History, principle, and the now

D.A. Carson on the value of Christians continually appealing to the notion that America was founded on Christian principles:

In the long haul, Christians have to appeal farther back than to the middle of the eighteenth century — to the Scriptures themselves, and the events to which they attest — and think through to where we are today and will be tomorrow.  To learn from history is one thing; to make constant appeal to yesteryear is to support rather too much of the nostalgic and rather too little of the prophetic.  [Christ and Culture Revisited, p. 210]

The danger, of course, to appeals like this, is that at some point the opposition says, “So what? We’re changing things now.”  When a people refuses to care about history, what our founding fathers may or may not have believed matters little.

Every position should stand on its own merits now.  History should inform us — as it’s always difficult to judge the now as it happens — but it should never be the central plank in our efforts to speak for a better society.

Sanity, sin and evil

The Alabama shooting, like the Virginia Tech massacre before it, is sure to unleash a wave of speculation about what drove the troubled young Michael McLendon to do what he did.  Even this morning on my commute, I overheard a discussion of the killing spree in which one fellow conceded, “Since he killed that many people, it just can’t be evil — he must have been insane.”

That insanity can and should be a legal defense I do not dispute.  It is, of course, too often misapplied and abused to let murderers off the hook, but the insanity defense should not be discarded.  A person lacking control of his sense of reality should not be held to the same legal culpability as someone who possesses his full mental faculties.  The problem with my fellow commuter’s view is that while sanity may have much to do with a legal defense, it has little to do with whether or not an act is evil.

Evil is often irrespective of its object.  The Hebrews knew this concept well. The predominant Hebrew term for evil in the Old Testament (raa) has a range of meaning from everything to natural disasters and calamity, to human acts of violence.  The word is introduced in Genesis 2:9 with respect to the tree from which the man and the woman were not to eat. In Genesis 39:9, Joseph speaks of adultery with Potiphar’s wife as a “great evil.” The narrator of Job even tells us that Yahweh himself had brought evil upon Job [Job 42:11], and 1 Samuel 16:14 speaks of an “evil spirit” sent from Yahweh.  God is of course not himself evil, but in these instances he providentially wields evil for his purposes.

It follows that evil does not equal sin, but it does, however, have a strong relationship with sin.  Sin is always an evil action, but all evil forces, though always unpleasant, are not necessarily sinful.  Evil existed on the tree and with the serpent before Adam and Eve premiered the first sin. Sin lives, thrives, and is born where evil meets humanity.

Whether or not Michael McLendon was legally insane, we may never know.  What we do know is that insane or not, his actions were indeed evil, and evil is at work in the world.  The Apostle John reminded us long ago that “whole world lies in the power of the evil one”  — a fact that should make us all tremble, since we are all just as prone to be caught up and turned by evil.

Thankfully John also reminds us that if we are born of God, we have a Protector who can keep us from evil.  Without Him, nothing stands between us and evil.  God help us all.

Truth on the slant

In the most recent issue of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, Ken Myers spoke with Eugene Peterson on the place of reading in the spiritual lives of Christians. They reference a brilliant poem by Emily Dickinson from which Peterson takes the title of his upcoming book, Tell it Slant. Here’s the poem:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Cirrcuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never before come across this gem, but I’m glad I did, as it expertly highlights an oft-overlooked aspect of truth-telling: sometimes the best way to tell the truth is indirectly.

The principle is not foreign to the Bible. Moses, for example, asks to see the full glory of Yahweh, but is told by God, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” (see Exodus 33:17-23) Moses is instead offered a glimpse of God’s backside — an encounter that was still so powerful that he had to veil his face because it glowed so brightly.

Peterson noted that Jesus’ parables were constructed explicitly to bring truth in an indirect manner. Having people get the point immediately didn’t seem to be goal of such cryptic storytelling. Truth apprehended immediately doesn’t always have the same staying power as truth revealed eventually.

Such indirection is not to be mistaken for deception. Deception, with its substitution of false reality, is too intertwined with untruth to be a proper tool for truth telling.

It must also be noted that indirection isn’t the only manner in which truth must be presented. It was necessary for the Apostle Paul to be blinded (by the Truth, no less) on the road to Damascus. Only such an abrupt encounter with truth could prepare him to later write these words: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Indeed, sometimes the truth hurts. But it can also hint, or — better said — dazzle gradually.

What is ‘good’?

It’s a good question — one posed by Ron H. in his comment on my recent “Darwinism and good” post:

What can adequately explain why something is or isn’t good? Equivalently: What is good?

For many (in practice this is most, I imagine), something is good if it turns out the way a person wishes. Good is reduced to whatever is the most pleasant outcome.

This view is problematic in that there is so much more to “goodness” than its typical subjective uses. There exists an objective good, whether or not we can ascertain it.

As a Christian, I view the concept of good through the lens of biblical revelation. The concept is there throughout Scripture, and shows up early on in the Old Testament book of Genesis:

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. (Genesis 1:3-4, ESV)

Good is that which is wrought by God.

In the New Testament, good is applied on a personal level:

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. (Mark 10:17-18, ESV)

And to gifts we’ve been given:

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17, ESV)

These are but a few examples that begin to show a biblical view of good. The Scriptures indicate that good is a reflection of God’s actions and his character. Good emanates from God.

Without such grounding, it becomes difficult to quantify good in terms other than mere personal preference. It would seem, for example, that a naturalist — who believes that the natural world is all that there is — has little grounding for appealing to the good. I can say that a little girl’s smile is good, because I know that she is a good creation of God.

Upon what can a naturalist base a view of good?

Darwinism and good

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Marilynne Robinson captures well a dilemma that occurs within Darwinism:

Surely we must assume that a biosphere generated out of any circumstances able to sustain life is as good as any other, that if we make a desert, for example, and the god of survival turns his countenance upon the lurkers and scuttlers who emerge as fittest, under the new regime, we can have no grounds for saying that things have changed for the worse or for the better, in Darwinist terms. In other words, absent teleology, there are no grounds for saying that survival means anything more or other than survival. Darwinists praise complexity and variety as consequences of evolution, though the success of single-celled animals would seem to raise questions. I am sure we all admire ostriches, but to call a Darwinist creation good because it is credited with providing them is simply another version of the old argument from design, proving in this use of it not the existence of God but the appropriateness of making a judgment of value: that natural selection, whose existence is to be assumed, is splendid and beneficent, and therefore to be embraced.

The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, “Darwinism,” p.44

It doesn’t prove theism (or creationism, for that matter), but the Darwinist inability to adequately explain why something is or isn’t good would itself seem to undermine its usefulness as an explanation for the natural world.

Sure, a Darwinist might argue that they’re only performing empirical analysts of what things are — not the why. But I submit that we can’t truly know the what without knowing the why.