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Podcast: Emily Heady on the Christian Worldview, Ethics, and A Christmas Carol

Podcast with Emily Heady

In this special Christmas edition of the podcast, we sit down with Dr. Emily Heady to discuss Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Dr. Heady holds a Ph.D. in English Literature with a concentration in Victorian Studies. She also has a special interest in the work of Charles Dickens and has published articles and books exploring his novels. In this episode, Dr. Heady explains how A Christmas Carol relates to ethics and the Christian worldview.


Photo:  “A Christmas Carol, New York Public Library” By G. Ziegler. CC Licence.

Music:  “O Come O Come Emmanuel” by IKOS David Clifton with the choirs of Peterborough Cathedral. CC License. 

Different Bodies: Part Two

A Twilight Musing

part one

by Elton Higgs

Paul begins 1 Corinthians 15 by pointing to the Resurrection of Jesus as the culminating capstone of the Son’s mission on earth, forming an essential part of the Gospel message (vv. 1-19).  He then proceeds to argue that if there is no resurrection from the dead, the consequence is that “in this life only we have hoped in Christ, [and] we are of all people most to be pitied” (v. 19).  In the succeeding verses, he goes on to draw a sharp distinction between the resurrected body of Jesus (the Second Adam) and the “natural body” of the First Adam: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (vv. 20-21).  After an expansion on why “we are of all people most to be pitied” if there is no resurrection, Paul responds to the question, “How are the dead raised?  With what kind of body do they come?” (v. 30).

Paul goes to nature for analogies to answer these questions.  The resurrected body is as different from the natural body as is the fruit of a grain of wheat from the seed that was sown.  He points also to how the kinds of flesh are different from each other, and how heavenly bodies differ in brightness.  But the difference between our fleshly bodies and our resurrection bodies is even more striking:

What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.  It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.  It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.  Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.  But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.  As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven.  Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.  (1 Cor 15:42-49, ESV)

What struck me in a fresh way in this passage was Paul’s reference to the first man being “from the earth, a man of dust.”   I had always assumed that the “body of death” from which we are finally delivered in the Resurrection is the fallen body destined for physical death because of sin.  A corollary of this assumption was that the original, unfallen bodies of Adam and Eve were not temporal, but eternal, so long as they lived in obedience to God.  But as I pointed out in Part One, even unfallen mankind was subject to some form of limitation on their physical lives; some kind of development in the context of temporality still remained to be worked out.  Paul’s discourse makes clear that Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and the participation of all believers in that resurrection, constitutes the final working out of God’s eternal purpose for His creation. By giving details of the distinction between the body of Adam and the body of our resurrected Lord, which we will one day share with Him, Paul demonstrates also the difference between our present universe, whether fallen or unfallen, and God’s “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (II Pet. 3:13).

The core of my new insight hinges on the implications of Paul’s summation in vv. 50-51: “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”  It is not just the corrupted, sinful body of the fallen First Adam that cannot inherit the kingdom of God, but even the yet-unfallen flesh and blood with which God clothed him in the first place.  If we accept that the original, unfallen Adam and Eve were “flesh and blood,” then it must also be accepted that they were, in some sense, perishable when they were created.  We have no way of knowing what would have developed in our world if our first father and mother had not rebelled, but it seems fair to conjecture that some form of cessation to their fleshly form would have been part of the picture.

I ran across a statement in C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet that articulates as a general principle of God’s creation what I believe to be true of Earth and the life God put on it.  The major character, Ransom, is talking to a being in the unfallen world of Malacandra (Mars), who has told Ransom about an ancient race that perished from the planet, leaving the area where they once lived cold and lifeless.  Ransom asks where the divine Creator and sustainer of the planet was when all this happened.  Could He not have prevented this destruction?  Ransom’s instructor replies, “I do not know.  But a world is not made to last forever, much less a race; that is not Maleldil’s [God’s] way.”  I present for your consideration the idea that God’s design in creating the world in which we live was not that it would last forever as it was, even if it had not rebelled; but that it was intended to be the stage for a process by which the Devil would be defeated and God’s moral superiority be established.

The eternal, resurrected bodies we will share with Jesus, as well as the eternal home in which we will dwell with Him, are not merely transformations of our present bodies and our present world, but entirely new, spiritually defined bodies and an abode that transcends completely our material universe.  In this eternal state, body and soul and spirit are so bonded together that they are no longer separable nor distinguishable from one another.  History, which by definition records change, will be at an end, wrapped up in God’s eternal “now.”

Image: “Eternity” by Norbert Reimer. CC License. 

Three Reasons Christmas Matters for Morality

By Jonathan Pruitt 

At this time of year, Christmas images are everywhere. As we walk into the grocery store, we see Santa and his reindeer painted in the window, adorned by the phrase, “Peace on earth, good will to men.” As we drive by a neighbor’s house, we notice a brightly lit nutcracker. Close beside, a nativity. These decorations go up right after Thanksgiving, and by the first week in December, they just blend into the background. I think the lack of attention we pay to ornaments often extends to Christmas itself. We hear the sermons and sing the carols, but the reality they point to, we often overlook. The preacher says, “One of Jesus’ names is ‘Emmanuel.’ That means ‘God is with us.” We nod our heads, and we know that is a good thing. But why is it a good thing, exactly? And what is this business about “peace on earth and good will to men?” That’s a question I aim to answer at least partially by giving three reasons Christmas matters for morality.

  1. Jesus’ birth reveals the metaphysical nature of human beings

Many atheists today think that human beings are merely biological machines. For example, Richard Dawkins has famously said, “We are machines built by DNA whose purpose is to make more copies of the same DNA. … This is exactly what we are for. We are machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self-sustaining process. It is every living object’s sole reason for living.” A similar idea is expressed by Daniel Dennett who thinks of humans as “information processing machines” created by mindless natural forces. Now, Dawkins and Dennett are likely quick to affirm the dignity and value of human persons. But difficulty arises when we ask, “How is it that a machine could have such value?” It does not seem the bare matter could ground real value. Besides that, what follows from such a view is that humans have no genuine free will. Instead, their actions are determined by physical necessity. Not everyone agrees this precludes free will, but the views of such compatibilists strain credulity and common sense. Another problem is that on such reductive materialist views, humans as humans don’t even exist. Instead what we have is a pile of parts arranged human-wise. Humans are, when we take the view seriously, a collection of elements hanging together due to natural forces. “Human” is just the term that human-shaped piles call other human-shaped piles. With a view like this, it easy to see why ethicists like Peter Singer have argued that very young babies or the mentally disabled are justifiably euthanized.[1]

Consider the contrast presented in the Christmas story. For one, there is a certain metaphysical view of human persons at work. God became a man.  We’ve got to keep in mind that God did not just appear to become a man. He really did become a man. If this is true, then humans could not possibly be mere machines. As Jesus tells us, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). Something that is essentially and necessarily spiritual cannot become only material and retain its identity. If God, who is spirit, became a pile of parts arranged human-wise, he could no longer be called God. Therefore, there must be something more to man than his physical parts. But what kind of thing must humans be for God to become one of us? It seems that, at the least, humans need to be souls.

Why is this so? First we must realize that the Second Person of the Trinity existed as a person prior to his incarnation. This person is a person without any physical parts. If this person continues to be a person in the incarnation, his personhood cannot depend on any physical parts or else he would not be identical with himself prior to incarnation. That is to say, the material parts of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God must be only accidental properties and not essential ones. If they were essential, it would mean there was an essential difference between Jesus incarnated and Jesus prior to his incarnation. The person incarnated would not be the same person as the Second Person of the Trinity. But, Jesus, who is an essentially spiritual person, became an actual human person. Consider what this must means for humans in general. If Jesus really became a human, humans must also be essentially spiritual persons. Humans, then, must essentially be non-material substances; humans must be souls.[2]

If humans are souls, everything they do is not determined by the physical laws of the universe. Having a soul also provides the “metaphysical goods” to ground a human nature. If humans are souls, they are not piles of parts. Instead, they are a unified substance endowed by God with personhood. These powers include the power of volition so that humans are able to direct their lives toward one end or another. So when we see Jesus laying in manger, one of the things we ought to perceive is a rejection of the reductive view of human persons proposed by Dawkins and Dennett. The incarnation tells us that humans are body and soul. As such, they have the capacity to transcend the determinative laws of nature and become agents, capable of directing their own lives.

  1. Jesus’ birth demonstrates the value and dignity of human beings

Jesus’ birth also demonstrates the value and dignity of human beings. It does this a couple of ways. First, as we read in John 3:16, God sent Jesus into the world because he loved the world. God loved humanity and so he made a way for us to be saved from our sins. And he did this at very great cost. God could have loved us, but only a little. In that case, he might refrain from sending his Son, but feel very bad about doing so. Suppose you have a friend who you loved only half-heartedly. Unfortunately, some malicious criminals take your friend hostage. They are the kind of criminals that will slowly torture and kill your friend just for the fun of it. And then these criminals send you a ransom note saying that, if you agree, you can take her place. Now, only loving your friend half-heartedly, you feel empathy for her, but you don’t make the trade. You would have to love your friend deeply and fully if you were to trade your life for hers. And this is what Jesus has done for us.

For humans, though, we often love what we should not. We love things that are not good. However, God, who is maximally good, has no misplaced affections. When God loves us, he does so because we are his children and made in his image. We have intrinsic value and are therefore worth loving. Notice, though, that this worthiness is not autonomous from God, as if we could make ourselves worth loving. Instead, we are only worth loving because God graciously made us in his image, investing us with the worth we possess. As Mark Linville puts it: “God values human persons because they are intrinsically valuable. Further, they have such value because God has created them after his own image as a Person with a rational and moral nature.”

The fact that Jesus came as a man is another way his birth shows the value and dignity of humans. Not only were humans worth saving, it was also worth becoming a human to do it. Consider this proposition: “Being a human is good.” How could we know whether this was true or false? A reductive atheist would have real trouble here because (1) there are no such things as human beings, only human shaped piles, and (2) there is no clear way to make sense of “good.” David Bentley Hart, with his characteristic confidence and cadence, writes, “Among the mind’s transcendental aspirations, it is the longing for moral goodness that is probably the most difficult to contain within the confines of a naturalist metaphysics.” However, as Christians we know both that humans exist and that God grounds the good. We also know that God, being maximally great, only ever does what is good. Therefore, if God became a human being, being a human being must be good. That may sound like a trivial idea, but consider the implications. If being human is good, it means that our lives have meaning. We do not need to progress to the next stage of evolution, we only need to live as humans as God intended. It also means, contra the worldview of many, that there’s nothing inherently bad about the body; salvation includes the redemption of the body, not deliverance from it. If being human is good, all humans have dignity and value.

  1. Jesus’ birth means it is possible for humans to live the moral life

If we consider the possibility of living the moral life on reductive atheism, we end up with some dim prospects. One worry is that there is no objectively good moral life. This is why so many atheists talk of making one’s own meaning in life. Though the universe is cold and dark, human ought to nevertheless pull themselves up by the bootstraps and choose to live a life of meaning. I am inclined to think this is just wishful thinking. Besides this, if humans are machines and have no free will, it seems impossible to live a moral life. It seems that for a choice to be moral, it must be chosen by an agent. We don’t think our computers are immoral when they crash (despite the temptation); neither are human biological machines when they do something destructive.

Further, unless the universe just happens to cause us to live a moral life by accident, we will have to work at becoming a virtuous person. We must act as agents who are capable of making moral progress. Atheist Sam Harris agrees and makes this suggestion: “Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives (while knowing, of course, that we are ultimately being steered).”[3] But of course, to say that we can steer ourselves in any sense is to discard the idea that humans are machines. In order to steer ourselves, we must be something more than that. So reductive atheists seem to have no hope for living the moral life, whatever that might be. And the way Harris in such sanguine fashion affirms a contradiction as if doing so makes sense doesn’t eliminate the incoherence.

The birth of Jesus, on the other hand, suggests a very different outcome. To see why, we must go all the way back to the creation account in Genesis. There we see that God made man in his image and to rule and reign as his representatives on the earth (Gen. 1:27-28). Adam and Eve were, in a very real sense, responsible for realizing the kingdom of God. And God’s kingdom is what humans were made for, a place where God, humans, and creation live together in peace. It is important to understand here that peace means much more than we modern readers might normally think. We tend to think of peace as the absence of violence. But for the Jews, peace was much more robust than that. Peace, for them, was happiness and human flourishing—shalom. If we live in peace, we live according to the created order, enjoying and appreciating God and all that he has made, especially other humans.

However, humans chose to disobey God and thus sin entered the world. The effects of sin were so dramatic that humans could no longer live as God intended; the kingdom of God could not be established by these fallen humans. However, God did not leave us in this predicament. God set into motion a plan that would restore the kingdom of God to the earth and the story of the Bible is very much this story. God called Abraham and promised that through him, all the people of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:3). Then, from the descendants of Abraham, God formed the nation of Israel. God promised Israel a King who would restore peace to the earth. God says this King will take away punishment and take great delight in his people. He will “rescue the lame” and “gather the exiles”; he will restore their fortunes (Zeph 3:15;19-20).  Zechariah records for us what God says it will be like when this King comes (8:3-12):

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there.”

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “It may seem marvelous to the remnant of this people at that time, but will it seem marvelous to me?” declares the Lord Almighty.

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will save my people from the countries of the east and the west. I will bring them back to live in Jerusalem; they will be my people, and I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God.”

 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Now hear these words, ‘Let your hands be strong so that the temple may be built.’ This is also what the prophets said who were present when the foundation was laid for the house of the Lord Almighty. Before that time there were no wages for people or hire for animals. No one could go about their business safely because of their enemies, since I had turned everyone against their neighbor.  But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as I did in the past,” declares the Lord Almighty.

“The seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit, the ground will produce its crops, and the heavens will drop their dew. I will give all these things as an inheritance to the remnant of this people.

The takeaway from this passage should be that this King will restore the robust, Jewish notion of peace to the world. Without this King, humans would be left without hope and the possibility of ever flourishing as humans. But, under the reign of this King, the effects of sin will be done away with and human flourishing will once again be possible.

We are also told by Micah that this king would be born in Bethlehem and from the tribe of Judah; his origin will be “from old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2). So when Jesus, Son of God and from the family of Judah, was born in Bethlehem, we know this must be the King about whom we were told. We should understand that God has kept his promise to make the world right again. Now, while Jesus was still laying in a manger, how this would happen had not been made clear. That would come later. But we should be very happy indeed to know that God, our King, was born on Christmas some 2000 years ago because with his birth came the promise that humans can live as God intended – in peace.



[1] Singer thinks that the only thing that counts as a person is a rational, self-conscious person. Babies and the mentally disabled are therefore not persons and do not deserve the same rights as other persons. See for example his Should the Baby Live?: The Problem of Handicapped Infants (1988), Oxford University Press.

[2] This is not to say that having a body is not the ideal way for humans to exist. However, humans can apparently be separated from their bodies at least for a short while. Paul, for example, was caught up to the third heaven. Also, prior to the Second Coming, humans will apparently exist sans bodies while they await the resurrection. J. P. Moreland and Scott Rae defend this view in Body & Soul (2000) IVP Academic.

[3] Sam Harris, Free Will. Simon & Schuster.

Photo: “Nativity” by Jess Weese. CC License. 

Platonic Ethics and Classical and Christian Theism, Part 3

By Dave Sidnam

In my first  two posts, I reviewed Plato’s requirements for a truly objective morality and then showed how Judeo-Christian theology meets his four requirements, providing a solid foundation for objective morals. With an objective foundation for morality in place, the big question becomes, “Why should I care?” Just because objective morals exist doesn’t necessarily mean I sufficiently want to obey them. This is the issue of moral motivation, and, unsurprisingly, Plato addresses this topic as well. In this post, I’ll take a look at the three levels of moral motivation that Plato describes in the Republic.

I’ve actually been working backwards in these posts. In the Republic, the question of moral motivation is the subject of Book II and the starting point for the investigation as to what justice (the Good) really is. After Socrates defeats Thrasymachus’s philosophically unsophisticated challenge that justice is merely “the advantage of the stronger” in Book I, Glaucon doesn’t let Socrates off the hook that easily, immediately challenging him to show why one should want to be just. While Plato asserts that justice is good in and of itself and good for the one who practices it, Glaucon responds:

Well, that’s not the opinion of the many…rather it seems to belong to the form of drudgery, which should be practiced for the sake of wages and the reputation that comes from opinion; but all by itself it should be fled from as something hard.[1]

Glaucon persuasively recites some popular arguments against acting justly, saying that it is best merely to appear just (so you can enjoy the benefits of a good reputation) rather than to actually practice justice—if you can get away with it. Given this popular opinion, why should one want to be good? Plato has three reasons, corresponding to three levels of moral motivation.

  1. It Is Good to Love the Good because It Is Good
As discussed before, in the Euthyphro the pious was loved by the gods because it was (obviously) pious.[2] It had an innate loveliness that impelled the gods to love it. Likewise, the Good is loved by the gods because they directly experience its goodness and cannot help but to love it. Plato describes this concept the most thoroughly in his Symposium where people are drawn to the Beautiful through a form of eros, erotic love. John Rist brings the point home well:

The Socratic person, as we have seen, is a philo-sopher, a lover of wisdom, an erotikos, as has been emphasized in the Symposium…. His knowledge of the Form is inseparable from his love of it; he is as committed emotionally as he is intellectually to the world of Forms and the Good; his mind is not that of a Cartesian calculator, but of a Socratic lover.[3]

The first and highest form of moral motivation is love of the Good. Those who experience the form of the Good directly—the gods for Plato—are captivated by it and happily arrange their actions according to it because of their love for it. If men could see the Good directly, they would always want to do good. Unfortunately, they do not. What then are we mortals to do? What should compel us to do good even if we do not have this love for the Good? We should do good because it is good for us.

  1. It Is Good to Do the Good because It Is Good for You
In the middle of Book II, after repeating the common man’s argument that it is best to act unjustly as long as people believe you to be just, Glaucon sets up the main challenge for Socrates that drives the rest of the book:

So, don’t only show us by the argument that justice is stronger than injustice, but show what each in itself does to the man who has it—whether it is noticed by gods and human beings or not—that makes the one good and the other bad.[4]

In effect, Glaucon wants to know what makes practicing justice good for the soul and practicing injustice harmful to one’s soul—this is the main question of the Republic. Through his investigation of the best and worst types of cities, Socrates is really discovering the best and worst types of man.

The very worst city corresponds to the most miserable man—the tyrant. This person, even if he enjoys wealth and good reputation (wrongly), is the most miserable because the turmoil in his soul will not allow him to enjoy the good things that are available to him. He is more a beast than a man. He cannot enjoy the best pleasures of this life because those enjoyments are experienced through our rationality and the tyrant has debased himself in this area. Because of the defilement of his soul, at best he can enjoy animal goods; but, because of his injustice, even those things cannot satisfy him.

On the other hand, the very best city, ruled by the philosopher-king, corresponds to the very best type of person: he who lives justly, who does the Good and can truly enjoy it. Because he is trained in philosophy, his rational abilities are honed and he can truly enjoy the best—the most human, or, better, the most divine—pleasures. Even if this person does not have material possessions, and if his fellow citizens do not understand him and hence mistreat him, his intellectual pursuit of and love for the Good make him the happiest man of all.

John Stuart Mill captures the difference between these two types of people in his famous quote:

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.

The pursuit of, and adherence to, the Good leads to the very best life, whether or not that life is accompanied by material possessions and the acclaim of men. For Plato, Socrates was the prime example of this. The pursuit of injustice leads to the worst possible life for a person. Even if it is accompanied by riches and fame, the debasement of the soul that it causes leads the unjust man to a truly miserable life, whether or not he realizes it.

So, for the rational person there are two good reasons to be moral: love of the Good is good in and of itself, and the Good is also good for you. In his Finite and Infinite Goods, Robert Adams similarly argues that what is best for us is what is good in and of itself. But what motivates the person who is acting irrationally?

  1. It Is Good to Do Good because the Just Will Be Rewarded and the Unjust Punished
In the early dialogues, Socrates teaches, and Plato appears to hold, that people will never knowingly do the worse when they know the better. In his middle and later dialogues, Plato appears to move away from this position and deal with the problem of akrasia, where people know the good to do but choose the worse. How are people motivated when they know the Good is good, and is good for them, but they still choose to do the worse? For these people—who are more like unreasoning animals than men—rewards and punishments must be offered to motivate them.

In Book II Glaucon challenges Socrates to show that acting justly was beneficial even if it was accompanied by poverty and scorn, and Socrates argues his case with this restriction in place. In Book X, Socrates asks Glaucon to let him correct this injustice and show that the just man will receive good for acting justly: “Thus, it must be assumed in the case of the just man that, if he falls into poverty, or diseases, or any other of the things that seem bad, for him it will end in some good, either in life or even in death.”[5] In this life, Plato believed that the just will typically receive rewards for the good that they do and that the unjust will typically receive punishment for their injustice; however, if it does not happen in this life, Plato had a story for what would happen to the just and unjust after this life.

Book X ends with the myth of Er, a valiant warrior who died in battle but came back to life after twelve days and shared what he saw in the “other world.” There, the just and unjust went through a period of 1,000 years of either rewards or punishment for their deeds. The just “told of the inconceivable beauty of the experiences and sights” in heaven, while the unjust “lamenting and crying, [recounted] how much and what sort of things they had suffered and seen in the journey under the earth.” While the common unjust suffered for 1,000 years, men who were tyrants, after suffering for that same duration, were bound and thrown into Tartarus, never to emerge. This is Plato’s message for those who would practice injustice, and the message “could save us, if we are persuaded by it, and shall make a good crossing of the river of Lethe and not defile our soul.”[6] If nothing else will motivate one to be just, they must be coerced with either the hope of reward or the fear of punishment.


So for Plato there are three levels of moral motivation. The first and purest is to be good because of a passionate love for the Good itself; this is the best, and only truly moral, type of motivation. For those who are too short-sighted to make the philosophical investment to know the Good directly, the second is to be good because doing justice is good for you—more importantly, it is good for your soul. This motivation leans more towards the self-interested side, but at least it remains a form of internal motivation. Finally, for those who will not strive to do even what is good for them, the third form is either to bribe with promises of rewards for acting justly or threaten with punishment for the unjust. This form is not strictly moral motivation, but, given the problem of akrasia, it is necessary to get some to act rightly in a world that is moral to its core.

In my next post, I’ll take a look at how Plato’s moral motivation compares with Judeo-Christian theism’s and briefly contrast these views with moral motivation typically found in certain naturalistic ethical systems.


[1] Plato, The Republic, Book II, 358a.

[2] Plato, Euthyphro, 10a, d.

[3] John Rist, Plato’s Moral Realism, p. 150.

[4] Plato, The Republic, 367e.

[5] Plato, The Republic, 613a.

[6] Plato, The Republic, 621c.

Image: “The School of Athens; a gathering of renaissance figures in Wellcome V0006665” by Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons –;_a_gathering_of_renaissance_figures_in_Wellcome_V0006665.jpg#/media/File:The_School_of_Athens;_a_gathering_of_renaissance_figures_in_Wellcome_V0006665.jpg

Too Good Not to be True: A Call to Moral Apologetics as a Mode of Civil Discourse

By David Horner 

Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. 

                                                                                                          Blaise Pascal[1]


I once attended an atheist parade, where hundreds of atheists marched through downtown Denver, carrying signs and chanting anti-Christian slogans. It was an unusual group, but stranger still were some of the Christians who lined the parade route. A particular image that continues to haunt me is of the representative of Jesus wearing a yellow construction hard hat with a large, battery-operated speaker mounted on top, and a cable connected to a hand-held microphone. Glaring in evident hatred at the marchers passing by, he screamed repeatedly into the microphone, at the top of his lungs, “Jesus loves you!!!  Jesus loves you!!!”

As one would expect, the parade immediately stopped at this point, as the atheists, grasping the truth that Jesus loved them, dropped their placards and joined Mr. Hard Hat in grateful praise to God. Well, not exactly. Instead, the march continued, the marchers all the more firmly established in their convictions. This episode represents, shall we say, a “failure to communicate.” Certainly, nothing was amiss in the proposition asserted; Jesus loves you was both true and important for the audience to understand. And it was articulated clearly; competent speakers of English had no trouble understanding the words. Yet I warrant that none in the audience came, as a result of this speech act, to see the proposition to be true – to believe it. If anything, the communicative result was the opposite. (“You’re with Jesus, you hate me, therefore Jesus hates me.”) Although Jesus loves you is true, it was not believable to those who heard it.

This scenario may serve as a metaphor for what believers now face in much of American and European culture with respect to communicating the gospel. To a growing extent, when we assert Jesus loves you (i.e., when we declare the gospel or articulate the Christian worldview), people do not find it believable. As with the atheists in Denver, this is not so much a function of the content of what we say as the context in which we say it. In some cases, it may be the way we say it; in most cases, it is the hearers’ perception (whether accurate or not) of who we are, as we say it. That is, what makes the gospel unbelievable to many today is their perception of Christians and Christianity. This is a reality that followers of Jesus, as they consider the task and importance of civil discourse, particularly in relation to representing the gospel, must recognize.

Once Christian moral teaching was widely regarded in western culture as the highest expression of ethical thought. Indeed, Christians were seen by some to set the moral bar too high, that Christianity was, as it were, “too good” to be true—a criticism, but one that rests upon an underlying moral admiration. Times have changed. According to Richard Harries, former Anglican Bishop of Oxford,

For 1,500 years, it has been assumed that to be good and to be Christian were synonymous. That is simply not true now . . . One of the churches’ great, unacknowledged failures is their reluctance to face this. They like to assume that they hold the high moral ground. If they ever did, they certainly do not now, at least in the minds of the liberal intelligentsia. People often find Christianity’s picture of God unattractive . . . I believe that, beneath people’s alleged philosophical or scientific objections, there is often a gut feeling, at once both psychological, moral and spiritual, that they do not like what has been put before them—and they do not like it not just because of their temperament, or because they are wicked, but because it feels psychologically oppressive, morally suspect and spiritually unattractive . . . I believe that the Christian understanding of God is the most morally and spiritually beautiful picture of the divine that has been put before human beings. But if we want people to feel the persuasive power of this, we have first to hear how people find it morally and spiritually unpersuasive.[3]

Arguably, the central objections to Christianity these days, from Dawkins to the editorial pages, are moral objections: Christianity is “too bad” to be true. Engaging such objections adequately—”moral apologetics”—is, in my view, the chief apologetic challenge of our time. However, Christian apologists have given comparatively little attention to diagnosing, understanding, and strategically responding to it.[4] As Harries suggests, we need to consider how people find our understanding of God “morally and spiritually unpersuasive,” and work together to address it. In this paper I hope to encourage further, strategic work by many of us in the area of moral apologetics, toward the end that people would come increasingly to see Christianity and the gospel as too good not to be true.

Arguably, the central objections to Christianity these days, from Dawkins to the editorial pages, are moral objections: Christianity is “too bad” to be true. Engaging such objections adequately—”moral apologetics”—is, in my view, the chief apologetic challenge of our time.

My purpose here is to contribute to the beginning of a conversation about these matters, by suggesting some ways to think about the project and where it fits into the apologetic and moral terrain, specifically in relation to the believability of the gospel. More particularly, I attempt to sketch a conception of the apologetic task and its relation to moral goodness that is informed by considerations from epistemology, philosophical theology, and broadly Aristotelian moral psychology, which I hope will help clarify the need for moral apologetics, as well as its nature and general shape. What I say is more suggestive than definitive; each of these areas needs to be developed much further. It will also be more diagnostic than prescriptive; developing a strategic plan for addressing these issues is something, I hope, that some of us can work on together. The challenge is much bigger than all of us. I hope that what I say here will be helpful in thinking about the broad shape of the project, but my chief aim is to cast a vision: to sound a call to moral apologetics.

The term moral apologetics is ambiguous. It can refer either to being “moral” (i.e., morally good) as we do apologetics, or to doing apologetics in relation to (matters of) moral goodness and evil. In my view, the ambiguity is appropriate, as both aspects are implicated in the problem and required for the solution. My central intuition is that apologists must take seriously the role of goodness in how people are drawn to the gospel. Doing so implies both negative and positive apologetic tasks: that we respond to moral objections raised against Christianity and the gospel and that we point to the goodness of God, both in the content of our apologetic arguments and—most especially—in our lives. Each of these elements is essential, I maintain, if we are to say Jesus loves you in such a way that people actually believe it.

1 A brief sketch of apologetics

I understand apologetics as the art and science of explaining and defending the truth-claims of the Christian worldview.[5] As a science, doing apologetics involves mastering information and arguments. As an art, it involves developing skills in understanding one’s “audience” and tuning what one knows toward engaging them in real communication. While the science of apologetics focuses solely on questions of truth and validity, the art of apologetics is concerned with understanding how people come to believe what is true, or matters of “believability.” Moral apologetics, as I describe it here, reflects concerns that particularly emerge from the “art” side.

Positive apologetics involves “playing offense”: pointing to the truth of the gospel by offering reasons and positive pointers on its behalf. Negative apologetics involves “playing defense”: answering objections and clearing away obstacles that obstruct someone’s vision of the truth of the gospel. Moral apologetics includes both orientations. It involves thinking strategically about how to point to the goodness of God, on the one hand, and about how to respond effectively to moral objections mounted against God’s goodness, on the other.

Beyond these basic distinctions, I will make two further suggestions about apologetics that are, perhaps, less obvious. I will introduce the second in the section 3, but the first here. An important concern related to the art of apologetics, I have suggested, is “believability.” Apologists should be concerned, not only to defend the claim that a proposition like Jesus loves you is true, but to do so in such a way that others will see it to be true, to believe it. What does it mean, to come to believe such a proposition—in a way that is appropriate to the sort of proposition it is and to the kind of response that it properly calls forth? Deep theological waters glisten before me, which I hope to leap with a single bound. For my purposes here, I make two assumptions. I assume, first, that a necessary condition for one’s coming to believe that p, where p is a proposition that is part of the essential content of the gospel, such as Jesus loves you or Jesus died on the cross for my sins, is that the Holy Spirit is at work in one’s heart, drawing one to himself—however we undertand the details of this, theologically. Second, I assume (again, however one spells out the details) that the Holy Spirit uses human agents such as evangelists and apologists in the process of drawing someone to himself. The first assumption is simply a given in this discussion; my focus is related to the second. That assumption implies that we should approach our role as apologists both prayerfully and intelligently, and I suggest that this means we should think carefully and strategically about both the science and the art of apologetics. With respect to the latter, I suggest further that we should reflect, among other things, on how people form beliefs, and specifically, how they find them to be believable.

This leads us into deep epistemological waters as well, and here I just want to dip my toe in enough to appeal to a distinction I find quite helpful in envisioning the apologetic task, one adapted from sociologists of knowledge: the distinction between credibility and plausibility.[6] Both, on my understanding, are constituents of believability. As I describe them briefly, what I mean by believability should become reasonably clear as well. (“Reasonably clear” is all I aspire to here.)

            Credibility has to do with having reasons to believe something is true. The credibility question with respect to some matter is: Is it true? Where p is a proposition, for subject S to believe that p (i.e., to hold p to be true, or to assent to p as true), S needs to think that p is true—S needs to have reasons to believe that p. That is, p must be credible to S; credibility is a necessary condition for believability. Put differently, there is, as it were, a credibility filter in S’s mind through which S’s considerations of p must successfully pass, before S believes that p.

The gospel, as they see it, is (therefore) implausible—it couldn’t be true; it’s too bad to be true. Thus, although there is important work for moral apologetics to do at the levels of both credibility and plausibility, the need for making plausible (“plausibilizing”) the Christian worldview morally is particularly exigent at this time: softening the moral soil so that the seeds of the gospel may be able to penetrate.

Traditional apologetic strategies focus on the credibility of Christianity, providing evidence or reasons that, in its constituents (e.g., the resurrection of Jesus) or in its totality, the Christian worldview is true. This is a crucial task, as credibility is necessary for believability. But it is not sufficient. There is a prior filter in S’s mind through which S’s considerations must successfully pass before S will even entertain the question whether p is true, and, thus, actually consider evidence that it is. This is a plausibility filter. The plausibility question with respect to p is: Could p be true? Only if S sees p as plausible will S seriously consider whether p is credible. To use agricultural language, plausibility has to do with the kinds or conditions of “soil” in which propositional seeds can grow. Misconceptions about the gospel, faulty assumptions about science, or bad experiences with Christians do not (yet) function as reasons or arguments against the existence of God or explicit defeaters for belief in things like the resurrection of Jesus. What they do is to harden the ground against entertaining such reasons, or seriously considering the truth of the gospel. Plausibility factors like these render Christianity unattractive, even unthinkable for people, who may simply write it off from consideration entirely (“It couldn’t be true”) and so never seriously consider evidence that it is true.

Credibility and plausibility both constitute necessary conditions for S’s coming to believe p to be true. If p is already plausible to S, credibility considerations may be all that is needed for p’s becoming believable to S. But if p is not plausible to S, S will not seriously attend to those considerations, and the communicative focus must shift to plausibility. Such is the situation to an increasing extent, I believe, with respect to the gospel, which has become implausible to many. While this is due to a number of factors,[7] our subject here is at the heart of it: Christians and Christianity seem to increasing numbers of people to be bad. The gospel, as they see it, is (therefore) implausible—it couldn’t be true; it’s too bad to be true. Thus, although there is important work for moral apologetics to do at the levels of both credibility and plausibility, the need for making plausible (“plausibilizing”) the Christian worldview morally is particularly exigent at this time: softening the moral soil so that the seeds of the gospel may be able to penetrate.


2 The goodness of God and why it matters

The Psalmist invites us to “Taste and see that the LORD is good.” (Psalm 34.8)[1] Peter draws upon this image, as he invites his readers to grow in Christ: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Peter 2.2-3) What Peter sees as the result of his readers’ tasting of God’s goodness is suggested in his immediately subsequent phrase: “As you come to him . . .” (4a).[2] The picture suggested here is one that is reflected throughout Scripture and the history of Christian thought, viz. that God is good, and we are—and should be—drawn to him for precisely that reason: as good. Such an understanding also fits the classical philosophical conception of goodness as essentially desirable.[3] On this view, we as rational agents are drawn to what we take to be good, and, whether we are reflectively aware of it or not, we in fact order our lives in relation to what we conceive to be our ultimate good, our summum bonum. Such is the basic shape of moral psychology in the classical, especially the broadly Aristotelian tradition.[4]

Although I can’t defend these claims in any remotely complete way here, I will fill in the contours of this biblical and classical picture a bit more fully in what follows. The biblical story emphasizes God’s goodness and people being drawn to him in that light. Examples of passages and contexts could be multiplied. I’ll briefly note two, the first reflecting a general pattern, the second a particular instance. Arguably, the most common worship chorus in the Old Testament, appearing in different Psalms and appealed to in a range of circumstances and worship contexts, from dedicating the Temple to facing enemies in battle, is the familiar refrain: “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.”[5] The worship pattern of the people of God was consistently to face joys and challenges by focusing their attention on God’s goodness, expressed in his steadfast love (hesed) toward them.

A vivid particular instance of reflecting on God’s goodness and being drawn to it is found in Psalm 73. In this strikingly honest meditation, the worship leader, Asaph, struggles with the problem of evil: the unjust suffering of those who are good and the unjust flourishing of those who do evil. Resolution for Asaph comes when, in the Temple (v. 17), he sees the bigger, eternal perspective, and comes to understand in a fuller and deeper way that God is good – indeed, that God is his good (“But as for me, the nearness of God is my good,” v. 28, NASB) – and Asaph is drawn back to God as a result. Charles Spurgeon comments on this Psalm:

The greater our nearness to God, the less we are affected by the attractions and distractions of earth. Access into the most holy place is a great privilege, and a cure for a multitude of ills. It is good for all saints, it is good for me in particular; it is always good, and always will be good for me to approach the greatest good, the source of all good, even God himself.[6]

What I want to emphasize from both of these contexts is not only the centrality of God’s goodness to the biblical understanding of God, but also the role that one’s awareness of God’s goodness plays in one’s being drawn to him, coming to him in order to worship him, trust him, and love him. Responding properly to Jesus loves you, I suggest, involves a kind of conviction of Jesus’ goodness.

God’s goodness plays a central role in the historical tradition of Christian thought about God as well. According to Boethius, for example, God is identical in his substance to true or supreme goodness,[7] by which “He rules all things.” God’s goodness “is the helm and rudder, so to speak, by which the fabric of the universe is kept constant and unimpaired.”[8] The goodness of God is a central (perhaps the central) feature of Augustine’s thought. Augustine endorses the classical moral psychology, according to which we do all that we do in relation to what we take to be our summum bonum.

Here the supreme good is sought, the good to which we refer everything that we do, desiring it not for the sake of something else, but for its very own sake. Obtaining it, we require nothing further in order to be happy. It is truly called the “end,” because we want everything else for the sake of this, but this we want only for itself.[9]

The highest good, Augustine argues, which everyone is ultimately seeking, is in fact God himself.[10] Augustine’s famous words at the beginning of his Confessions should be understood in that light: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[11] God is our good, the good we ultimately seek.

In Thomas Aquinas the classical understanding of good as desirable is at the heart both of his moral psychology and his metaphysical teleology.

 [W]hatever man desires, he desires it under the aspect of good. And if he desire it, not as his perfect good, which is the last end, he must, of necessity, desire it as tending to the perfect good, because the beginning of anything is always ordained to its completion; as is clearly the case in effects both of nature and of art. Wherefore every beginning of perfection is ordained to complete perfection which is achieved through the last end.[12]

The “perfect good” toward which all human desires ultimately point, for Aquinas, even beyond the full realization of the specific potentialities of human nature, is God himself. God is the ground or “Supreme Fount” of goodness[13] and its true fulfillment, as “the vision of the Divine Essence fills the soul with all good things, since it unites it to the source of all goodness.”[14] Like Augustine, Aquinas sees the universal human hunger for goodness as an expression, most fundamentally, of the longing to know God. “There is but one Sovereign Good, namely, God, by enjoying Whom, men are made happy.”[15] The deep connection between goodness and God also shapes Aquinas’s natural theology. Near the beginning of his initial metaphysical reflections on the nature of God, prior to his arguing for God’s infinity or even unpacking the nature of God’s existence, Aquinas devotes two full questions (Ia.5-6) to the nature of goodness and God’s goodness, developing a rich metaphysical account of goodness that underwrites the metaphysical teleology and moral psychology noted above.[16] At the heart of Aquinas’s thought is seeing God as good, as the supreme good.

John Calvin also firmly and evocatively points to the role of understanding God’s goodness in one’s coming to worship him properly. In the first paragraph of his Institutes, noting the relationship between knowledge of God and knowledge of oneself, Calvin observes that our recognizing “the blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven” naturally leads us to the “infinitude of good which resides in God,” that is, to the Lord, in whom “dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness.”[17] To be sure, for Calvin, it is “one thing to perceive that God our Maker supports us by his power, rules us by his providence, fosters us by his goodness, and visits us with all kinds of blessings, and another thing to embrace the grace of reconciliation offered to us in Christ.” Still, to worship God properly, “it will not . . . be sufficient simply to hold that he is the only being whom all ought to worship and adore, unless we are also persuaded that he is the fountain of all goodness.”[18] It is not enough even to recognize God as creator, the one to whom we must give reverent obedience, for “your idea of his nature is not clear unless you acknowledge him to be the origin and fountain of all goodness, and that we seek everything in him and in none but him.”[19] The fact that God created solely out of his goodness[20] has implications for natural theology. According to Calvin, the most direct path toward natural knowledge of God is to “contemplate his works” – to which Calvin adds: “and so refresh ourselves with his goodness.”[21]

What I hope is salient from this incomplete survey is the recognition, from Scripture and the Christian tradition, of the essential connection between coming to God and seeing God as good. Although recognizing God’s goodness may not be sufficient for coming to him, i.e. for believing in him and embracing the gospel, it does appear to be not only necessary but central.


3 Anselmian apologetics

In his Proslogion, St. Anselm famously articulated what has come to be called the ontological argument for God’s existence.[22] The success of that argument, or even whether Anselm intended it as an argument for theistic belief, continues to be debated. His pattern of reasoning, however—drawing out the implications of understanding God as the maximally perfect Being, or “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”—has proved fruitful in the field of philosophical theology for analyzing the concept and attributes of God. Unlike Mary Poppins, who was “practically perfect in every way,” God is completely perfect in every way. Thomas V. Morris describes our intuitions of God’s being supremely perfect as “Anselmian intuitions,” and he calls this approach to theology, “Perfect Being Theology.”[23] In his introduction to philosophical theology, Morris begins with an analysis of God’s goodness, and underscores the centrality we have seen it enjoy in earlier thinkers:

For the religious believer, trust, praise and worship all focus on this one property, whose importance in the religious life thus cannot be overestimated. In fact, earlier in this century, the British philosopher A. C. Ewing once stated that the most important thing about religion is its claim that the being on whom everything depends is absolutely and supremely good.[24]

I can now fulfill my earlier promise to introduce a second suggestion for apologetics that I find helpful in marking out the conceptual terrain for moral apologetics, by drawing upon the distinctions we have made so far, and by applying a broadly Anselmian approach to the apologetic task. I will call this, “Anselmian apologetics.”[25]

Classical philosophers and theologians identified the supreme or ultimate values in the moral, cognitive, and aesthetic realms as goodness, truth, and beauty (or: the good, the true, and the beautiful). As ultimate values, goodness, truth, and beauty constitute the ends or what is ultimately desired and sought for in these different domains. Moreover, classical thinkers understood goodness, truth, and beauty as bound together in a dynamic unity; indeed, as being ultimately one: truth is good, goodness is beautiful, beauty is good and true, and so on. This picture was easily amenable to early Christian thinkers, who saw these values as ultimately bound together in the nature of God. God is the good, the true, and the beautiful—the ultimate ground, source, and end of all cognitive, moral, and aesthetic value. On this view, as we have already seen with goodness, desires for truth and beauty ultimately reflect a desire for God.

Traditional apologetics is concerned chiefly with truth; its appeal is to the cognitive domain. The aim of traditional apologetics is to show, with reasons and arguments, that Christian truth claims are in fact true—true to facts about the natural order, the origin of the universe, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and so on. Some people, however, are drawn to God more through reflections of his goodness or beauty in the world than through reasoning about such matters. Given the variety of pointers to God and the complexity of human psychology (and epistemology), I suggest that our understanding of apologetics should be broad enough to include each of these (and perhaps more) kinds of considerations in pointing to God. Anselmian apologetics not only appeals to a richer and more balanced understanding of humans as bearers God’s image, but also follows the broader pattern of biblical examples of apologetics found, for example, in the Psalms—where psalmists, using vivid poetry (set to music), declare and describe God’s manifold greatness (beauty, goodness, power, majesty, truth, etc.) as being supremely worthy of worship, and call the nations, on that basis, to respond with such worship.[26] God is the ultimate ground of goodness, truth, and beauty; he is their origin, their source, their end, their fullest actuality, and he is to be worshiped as such. God is not just an inferred entity or the best explanation of certain phenomena, but the ultimate to-be-worshiped. This broader picture, it seems to me, should be reflected in our apologetics.

Anselmian apologetics not only appeals to a richer and more balanced understanding of humans as bearers God’s image, but also follows the broader pattern of biblical examples of apologetics found, for example, in the Psalms—where psalmists, using vivid poetry (set to music), declare and describe God’s manifold greatness (beauty, goodness, power, majesty, truth, etc.) as being supremely worthy of worship, and call the nations, on that basis, to respond with such worship.

For some people and in some circumstances, goodness and beauty play a particularly important role in plausibilizing the gospel. These values (to anticipate where I’m headed next) engage experiential and desiderative aspects of the epistemic “soil,” beyond the merely cognitive, and those aspects are often deeply important in determining what one takes to be plausible. Consider Psalm 27, for example, where David, in the midst of ugly, fearful conflict, longs for beauty—and turns to God as the satisfaction of that longing.

One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple. (Psalm 27.4)

David’s deepest longing, he saw, was for God himself. This fits the general picture we’ve seen. But note that this longing for God was beauty-shaped, an experience, I suspect, that is echoed in the lives of many others. C. S. Lewis stands, for many of us, as a model for truth-oriented traditional apologetics, and rightly so. But Lewis also developed pointers to God based on goodness and beauty, expressed both in arguments and in imaginative literature. To many readers, the latter represent Lewis’s most powerful apologetic work. In Lewis’s own journey to faith, moreover, beauty was arguably the most important factor.[27]

Putting these considerations together with what we’ve already seen, we can rough out an initial picture of moral apologetics: Within a broad conception of apologetics as pointing to all that is true of God, including his goodness, truth, and beauty, and recognizing the centrality of seeing God as good in coming to believe in God, the focus of moral apologetics will be on pointing to God’s goodness. This could take a number of forms, beyond (but including) traditional forms of argument. A further line of thought suggests the importance of broadening our approach, however, and it is crucial for understanding how moral apologetics relates particularly to plausibility considerations and for illustrating the devastating power of moral objections to Christianity.


4 Grasping that God is good

Concern with God’s goodness plays at least two roles in traditional apologetics. First, a very important line of apologetic argumentation, a negative one (“playing defense”), is to respond to the perennial “problem of evil” (POE). The POE constitutes a moral objection to the Christian worldview. For many objectors, moreover, it is not merely a rational puzzle about the formal consistency of evil and divine great-making properties, but (also) an expression of their existential struggle about believing in God in the midst of suffering and pain. Part of the negative task of moral apologetics, then, will be continued work on the POE—supplemented with an emphasis, I suggest, on giving attention to the plausibility-relevant, real-life experiences of suffering that often lie behind this objection for some who object.

Second, concern with God’s goodness has also played a positive role in traditional apologetics. Moral arguments for theistic belief appeal to moral considerations that point to the existence of God.[28] Probably the most famous of such arguments is C. S. Lewis’s line of reasoning in the first few chapters of Mere Christianity.[29] The basic intuition driving moral arguments is that the existence of objective moral values or moral obligations, properties that impinge upon us, bind us, and obligate us point beyond themselves—and beyond us imperfect moral agents—to a perfect moral agent who made us and who reveals his character and will to us in these ways. They point to a supreme moral authority who holds us responsible to live up to them. In short, the best explanation of a moral order is that there is a Moral Orderer. It is notoriously difficult, at best, to account for these pervasive and central features of moral reality in terms of alternative worldviews such as naturalism or pantheism.

Although moral arguments like this are often difficult to spell out in their specifics, they capture what is for many people one of the most powerful pointers to the existence of God. This is because, I suggest, it reflects the Anselmian intuition that God is the final, ultimate locus or ground of value. Moral arguments touch our desire for goodness, which is central to our being drawn to God. What motivates moral arguments for theistic belief, then, is what is at the heart of moral apologetics. Developing such arguments, then,  is part of moral apologetics.

But it would be a mistake to confuse the part with the whole. Traditional moral arguments play a crucial role, but they function primarily at the level of credibility; their fruitfulness in pointing God’s goodness presupposes the existence of plausible soil, where God’s goodness is already plausible. But what is particularly exigent at this time with respect to God’s goodness is at the level of plausiblility: the need to soften and enrich the soil. The chief objection today is that Christianity is too bad to be true. Traditional moral arguments do not address this directly, either in their content or, more importantly, in the level at which they function. This is not to say that traditional moral arguments play no role in plausibilizing the Christian worldview. Any considerations that point to God’s goodness will contribute. But what I wish to stress here is the importance of other, more experiential aspects of grasping goodness that need to be taken into account.

It is helpful to appeal here to a final classical perspective that I think gives us specific insight into the relation between goodness and believability: in this case, the rich virtue-oriented moral psychology and epistemology of the classical tradition. The insight I want to draw from it here is that moral knowledge, specifically grasping something as good, involves qualitatively more than grasping something as true. One’s grasping x as good necessarily involves a kind of affective experience, an engagement with one’s affections. (I use “affections” to refer to one’s desiderative-motivational complex.)[30]

Consider an analogue from another side of Anselmian apologetics, beauty. Aesthetic pointers to God must be expressed aesthetically, as it were; a certain kind of experience is involved in grasping beauty, which is not merely cognitive. Actual aesthetic pointers to God could hardly be sufficiently captured in formulating “aesthetic arguments” for theistic belief. There may be such arguments, and some may be very good ones, but—as Lewis describes in his own experience—it is the experience of beauty that draws one to the ground of Beauty. Arguments about or from beauty presuppose such an experience.

Something similar, I suggest, is the case with goodness. The phenomenology of moral experience is that moral properties essentially engage one’s feelings, desires, and will. The rational intuition of a logical truth like modus ponens is different in this way from the moral intuition that cruelty is bad, or that it is wrong to torture babies for fun. Philosopher John Hare describes the phenomenology of a moral property as its having a kind of “call” upon one—it elicits a response, obliges one, binds one, presses in upon one, draws one.[31] Because of this affective aspect of morality some philosophers have mistakenly inferred that moral judgments are “nothing but” expressions of desire or feelings or intentions. To rebut metaethical noncognitivism would take us too far afield here. My short response, however, is that moral experience is more than merely cognitive—but it’s not less. In any case, because grasping something as good or bad involves a kind of experience, it goes beyond merely grasping it to be true or false. As C. S. Lewis points out in The Abolition of Man, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas all hold this view—Lewis concurring—and apply it to the task of moral education: one’s being able to engage in higher-order reflection about goodness presupposes one’s actual experience of goodness, and that kind of experience involves the engagement of one’s affections, desires, and will. Classical moral education is about learning to be good, the shaping of one’s feelings and desires, about one’s developing a “taste” for what is good. And this begins with one’s learning to experience pleasure and pain rightly in relation to what is good and bad, through, particularly, parental discipline.[32] “That,” says Aristotle, “is why we need to have had the appropriate upbringing—right from early youth, as Plato says—to make us find enjoyment or pain in the right things; for this is the correct education.”[33]

This is where I think that traditional moral arguments can fall short for many people: not as good philosophy but as fully persuasive apologetics, given current epistemic soil conditions. Where the moral evidence for God is most important in this respect is prior to argument: it is seen, rather than heard, as it were. Grasping that God is good—believing that God is good, that the gospel is good—requires an experience of goodness associated with God and the gospel. Bad experience in this regard, or no experience, will derail credibilizing moral arguments from reaching their mark.

So I suggest that it is in the experience of goodness associated with God and the gospel, that the goodness and badness of Christians and Christianity, whether actual or merely perceived, is relevant to the goodness of God. We are, as is often noted, the tangible hands and feet of God. We are what people do see of the God they do not see. This sensory, experiential imagery, it seems to me, is important. Thankfully, my first assumption is true – the Holy Spirit’s work in people’s hearts limits how badly we can mess things up in this process. Still, if grasping good essentially involves a kind of tangible experience of goodness, the experiences people have with God’s people will be hugely significant in relation to their seeing God as good. This is why, as with Mr. Hard Hat, if the context conflicts with the content—if who we are conflicts with what we say, however true—people will go with the context. Jesus loves you is not believable.

5 The power of embodied moral arguments

The project of moral apologetics, then, should be full-orbed and holistic. The genus of moral apolostics is: pointing to the goodness of God. Its species reflect the different approaches that may be taken to point to God’s goodness, including traditional moral arguments and responses to the POE but also a variety of more experiential, embodied approaches. Along Anselmian lines, we build on the strong sense that we as humans have that goodness is not merely or ultimately self-explanatory or self-grounding. Tastes of goodness are themselves hints or clues or reflections of something much bigger and better: “the way it’s supposed to be,”[34] which we can grasp only provisionally now, and is often reflected in our experience in twisted and distorted ways. As moral creatures we desire to make sense of our experience of moral value and we long for a worldview that does so in a coherent, explanatory, livable way; one that connects our experience and our aspirations, but also can provide a solution for our guilt in falling short of what we know to be good. We want and need to know the truth of these things, but we also deeply want and need to experience them—to experience goodness, forgiveness, cleansing.

In the second to last page of his book exploring the implications of Life After God, Douglas Coupland makes a startling turn. He acknowledges his longing to be good, and he recognizes that that hunger points to God:

Now—here is my secret:

I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God – that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.[35]

The hunger for goodness that Coupland describes is a reflection of the Anselmian intuition that goodness ultimately points to and can only be finally grounded in God. It is an expression of the classical picture of the nature and role of goodness in relation to God that we saw in Augustine and Aquinas, not to mention Scripture.

Jewish moral philosopher, Philip Hallie, having completed an extensive analysis of cruelty, was driven to despair. But his perspective radically changed when he happened to read the story of a French village of about 3,500 people, who, during World War II, rescued some 6,000 Jews from the Nazi Holocaust. Hallie writes:

Then one gray April afternoon I found a brief article on the French Village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. I shall not analyze here the tears of amazement and gladness and release from despair—in short, of joy—that I shed when I first read that story . . . at last I had discovered an embodiment of goodness in opposition to cruelty. I had discovered in the flesh and blood of history, in people with definite names in a definite place at a definite time in the nightmare of history, what [no one] could deny was goodness.[36]

Hallie discovered people living the way people are supposed to live, morally—embodying goodness. And he was drawn to them and the kind of life they represented. Moreover, what he and others discovered as they dug deeper is that the people of this village were, in fact, Christians—people who lived as they did, doing what they did, as Christians, as a reflection of their simple, non-scholarly yet deeply, irreducibly biblical understanding of reality. Today, in the field of ethics, the village of Le Chambon is well known, and is widely regarded as the chief example of moral altruism or self-sacrificial goodness in the twentieth century. The power of their example and its Christian basis are undeniable, and they elicit universal admiration. The people of Le Chambon constitute an embodied moral argument for the gospel, one that makes Christianity immensely more plausible to those who are aware of them and what they did.[37]


6 Moral objections

The understanding we have developed here not only makes sense of the positive power of such examples, but it also reveals the devastating power of moral objections to belief in God, why they make the gospel unbelievable to so many. Bad Christian behavior, whether real or merely perceived, hardens the soil and makes the gospel implausible. Beyond the essential connection between experiencing good and grasping good, the effect of bad Christian behavior is exacerbated by its collision with the basic Anselmian intuition that the human hunger for goodness ultimately points to and can only be finally grounded in God. This, in my view, is an important explanation for why Christians, as those who represent God, are expected to be good, even by those who adamantly disagree with them, and why it is so devastating for all concerned when Christians are not. Many different moral systems and religions commend high standards of morality, but Christians are typically held to a higher standard. Part of the reason for this is that Christianity has historically been seen, rightly in my view, to represent the highest of moral standards, and so there is understandable revulsion at the hypocrisy of Christians making high moral pronouncements but not living up to them. But that’s not all there is to it; Christianity also, after all, teaches that all humans fall short of the glory of God, that all are sinners and are in need of God’s grace and divine intervention. The gospel is not a reward for moral perfection, but rescue, forgiveness, healing and hope for those who admit they need it.

When Christians are bad, I suggest, people experience a kind of existential disillusionment. Related to the Anselmian intuition that God is the ultimate ground of goodness, there is a deep sense that Christians who represent him should be good, and that their goodness really does point to the ultimate source of goodness—that their being good is essentially related to their message being believable. So when they’re not, it’s not just that they are inconsistent, or even just that they are bad people. They’ve committed a kind of cosmic treason; they’ve betrayed a much bigger story. They’ve made the gospel unbelievable.

Sadly, examples here may also be multiplied. I will cite only a few. An evangelical journalist who lost his faith after years of covering news of religion attributes his disillusionment to bad Christian behavior.

If the Lord is real, it would make sense for the people of God, on average, to be superior morally and ethically to the rest of society. Statistically, they aren’t. . . . It’s hard to believe in God when it’s impossible to tell the difference between His people and atheists.[38]

More extravagantly (as usual), in “Why I am Not a Christian,” Bertrand Russell points to what he sees as overwhelming evidence that Christians and Christianity are morally bad.

That is the idea—that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. It seems to me that the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked. You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs. In the so-called ages of faith, when men really did believe the Christian religion in all its completeness, there was the Inquisition, with all its tortures; there were millions of unfortunate women burned as witches; and there was every kind of cruelty practiced upon all sorts of people in the name of religion.

You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.[39]

Similar charges are stock in trade of “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris.

Moral objections to the goodness of God range from the problem of evil and suffering to charges that the “God of the Old Testament” is wicked, petty, and genocidal; to examples of (perceived) shameful Christian misbehavior in history (the Inquisition, Crusades, witch hunts, opposition to science, colonialism, slavery, intolerance toward women and gays, etc.); to bad personal experiences with Christians that some people have had.

Sometimes moral objections are based on actual wrongs Christians have done, or at least to those that people have done in the name of Christ. Sometimes they’re based on misinformation or misunderstandings. Sometimes they’re based on questionable assumptions—as when Christians may have done nothing wrong at all, but their actions (e.g., proclaiming Jesus as Savior) conflict with relativistic assumptions about tolerance and truth, and deemed evil as a result. And sometimes the objections just reflect irreducible conflicts between Christianity and cultural values (chastity vs. sexual freedom, for example).

In any case, real or merely perceived, moral objections that lead someone to see Christianity as bad make the Christian worldview unbelievable to them. Christianity couldn’t be true; it’s too bad to be true. The important negative task of moral apologetics, then, is to respond to those objections.

7 Moral apologetics

In conclusion, I summarize the nature and role of moral apologetics, as it has emerged here. The aim of moral apologetics is to point to the goodness of God in ways that are appropriate to that aim, including—and emphasizing—being good as believers, exemplifying God’s goodness in relation to those to whom we seek to share the message that Jesus loves you. Moral apologetics is one aspect (not the only one) of an Anselmian approach to engaging others with, and pointing toward, God’s goodness, truth, and beauty, and doing so in ways that are appropriate to each of those values.

Negatively, moral apologetics involves engaging and responding to moral objections to the goodness of God and his people. Because moral objections proliferate, we as apologists need to think them through strategically and sensitively, and begin to address them. I suggest that we do this in community, collaborating with each other about how to engage different groups and generations effectively concerning different questions. Some objections will require significant, specialized study in order to address them adequately. Others may require less effort. Working in community, dividing the labor, can make this possible. In all of this, we should be particularly sensitive to the role of plausibility considerations in these objections, and so we need to approach them prayerfully, humbly, and usually dialogically. Again, we can help each other in these ways.

Positively, moral apologetics involves “making the case” that God is good and is the ultimate ground of all goodness. This can take a variety of forms, including traditional moral arguments. My emphasis in this account has been the positive task of moral apologetics in a fundamentally experiential or incarnational sense: being good, as Christians, as representative of God’s goodness—making the gospel plausible, by enabling people to grasp the goodness of God through experienced goodness with his people.

Obviously, the scope of this project goes far beyond traditional understandings of the science of apologetics or even the art of apologetics. It is the task, not only of apologists, but of the entire body of Christ. In fact, that is exactly as it should be, since Jesus described what makes the gospel believable in just these terms: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13.34-35) “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Mathew 5.16) These famous passages are pictures of plausibility, and, according to Jesus, apparently, they represent the chief pointers to God. Notice particularly, in the latter passage (from Matthew) the connection between our good deeds and those who see them coming to worship God. As we have seen, one’s worshiping God is essentially, perhaps chiefly dependent on one’s coming to see God as good.

May we be able to say Jesus loves you so that those who hear us believe it. May they see Christianity as too good not to be true.

Image: “vying from the gutter” by blueskyjunction photography. CC License. 


[1] Pascal, Blaise, Pensées 12, A. J. Krailsheimer ed. and trans. (London: Penguin Books, 1995), p. 4.

[2] The term, “moral apologetics,” was first suggested to me, I believe, by Greg Pritchard of the European Leadership Forum, when he invited me to address these issues in a series of lectures given in Hungary in 2006. This paper is a more thorough development of those and subsequent talks on moral apologetics I have subsequently given in various popular-level contexts. I presented an initial draft at the Evangelical Philosophical Society national meeting November 17, 2011. Recent efforts by other scholars include Mark Coppenger’s Moral Apologetics for Contemporary Christians (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Publishing Group, 2011) and David Baggett’s website,

[3] “Listening Church,” The Guardian, October 14, 2002.

[4] This is changing. See note 2, and especially the resources featured at

[5] I also describe apologetics in Mind Your Faith: A Student’s Guide to Thinking and Living Well (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2011), pp. 189-193. I first came to think of apologetics along these lines through the writings and teaching of my esteemed mentor and friend, Gordon Lewis. The definitive work on apologetics today is Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2011).

[6] For a related introduction to this distinction and literature, see Dennis Hollinger, “The Church as Apologetic: A Sociology of Knowledge Perspective,” in Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm, eds, Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1995), pp. 182-193. My characterization here is provisional and draws substantially from Hollinger’s account. I discuss these matters further in Mind Your Faith, pp. 177-180 and 238-244.

[7] I do not deal here with two other powerful “plausibility” assumptions that tend to derail serious consideration of the Christian worldview: scientism (the assumption that all that is real, true, or knowable is what science is able to establish) and the commonly accepted view of tolerance, according to which all propositions (at least in matters of religion and ethics) should be considered equally true, and it would be immoral (“intolerant”) to think otherwise. I address these briefly in Mind Your Faith, pp. 112-114, 136-137.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, Scriptural quotations are from the New International Version (2011).

[2] Proserchomai—Peter uses the present participle, suggesting behavior that is active and regular.

[3] See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (NE) 1.1.1094a2-3; Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (ST) Ia.5.1c; Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy (CP) 3.11;ß Dionysius Div. Nom. iv.

[4] See Julia Annas, The Morality of Happiness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[5] See 1 Chr 16.34, 41; 2 Chr 5.13; 2 Chr 7.3; 2 Chr 20.21; Ezra 3.11; Ps 100.4-5; Ps 106.1; Ps 107.1; Ps 118.1, 29; Ps 136.1 (and passim).

[6] C. H. Spurgeon, Treasury of David: Volume Two: Psalm LVIII to CX (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1988), p. 253.

[7] Consolation of Philosophy, 3.10.

[8] Ibid., 3.12. Cited from Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, V. E. Watts trans., (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1969), p. 115.

[9] City of God, 8.8. Cited from Augustine, Political Writings, Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries, eds. and trans. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), pp. 63-64.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Cited from Augustine, Confessions, Henry Chadwick, trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), i (1), p. 3.

[12] ST IaIIae.1.6c. Citations from Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Fathers of the English Dominican Province, trans. (Westminster, Maryland: Christian Classics, 1981).

[13] IaIIae.4.7 ad 2.

[14] IaIIae.5.4c.

[15] IaIIae.5.2c. Following Augustine and the tradition, Aquinas understands “enjoying” to refer to seeing something as intrinsically good, desiring it for its own sake and not “using” it as a means to some other end or for the sake of some other good.

[16] On the metaphysics of goodness in classical and Christian thinking, see Scott MacDonald, ed., Being and Goodness: The Concept of the Good in Metaphysics and Philosophical Theology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

[17] I.1. Citation from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Henry Beveridge, trans. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2008), p. 4.

[18] 2.1. Beveridge, p. 7.

[19] 2.2. Beveridge, p. 8.

[20] 1.5.6. Beveridge, p. 20.

[21] 1.5.9. Beveridge, pp. 21-22.

[22] See Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, Brian Davies and G. R. Evans, eds. and trans. with Introduction (Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[23] Thomas V. Morris, Anselmian Explorations: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987); and Our Idea of God: An Introduction to Philosophical Theology (Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing, 2002).

[24] Our Idea of God, p. 47.

[25] What follows depends closely upon my discussion in Mind Your Faith, pp. 190-192.

[26] See, e.g., Psalm 96.

[27] See C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Orlando, Flo.: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1955); and “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, Walter Hooper, ed. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), pp. 25-40.

[28] See Robert M. Adams, “Moral Arguments for Theistic Belief,” in The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987; Robert Gay, “Moral Arguments for the Existence of God,” Modern Theology 3 (1987): pp. 117-36; Stuart C. Hacket, “The Value Dimension of the Cosmos: A Moral Argument,” in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, William Lane Craig, ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), pp. 149-54; John E. Hare, The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

[29] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2000; reprint of 1952 edition). Moral arguments were more popular during the early to mid-twentieth century. Besides Lewis, see, e.g., W. R. Sorley, Moral Values and the Idea of God (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1918, and A. E. Taylor, The Faith of a Moralist (London: Macmillan, 1937). A recent moral argument is David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[30] Cf. the role of desire in relation to goodness and virtue noted in part 2 and notes.

[31] John Hare, God’s Call: Moral Realism, God’s Commands, and Human Autonomy (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2001).

[32] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man: How Education Develops Man’s Sense of Morality (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), pp. 16-17.

[33] NE 2.3.1104b13. Citation from Irwin trans. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999). For a very helpful analysis of Aristotle’s view here, see Miles F. Burnyeat, “Aristotle on Learning to Be Good,” in A. O. Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics (Berkeley, Calif.; University of California Press, 1980), pp. 69-72.

[34] See Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995), chapter 1.

[35] Douglas Coupland, Life without God (New York: Pocket Books, 1994), p. 359.

[36] Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1979), p. 93. I tell the story of Le Chambon in detail in Mind Your Faith, chapter 13.

[37] In Mind Your Faith I suggest the possibility that Albert Camus’ reported turn toward Christianity shortly before he died may have been the product of his living in Le Chambon during this time (see pp. 243-244).

[38] William Lobdell, Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America – and Found Unexpected Peace (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 271. Cited in Jonathan Lunde, Following Jesus, the Servant King: A Biblical Theology of Covenantal Discipleship (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2010), 25.

[39] Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” online:, accessed 23 February 2015.

Video: Peter Williams on C.S. Lewis and Friendship

Peter Williams, hosted by the C.S. Lewis Foundation, shares some thoughts on C.S. Lewis’ view of friendship. The lecture is entitled, “Surprised by Philia: The Virtue of Faithful Friendship” and includes a great discussion of the theme of friendship in Lewis’ Narnia series. If you’re interested in an exploration of friendship from a biblical, philosophical, and literary perspective, this lecture is well worth the time!


Image: “friendship” by Bekassine. CC License. 

Podcast: Mark Foreman on Faith, Reason, and Natural Law

On this week’s podcast, we hear from Dr. Mark Foreman. Dr. Foreman is a professional philosopher who specializes in both Christian apologetics and bioethics. The main topic of this episode is theism as a natural law ethic. Dr. Foreman will explain what a natural law ethic is, why we should prefer it, how it can be applied in moral dilemmas, and  how to use it in apologetics. But before we get to that, we’ll also get to hear some thoughts from Dr. Foreman on the relation of faith and reason.


A Fundamental Issue with Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape

By Dave Sidnam

In the Introduction to his book The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris states, “The goal of this book is to begin a conversation about how moral truth can be understood in the context of science.” While others “imagine that no objective answers to moral questions exist,” Harris asserts that a science of morality is possible. While I appreciate Harris’s efforts to come up with an empirically measurable moral system, and agree with some of his foundational points, I believe his system is fundamentally flawed because “other branches of science are self-justifying in a way that a science of morality could never be.”

A root of this issue comes down to some vagueness with the term “science” in Harris’s argument. Harris’s hope is that moving morality into the realm of science will give it a status and authority similar to that of physics or medical science; however, I will show that the type of moral science Harris proposes is significantly different than either of these and, therefore, would not carry the same epistemic clout.

In addressing morality as a science, Harris is concerned that some people define “’science’ in exceedingly narrow terms.” However, in the book, Harris’s working definition—“Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in the universe,”—provides so broad a definition that practically any rational endeavor fits, including astrology. While I know Harris, in practice, draws sharper boundaries than this, in his argument he ignores the fact that there are different types of science and that some types have more epistemic weight than others. For example, the “hard” sciences are seen by many as having more authority than the “soft” sciences; this leads to an interesting question: Is Harris’s science of morality a hard science or soft one? For many people, the answer to this question will lead to a qualitative difference in how the findings of this science should be viewed.

Physics, generally, is a hard science based upon the discovery of ontologically objective facts. That is, independent of any conscious minds, the physical world exists and the laws of physics hold. Once discovered, they are the same for all people—invariably. Harris’s science of morality, on the other hand, is fundamentally different because it is based upon ontologically subjective facts: There is no person-independent reality to draw from. Harris ignores this important difference when he states, “We must have a goal to define what counts as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when speaking about physics or morality, but this criterion visits us equally in both domains.” While he is correct that the standard must be set for each, the goal of physics is to accurately describe the objective world in which we live; however, there is no such ontologically objective starting point for Harris’s moral science. This ontologically objective base gives physics comparatively more authority, just as astronomy should carry more weight than astrology.

If Harris’s moral system is not like physics, what type of science should it be compared to? In his introduction, Harris discusses possible similarities between human moral flourishing and human health, so perhaps medical science or nutrition is a better match. Upon initial inspection, this analogy seems apt because there is definitely a person-subjective aspect here, based upon an individual’s biochemical response to events in the world. For some people, peanuts are a good source of protein and part of a healthy diet. For others, peanuts are poison.

But here, the type of subjectivity is still fundamentally different. In medicine and nutrition, people respond to different medicines or foods based upon their underlying biochemistry. These events, in principle, are directly observable from a third-person perspective and are not dependent upon a person’s first-person point-of-view. Harris alludes to this difference when describing how the “sciences of mind are predicated on our being able to correlate first-person reports of subjective experience with third-person states of the brain.”  Unlike medicine or nutrition, however, Harris’s moral science needs to measure first-person experience—how people perceive events determines the “moral” quality of those events. While medicine has a subjective component, the subjectivity is not dependent upon first-person experience.

Although this problem does not remove morality from science broadly defined, it again shows a substantial qualitative difference between Harris’s moral science and medical science/nutrition and brings into question the authority with which such a science can speak.

At its core, Harris’s moral science is fundamentally different because it attempts to measure first-person experience. To make this a science (instead of an opinion poll or marketing survey), Harris rightly wants to correlate this to the brain states which underlie the experiences, and then draw broad conclusions from this. Unfortunately, this first-person to third-person gap produces significant uncertainty. For some, living a comfortable life—filled with fine dining and travel—produces in them brain states that they interpret as well-being. For others, living a difficult life—bringing some comfort to the poor and needy in Calcutta—produces in them a different biochemical response, which they interpret as well-being. More directly, a masochist’s perception of certain C fiber stimulation is going to be perceived very differently than the same event in other people.

While Harris is correct that a science could be formed like this, I believe it is obvious that it would not have significant imperative force behind it. I think that Harris will want to argue in his science of morality that some actions—like murder—are always wrong. This type of forceful statement works well with sciences based upon objective facts, but not so well with ones based upon subjective “facts.” Unfortunately, murder brings a biochemical response that some criminals interpret as a sense of well-being, and, at the biochemical level, it may be indistinguishable from the feeling others get from helping the poor. So while Harris has put together a system of morality that can be measured empirically, foundational issues leave it with very questionable epistemic authority or imperative force, unlike other branches of science.

Image: “Brain” by D. Schaefer. CC License. 

Podcast: Brian Scalise on the Nature of Love in Islam and Christianity

On this week’s podcast, we hear from Dr. Brian Scalise. Dr. Scalise is an adjunct professor at Liberty University. He teaches New Testament Greek and recently taught an intensive to graduate students on Islam.  A few weeks ago on the podcast,  Dr. Scalise explained the difference a Christian versus Islamic understanding of God makes for our understanding of love. This week, we’re going to be returning to that topic. (If you haven’t listened to the first podcast with Brian, it may help to do that first. You can find it here.) In this lecture, Dr. Scalise carefully explains why the Christian Trinity provides an account of love that is richer and fuller than what is possible from an Islamic perspective.


Photo: “Pompeo Batoni 003” by Pompeo Batoni – [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – 

The Faustian Bargain of Fifty Shades of Gray

Editor’s Note:  A longer version of this piece was originally published at The Federalist:

By Josh Herring 

(Josh Herring is a seminarian and humanities instructor in Wake Forest, NC. He enjoys contemplating the great ideas of humanity and seeing how they interact with the truth of Scripture.)

In the wake of Valentine’s Day 2015 and the unveiling of the much-anticipated theatrical release of Fifty Shade of Grey, I tried to pin down the appeal. It can’t be the prose—that seems to be one element at which all critics cringe. Nor can it be the level of explicit pornography. As the New Yorker’s review claimed, more graphic nudity can be found in a lecture on the Renaissance. Why then did this R-rated movie just pull in nearly $100 million on its opening weekend? In contemplating an answer, I began to consider the German novel Faust. Written by Johann Goethe in the late nineteenth century, Faust posits a bored academic who makes a bargain with devil. In so doing, Faust follows Mephistopheles (the devil) on a stream of adventures ultimately leading to tragedy. By understanding the Faust story, I think we can recognize the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey.

In his interpretation of the Faust myth, Goethe changes the legend from a bored academic who makes a deal with the devil to a wager about the nature of the world. Goethe’s Faust concludes there is no cause of happiness in the world, and nothing beyond it. He is the epitome of dissatisfaction, and not even the Devil can show him lasting happiness. Mephistopheles as the modern image of the Adversary is more than happy to take this wager; after all, Faust’s wager serves Mephistopheles’ bet with God that Faust will choose the Devil’s path. This divine wager introduces the play, and serves as the primary point of the story: will Faust fall completely into the devil’s grasp, or regain his humanity by turning to God? The remainder of the play/novel/poem consists of a whirlwind of experiences, cycles of speed and experience swirling Faust ever downward into his own depravity, with naught but the love of Gretchen crying, “Heinrich, Heinrich!” as she ascends to heaven to provide any hope of redemption by the end of part one.

Mephistopheles is a clever devil. Gone are the old ways where the demonic fiend might get his prey addicted to drink, or harlots, or greed. No, Mephistopheles plays a closer game by showing Faust purity (in the form of Gretchen), and then leading him to corrupt the purity. Faust misses the actual hope of happiness in his quest for corruption. Faust is consumed with lust for Gretchen, and consummates his desire, leading to tragic consequences. In his quest for Gretchen, however, Faust discovers the one transcendent quality in his world: love. He cannot achieve that love, however, without abandoning his existential quest for proving the dissatisfaction of the world. In constantly seeking the hurly-burly of Walprugis Night, Faust fails to grasp the good in the world and instead condemns Gretchen to prison while he grinds against a naked witch in the Brocken.

Faust provides a helpful metaphor in light of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. After three poorly written erotic novels and a now-released film, the New York Times, Washington Post, Independent, and the Guardian carried articles the week before the premier about the upcoming movie and tie-in erotic toys. Why is this such an event? This film is garnering quick attention for at least two reasons. First, and most obviously, it is the entrance of BDSM into mainstream cinema. Secondly, however, it represents the temptation and titillation of a Faustian sexuality with all the incumbent promises of true happiness and empty fulfillment.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a recent re-articulation of the Marquis De Sade’s vision of sexuality: dominance and submission, power and punishment, pain and satisfaction stewed together producing the best experience for both participants. This vision of sexuality is exciting, and ultimately tragic. Just as Faust missed true happiness in the mundane, in a life wedded to Gretchen in the world, so Fifty Shades of Grey misses the right place of true sexuality: marriage. Men, women, and sexuality are all made in such a way that when sexual intimacy is embraced outside the confines of marriage, such as when Faust rushes into the orgy with Mephistopheles by his side, humanity is gradually eroded. Fifty Shades of Grey provides a stimulating pornographic vision of excitement while actually delivering a dehumanizing love of slavery enshrined in the closest physical human connections.

In the confines of marriage, sexuality becomes a raging force used constructively. Within a lifelong commitment between spouses, sexual intimacy serves a higher calling and produces true joy. Gretchen offered this life to Faust: the life of confinement, restraint, and true joy. Faust instead chose to allow Mephistopheles to “carry him away” into the never-ending rush of constant experience. Faced with a Faustian sexuality at the movies in coming weeks, the ticket-purchasing audience will be faced with a choice: is Fifty Shades of Grey be a celebration of real love between two humans who are called to serve, honor, submit to, and respect one another? Or is this film a call to step onto Mephistopheles’ cloak and be whisked away to a false pleasure creating a deceptive experience leading to tragedy?

Photo: Marguerite’s garden in the original production, set design by Charles-Antoine Cambon and Joseph Thierry. Public Domain.