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Ash Wednesday and Existential Longing in The Moviegoer

By Marybeth Davis Baggett 

Binx Bolling, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer, has settled for an ordinary life. Foregoing his previous intent to study law or medicine or engage in scientific research, he no longer desires to do “something great.” Instead, Binx prides himself on having given up “grand ambitions” and “the old longings” and now “sell[s] stocks and bonds and mutual funds; quit[s] work at five o’clock like everyone else” and dreams of “having a girl and perhaps one day settling down.”

And so Binx partakes in the ritual of the everyday. He lives in the suburbs rather than amid the excitement of New Orleans whose “old world atmosphere” incites within him feelings he cannot control. Instead, he prefers predictability: living as a model citizen and perfect tenant, armed with the paraphernalia of modern life by which he circumscribes his identity. Binx’s longing for normalcy and stability is unsurprising given that his life has been marked by tragedy—with a brother dying from pneumonia and another from an accident, losing his father at a young age, and being wounded himself while fighting in the Korean War.

The ashes—while an external sign—function on a level not possible for Binx’s material-bound rituals. In reaching back through history to the origin of humanity itself—touching on a multiplicity of biblical stories along the way—these ashes bind us, to each other, to our creator, and to our redeemer.
Determined to stave off yet more devastating losses, Binx fills his wallet full of “identity cards, library cards, credit cards” and stuffs his lockbox with “his birth certificate, college diploma, honorable discharge, G.I. insurance, a few stock certificates,” and the deed to land inherited from his father. Consumerism drives his life, as he purchases popular products of the day, derives guidance from advice columns, and even models his relationships on movie plots.

Yet, try as he might to reduce himself to a cog in the machine, Binx remains unalterably human, with an innate hunger for significance, meaning, and purpose. To satisfy this hunger, he adopts the ceremonies of his thoroughly secularized culture—the moviegoing of the novel’s title being the most prominent. The routines of mid-twentieth-century America give him forms by which to understand his life, and he dignifies those routines with official titles like “certification,” “repetition,” and “rotation.” An evening radio program This I Believe, he tells readers, serves as his “compline,” referring to the traditional night prayer that completes the Church’s work that day.

But Percy’s novel shows just how dissatisfying these counterfeit, superficial, secularized rituals are, how little they are able to sustain a meaningful existence. The story’s events transpire in the days leading up to Mardi Gras, with parties and floats and general raucousness planned on the periphery of Binx’s central concerns. He is approaching his thirtieth birthday, and his aunt—the principal authority figure—is pressuring him about his future plans. He has none, and worse, though ill-equipped, he has been charged with caring for his depression-riddled step-cousin Kate. All he offers, all he can offer, is desacralized sex and a relationship mimicking the interaction between a director and his actress.

Even Binx himself recognizes the insubstantial nature of such a foundation on which to build a life, on which to found a marriage: “Flesh poor flesh failed us. The burden was too great and flesh poor flesh, neither hallowed by sacrament nor despised by spirit [. . .]—flesh poor flesh now at this moment summoned all at once to be all and everything, end all and be all, the last and only hope—quails and fails.”

The spiritual malaise of Binx and Kate, which parallels the spiritual malaise of the world they inhabit, is underscored by contrast with the onset of Lent, Ash Wednesday being the culmination of the novel’s events.

The novel’s most admirable figure, Binx’s terminally ill younger brother Lonnie, is a devout Catholic, and his childlike faith combines with wisdom beyond his few years to squelch any sympathy the readers might be tempted to harbor for Binx’s self-imposed existential despair. In the midst of his debilitating illness, Lonnie’s concerns are for the state of his soul, confessing feelings of pleasure over his brother Duval’s death, and for the state of Binx’s soul, praying for him when he takes communion.

It is Lonnie whose sufferings point beyond himself to Christ; it is Lonnie who revels in the life he is offered, perhaps out of knowing its limits. And it is Lonnie of whom we think when Binx and Kate watch a parishioner enter church to receive his ceremonial ashes.

Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent, the period leading up to Easter which calls Christians to spiritual preparation for the day marking the lynchpin of our faith—the resurrection of Christ. On this day, services and ritual highlight two themes: human mortality and sinfulness. Ministers mark worshipers’ heads with ash as a sign of grief for the human condition and repentance for our own participation in the sins of mankind.

The ashes—while an external sign—function on a level not possible for Binx’s material-bound rituals. In reaching back through history to the origin of humanity itself—touching on a multiplicity of biblical stories along the way—these ashes bind us, to each other, to our creator, and to our redeemer. They tell us who we are, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” and what we should do with that knowledge, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Binx’s rituals, on the other hand, fail to answer these big questions, or if they attempt to do so, the answers themselves fail. These citizenly duties—purchasing his auto tag, heeding public service announcements, contributing to the economy—merely situate him within his society. They provide a guidebook for making his way through the social maze. These rules and roles offer him little exploration of the human condition, more expansively construed.

For man is both more and less than Binx envisions him. Man is not merely the physical creature Binx reduces him to, nor is he the epitome of reality. The ritual of Ash Wednesday corrects both misconstruals, pointing to our creator God as the author of our existence, the source of our identity, the framer of our purpose, and the vehicle of our redemption.

Photo: “Cinema at the Barracks” by Andreass. 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. 

Attending to the Least of These in the Age of Trump

 

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally posted at Christ and Pop Culture

by Marybeth Davis Baggett

“Even if you have this baby, I’m not going to love you.”

Nearly twenty-four years later, despite my having faced and overcome many challenges since that time and finally feeling secure in God’s faithfulness and his plan for me, memory of these words can still easily unsettle me. The cold indifference with which they were spoken, how they foretold the lonely and grueling road ahead, the grievous recognition that I had cast my pearls before this swine who was content to leave them in the mud—all of these hard truths surface in this short statement.

I was twenty, living recklessly and trying desperately to make up for what my childhood had lacked—some affirmation that I was important, a little appreciation for my unique gifts and talents, even just a bit of recognition that I existed.

It’s natural to feel invisible in dysfunctional environments like the one in which I grew up.

So on the precipice of adulthood, quite unconsciously I’m sure, I was determined to get what I had been denied: self-actualization, consideration, admiration. But when you have no internal gauge for authenticity in these matters, anything bearing a superficial resemblance will do, even the paltriest of substitutes—like the attentions of my manager at the restaurant where I worked.

Although it’s difficult now for me to stand in the shoes of that fragile girl, I do remember how flattering it was to garner the interest of someone with a modicum of authority in a position of respectability. In retrospect his flirting sickens me, knowing the self-centered callousness behind it, but at the time it thrilled me to think that I might be special enough to merit his devotion, or at least what I mistook for devotion.

The ironic but simple truth is that those growing up without having their most basic emotional needs met will often debase themselves in their desperate attempts to meet them. So it was with me.

Another simple truth is that many will use their power to exploit these vulnerabilities. This dynamic has been on full display in recent weeks with the latest scandal in Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency. The most visceral reactions have been directed toward the leaked audio, and I have to admit, listening to Trump’s boasts gives me vivid flashbacks to the early days of my unmarried pregnancy.

To hear a rich and famous man speak with such casual pride on the license his power gives him to have his way with women—married or not—sparks shame deep within me. Shame because I know he’s right.

My story attests to this reality. Trump’s voice on that tape brings me face to face with the fact that the crisis point of my life, even the conception of my precious son, could so heartlessly be reduced to an emotionally stunted adolescent talking point.

What has been equally troubling is the political aftermath of the Trump tape, the way it has rallied his defenders and accusers alike. His advocates try threading the needle to denounce Trump’s past while embracing his future (Supreme Court in the balance, after all); others emphasize that these were words not deeds (though that’s become a vexed question) and establish a hierarchy of depravity with Trump on the acceptable side of the line. Still more adduce the philandering of Bill Clinton and Hillary’s enabling diatribes against his accusers.
Grievously silent have been Christian voices calling on men and women alike to reject societal and legal allowances to exert illegitimate control over another.

Trump’s critics ostensibly inhabit the moral high ground. They rightly call Trump out for degrading women; they recognize the hostility and abuse of power. While some detractors, such as Beth Moore, predicate their critique on Christian conviction for the dignity and worth of all people and a concern for the vulnerable, others have leveraged their criticism to score political points. Because the tape discloses repulsive statements and attitudes about women, some seize the opportunity to offer Clinton’s platform as a corrective: complete with expansion of abortion access and an unseemly and sanguine acceptance of the practice as normative.

Michelle Obama’s moving speech delivered last week powerfully embodies the attractiveness of embracing a platform like this, one that is supposed to empower women. As many have reported, in that poignant speech Obama articulates the fear countless women have that they matter only as sexual objects and declares—with justification—that Trump’s nomination by a major political party has breathed new life into those fears, even inflamed them.

I hear her words and watch her passion, and they resonate, but I can join in Obama’s refrain for only so long. Her righteous indignation rings hollow in light of the suffocating internal and external pressure I felt to abort my child—pregnant, scared, and little-more-than-child myself.

The hideous refrain, “Even if you have this baby, I’m not going to love you,” echoes loudly in my ears these days.

This cruel declaration invokes my longing to be known and loved, reminding me how that deepest of human needs was wielded as a weapon. It crystallizes for me the enormous power men have when abortion becomes quotidian, effectively disempowering the women it purports to protect.

“My body, my choice” ultimately entailed that the child I was carrying was fully my responsibility. In the moment of this distancing and dispassionate declaration, I knew that—with conscience intact—my son’s father intended to leave me to bear the consequences alone.

This is the hard truth of our age. A people who pride themselves on “equality for all” has accepted unchecked power as a matter of course—wrongful dominion of men over women, of women over babies. A code of law crafted to defend the defenseless, in reality sacrifices the weakest of us all. And we turn a blind eye to exploited women who refuse the moral calculation of abortion that offers escape through passing on one’s victimhood to another.

Even now, those speaking loudest about the Trump tapes seem to overlook the exploited. They excuse, forgive, and change the subject. Or they condemn, scheme, and flaunt their moral superiority. Few have acknowledged the individual lives at stake. Grievously silent have been Christian voices calling on men and women alike to reject societal and legal allowances to exert illegitimate control over another.

For someone like me, the casualty of another’s entitlement, this silence is deafening.

God is good, and in recounting my experience, I don’t mean to imply that this desolate chapter is the end of my story. I have been blessed beyond measure, and God has indeed shown in and through me his delight in making beauty from ashes. I am no longer that abandoned, desperately needy new mother unprepared for what lay ahead. I am amazed, humbled, and overwhelmed by how far God has brought me, how he redeemed this turning point by transforming me and making me wiser and stronger.

Over the past week, with the two partisan camps warring over Trump’s latest scandal, I can’t help but think of my former self, ill-equipped for the crisis she faced. She would be able to find no refuge in either faction. And I can’t help but look at my female students at the university where I teach and wonder if any of them wrestle with the same inner and outer demons I faced at their age.

It’s to and for them I speak now. I want desperately for them to know that—no matter who has failed them, no matter what they have done, no matter who speaks lies to and about them—they are loved abundantly. They are created for a purpose they will find only in their Maker; they are unique and wonderful and valuable beyond measure. Exploitation of them is an offense to the God who formed us all.

And to men who might be listening in, mistreatment of women degrades you as well. To quote James Baldwin, “It is a terrible, an inexorable law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own.” You are called to something higher, to reject the pervasive cultural message that permits casual objectification and consumption of another.

A corollary with that truth is this one: good and right will prevail; evil begets evil and, left unredeemed, will never participate in good. While we live in a world fraught with sin and temptation, counterfeit satisfactions and fear will lure us to abandon God’s wisdom for our own, to rationalize our rejection of his law, and to enact justice injudiciously. Through abortion and more, our culture offers encouragement and approval for such blameworthy self-reliance. Only a resolute trust in God’s abiding faithfulness delivers us from evil, both inward and outward. Such is the way of hope.

Hope rejects voices that justify, minimize, or turn away from abuses of power. Even still, hope recognizes that abuse of power is not a zero-sum game and that such abuse, if left unchecked by grace, can quickly turn victim into perpetrator, all in the name of empowerment. Faustian bargains net no profit, no matter whose dignity is used as collateral.

Hope speaks truth about injustice, holds the wicked to account, but resists the creed that all’s fair play for the wronged. Hope, instead, knows you can entrust yourself to the one who judges justly. Through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, hope proves that it need neither compromise nor collude with corruption to effect victory.

Do not be fooled by rhetoric that claims accumulation of power is our purpose, no matter the source of those claims. Embrace instead Christ’s heart for the “least of these,” even if you find yourself in that category.

Our fallen state may be homo incurvatus in se, humanity curved in on itself, but hope releases us from bondage to self-gratification and self-centeredness. Through hope, we can and should live differently. My life and the life of my son testify to this possibility and to this hope.

Image: “Good Samaritan”  by David Teniers the Younger. Wiki Commons. 

https://www.flickr.com/photos/aigle_dore/16042096025/in/photolist-qrzWfv-9twbTm-cqyWBu-9twcVS-86RVms-9twco7-PiFG-6GyFB9-i5u3EN-e8Giw8-88xmaM-8781xY-kygmoK-9zM1P-xvjS-i55Fav-3PBNx-25XoP-hkDKYD-oHPKdG-eiCurq-6AMkKT-e9sPTq-9DSAKw-i55Zjg-6AMmje-oPrS6p-qruXrp-6AMk3M-5SReUa-6uXoq-miHMYd-4ePLgm-7Acko2-bFb2mm-jKDRx-eeZPTs-6GyF5A-jowfd-i563t1-c9QKHE-6w5fDs-dGfgcv-7PXDxj-9DPHGF-6HvUND-9L7PEJ-aNHkHR-kte6hN-53FzHk

The Possibility of Virtue in Christianity and Buddhism: The Victory of Christian Virtue (Part 5 of 5)

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

By Jonathan Pruitt

Chapter Three

The Victory of Christian Virtue

In Chapter One, it was argued that for a particular worldview to be compatible with virtue ethics, it has to meet two kinds of criteria. First, it must be able to account for teleology of persons and the world. Second, it must have a view of man that allows for the narrative unity of a single human life.  Chapter Three will demonstrate two claims. First that experience and reason confront the Buddhism with facts that are difficult to explain away; these same facts naturally flow from the Christian worldview. Therefore, Christianity provides a better explanation for the nature of reality and human persons than Buddhism. The second claim is that Christianity can accommodate a virtue view of ethics.

The Foundations of Christian Ethics

The Nature of God

Any account of Christian ethics must begin with God. In Christian thought, God is metaphysically necessary: “The existence of God is a first truth; in other words, the knowledge of God’s existence is rational intuition. Logically, it precedes and conditions all observation and reasoning.”[1] Further, he is the “infinite Spirit in whom all things have their source, support, and end.”[2] God is defined as the greatest conceivable or maximally great being. As such, he is said to possess all great making properties, like moral perfection and ultimate value.  By definition and ontological necessity, God constitutes the good of Christian ethics.

As a maximally great being, God exists with certain attributes. Strong divides the attributes of God into two categories: the absolute or immanent attributes and the relative or transitive attributes. The absolute attributes are those attributes that God possesses without reference to anything else. God possesses life, personality, aseity, unity, and moral perfection as ontologically necessary properties.  The life that God possesses is not biological life, but rather mental energy. He “lives” as a personal being, possessing “the power of self-consciousness and self-determination.”[3]  God, then, is fundamentally and necessarily a unified, conscious, and rational person who possesses libertarian free will. In addition, he constitutes the ultimate ground of all value and moral objectivity.

The Nature of Man

The imago Dei explained  

As a free being, complete within himself, God chose to create mankind in his image:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”[4]

While the Bible does not specifically explain the nature of the imago Dei, Erickson argues that there are at least six facts that can be inferred from what the Bible does say.  His first five facts explain that the image of God is something bestowed freely by God, without reference to any trait or merit within man, and that all humans possess the image equally. Each of these facts is vitally important to ethics, and the application of ethics in particular. However, his sixth point is especially important to demonstrating that Christianity meets the requirements of virtue:

“The image refers to the elements in the human makeup that enable the fulfillment of human destiny. The image is the powers of personality that make humans, like God, beings capable of interacting with other persons, thinking, and of willing freely.”[5] Essentially, possessing the imago Dei is what makes human beings persons; the absence of which makes animals merely animals.

J.P. Moreland has argued that as the imago Dei relates to persons, there are five principle parts: consciousness, free will, rationality, the soul, and objective moral values and the intrinsic value of a human being. If Christianity is true so that people are, in fact, created in the image of God, then there ought to be facts about human persons that are difficult for other worldviews to explain away. This provides an excellent opportunity to offer an apologetic toward Buddhism and a fuller explanation of what constitutes the imago Dei and how it is relevant to Christian ethics.

The recalcitrant imago Dei: human persons and the failure of Buddhism[6]

One of the criticisms made of the virtue view of Buddhism is that it is motivated for some reason other than obtaining an honest interpretation of the Buddha’s ethics. Some Buddhist virtue ethicists even openly admitted that they had ulterior motives.[7] It was suggested that Keown was a kind of “revisionist.” This raises an important question: Why would someone want to reinterpret the Buddha in favor of a virtue ethic? The answer seems to be that a theory of virtue ethics makes better sense out the world than the theories that the Buddha taught. While the insights of the Buddha are tremendous, they are nevertheless out of step with what human beings can know by experience and reason. In particular, Chapter Two pointed out that a virtue view of ethics was guilty of ignoring or distorting truths about the nature of a human person and the moral quality of reality. There are recalcitrant facts about the nature of man and morality for Keown and other Buddhist virtue ethicists. These are facts about the sort of world human beings find themselves in as well as the sort of lives they experience, facts about the apparent narrative unity of the human life and the teleology of the world in general. Specifically, the Buddhist will have trouble explaining the five parts of a person who possesses the imgao Dei.

Consciousness

Moreland argues that “mental states require a subjective ontology–namely that mental states are necessarily owned by the first person sentient subjects who have them.”[8] According to Moreland, there are five states of consciousness and each is expressed in terms of a subject/object relationship.  A sensation is a state of awareness. One might have the sensation of “seeing red,” or “feeling pain.” A thought is a “mental content that can be expressed in an entire sentence.” “All fire trucks are red,” is a thought and so is “My favorite fruit is apples.” A belief is a “person’s view, accepted to varying degrees of strength, of how things really are.” A desire is a “certain felt inclination to do, or experience certain things or avoid such.” And finally, an act of will is a “choice, an exercise of power. . . usually for the sake of some purpose.”[9] The states of consciousness do not constitute some conventional person nor are these states aggregates of a whole. Instead, the five states are all properties of a mind (mental states), which is a unified whole and indivisible. Moreland further suggests that there is an I that stands behind and above these various states so that they belong to a particular individual: “the first person perspective is not a property persons have, it is the thing that persons are – centers of a personal kind of consciousness.”[10] On this point, Moreland agrees with Strong:

Self-consciousness is more than consciousness. This last the brute may be supposed to possess, since the brute is not an automaton. Man is distinguished from the brute by his power to objectify self. Man is not only conscious of his own acts and states, but by abstraction and reflection he recognizes the self which is the subject of these acts and states.[11]

Moreland’s view of consciousness as mental states stands in contrast to the Buddha’s.

The Buddha believed that there are five aggregates that constitute a conventional person:  form

(rupa), sensation (vedana), perception (sanna), mental formation (sankhara), and awareness[12]

(vinnana).   The last four of these aggregates are mental states,[13] similar to the ones utilized by Moreland, although the Buddha is clear that these mental states do not belong to anyone. An unnamed monk, in a dialogue with the Buddha, argued that human persons mistakenly assume that one of the skandhas might be identified as the self.[14] Later in the discourse, the Buddha explains that each of these assumptions is unfounded. The Buddha asks the monk concerning each of the skandhas, “Is this what I am?” The monk responds, with Buddha’s approval, “No, lord.” There is no unified self; there is only an aggregate of parts with an illusion of self.

However, the idea that a person is merely a collection of parts does not solve the problem that Moreland raises. For example, the Buddha suggests that awareness or vinnana is the “awareness of sensory and mental objects.”[15] But awareness, as a mental state, requires necessarily a subject and an object. There must be a subject who experiences awareness of a particular object or state of affairs. The other aggregates (with the exception of form which merely describes the physical body) have the same requirement. Perceptions will require both a “perceiver” and an object to be perceived.  Formations (sankhara), which are “a range of mental responses to objects,” also require a subject/object relationship.[16] By formulating the aggregates, the Buddha has not solved the problem of the I standing over and above the aggregates. Instead, he has merely described the conscious states that an I possesses.  Further, it is not likely that the doctrine of “no-self” and a belief in the aggregates as mental states can be held simultaneously. The only option would be to either affirm that a conscious self exists over and above the aggregates or that the five aggregates are not describing mental states.  The juxtaposition of the “no-self” doctrine and the strong sense of the reality of self creates a tension within the Buddhist worldview to such a point that the language employed must be understood as either being only conventionally  true (there is a self) or ultimately true (there is no self).

Besides the subject/object problem implicit within the aggregates, there is a kind of cosmological problem. How could consciousness arise when reality is fundamentally empty, non-personal, and lacking any causal powers? A monk asked the Buddha this question directly:  “Lord, what is the cause, what the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of form? What is the cause, what the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of feeling… perception… fabrications… consciousness?”[17] The Buddha responded:

Monk, the four great existents (earth, water, fire, & wind) are the cause, the four great existents the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of form. Contact is the cause, contact the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of feeling. Contact is the cause, contact the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of perception. Contact is the cause, contact the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of fabrications. Name&-form is the cause, name-&-form the condition, for the delineation of the aggregate of consciousness.[18]

According to the Buddha, consciousness arises as result of a material cause (earth, water, fire, and wind) intersecting with particular conditions, the reality of dependent origination. While the

Buddha refrains from metaphysical speculation, there is nevertheless another tension in Buddhism at this point: how does consciousness arise out of reality as the Buddha understood it?

The answer is not clear. Consciousness, for Buddhism is a recalcitrant fact.

The unity of human life (the soul)

If mental states are something possessed so that there is an indivisible I over and above them, then another issue presents itself: the concept of a substantial soul.  Moreland argues against naturalism, but his point can easily be adapted to a Buddhist view:

I. I exist, as does a particular arrangement of skandhas associated with me.

II. I am not identical with the skandhas associated with me.

III. I am not identical with any single skandha (like vinnana, for example).

IV. I do not have any proper part which is not part of the skandhas

V. Therefore, I have no proper parts: I am altogether simple entity.

The Buddhist would likely find (III) and (IV) uncontroversial. There would be no ultimate I to be identical to a set of skandhas and whatever an I is, it would consist totally of the skandhas. Clearly, there would a problem with (I). But, if Moreland is right about mental states necessarily requiring a “subjective ontology,” then (I) should be acceptable even if there is protest. If (I) makes it through, then so do (II) and (III). If there is a “subjective ontology” that possesses the five skandhas, then it follows that a person is not identical to the skandhas.  The result is that the self is an “immaterial, non-extended substance”[19] that has no necessary relationship with the skandhas. This would explain why “we have very strong, deep intuitions that we are enduring continuants even though we undergo various changes and… experience part replacement.”[20]

The Buddhist faces a problem here: if there is a self that exists over and above the skandhas, that self would, presumably, not be conditioned by the laws of dependent origination or karma since it stands outside the space where those laws would have causal powers. The self would create a kind of dualism within Buddhism: there is what is unconditioned and without self (nirvana) and there is the unconditioned self. To explain these phenomena, Buddhism would need to develop a doctrine of the soul. The apparent necessity of an unconditioned self, enduring over time, and being metaphysically simple, the apparent necessity of the soul, creates another recalcitrant fact for Buddhists.

Free will

The concept of free will creates another tension in Buddhist thought. In one of the most important suttas, responding to the question, “What is dependent co-arising?” the Buddha said,

From birth as a requisite condition comes aging and death. Whether or not there is the arising of Tathagatas, this property stands — this regularity of the Dhamma, this orderliness of the Dhamma, this this/that conditionality. The Tathagata directly awakens to that, breaks through to that. Directly awakening & breaking through to that, he declares it, teaches it, describes it, sets it forth. He reveals it, explains it, makes it plain, & says, ‘Look.’ From birth as a requisite condition comes aging & death.[21]

From the dependent co-arising of things come “dependently co-arisen phenomena.” These phenomena are the complex conjunction of several “lines” of dependent co-arising and result in events like birth, becoming, craving, and so on. [22] The Buddha summarized his teaching on causality by saying that “Where this is present, that comes to be; from the arising of this, that arises. When this is absent, that does not come to be; on the cessation of this, that ceases.”[23] The Buddha extended this kind of causality uniformly to explain “the evolution and dissolution of the world process…plant life… and [even] to human personality.”[24] However, the Buddha is said to be able to break this chain of causation so that he is free from the cycle of rebirth. This assumes that the Buddha is able to enact “top-down” causation, and that he is significantly free from prior causes.  In short, the Buddha possesses a form of libertarian free will.[25]

Once again, there is tension within Buddhism.  The Buddha has explained the universe in fully deterministic terms so that every effect has, at least theoretically, a detectable cause. The Buddha also wants to maintain that he and others like him are sufficiently free to break the chain of causation. However, he provides no means by which this is possible. Persons, in particular, are not a good candidate for the sort of top-down causation that is required as persons are themselves an aggregate of parts reacting according to the laws of karma and dependent-origination. The apparent existence of free will establishes another recalcitrant fact for Buddhism.

 

 

Rationality

Buddhism faces a similar problem with the idea of rationality. The Buddha taught that the world was arranged in a rational way so that causes have predictable effects; he had a kind of process metaphysics. His teaching represents a “framework of thought that hinges on the ideas that sentient experience is dependently originated and that whatever is dependently originated is conditioned, impermanent, subject to change, and lacking independent selfhood.”[26] The Buddha consistently emphasizes that reality is a rational place in his teaching on Right View.  A disciple named Kaccayana Gotta asked the Buddha, “What is right view?” The Buddha said that

This world is supported by (takes as its object) a polarity, that of existence and nonexistence. But when one sees the origination of the world as it actually is with right discernment, ‘non-existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one. When one sees the cessation of the world as it actually is with right discernment, ‘existence’ with reference to the world does not occur to one.[27]

Clearly, there is a twofold assumption here: first that reality is a fundamentally rational place and second that human persons are rational themselves so that they are able, at least potentially, to apprehend reality as it is. However, the Buddha does not provide reasons as to why reality and human persons would be arranged in just this way. Thomas Nagel suggests that the fact that humans have the ability to reason is only possible under two sorts of circumstances: either “we can reason in these ways because it is a consequence of a more primitive capacity of belief formation that had survival value when the human brain was evolving” or “the universe is intelligible to us because it and our minds were made for each other.”[28] In Chapter Two, it was shown that the sort of teleology presupposed Nagel’s second option is unlikely on the Buddhist view. Presumably, then, the Buddhist would have to accept some sort of naturalistic (naturalistic in the sense that it would arise out of the impersonal laws of dependent co-arising and karma) mechanism as the origin of rationality. But Nagel says that this answer is “laughably inadequate” and it would still not explain why reality itself is a rational place. In addition, Alvin Plantinga argues that naturalistic accounts of rationality are self-defeating; it seems likely that his argument would stand against Buddhist forms of naturalism.[29] Thus, once again, the Buddhist faces a recalcitrant fact.

Objective moral value and intrinsic human value

One final area of tension in Buddhism concerns the nature of morality and the intrinsic value of human persons. The ethics of Buddhism are “thought to be objectively true and in accordance with the nature of things.”[30] The dharma defines good and evil so that

Of paths, the eightfold is best. Of truths, the four sayings. Of qualities, dispassion. Of two-footed beings, the one with the eyes to see.  Just this is the path — there is no other — to purify vision. Follow it, and that will be Mara’s [the demon of corruption and desire]  bewilderment.[31]

This objectivity of ethics in Buddhism led Velez de Cea to conclude that Buddhism has characteristics of moral realism because “certain external actions are unwholesome or wholesome.”[32] As moral realists, Buddhists believe that “moral claims do purport to report facts and are true if they get the facts right.”[33] A statement like “murder is wrong” is objectively either true or false.

Karma serves as the foundation of moral value: “For the Buddha, the moral order of the universe is contained first and foremost in the doctrines of kamma and rebirth.”[34] Given its lack of belief in a personal God, it seems fair, then, to characterize Buddhism as “atheistic moral realists” who “affirm that objective moral values and duties do exist and are not dependent on evolution or human opinion, but they also insist that they are not grounded in God. Indeed, moral values have no further foundation. They just exist.”[35] The trouble here is that it is difficult to understand how moral values could exist independent of persons. Craig and Moreland suggest that the idea may be incoherent and that “Moral values seem to exist as properties of persons, not as mere abstractions.”[36]

If moral values can exist as an abstraction that only raises another question: how is it that an abstract moral foundation would have any relevance to human persons? Even if moral value could exist as an abstraction, it would not provide moral obligation. The only way persons could be morally obligated to a set of values is if those values were grounded in a person: “A duty is something that is owed… But something can be owed only to some person or persons. There can be no such thing as duty in isolation.”[37]

Related to the existence of objective moral value is the intrinsic worth of human beings.

The value of the human person is often taken to be self-evident in Buddhism. For example, the

Dalai Lama begins Ethics for the New Millennium by stating that the proper goal of ethics is the “great quest for happiness,” a fact that “needs no justification and is validated by the simple fact that we naturally and correctly want this.”[38] According to the Dalia Lama, the natural and correct desires of human beings define what is valuable. Such a view seems to presuppose that human beings are, in fact, incredibly valuable. Keown points out that “compassion (karuṇā) is a virtue that is of importance in all schools of Buddhism” and that the Buddha serves as a primary example of this when he decided to delay returning to nirvana in order to teach others the dharma.[39]However, if persons only exist in the conventional sense, it is difficult to see how some ultimately impersonal, dependently arising, arrangement of parts could be said to possess intrinsic value. Further, given the questionable nature of the Buddhist moral universe, conventional persons may not be able to be moral agents in the first place. Thus the existence of objective moral values and duties, as well the intrinsic value of human beings, is also a recalcitrant fact for Buddhism.

These facts, the nature of consciousness, the soul, rationality, free will, the existence of objective moral values and duties, and the intrinsic value of human persons, are features not easily explained within the Buddhist worldview. However, these truths are central and fundamental to the Christian worldview. Alvin Plantinga makes this very point:

What is it to be a person, what is it to be a human person, and how shall we think about personhood? …The first point to note is that on the Christian scheme of things, God is the premier person, the first and chief exemplar of personhood. God, furthermore, has created man in his own image; we men and women are image bearers of God, and the properties most important for an understanding of our personhood are properties we share with him. How we think about God, then, will have an immediate and direct bearing on how we think about humankind.[40]

God, as a unified, conscious, personal, rational, and ultimately valuable person, created man in his image. Man possesses these same traits, though to a different degree, because he is essentially made in the imago Dei. Given the Christian doctrines of God and man, it has been demonstrated that it can ably accommodate the necessary components of virtue: the narrative unity of a single human life and an explanation of teleology in man and the world.

Christ: The Ideal Man and Savior of Virtue

Aristotle argued that the good for man was to live a certain kind of life, a life characterized by the development and practice of the virtues. The driving question behind his ethic was, “What kind of person should I be?”  The ancient Israelites had an answer to this question: “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy (Lev. 19:2).” Their “basic moral doctrine is the imitatio Dei, to be like God as much as is humanly possible.”[41] They were to do this by following God’s commandments. Primarily, the ethics of the Hebrew Bible were deontological. They were obligated to obey God in light of who God is and what he had done for them.  While the character of God provided the standard of right actions, it did not constitute the

good for man in the Aristotelian sense. However, with the incarnation of the Son of God, the ethics of the people of God shifted: “Christ is the Word made flesh, the perfect revelation of the Father, which means that, to the Christian, God is most perfectly revealed in a person, not a set of commandments or any written or spoken words, although Jesus says he comes to fulfill the law, not to destroy it.”[42] The absolute center of Christian ethics is the person and work of Jesus Christ.

One of the key texts on Christian ethics was written by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians.

Paul’s purpose in writing was to convey that God had begun “cosmic reconciliation” through his Son, Jesus Christ.[43] Given this wide scope, Ephesians is a good place to look for what is fundamental to Christian ethics. In the first three chapters, Paul explains the role that the individual, the church, and himself has within the plan of God for the world. In chapter two, Paul explains that the individual is “saved by grace, through faith.” Salvation is not given according to an individual’s actions, but because “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  Here Paul affirms that people have both intrinsic value and a teleogy. They are intrinsically valuable because they are “a product God’s making (αὐτοῦ γάρ ἐσμεν ποίημα).” They possess a telos because they were made with a purpose: “created in Christ Jesus for good works (κτισθέντες ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ ἐπὶ ἔργοις ἀγαθοῖς). On the basis of these realities, Paul formulates his Christian ethic throughout the rest of the book. But, Ephesians 4:22-24 is especially relevant: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds;  and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”

In these verses, Paul teaches that the Christian life is a process of putting aside sinful habits and attitudes, replacing them with habits and attitudes that are reflective of who God is. This dynamic component also corresponds to Aristotle’s ethic.[44] Aristotle taught that the moral life did not consist merely in performing right actions, but also in becoming a certain kind of person through the development of character. Through this development, one can reach his telos.

The process of sanctification in Christianity is similar: “sanctification is a teleological concept. More specifically, sanctification involves the growth and transformation of oneself and one’s character toward a partially determinate picture of the human good or end.”[45] But what constitutes the telos of man in a Christian context? While not answering this question directly, Paul nevertheless provides the answer as he concludes his thought in 5:1-2: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

When Paul provides an example of the end goal of this process of sanctification, he says that Christians should “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us.” According to Paul,

Christ is the moral exemplar, the ideal man, and Christians should model their lives on the life of

Christ. The Christian answer to the Aristotelian question, “What sort of person should I be?” is

“You should be like Christ.” The gospels provide the fullest picture of the mission and life of Jesus Christ. According to Hauerwas, the key ethical feature of the life of Jesus was that he “did not direct attention to himself, but through his teaching, healings, and miracles tried to indicate the nature and immediacy of God’s kingdom.”[46]

The Aristotelian virtues were realized largely within a political context. The virtues were those goods that enabled the ideal kind of society, and individuals within that society, to flourish. Both Aristotle and Christianity agree on the social nature of human beings and that “human wellbeing and flourishing occur in various relationships where life is shared and common goods are realized.”[47] Aristotle argued that only within relationships between people of a certain class, gender, and social status can one achieve eudaimonia. Virtue was attained through relationships with people like one’s self.  However, in the Christian context, the kinds of relationships that allow moral development are the kinds of relationships found within the kingdom of God – relationships between God, the individual, and the kingdom community.

While Aristotle required a group of like individuals for moral growth, Christian ethics emphasizes the difference between God and man.[48] Moral development occurs when a person exists in right relationships, not only with other human beings, but also with God himself (Matt. 22:36-40). Jesus demonstrates how these relationships should be worked out when he “comes to initiate and make present the kingdom of God through healing of those possessed by demons, by calling disciples, telling parables, teaching the law, challenging the authorities of his day, and by being crucified at the hands of Roman and Jewish elites and raised from the grave.”[49] Jesus demonstrated that the ideal life is characterized by obedience and love for God as well as sacrificial love for other human beings, especially human beings that are considered unworthy of that sacrifice. This is why Jesus is the human paradigm of virtue; “he realized our full human potential. He resisted selfish temptations, identified with the weak and oppressed, made love his motivation and guide, responded in love to both friends and enemies, was obedient to God (even to death), and found self-fulfillment in relationship with God rather than in autonomy.”[50]

Reuschling makes an excellent point here:

Jesus himself is the exemplar of the virtuous life. It might be easy to attribute the virtuous life to Jesus based on his divinity. Yet the virtues that Jesus taught were demonstrated in the life he lived through his humanity and in his social and personal interactions. It’s Jesus’ humanity that gives us the window through which to view the quality and shape of a life that pleases God. Jesus did not just teach about the virtue of mercy. Jesus was merciful. Humility was not an abstract idea in Jesus’ teaching. Jesus himself was the model of humility. Jesus did not present theories of justice. Jesus was reconciling, securing justice and righteousness as marks of shalom.[51]

Conclusion

A Christian ethic of virtue, then, is well founded and superior to a Buddhist virtue ethic. The Christian worldview provides the necessary foundations, an account of teleology and the narrative unity of human life, while Buddhism does not. Christianity does more than merely allow for a theory of virtue ethics. It provides a rich, substantive, and attractive theory of virtue. The Christian account affirms what we all we want to affirm and know intuitively: that human life is immensely valuable and that we were meant for some incredible good. Jesus Christ provides the fully realized example of the human telos that affirms these intuitions and calls humans to the good for which they were originally intended. By contrast, the Buddha asks men to deny a substantive good and even the commonsense understanding of themselves in order to achieve the extinguishing of life:

Delight is the root of suffering and stress, that from coming-into-being there is birth, and that for what has come into being there is aging and death. Therefore, with the total ending, fading away, cessation, letting go, relinquishment of craving, the Tathagata has totally awakened to the unexcelled right self-awakening, I tell you.[52]

In stark contrast, Jesus declares, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”[53] Jesus affirms what the Buddha denies, which is they very essentials of virtue. Therefore, I invite the Buddhist virtue ethicist, who correctly wants to affirm the goodness and value of human life, to identify with Christ, who, “in his full humanity and solidarity with us, became what we were created to be: the image of God.[54] The good life does not consist in the extinguishing of it, but in entering into the Kingdom of God, conformed to the image of his Son.

[1] Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology: A Compendium and Commonplace-Book Designed for

the Use of Theological Students (Philadelphia: Griffith & Rowland Press, 1907),  52.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 251.

[4] Gen 1:26

[5] 158  Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), 532.

[6] 159 This heading is adapted from Moreland’s The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure

of Naturalism

[7] 160  James Whitehill, “Buddhism and the Virtues,” in Contemporary Buddhist Ethics, ed. Damien Keown (Richmond: Surrey: Curzon, 2000), 17.

[8] James Porter Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei: Human Persons and the Failure of Naturalism (London: University of Nottingham, 2009), 20.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 133.

[11] 164  Strong, Systematic Theology, 252.

[12] 165  Typically, vinnana is translated as consciousness. However, this translation is not consistent with what is usually meant by consciousness, “the totality of conscious states of an individual.”

[13] 166 Peter Harvey, “Theravada Philosophy of Mind and the Person,” in Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings, ed. William Edelglass and Jay Garfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 265.

[14] 167  Maha-punnama Sutta: The Great Full-moon Night Discourse, trans. Thanissaro Bhikku,

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.109.than.html

[15] Harvey, “Theravada Philosophy,” 266.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Maha-punnama Sutta: The Great Full-moon Night Discourse

[18] Ibid.

[19] Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, 120.

[20] Ibid., 115.

[21] Paccaya Sutta: Requisite Conditions, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn12/sn12.020.than.html.

[22] Kalupahana, Buddhism as Philosophy, 29.

[23] 176  Ibid., 66.

[24] Ibid., 30.

[25] 178  Moreland, The Recalcitrant Imago Dei, 50.

[26] Noa Ronkin, “Theravada Metaphysics and Ontology,” in Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings, ed. William Edelglass and Jay Garfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 14.

[27] 180  Kaccayanagotta Sutta: To Kaccayana Gotta (on Right View), trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn12/sn12.015.than.html.

[28] 181  Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 75.

[29] See Plantinga’s “Naturalism Defeated,”

http://www.calvin.edu/academic/philosophy/virtual_library/articles/plantinga_alvin/naturalism_defeated.pdf

[30] Keown, A Short Introduction, 25.

[31] Maggavagga: The Path, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/dhp/dhp.20.than.html

[32] Velez de Cea, “The Criteria of Goodness,” 134.

[33] 186  Geoff Sayre-McCord, “Moral Realism,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Stanford: Stanford University, 2007). Par 3.

[34] 187

Gowans, Buddhism, 29.

[35] 188  James Porter Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 492.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Richard Taylor, Ethics, Faith, and Reason (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985), 83.

[38] The Dalia Lama, Ethics, 5.

[39] Keown, A Short Introduction, 30.

[40] Alvin Plantinga, “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers (1984): 6.

[41] Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski, Divine Motivation Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 316.

[42] Ibid., 316.

[43] D. A. Carson,  Ephesians: New Bible commentary : 21st century edition (4th ed.) (Downers Grove, Inter-Varsity, 1994), 134.

[44] Wyndy Corbin Reuschling, Reviving Evangelical Ethics: The Promises and Pitfalls of Classic Models of Morality (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2008), 117.

[45] 198  Joseph J. Kotva, The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics (Washington: Georgetown University, 1996), 72.

[46] 199

Stanley Hauweras, “Jesus and the Social Embodiment of the Peaceable Kingdom,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham: Duke University, 2001), 117.

[47] Reuschling, Reviving Evangelical Ethics, 116.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Hauerwas, “Jesus and the Social Embodiment of the Peaceable Kingdom,” 119,

[50] Kovak, The Christian Case, 80.

[51] Reuschling, Reviving Evangelical Ethics, 123.

[52] 205 Mulapariyaya Sutta: The Root Sequence, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu,

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.001.than.html

[53] John 10:10

[54] Kovak, The Christian Case, 80.

John Hare’s God’s Command, Chapter 1, section 1.4: “God’s Command and the Scope of Obligation”

Summary by David Baggett 

God’s command produces not only moral obligation, but obligations of other kinds, like ceremonial and dietary obligations in Judaism. But with moral obligation, we might say that God’s command not only lays the obligation on us, but also gives us the scope of the obligation. This needs more explanation.

Kantian morality requires that we give equal moral status, or dignity (as opposed to price), to all human beings. But it has proved hard to justify this status. Hare will try to show that divine prescription will not merely give us a justification for the claim that we are under obligation, but it will ground the particular kind of obligation that is peculiar to morality.

Kant says in the Groundwork, in the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative, that we are to treat humanity, whether in our own person or the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, and never merely as a means. Moreover, morality is the condition under which alone a rational being can be an end in itself, since only through this is it possible to be a lawgiving member in the kingdom of ends. Hence morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of morality, is that which alone has dignity. But there are different schools of interpretation of this point. The inclusive interpretation says only persons have moral status, all human beings have moral status, and therefore all human beings are persons. But the problem is that Kant’s criterion for personality (“the susceptibility to respect for the moral law as of itself a sufficient incentive to the will”) seems to rule out some human beings, such as two-month-olds. A second group holds that, on Kant’s criterion for personhood, many human beings, including normal human infants but also adults with Alzheimer’s disease, must lack moral status. Kant, on this reading, ends up disallowing important subgroups of human beings from having moral status.

hare god's commandIf we take Kant’s language about the predisposition to the good seriously, however, we have a partial answer to this difficulty. In his biological and psychological writing, Kant seems to privilege reference to belonging to the species of human beings. He treats children as entities to whom obligations are owed, and Kant thinks we have obligations only to persons. So he seems committed to the view of humans as persons from conception. What makes something a person, then, for him, is membership in a species in which some members have this kind of second potentiality for responding to the moral law.

This helps answer some concerns about children and Alzheimer’s victims, but a difficulty remains: it’s unclear why we should give status to members of a species who do not themselves have the relevant capacities (the second potentialities), for example, infants born with severe mental retardation, if it’s the existence of just those capacities in some of its members that is supposed to make the species valuable in the particular way that moral status implies.

Within the Abrahamic faiths we do have a way to do this, starting from the premise that humans are created in the image of God. Two ways of understanding this are not successful, but there is a third that works, and that takes us back to divine command.

The passages that mention the image of God tell us very little about what this image in a human being amounts to. Speculation has been continuous and manifold, referring to our rationality, or our freedom or our capacity for dominion or our capacity for relation. The problem with all these accounts is that they are based on the capacities we can exercise in this life. This is the first approach that is unsuccessful, because it is not clear how any such capacity-based account can cover all human beings and give them the same basic dignity.

One response to this point is to look for a theistic account of the basis of human dignity not in human capacities but in God’s activity of conferring or bestowing value. This is the second way that is unsuccessful. Wolterstorff takes this route, writing that being loved by God is such a relation; being loved by God gives a human being great worth. And if God loves equally and permanently each and every creature who bears the imago dei, then the relational property of being loved by God is what we have been looking for.

Hare is unconvinced. When God created human beings, God said it was “very good.” God is portrayed here not as reflecting on the divine attachment, but as seeing something good in the created order, and especially in the human life. The analysis of human value as imparted value makes this value too transparent, as though we see through it to God’s value without any value added. A successful theistic account of human value needs to accommodate both the relation to God, who is the ultimate source of all value, and the intrinsic value of what God creates.

Hare thinks there’s an account that can meet these conditions, traceable to Karl Barth. David Kelsey puts it like this: human beings’ inherent accountability for their response to God provides the theological basis on which the peculiar dignity of human creatures is to be understood. Dignity inheres in human creatures’ concrete actuality by virtue of the fact that the triune God has directly related to them as their creator. Human dignity is thus ex-centric, grounded and centered outside human creatures.

But if dignity is centered outside human creatures, how can it be intrinsic to the human creature? The justification for ascribing value to human beings is not from our capacities, but from God’s calling us to a certain vocation. This calling is particular, different for each concrete human person. In this way the ground is not something abstract or universal, like Kant’s ‘personality’.

There is a good reply here to the charge that locating the ground of human value in God’s attachment to us makes our value extrinsic. On the conception defended in the rest of Hare’s book, there is a call by God to each one of us, a call to love God in a particular and unique way. Rev. 2:17 refers to a unique name conferred on a person—and the name gives us insight into the nature into which we are being called (the way ‘Peter’ means ‘rock’). If we think of nature, as Scotus does, as a way of loving God, then we can think of the value of each of us as residing in us, in our particular relation to God. What we have here is an intrinsic good in a slightly odd sense; not that we have value, each of us, all by ourselves (which is one thing the phrase ‘intrinsic value’ might mean), since we have our value in relation. But the value is not reducible to the valuing by someone outside us, on this account, but resides in what each of us can uniquely be in relation to God.

Is dignity based on the call of God, or in the destination towards which God is calling us? Dignity in this discussion is incommensurable worth. This is how Kant distinguishes dignity from price, such as the price of a pen that can be exchanged for something else of commensurable or equivalent worth. If we grant that God has incommensurable worth, we should grant that the love by a particular person of God (which is her destination) shares in that worth, though it will not be of the same value. And what leads her to that love (namely, God’s call) will also have value. The idea that this love is of incommensurable value is suggested by texts like, “Or what will they give in return for their life?” To answer the earlier question, we should say that it is the destination that gives the final value, but it is the call that leads to the destination, and it’s the call that we already have; we are not yet there, even though it’s already our destination.

The beginning of Section 1.3 claimed that this theist reply to the request for a justification was an indirect use of Kant’s view that our dignity resides in our potential to respond to the moral law. What kind of use of Kant is this? Kant’s view throughout his published corpus is that we should recognize our duties as God’s commands. But in Religion he undertakes a translation project as a philosophical theologian, translating historical revelation into the revelation to reason, using moral concepts. Hare doesn’t read Kant as reducing historical revelation to the revelation of reason, but to leave what he calls “biblical theology” as it is. In the translation, he proposes to talk about the Trinity in relation to the problem of our falling short of the life we ought to lead, the problem of the moral gap.

With this in mind, we can see Kant’s language about our dignity residing in our potential to respond to the moral law as a translation of more traditional language about our potential to respond to God’s command or call. Kant does not have the idea of the particularity of the call. He does, though, have the idea that what gives us our dignity is our potential to respond, and not our actual response. As mentioned before, he ties this potential to our membership in the human species. The basic idea of locating our dignity in our potential to respond to God’s call is already in Kant, and is part of his inheritance from the Lutheran catechisms of his youth. We get valuable help in answering the normative question by returning to the pre-translated version that he does not discuss, but takes for granted.

To sum up the chapter, three arguments were distinguished for the dependence of morality on religion: the argument from providence, the argument from grace, and the argument from justification. The justification of obligation, that it is obedience to God’s commands, was shown, if Scotus is right, not to rely on a basic premise that itself requires justification. The justification also does not fall prey to the Euthyphro objection, if we make a separation between the good and the obligatory in the way suggested. Finally, this justification gives us a way to ground the basic Kantian morality (that gives the same dignity to every human being) in the notion of a unique call by God to each individual to love God in a unique way.

His Truth Is Marching On: Selma’s Clarion Call

Editor’s note: This article was originally published at Christ and Pop Culture. 

By Marybeth Davis Baggett 

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

There’s a poignant scene towards the close of Ava DuVernay’s new film Selma, a scene made all the more compelling by its prescience. John Doar, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, warns Martin Luther King of credible threats against his life that await him in Montgomery, the destination of the Selma march protesting barriers to African American voter registration.

Doar implores King to drive—rather than walk—into the capital and to nix the planned speech, to minimize his exposure and prevent any possible harm. “Don’t you want to protect yourself?” Doar asks. King’s response here is telling, as it speaks of his convictions and highlights the worldview animating the film and, more importantly, the nonviolent resistance movement whose story it portrays.

I’m no different than anyone else. I want to live long and be happy, but I’ll not be focusing on what I want today. I’m focused on what God wants. We’re here for a reason, through many, many storms. But today the sun is shining, and I’m about to stand in its warmth alongside a lot of freedom-loving people who worked hard to get us here. I may not be here for all the sunny days to come, but as long as there’s light ahead for them, it’s worth it to me.

The specific threats of violence against King echo the egregious wrongs perpetrated throughout the film—the disenfranchisement of black citizens, the murders of innocent children and protesters, the brutality of local and state police against unarmed marchers. And yet the activists refused to be intimidated. “We go again,” Dr. King says after so-called Bloody Sunday—the brutal attacks by police and posse alike on the protesters during their first attempted march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The injustice on display in Selma is heart-wrenching. Few will leave the theater dry-eyed after witnessing the powerful using their positions and privilege, their weapons and words, to dehumanize others. Again and again, the protesters are at the receiving end of such abuse. They suffer indignity after indignity in exercising basic human rights—registering to vote, checking in to a hotel, protesting peacefully.
This process—resisting the impulse to respond to injustice in kind, to daily wait on the Lord to set wrongs right, to proclaim truth without fear, to stand in solidarity with the downtrodden—is hard. It is in fact beyond hard; it is impossible in our own strength.

The scenes projected on the screen provoke outrage and disgust. And yet, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by King rejected retaliation in kind, however tantalizing the temptation. After one particularly humiliating and damaging attack, several protesters plan to round up some guns, only to be reminded that the police and government force will always be much greater than theirs. “We have to win another way,” SCLC leader Andrew Young counsels.

Resisting the logic of lex talionis—an eye for an eye—seems counterintuive and countercultural at best, foolhardy at worst. Achieving victory by turning the other cheek seems impossible. Conceived in secular terms, victory over subjugation requires defeating one’s foes by force—be it legal, corporal, psychological, economic. But justice in Selma goes well beyond tactics; it points to a radical conception of reality itself.

Justice in the minds of the Selma freedom-fighters is a metaphysical fact, a real state of affairs promised and being worked out by a good God who is setting the world aright at the incalculable cost of his own son. And driven by their Christian convictions, the SCLC embraces the privilege and responsibility of participating in this process, of co-suffering with Christ.

While the scenes of outrageous abuse will infuriate viewers, the resolve of the protesters not to multiply evil through retaliation will inspire. What Marilyn Adams writes in a different context is attested to by the protesters’ courageous example: “To return horror for horror does not erase but doubles the individual’s participation in horrors—first as victim, then as the one whose injury occasions another’s prima facie ruin.”

Without granting its theological foundations, King’s campaign was worse than foolish. Knowingly placing himself at the mercy of those who would oppose with appalling force the truths he preached took courage, courage borne from the conviction that justice is the natural bent of the universe. The values of the kingdom of God turn those of this world on their head.

As Selma testifies, King understood that his real enemies weren’t government officials assassinating his character, racists and segregationists who thought themselves superior, nor even the man who would eventually kill him. No, he fought instead “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). And he knew that in the face of an all-powerful and all-loving God, these spiritual forces of darkness and entrenched systemic evils would not and could not stand.

Selma gives us a glimpse into how this redemption works in our own lives here and now; it’s terrifying, convicting, and inspiring all at once. This process—resisting the impulse to respond to injustice in kind, to daily wait on the Lord to set wrongs right, to proclaim truth without fear, to stand in solidarity with the downtrodden—is hard. It is in fact beyond hard; it is impossible in our own strength. In our personal lives we all face indignities, abuses, and wrongs—all of which Selma magnifies in horrifying detail. We can thus sympathize with King’s weariness, his call for support, his pleas for divine intervention, his temptation to give in and give up.

In the crucible of this maelstrom, we see, too, the resurrection of hope, the power of community, the hardiness of righteousness, an enactment of the gospel. We see the church at work, Christ’s body setting the world to rights little by little, through the most powerful weapons there are, and the only truly efficacious ones—faith, hope, and love.

The saga of Selma echoes its clarion call to Christ’s body today to be faithful heralds of truth and justice, to live and labor in the hope of what we still can’t see except in fleeting glimpses and furtive glances. It is a glorious and sober reminder that if Christ be raised we have seen manifest the first-fruits of a coming victory so resounding, and a glory so amazing, that it will dwarf and eclipse any and all of this world’s sufferings. Like Dr. King, let this blessed assurance inspire us to proclaim truth with boldness, battle injustice with hope, and daily carry our cross with courage.

Podcast: A Christian Perspective on Bioethics with Mark Foreman

On this week’s podcast, Dr. Mark Foreman gives a Christian perspective on some key bio-ethical issues. Dr. Foreman helps us understand how we should think about trans-humanism, fertility treatments, abortion, assisted suicide, and euthanasia. Working from a Christian and Aristotelian and natural law perspective, Dr. Foreman explains how right action results from careful consideration of human nature.

Image: “Icarus.” by Rogério Timóteo – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Icarus..jpg#/media/File:Icarus..jpg

Equality, Human Value, and the Image of God

 by Paul Rezkalla

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

These timeless words penned by the Founding Fathers declare a simple, yet profound moral maxim: All humans are equally valuable and ought to be treated as such. This has come to be known as the Principle of Equality (or Equal Treatment).

Almost all societies throughout history have accepted this truth and lived by it. Jeremy Bentham pointed out that any ethical system must begin with the presupposition that “Each to count for one and none for more than one.” We share a strong intuition that all human persons ought to be treated equally, prima facie. Interestingly enough, the pro-slavery South accepted and lived by the Principle of Equality. Even modern-day racists might accept the Principle of Equality as the most basic moral maxim.[1] A racist, however, will seek to redefine the term “human” or “person” to exclude a group of people that he deems unworthy of rights or value. Hence, the racist can happily affirm that all people are equal and ought to be treated equally, and yet disagree on who to include in the category of “people.”

Most rational people today will recognize that racism is wrong—it is evil. However, the problem arises when we seek to ground the Principle of Equality. Why is it that all people are equal? Why is it that all people are born with unalienable rights? Why is it that all people are inherently valuable as ends in and of themselves? In other words, what makes the Principle of Equality really true rather than merely a clever and effective tool to keep society in check?

As it turns out, answering this question is not as easy as it might seem. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain, who helped draft the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, said, “We agree on these rights, providing we are not asked why. With the ‘why,’ the dispute begins.”[2] Our task is to figure out some common property or set of properties that all human beings share that can bear the weight of substantiating the intrinsic value of the human person. Some potential candidates for grounding human worth and equality might be rationality, intellect, or our capacity for moral reflection and deliberation. Peter Singer argues that all three of these fail. With regard to rationality and intellect, “we can have no absolute guarantee that these abilities and capacities really are evenly distributed evenly, without regard to race or sex, among human beings.”[3] In other words, it’s implausible that all humans have the same intellectual capacity; many people are born with severe mental handicaps. Does their diminished ability to function make them less human? Of course not. Does their inability make them less valuable? Of course not. Singer goes on to say, “it is quite clear that the claim to equality does not depend on intelligence, moral capacity, physical strength, or similar matters of facts.”[4] The facts of human intellectual ability, moral capacity, strength, and the like cannot serve as the basis for human value for two reasons:

  1. These abilities are not evenly distributed among all people. Some people are strong, some are weak. Some people are bright, others are not.

  2. It is not clear what it is about these properties that makes them the grounds for inherent human worth. There is nothing in the human capacity for rational reflection that explicitly bespeaks the intrinsic worth of every human being and can serve as its ontological grounds.

Singer finally concludes his argument with a profound point and a concession, “There is no compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to satisfying their needs and interests. The principle of equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged equality among human beings: it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings.”[5] Singer looks at the different attempts to ground human worth and finds them all lacking. He concedes that there is no description of humanity that justifies or substantiates the principle of equality, and yet we still ought to treat humans as if we are all equal. For Singer, the Principle of Equality has no basis in reality, but it is a useful fiction and we should still aim to live by it.

Singer’s candid concession is honest and laudable, for on his naturalistic position, there is no such property or set of properties that seems likely to bear the weight of Singer’s challenge. What could serve as the foundation for intrinsic human value? It is at this point that the theist has the advantage. The theist can take any number of viable approaches in answering this question.

The theist can argue that human persons all possess the Imago Dei—the Image of God. God has created all people in such a way that we all carry and reflect the image of the Creator of the cosmos.
The theist can argue that human persons all possess the Imago Dei—the Image of God. God has created all people in such a way that we all carry and reflect the image of the Creator of the cosmos. Every person from the weakest to the strongest—from the least-known to the best-known—has this property. We carry the Image of God. The theist can also ground human value in God’s intentions for humanity. God has created human beings with certain ends in mind so that any disruption of those intentions is a disruption of the way God made humans and intended for us to interact. These two options, moreover, are not mutually exclusive by any means. Theists can happily affirm both of these options in answering Singer’s challenge. God, as both our Source and End, having created us and imbued us with our telos, provides the robust ontological foundation for intrinsic human worth and moral standing. These approaches take the burden off various human capacities; even when human beings suffer handicaps or lack certain faculties, their ontological status has not diminished one iota. On this view, God has created all people as inherently valuable. All people regardless of race, sex, age, ability to function, sexual orientation, or location are ends in and of themselves—priceless, precious, and loved by God.

While the naturalist can see the need for grounding the Principle of Equality, the theist can offer a viable set of solutions. A Principle of Equality that hangs suspended in mid-air is both ineffective and dangerous. A robust understanding of what ties us all together and validates the notion that all humans are intrinsically valuable is vitally important, now more than ever. It would seem that theism offers a fuller account of the descriptive and prescriptive components of the Principle of Equality than does naturalism.

For further reading on this important issue, including a systematic critique of various secular efforts to ground moral standing and intrinsic human worth, see Mark Linville’s “Moral Argument” available online here: https://appearedtoblogly.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/linville-mark-22the-moral-argument22.pdf

 

Notes:

[1]    James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy (2015), p. 79-80

[2]    Jacques Maritain, Man and the State (1951), p. 77

[3]    Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (1975), p. 4

[4]    Singer, p. 4

[5]    Singer, p. 5

 

Image:”Scaffolding & First Amendment Of The Constitution Of The United States Of America, Pennsylvania Avenue, NW (Washington, DC)” by takomabibelot. CC License. 

Ascension Day, St. Athanasius, and Theosis

 

By Ronnie Campbell

Ronnie Campbell lives in Gladys, VA, with his wife, Debbie, and three children. He is a PhD candidate in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary and he holds a BA in Youth Ministry from the Moody Bible Institute, an MAR in Biblical Studies from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, and an MA in Religious Studies from Liberty University’s School of Religion. Ronnie’s research interests include God and time, the problem of evil, the doctrine of God (Trinity), afterlife studies, and spiritual formation. In addition to co-authoring an article with Dr. David Baggett on moral apologetics in Philosophia Christi, Ronnie regularly writes articles for Fervr.net, an online magazine dedicated to youth ministry.

Christians celebrate throughout the year a number of holy days, each of which emphasizes the life and work of Jesus. Of notable importance are Christmas, the commemoration of the Son’s entrance into the world whereby he takes on our humanity through the incarnation, and Easter, a celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. In liturgical traditions from both the East and West, Christians also celebrate Ascension Day, which commemorates Jesus’s ascension to heaven.

Ascension Day is one of the earliest Christian celebrations. Tradition states that it is apostolic in origin and dates back to as early as the first century. According to Scripture, after the events of his death and resurrection, Jesus appeared to his followers over a span of forty days (Acts 1:3) and then was taken up into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father (Mk 16:20; Lk 24:53; Acts 1:9). Christians, therefore, celebrate Ascension Day on the fortieth day after Easter Sunday.

Jesus’s ascension remains an essential teaching of the Christian church. As with the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, the ascension is intricately connected to our salvation. Each should be taken as part of the seamless and inseparable work of Christ, as demonstrated in the writings of the early church.

In his defense of the incarnation, Athanasius (c. 297 C.E. – 373 C.E.), the Bishop of Alexandria, remarked that “it was our sorry case that caused the Word to come down” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 1.4). Death had dominion over us because of sin, and it was only through the incarnation of the Word that God could put an end to death and corruption. The Word, who is immortal and who is also the Father’s Son, is incapable of dying. “For this reason,” claimed Athanasius, “He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, . . . put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 2.9). Toward the latter part of his work on the incarnation, Athanasius says something startling: the Word “assumed humanity that we might become God” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 8.54). This may sound strange to our modern ears, but Athanasius’s claim would have made perfect sense among his Greek hearers. It is not that humanity becomes God in an ontological sense, as one might find in pantheism. For Athanasius and the other Greek Fathers, a clear distinction remains between God and creation. God alone is eternal, immortal, uncreated, and incorruptible. Rather, his point was that through the work of the Son of God we become a “holy race” and “partakers of the Divine Nature” (Athanasius, Letter 60, to Adalphius, 4; cf. 2 Peter 1:4). God, by his grace, shares eternal and abundant life with his creatures.

By no means was Athanasius the only church Father to emphasize this teaching that we now call “theosis” (deification). It first appeared in the work of Irenaeus, who claimed that God became incarnate through the Son in order to “win back to God that human nature (hominem) which had departed from God” (Against Heresies, 3.10.2). The doctrine of theosis places emphasis on restoration. Not only was Christ’s work for the forgiveness of sin and for our reconciliation to God; it was also for the restoration of our fallen humanity, for our healing, and to bring us into union with God. Theosis, then, refers to the full saving work of God in our lives, which ultimately culminates in our glorification and immortality.

Jesus, who is our advocate and intercessor before the Father (1 Jn 2:1), and who sympathizes with us in our suffering (Heb 2:17-18), experienced the full weight of our humanity while on earth (Heb 2:10-18; 4:15; 5:7-10). Yet, he did so without sin (1 Pet 2:22; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 1 Jn 3:5). He went before us and is now present with the Father. Because of the completed work of Christ we too may share in the full restoration of our humanity and in our future glorification (Rom 8:18). Not only do we experience forgiveness and a relationship with God, our bodies also will be raised in the likeness of Jesus’s resurrected body—mortality has been clothed with immortality (1 Cor 15:54). Jesus’s resurrection and ascension gives us the ultimate hope and assurance that God has defeated death. One day, those who are in Christ will bask in the indwelling and glorious presence of God in the renewed heavens and earth (Rom 18:21; Rev 21:1-3).

 

Mythopoeia: Evidence of the Image of God in Literature

By Josh Herring

As a young boy, I loved to read. I would spend hours at the library roaming the shelves, selecting a stack of books to read for the coming week. I became intimately familiar with Asimov, Tolkien, Lewis, Heinlein, Bruce Coville, Lloyd Alexander, and dozens of others who fit somewhere within the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I eventually migrated upstairs from the children’s section to the adult fiction wing of the library, and discovered dozens of new authors who shaped my reading tastes. Though my mother was excited I loved to read, she despaired at getting me to read serious material. “Twaddle” was her word for the kinds of reading I enjoyed. She had little love for Oz, Fantastica, Asgard, or Professor Xavier’s Home; fictional reading was good as long as it was something worthwhile. None of the stories I loved fit the bill.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate the love my mother instilled in me for reading, thinking, and debating. When she challenged my reading choices, it always made me pause and seek to justify why this was “a good book!” In hindsight, many of the books I read were terrible: the prose was inane, the plots simple, the characters flat. And yet, they peopled my childhood with excitement, stories, and worlds beyond measure. My mother and I still disagree on the value of many fantasy authors; catching her reading the latest Dresden Files book might be a sign of the Apocalypse. Some years ago, I ran across a poem in which J. R. R. articulates a great defense for all forms of literature both high and low.

Mythopoeia encapsulates Tolkien’s doctrine of sub-creation which he works out in longer form in his essay, “On Fairy Stories.” Tolkien wrote this poem after an all-night argument with C. S. Lewis in which Lewis claimed myths were worthless, because they were lies “even if breathed through silver.” Challenged by his friend, Tolkien wrote his defense in rhyme and meter.

The poem centers around two worldviews—one materialistic and scientific, the other transcendent and Platonic. Borrowing heavily from Plato’s theory of forms, Tolkien argues that

He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.

Without the form existing in the transcendent realm, Tolkien argues, no man could form an idea. He continues in his defense of myth, arguing that their creation is directly connected to the bearing of the imago dei.

Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

Tolkien argues in these lines that man, though fallen, stills bears signs of being made in the image of God. His lordship is demonstrated in the “creative act.” The implications of Tolkien’s idea are huge—far from literary work being unimportant, worthless in comparison to some other work, it demonstrates the hand of God within mankind.

Tolkien unpacks the details of his theology in “On Fairy Stories.” In essence, he contends that since God is a creator, whenever man creates something he images his Creator. Tolkien then ranks works on how well they either correspond with reality, or how convincingly they connect the reader to the “inner consistency of reality” in the secondary world.

Authors are a special kind of artist in Tolkien’s theory. They use the same medium as God (words) to create a lesser version of primary reality. Whether they realize it or not, authors we love tap into some aspect of the “single White” which is the “refracted light. . . splintered. . . to many hues. . . endlessly combined in living shapes that move from mind to mind.” When I enjoy the worlds of Brandon Sanderson, Orson Scott Card, Robert Jordan, or George R. R. Martin, I do so because they are imaging the creative work of God through their writing.

Year later, I still disagree with my mother over books. What we can come to agree on, however, is that all men are made in God’s image. When we work “as unto the Lord,” we demonstrate his handiwork within us. In world-building, authors (both Christian and non), exercise the creative faculties which cause us to remember that our world too is a secondary creation, one which will one day be joined with Primary Reality when the Lord returns and establishes the New Heavens and New Earth.

 

Image: “Tolkein in Athens” by T. Rich and L. Katon. CC License.