Tuesday, October 04, 2011


“Dead Poets Society” was a lousy film.  It blanketed itself in a cover of pretentiousness, claiming to deliver a positive message for our youth when in reality it was nothing more than a blatant attempt to proselytize its viewers into its existentialist worldview.  John Keating (played by Robin Williams) sounded more like he belonged in the pulpit of a church that worships at the altar of Kierkegaard than leading a high school poetry class.  Any value that could otherwise have been found in this film was completely destroyed by the existentialist worldview of its lead characters.

Now I must deliver a confession.  That opening paragraph was solely designed to get your attention.  In truth, I very much enjoyed “Dead Poets Society.”  My sister-in-law’s cousin actually starred in the film (Robert Sean Leonard, currently playing Dr. James Wilson on “House”).  I thought Robin Williams’ passionate performance was inspiring, and while I could challenge a number of his character’s philosophical conclusions, that did not prevent me from recognizing this as a high caliber movie with a number of positive messages behind it.

That brings me to the movie “Courageous” which opened in theaters this past weekend.  It shocked many industry professionals by having a larger opening box office than any of the other films that were newly released on Friday (#4 overall) despite being shown in less than half the number of theaters as its nearest competitor.  The basic premise of the film is a call to men to be better and more responsible fathers.  Yet that message gets lost in some of the criticism that instead focuses almost exclusively on the Christian worldview of the main characters.

Much of the feedback for this movie has been positive, and many of the negative reviews have raised legitimate cinematic concerns such as their opinions on the quality of acting, the pace of the film and its overall running time.  While I may have a different opinion on some of those issues, I cannot dispute that they are within the legitimate realm of a movie reviewer and I have no criticism of them.  My point is more about reviewers (whether professional or laypeople making comments on IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, or some other site) who count the philosophical perspective from which the story is told as a mark against it.

Hollywood features routinely advocate a particular philosophical view.  Sometimes it is blatant, as in “Dead Poets Society.”  Other times it is more subtle, like the postmodern skepticism inherent in the conversation of the nature of a Big Mac in “Pulp Fiction.”  The fact that philosophy is imparted through the arts is nothing new.

Yet we scarcely read a review of “Pulp Fiction” claiming that it could have made a more profound impact if only it had lain off the philosophical musings.  People do not criticize Robin Williams’ performance because he sounded too much like an advocate for his character’s worldview.  In these films and others, viewers appear to accept that the worldviews of the main characters are simply the perspective from which the story is told.  “Slumdog Millionaire” focused on people from a Hindu background, but audiences did not allow that to detract from the powerful point of the story.  “Eat, Pray, Love” was a tribute to New Agers, but it still brought in over $80 million domestically.  Why do so many Americans seem willing to be entertained by a film that deals honestly with the lifestyle and opinions of existentialists, postmodernists, Hindus or New Agers, yet cannot get past characters who unabashedly discuss their Christianity?
Some people will react to this post by claiming there were other reasons to dislike “Courageous,” all of which are related to the overall quality of the film.  Like I said earlier, if that is your honest opinion I will not dispute you.  However, I believe we would be required to stick our hand in the sand to avoid admitting that much of the criticism that has been launched against “Courageous” has been because it allegedly sounds more like a message preached from a pulpit than a fictional story produced for our entertainment.  To those critics I can only remind them of how audiences stood on their desks and cheered, “CARPE DIEM!”

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Dominance Form of Pascal's Wager

Blaise Pascal was a 17th Century French philosopher, mathematician and physicist.  He was also a Christian.  At the time of his death, he was working on a treatise on Christian apologetics, but he had only gotten so far as to compile a series of notes.  Still, these notes were published posthumously as his Pensees.  Note 233 contained his famous wager:
But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. It is all divided; wherever the infinite is and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you must give all...

There has been disagreement among philosophers as to how to properly interpret Pascal’s comments.  Ian Hacking, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, suggests that Pascal was making an argument from “dominance.” [1]  According to Hacking, Pascal proposes a dichotomy between the potential effects of wagering on God’s existence versus wagering against it.  If God does not exist, then neither belief nor unbelief bears any potential bad effects.  However, if God exists then wagering for him brings salvation whereas wagering against him entails damnation.  Because salvation is certainly superior to damnation, people should wager on God’s existence.  The “wager ‘God is’ dominates the wager ‘he is not.’”[2]
However, if this is indeed what Pascal meant, then he smuggles in some hidden assumptions.  “Belief in God,” for example, does not by definition entail salvation nor does unbelief by definition bring about damnation.  Mere belief in a “god,” without more, does not logically mandate salvation.  It is only because of the connection between belief and salvation borne through Christian theology that Pascal draws this conclusion.  The dominance form of the wager, therefore, is really contrasting “belief in the Christian God” versus “no God.”  Seen this way there are clearly other alternatives, such as the Islamic “Allah” or any god from the Hindu pantheon.  Thus, the wager does not exhaust all possibilities.
Rephrasing the wager as “belief in the Christian God” versus “not believing in the Christian God” would at least exhaust all logical possibilities (the latter category encompassing both atheism and other divine beliefs), but the “Christian God” side of the wager no longer clearly dominates (based solely upon potential effects).  For example, the Islamic “Allah” is now on the opposite side of the equation from the Christian “Yahweh.”  Which side of wager dominates now clearly appears to depend upon which of these two alternatives is factually true, as both carry damnation for non-believers if they are correct.
 Despite these deficiencies, the dominance form of the wager may still hold value to certain people depending on the options being explored.  Ultimately, this formulation of the wager is an existential argument.  It does not claim to prove the truth or falsehood of either alternative.  It simply illustrates the existential benefits of belief in the Christian God versus the acceptance of atheism.  If a person is examining only those two alternatives (because they have already discarded other worldviews), then the wager can have some efficacy in illustrating the dominance of the potential effects inherent in theism over those of atheism.

[1] Ian Hacking, “The Logic of Pascal’s Wager” in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, ed. William Lane Craig (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 17-24.
[2] Ian Hacking, “The Logic of Pascal’s Wager,” 21.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Are We Shying Away From Exclusivity?

I was at an Episcopal funeral service recently and something puzzled me.  The gospel reading was from John 14:1-6a.  The puzzling part comes from the "a". For those of you who do not know, when you are citing to only the first part of a verse you denote that with an "a" following the verse number.  Similarly, when citing only the last part of a verse, that is denoted with a "b."  So this gospel reading stopped in the middle of verse 6.

Why is that particularly puzzling?  Here is John 14:6: "Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'"

The reading proudly declared that Jesus is "the way and the truth and the life," but stopped short of affirming "No one comes to the Father except through me."  Over the past 24 hours I have pondered what possible reason there could have been for stopping right in the middle of this verse.  Perhaps there is some innocent explanation.  But given the trend in many churches today, I am left wondering.

Jesus clearly declared that His way was the only way.  His was a claim of exclusivity.  In our postmodern culture, many people find that to be offensive, so far too many churches have watered down the gospel and slip into a practical universalism.  We all are simply expressing different paths up the same mountain, so to speak.

This may be a less offensive message, but it clearly is not what Jesus taught.  Truth, by its very nature, is exclusive.  This is one of the most vigorously resisted, yet easily proven propositions in the marketplace today.  Simply put, to disagree is to argue "It is exclusively true that truth is not exclusive," obviously an unsupportable argument.

So Jesus' statement was a most reasonable one.  The only pertinent inquiry is whether it was true.

This is why I am left sratching my head.  I have tried to come up with some reason why the reading would have stopped right in the middle of such a prominent and important verse.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Inflation, Superstrings and Teleology

            Former atheist Antony Flew abandoned his atheism and now believes in God.  When he wrote about the reason why he suffered this reversal of philosophy he largely attributed it to the teleological argument; i.e., the observation that many of the properties of the universe appear to be so finely tuned that even miniscule modifications in one would render life as we know it impossible.  For example, “if the strong force coupling constant, which determines the strength of the strong force that binds protons and neutrons together in the nucleus, were slightly less, the electrical repulsion between protons would cause all atoms except hydrogen to break apart, thus eliminating the possibility of complex life forms such as ourselves; in contrast, if this constant were slightly greater, all the hydrogen would have been burned to helium, thus causing stars to burn too quickly for life to evolve” (Robin Collins, “Design and the Many-Worlds Hypothesis” in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, ed. William Lane Craig, 2002).  This is but one of countless examples, including the cosmological constant, electromagnetism, the gravitational force, the neutron-proton mass difference, the mass of the electron and many others.

            In any other arena, when we witness the type of precision we observe in the laws of the universe we immediately conclude it is the result of intelligence.  Nobody looks at a personal computer and believes it arose from blind chance.  There are too many complex interactions involved.  An intelligent mind must have been behind it.  Of course, this line of thinking would lead to the conclusion that an intelligent mind is also behind the precision in the universe.  That conclusion is obviously unsatisfactory to naturalists, so they argue that the appearance of design is actually illusionary.  One approach to this argument is to claim that ours is not the only universe.  There are in fact countless universes, each one containing physical laws that vary slightly from the others.  In the vast majority of these universes life is impossible, but we happen to live in the one in which the laws lined up properly so that we came into being.

            There are many multiple universe theories, but perhaps the most promising are those involving an inflation field and superstring theory.  This is how it works.  Our universe allegedly began from an extremely small region of space that underwent enormous expansion as a result of an inflation field.  That field imparted a very large energy density to the space as it expanded.  The expansion in turn caused the temperature of space to decrease.  As the temperature dropped, new universes were formed much like water droplets form when water vapor expands and cools.

            If true, this would account for the creation of multiple universes, but not for the variation in physical laws from one universe to the next.  For that, we have to turn to superstring theory.  According to this theory, all matter is ultimately made up of strings of energy that are vibrating in 10 or 11 dimensions of space-time.  6 or 7 of those dimensions are so compacted as to be unobservable.  The shape of those dimensions, however, dictates the vibration of the strings, which in turn affects the masses of fundamental particles and the resulting forces between them.  If, as the inflationary theory suggests, the universe began in a state of extremely high energy, these dimensions would go through rapid variations in shape, causing different masses of fundamental particles and varying physical laws from one baby universe to the next.

            These theories are truly fascinating.  At present there is (to my knowledge) no experimental data to support any of them, but that does not mean we should not explore them and see where they lead.  After all, how will we ever know if a new idea is true if we discard it before even exposing it to critical evaluation?

            Some atheists point to inflationary/superstring theories and claim that they defeat the teleological argument because, if true, they demonstrate that a designer is not necessary to explain the apparent fine-tuning of the universe.  But is this true?  What the skeptic raising this argument fails to realize is that even if the “universe-generator” proposed by their theory explains the fine-tuning in our individual universe, the fine-tuning in the universe-generator itself still presents them with the same explanatory problem.

            In order for this theory to be true, “there must be one or more mechanisms that: (1) cause the expansion of a small region of space into a very large region; (2) in the process allow for the generation of the very large amount of mass-energy needed for a universe containing matter instead of merely empty space; and (3) allow for the conversion of the mass-energy of inflated space to the sort of mass-energy we find in our universe.”  Collins, 135.  The inflation field satisfies the first need.  The second comes from Einstein’s theory of General Relativity that showed that space expands at an enormous rate.  The third requirement is met because as space expands, the amount of energy in space also enormously increases, giving us the energy needed to form the type of matter needed for our universe.

            So we have the inflation field and General Relativity working in harmony together to run this universe-making machine.  Without either one, the machine does not work.  You also need all the intricacies of string theory to be true.  Why should high energy cause the compacted dimensions to vary in shape in the manner necessary to alter the vibration of the strings?  Certain background laws of physics must also operate for string theory to hold true.  They cannot vary from one universe to the other; otherwise string theory, itself the alleged mechanism for bringing about the variation, would cease to operate.  Why should these background laws be such as they are?

            The problem is that the skeptic explains one level of fine-tuning by proffering another level of fine-tuning that must be explained.  Some critics would claim that this is simply a matter of inserting a “God of the gaps.”  “Sure,” they respond, “we may not know how the fine-tuning of the universe-generating machine is to be explained as of today, but that does not mean we should resort to inserting the existence of God.  If superstring theory has taught us anything it is that we may be able to explain apparent design through purely naturalistic means without the need to resort to a designer.  Given time, we will come up with a naturalistic explanation for superstrings as well.”

            Actually, what superstring theory teaches us is that we may be able to explain apparent design through a method that is equally complex and also creates the appearance of design.  This too begs for an explanation.  But then that new explanation would also need to be explained, and the next, and the next and so on, ad infinitum.  By constantly explaining things by means of answers that themselves require an explanation for their existence, the skeptic has invited an eternal regression of explanations.  In order for a causal chain to reach an ending, it must have a beginning.  In other words, the skeptic claims “a” caused “b” which caused our current state “c.”  As a practical matter they work backwards, observing “c” and trying to come up with an explanation for it, “b.”  When it is pointed out to them that “b” appears to require its own explanation they come up with the new explanation “a.”  But what are we to do if “a” also seems to require it’s own explanation?  In order for the causal chain to ever reach “c,” there must be some initial, self-explanatory, self-existent cause that started the chain moving in the forward direction.  There must be an initial cause.

            As long as the naturalist’s explanations continue to appear to require design, we must eventually arrive at the existence of a designer.  Inflationary and superstring theories do not alter this conclusion.  They simply move it back one level.

            Some may object that God Himself requires an explanation for His existence.  First, this is contrary to the very definition of God, who is a self-existent being.  Leaving that aside, however, only things that exist within time require a cause.  If something exists outside of time it does not change, and therefore never goes from a state of non-existence to one of existence.  Therefore it does not require a cause.  Theism teaches that God created time and therefore is not subject to it.  Inflation theory, however, requires the “cooling” of the universe in order for these baby universes to be created.  This requires the existence of time in whatever state in which these universes are created.  Therefore, inflationary theory itself requires an explanation.

            In conclusion, I personally am fascinated by inflationary and superstring theories and find their potential interrelationship to be a very promising notion for how the laws of our universe could be so finely tuned (assuming multiple universes exist; an assumption that is unnecessary given theism, but certainly not in any way damaging to theism).  However, the skeptic who claims that these theories, if true, would eliminate the logical need for a designer have not fully explored their logical implications.  In reality, we are no closer to removing the need for a designer than we were when we began.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Does God Stay Silent to Drive us to our Knees?

I was listening to a sermon the other day in which the pastor was talking about suffering, and he made an observation that I thought was worth sharing.  I apologize, but I started listening in the middle of the sermon, so I don't know the name of the pastor.  It was a radio program and about the best I can do to give credit where credit is due is to admit that the thoughts I am about to share are not my own.

The pastor told the story of someone caught in an addictive behavior who prayed nightly to God to remove the temptation of this addiction.  But for years the inner inclinations remained.  Most of us ask why God remains silent in the face of such persistent prayer.  A key question that many of us overlook when asking this question, though, is whether we would really be as persistent in our prayer life if we did not have that constant thorn in our side.  Struggle has a way of driving us to God and forcing us to recognize our inability to overcome everything this world throws at us on our own.  When all is going well, we do not often acknowledge our need to rely upon God.  This could result in far more disasterous (and eternal) consequences that far outweigh the temporary suffering we face in this world.  So perhaps God allows some suffering to continue precisely because He knows that without it a person will never come to see their need for Him and never come to true faith.

It is a sad truth that even the most devoted Christians do not pray as often as they probably should.  Our own difficulties, however, are usually what drives us to our knees.  How would our prayer life be if God removed all pain from our lives?  What would our relationship with Him look like if we never spoke?  Perhaps God knows that for certain people, if He granted their prayer requests too soon, they would never pray again, and the relationship would be lost.

I admit to not having reflected too deeply on this pastor's comments just yet, but they piqued my interest enough that I thought they were worth sharing in case anyone else wanted to contribute their thoughts.

God bless.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Can a Christian be in the World but not of the World?

"I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel." 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

"Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever." 1 John 2:15-17.

Is there a tension between these verses? The passage in 1 Corinthians seems to be telling us to blend in with the world in order to win them for Christ whereas 1 John appears to tell us to maintain a separation.
In reality, there is no tension. Notice that 1 John does not say to completely cut yourself off from the world but rather not to "love" the things of the world (such as lust and pride). Even Jesus became part of the world so that he could experience what tempts us ("For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin"; Hebrews 4:15). When we say Christians are to be "in the world, not of the world," that does not mean that you must segregate yourself from your surrounding culture. In order to properly reach people where they are, you must understand that culture, but be disciplined enough to pull back if you start to be tempted by "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life."

Be the seed that fell on good soil (Luke 8:8, 15). If you know that your heart lies with God, then you can "become all things to all people" without "loving the world." God bless.

Monday, May 09, 2011


A unique open forum opportunity for junior high and high school students. Come, bring your friends and your questions. Apologist Ken Coughlan will be answering questions about the Christian faith in a live question / answer session. This is your chance to ask your questions and get face-to-face answers, no matter what worldview you come from: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, New Age, Atheist, Agnostic or any other. Free admission. No advance reservation necessary. Call us for more details (410/935-0701).

Sunday, May 15, 2011
9:15 am-10:15 am

2nd Floor of the Monroe Building
Grove Church
50 East Bel Air Ave.
Aberdeen, Maryland

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Little Stockey and the Miracle of Christmas

I just read a fantastic children's book about Christmas that I wanted to strongly recommend to any of my Christian readers out there.  The name of the book is "Little Stockey and the Miracle of Christmas" by Gale Nemec.

Little Stockey is the smallest in his owner's collection of Christmas stockings.  11 months out of the year he waits patiently (or not so patiently) in a box in the attic, just itching to get out and celebrate the Christmas season.  He has become accustomed to his low spot on the bannister, with the higher spots reserved for the larger stockings.  But for some reason this year his owner leaves all the other stockings in the box, hanging only little Stockey and giving him the place of greatest honor on the very top of the bannister!

At first Little Stockey is thrilled by his new position, but over time he becomes lonely.  He cannot understand why his owner, spending Christmas alone, is not also lonely.  But she says that she is never alone, especially at Christmas.  It takes a special visitor to accompany Little Stockey on an exciting journey for him to come to realize what Christmas is really all about and why, thanks to the gift we were given on Christmas Day, we are never alone.

The book is not yet available in stores, but you can purchase it for only $10.00 (plus shipping and tax) at the following website.


Ten Minas Ministries is not affiliated with Gale Nemec.  This is just an effort to spread the word about a good resource for our children.  God bless.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Substance and Imperative in the Moral Law

Every moral law has two components: substance and imperative.  The substance is the nature of the moral quality involved (i.e., goodness, nobility, courage, etc.).  The imperative is the obligation to exemplify that quality.  Even if a moral theory could explain the origin of a quality, it still falls short unless it also encompasses the imperative.  The mere existence of a quality does not obligate people to emulate it.  Therefore, an adequate moral theory must explain not only the substance of morality, but also why people are under any imperative to act in accordance with that substance.
Most theories cannot justify the imperative without begging the question and (at least implicitly) using an imperative in their reasoning. For example, evolutionary theories claim the moral action is the one that preserves society.  However, “This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved,” [1] which is circular reasoning.  Aristotelian theories argue that the moral action is found in the mean between two extremes. [2]  But again, there can be no obligation to perform the action found in the mean unless we assume an imperative that we ought to model the mean.
This is one of the advantages of divine command theories.  Properly formulated, these theories provide an explanation for both the substance and imperative of moral obligations.  Their substance is found in God’s character.  When an individual person is described as “honest” or “empathetic” those are general descriptions at best.  After all, nobody perfectly exemplifies these character traits all the time, but they may be more present in some people than in others.  These same qualities, however, exist perfectly in God.  He is always honest and empathetic.  To say that someone is honest is to say that they act in a way that is similar to the quality in God’s character that is described as “honesty.”  God’s character is the source for moral descriptions.  It provides the substance.  A description of the substance is as far as most moral theories can travel.  But divine command theory also includes a description of the imperative.  We are obligated to model our behavior after those traits in God’s character because he has commanded us to do so.  Therefore, divine command theories address both substance and imperative.
If the imperative of moral rules lies in God’s commands, a critic could justifiably ask why people should obey them.  Just because someone orders you to do something does not mean you should do it.  If Aristotelian ethics fail to explain why people should behave according to the mean between extremes, do divine command ethics have the same shortcoming?  Instead of failing to justify why people should obey the mean, they fail to explain why people should obey God.
I have begun to formulate a possible answer.  First, the very nature of a command raises an issue of obedience.  The intention of a command is for it to be obeyed.  The same cannot be said, for example, of a mean.  There is no intelligence behind a mean expecting obedience.  Therefore the mere fact that a mean exists does not raise the question of taking action in compliance with that mean.
At the very least, then, basing an ethic in commands legitimizes an imperative whereas other ethical theories do not.  However, not all commands are to be obeyed.  The command of a would-be murderer to assist in a killing is properly disregarded.  So while it is true that only a command can legitimize an imperative, the question remains of why God’s commands are of the nature that they should be obeyed.
My preliminary answer to this dilemma lies in the fall.  All humankind was made in the image of God.  The positive attributes of their character were passed on from God in a similar fashion as a parent passes on genetic qualities to biological children.  The fall, however, tore several holes in the character of the human race.  People may have only been “good” in a finite sense prior to the fall, but afterward they became dramatically less so.  Yet the image of God did not abandon humanity altogether.  Programmed into humanity’s very being is an irresistible longing to return to that original state. It is a goal that people cannot help but desire, even if they cannot adequately recognize or articulate it.  Humankind knows something is missing, although they may not know what it is.  A gap longs to be filled, and a gap in moral character is no different.  God’s commands tell people how to fill that gap as much as is possible in this fallen state and therefore satisfy this longing.  If they recognized that God’s commands pointed toward this goal for which they irresistibly strive, the conclusion that God’s commands should be followed would be equally irresistible.  In this sense, “should” is not a moral imperative, but rather a necessary presupposition based upon a fallen nature.

[1] C.S. Lewis, “The Abolition of Man,” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, ed. Joseph Rutt (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2002), 477 (emphasis in original).
[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 5th ed. (London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, 1893), 37-38.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Do You Have a Hole in Your Heart?

To really understand what it means to have a hole in your heart you have to go through it, or at least watch as someone you have known for a very long time and about whom you care very deeply goes through it. You see, I am not just talking about the everyday “I don’t want to wake up this Monday morning and go into work” kind of dissatisfaction with life. The feeling I am talking about is much deeper, much more pervasive and far more debilitating.

Many people experience an existential crisis in their lives that is hard to put into words. If they were to open up to you about it (which in my experience, most will not) probably the best articulation they would come up with is “something is missing” or “something just doesn’t feel right.” It is a general profound dissatisfaction with their lives, not just for one day or surrounding one activity, but around their entire lives. There is a hole in their hearts and it becomes their top priority to find a way to fill it.

Usually, these folks try to fill that hole with something that can never do the trick. Some people use drugs. Some alcohol. Others (especially those of us that are reaching the “middle aged” category) try to recapture that feeling of youthful exuberance they had when they were younger. They may re-enter the club scene, change their hair color or wardrobe or get new tattoos or piercings. The problem is that none of these things last. Drugs and alcohol wear off, causing that heart hole to reappear and leaving you constantly looking for more until you slip into addiction and all sorts of destructive behaviors. And no matter how hard you try, the hourglass of time will always be urging you onward. Change your outward appearance as much as you like, but ultimately all you are doing to stifling your own development. Besides, we all tend to remember the past with rose-colored glasses. If we were to be honest with ourselves, things weren’t all peaches and cream in our youth either. Satisfaction isn’t to be found there for the crises we face today.

Probably the number one realization that most people going through this process need to come to is how selfish their behavior is. That is not a very politically correct thing to say. After all, many times the reason these crises began in the first place was something that was beyond the person’s control and for which they had no blame. That being said, one true measure of a person’s integrity is how they respond to adversity. We can empathize with someone who has been dealt a nasty hand. But there is a right way and a wrong way to face these struggles. Two wrongs do not make a right.

I am reminded of a story I read on the web recently (I apologize, I do not remember the source) of a woman who came to the conclusion after having two children (both of whom were around elementary/middle school age) that motherhood just wasn’t for her. So she upped and moved away, leaving her now estranged husband to handle the family. She would visit the kids occasionally, but went on and on about how much better her relationship was with her children now that they did not have to deal with each other every day. Maybe she liked it better, but I wonder what those kids would say if they really expressed the inner longings of their hearts. I don’t know what caused this woman to get to that point in her personal crisis. But I am reasonably confident that she did not take the high road in her hasty exit. At their core, her actions were selfish.

That’s a hard lesson to swallow, because when someone has been emotionally beaten down, it is often the result of them never speaking up for themselves and thinking of their own well being. But to respond to such a situation by jumping to the opposite extreme and thinking only of oneself can be just as destructive.

Most people going through this type of crisis don’t think anything is wrong. More specifically, they think plenty is wrong, but always with other people. They will surround themselves with others who are going through similar phases in their lives so that they can all affirm each other that they are right and the rest of the world is wrong. This just makes it far more difficult to break the cycle. Often we have to break with these unhealthy self-affirming relationships before we can really start to bounce back from the self-destructive path we have set for ourselves. Ultimately, relationships between two people who are both in these circumstances will fail. After all, they may think they share something in common, but ultimately each person is primarily concerned with their own well being, not that of their partners in arms. Remember, this behavior is fundamentally self-centered. How long do you think it will take before the desires of two selfish people come into conflict? It is going to happen. The only question is, “When?” How supportive do you think the relationship will be then?

One of the saddest things about someone trying to recapture their youth is how much they are missing. Each stage in our lives comes with its own blessings. I met my wife in 1991 at a fraternity party at the University of Delaware. Back in those days we used to go out to parties, late night movies, or just cruise around town. We were married in 1994 and lived in an apartment within walking distance of a Multiplex movie theater. The party scene slowly vanished and was replaced by walks to matinees (that was all we could afford) and weekly game nights with my eldest brother and his newlywed wife (they are also still together, I am happy to report). We moved to Jamestown, Virginia in 1995 when I started law school at William & Mary. Money was really tight then because I wasn’t earning an income (at least not for the first year). Date nights now were “fancy” dinners made in our own kitchen and served at our tiny kitchen table. If it was a “feast,” we might even have raised the drop down portion of the table to increase our dining space from what seemed like the size of a matchbox to a breadbox. We had taken a Shakespeare class together and Williamsburg had an excellent (and inexpensive) Shakespeare Festival that put on two plays each year. That pretty much encompassed our nights out. If we actually had saved enough cash to buy dinner, it was pizza from a small take out place called the “Jamestown Pie Company,” some of the best pizza I have had to this day.

After law school, we became a two income family again and didn’t know what to do with all this extra money. So naturally we did what any young immature couple would do…we spent it. We started going to musicals in downtown Norfolk and even occasionally shopping at MacArthur Center, the new upscale mall a few blocks from my office. We learned some valuable lessons in those days about responsible stewardship of our finances.

Then in 2002 our world was rocked. My daughter was born. All of a sudden we had a new priority in our lives. I had been taking Masters’ level classes in criminal justice at Old Dominion University but that had to stop. I couldn’t be out of the house all day and several nights each week with a newborn at home. I had to give a lot up when my daughter was born, but let me tell you, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I got far more back, from the star struck gazes when she would look at Chuck E. Cheese or Mickey Mouse to the time spent pushing her on a swing or playing the part of the prince taking my little princess to the ball. Then God did it for me all again, with a more rambunctious twist, in 2007 when my son was born. Now I am a horse to be ridden or a wrestling partner who always seems to wind up on the losing end of the match.

What is the point of this brief biography? Is it because I thought you were really all that interested in my life story? No. In fact I have often joked with my wife that even if I became incredibly famous, my biography would be one of the worst selling books ever because my life has been so dull. The point is this: When I was in college I got to go out to parties every weekend, but I didn’t get to enjoy those quiet dinners with my new wife around that tiny table in law school. I didn’t know the joys of a new marriage. But during those law school days I also thought that more money was the solution to many of my problems. It wasn’t until I entered the professional workforce that I learned proper stewardship and that true happiness cannot be bought. Now I look at my children, and if you were to ask me if I ever dream of going back to those college partying days I would respond, “What, and give up all of this?” Each stage in our lives carries its own blessings. If you insist on trying to live in a bygone era, you are going to miss all the blessings meant for the age in which you now live.

So if recapturing your youth, drugs or alcohol isn’t the answer to filling that hole, what is? In order to answer that question, we first need to know what’s wrong with all the other answers so we have an idea what the right kind of answer should look like. The main problem with all these false solutions is that they provide at best fleeting comfort and often result in sending you spiraling further down your destructive path. What do I mean that they are “fleeting?” The effects of drugs or alcohol eventually wear off. Even if you convince yourself that everything is better while you are under their influence, what do you do once the high ends? That hole reappears and you are left trying to fill it again. It is a never ending cycle. The same is true of trying to recapture your youth. Inevitably you will come face to face with a sobering reminder that you will never truly be that young again.

How are they “destructive?” The answer should be obvious with drugs and alcohol. Relying upon them for comfort leads to dependency and addiction, until you lose the ability to function. Trying to live in the past can have a very similar effect, even if it is not as obvious. Like it or not, as we get older we have responsibilities. People depend upon us, whether it be a spouse, children, co-workers or friends. Remember what I said before, this type of behavior ends up being selfish. Someone who wants to recapture the wonder of their youth through living their old lifestyle will do it at the expense of everyone around them. You will be going out to bars with your self-affirming friends rather than on dates with your spouse. You will be out so late at night that you are sleeping throughout the afternoon when you children are secretly longing to spend quality time with you. Not that they will say so to your face, but the impact on your relationship will show over time as your kids no longer believe you will be there for them when they need you and begin sharing the most important things in their lives with others, sometimes with people who start them down their own self-destructive paths. If a friend does not affirm your behavior you convince yourself that they are not a true friend. And before long the obsession with your new lifestyle costs you your focus at work. In what seems like the blink of an eye, your selfish response to something tragic in your life has led to even more tragedy. You turn around and see you have lost your spouse, children, friends or job.

Whatever the proper way is to fill the hole, it can’t be fleeting and it can’t be destructive. In my opinion the only thing that fits the bill is God. First, he is the God of all comfort. He never promises that pain will not enter our lives, but he can be the friend you need when you feel compelled to vent your frustrations. We tend to convince ourselves that if only we could know the reason why pain has entered our lives then we would find the strength to persevere. Frustration inevitably sets in when we can’t find the reason we are looking for. Job also wanted to know the reason for his suffering. But before it was done, he learned that he didn’t necessarily need to know what the reason was as long as he knew that a reason existed. He could be assured that there was a reason for his pain because he knew that God loved him and could be trusted. God wouldn’t let this happen without cause. Therefore, even though Job didn’t get the answers he thought he needed, he found comfort in trust; trust in God’s love.

But even more so, God can give meaning to every aspect of your life. His word tells us to do everything we do as if it is for the glory of God. In other words, worship is a lifestyle, not something you do for an hour or so on Sunday mornings. You wake up to face the world for the glory of God. You eat your meals for the glory of God. You go to work for the glory of God. You raise your children for the glory of God. God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. He never changes. He never leaves. Therefore you can always find meaning in worship. If you fill your hole with the worship of your Creator, you will never have to fill it again.

Do you have a hole in your heart? What have you tried to fill it with? How is that working for you? God bless.


Saturday, February 26, 2011


I confess that the title to this post was meant to be blunt, but please don’t think it was intended to be rude. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is an unfortunate tendency in our culture today for people to be drawn to the sensational and controversial. So I avoided the temptation to go with a more philosophical title in hopes that by being straightforward and blunt I would draw more people in. If you are reading this, hopefully it means I succeeded in that small task. I encourage you to keep reading, at which point it is my hope that you will see I hold those who disagree with me in the greatest respect and do my best to sympathize with the situation in which you find yourselves (while never claiming to fully understand because I confess to not being subject to same gender temptations myself).

This topic is of particular importance to me personally. The denomination with which I am affiliated (PCUSA) is currently being torn apart by debates over same sex marriage. Maryland, the State in which Ten Minas Ministries is based, is currently holding debates in their legislature about whether to permit same sex marriage (the bill has already passed the Senate, and is likely headed to a referendum before the voters). But most importantly, I have had many dear friends throughout my life (including some currently) who are in same sex relationships and who firmly believe in their right to be married. I do not approach this topic lightly because I know the potential hurt that my position may cause them.

Please do not misunderstand me. I really do not hold myself out as any particular expert on the subject, nor do I think my own opinion is so drastically important that everyone should stop whatever he or she is doing to listen. No, I am just one voice in the cacophony and I am perfectly comfortable with that. But America’s democracy is built on the premise that each person has the right to contribute to the cacophonous marketplace, so I am just going to take what small forum I have available to me in order to make my contribution.

I. The Proper Tone of the Conversation

For starters, you should know the tone I am hoping this post will take. It is not my intention to launch into any ad hominem attacks. I have seen both sides of the debate approach it from that type of an angle and I firmly believe that those voices do nothing but inhibit the free marketplace; they do not make any meaningful contributions to it. I wrote a post a few months ago about a protester carrying a poster with two hangman’s nooses on it saying “God’s solution to gay marriage.” This morning I read about Delegate Luiz Simmons of Montgomery County, Maryland poking fun at his Republican colleagues by saying he’d reviewed the witness list for the panel hearing and “God has not signed up either for or against” the proposed legislation. Both sides are guilty of “debating” the issue without actually saying anything of substance. My goal is to do my best to avoid any such attacks. If I fail in your eyes, I can only ask your forgiveness in advance. I will be the first to admit that I am far from perfect.

I also want you to understand what kind of discussion this will be. I am a Christian. That much is obvious. I am the President of a Christian apologetics ministry. I am also well aware that for that reason alone many people will disregard my opinion outright. I can only beg your indulgence and ask you to stick with me for a while. Hopefully I can convince you that the mere fact that I am a Christian should not per se discredit my position. I hope that you will give me a fair hearing, just as I will do my best to give you a fair hearing if you choose to voice your concerns in a comment (I confess to being a bit nervous about where this will lead, but part of the reason I am writing this as a blog post rather than simply an article is to allow those who agree or disagree with me to add their voice to this small corner of society’s cacophony as well).

As a Christian, I am prepared to defend the position against same sex marriage from a purely scriptural perspective. In fact, I have done so. If anyone is interested in hearing my thoughts in that regard, I invite you to listen to two podcasts on the TMM website titled, “What Does the Bible Say About Homosexual Marriage?” and “What Does the Bible Say About Homosexual Behavior?” But that is not the approach I will be taking here. After all, this post is not strictly addressed to Christians, but to society as a whole. The apostle Paul told the church in Corinth, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” (1 Corinthians 5:12). Paul was not saying that we should not speak up for what we believe to be right, but rather making a rather obvious observation. Why should those outside the church care what the scriptures say on a topic if they do not accept the Bible as authoritative in the first place? I fully appreciate that many people reading this post may think the Bible is nothing more than myth and fantasy. That is a discussion we can have on another day. But for the purposes of the defense I will make of my position, I do not expect you to give one ounce of credence to the Bible.

Of course, I also must be completely honest with you. I am a Christian, and I do accept the authority of scripture. Therefore, a complete answer of “Why I am opposed to same sex marriage” would have to include as one of its grounds that it is forbidden by God. Again, I confess to my biases and will not shy away from them. But if God really is the creator of the universe, and if the Bible really is His word, then shouldn’t we expect that there will be some relation between the two? In other words, if I believe same sex marriage is wrong based upon scripture (God’s special revelation), then shouldn’t the natural world (God’s general revelation) support this position as well? I am not saying that all the claims of the Bible should be provable from nature alone, but at a minimum we would not expect God’s two revelations to contradict each other. In reality, I believe the non-scriptural case weighs against same sex unions, and I will now turn to explaining why.

II. Sex and Marriage

The first step in understanding my position is to overcome our social taboos. Nobody seems to want to talk about sex in public settings. Walk into any debate on this subject in a lecture hall, legislative committee, or elsewhere, and you will hear people talking about love, commitment, God, family values and children, but hardly ever sexual intercourse. I apologize in advance if it makes you uncomfortable to hear so frank a discussion about sexual relations, but I assure you that it is necessary.

I am speaking purely from a secular perspective about marriage. After all, as I said before I am not presenting a scriptural defense (but if I was then the evidence is overwhelming that a Christian definition of marriage is only between a man and a woman). But what about civil marriage? Should a court clerk, judge or justice of the peace be allowed to perform a same sex union? Assuming that the separation of church and state prevents any religious considerations from entering the equation (I do not concede this was the original intention of the Constitution, but that is neither here nor there for the purposes of my point), then the question really becomes one of morality. After all, that is what our laws are all about. They legislate morality. I will come back to this point shortly, but for now I want to make sure you understand that there is an inseparable link, even on a civil level, between marriage and sexual relations.

Take the Commonwealth of Virginia as an example. Are you aware that a civil marriage can be annulled even after the ceremony if sexual intercourse has not yet taken place? The withholding of intercourse is also considered to be grounds for divorce. Even on a purely secular level, marriage includes in its definition the official government sanction of sexual relations. When the government permits two people to marry, it is granting its official blessing for the two of them to engage in sex. That is the point at which I address my question. Is it morally right for our government to condone sexual relations between two people of the same gender? If so, then I see no secular reason to prohibit these marriages. If not, then I do not see how they can be condoned.

III. The Burden of Proof

Everyone is biased. Let me say that again so that it sinks in, everyone is biased. I bring a bias to every issue. So do you. But there are “biases” and then there are “Biases.” The lowercase kinds of biases are not necessarily a bad thing if the biases themselves are warranted. They come from our worldview. If your worldview is justifiable, then the biases it brings will be as well. The uppercase varieties are the ones that make us examine an issue with our emotions instead of our brains. I admit to my bias. I am a lawyer. I have been a lawyer for almost 13 years, which means I have a certain way of looking at things. It is not necessarily a good or a bad way. It is just a typical “lawyerly” way.

When I begin looking at a problem, the first question I ask myself is, “Which side has the burden of proof?” Pretend you are sitting on a jury in a case where the Plaintiff is claiming the Defendant punched him in the face. At the end of the evidence you are called upon to make a decision about who wins and who loses. Unfortunately, after listening to all the evidence, you come to the honest opinion that it is evenly split. The evidence on one side is just as strong as that on the other, and you really do not know what happened. You don’t have the option of declaring a tie. Somebody has to win. How do you decide? The legal system makes that decision for you by giving one side the “burden of proof.” That means that one party has the job to convince you, by whatever slim margin, that he or she is right. If they don’t convince you, either because the evidence for the other party is stronger or because it is evenly split, the other side wins. In a civil case the Plaintiff has this burden. The tiebreaker goes to the Defendant.

Because this is my background, I tend to use the same approach when examining social issues. As a voter, I will soon be asked whether to accept same sex marriage in Maryland. The first step in my mind then, before I look at a single piece of evidence, is to decide who has the burden of proof. You may feel differently, but for biological reasons alone I feel this burden must be assigned to those in favor of same sex unions.

One thing that I believe must be conceded by people on both sides of this issue is that when it comes to intercourse there is a certain biological compatibility between opposite sex couples that is not present with members of the same sex. There are parts of the male and female bodies that are designed (whether you believe that design is the result of a divine being, natural selection, or anything else) to go together (forgive me as I try to address the necessary issues without becoming too crass in the effort). Our bodies are such that heterosexual intercourse elicits certain physiological reactions that at best must be artificially created in certain same sex activities. Furthermore, heterosexual relations appear to find further support in the simple fact that they serve a biological purpose that homosexual relations do not. Even if you deny the existence of a supreme being, even natural selection has clearly created beings that rely upon sexual intercourse for procreation and survival of the species.

Before we proceed any further, it is important for you to understand what I am (and am not) relying upon these biological factors to show. I am not using them to make an affirmative case against the morality of same sex intercourse (which as I said before is the deciding factor in whether to condone same sex civil marriages). Rather, I am looking to decide where to assign the burden of proof. In doing so I search for common ground. On what can both sides agree? I believe that any fair observer simply must concede these facts to be true. If we cannot even agree on this much, then I see no point in going further. To deny these very basic facts about the human anatomy is to guarantee that you will never be open to any argument.

The only purpose for which I use these facts is to decide which side has the burden of proof. Because these agreed upon facts seem to favor heterosexual relations, I assign that burden to those advocating a form of relations that runs against the biological stream, so to speak. Please also understand that this does not mean advocates for same sex marriage cannot meet that burden. Plaintiffs win cases in court every day even though they have this same burden. It is a tiebreaker, nothing more. If same sex proponents can tip the scales ever so slightly in their favor they would still win the day.

IV. Is Morality Objective?

I have made several comments thus far about “morality.” Specifically, I have claimed that whether our government should permit same sex intercourse via marriage is a moral question. But doesn’t this beg an even larger question: What is morality? Some people believe there are objective moral laws that apply equally to everyone regardless of what we may personally believe. The Holocaust was objectively wrong. Its rightness or wrongness is not open for debate, not a matter of personal opinion. Other people firmly believe that morality is purely subjective. There are no absolute moral rules. Societies decide for themselves what is moral and what is not with no higher authority than the will of the people.

The answer to this question would take far more space than is practical, but I also do not believe we need to answer it for our current purposes. Remember what we are talking about. This conversation is about whether the civil law should permit same sex unions. In order to have a civil law in the first place, there are certain assumptions that we simply must accept, one of which is objective morality.

The civil law is by definition an objective standard that applies to everyone. Murder is not legal for one person but illegal for another (leaving fairness in the application of our laws aside and speaking purely from a philosophy of laws perspective). On what basis do we formulate these laws? Clearly at least certain laws are intended to prescribe morality. Why is rape illegal? Because it is a moral violation of the victim in the highest degree. We do not ban rape on purely pragmatic grounds. Regardless of the consequences, rape is a violation of someone’s personal rights. On this point I think people on both sides of the aisle of this debate should agree. People have inalienable rights. The Declaration of Independence says so and I fully embrace that concept. Of course, these rights are not absolute. We have a right to freedom, but it is not freedom to do anything. Our freedom does not extend to that class of activities that the civil law has declared to be immoral.

So in formulating laws we look to a standard by which to judge right and wrong. It makes no sense to say that the standard to which we look is subjective. That would be equivalent to saying, “morality is purely subjective but we are going to enforce it objectively.” That is a contradictory statement. Besides, our legal system does not look like one that accepts subjective morality. If it did, we would expect to see laws that say the same action would be illegal for those people who accept the immorality (or illegality) of their actions but not for those who do not. Imagine trying to get a conviction in that system of justice! The fact that we pass laws with moral principles that apply equally to all demonstrates that our justice system is based upon the assumption that morality applies equally to all. Therefore, regardless of what you may personally believe about morality, if we are confining our discussion to the question of the civil law, we must work within the philosophical framework of that system, which means we must (at least for the sake of discussion) accept that morality is objective.

V. The Sacredness of Gender

So far I have assigned the burden of proof to those in favor of same sex marriage and demonstrated that if we are talking about a legal course of action, we cannot escape the dilemma by saying, “What is right for you may not be right for me, so why can’t you just let me live my life in peace?” That statement assumes a subjective morality which the legal system simply cannot accept and still expect to function. Whether we like it or not, we must assume that there is a “right” answer and a “wrong” answer to this question and do our best to figure out which is which.

So that I cannot be accused of simply putting forth a defensive effort, allow me to place some evidence on the side of the scale opposed to same sex unions. Granted, based on what I said before I believe those opposed to same sex marriage have the tiebreaker, but this does not mean they cannot offer their own evidence. Please permit me to articulate one argument.

Many people favoring same sex unions like to draw a parallel between their cause and the civil rights movement. They point out that African Americans were being denied basic rights and claim that the same is being done to them today. At first blush it is admittedly an attractive argument. I certainly am not in favor of treating people unfairly? Who would be?

But there are a few distinctions that must be taken into account, and in the end I believe the civil rights movement actually counts as evidence against same sex unions. First, on what basis are people being denied privileges? In the civil rights movement it was because of the color of their skin, clearly an irrelevant criteria. In the current debate, as I have framed it (which as far as I can tell is the only fair secular way for opponents of same sex marriage to frame the discussion) it is because of something people do; i.e., an activity in which they engage (same sex intercourse). While it is always improper to deny people privileges based upon whom they are (i.e., the color of their skin) it is not so obviously wrong to deny privileges to people based upon what they do. I will get to the alleged biological disposition for homosexual attraction shortly, but for my present purposes it is sufficient to point out that our entire legal system is about denying people life, liberty or property based upon something they did or promised to do. This does not answer the question for us, but it does point us back to our starting point that the real question we must ask ourselves is whether the activity of same sex intercourse is moral.

Here is the question I believe advocates for same sex unions must answer. The reason it is wrong to discriminate against someone because of race is because race is sacred (whether you wish to define that term by referring to a divine being or simply a non-divine moral right). We do not choose our race. It is part of who we are, and it is wrong to violate that. While proponents of same sex marriage often argue for a biological predisposition (more on this to come), it seems to me that they fail to acknowledge that people are also born with a certain physiological gender that should not be violated. Why is it that someone’s race is held sacred but physiological gender is de-sacralized? We are born into our gender in the same way as we are born into our race. If morality honors a person’s race then shouldn’t it also honor their gender? If there is moral value in race, then there is moral value in gender and any act in violation of that gender should be viewed with some level of suspicion.

Can gender be de-sacralized based upon the free choice of the individual? Perhaps. I am willing to concede that it is possible. But how would you react to an African-American insisting on using a separate bathroom because he does not think himself worthy to share a bathroom with Caucasians? Would you walk away believing that this is his right or would you try to convince him that his reasoning is faulty and he should not think of himself this way? I, for one, hold both race and gender to be sacred. While I will not prevent people from de-sacralizing either in themselves of their own free choice, I also cannot in good conscience celebrate the act of them doing so.

VI. What About Love?

At this point in time you are probably thinking of many arguments that far outweigh the weight I have just placed on my side of the scale. One leading argument is based upon love. After all, even if gender in general should not be violated, certainly the overpowering value of love far outweighs whatever value we assign to honoring gender.

This is the point on which I believe more confusion exists than any other, and it is largely the fault of those in the Christian church. Rather than acknowledging that same sex couples genuinely love each other, we deny that their feelings are real, as if we somehow became omnipotent and could see into their hearts and tell them what they are feeling. It always seems pointless to me when one person apologizes for what another person has done, but for what it is worth I apologize for this incredibly presumptuous reaction that has been advanced by many in the name of Christ. Since when is Christianity about denying love? Far from it! I will never deny the genuineness of the feelings felt by people in same sex relationships.

It is here, though, that I feel the English language fails us. Many terms in English have nuances of meaning. “Love” is one of those terms. Greek is a far better language to illustrate my point. Four different words for “love” in Greek are agape, eros, philia and storge. “Agape” refers to a deep, true, self-sacrificing love. “Eros” is sensual. “Philia” is a friendship type of love. “Storge” is a natural affection, like that of a parent for a child. I “love” many other men in my life. When we are talking about whether same sex intercourse is morally condoned, we are not speaking of agape, philia or storge love, but rather the eros variety. Yet when people say that this type of marriage should be permitted because the couple “loves” each other, in context they are generally referring to agape. The reason it is allegedly such a crime to deny marriage to these couples is because they share such a deep devotion to each other. But if the real question is whether intercourse should be allowed, this is missing the point. Granted, it is an easy mistake to make because our English language does not make these fine distinctions. We use the word “love” for each, so we can miss the fact that we are using “love” equivocally rather than univocally.

You do not need to be married to share agape love with someone and I would never dream of telling someone they do not truly feel that way for another person in their heart. But we need to avoid the temptation to become sidetracked. If the proponent is seeking to put weights on one side of the scale, evidence that does not address the issue at hand has no value in the balance. I grant that agape love has enormous value, and possibly could outweigh what I have placed on the other side of the scale if it was relevant. Unfortunately, comparing the value of agape, which is not denied by disallowing same sex marriage, to the value of the sacredness of gender is comparing apples and oranges.

Only a balance of gender and eros would be relevant. Eros though, at least in its physical expression, is not per se entitled to nearly the same value as agape. Eros has a history of having both beneficial and detrimental expressions. While eros can be beautiful, it can also have negative expression as when it is responsible for adultery or underage pregnancies. Agape is always good. Eros can be good or bad and therefore cannot per se be entitled to the same value. When placed on the scale in isolation, then, I do not believe eros can justify de-sacralizing gender.

VII. What About a Biological Predisposition?

This leads to another common argument, that people are born with a certain sexual disposition. It is a genetic, not a learned behavior. I confess to not having researched this issue as thoroughly as I could. Some people swear the evidence clearly shows a genetic connection whereas others feel equally strongly the other way.

The reason I have not looked into this question more deeply, though, is not because of laziness on my part. Rather it is because I do not see how the answer would make a difference either way.

We are examining whether certain actions are moral, not feelings. In other words, the key question is not whether it is moral to have feelings of attraction toward members of the same sex but rather whether it is moral to act on those feelings. What is morality if not a set of rules to tell us when we cannot do something we may genuinely feel a very strong desire to do? If we did not desire to do something then we would not need morality to tell us not to do it. We would not have any desire to do it in the first place.

Thus, even assuming people have a sincere biological attraction to members of the same sex, that does not bring us any closer to resolving the moral question of whether it is right to physically act on that attraction.

VIII. On What Basis Could Same Gender Sex Be Moral?

My point in the last two sections has simply been to illustrate that two of the arguments often raised in support of same sex marriage actually miss the point. Of course, that does not mean that it cannot be justified on other grounds. There are many competing objective moral theories (because the legal system must assume an objective ethic, we do not need to concern ourselves with subjective theories). Perhaps one of them could support same sex unions. In reality, though, I find it difficult to justify the practice under any objective moral theory.

Even though I personally hold to a form of divine command theory (which is a theory of objective ethics), I am excluding that as a possibility for what should seem obvious reasons. Most divine command theorists would likely claim that there is just such a command against same gender sexual relations.

A strong utilitarian argument could be made for same sex unions. After all, in Utilitarianism the “moral” is the act that produces the greatest happiness measured against the least suffering. The participants in same sex relations, acting on their feelings of eros, undoubtedly experience some degree of happiness. As long as these activities take place in private the rest of the world remains ignorant to their occurrence and therefore sustains no negative consequences. What is wrong with justifying same sex intercourse on utilitarian grounds?

Simply put, since when is happiness the sole determining factor of morality? If we really think about the consequences of a utilitarian ethic most people would likely be offended by it. For example, if a person ridicules a dear friend behind his or her back, the unsuspecting victim experiences no unhappiness over the incident whereas the perpetrator derives some level of happiness. If the total measure of happiness versus unhappiness were the sole measure of virtue, then this ridiculing would appear to be a virtuous act. The definition of “good,” however, appears to include concepts other than merely happiness, such as friendship and loyalty. Utilitarianism appears to have a backwards understanding of the role happiness plays. Happiness is not something that is good for its own sake. Instead, happiness is a response we have to other things that we recognize as goods, independently and in their own right. So perhaps the happiness versus unhappiness ratio does favor the private expression of same sex intercourse, but that does not make it moral.

What about a Kantian ethic? Does the categorical imperative favor same sex unions? The categorical imperative says to always act in such a way that your maxim could be taken as a universal law. Could we will that people universally be permitted to engage in same sex intercourse, even if privately expressed? Given the important biological purposes served by heterosexual intercourse to the survival of the species, I do not see how this could be willed as a universal rule.

Aristotle gives us another option. He claimed the moral action is found in the mean between two extremes. Between slovenliness and extreme vanity we find a healthy level of humility. The problem is that it is difficult to see how same sex intercourse could be viewed as any kind of a mean. If this is the mean, what are the extremes? Aristotle conceded that some things (he gave the example of suicide) are not subject to his golden mean analysis and are therefore wrong in themselves. Is same sex intercourse of this character? I do not pretend to know. But at best we must remain agnostic as to how to apply an Aristotelian ethic to the question at hand, and if the proponent of these unions has the burden of proof then an Aristotelian ethic cannot break the tie.

IX. What About Civil Unions?

So in the end I come to the conclusion that those favoring same sex intercourse have not met their burden of convincing me that such activities are moral. If those activities are not moral, then neither is same sex marriage that explicitly condones such behavior.

But what about civil unions? Is it possible to have a “middle ground” where these couples can enjoy some form of official recognition without condoning sex? Perhaps, but I am skeptical. I am lawyer so I am naturally suspicious of people’s motives. Why does someone want a law recognizing civil unions? Is it really because they believe we should create a new category of government recognition or is just a back door attempt at moving one step closer to full recognition of marriage?

But it is at least theoretically possible to create a civil union law that overcomes the objections I have raised in this post. I only question the need for it. Unmarried people can already enjoy many of the alleged benefits of civil unions. Unmarried people can share a joint bank account. Living wills and medical powers of attorney can grant the power to make medical decisions. It is true that unmarried couples do not get the same income tax advantages, but perhaps that should cause us to question why we give these tax advantages to married couples, not to expand them even further.

So I am open to a discussion about civil unions, but I confess to going into that discussion with some serious reservations.

X. Let He Who is Without Sin…

In the end, I remain unconvinced that same sex marriage, in all its implications, is moral. I do not agree with that lifestyle. That being said, I will not deny you the right to live that lifestyle if you choose, but I simply cannot celebrate or condone it. I also think many Christians forget that even though we believe homosexuality to be a sin, it is far from the only sin in the Bible. Yet for some reason we elevate this sin above all others, especially above those we have committed ourselves. We should address this question with respect, not hostility. I ask all Christians to reflect on sins they have committed in their life and ask how they would feel if someone addressed that sin in them in the same manner in which they address the issue of same sex marriage. Would you like being demonized? Then do not demonize your opponent. Do you appreciate being insulted and ridiculed? Then why should we treat others this way?

It was my sincere desire in writing this post that I would demonstrate the possibility of having an intelligent conversation about these issues without being rude or letting emotional outbursts take over. If in your mind I failed in this task, I offer my sincere apologies and ask simply that you not measure Christ by the mistakes made by this one far from perfect disciple of His.

Thank you for bearing with me through my long and rambling contribution to the cacophony. God bless.

Ken Coughlan

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Pushing the Moral Envelope

"In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, 'Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!'" John 2:14-16

Not all anger is an immoral anger. There is such a thing as righteous anger. What determines whether anger is justified is its motivation. Is it merely an emotional lashing out or is it a response to extreme immorality? We are correct to be angry at the atrocities committed by the likes of Adolf Hitler or Charles Manson.

1 Peter 3:15 tells us to interact with the world using "gentleness and respect," and this is true. But sometimes we take this command too far and slip into a culturally induced attitude that any confrontation is wrong. We often fear confrontation so much that we are afraid to stand up for what is right. If we were honest with ourselves, we would probably have to admit that we are using God's Word as an excuse to avoid a conflict that we know is necessary but do not want to have.

If someone is abusing other people, whether physically or emotionally, it is our call as Christians to step up and say something about it. We can do this with gentleness and respect, but those terms do not require us to just sit back silently and let it happen. If someone lives their life by constantly pushing the moral envelope without anyone ever telling them "no," they will continue to push more and more until they blaze a trail of broken hearts and damaged people in their wake.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Are Christians Losing the Battle of Perception?

Abortion. Same sex marriage. The Death Penalty. These are some of the issues in which people’s religious convictions are often cited as part of the foundation underlying their beliefs. Opinions are not necessarily solely based upon religious beliefs, but those beliefs are at least one contributing factor.

I have argued before that there is a growing sentiment in America that religious opinions are irrelevant and should not be raised in the public arena. I don’t claim that it is a universal phenomenon; just that it is an increasing trend. Sometimes critics have responded to me by claiming it is really just a matter of whose ox is being gored; i.e., the reason I perceive this to be true is because I am a Christian. If I were of a non-religious stripe I would probably feel that religious views are being given too much credence.

There is undoubtedly a seed of truth in this. To some extent we all tend to view the world through our own set of tinted glasses. I do not accept the school of thought that holds this makes any objectivity impossible, but it would be naïve to ignore the role that our own presuppositions play. But to claim that this adequately responds to my point is to commit the genetic fallacy, believing that explaining how a belief is formed somehow addresses the underlying truth of that belief. It is certainly possible to arrive at the right conclusion for all the wrong reasons. Even if I came to believe in this growing trend because I was overly influenced by my own worldview, it still begs the question of whether there is any evidence for this trend independent of my personal views.

A thorough defense of my position would take far more space than a blog allows. Besides, I am not claiming that religious views are universally rejected, so preparing a detailed defense would result in an impossible task of line drawing (i.e., how many instances are sufficient to amount to a “growing trend,” etc.). Ultimately, I admit that this is largely a matter of perception and could probably never be proven conclusively. However, I think that there is enough evidence to make it a reasonable perception to hold.

The example that came to mind this morning involved those issues mentioned above. When a religious group or individual argues against abortion, for example, at some point in the conversation someone inevitably says that religious people have “no right to impose their beliefs on the rest of society” (where this “right” could possibly come from in a purely Naturalistic universe is a question for another day). The mere fact that part of the foundation for an individual’s position comes from an alleged divine source leads to the presumption that this person is seeking to “impose” religious beliefs. In and of itself that is taken as one reason to reject their opinion.

Now change the example to another issue, income tax rates. Democrats generally favor higher tax rates for wealthier Americans than Republicans. When a Republican argues in favor of lower tax rates, do Democrats reply by saying they are seeking to “impose” their political beliefs upon everyone (or vice versa when Democrats argue for lower rates)? The opposing party may reply with their own economic theory or even meaningless rhetoric designed to provoke an emotional response (all too common in the political arena). But the concept of “imposition” never enters the discussion.

Why is it that claims grounded in religious themes are considered an “imposition” whereas those in political or other arenas are not? Granted, there may be extremely hostile vitriol launched from one side to the other in political debates, but it is rarely if ever claimed that the mere advancing of a contrary opinion is an immoral attempt to impose unwanted beliefs upon others. That response appears to be reserved for religious claims.

I suspect I have the answer to this question. It is admittedly only a theory based upon personal observation. Feel free to accept or reject it as you see fit. But I believe it fits the facts. American society is increasingly operating under the assumption that all religious beliefs are false. Who would not react angrily if someone was actively trying to inculcate you with a belief system we all know to be false? Economic issues are still considered fair game for debate. Intelligent people may disagree on the best course of action to jump start the economy. We still tend to “take sides” and defend our team as passionately as we would our local NFL squad in the Super Bowl. But deep down we still believe that the general population believes the answer to economic questions is not obvious. Religion is being phased out of the marketplace of ideas precisely because there is a growing perception that religious beliefs are based in feelings, not truth. People belong to their religious denomination because it makes them feel good, not because they really believe its claims to be true. Religion, therefore, is ultimately a matter of personal preference, not truth. Therefore, allowing this type of opinion into the discussion is an attempt to impose your personal preferences upon me.

This is the mission of apologetics. It is the calling of all Christians under 1 Peter 3:15 to show the world that there are solid reasons underlying our faith (“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”). Our problem is not just that society believes Christianity to be without reasons. It is deeper than that. They think that even Christians do not believe we have good reasons for our belief.

What is your church doing to prepare the body of Christ to give a reason, explaining that Christianity is not merely some existential belief system that we accept because of how it makes us feel but rather objective and historical truth? Christianity is justified because it is true. In fact, Christ Himself is “the truth” (John 14:6). If I am right about this growing trend, it demonstrates a way in which our churches are failing. We rightly preach the “what” of Christianity, but how often do we take the time to teach the “why?”

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Is Natural Law Descriptive or Prescriptive in Immanuel Kant's Practical Reason?

When it comes to ethics, Immanuel Kant is most well known for his formulation of the "categorical imperative." In short, this rule states that we should act in such a way that our actions would be in accordance with a principle that would suffice as a universal law. Kant arrives at this rule after a lengthy argument, but the purposes of this post really is limited to his distinction between the "form" and "matter" of a universal law.

The "form" of a universal law is generally what it sounds like, the basic form of the law that makes it universal by nature. The "matter" is the specific object of that law. "Forms," according to Kant, are arrived at through pure practical reason. "Matters," on the other hand, are discerned through the human senses.

From these premises Kant argues that in order for a person's will to be truly "free," it must be determined on the basis of the form of universal law (which he concludes to be the categorical imperative through an argument not relevant here), not the matter. Natural laws, so Kant urges, are only discernable by using the human senses (something Kant calls "appearances"), therefore they are not the subject of pure reason and belong to the category of "matter." If the human will were determined by the operation of natural laws then it would not be truly free (i.e., the result of the will would be mechanically determined by the operation of those laws). This allegedly would not be a problem if the will could be determined by universal laws that can be cognized through pure reason without appealing to anything perceived via the senses. By being determined by the form of universal law as opposed to the matter of the natural law (which is only perceived through the senses), the will avoids the danger of losing its freedom. Therefore, a will that is determined by the form of a universal law is free whereas one determined by the matter is not.

Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason claims to demonstrate that just such a universal law is practical in the form of the categorical imperative. Therefore, a free will is one that is determined by the categorical imperative (which Kant says is synonymous with the moral law). Kant believes we must assume the moral law exists. But if so, this carries with it the entailment that free will also exists. Because we must assume the moral law exists, we similarly must assume the existence of freedom.

In many respects I agree with Kant. For example, as I have argued elsewhere I agree that we must assume the existence of free will before any rational discussion can begin. While I also have several issues with Kant's argument, the point of this post is to focus on only one subpart. Specifically, in working his way toward the conclusion of free will, Kant claims that the determining basis of anything that is determined in accordance with the natural law must lie amongst things that are objects of the senses. However, Kant appears to be smuggling in two mutually exclusive perspectives on the laws of nature in order to support his argument. The laws of nature may be viewed either as descriptive, meaning the statement of a “law” is merely a description of what we have generally observed to happen in the past with no guarantee that this will continue to hold true in the future, or prescriptive, meaning they are fixed rules like the laws of logic and will continue to operate into the future regardless of whether we have ever perceived them to operate in the past. In order for the laws of nature to mechanically determine a will it appears to me that they must be prescriptive, meaning they operate whether we perceive them or not. But in order for the natural law to belong to the category of “appearances” (i.e., objects of the senses, a necessary premise in Kant’s argument for the freedom of a will determined by universal legislation) it must be only descriptive. In one breath Kant wants the laws to be prescriptive so they can determine a will but in the next he needs them to be descriptive so that they are only appearances and cannot be the subject of pure theoretical reason.

It seems to me that Immanuel Kant attempts to have his cake and eat it too.