Doesn’t Religion Hinder Morality?

This is the next question addressed in Rebecca McLaughlin’s new book Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion. The question is reminiscent of the subtitle of Christopher Hitchen’s 2009 book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. There are many problems with the premise. The first and most important is that it groups all religions together under the same banner. The ills of one apply to all. This is like claiming that philosophy hinders morality without distinguishing the pros and cons of different positions; as though Marxism, Libertarianism, Rationalism, Nihilism, Relativism, and so forth, are all the same.

The more significant question is much narrower. Doesn’t Christianity hinder morality?

Here we would have to answer no. Now this isn’t to deny the fact that some people have used Christianity as an excuse for immoral acts. The history of the church is full of missteps and grievous wrongs as well as positive acts and developments.

Why is the answer no? First and foremost because of the grounding value of human life and human flourishing. According to Scripture humans are created in the image of God, a little lower than the angels with intrinsic value and a vocation to care for each other and the world. The greatest commandment after love of God is love for neighbor broadly defined. The command to love your neighbor as yourself runs through the New Testament and derives from the Old. A while back I wrote a post How Can You Be a Christian? working through many of the New Testament verses and have revisited the theme in a number of later posts as well. Few of us would view the themes here as immoral or destructive influences on society.

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The Earth is Finite

I am beginning a series of post every week or so looking at what is often called “creation care” and the biblical mandate for human interaction with the earth on which we live. To begin we are revisiting a book I read through several years ago when it was new: Let Creation Rejoice: Biblical Hope and Ecological Crisis by Jonathan Moo and Robert White. The second chapter Life on Earth Today looks at the ways in which human activity has changed the earth. Not all of these changes are negative or destructive, but it is clear that some are, some have been, and dire consequences are possible. They are not calling on us to hang our heads in despair, but to look to an appropriate Christian response.

The first thing we must realize according to Moo and White is that the earth is of finite size with a quantifiable amount of natural resource. There is a limit to sustainable population growth.

Estimates of the sustainable carrying capacity of the earth vary widely according to what assumptions are made, but most lie in the range of 6 to 14 billion people, with the most common being 6 to 8 billion, roughly the same as the present global population. The question that all such estimates raise, however, is just what we mean by sustainable and to what extent we include humankind’s impact on the rest of life on earth. (p. 30)

They look at five global issues that face mankind.

1. Biodiversity. Extinctions are occurring at an accelerated rate and many of these are the result of human activity. Dodos (picture to the right), passenger pigeons, golden toads, and much, much more. Moo and White note that “on average one species on earth goes extinct every eight hours.” (p. 35) Most of these are not as romantic as dodos, passenger pigeons or quaggas (look it up), but even for insects the loss of biodiversity is a concern.

Why should we care about loss of biodiversity? Apart from aesthetic or moral considerations, one reason is that as humans we rely on living systems to keep our air breathable, our water drinkable, and to provide us with sufficient food. Loss of biodiversity makes the ecosystem vulnerable to diseases and other disasters that could wipe out species on which we depend. … The loss of even a few species in a complex interacting ecosystem can greatly reduce its resilience to change and make it vulnerable to catastrophic and irreversible failure. (p. 35)

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Faith in a Disenchanted Age

Walter Moberly, The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith, explains why he finds the Bible and the Christian faith both plausible and convincing. Although the Bible is important, it doesn’t work in a vacuum. In chapter 3 he “suggested that people are most likely to take seriously the Christian privileging of the Bible and Jesus if they encounter the lives of Christians as plausibility structures that moves them towards the Christian way of life and thought, with a possible view towards making it their own.” (p. 130) This is developed further in Chapter 4. The church isn’t simply another social club providing a context for pleasant life together. Moberly continues “more needs to be said about what the persuasive force of Christian witness in the world requires if a person is to become, not just in name, but in reality, someone who believes the biblical witness, and supremely its witness to Jesus – and why such belief should be a good thing.” (pp. 130-131)

What does the Bible teach and why should such a belief be a good thing?

Throughout his book Moberly has used passages from Aeneid 1 and Daniel 7 as case studies to discuss the privileging of the Bible. In the Aeneid, Jupiter bestows on Rome unending dominion over the world, “On them I set no limits, space or time: I have granted them power, empire without end” and establishes a descendant of Aeneas to rule the Roman empire and establish peace.

Daniel 7 describes a vision where one like a “son of man” comes before the Ancient of Days and is given dominion and glory and kingship – an everlasting dominion that shall never be destroyed. The Ancient of Days is understood to be Israel’s God. On the surface Aenied 1 and Daniel 7 are similar accounts.

Moberly asks: “If the Bible is not to go the same way as Virgil, and is to be more than interesting religious thought and/or a collection of memorable stories from the past, then on what basis is the case for it to be made?” (p. 144)

To make his case for Daniel as Scripture rather than an interesting, but merely human, ancient text, Moberly turns to Matthew 28:18-20. Continue reading

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Creation Care?

Climate change is an issue that is not going to go away. It is also not an issue where ideology or worldview will ultimately play any significant role. Either humans are impacting the climate or we are not. Because of the impact on human life both present and in the future, this is an issue where we have an obligation to get it right. Because of the potential significance I am going to spend some time over the next several months digging deeper.

Several years ago worked through a book by Jonathan Moo and Robert White Let Creation Rejoice: Biblical Hope and Ecological Crisis. Revisiting this book will provide a good start. To dig deeper into the Bible, we will also look at a more recent book by Jonathan Moo with his father Douglas Moo Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World.

Today we return to the opening of Let Creation Rejoice. This book looks at the scientific evidence for threats to the environment arising from the actions of mankind and at the hope and mission that Christians have and the difference this can make. From the preface:

Yet what is inescapably different about today is that never in the history of human life have so many people been threatened by the changes our planet is undergoing; never have some of the planetary changes we are witnessing occurred so quickly, with so little time for adaptation; and never before has one species (us) been identified as the primary cause of such rapid, large-scale changes. It is this recognition of our vulnerability and our culpability, along with the fear that things are on the verge of getting much, much worse and there is little we can do about it, that lies behind much of the despair so prevalent in this age. …

This book, though, is about hope …

As we say in the first chapter, it is our desire that readers come away from this book with a renewed appreciation of the wonderful world that God has created, as well as a firm understanding of its present condition and the potential that we have to affect it. But most of all we aim to encourage profound trust in the Creator and Redeemer God whose faithfulness is the only and ultimate ground of our hope. (pp. 8-9)

Moo and White are well qualified to address this issue and their book is worth a careful look. Jonathan Moo is an associate professor of biblical studies at Whitworth University in Spokane Washington. He holds undergraduate degrees in Biology and English (Lake Forest College), and graduate degrees in Wildlife Ecology (MS, Utah State University), and Theology (MA Old Testament, MA New Testament, both from Gordon-Conwell, PhD, Cambridge). Robert White is professor of geophysics at the University of Cambridge UK, PhD Cambridge.

The first full chapter of the book is short, and sets the stage for what is to come in the later chapters. This should give a taste for the book and the shape our discussions will take. Continue reading

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One True Faith?

Most readers of this blog live in societies that try (not always successfully) to foster freedom of religion. The governments don’t require any specific set of religious beliefs or practices. All are acceptable in society, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Native American, atheist. As a corollary, we also permit freedom of conversion. But is it right (morally and ethically) to persuade others to change their beliefs?

Most Christians will have no qualms answering yes (nor will Muslims). Persuasion, but not coercion. But many others in our secular society will be ambivalent. While they may not answer no, there is a general impression that such persuasion is unnecessary. All religions are equally true, or more accurately equally useful in society. It doesn’t really matter.

How can you say there’s only one true faith?

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The Chicken or the Egg?

What comes first, the church or the bible?

In many respects this is a chicken or egg question. It isn’t really possible to separate the two. We have the bible through the church and we privilege the bible because of Christian community. Walter Moberly in Chapter 3 of The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith looks at plausibility structures for Scripture. The bottom line, he suggests, is that we can’t separate our confidence in the bible as something distinct from other ancient literature from our experience of the community of the people of God. After considering Augustine (354-430) and Newbigin (1909-1988), he summarizes:

One of the conclusions that follows from all this is that one can reenvisage the relationship and respective roles of the Bible and church. There is a long and wearying history, since the sixteenth century, of Christians polarizing Bible and church, pitting one over against the other and arguing about which stands over the other. An understanding that is truer to Christian reality is the complementary nature of Bible and church (as in the development of the biblical canon in the first place). The Bible is likely to be recognized as the privileged witness to God and the world only insofar as living Christian witness attests at least somewhat persuasively to the truth of biblical content. The role of significant others and plausibility structures indicates the importance of trust and forming relationships with other people as the corollary of coming to a point where one may believe the content of the Bible and to believe in God through Jesus. The way in which these significant others live also interprets the Bible (for better and for worse) and thereby gives some sense of that a biblically informed life may look like. (p. 102)

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Intellectual Humility is a Virtue

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. James 3:13

Celtic Cross Crop2Several years ago I posted on a short book by Josh Reeves and Steve Donaldson: A Little Book for New Scientists: Why and How to Study Science. One chapter in this book deals with humility and … The Known Unknowns. In addition to the passage from James above, many other passages come to mind.

All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” 1 Peter 5:5

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. Philippians 2:3-4

And several from Proverbs.

When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. 11:2

Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the Lord, and humility comes before honor. 15:33

Humility is the fear of the Lord; its wages are riches and honor and life. 22:4

What is humility? The most common definition I’ve found is “the quality or condition of being humble,” not a particularly useful definition. Somewhat better is the definition from the Cambridge Dictionary “the feeling or attitude that you have no special importance that makes you better than others; lack of pride.“This is a little better, but doesn’t quite get it. Humility brings wisdom and comes from wisdom when it is an intellectual humility, a humility that realizes that we are finite in our understanding. In the context of science, or theology for that matter, intellectual humility is the realization that one almost certainly has some misconceptions and wrong ideas and should be open-minded enough to accept input and consider new ideas. This doesn’t mean lack of confidence or a wishy-washy uncertainty, but a willingness to be continually learning. Intellectual humility is generally thought to be a virtue in scholarship and in science – although it far too often isn’t. Scientists regularly over step reasonable bounds, and sometimes defend a view with the same kind of dogmatic certainty found in other arenas.

I recently saw a short video from the Templeton Foundation dealing with intellectual humility and its importance for growth. Only three minutes – worth a look:

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