally wrong. One obvious example is moral opposition to slavery in America. There was huge resistance to change for a variety of reasons, yet this behavior would be viewed as “backwards” thinking by future generations and condemned as immoral by conservatives and liberals alike. If the inverse nature of this argument bothers you, what about the introduction of women’s rights or allowing women to hold positions of power in government and otherwise?
Also, I’m not sure it is fair to generalize “moderns” as one large entity defined by their opposition to the moral teachings and practices of small conservative communities throughout the country. It seems to me the world is full of pockets of people, some larger, some smaller, who have their own highly nuanced views on just about everything. And many of them are not vocal about their opinions or have any interest in imposing their views on others.
Some final-ish thoughts
My next question is this, why do we need an authoritative text to live by? Why must we know with certainty what the ultimate nature of reality is to engage in a life well lived (a bias, I know! forgive me, but I do want to live a life well lived even if I can’t tell you why it matters for me to do so.)? I think we would all find it reassuring to have a decided sense of certainty about these things, but I do not think such certainty is necessary to meaningful continued existence. What is so wrong with a universe where there is no known objective moral law laid down for all of mankind (other than the obvious “nothing”, lulz)? Maybe it is a frightening prospect to some, but it isn’t to me, not anymore at least. I should also say I am entirely ready to admit there may be a supreme being in this universe and that their ways are not our ways. I just don’t think that being is represented in the bible.
For me, existing without the plague of constant existential anxiety has become the only way I can move forward with my life. I have given up worrying about whether I was seeking out the truth hard enough. All I know is that knowing is something I will strive for throughout my life because that’s the kind of person I am, for better or for worse. And when I say knowing, I mean to know anything. I don’t think knowledge can lead us away from the truth, so I am done worrying I can know in the wrong direction.
I am not convinced there exists a knowable set of precepts that set out a morally consistent way to live. It seems that all we can do is decide on what we value most highly and base the many difficult choices presented to us in this life on these prioritizations. I have “chosen”, and some might call this cowardly, to regard my own personal well being (living without constant dread and anxiety) above obedience to a doctrine I cannot feel sane regarding as True. For me, this was an incredibly difficult choice I struggled with for many years. You don’t have to believe me, but it was.
To me and almost all people I know, there are things in this world we equate with goodness. And I do value goodness because well, it feels better (you might also read this as “sits better intellectually”) than anything else. You can brush this off as hedonism, but I think emotions are at the crux of everything I’ve already discussed. At the heart of any philosophical or existential discussion about the ultimate nature of reality is the desire to know the truth. And this desire is usually accompanied by additional feelings. Does being right make me feel better than being wrong? Does knowing what is true allow me to sleep at night? Does believing I have been obedient to God allow me to feel good about myself in spite of all my other shortcomings? Does trusting I have done my philosophical homework leave me contented that I am fulfilling my purpose as a human being? Does making an existential commitment to constantly orient myself towards goodness put my “conscience” at ease?
We have feelings and we wrestle with them every day whether or not we acknowledge them. Even leaving moral determination and law up to God (and the scripture) is a “decision” made through a need or desire for something.
And so I will go on inevitably struggling to live my life according to whichever ethic appeals most highly to my own moral sensibility. And so will everyone else. To some this will be mean adopting the belief in an all knowing good God whose will is represented in the biblical text. For others, it will mean doing what they believe is best for their own community with regard to a personal sense of justice and kindness. And for others yet this will mean simply trying to survive and probably harming others in the process, intentionally or unintentionally.
When I first found the MSC Community it sounded to me like everyone believed that if you were seeking the Truth, you would indeed find it. When I realized that Truth meant Christianity quite specifically, it was an exciting prospect. I would have really felt a lot better about myself if the ideas I had been raised with and spent most of my life agonizing over were actually right. But my search has not led me to this conclusion, and I accept this without hating myself for it. For me, the Truth has yet to reveal itself in any way other than everything I have already stated thus far. For me, this, the reality I have described above, the type of thinking I have described above, is truth. And freedom. And in the same way I have chosen to disregard the bible as a source of ultimate authority based on my own intuitions, wherever they may have come from, so others will choose to disregard my way of thinking. This is the way the world is. But if you made this far, thanks for hearing me out.