Tangled Web, Part 1

The last couple of weeks have seen shocking developments in abortion laws in several states. These proposals are driven in part by fear that conservative appointments to the Supreme Court threaten the future of legal abortion. Nevertheless, many are justly shocked at the extremity of these proposals and the macabre celebration of them.

Many Christians see abortion as simply a “pro-life” issue, (and of course there is a life vs. death simplicity to it). But to understand society’s dedication to it, it is helpful to see that abortion is woven into a broader worldview. Abortion sits near the center of a web of ideas that many people are committed to, even people that oppose abortion. And like a spider’s web, impact in one place reverberates across the web. Threats to abortion amount to threats across the thought system. Let’s identify a few of those threads.

Abortion is an expression of individual autonomy. One hears this clearly in the insistence that women must have control over their bodies. Absolute autonomy over our “selves” and especially our bodies is in view. Legal abortion ensures that women can act with absolute autonomy.

Abortion secures freedom of self-creation. Our culture believes that nothing should inhibit a person from self-actualization, of creating their identities. Whether and when to have children is an essential component of that self-creation and unwanted pregnancies threaten it.

Abortion undergirds sexual liberty. Prior to the availability of reliable birth control, all sexual activity carried the “risk” of pregnancy, creating a natural brake to sexual promiscuity. While birth control is widely available and effective, abortion serves as the ultimate backstop permitting people to engage in sex freely.

Abortion is crucial in the push for the equality of the sexes. That men do not experience the risk or demands pregnancy or the complications of motherhood, creates a situation of inequality which abortion “solves.” Women’s lives need not be interrupted by an unwanted pregnancy.

Abortion buttresses key economic values. To be fully human and a meaningful member of society requires contributing to the economy through productivity and work. Focus on this value has come at the expense of the meaningfulness of human reproduction and family life. Abortion ensures that women can contribute to the economy without fear of their careers being derailed by an unexpected pregnancy.

Productivity is coupled with consumption. We produce so that we can consume and there is a nearly equal emphasis placed on the value of consumption in modern culture. Abortion frees families from the financial burden of children allowing them to allocate their resources to consumption as they see fit.

So we should see that for supporters of abortion, much is at stake. If we are honest, however, we should admit that even if we opposed abortion, Christians are more committed to these same values than is biblically defensible.

As created and redeemed beings “we are not our own” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Furthermore, we do not operate with absolute autonomy, but function within the collectives of family, church, and society. Though we participate meaningfully in the process of our becoming, we do not self-create but are to be transformed into the image of Christ by the work of the Spirit (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18). Scripture clearly puts boundaries around sexual expression, confining it to the bounds of marriage and blessing it with fruitfulness. Scripture (and nature) teaches the equality of the sexes before God, but not their exact identification. Especially in the context of married life, difference of role is coupled with equality of value (Eph. 5:22-33; 1 Cor. 11:2-9). While Scripture makes much of humanity’s ability to create, it does not root human meaning in that ability. Rather, human meaning is found in being made in God’s image, an image that we manifest in various ways (Gen. 1:26-28). Finally, while Scripture makes it clear that God has given us the fruits of the earth to enjoy (Gen. 1:29-30), it also warns against greed (Col. 3:5), overconsumption (Prov. 23:1-5), inordinate affection for things (Mt. 6:19-24), and seeking to find our satisfaction in anything other than God himself (Ps. 73:25).

We should by all means oppose abortion directly because it is a simple life and death issue. But we should also spend time examining our complicity in the deeper cultural commitments that when taken to extremes manifest themselves in abortion.

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Weapons of Mass Confusion

I followed a car recently sporting a bumper sticker which stated, “Love is love” accompanied by several pairs of same-sex stick figures. The sentiment (and it is a sentiment, not an argument) is politically correct and culturally approved. It is also disingenuous, misleading, and cynical.

It is disingenuous because what it really means is “Sex is sex.” No one has ever had a problem with same sex couples loving each other. In fact, history suggests that many cultures in the past have been far better at it than ours is. We can’t read about historic, intimate same-sex friendships, such as David and Jonathan, without importing our sex-fixation and imparting sexual overtones to them.  It is also disingenuous because there are other “love” relationships that the people promoting same-sex relationships are reluctant to endorse: incest, bestiality, pedophilia, etc.

It is cynical because it knowingly co-opts and distorts language to suit its purpose. They know that “sex” is the issue, not “love”, but by framing the discussion this way, they can cast their opponents as being against “love,” something everyone is for. Further, it can make nearly immediate allies of unreflective people who are easily taken in by the slogan. A similar dynamic is at work in the “Pro Choice” movement. Who isn’t for “choice?”

The phrase is misleading because “Love is love” is just not true. We differentiate between all sorts of love relationships, weighing their values, and understanding their roles differently. Most of these relationships have some physical element in the expression of love—parents hugging children, say—but not a sexual element.

What the bumper sticker really endorses is not the freedom to love but the freedom to follow your sexual desire. Yet, except for a few die-hards, stating this ethic of absolute sexual libertinism so baldly leaves many people uncomfortable for reasons that they probably can’t explain. The slogan “Sex is sex” doesn’t sell as well. So, incapable of arguing honestly, they equivocate. “Love”, “equality,” and other such ideas get used in fuzzy ways that obscure and confuse, but comfort people into thinking it’s not just all about sex.

As Christians we are called to discernment. The term “discernment” comes from the Old French meaning “to separate, divide, distinguish.” That is, inherent in discernment is the practice of separating between concepts and ideas. Already in the paragraphs above we have “discerned” that sex and love are not the same thing. Gay sex and heterosexual sex are not the same thing. Marital love and parental love are not the same thing. The list goes on.

One of the Enemy’s chief weapons is precisely the opposite of discernment: namely, confusion. Confusion is the mixing and muddling of concepts that ought to remain separate. Sex, love, self, identity, gender, body, mind, etc. In all of these areas the Enemy sows confusion until it is impossible to see what is what. The thoughtful Christian recognizes that only the Word of God, that sword capable of slicing between soul and spirit (Heb. 4:12), is sharpened finely enough to dissect contemporary confusion into timeless truth.

Time will Tell

There is an old saying that there are three kinds of lies: Lies, damn lies, and statistics. It is a helpful reminder in a culture that attempts to prove or disprove everything through “scientific studies.”

It is tempting for Christians to overestimate the value of studies that purport to support things that we believe, like, say, a study that finds that children from intact families fare better in life. “See, the Bible was right all along,” we say.

But statistics cut both ways. In From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage, Darel Paul chronicles how many studies showed that children raised by same-sex partners fared as well (or even better!) than children in heterosexual homes. This evidence was used to weaken arguments against same-sex marriage and parenting by showing that it had no deleterious effects on children. Critics of same-sex marriage and parenting were left to question the validity of the studies in some way or offer counter studies.

How do we think Christian-ly about this issue?

First, we should be circumspect in our appreciation or rejection of purported scientific findings. Reports of the health benefits of good marriages no more prove the truth of Scripture than those showing the resilience of children from single-parent homes disprove it. By using a scientific study as part of our “evidence” for the truth of Christianity, we place ourselves at the mercy of the latest “scientific” findings.

Rather than being discomfited by supposed scientific findings contrary to biblical ethics we should expect them. Why?

We are limited. While our studies may approach truth in the “hard” sciences, in areas such as psychiatry and sociology, we are simply incapable of taking in and evaluating all the relevant data. Findings are necessarily provisional.

We are sinful. Data does not interpret itself and our sinfulness implies that our assessment and evaluation of data is not just limited but distorted, sometimes obviously, other times not.

Truth is revealed over time. Scripture indicates that sinful ways can be seen to prosper for a time. Psalm 37:1-2 instructs: “Fret not yourselves because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers.” The Psalm argues that while it may appear that their ways are prospering now, “They will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.”

We believe that God’s judgment is final. The ultimate assessment of all things is not the current apparent status of behaviors and their outcomes. Rather, all things must be evaluated through a look back to the unchanging truth of God’s Word (his “judgments”) declared in the past and a look forward to “end of the story” when truth will finally be revealed (judged). It is then that those who have lived according to God’s word will be vindicated and those who did not will be exposed.

Only time will tell.

Firm Foundations

From humble beginnings in the solitary study of bean plants by the Austrian friar Gregor Mendel (1822-1884), the science of genetics has come to capture the imagination of our modern world, from the highest levels of science to the most casual cultural references. As we saw in previous articles, two psychologists studied how beliefs about the genetic basis of various conditions (e.g. sexuality, criminality, mental illness, and obesity) influenced people’s view of those conditions.* They showed that when people believe a condition has a genetic basis, they are more sympathetic and less judgmental of that condition. So far so good. But they also showed that belief in a genetic basis led people to believe that the condition was unavoidable. Our genes determine us.

This is just another version of an age-old discussion. Humanity has long wondered whether we are shaped more by our biology (nature) or our environment (nurture). This, in turn, is related to even deeper questions concerning whether our actions are truly free (autonomy), or if something—nature, biology, divinity—constrains us (determinism).

What study reveals is, that in believing that genes unfailingly produce certain conditions, people are accepting biological determinism; they accept that people’s choices about obesity or sexuality, are not free. They cannot help but experience these conditions. This is remarkable given our culture’s rhetoric about freedom and choice. In accepting a genetic explanation for behavior, it may occur to people that they, too, are subject to such genetic reduction.

Why do people so readily accept genetic explanations? As the authors make clear, it is manifestly not because “science” supports such conclusions. Very few of the most important things about us are simply the result of our genes; almost everything about us, from personality to disease, arise from a web of causes.

I believe genetic explanations are so appealing precisely because they seem to offer an explanation. They offer a reason behind otherwise inexplicable and uncontrollable things about us. For while we claim to prize freedom and autonomy, we also deeply want stable foundations for our lives. We are looking for security. But having rejected the rock of God’s character, we look for foundations in science, nature, and biology.

What is fascinating about this “genetic determinism” is that it reveals a willingness to sacrifice freedom in exchange for foundation. People will give up the power of self-determination for the “security” that being determined by their genes offers. In truth, we are caught. We neither like the guilt and shame that come from accepting responsibility for our behaviors nor the self-limiting that results from accepting our biology as determinative.

For the Christian, security and freedom are not opposed. True security is rooted in the goodness of a Creator God. True freedom is found in the call to live out the image of God as manifested in Jesus Christ. We need not sacrifice one for the other.

* Dar-Nimrod, Ilan and Steven J. Heine. “Genetic Essentialism: On the Deceptive Determinism of DNA.” Psychological Bulletin, 117, no. 5 (2011): 800-818.

Damned if you do…

In an earlier post I looked at an article* about the search for “genetic” roots of human behaviors and conditions. While such reports suggest that certain behaviors like homosexuality or depression are “natural” and therefore shouldn’t have any stigma attached to them (what the authors call the ‘naturalistic fallacy’), the truth is that genes just don’t work that way. Most conditions are not linked to single genes, nor is the presence of a genetic marker a guarantee that the condition will manifest itself. Environmental and behavioral factors matter.

As psychologists, the authors’ main interest is in how these reports of the genetic basis of various conditions influence attitudes toward those conditions and the people who experience them. They look specifically at attitudes toward sexual orientation, obesity, criminality and mental illness.† The results are thought-provoking.

In the case of sexual orientation, exposure to the idea that sexual orientation has a genetic basis reduced prejudice toward homosexuals. Similarly, people showed an increased sympathy toward those manifesting mental illness and obesity when given a genetic explanation for the condition. Claims of the genetic basis of criminal behavior reduced people’s assessment of the criminal’s culpability. In general, they show that believing that a condition has a genetic basis makes people more sympathetic to those experiencing those conditions.

While increased sympathy is good, the results were not entirely “positive.” The authors summarize their findings: “[A]rguments for underlying genetic contributions elicit more fatalistic reactions than arguments for underlying experiential factors” (809). That is, people believe that the presence of the genes leave sufferers with no choice in the matter. Criminals will commit crimes. The obese will be obese.

In the case of mental illness, the increased sympathy was offset by other, less favorable responses. When they believed that mental illness was genetic in origin, people were more likely to regard the mentally ill as dangerous and unpredictable. Further, for some respondents, the presence of a genetic marker for mental illness set the sufferers apart as a separate “diseased” group, distinct from the unafflicted.

These results concern the authors. They worry that this poor grasp of genetics could lead to abuse, such as the sterilization programs applied during the eugenics movement in the early 20th century, or the way genetic screening has resulted in the abortion of almost all babies diagnosed with Down Syndrome.

While that concern is real, I was struck by the dismal view of the human condition on display here. The Christian doctrine of original sin has been mocked as a low view of humanity. But this view of the genetic inevitability of disease, mental illness, and criminal behavior is far worse. While we do affirm that sin touches every part of who we are as humans, we also hold out the hope of salvation in this life and the glory of resurrection to the next one. Genetic determinism offers neither.

* Dar-Nimrod, Ilan and Steven J. Heine. “Genetic Essentialism: On the Deceptive Determinism of DNA.” Psychological Bulletin, 117, no. 5 (2011): 800-818.

Born that way? Not so fast…

Fairly regularly the media touts the latest medical discovery of the genetic basis for some disease or condition. When the news involves the genetic roots of illnesses, it is generally met with praise. When, however, the genetic basis of a condition with some moral overtone is in view, say, sexuality, alcoholism, or obesity, the responses are often mixed, especially among Christians. When the discovery of a “gay gene” is announced, supporters respond with acclaim and detractors dismay. Hey, if it’s genetic, it’s natural, and if it’s natural, it can’t be wrong, right?

In a fascinating article*, two professors of psychology, Ilan Dar-Nimrod and Steven J. Heine, unmask the hype around such genetically based claims and expose the unhelpful responses these claims elicit. Several of their arguments are illuminating.

First, the authors point out that, contrary to the media’s presentation, most diseases and other heritable conditions are not “monogenetic” in origin, that is, their presence cannot be traced to a single gene. While there are a few such conditions, they are extremely rare.

Second, the article points out that for most genetically based conditions, the presence of the genetic marker is not causative, that is, merely having the gene does not guarantee that the person will manifest the disease or trait. Genes present a probability of the occurrence of a trait or condition, a probability influenced by environment and other factors.

These two points alone relieve much of the anxiety felt by Christians by so-called genetic proofs. Genes just don’t work that way. While there may be some genetic predisposition toward obesity, depression, or homosexuality, the presence of such a genetic marker does not destine the carrier to contract that disease or manifest that condition. We can’t say, “My genes made me do it!”

But even the idea that there is be some physical, genetic basis for behaviors that Scripture censures could be disconcerting for some, even if that basis isn’t determinative. However, this is where an understanding of the doctrine of sin is important. With humanity’s fall into sin, we should not be surprised to learn that a propensity to sin is embedded in us even at the deepest physical level. Scripture makes clear that while our body is not in and of it self a problem (as was held in some Greek philosophy), in its fallenness, our flesh is not on our side in the fight for purity and holiness. Paul testified to beating his body into submission because it did not want to behave as he knew it ought.

The upshot is this: Christians need not fear that further genetic discoveries will ultimately condone that which Scripture condemns. On scientific grounds we can say that no genetic reality on its own compels sinful behavior. Genes don’t work that way. On biblical grounds we understand that our propensity to sin is woven deep within us and should not be surprised to learn of genetic links to sinful living. All the more reason to proclaim with Paul, “Who will deliver me from the body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24-25)

* Dar-Nimrod, Ilan and Steven J. Heine. “Genetic Essentialism: On the Deceptive Determinism of DNA.” Psychological Bulletin, 117, no. 5 (2011): 800-818.

The Morality of Manners

“Chivalry is dead,” it is often said and, apparently, civility was right behind it. The savagery that hid behind anonymity in the online comment sections in the early history of the internet, has metastasized first to public posts on platforms like Twitter, and then to the public square as seen in the recent disruptions in the Senate confirmation hearings. People are angry, vicious. The word ‘incivility’ doesn’t begin to capture it.

“Whatever happened to the Golden Rule?” we might ask. The Golden Rule was stated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matt. 7:12). That much is frequently quoted, often in the simpler, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

But have you heard the rest of the verse? The verse concludes, “For this is the Law and the Prophets.” For Jesus, the Golden Rule was not a stand-alone principle but, rather, rooted in the rich soil of God’s revelation of his covenant relationship with humanity. You may recall that Jesus summarized the Law and the Prophets in a different way elsewhere: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-40). Love for neighbor is dependent upon love for God. And love for neighbor is based upon seeing ourselves and our neighbors as made in the image of God and therefore deserving of dignity (James 3:9). The roots of the Golden Rule are in all of God’s instructions on how to live in harmony with Him and others.

Common civility is a fragile flower that cannot survive on its own. Cut from the root of a deeper system of morality and nourished by little more than the water of cultural sentiment, it was destined to fade in time. You cannot cut the summary of the Law and Prophets off from the Law and the Prophets and hope that it will still bloom. If the prevailing philosophy is of self-advancement, self-preservation, self-creation, the Golden Rule and civility more broadly can only function self-servingly. It will be about me rather than about you.

Manners manifest morality in miniature. Courtesy, civility, gratitude, patience, and deference are the fragrant bouquet gathered from plants rooted in a right understanding of our relationship to God, a deep appreciation of the value of others, and an honest assessment of our own frailty. That is to say, these virtues find their most natural root in the message of the Gospel. The glory of God, the brokenness of humanity, the elevation of human worth implied by Christ’s sacrifice, and the invitation to live out the unmerited “civility” of God.