Toward a Biblical Worldview of Race (Part 4)

Bible and Race Title 1Peter W. Wielhouwer, Ph.D. (June, 2015)

Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. (Col 3:14)

In this essay I articulate core principles of a Bible-based worldview of the concepts of humanity and race.

[Because this essay is long, I divided it into four parts, and each part builds on the principles developed in the previous parts]

GO TO FULL ESSAY / PART 1 / PART 2 / PART 3

 

IV. PRACTICAL HEALING OF RACIAL SINS

Christians are obligated to resolve our conflicts. But to truly do so, our community’s race-based conflicts must be acknowledged as fundamentally spiritual problems with social consequences, not as solely social problems with solely social causes.

Dr. Tony Evans notes,

“But once you admit that racism is a sin problem, you are obligated as a believer to deal with it right away. As long as the issue of race is social and not spiritual, it will never be dealt with in any ultimate sense.”[23]

Recent events have revealed the deep faultlines that divide American society by race. The riots after Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson in 2014, Baltimore’s riots after Freddy Gray’s death in police custody, and the shooting of nine African-Americans in Charleston in 2015 make clear that we have a problem. Now, I am not claiming any easy solutions or trying to pile on white guilt-feelings per se, or absolve trouble makers from being held responsible for the trouble they have made. But…

Christians—especially white Christians—must be brutally honest about the role that racism and corrupted Christian teachings have played in excavating the racial faultlines in our long and complicated history.

While it is true that racism begins as one individual’s sin, the sin of racism was aggregated, legitimated, and institutionalized so that the sins of many “ones” multiplied. And the legal, social, and political consequences for our African-American brethren were profound. Social structures supporting racial injustice were created, and therefore those social structures had to be dismantled.

Scripture and churches were corrupted by sketchy theological interpretations designed to support the worldview of white supremacy and keep slaves and later, free black people, quiescent. Frederick Douglass observed in 1846,

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

It is from the pulpit that we have sermons on behalf of slavery…I have heard sermon after sermon, when a slave, intended to make me satisfied with my condition, telling me that it is the position God intended me to occupy; that if I offend against my master, I offend against God; that my happiness in time and eternity depends on my entire obedience to my master. Those are the doctrines taught among slaves, and the slave-holders themselves have become conscious about holding slaves in bondage, and their consciences have been lulled to sleep by the preaching and teaching of the Southern American pulpits. “There is no place,” said an Abolitionist in the United States, “where slavery finds a more secure abode than under the shadow of the sanctuary.”[24]

Those unbiblical scriptural interpretations and messages had to be undone and untaught, and some of that work still needs to be done. (I will have more to say on that that in the next couple of posts.)

We must also acknowledge that the damage to the family of God has been deep. Often the social and legal changes were imposed before the sinful attitudes that created and laid the foundation for Jim Crow were addressed, generating resentment and anger that remains. The work of restoration and healing is not finished, and cannot ultimately be finished by statute.

As I have written elsewhere, social science has established clearly that white Americans and African Americans view racism differently. White people tend to view racism as an individual attitude (I have argued that it is an individual sin), while black people tend to view racism as a characteristic of our political and social system (making it a collective sin). As should be clear, these are two edges of the same sword. White Christians are obligated to understand the perspective of their African-American Christian brethren. And Black Christians are obligated to understand the perspective of their White brethren. Many of us ignorantly push forward attitudes that do nothing to pursue and improve the unity of the Body of Christ. Instead, we steadfastly (or stubbornly) refuse to consider changing the way we think or our preferences for the sake of others and the sake of Christ’s Bride.

The broader problem, however, is that as America moves away from a common understanding of sin and humanity’s intrinsic sinfulness, the real basis for racial reconciliation becomes more elusive. If we don’t agree on the concept of sin, healing becomes difficult, because clear and truthful communication about the real problem will be hindered. It is thus the responsibility of members of the Body of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to initiate and follow through on racial reconciliation and healing based on its real and actual causes. We must set aside our own preferences for the way we wish things were, or the way we have come to identify with our personal heritages.

Healing and Reconciliation is individual and group work

Scripturally there are clear processes for resolving interpersonal conflicts between Christians, and some of that work must be done. There is much written on this, and I don’t have the space to address it here, but it includes:

  • The sinner repenting and seeking forgiveness;
  • the victim forgiving the sinner;
  • the sinner pursuing the victim to seek reconciliation and forgiveness;
  • the victim pursuing the sinner to seek reconciliation and offer forgiveness; and
  • a spirit of mutual love and respect as co-equal children of God and followers of Christ.

It does not include, as one African-American brother in the Lord put it, browbeating others into submission.

As a side note, the non-Christian world will not understand this, they will marvel at it! This week I was watching The Rundown (MSNBC) host José Díaz-Balart interview Pastor Stephen Singleton from Charleston, South Carolina, where a few days earlier nine black churchgoers were murdered in church by a white man hoping to start a race war. Díaz-Balart seemed genuinely perplexed by Christian family members’ willingness to express forgiveness toward the shooter so soon:

“I was struck over and over again how they said ‘We forgive you.’ What kind of a person does that? How is one able to have so much forgiveness against evil?”[25]

Brothers and sisters—the government can’t do this. The NAACP can’t do this. The other church down the road can’t do this (alone). Islam can’t do this. Social do-gooders can’t do this. We, the followers of Jesus Christ, must do this. It is the right thing to do, to imitate Christ, to set aside our own self-interest and put others’ interests above our own (Phil 2:3-15), and work together for healing, pursuing the unity of the Body.

We must work together toward the common goal our Lord has set for His Church in human history, both setting aside our personal histories and leveraging those histories to strengthen the work of the Body. These histories include our ethnicities. As Tony Evans recently wrote,

The reason why we haven’t solved the racial divide in America after hundreds of years is because people apart from God are trying to invent unity, while people who belong to God are not living out the unity that we already possess….Unity can be defined in its most basic of terms as oneness of purpose. It means working together toward a common goal….God has a team. It’s made up of African-American, Anglo, Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, and a variety of other people and cultures. He never wants you to make your distinction, your history or your background, so precious to you that it messes up His team. Nor does He want you to ignore or diminish your distinction, your history or your background, thus leaving little with which to contribute to His team.

At the individual level, if you know that what you do has a very negative effect on another person, STOP IT!

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phil 2:3-4)

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phil 2:3-4)

Seek forgiveness from your neighbor or co-worker or your kid’s teacher. Legally, do we have to change our hearts? No, we’re free to continue on, but as Russell Moore points out, “we should not prize our freedom to the point of destroying those for whom Christ died. We should instead ‘pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding’ (Rom. 14:19).” For example, New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson relates how a white friend, who, without asking, took down his Confederate battle flag, simply because he came to realize that Watson found it offensive and hurtful. No demands, no screaming, no protests, just friends learning to love one another in harmony. How good that is!

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brothers to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

Conclusion

Once Christians acknowledge the foundational biblical principles of a human self-concept based on creation and equality before God; once we decide to leverage our already-existing unity, and apply principles of peace-seeking and reconciliation to damaged relationships; once we have really begun implementing spiritual chemotherapy against the cancer of racism; and once we operate from a position of biblical orthodoxy and not liberalism, broader social changes and healing are bound to follow.

 

GO TO FULL ESSAY

———————————-

This essay is the first of three parts in a series promoting racial healing. In this essay, I have articulated a Biblical Worldview of humanity and race. Next, I address the twisting of scripture that produced the so-called “Curse of Ham,” which has been used as brutal weapon in the cause of white supremacy against people of color and against the unity of the Body of Christ.

———————————–

 

[23] Kingdom Agenda, 364-5. See also Ron Miller, 2015, “Make Us One: Looking at race through the eyes of God,” PowerPoint presentation, personal copy.

[24] Frederick Douglass, “Slavery in the Pulpit of the Evangelical Alliance: An Address Delivered in London, England, on September 14, 1846.” London Inquirer, September 19, 1846 and London Patriot, September 17, 1846. www.yale.edu/glc/archive/1083.htm

[25] “Emanuel AME Church holds Bible study for first time since shooting,” MSNBC Broadcast June 25, 2015.

Toward a Biblical Worldview of Race

Bible and Race Title 1Peter W. Wielhouwer, Ph.D. (June, 2015)

Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. (Col 3:14)

In this essay I articulate core principles of a Bible-based worldview of the concepts of humanity and race.

[Because this essay is long, I have a version in which I divide it into four parts. If you want to read it in shorter chunks, keep in mind that each later part builds on the ideas developed in the earlier parts. To read it part-by-part, start with PART 1]

Why? Current events reveal to us that American society, including Christians, continue to be divided over race and racial thinking, problems and solutions. For nearly twenty years I have been studying these questions systematically, both as a scholar and as a Christian. This is the latest in my efforts to contribute to an ongoing discussion about the origins and solutions to the United States’ race problems.

As a teacher of the Word of God, I believe it is important to lay out the truth about a topic before introducing alternatives and problems, just as the Secret Service trains agents how to spot counterfeit bills by first making them experts on real bills. My audience is mainly Christians, as I want to educate my faith family about what the Bible says about humanity and what we call race. Then I want to expose them to major ways in which the Bible has been twisted to support un-Christian and un-biblical thinking about race. I have been surprised and saddened to learn how pervasive non-biblical ideas continue to be used to contort and disfigure the biblical narrative of human history.

Let me preview my central line of thinking for the present essay. Based on the Bible, we know that

  1. God created two human beings in His image, from whom are descended all other humans that have ever existed.
  2. As God’s created “image bearers” each member of humanity is inherently equal in the eyes of God, and He judges people based on the state of their heart or spirit, or orientation toward Himself and His Son, Jesus Christ.
  3. To the extent we evaluate others’ intrinsic character or assign them value on any other basis than God’s, we sin by dividing ourselves artificially; thus, showing favoritism on the basis of social class or physical appearance (including what we call “racism” nowadays) is a sin problem.
  4. Since racism is a sin problem masquerading as a “skin” problem, Christians are obligated to resolve race-based conflicts as fundamentally spiritual problems with social consequences, not as solely social problems with solely social causes. This must take place at both the individual and the corporate levels.

Some Definitions

The idea that different “races” of humans exist is unbiblical. Historically “race” has referred to a biological species with a common ancestor. For example, Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary primarily defines race as “The lineage of a family, or continued series of descendants from a parent who is called the stock. A race is the series of descendants indefinitely. Thus all mankind are called the race of Adam.”[1] Nowadays, however, the general way people use the word “race” is more like “Each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics.”

To distinguish ourselves on the basis of an idea called “race” is also inaccurate scientifically. For example, the U.S. National Institutes of Health acknowledges growing skepticism about the idea that there are different human “races,” based on analysis of the amount of genetic differences between different populations of the human species:

“research reveals that Homo sapiens is one continuously variable, interbreeding species. Ongoing investigation of human genetic variation has even led biologists and physical anthropologists to rethink traditional notions of human racial groups. The amount of genetic variation between these traditional classifications actually falls below the level that taxonomists use to designate subspecies, the taxonomic category for other species that corresponds to the designation of race in Homo sapiens. This finding has caused some biologists to call the validity of race as a biological construct into serious question.”[2]

And from a social science perspective, Professor Michael Jeffries suggests that the idea of different “races” is a mere social invention.

“Race” is rooted in false beliefs about the validity of observed physical differences as indicators of human capacity or behaviors. Human beings build categories and make distinctions naturally. But there is no biological basis for racial categories and no relationship between classification based on observed physical characteristics and patterns of thought or behavior. Humans do not have separate subspecies or races the way some animals do…The company line among academics is that “race is socially constructed,” meaning that it is an idea produced by human thought and interaction rather than something that exists as a material fact of life on earth.[3]

Therefore, I and many others tend to believe that there one single human race, which has historically been divided on the basis of geography, language, and culture. Instead, More specifically, I try to distinguish between race and other social divisions known as ethnicity, defined as “a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition,” which can include a common language, dialect, or religion.

Ethnicity, being a function of nation, culture and language, is also related to our ancestral regions of the world. Ethnic differences are often marked by differences in physical appearances, such as skin tone, hair texture, eye color, eye, nose, and mouth shape, because across humanity these differences tend to be geographically concentrated. Physical characteristics sometimes give us simple cues about another person’s culture and ethnicity. It is often difficult, however, to discern ethnicity based solely on external physical characteristics (such as telling the difference between Koreans and Japanese, or Iranians and Saudis). People really create problems when they assess character, morality, intelligence, and worth based on appearances. As I learned in fourth grade, this is the very definition of prejudice, pre-judging another based primarily on their appearance. When we use physical characteristics such as skin tone, hair texture, and so on to make such judgments, we encounter the problem of what our culture calls “racism.” Racism as used in our times is commonly defined (here by the Oxford English Dictionary) as:

1 Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior;

1.1 The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races

It is important to see the difference between these two definitions; the first is a set of actions based on a belief, while the second is the belief itself. As Christians it is important for us to frame our understanding of race and racism based on biblical principles and concepts. These address first the notion that one of the so-called “racial” groups has value or is intrinsically superior or inferior compared with others; and second actions or behaviors that extend from those beliefs. You will note, therefore, that much of the discussion below addresses what race is and what it is not, and assumes the current social context, in which racism (as defined above) exists in our culture.

On to the four principles of a biblical worldview of race…

 

I. CREATION: WE’RE ALL RELATED

Our Creator-God purposively created the first two people, whose descendants are of “one blood” (Gen 1:26-27; 2:7; Acts 17:26). Thus, all diversity in the human race is genetically derived from the original two people.

This view of human origins has long been held by Jews and Christians, and historically provided a biblical basis for human equality. It was not until relatively recently (between the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment) that alternative theories of separate creations, multiple creations, or macro-evolution significantly impacted these worldviews, weakening the traditional biblical view of humanity’s unity in creation.[4]

What about differences in physical appearance, such as skin color? Biologically, there is nothing odd about the wide variation in skin color, which is mainly determined by genes that control the amount of melanin present in skin cells. Of course, evolutionists hold that this is due to natural selection,[5] but the explanation for these differences needs not rely on evolutionary thinking.

In Judaism and Christianity, the oldest explanation for geographic differences in skin tone is based on the redistribution of humanity by Noah’s sons after the flood (Genesis 9-10). Briefly, Genesis 10 describes the regions of the ancient world where Noah’s descendants settled; the first century (AD/CE) Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the second century Church Father Hippolytus largely reinforce these distributions.[6] (The Genesis passage also influenced Arabic Islamic thought.[7]) Additionally, the names of Noah’s sons have traditionally (sometimes apocryphally) been understood as descriptive of their appearance. Thus there is an ancient perceived connection between the sons and the regional distribution of people with different physical traits.

Based on Genesis 10 and Josephus, the tradition has been:

  • Shem means ‘son,’ ‘marked with a sign,’ or ‘dusky;’[8] his descendants settled Persia, Assyria, Chaldea, and Syria. They were known as Semites, and Shem’s descendants included Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; thus the Israelites/Hebrews/Jews are Semitic in origin. Even today, persecutors of the Jews are known as Anti-Semites.
  • Japheth (Yepheth) means “fair, light,” “opened” or “spread out;” [9] his descendants settled Europe and western Asia.
  • Ham means “hot, dark, burnt” or “sunburnt;”[10] his descendants settled Africa (Ethiopia, Libya, Egypt) and southwest Asia; the descendants of his son Canaan settled what is now modern-day Israel, on the east coast of the Mediterranean.

That quite different skin tones could exist among three sons of the same parents is entirely plausible, and is occasionally observed in modern times. While I am not a genetics genius, here is a genetic Punnett Square presenting a simplified example of how a father and mother with medium skin tone genes can produce a wide variety of skin tones in their next generation.[11] All that is necessary for larger populations to exhibit predominantly darker or lighter skin is for them to “be fruitful and multiply” primarily with other group members with similar skin tones.Punnett Square Melanin 3The tradition of three sets of differently skin-toned descendants of Noah often produced maps like the one below, printed in 1878, which revealed the geographic distribution of predominantly light-toned people (of Japheth, in pink), medium-toned people (of Shem, in green), and dark-skinned people (of Ham, in tan).

 

Table of Nations Cases Bible Atlas (1878)

Favoritism based on skin tone

While some favoritism based on social class appears in early Christianity, the New Testament author James, the half-brother of Jesus, specifically warns against class-based favoritism (James 2:1-9); and Paul’s letters express the idea that that day’s social divisions were to be set aside within the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:26-29; Col 3:11). Until the Middle Ages Christian expressions of skin-tone-based favoritism appear to be mainly due to a “somatic” preferences. This simply means people idealized their own people-group’s appearance, not that they believed in the natural superiority of their group. Thus, medium-toned people, dark-skinned people and light-skinned people all saw their own skin tones as the ideal and different skin tones as something less than ideal. In general there did not seem to be a value assigned to people based on their skin tone, however.[12]

Later, through the Late Middle Ages (until about the 1300s AD/CE) Christian, Jewish and Islamic explanations for humans’ different physical appearances also hinged on perceived environmental effects,[13] but again the explanations were extrabiblical. It was thought that the more southern peoples were more exposed to the sun and lived where it was hotter, and therefore were burned a darker color. The more northern peoples were less exposed, and therefore were lighter due to less sun exposure. (Some Islamic legends suggested that the heat in lower latitudes caused children to be overcooked in the womb, and where the climate was cold, babies were undercooked.[14]) Of course, the discovery of the New World in the 16th century and its medium-toned people at the same latitude as Old World dark-toned people profoundly undermined this idea.[15]

In short, the Bible clearly describes a purposive act by God to create human beings. In the early Christian traditions, variations in skin tone were not usually related to differences in people’s perceived value before the Lord or their social position.

 

II. CREATED EQUAL, BUT SINFUL

Because our two common ancestors were created by God in His image (Genesis 1:27-28), each person has inherent dignity. Biblical teaching on humanity’s unique creation from a single couple produced a strong tradition that God sees all of humanity as being in the same fundamental situation.

Though created in God’s image,[16] all of humanity falls short of God ideals and expectations, and we are all sinful, fallen, and separated from him (Romans 3:22-23). God, out of profound love for us, extends His redemptive plan to all people, via his only begotten Son Jesus Christ (John 3:16-17; Acts 4:10-12; Acts 17:30-31; 1 Tim 2:3-7; Titus 2:11).

There is extensive biblical support for the principle that Christianity and salvation are not constrained by ethnicity, nationality, sex, skin tone, or social status. To cite just a few examples…

  • God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to bless all nations through their descendants (Gen 12:1-3; Gen 22:15-18; 26:4-5; 28:13-14) are generally taken seriously in the New Testament as actually meaning all nations (Acts 3:25; Gal 3:8).
  • Among the Israelites, non-Semites were sometimes elevated to positions of equality with the Hebrews, such as
    • Manassah and Ephraim (Gen 41:50-52), sons of Joseph’s wife from On, a city in North Africa (the area settled by Ham’s son Mizraim). Jacob (Israel) declared them equal to his own sons (Gen 48:5).
    • Moses married a woman from Cush (Num 12:1), a region of Africa named for a son of Ham who settled in West Africa.
    • Solomon, whose mother was Bathsheba; Sheba was a tribe of Cush, son of Ham (Gen 10:7).
  • Jesus’ Davidic genealogy in the first verses if Matthew’s gospel includes four descendants of Canaan and Ham (Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba and Solomon);
  • Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman (Matt 15:22-28), while initially being an apparent reinforcement of the curse of Canaan (Gen 9:24-27), has long been interpreted actually as rescinding the curse.[17]
  • Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan (mixed “race”) woman (John 4:1-26) makes clear that God’s salvation comes through the Jews, but will eventually be based on whether people are “true worshippers,” not one’s heritage.
  • Jesus’ Great Commission commands the disciples to go to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matt 28:18-20).
  • The Apostle Philip baptized an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:25-40).
  • Peter received a vision from God that there are no people who are unclean, and therefore the gospel ought to be spread beyond the Jews (Acts 10).
  • A major theme in Paul’s epistle to the Romans is the extension of salvation beyond the Jews to the Gentiles.
  • Paul taught that in Christ the region’s major social divisions and classes of the day were to be set aside among Christians (1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:26-29; Col 3:11).
  • Revelation states that Jesus’ blood purchased salvation for all people (Rev. 5:9).
  • John’s vision of heaven included believers from all nations who had come through tribulation: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev 7:9-10).

The Fundamental Equality of All People Before God

While God evaluates people based upon their heart and spirit and orientation toward himself and His Son (e.g., Romans 2:12-16; 3:21-26), people tend to judge others based on external factors, such as the way we look (2 Sam 16:7). Nonetheless, the view of historic Judaic and Christian thought is grounded in the essential equality of all people before God, regardless of their ethnicity, external appearance, sex, or social status (e.g., Gal 3:26-29).

While most Christian theology verifies this historic accessibility of salvation to all people, the point has long been evident even to secular observers, such as Stanford University professor George Frederickson, who observed,

“the orthodox Christian belief in the unity of mankind based on the Bible’s account of Adam and Eve as the progenitors of all humans was a powerful obstacle to the development of a coherent and persuasive ideological racism.”[18]

Frederickson also observes the odd counterpoint of skin-tone based racism that emerged in the Middle Ages against the core message of Christianity and the Cross:

“What makes Western racism so…conspicuous in world history has been that it developed in a context that presumed human equality of some kind. First came the doctrine that the Crucifixion offered grace to all willing to receive it and made all Christian believers equal before God. Later came the more revolutionary concept that all ‘men’ are born free and equal and entitled to equal rights in society and government.”[19]

In short, though ideally humans are created equal and in God’s image, every human’s sinful state before a holy God means that every person needs salvation, and Christ’s death makes that salvation available to all people. The differences in human appearances or economic status are unrelated to one’s status before God. Divisions have appeared, of course, in spite of this principle of equality.

 

 III. WE DIVIDE OURSELVES FOR THE WRONG REASONS

Although God divided people supernaturally by giving different groups different languages at the Tower of Babel (Gen 11), and called Israel, and later, Christians, to be a separate and holy nation (Exodus 19:16, Deut 7:6; Hosea 1:10; 1 Peter 2:9-12), people also have a tendency to divide themselves, but on a sinful basis.

Sin is self-centeredness, ignoring God’s will, and missing the mark of God-ordained behavior and attitudes.[20] Thus, when people place themselves above others on the basis of some external characteristic, such as social class, we impose our own idolatrous self-will over and above God’s standards for judgment; we say that our standards are better than God’s (e.g., James 2:1-9).

The clear inference is that sinful attitudes include a belief in one’s own (or one’s group’s) superiority based on social, economic, appearance, ethnic, or “racial” categories. This is not the same thing as recognizing that important differences may exist within and between groups, or that cultures differ across ethnicities. But our heart and attitudes regarding those differences are the central issue. This is especially the case when we use physical characteristics to assign different levels of value or desirability or dignity to another person or group, whether we do this consciously or subconsciously.

As Dr. Tony Evans puts it,

“racism is not first and foremost a skin problem. It is a sin problem.”[21]

Individual sins have collective consequences

Now, the problem of sin is at first an individual problem, but sin usually has collective consequences. For example, a father may sin against his wife, but their children often experience the effects of that sin, though they have done nothing wrong. The Bible is full of examples of people bearing the consequences of another person’s sinful actions. In fact, it is the very nature of sin; from the beginning, Adam’s and Eve’s individual sins wrought consequences for all of their descendants (Rom 5:12-20).

Moreover, when individuals with a bent toward sin are given authority over others, they may be prone to manage that relationship unjustly. (This is why the Bible spends so much time limiting and constraining the power that can be exercised by fathers, elders, kings, employers, and slave-owners!) For example, God gives fathers authority over their households. But a father who establishes an unjust disciplinary system in his home violates the authority with which he has been legitimately entrusted. His family management system must be adjusted in order to realign it with God’s will and plan for the Christian home. The first step may be converting, educating or correcting the father. But if the father doesn’t change the old system, even his redeemed soul will continue to exact injustice in the household via the old rules. No, the rules and system must be changed in order for a just family order to prevail. Moreover, the damaged familial relationships must be restored and healed.

The analogy may be applied to race-based divisions. Those in authority may legislate unjust laws, even if the legislator is or claims to be Christian. The general concept of an unjust law was expressed by Martin Luther King in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which he wrote,

“How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”[22]

Christians see the Bible as a revelation of God’s eternal moral law. So it provides, if rightly understood, general principles and guidelines for establishing just human laws. If the legislator who sets up an unjust law is shown the error of his or her ways and changes his or her behavior and attitudes, that is good! But it doesn’t change the fact that the earlier attitude was institutionalized into the community’s social norms and legal codes. These must be changed as well.

Source: CNN

Source: CNN

In the case of American racial and ethnic history, men with unbiblical views on race were often the ones writing the rules (such as constitutions, laws, and municipal codes), and they often incorporated those views into the systems with which they had been entrusted. Sadly, there are many examples of this, such as the nation’s toleration of slavery, northerners profiteering from the slave trade, California’s anti-Chinese laws, and so on. (The use of the Bible to justify and defend American slavery is an extremely complicated topic, beyond the scope of this essay, and much has already been written about that.) One of the most egregious and widespread examples was the notorious “Jim Crow” system of comprehensive race-based social and economic stratification included in the legal codes of most of the US southern states after the post-Civil War Reconstruction. These were perhaps the most damaging of all, because they were often specifically justified and defended, as slavery had been beforehand, through the misinterpretation and misapplication of God’s Word.

It becomes clear that laws that encoded racist values into society were unjust, for they did not align with God’s basis of dividing humanity, and instead were based on sinful attitudes of racial superiority and favoritism. It is important to identify laws that continue to implement racist thinking and undo them; there is, of course, great political disagreement about how to identify such laws and what the remedies are. Such an extensive discussion is beyond the scope of this essay.

But it is possible to identify the principles of a strategy for undoing unjust laws. Such a strategy takes two initial steps, for which there is no ideal order, followed by two secondary steps.

  • The heart of the legislator(s) must be realigned with God’s will.
  • The laws must be realigned with God’s eternal law. It is acceptable to realign the law regardless of whether the legislator’s heart has been realigned.
  • Reconciliation between groups must take place, both at the individual and collective level. For example, those who imposed the racist legislation must repent of their sin and reconcile with those whom they oppressed, and the oppressed must forgive the former racist. Collectively, this might look like the Southern Baptist Convention repenting and seeking forgiveness for its racist origins and history.
  • Finally, part of the reconciliation may include an evaluation of the extent to which principles of restorative justice ought to be implemented to address the long-term consequences of the unjust laws on individuals. The longer the unjust regime was in place, the more profound the effects may be, and thus the more expensive the restitution is likely to be.

 

IV. PRACTICAL HEALING OF RACIAL SINS

Christians are obligated to resolve our conflicts. But to truly do so, our community’s race-based conflicts must be acknowledged as fundamentally spiritual problems with social consequences, not as solely social problems with solely social causes.

Dr. Tony Evans notes,

“But once you admit that racism is a sin problem, you are obligated as a believer to deal with it right away. As long as the issue of race is social and not spiritual, it will never be dealt with in any ultimate sense.”[23]

Recent events have revealed the deep faultlines that divide American society by race. The riots after Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson in 2014, Baltimore’s riots after Freddy Gray’s death in police custody, and the shooting of nine African-Americans in Charleston in 2015 make clear that we have a problem. Now, I am not claiming any easy solutions or trying to pile on white guilt-feelings per se, or absolve trouble makers from being held responsible for the trouble they have made. But…

Christians—especially white Christians—must be brutally honest about the role that racism and corrupted Christian teachings have played in excavating the racial faultlines in our long and complicated history.

While it is true that racism begins as one individual’s sin, the sin of racism was aggregated, legitimated, and institutionalized so that the sins of many “ones” multiplied. And the legal, social, and political consequences for our African-American brethren were profound. Social structures supporting racial injustice were created, and therefore those social structures had to be dismantled.

Scripture and churches were corrupted by sketchy theological interpretations designed to support the worldview of white supremacy and keep slaves and later, free black people, quiescent. Frederick Douglass observed in 1846,

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

It is from the pulpit that we have sermons on behalf of slavery…I have heard sermon after sermon, when a slave, intended to make me satisfied with my condition, telling me that it is the position God intended me to occupy; that if I offend against my master, I offend against God; that my happiness in time and eternity depends on my entire obedience to my master. Those are the doctrines taught among slaves, and the slave-holders themselves have become conscious about holding slaves in bondage, and their consciences have been lulled to sleep by the preaching and teaching of the Southern American pulpits. “There is no place,” said an Abolitionist in the United States, “where slavery finds a more secure abode than under the shadow of the sanctuary.”[24]

Those unbiblical scriptural interpretations and messages had to be undone and untaught, and some of that work still needs to be done. (I will have more to say on that that in the next couple of posts.)

We must also acknowledge that the damage to the family of God has been deep. Often the social and legal changes were imposed before the sinful attitudes that created and laid the foundation for Jim Crow were addressed, generating resentment and anger that remains. The work of restoration and healing is not finished, and cannot ultimately be finished by statute.

As I have written elsewhere, social science has established clearly that white Americans and African Americans view racism differently. White people tend to view racism as an individual attitude (I have argued that it is an individual sin), while black people tend to view racism as a characteristic of our political and social system (making it a collective sin). As should be clear, these are two edges of the same sword. White Christians are obligated to understand the perspective of their African-American Christian brethren. And Black Christians are obligated to understand the perspective of their White brethren. Many of us ignorantly push forward attitudes that do nothing to pursue and improve the unity of the Body of Christ. Instead, we steadfastly (or stubbornly) refuse to consider changing the way we think or our preferences for the sake of others and the sake of Christ’s Bride.

The broader problem, however, is that as America moves away from a common understanding of sin and humanity’s intrinsic sinfulness, the real basis for racial reconciliation becomes more elusive. If we don’t agree on the concept of sin, healing becomes difficult, because clear and truthful communication about the real problem will be hindered. It is thus the responsibility of members of the Body of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to initiate and follow through on racial reconciliation and healing based on its real and actual causes. We must set aside our own preferences for the way we wish things were, or the way we have come to identify with our personal heritages.

Healing and Reconciliation is individual and group work

Scripturally there are clear processes for resolving interpersonal conflicts between Christians, and some of that work must be done. There is much written on this, and I don’t have the space to address it here, but it includes:

  • The sinner repenting and seeking forgiveness;
  • the victim forgiving the sinner;
  • the sinner pursuing the victim to seek reconciliation and forgiveness;
  • the victim pursuing the sinner to seek reconciliation and offer forgiveness; and
  • a spirit of mutual love and respect as co-equal children of God and followers of Christ.

It does not include, as one African-American brother in the Lord put it, browbeating others into submission.

As a side note, the non-Christian world will not understand this, they will marvel at it! This week I was watching The Rundown (MSNBC) host José Díaz-Balart interview Pastor Stephen Singleton from Charleston, South Carolina, where a few days earlier nine black churchgoers were murdered in church by a white man hoping to start a race war. Díaz-Balart seemed genuinely perplexed by Christian family members’ willingness to express forgiveness toward the shooter so soon:

“I was struck over and over again how they said ‘We forgive you.’ What kind of a person does that? How is one able to have so much forgiveness against evil?”[25]

Brothers and sisters—the government can’t do this. The NAACP can’t do this. The other church down the road can’t do this (alone). Islam can’t do this. Social do-gooders can’t do this. We, the followers of Jesus Christ, must do this. It is the right thing to do, to imitate Christ, to set aside our own self-interest and put others’ interests above our own (Phil 2:3-15), and work together for healing, pursuing the unity of the Body.

We must work together toward the common goal our Lord has set for His Church in human history, both setting aside our personal histories and leveraging those histories to strengthen the work of the Body. These histories include our ethnicities. As Tony Evans recently wrote,

The reason why we haven’t solved the racial divide in America after hundreds of years is because people apart from God are trying to invent unity, while people who belong to God are not living out the unity that we already possess….Unity can be defined in its most basic of terms as oneness of purpose. It means working together toward a common goal….God has a team. It’s made up of African-American, Anglo, Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, and a variety of other people and cultures. He never wants you to make your distinction, your history or your background, so precious to you that it messes up His team. Nor does He want you to ignore or diminish your distinction, your history or your background, thus leaving little with which to contribute to His team.

At the individual level, if you know that what you do has a very negative effect on another person, STOP IT!

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phil 2:3-4)

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phil 2:3-4)

Seek forgiveness from your neighbor or co-worker or your kid’s teacher. Legally, do we have to change our hearts? No, we’re free to continue on, but as Russell Moore points out, “we should not prize our freedom to the point of destroying those for whom Christ died. We should instead ‘pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding’ (Rom. 14:19).” For example, New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson relates how a white friend, who, without asking, took down his Confederate battle flag, simply because he came to realize that Watson found it offensive and hurtful. No demands, no screaming, no protests, just friends learning to love one another in harmony. How good that is!

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brothers to dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1)

Conclusion

Once Christians acknowledge the foundational biblical principles of a human self-concept based on creation and equality before God; once we decide to leverage our already-existing unity, and apply principles of peace-seeking and reconciliation to damaged relationships; once we have really begun implementing spiritual chemotherapy against the cancer of racism; and once we operate from a position of biblical orthodoxy and not liberalism, broader social changes and healing are bound to follow.

———————————-

This essay is the first of three parts in a series promoting racial healing. In this essay, I have articulated a Biblical Worldview of humanity and race. Next, I address the twisting of scripture that produced the so-called “Curse of Ham,” which has been used as brutal weapon in the cause of white supremacy against people of color and against the unity of the Body of Christ.

———————————–

[1] Although Webster’s 1828 also acknowledges that “race” may allude to descendants of a specific person, such as “the race of Abraham.” This meaning is secondary to the primary concept of the race of humans.

[2] National Institutes of Health (US); Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. NIH Curriculum Supplement Series [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Institutes of Health (US); 2007-. Understanding Human Genetic Variation. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK20363/

[3] Michael P. Jeffries, Paint the White House Black (Excerpt), accessed at http://genius.com/Michael-p-jeffries-paint-the-white-house-black-excerpt-annotated/ 26 June 2015.

[4] George Frederickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2002), 52

[5] http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/genetics/skin-color

[6] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 1, Chapters 5-6; Hippolytus, The Refutation of All Heresies, Book X, Chapter XXVII.

[7] Bernard Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry (Oxford University Press, 1990), 44-45.

[8] Strong’s H8034 and H8035;; T.G. Pinches, “Shem,” International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (1939), accessed at <www.blueletterbible.org>

[9] Strong’s H3315, H6601; Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon; Pinches, “Japheth,” ISBE.

[10] Strong’s H1990, Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon; Pinches, “Shem;” ISBE.

[11] I sent a more rudimentary version of this Punnett Square to a friend of mine with a Ph.D. in genetics just to be sure I was communicating this point accurately. He wrote, “The image you sent is a Punnett square which is helpful in understanding how certain gene combinations are inherited. Melanin is the most important gene for influencing skin color, but there are many more genes that interact to determine a person’s skin color. Therefore, the chart is an oversimplification, but could be useful for illustration purposes.” For a more complex Punnett Square example see http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-teachers-06.htm

[12] David M. Goldenberg, “The Curse of Ham: A Case of Rabbinic Racism?” In Struggles in the Promised Land, ed. Jack Salzman and Cornel West (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). Accessed via cached version through Google.

[13] For example, see Tony Evans, The Kingdom Agenda (Nashville: Word, 1999), 356-7.

[14] Lewis, Race and Slavery in the Middle East, 45-46. The American offshoot of Islam, the Nation of Islam, developed its own bizarre theory of how different skin-toned people groups were created, called “Yacub’s History” (Malcom X and Alex Haley, [1964] Autobiography of Malcom X (Ballentine Books, 1992), pp. 164-167.

[15] Goldenberg, “The Curse of Ham.”

[16] By “in God’s image,” traditional historic Christianity does not mean God’s physical image, but that humans bear the imprint of God’s character on their soul and spirit.

[17] For example, see the Introductory Note to The Early Church Fathers: Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 3, Ed. A. Cleveland Coxe (Christian Literature Company, Buffalo, NY 1885) (E-Sword STEP edition).

[18] Frederickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 52

[19] Frederickson, Racism, p. 11.

[20] E.g., “Sin,” Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words.

[21] Evans, Kingdom Agenda, p. 364.

[22] King, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 16 April 1963. Accessed at www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[23] Kingdom Agenda, 364-5. See also Ron Miller, 2015, “Make Us One: Looking at race through the eyes of God,” PowerPoint presentation, personal copy.

[24] Frederick Douglass, “Slavery in the Pulpit of the Evangelical Alliance: An Address Delivered in London, England, on September 14, 1846.” London Inquirer, September 19, 1846 and London Patriot, September 17, 1846. www.yale.edu/glc/archive/1083.htm

[25] “Emanuel AME Church holds Bible study for first time since shooting,” MSNBC Broadcast June 25, 2015.

4 Reasons for Parents to Keep Reading

© Pamela Hodson | Dreamstime Stock PhotosIt was the kind of question that makes parents quake in their boots!

The other day my 13 year old daughter was reading Leviticus—on her own!—and came across a passage that perplexed her:

16 The Lord spoke to Moses: 17 “Tell Aaron: None of your descendants throughout your generations who has a physical defect is to come near to present the food of his God. 18 No man who has any defect is to come near: no man who is blind, lame, facially disfigured, or deformed; 19 no man who has a broken foot or hand, 20 or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has an eye defect, a festering rash, scabs, or a crushed testicle. 21 No descendant of Aaron the priest who has a defect is to come near to present the fire offerings to the Lord. He has a defect and is not to come near to present the food of his God. 22 He may eat the food of his God from what is especially holy as well as from what is holy. 23 But because he has a defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar. He is not to desecrate My sanctuaries, for I am Yahweh who sets them apart.” (Lev 21:16-23)

Because we are advocates for Down Syndrome adoptions [read more here and check out Reece’s Rainbow here] and have many friends with special needs, my daughter began wondering whether this passage means that God does not find people with special needs acceptable as ministers. And then she asked me if her thinking was right.

What a perceptive question! I am so proud of her for thinking through this passage of scripture, and I told her so.

But let’s be honest: Even though it is a good question, it is a very hard question. How would you have answered? I mean, Leviticus is often perplexing because many of the social and theological issues it deals with are so foreign to us. Who among us could pull a correct answer out of thin air?

In God’s perfect timing, I have been reading Paul Copan’s book, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God, which addresses exactly these kinds of questions. Though Copan is dealing with New Atheist misconceptions about God, he lays out some specific ways God expressed his will that Israel understand holiness, and did so through the rules and regulations we find in Exodus and Leviticus. And (praise the Lord) he also deals with the passage that challenged my daughter!

Because I had been reading this book recently, I had a good answer for my daughter.

But I wasn’t off the hook! The next night at dinner, my other two daughters had equally grown-up questions:

The seven year old asked, “Why did Eve want to sin and disobey God?” In God’s perfect timing I had listened to a sermon that morning that addressed this exact question in a way that provided me with new insight that dovetailed precisely with the way she posed the question.

She then asked, “How can we be God’s children and He be our Father when he doesn’t have a wife?” And then the eleven year old asked, “How did people get saved before Jesus died?”

Can I tell you—these are important questions with which Christians have been dealing for two millennia. And they were asked by my tween kids, over a single meal! This is why as parents we have to be continually feeding our own minds, growing our own faith, and building our grasp of the deeper things of the Lord. Four points come to mind.

It is important to keep reading and studying…

  1. So you can learn and grow as a Christian. This might seem obvious, but the ability to answer your own questions and those of others requires some self-education. Reading the Bible is mission critical to your own preparation. But you should also be reading other materials to give you insight as to how major themes of scripture and theology work together. (For example, the Bible itself does not tell us how its manuscripts were transmitted to us; the Bible does not tell us when the Trinity became an accepted doctrine in Christian history; nor does not provide much explicit information about the social and political contexts of first-century Judea, though its narrative corresponds well with what historians tell us, for example here).

The right materials can help you learn how to think biblically about your world. Scripture admonishes us to move from spiritual “milk” to spiritual “meat” or “solid food” (1 Cor 3:1-3; Heb 5:11-14); this means we are to seek deeper answers to deeper questions, on more challenging topics than you were satisfied with as a new believer. Moreover, you are responsible for your own spiritual education in this process; maturing believers are not just sitting back and letting their preacher do the work for them, letting them simply dump information into their heads for 20 or 30 minutes each week and then call it good. We often speak of our kids having to “own their own faith” once they leave their parents’ home, but adults also have to own their own faith, too, and part of that is taking responsibility for learning.

  1. So you can answer questions from your spiritual children. As parents, our biblical obligation is to disciple our children—to pass on to them the knowledge of God and His ways to future generations. A central part of this is the children’s questions! (See Exod 13:11-15; Deut 6:20-23; Josh 4:5-7; 4:19-24.) Even if you’re not a parent, or if your kids are gone, the longer you’ve been a Christian, the more likely it is that someone else will see you as a spiritually-knowledgeable person. Therefore you owe it to them to be prepared. Again, you are responsible for seeking understanding and wisdom for the day in which you get asked that question.
  2. So you can be known as one who seeks truth. Your children will observe you feeding your mind and faith with the Bible and excellent materials that help you understand the Bible and God. As a father or mother, your children need to know that you are growing in your faith, so that they see that you believe growing in the faith is important. Not only will they tend to emulate you, but you will become known to them as a person who is trustworthy enough to ask difficult questions! In my children’s case, I also have to be honest about when I don’t know the answer to a question, and then seek out the answer.
  3. So you can listen thoughtfully. When you know what is true, you can more easily identify what is false, and this is a critical skill for Christians. If you are not feeding your mind with the truth, you will be less able to discern falsehoods that you will hear from the culture, from critics, and even from some teachers. How can you discern whether the teachings of Joel Osteen, Joseph Smith (founder of Mormonism), Rob Bell, Billy Graham, or your pastor are true or false? By learning and educating yourself on Bible truth and the truths accepted by orthodox Christians for twenty centuries, you equip yourself to provide a reasoned defense of God’s truth and the gospel (1 Peter 3:15-16); to not be captured by this world’s false philosophies ((Col 2:6-8); and to critically evaluate false teachers (Matt 7:15; Matt 24:10-24; 2 Peter 2:1).

A few cautions…

Be sure that you are seeking God’s truth. Since the early days of Christianity, heresies have cropped up that, grounded in the spirit of anti-Christ, have pulled believers away from the straight path of godly knowledge and wisdom (1 John 2:18-24, 1 John 4:1-6). Truth does not just make you feel good about yourself, or confirm what you already believe (Heb 4:12), but is to teach us, rebuke us and train us out of incorrect behaviors and beliefs (2 Tim 3:16). And second, be humble and gentle, because you are accountable for what you teach others about the Lord (James 3:1). This is another reason to be sure that you are learning correct doctrine—you want to pass on correct doctrine, lest you be held accountable by God for perpetuating heresies and false doctrines, risking the souls of your children (Heb 13:17).

Thinking back to my daughters’ questions…I have found that God knew exactly what I needed to know and when I needed to know it. Through consistently reading and studying the Bible itself, as well as reading books and listening to sermons and apologetics podcasts, God prepares me to answer the questions that arise about our Lord, His Word, and His Kingdom.

4 Steps to Staying Christian Through College

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how Christians can survive college with their faith intact. A major theme in my Biblical Worldview & Apologetics classes and seminars is preparing students for the challenges they will hear to Christianity and central Christian doctrines when they’re in college. Once they know what to expect, I think, they will be better prepared to put the challenges in context and then be equipped to think through the underlying assumptions and evidence at stake.

An article came across my newsfeed this morning (via the fantastic worldview and apologetic website The Poached Egg) that addresses the problem of students who believe in creationism (regardless of whether that is Old Earth Creationism, Young Earth Creationism, or Intelligent Design Theory) but are sitting through courses in evolutionary biology that are the norm at colleges and universities. This article, “Talking Back to Goliath: Some Advice for Students in the Evolutionary Biology Classroom,” is written by Paul Nelson, Ph.D. of Biola University and the Discovery Institute.

How should students respond to professors who assert the “truth” of Neo-Darwinian evolution?

His central piece of advice, which I heartily endorse, is

First, no aggression. David slaying Goliath is a justly famous account of bravery, but that was a literal battlefield. Your task is to persuade, not harm. Your sling and stones should be the evidence — or its conspicuous absence.

We have to be honest that the environment at colleges and universities is increasingly antagonistic toward traditional Christian beliefs and doctrines. That means that while some professors are nobly tolerant of diverse ideas like those of biblical Christianity, most are not. Thus the battlefield of the classroom is generally one in which the profs have the power and the podium, while students have no power and only as much podium as the prof is willing to yield.

Christian students must remember that aggression in social relationships like this are very unlikely to yield positive benefits in the form of a conciliatory or evangelized professor who will concede the significant gaps in evolution evidence. (Here is an article with links to some evolutionists who will admit this.) Keep in mind that your professor’s career and job security most likely depend on their continued belief that evolution is true.

Next, Nelson recommends that students in biology courses review the scholarly literature in the field, to evaluate the claims of Neo-Darwinian evolution for themselves.

Choose any complex structure or behavior, and look in the biological literature for the step-by-step causal account where the origin of that structure (that is, its coming-to-be where it did not exist before) is explained via random variation and natural selection.

You’ll be looking a long time. The explanations just aren’t there, and this fact is well known to evolutionary biologists who have become disenchanted with received neo-Darwinian theory.

In this context, my general advice to students is this.

1. Know your audience. This is not primarily your professor, but your fellow students. They don’t have the personal investment in evolution being true, unlike your prof, and you can build personal and relationships with them over coffee, via study groups, and so on. Knowing your audience also means you can ratchet your expectations as to what you can accomplish in that class context over the semester.

2. Learn and be able to articulate the evidence and the evidence gaps in evolutionary theory, not just the evidence that supports creationism. By understanding the perspectives and holes in the dominant theory, your faith will not be shaken, and your ideas will have credibility among your peers. (Again, your professor is not your peer!) Moreover, you must be able to articulate the arguments that are used to support evolutionism for a very practical reason–you want to pass the class! This is not the same thing as conceding that evolutionary theory is true. It is comparable to learning the central doctrines of Islam in order to understand its theological gaps to effectively respond to their claims; learning what they are is not the same thing as thinking that they’re true.

3. Learn how to be winsome in the way you undermine others’ faith in Neo-Darwinian evolution and then communicate the opposing view. For a strategic approach to this, I highly recommend the book Tactics by Greg Koukl and other approaches related to conversational apologetics (examples here and here). In fact, I have adopted Koukl’s book for my upcoming class.

4. Develop a support system. Find professors at your school or at other schools who will support your faith as well as who know the literature and theories. Chances are, Christians student fellowships will be able to tell you who some of the Christian profs are on campus. You may have to connect with faculty who are experts in their field at a Christian university, such as Biola or Bryan, or through apologetics groups such as the Christian Apologetics Alliance or Ratio Christi. Connect with Christian student fellowships and a local church that treat the Bible seriously as a historical and theological document. Don’t isolate yourself from other Christians, don’t give up meeting together with other believers (Hebrews 10).

Keep in mind that even though the popular image of David facing Goliath (1 Samuel 17) is that David was a young child, scripture tells us that when he went to meet the giant, David had already honed his battle skills through combat with lions and bears (17:34-37). Don’t wait until you get into the class to prepare your heart and mind for these challenges.

Christian students who go to college often have their faith undermined by new ideas and idealogues who are increasingly intolerant of ideas outside the mainstream–that is, Biblical Christianity. By staying respectful, intellectually engaged, winsome in your conversations, and connected with other Bible believers, you can keep your faith.

 

Historical Evidence that Jesus Actually Existed

ravenna-jesus-212x300One of the more remarkable theories by skeptics of Christianity over the last century is that Jesus Christ never even existed. Fortunately, the historical record is quite clear, and the actual existence of this man in history is well documented by ancient historical standards.

In a forthcoming article in Biblical Archaeology Review Dr. Lawrence Mykytiuk, a professor at Purdue University, carefully summarizes and discusses the historical evidence for Jesus in early non-Christian sources. This article is well-documented, with two-thirds of the published web-page dedicated to footnotes verifying or explaining his conclusions and broader scholarly debates. (It isn’t actually new information, but is an easy-to-understand and thorough discussion.)

You can read Mykytiuk’s whole article here, but based on reading and analysis of non-Christian sources, the following facts about Jesus can be known from two prominent ancient historians who briefly mention Jesus (and excluding dubious changes to those historians’ writings).

What do we know about Jesus?

  1. He existed as a man [Josephus and Tacitus]…
  2. His personal name was Jesus, as Josephus informs us.
  3. He was called Christos in Greek, which is a translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, both of which mean “anointed” or “(the) anointed one,” as Josephus states and Tacitus implies…
  4. He had a brother named James (Jacob), as Josephus reports.
  5. He won over both Jews and “Greeks” (i.e., Gentiles of Hellenistic culture), according to Josephus…
  6. Jewish leaders of the day expressed unfavorable opinions about him…
  7. Pilate rendered the decision that he should be executed, as both Tacitus and Josephus state.
  8. His execution was specifically by crucifixion, according to Josephus.
  9. He was executed during Pontius Pilate’s governorship over Judea (26–36 C.E.), as Josephus implies and Tacitus states, adding that it was during Tiberius’s reign.[1]

While there is no good reason, historically speaking, to exclude Christian writings (such as those in the New Testament or by early church fathers), the non-Christian evidence about the historical facts of Jesus’ life and death is clear, despite the small number of people who claim otherwise.

——————————————–

[1] It is worth noting that several of Mukutiuk’s conclusions parallel those of two Christian apologists who focus on the resurrection of Jesus. Gary Habermas developed the “minimal facts” approach to the resurrection, and with Michael Licona has written extensive scholarly work on this question (see examples here and here.

The Virgin Birth: Myth, Made-up, or Misinterpretation?

Source: http://iconreader.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/vmdirect.jpg

Source: http://iconreader.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/vmdirect.jpg

One of the most frequent challenges to traditional Christian doctrine is over the “virgin” conception and birth of Jesus in Mary.

Some people argue that miracles never happen (a philosophical assumption, rather than an empirical fact), and therefore the virgin birth of Jesus could not be true.

Others argue that the virgin birth was a mythological addition to the story of Jesus’ life, and was originally derived from other ancient “virgin birth myths,” and so it is not true.

This last one is particularly popular these days, and The Apologetics Guy has put together a concise response to the myth objection. His key points are these:

“The Virgin Birth wasn’t Copied from Myths”, either Horus, Mithra or Caesar Augustus.

By the way, LutheranSatire has put together a very clever video refuting (and yes, mocking) the myth-copying hypothesis:

Apologetics Guy then addresses the accusation that the virgin birth was made up later on, arguing that

“Making up a fake story about Jesus’ virgin birth wouldn’t make Christianity more attractive to the Jews. It would actually make people suspicious about Jesus…The Virgin Birth Wasn’t Emphasized…[and] The Virgin Birth is Different from Myths” in important ways.

One of the most important differences is that the Christian tradition of the virgin birth occurs prior to the other myths commonly cited, as Catholic.com notes,

“The parallel between the birth of Jesus and the pagan god exists, but the Christian tradition antedates the pagan mythology…and none were ever believed to be historical figures like Jesus.”

Finally, The Apologetics Guy doesn’t address a more text-critical view–that the gospel writers had to contrive Jesus’ conception by a virgin because they misread an Old Testament messianic prophecy from Isaiah 7:14:

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel. (NAS)

Evidence Unseen addresses several of the anti-virgin conception claims, one of which is the claim that the Hebrew word alluding to the messiah’s birth (almah) doesn’t really mean virgin, but instead is a general term referring to an adolescent young woman. After discussing the language issues, they conclude,

“while the term almah does not exclusively mean virgin, it is certainly compatible with virginity –especially when we see that there was no other Hebrew term to use that would be any better.”

In short, Christians can continue to be confident in the integrity of the doctrine of Jesus’ virgin birth. It was clearly not copied from other pagan myths, it was not made up by the later church, and Matthew did not misinterpret the Old Testament prophecy.

Merry Christ-mas!!

 

 

 

When God doesn’t answer prayers the way we want

Image Source: huffpost.com

You won’t live very long on this earth before you have an experience that causes you to ask God for a healing. What we usually have in mind is that we want God to physically heal a person so that they can go on living life here with us “like normal.”

Sometimes, however, God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want him to. This situation is poignantly addressed in this beautiful blog post at scribblesandcrumbs.

The author describes her struggles to understand the suffering and eventual deaths of two people, her friend Chelsea and her son Charlie. Chelsea, an adult:

So many rallied around and prayed for healing for her. She was so deeply loved by many, many faithful Christians, but her healing did not come in this life.

And Charlie, her own young child:

I can’t tell you how many times Charlie beat the odds. I can’t tell you how many nights where all medical options were exhausted, and it was up to Charlie and God to pull him through. He had so many close calls, so many near death experiences. People rallied together. They prayed through the night, and Charlie would pull through.

God brought healing, and then Charlie got sick again. And again. And again.

I wrestled with the purpose of Charlie’s sickness all throughout his life, and after his death, I still do.

Her set of questions about our understanding of God versus the reality of God is insightful, and she points to the centrality of hope for coping with the things we don’t understand…

Sometimes God doesn’t answer prayers in the way we want. Sometimes horrible things happen.

God can still be good and still be strong and still be loving. Our world is sick and broken and muddied since the fall of mankind.

The tragedies we encounter sometimes push us to question or even reject God’s existence, out of our pain and misunderstanding of God’s perspective, his purposes, and his sovereignty. This is because we want God to do what we want him to do–we have such a high view of ourselves that in times of struggle we want God to comply with our will. When he doesn’t, we blame him for not really being a loving God. Instead, scribblesandcrumbs points us to the hope that she and millions of others find in their tragedies.

We can choose to reject or resent God for the times it feels he doesn’t listen or doesn’t answer or even the times that it feels he doesn’t have any regard for our lives.

I know those times, but I can tell you that, because of him, I can also see the beauty, see the joy, see the hope, see heaven. I see what was intended, and that only builds my hope for so much more after this life.

When the healing doesn’t come, hold on to hope. This world is the beginning. This world is a shadow compared to what is to come.

Indeed.

PS: If you are struggling with tragedy, you don’t have to go it alone. Here are some ideas I had for finding hope and meaning in the midst of community.

 

Why I am Convinced God Exists 2: Assumptions and Evidence Standards

Michael Angelo's Creation of Adam (Source: Wikimedia.org)

Michael Angelo’s Creation of Adam (Source: Wikimedia.org)

In attempting to answer the question “Does God Exist?” I had to make some assumptions. In this post I discuss the rationality of my process, and lay out the handful of assumptions that underlie my broader analysis. These assumptions are, I believe, entirely reasonable: 1. I exist. 2. I can reason. 3. There are true answers to many questions related to God’s existence. Based on these, I discuss specific standards of evidence and proof used by various disciplines.

Previous Post: Introduction

In my previous discussions, I’ve used the term rational a couple times, and so it’s important that I tell you what I mean by that. Rationality is a term used in economics and political science to describe a process of thoughtfully pursuing goals using reason. That is, a person is considered rational when she has a goal she’d like to achieve, is able to reason through a set of options for pursuing that goal, and follow a path she believes will help her achieve that goal. This evaluation and path selection assumes she has enough information to make those judgments, and that she can reason through the consequences of selecting different paths. This doesn’t require perfect or complete information, but having enough credible information to make a reasonable prediction.[1]

Here, my goal is to conclude whether God exists, and rationality refers to my reasoning through the various paths that come up on that journey. As a result, I haven’t specifically addressed every question that could possibly be asked about what the world would be like if God doesn’t exist. Rather, I’ve selected the most pertinent lines of inquiry that I reasoned would help me answer the question for myself. Other people will probably have other lines of inquiry that will satisfy their intellectual curiosity on this question. If they’re rational, they’ll think systematically, too, and will pick questions that will, on balance, enable them to more or less objectively answer the question. The alternative is to cherry-pick paths that will lead them to the answer they want to be true, which is intellectually faulty and dishonest.

After I wrote about 12 single-spaced pages of analysis, I stopped. Had I made unreasonable assumptions that would inexorably lead me to the conclusion I wanted to be true? That is, since I want God to exist, did I frame the whole set of questions in such a way as to inevitably lead me to the conclusion that God exists? As I thought about it, I backtracked to my initial questions to figure out my underlying assumptions. I concluded that they are reasonable and realistic and need not lead to the conclusion that God exists. They are:

  1. I exist. By implication, this also means the material universe, what Carl Sagan called the cosmos, exists.
  2. I can reason. That means I have the intellectual ability to think through a series of questions and answers, imagine contrary views, evaluate contrary arguments, compile and evaluate evidence, and draw conclusions based on that process.[2]
  3. There are true answers to many questions. Some statements are true and other statements are false. By true, I mean true in the conventional way that people use the word and its partner, truth. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a true statement or belief as “Consistent with fact; agreeing with the reality; representing the thing as it is,” and truth as “Conformity with fact; agreement with reality; accuracy, correctness, verity (of statement or thought).”[3] So the true answer to whether God exists has to be consistent with the facts, agreeing with the reality of the way things are. Ascertaining the truth of a statement involves the exercise of reason (see my second assumption, above).[4]

That’s it—those are the core assumptions from which I’m working. Fundamentally, this is a search for the true answer to the question, Does God Exist?. Again, I don’t claim especially comprehensive or specialized knowledge in some areas, but I know how to evaluate many facts, I know how to compare and contrast ideas, and I know how to think reasonably logically.[5] I think I’m competent to evaluate whether an idea, concept, or statement conforms to reality within the normal bounds of normal human intelligence.

My process, therefore, was not to develop my own professional expertise, research agenda, or even a deep familiarity with the original professional academic research in any of these areas. Rather, I did my best to evaluate other people’s work while also thinking systematically through my own ideas and considering in broad strokes the alternatives. And that has to be enough. (Even if I wanted to acquire professional expertise in some of these fascinating areas, I already have a full-time job and my lovely bride has said she is not going to put me through graduate school again!)

Now that I have discussed my basic reasoning and assumptions, let’s turn to specific issues related to the standards of evidence or proof one might need in any area of study.

Standards of Evidence

Convincing someone of something depends on the standards of evidence the first someone requires. What kind of evidence would be adequate to prove that God exists? Logic, legal reasoning, experimental science, statistical reasoning and historical reasoning all provide input into addressing this question. In the end, I conclude that science and experimental reasoning provide language but not tools for evaluating whether God exists, because they are only appropriate for testing material things and processes. Since no one makes a serious claim that God is a material being, materialistic methods for “testing” for God simply aren’t appropriate.

There are many common standards used and familiar to many of us, and different disciplines make use of different proof standards. The “proof standard” leading to the conclusion that my ancestor Caleb Albee fought in the Revolutionary War is different than the proof standard that education affects the probability that a person will vote. The legal standard expected of juries for convicting criminals is different from the experimental standards for concluding that the rate of chemical reactions varies based on changes in the ambient temperature in which the chemicals interact.

Some common proof standards

Beyond a reasonable doubt. This is the burden of proof a prosecutor must meet in a trial in which someone is accused of a crime. The jury must find the evidence and reasoning so strong that any reasonable doubt about the accused’s guilt must be overcome. Note that this doesn’t eliminate any doubt, or any possible other explanation for a crime. Even though this sounds really difficult to understand, thousands upon thousands of our fellow citizens are able to apply this proof standard every year in nearly every jury trial held in our nation.

Preponderance of the evidence. This is the burden of proof that must be met for someone suing someone else in a civil suit, such as breaking a contract or agreement, or that the tree branch that fell on my car is your fault because the tree is on your property. Lower than the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard, this simply requires a jury to assess whether, when all the relevant evidence is considered, someone broke a contract or ought to be held responsible for some bad outcome. Again, thousands of our fellow citizens apply this proof standard in civil jury trials every year.

Reasoning to the best explanation. This is a proof standard for drawing conclusions about historical events and relationships, such as in my hobby, genealogy.[6] This leverages documentary and archaeological evidence about the past: events and people, their lives and relationships based on contemporary accounts, documents and circumstantial evidence. This is fundamentally the basis for the discipline of History, which seeks to document whether, where, how, and why certain events happened. Since for most of human history there are no eyewitnesses now living, everything we know about the past is based on reasoning to the best explanation. (I have recently come to learn that in Logic, this is called abductive reasoning.)

Scientific statistical reasoning. This is based on probability and sampling theories, in which the likelihood of outcomes and relationships can be calculated; and hypothesis testing.[7] There are normally two major types of errors to avoid: rejecting a true statement instead of accepting it as true (a Type 1 Error), and accepting a false statement as true instead of rejecting it (a Type 2 error). Probabilities can be calculated for avoiding those errors. (In terms of God’s existence, a Type 1 Error would be rejecting the statement “God exists” when it is in fact true. A Type 2 Error would be accepting the statement “God exists” when it is in fact false.)

  • The standard point at which a statement is normally accepted as empirically supported is at the 95% probability level, though that standard is arbitrary. You have seen this used when the news presents public opinion poll results that include a margin of error notation (such as ± 3%). Billions of dollars in spending each year hinges on people applying this proof standard to marketing and political decisions. The important thing about this kind of reasoning is that it hinges on a probabilistic standard of proof rather than an absolute standard; even if we obtain a result for which we are 99.9% sure, we still allow a small probability (0.1%) that our conclusion is wrong. The lower that probability, the higher the confidence that we’ve correctly identified a true statement or rejected a false one.
  • Explanatory power is the statistical concept that permits us to calculate the proportion of variation in some phenomenon that is explained by a set of independent variables. Any group of explanatory factors will explain some amount of the differences in a thing we’re trying to understand. In my research, for example, I often am trying to explain why people vote or do not vote. The outcome is easy to understand: either a person votes or she doesn’t vote. If I have 10 variables that are plausibly related to that behavior, I can calculate rather precisely how good a job each one does individually. I can also calculate how good a job they do collectively.[8] One important point here is that even in the most rigorous analysis of individual behavior we never even come close to explaining 100% of the variation in anything (aggregated social statistics are an exception).
  • So as a social scientist using statistical and econometric methods, I am comfortable with (1) finding explanatory factors that are plausibly, logically and statistically related to a phenomenon I’m trying to explain. (2) Thinking probabilistically about how likely they are to actually be related to the thing I’m trying to explain, and being comfortable with that probability being a good deal less than absolute certainty. And (3) happy when a reasonably high level of explanation is provided by my factors without even coming close to explaining everything. I am satisfied with sufficiency and coherence, rather than incontrovertible proof, and every social scientist and economist that uses statistics operates on the same principles.

Experimental evidence of physical objects and processes (that is, conclusions that are based on the process of hypothesis testing, controlled experimental manipulation, and replication). Since this particular proof standard requires the ability to manipulate and replicate experimental conditions, it is inadequate to evaluate claims that cannot be subjected to experimental replication or manipulation. For example, we can’t replicate the creation of something from nothing, in which there is by definition nothing to vary or manipulate in the experiment; thus creation ex nihilo is an event not subject to scientific experimentation. On the other hand, experimental evidence is adequate for learning all kinds of things about the way the material world operates.

Basic Logic, including the Law of Noncontradiction, which says that “No proposition may be simultaneously true and false” and its partner, the Law of the Excluded Middle, “Every proposition must be either true or false.”[9] (Note that is a more formal restatement of one of my underlying assumptions.)

Understanding these standards of evidence and proof helps me reason about God’s existence in three specific ways.

  1. First, I can be okay with not having 100% proof of God existing, but with finding sufficient arguments and evidence for me to conclude that some things are very likely to point to God’s existence. Admittedly, this is a bit subjective, and the question is not subject to actual probabilistic calculations at all! But the principle is that in the rest of my intellectual life I don’t expect or get absolutely perfect or complete explanations for anything, so I’m comfortable with some gap between what I successfully explain and a perfect explanation.
  2. Second, a variety of kinds of arguments and evidence can be brought to bear on the question of God’s existence. When I teach students about methodological variety, I use the metaphor of triangulation, in which methods and accumulation of different kinds of evidence provide a process of narrowing the set of potential explanations to those that seem most plausible.
  3. Third, given what I observe in the world around me, I can reason out which theory and factors best provide a comprehensive, if not complete explanation for the world and for human behavior. Do the principles of an atheistic worldview do as good a job explaining things as the principles of a theistic worldview? If not, which theism provides the best or most reasonable explanation, or demonstrates the greatest explanatory power, for the way the universe and human beings actually operate? Again, I don’t need absolutely complete explanations, just logical, plausible, sufficient, coherent, and (hopefully) parsimonious ones.

In particular, I think it’s interesting to note that none of the legal or scientific standards of evidence requires 100% elimination of every other possibility every time in order to conclude that a person is guilty, that an historical event happened, or that an hypothesis is supported or refuted. On the other hand, the Law of Noncontradiction allows us to identify logical options and eliminate directly contradictory statements as equally true, so we can organize the logical outcomes in certain situations.

Extraordinary Evidence?

Finally, let me address the famous objection put forward by atheist astronomer Dr. Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”[10] I have two responses to this. First, I am interested in evaluating extraordinary claims, such as “God exists” using evidence that is available. And the evidence one requires must be appropriate for the question one has. As I discussed earlier, as a political scientist my research questions drive my research methodology, and the same principle ought to to the question of God’s existence. It seems to me that what Sagan sought was the kind of scientific evidence that is simply inapplicable to the question with which I’m dealing. But my second thought is that I am willing to apply the principle within analytically-appropriate knowledge domains. So I think it is reasonable to expect extraordinary evidence to support Dr. Sagan’s claim that “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”[11] Or that nonliving matter spontaneously became living. Or that the universe started all by itself, creating everything from nothing, for no reason, or that it has eternally existed, or that the multiverse is actually scientifically provable.[12]

In conclusion, in seeking to answer the question Does God Exist?, there are several standards of evidence that come into play to some degree. Few, if any, of them hold absolute proof up as even possible to achieve. So whenever I think it’s possible to do, I will lay out my best understanding of the logical options for an issue. (For example, in the next section I’ll point out that on the question of God’s existence there are only two possibilities: Either God Exists or God Does Not Exist; there is no in-between state.) So there is a true answer! Then, thinking through other related questions, the various standards of evidence will come into play in ways that seem appropriate to the particular aspect of the questions at hand.

Does God Exist?

In this post I address a relatively simple yet profound truth: God either exists or God does not exist. There is no in-between state. What we believe about God’s existence is entirely irrelevant to whether God exists. And whether we can even know about God’s existence is also irrelevant. The fact of the matter is, there is a yes or no answer to this question. The real question is whether we can acquire sufficient reasons to conclude that one of these two is more likely to be true than the other.

Yes or No

Does God exist? There are only two answers, Yes and No, and they both can’t be true. That is, either God Exists or God Does Not Exist. Therefore, I have to evaluate which one of those answers corresponds to reality and the way things actually are, can be logically supported, and is evidentially supported.

Let’s lay out the logical options as a big picture roadmap for my analysis.

  1. One of these two statements is true, and the other is false: Either God Exists or God Does Not Exist.
  2. The question of God’s actual existence is independent of my belief about this. That is, it doesn’t matter whether I believe it or not, God either exists or does not exist.

Therefore, any person’s belief that God does not exist has no bearing on whether God actually exists. Similarly, any person’s belief that God does exist also has no bearing on whether God actually exists.

After I made these points at a recent talk, a young man suggested that there might be a third option—that we can’t know whether God exists. He was confusing knowledge about God with God’s actual existence. (In philosophical terms, the question of God’s reality is ontology, but the question of acquiring knowledge about reality is epistemology, and this was the difference.) Thus, it’s useful to address a third point related to knowing whether God exists:

  1. God’s actual existence does not rely on my possessing knowledge about God or about God’s existence.

What this means is that God may exist even if I don’t know it. Not knowing it does not bear on God’s existence.

It also means that God may exist even if I possess incorrect information about God. The relative correctness of my information does not affect God’s actual existence or actual nature, only my understanding of God.

Finally, it’s important to note that if God exists, there may be evidence of God’s existence. God may or may not have intentionally conveyed information to humanity about himself (or herself, or itself). Even if there isn’t evidence we can perceive, that doesn’t affect whether God exists, only that our knowledge about God doesn’t have evidence. On the other hand, we might be able to perceive at least some or all of the evidence for God’s existence.

(There are some important implications for the answer to these questions, and a person who concludes that God exists or doesn’t exist has some more work to do in accounting for the way the world works, or for explaining God more thoroughly. That set of questions is beyond this series, but are on my agenda to address down the road.)

My First Conclusion: God either exists or does not exist. The arguments and evidence must point me to which one of these statements is true, even if I don’t attain 100% certainty.

In my next post, I will address an important aspect of God’s existence. Most human conceptions of deities suggest that there exists a realm or dimension beyond the physical realm. If this realm is nonmaterial, it is one in which nonmaterial beings or deities could exist. Is there evidence that the non-material realm or reality exists in which a being like God could exist?

Next Post: Let’s Get Real(ity).

[1] An irrational person is someone who ignores the evidence and information and then follows a path unlikely to end with her goal being achieved, or that she just wanted to follow despite the evidence. So it would be irrational of me to use materialist methods to study nonmaterial things, because the method would not reasonably be expected to provide evidence about the subject.

[2] All of this begs the question, “How can a mere collection of neurons, blood vessels and electrical impulses actually do this and have any confidence in the result?” Late in my process I discovered the so-called “Argument from Reason,” which I’ll discuss later. I believe this provides a compelling argument for an intelligent, creative, reason-based being behind everything. But at first I just intuitively believed that I had the capacity to reason to a true conclusion.

[3] OED Online. Oxford University Press, accessed February 20, 2014.

[4] Again, this raises the question of how a mere collection of neurons, etc., determine whether a statement is true or false and then trust themselves that they have come up with the right answer.

[5] Thanks especially to a couple of computer programming courses back in the 1980s, and to Dr. Valli Koubi who took the time to walk our International Conflict class systematically through the logic of Expected Utility Theory when I was at the University of Georgia.

[6] See, for example, Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence! Citation & Analysis for the Family Historian (Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997).

[7] See, for example, Gujarti, Basic Econometrics (McGraw-Hill, 2003); an accessible introduction is Cuzzort and Vrettos, The Elementary Forms of Statistical Reason (St. Martin’s, 1996).

[8] This is calculated with a statistic called the coefficient of determination, which is the proportion of the variation in the probability—technically the logged odds—of voting explained by the variables.

[9] Horn, Laurence R., “Contradiction”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Accessed at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/contradiction/ August 29, 2014

[10] Sagan, Carl (writer/host) (December 14, 1980). “Encyclopaedia Galactica”. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Episode 12. 01:24 minutes in. PBS. Cited in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan#cite_note-74, Accessed 2 November 2014.

[11] Sagan, Carl, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), 4.

[12] See the excellent discussion of this claim by Rob Lundberg, “Responding to the ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidences’ Objection,” at http://roblundberg.blogspot.com/2014/01/responding-to-extraordinary-claims.html.

 

Understanding Ferguson’s Fires (updated)

Source: nbc.com

Source: nbc.com

[Updated: I updated this post to incorporate other responses published since I wrote the original.]

In Ferguson, Missouri a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer who shot a young African-American man last summer. When the decision not to indict was announced protests and violence ensued, with several fires set as some residents expressed anger and frustration, and other protests occurred around the country.

In a blog comment reprinted on Christianity Today, African-American pastor Bryan Lorrits wrote,

Over the years I’ve been challenged by my white brothers and sisters to just “get over” [events perceived as involving racism]. Their refusal to attempt to see things from my ethnically different perspective is a subtle, stinging form of racism. What’s more is that it hinders true Christian unity and fellowship within the beloved body of Christ.

My purpose with this post is an attempt  to explain this difference in perspective to my white brothers and sisters (of which I am one), and to help people understand why there is often an angry reaction to situations such as that of Michael Brown and Ferguson. In pulling together this post, I draw on what I have learned by studying race and American politics for more than twenty years. I also suggest some solutions from a Christian perspective. As you might imagine, it’s often complicated, but here goes a blog-length attempt.

Why are they angry?

There are obvious immediate causes: the unarmed African-American man[1] shot by a white police officer; the decision not to indict; the militaristic environment after the shooting, and so on. But the reality is that there are longer-term factors at work here. First, there is the perception (or reality) of racism on the part of the authorities in the situation. Second, there are race-based social and economic frustrations in many of America’s communities. Let’s take these apart carefully.

Racism

White people view racism quite differently than do black people. When whites are asked to define racism, the answer is usually something like, “when a person treats another person badly or negatively because of their race or ethnicity.” But when African-Americans are asked to define racism, the answer is usually something like, “a system in which racial groups are treated differently.”

The reasons for these two different views are socially and historically complicated. White people in general do not define themselves in terms of their ethnicity, nor do they view themselves as a social, economic or political group that has any specific common interests. (There are obvious exceptions to this, such as those whites who do view their race as their main relevant social characteristic. These people often end up in white supremacist groups, but are a very small portion of the white American population.)

African-Americans, on the other hand often see their primary relevant group characteristic as being their race or ethnicity. They have a high level of what social scientists call “group identification,” a strong psychological attachment to their group. This leads to a strong feeling of “linked fate,” the idea that what happens to one person in their group is likely to be relevant to one’s own life. So when a black person is shot by a white person, there is a psychological link made between that event and an awareness that this could happen to anyone in the group, including oneself.

White Americans simply don’t think this way based on our racial category, but we sometimes do in other areas. For example, as a home schooler, when I hear about a bad event (child abuse, or social worker’s abuse of powers), I often will say to myself, “I really hope that wasn’t a home schooler.” Why? Because I perceive that what happens to other home schoolers could also happen to me because I am a home schooler. Or if a child abuser is a home schooler, that reflects badly on home schoolers generally and makes us more likely to be viewed badly by society. This perception is due to my strong social identification as a home schooler and my sense of linked fate with other home schoolers.

The System and its Outcomes

Because African-Americans have higher racial group identification and attitude of linked fate, they view their relationship to the American political and criminal justice systems differently than white Americans do. A very important historical fact to remember is that for at least two centuries in the US, the legal and political systems did in fact define people and their status in society in race-based terms. In the South especially, the “Jim Crow” social environment used the law specifically to treat blacks and whites differently, and unequally (See an excellent article on this here). Thus one major reason the African-American community defines itself in that way is at least partially because the political system did so for so long.

While whites might optimistically hope that several decades after Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Acts the group-oriented mindset of African-Americans might have lessened, the reality is that group identity and linked fate still are quite important. To say that they shouldn’t be important is to miss the point that they still do matter to our neighbors.

In fact, the system itself seems to reinforce the sense that the group is systematically disadvantaged, not due to problems of individual motivation or a sense of entitlement, but because of intractable, long term social and economic outcomes in society. Here are just three examples:

The public education system, which is broken and dysfunctional in so many ways, is a particularly harsh environment for black (and Latino) boys. See a report here).

Family income in the black community is persistently lower than other racial or ethnic groups. This is illustrated in this graph:

Racial differences in household income, 1967-2012 Source: businessinsider.com

In terms of interacting with the criminal justice system, the legacy of race-defined unequal treatment still rears its ugly head. See this op-ed on crime statistics.

Differences like these produce the perception that the system is largely rigged against people of color, and persistent differences reinforce those perceptions.

That is not to say that this perception about bias in “the system” is universal among African-Americans. For example, following Ferguson, Pastor Voddie Bauchum reflected on his own experiences, writing,

“for many of those years, I blamed “the system” or “the man.” However, I have come to realize that it was no more “the system” when white cops pulled me over than it was “the system” when a black thug robbed me at gunpoint. It was sin! The men who robbed me were sinners. The cops who stopped me were sinners. They were not taking their cues from some script designed to “keep me down.” They were simply men who didn’t understand what it meant to treat others with the dignity and respect they deserve as image bearers of God.

It does me absolutely no good to assume that my mistreatment was systemic in nature. No more than it is good for me to assume that what happened in Ferguson was systemic. I have a life to live, and I refuse to live it fighting ghosts. I will not waste my energy trying to prove the Gramscian, neo-Marxist concept of “white privilege” or prejudice in policing practices.”

There is, however, in the black community a broad tendency to blame the system because of low trust in the system, for which there are plausible historical reasons. It is true that social, economic, educational, and political advances of black Americans occurred through governmental involvement. Nonetheless, there is a broad perception of stagnation in that progress over the last forty years. Whether white people think this it is unreasonable for black people to think this way is entirely beside the point.

Why Political Solutions Fail

In the big picture, political efforts to solve these problems will fail, because politicians are notoriously bad at changing peoples’ attitudes and hearts. More to the point, I have become convinced that there are individuals and groups in politics and society who have no interest in pursuing genuine healing and solutions to America’s longstanding race problems. They make their money, sell their books, and win elections by taking advantage of black anger and frustration and white complacency, resentment or ignorance. They are liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, black and white. If the “race problem” goes away, so does their income stream and their political advantage. So we can’t look to politicians and talking heads to get us out of this mess.

Christian Solutions

The solution, it seems to me, is just as complicated as the problem, but that is not an excuse to ignore it. As a Christian, what am I to do when Ferguson situations come up? And how am I supposed to think about these problems? I think the Bible speaks in two specific ways—to me as an individual, and to the church as a social organism. The solution is not going to be borne out of a crisis, but out of a long-term systematic commitment of people of faith and their churches.

As an individual, I am to be an instrument of peace (as the old Catholic prayer goes) in my community (Matt 5:9; James 3:18). I can do this by praying for peace in communities where there is unrest, but also in the hearts of people whose hearts are broken or hardened. I must humbly check my own attitude and seek understanding of others’ situations (Phil 2:3-4). This is one area where the social justice movement of Christianity is correct—we are to strive for justice in our communities and to work on behalf of those who are oppressed in God’s eyes (e.g., Psalm 10, Psalm 146). Am I trying to be understanding of the frustrations of others, or do I just view Ferguson-like violent outbursts as unruly mobs engaged in unjustified riots? Am I personally working to be an ambassador of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-21) across racial and ethnic groups in my community?

Our churches are supposed to be voices of truth and reconciliation in our communities. Is your congregation making opportunities to partner across racial and ethnic lines where you live? Martin Luther King, Jr. often observed that “eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour and Sunday school is still the most segregated school of the week.” If your congregation is virtually entirely of one race, is your church leadership doing anything about that?

As Christians we must continue to acknowledge that Christians sometimes were on the wrong side of race conflicts; that some Christians twisted scripture to support their own personal racist beliefs; and that some of those wounds are still painful to brothers and sisters and neighbors. And yet, Christianity provides an extraordinary—indeed a supernatural—means of reconciling the races, and unifying people in our communities. In the Bible we are repeatedly instructed that the arbitrary social groups of society are supposed to be set aside in the church, where

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. (James 2:1)

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:13)

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:1-6)

Instead of being angry or looking on in disbelief, pray for peace, walk humbly, and strive for understanding and peace in your own communities.

[1] I use the terms African-American and black interchangeably here. I also use the term race (and variants) to refer to different groups even though I believe there is only one race—the human race—with different ethnicities and skin tones.

Why I am Convinced God Exists: Introduction

Michael Angelo's Creation of Adam (Source: Wikimedia.org)

Michael Angelo’s Creation of Adam (Source: Wikimedia.org)

In the spring of 2013, I set out on an intellectual journey. I realized that I hadn’t ever really engaged with the question of God’s existence for myself. Oh, I had learned a few arguments about God’s existence, but I hadn’t wrestled with the question on my own terms, to see if it really is rational and reasonable for me to believe it.

I had to bring my own mind to bear on the problem for a couple of reasons. First, as a reasonably intelligent person and a trained social scientist, I believed that I possessed a mind capable of addressing the question. Second, as a Christian who takes the Bible text seriously, I had to be obedient to key principles contained in scripture. One was Jesus’ own words, paraphrasing the ancient Hebrew pillars of The Law:

And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27, NAS; see also Matthew 22:37 and Mark 12:30)

I knew that Jesus had added “all your mind” to the Hebrew text (compare, for example, Deuteronomy 6:5, 10:12, and 13:3), so I reasoned that by saying love God with my mind he probably meant something like, “Apply the intellectual processes and capabilities of your mind for the purpose of loving God.” And while I had long been a student of The Book (that is, The Holy Bible), this wasn’t a topic on which I had focused. Another principal is embodied in the verse,

sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense [an argument or explanation] to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:15)

The context for this instruction is the Christian’s likelihood of having to endure suffering and intimidation for the sake of the gospel. As a Christian, then, I had to have arguments and explanations at hand that would enable me to take a stand and defend my own beliefs. Moreover, I’m instructed to do this with gentleness and reverence. I don’t know about you, but I am least likely to be gentle when I feel the least confident in my own abilities and information; when I am simply regurgitating other people’s beliefs and opinions that I agree with, and I get a serious challenge, I tend to react out of frustration and with sarcasm. So I found that I had to get to a place intellectually where I personally owned the argument for myself, and could communicate it to others with a good attitude. Even if some discussion partners would resort to intimidation, my conscience had to be clear (1 Peter 3:13-16).

Now, eighteen months later, I can confidently give an answer to the question of God’s existence that reflects my own careful thinking and evaluation of different perspectives. I’ve looked at Christian, atheist, Buddhist and Hindu (among others) answers to difficult questions, and used some basic logic and my professional training in research methods and causal logic. I make no grand claims to be a physicist, logician, molecular biologist, geologist, philosopher, or theologian. I’m just a reasonably intelligent guy thinking systematically about one of the most important questions with which humanity has to deal.

I acknowledge that the way I tend to approach the questions had to have been influenced by some of the apologetics to which I had already been exposed prior to this journey, and so I already know that there are critiques of every argument and line of reasoning that make sense to me, and I’m okay with that. But here’s the thing: No one person has sufficient knowledge and expertise about every field and subfield that are relevant to this conversation. We all have knowledge and explanatory gaps in which we defer to trusted experts, and I’m no different.

How much information is enough?

As a political science professor I study people’s voting decisions—that is, why they prefer one candidate over another and why they do (or do not) vote. While I might think people ought to gather complete and perfect information about candidates, policy differences and their impacts, I now know empirically that no one does this. People simply acquire enough information to make a choice: sometimes it is given to them, sometimes they happen upon it accidentally, and sometimes they intentionally seek it out.[1] Importantly, almost no citizen does independent original research about candidates and policies. Almost everyone relies upon experts and other trustworthy compilers of information from which they obtain their needed information. Some people acquire pure propaganda, others try to find relatively “objective” sources, while others rely on heuristics (information shortcuts) that enable them to make a quick judgment that has a good chance of being accurate.[2]

My process, therefore, was not to develop my own professional expertise, research agenda, or even a deep familiarity with the original professional academic research in any of these areas. Rather, I did my best to evaluate other people’s work while also thinking systematically through my own ideas and considering in broad strokes the alternatives. And that has to be enough. (Even if I wanted to acquire professional expertise in some of these fascinating areas, I already have a full-time job and my lovely bride has said she is not going to put me through graduate school again!)

Why Even Bother?

Finally, what did I actually hope to accomplish in this process? First, for myself, I wanted to think systematically about whether God exists, because that piece of information has consequences for many other areas of my life—especially how I treat other people. Second, I wanted to be able to evaluate whether a rational, thinking person can come to a reasonable, logical and coherent conclusion that conforms with reality as we know it. To put it another way, can an intelligent, thoughtful person come to an informed coherent conclusion about whether God exists and answer “Yes”?

If, after thinking intelligently and critically I could come to the conclusion that God exists (or least probably exists), then I no longer have to feel insecure or threatened by skeptics who say theists are stupid, ignorant, and irrational. (The list of highly intelligent people who believed in the God of Christianity is long and impressive, and includes Galileo, Thomas More, Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, George Washington Carver, C.S. Lewis, Chuck Colson, and Francis Collins.) Finally, I wanted to be able to lay out a reasonable case for my conclusions that will hopefully make sense to someone who believes that God doesn’t exist or that is wondering if it’s even rational to do so.

In short, my goal is to describe my journey–what arguments and evidence make the most sense to me. I hope you’ll join me, and find my reasoning…well…reasonable. If you are a current believer in the God of the Bible, I hope you are challenged to undertake this exercise on your own. If you are a current non-believer in God, I hope you will at least find my conclusions reasonable, even if you don’t end up agreeing with me.

The Question I Should Have Been Able to Answer

In 2013 I had a Facebook conversation with an atheist in which I was challenged with a question that, as a long-time Christian, I should have been able to answer. But I couldn’t put together a quick response—that is, I was not prepared to give a defense for the hope that is in me. The simple question was, “What has convinced you that God exists?”

What is Faith?

It was hard to answer because I have always believed that God exists. Even in the years when I rejected the Christian faith, I knew in my heart that God existed. I rejected Christianity in that season of my life not out of rationality but simply out of a desire to live my life as if He didn’t. So I had some homework to do, because I knew enough that if I answered, “I just have always known,” or “by faith,” my answer would be unsatisfactory even to me because faith is not really about how we know things. Rather, faith is the result of experiences and information that give us confidence regarding things for which we don’t have experiences and information. Let me give you a couple of examples.

I have faith in my wife’s marital fidelity, that she would not commit adultery. What does “have faith” mean? Does it mean that I just know in my heart that she will not commit adultery? How do I know she won’t? Well, I just know! Isn’t that goofy? I didn’t just meet her and decide she would be faithful to our marriage vows. No, I spent a lot of time getting to know her, watching her behavior, evaluating her character, and talking with her about what marriage means. I thus came to the conclusion that she would not commit adultery in future unknown situations because her character and behavior had given me credible information (from her past) that supported the conclusion.

I will be getting on an airplane to travel to New Orleans this January. I have faith that the plane will get me there. What does that mean? Do I just know that 200,000 pounds of metal will successfully levitate to 30,000 feet above the earth and descend safely a couple of hours later? On what basis would any reasonable person think such a thing? Here is how: I understand that there is a law of gravity and that with an aerodynamic design and a sufficient amount of forward motion, even a 200,000 hunk of metal can be held aloft in a controlled way. I don’t personally understand all of the physics of the thing, but I know that other people do and have designed airplanes to leverage those physical laws in order to make planes work reliably. Moreover, I know a lot of people who have flown on planes, and they testify that it works. Even better, I have personal experience flying; in fact I have flown the Chicago to New Orleans route a couple of times, and made it! Thus I have faith—that is, I trust that even though I don’t understand it all, the physics of flying has a successful track record and works reliably—that the plane I board in Chicago next January will successfully fly me to New Orleans, even though I haven’t taken the flight yet.

To return to the point, saying that I believe that God exists by faith doesn’t mean I just know He exists without or despite any corroborating reasons or evidence. Faith means, as it does in every other situation in which people use the word, a reliance on past evidence, arguments, testimony and experiences that leads me to a conclusion that I can leverage for future situations about which I don’t have information, until I gain better understanding or get to the future. (From a Christian perspective, this is what the meaning of faith is in Hebrews chapter 11.) I develop trust with regard to the unknown future based on the known past; if the known past gives me enough information to trust in the future, it also could give me confidence that explanations exist for things I don’t understand no matter when they occurred.

Obviously, this means that I disagree with the new atheist definition of faith as “belief without proof” or “pretending to know things I don’t know.”[3] I don’t know how planes work and I’m not a psychic, but I know they have worked pretty reliably in the past. I don’t know for sure that every plane will always fly safely, but, on balance, I have faith that in the future planes will generally work as designed. Thus, even though I don’t know a lot else about the future, my belief in future planes working is based on the past evidence, or proof, that planes can and do work.

How would I know?

With all that said, for my own curiosity’s sake I wanted to be really specific and thoughtful and carefully evaluate the evidence, arguments and experiences that lead me to conclude God exists. And, to be completely honest, I simply had never done any real mental work to really understand why I really believed that God really exists. I had even memorized and taught some basic apologetic arguments for God’s existence, but I had never really wrestled with the problem itself, for myself.

As a political scientist, before I collect or analyze data I have to think about the appropriate research methods that are appropriate for finding an answer to a question. For example, if I want to understand presidential decision making in foreign policy, I wouldn’t use a survey of the American public, I would interview the small number of people who have actually observed presidents working through foreign policy decisions.

Thus, regarding the question of God’s existence I had to ask: What evidence or arguments (or both) are even appropriate to address the question of whether God exists? This got me thinking about the standards of evidence that people normally use for making decisions, and that scientists normally use for drawing conclusions about whether a statement or hypothesis has support. The next part of my analysis thus briefly discusses these standards, much of which are familiar to most people.

Then I address different questions that seem to me to be central to the question of how I would know whether God exists. First, what are the possible answers to the question Does God Exist? Second, in what possible kind of reality could God exist? Is it likely that such a kind of reality does exist? Third, what about things I know exist—where did everything come from? Where did I (as a member of humanity) come from? This is the question of origins. Fourth, what about the problem of evil—why do I (along with most humans and cultures) have a nagging feeling—an intuition—that evil is real? And if evil is real, how do I know? And where did it come from? And why do humans have such an overwhelming sense that it matters?

My Conclusion: God Exists

Here is the basic outline of my conclusions. I will share my more detailed thinking on each point as we move forward. Let me say that these statements might sound a bit weird to my Christian friends; the statements might even sound like I’m hedging my bets. But this is how I’m getting to my conclusion without starting with the assumption that God exists.

  1. A force or being or entity that I will call “God” either exists or doesn’t exist, so there is only one true answer to the question.
  2. Logic and evidence lead me to conclude that an immaterial/ spiritual realm almost certainly exists apart from material reality. Additionally, the two realms probably interact with each other. Thus, there is almost certainly a realm in which an immaterial God could exist, and an immaterial God could interact with material reality.
  3. Evidence and logic lead me to conclude that the material realm almost certainly had an originating point in time and a source external to itself. Additionally, there is no evidence that life could have originated from non-living matter alone. The force that produced material reality and life must be greater than material reality and the living beings within it. It must be powerful enough to bring every material thing into existence and to impart life into nonliving matter.
  4. Evidence and logic lead me to conclude that Evil is real; therefore Good is real. The intuition of good and evil, and the concepts themselves must have a source. It’s quite plausible (though I’m not sure that it’s necessary) that the source exists outside the people or cultures that make nearly universal moral judgments about certain actions or events.

All told, I conclude that it is entirely plausible, if not highly probable, that God exists. In fact, because either God exists or doesn’t exist, the preponderance of the evidence points to God existing rather than not existing. Thus, based on the evidence and logic, I conclude that God exists. This doesn’t quite get me to the God of The Bible, but at least I conclude that God is a highly reasonable and intelligent being, external to the material world, powerful enough to create material reality and life itself, and imbue mankind with an inherent sense of good and evil.

In the next section I will lay out my underlying assumptions in pursuing answers to my questions, as well as addressing the question of the standards of proof for or against God’s existence.

Next: How Could I Know Whether God Exists? My Assumptions

————————

[1] See, for example, Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy (Addison-Wesley-Longman, 1957); Samuel Popkin, The Reasoning Voter (University of Chicago Press, 1991); Herbert Simon, “A Behavioral Model of Rational Choice,” in Models of Man, Social and Rational: Mathematical Essays on Rational Human Behavior in a Social Setting (Wiley, 1957).

[2] Party identification is such a heuristic. A Republican who knows only that one candidate is Republican and the other is a Democrat can make a pretty accurate prediction that on most issues, on balance, the Republican candidate will agree with her, and the Democrat will disagree with her. And she will be right.

[3] Boghossian, Peter. 2013. A Manual for Creating Atheists, chapter 2.