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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Outside Your Head

Today we will celebrate Communion and in preparation I want to ask an odd question: Where does Communion happen? “In church, of course!” you answer. That’s true but hold that thought. What I mean is, where does the action happen that makes of Communion something more than just eating a very specific, small snack?

One answer is that it happens in the “snack” itself. Something happens to the elements themselves that transforms them and the consumption of them into something extraordinary. We might call this the Catholic approach. When the priest utters the words “This is my body”, the bread, or “Host”, is transformed in such a way that those who eat of it, quite apart from any belief on their part, are now taking of the body of Christ.

Our Protestant forebears reacted against this view of the Lord’s Supper though they did not achieve unity on the best way to talk about it instead. In the absence of a clear alternative, over time, the place of “action” for Communion moved from being located outside the one partaking to inside. That is to say that what makes communion more than just a snack is what happens in me as I take it. Do I believe it? Am I prepared? Am I sincere in my taking? Is it meaningful to me?

But can it be that my internal disposition is that which makes or breaks Communion? That I make it real for myself based on my feelings? If it is my thoughts that count, why do I need the bread and juice? One effect of this mentality is that Communion is no longer “communion.” If the meaningfulness of communion is in my own mind (or “heart”), it is personal not communal. The practice of Communion ceases to be an activity we share with the Church and becomes, instead a “vehicle for self-expression and self-fulfillment” (Ritual and Its Consequences, Seligman, et. al., 10). Something may be happening in me at the same time that it is happening to other people in the sanctuary, but we can’t really say that the same thing is happening because it is personal to you.

The meaning and power of Communion are outside your own head. The “action” of Communion has already happened. God has so ordained that the bread and wine present the body and blood of Christ. And he has given the practice of their consumption to the church as an act with a meaning attached. When we participate in this ritual, we “proclaim the Lord’s death” quite apart from how we feel about it. We cannot make it any more real or meaningful by our feelings or beliefs about it. In participating we assent to the meaning-making that God has already done. And we do so together with others who similarly assent.

So, you were right to say that Communion happens in “the church,” the church as the Body of Christ. Because it was in the body of Christ that the action of Communion first took place, and it is within the Body of Christ, the community of people covenanted to living out the reality of the symbols, that the “action” of Communion is re-lived.

Problematic Presence

In a recent sermon, our pastor affirmed that “God is always with us.” He is on sure biblical ground: “He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deut. 31:6). “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). “I will never leave you, nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

In each of those cases, the expression of God’s sure presence with us is given to inspire action. In Deuteronomy God’s presence is the basis for the call to be “strong and courageous.” In Matthew, Christ’s presence undergirds the Great Commission. For the author of Hebrews, Christ’s presence should help us “Keep our lives free from the love of money and be content with what we have.” God is with us and knowledge of his presence enables action. So far, so good.

But there is a deep problem with the presence of God: it’s “absence.” It is unseen and unfelt. It is unapparent or transparent. We rarely if ever feel the presence of God. We live in an era that prizes seeing and feeling. But God’s presence doesn’t usually cooperate with our preference. Even moments that we interpret as experiences of divine presence—say a meaningful worship moment—leave us with the lingering suspicion that they could just as easily be interpreted as a nothing more than a “good feeling.”

And it has always been thus. Even though we think of the biblical times as a period of regular, obvious divine activity, actual manifestations of God’s presence were very rare and usually exceedingly uncomfortable (think Israel at Sinai or Isaiah 6). The fact is, throughout human history, most of God’s people, pre- or post-Christ, have rarely experienced the presence of God in a tangible way.

What are we to do? Must we just believe in God’s presence by brute “spiritual” force? Perhaps an image may help.

We might think of God’s presence like radioactivity. Its effects are present without immediately being seen or felt. It is powerful. It can even be dangerous. In certain contexts, say, Chernobyl, we ignore its presence to our peril. We don’t think about radioactivity all the time, of course, nor do we walk around with Geiger counters. But we know it exists and know that there are times and places when awareness of it and attention to it are advisable, (e.g. you wear that heavy apron when the dentist takes an x-ray).

Like radioactivity, acknowledging, assuming God’s presence in our lives and living in light of it has a cumulative effect over time. Obviously, in the case of God, the effects are positive as opposed to the often-negative effects of exposure to radioactivity. In fact, I believe living assuming the presence of God makes us increasingly able to identify those rare moments when He makes is presence especially known.

God is always with us. Will you often feel it or see it? No. But cultivate the practice of assuming it. You’ll be better for it.

The Ties that Bind

“Blood is thicker than water,” we say to indicate that family ties are deeper than any other human bond. This is often true even against our best efforts. In a time in which many people have conflicted relationships with their family, family obligations still manage to pull harder than any other.

But what is thicker than blood? A repeated theme in the NT is that bonds within the body of Christ supersede those of our families. Indeed, the image of the body—disparate parts held together in one whole—recalls Scripture’s affirmation that husbands and wives become “one flesh.” But what is it that binds us to one another as believers?

This is an important question in our current environment. Our society is increasingly described as “fragmented.” With the decline of community and the failure of family, people are desperately in search of collectives to be a part of. They turn to gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or some other identity to find community. But these new collectives often fragment as quickly as they form, riven by yet more internal differences.

Like so many other areas of our lives, for many people today, what binds them to a church is nothing other than their choice. If they like the product being offered, accept the beliefs of the church, and have some affinity for a few others in the congregation, they will likely stay. For a while. With so little linking them with others, it is not surprising that people so easily separate from a congregation in search of a new one.

But what if something deeper is binding us? In Ephesians 4:1-6, Paul urges the church to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Notice the two words regarding our connection: unity and bond. He goes on to specify wherein their unity was found: There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (4-6).

The series of “ones” that we read here should give us pause in our casual attitude toward church affiliation. We are members of the one (body of) Christ. We are united in the one Holy Spirit. We are united by looking forward to one hope—the completion of God’s plan for humanity. We bow before the throne of one King. We all have faith in the same thing. We have been baptized into a single reality—the death and resurrection of Christ. We share a Father and so are one family.

One might claim that this is just talking about some hidden spiritual connection to the universal body of Christ. There is no doubt that this is true. But what use is something that we don’t feel or see and that has no material effect whatsoever? How should that “mystical, spiritual” reality manifest itself in our lives?

This deep, multi-faceted connectedness with the body of Christ should manifest itself in our relationship to our congregation and to individuals within it. It should be characterized by deep commitment to one another, shared joy and sorrow, generosity, and a great reluctance to quickly separate from one another.

What’s thicker than blood? Your “choice?” Or Gospel glue?

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.