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Friday, August 19, 2016

Love the person, hate the sin?

Rebecca Bratten Weiss adds her voice to the many condemning the maxim, "hate the sin, love the sinner." I agree with the substance of what Rebecca is saying here, but I still can't see how this means that "hate the sin, love the sinner" is a false maxim. Quite the reverse. She has a good point that labeling people as "sinners" (as if we aren't sinners ourselves) is a problem, so we could rephrase it as "hate the sin, love the person." C. S. Lewis makes the persuasive point that we all take precisely this attitude to ourselves. We hate our own sins because we love ourselves and desire to be free from them. Charity is extending that same attitude to others.
I don't see any way to reject the principle found in that much-reviled maxim without doing exactly what Rebecca so eloquently condemns in this excellent post. If you really think that you can't draw lines between people and their sins, then, for instance, you either have to tolerate racism or hate racists. I see no other option. I find that usually when people attack the maxim they are thinking of things that they don't consider to be evil at all--usually homosexuality. They are arguing that no one can hold to traditional Christian morality on sexual matters without condemning the person who engages in "sinful" acts. But to test the maxim we should apply it to acts that everyone considers evil, like rape. And here the point under dispute is surely not whether we should hate rape, but whether we should love Brock Turner. In other words, rejecting the principle "hate the sin, love the person who commits the sin" will not lead to more charity, but to less. It will also not lead, as many conservatives fear, to a mushy "love everybody and don't call out sin" attitude. It will lead--and demonstrably is leading--to shrill denunciation of anyone associated with things you really consider evil, with absolutely no sense that you are supposed to love and respect the person who is in the grip of evil.
The blogger Rebecca is citing in this piece, Susan Cottrell, traces the maxim to Gandhi (she also notes that the basic principle originally comes from Augustine, but both she and Rebecca don't really engage with that, which I wish they did). She argues that since Gandhi says that the maxim is easy to understand but is rarely practiced, therefore he's really saying that it's impossible. But that's not what he's saying at all. He's saying that hating sin while loving the sinner is hard and should be done, not that it's impossible and thus not worth trying. The claim that Jesus didn't teach hate the sin and love the sinner is also rather strange, since the argument is simply that Jesus taught that we should love everyone. But that's the very point of the maxim. According to traditional Christian theology, sin is a privation--something that corrupts and destroys the creatures of God, to quote the 1979 BCP's baptismal vows. To "hate sin" is precisely to love the person who is being corrupted and destroyed by sin.
Cottrell, like many people who criticize "hate the sin, love the sinner," is especially concerned with the way it's used against gay people. I see why, as a short-term strategy, this could be an effective way for progressive Christians to make their point. But as I pointed out above, it has devastating larger implications for how we respond to things that everyone really agrees are evil and destructive. And, of course, Cottrell and other progressive Christians don't think same-sex sexual acts are sinful anyway. Surely the more effective approach, then, would be to show that the maxim doesn't apply in this instance, precisely because it does reflect a valid principle with regard to things that are truly sinful. The strongest argument on the progressive side, it seems to me, is precisely that it's hard to see how one can "hate the sin and love the sinner" in this instance, both because the "sin" is so intertwined with a person's identity (at least in our culture) and because it's hard to see how consensual, monogamous sexual relationships between people of the same sex actually "corrupt and destroy the creatures of God."
I entirely agree that the phrase has become a cliche and is generally used to legitimize the very behavior that it supposedly rules out. And beyond Rebecca's point about implying that only some (other) people are sinners, I can see how putting "hate the sin" first can be harmful, because it could imply that this is the more important priority. As Rebecca points out, we can "walk away from the sinner" but we can't simply "walk away" from sin. Hence, precisely because of our own sinfulness, we will inevitably twist "hate the sin, love the sinner" into "walk away from sinners whose sins happen to annoy us, while giving lip service to love.
Perhaps the underlying problem is our need to deal with tricky moral situations with a cliche. So by all means, let's give up on the cliche. Let's stop saying "hate the sin, love the sinner." But let's try harder to follow the ancient Christian theological principle that underlies the cliche--that we should oppose that which destroys God's creation precisely out of love. The only alternative to this is ceasing to love.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Intelligent Design, part 2

My friend Jonathan Huddleston (my most reliably acute critic) pointed out that I really didn't do enough to substantiate the thesis in my last post. In particular, Jonathan asked why God couldn't be the creator in the traditional, orthodox sense (the one who causes all things to be, including the processes of nature) while also "tinkering" (the term I used in my earlier post) by setting up particular structures in the way suggested by ID theorists.

It's a good caveat. Of course there's no reason God couldn't do both. Theologically, my objection to ID is not so much the claim that God created "irreducibly complex" structures that couldn't have evolved naturally, but rather the confusion of this kind of "intelligent design" with the concept of creation. This confusion is demonstrated every time someone says, "but doesn't anyone who believes in God as creator believe in intelligent design?" 

Either ID is a scientific, not a theological paradigm, or it's bad theology. That was how I framed the title of my previous post, but I should have made it clearer in the body of the text. If ID is a purely scientific claim, then of course it's not bad theology. And of course believing in a God who can intervene supernaturally in creation keeps open the possibility that God might so intervene to establish these specific structures.

But I would still argue that an orthodox doctrine of creation is a reason to be slow to accept such scientific claims. That is to say, if most scientists agreed that ID was correct, I'd have little problem adapting my theology to deal with it. But my theology does not make me more likely to think it's correct, except in the sense that of course I believe God is capable of doing this. 

Traditionally, when God acts in creation in a way not accounted for by the normal "laws of nature," we call it a miracle. And miracles are typically a response to the sin and brokenness that have marred creation. To be sure, there is a minority tradition in Christianity holding that the greatest miracle of all, the Incarnation, would have happened even in the absence of the Fall. And that tradition may well be correct. But in that case the Incarnation would be an exception--and it's also possible that in an unfallen world it would not seem like a "miracle," inasmuch as we would see how all the rhythms of creation are attuned to the divine presence and point toward the ultimate union of Creator and creation in Christ.

I believe, like Greg Boyd (and following a hint in C. S. Lewis), that creation as we know it has been marred before humans entered the picture. (To be clear: I don't go as far as Boyd, and in my discussion of his "warfare theology" I rather emphasized my disagreements--but I am persuaded by the basic thesis that the world as we know it bears the mark of demonic activity as well as of God's good purposes.) It might be that God needed to intervene in response to the marring of creation, and that ID theorists are picking up on signs of that intervention. 

But most adherents of ID support it because they believe it meshes with Christian belief better than a more conventional evolutionary paradigm does. (This is one of the reasons why many people have trouble taking it seriously as science, although I don't think it's a fatal objection. It might be that only people with religious reasons to question the dominant paradigm are open to alternatives, and that the alternative will turn out in the end to be true. I think this is unlikely, but it's possible.) That's the position I'm arguing against. In fact, if anything ID theory tends to confuse people about what creation is, and (conversely) appeal to people who already have a less than orthodox view of God and creation. 

So I repeat my original thesis: ID is either not theology at all, or it's bad theology. If it's simply a claim about certain empirical phenomena, then it's not theology. The phenomena might be signs of divine action within creation, and certainly an orthodox theology could accommodate this kind of "divine intervention" if that's what the evidence pointed to.

But if ID is taken to be, itself, evidence of God the creator, then the creator it points to is something less than the God of orthodox Christianity. And the entire conversation has further obscured the key claim of orthodox Christianity that natural processes are themselves signs of God's creative power.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Why Intelligent Design is not (good) theology

One of the most common accusations against Intelligent Design theory is that, while claiming to be science, it is really theology. Usually the people making this accusation see "science" as a good thing and "theology" as a bad thing, so they are effectively trying to discredit ID by associating it with what they see as a pointless and discredited intellectual endeavor. Also, of course, if it's theology it doesn't belong in science class in a public school.

I think that this is a misunderstanding of ID (also of theology). Intelligent Design, at least as defined by its major proponents such as Michael Behe and William Dembski, is the view that there are specific structures (primarily at the cellular/microscopic level) in living things that cannot be accounted for by Neo-Darwinian mechanisms, and which therefore point to the intervention of an intelligent being in the development of life. ID does not require disbelief in evolution in the sense of common ancestry, though of course many creationists (i.e., people who deny evolution) find ID congenial which has led to a common perception that ID is "soft creationism." Behe, I believe, accepts evolution in the sense of common ancestry. Dembski is more skeptical of it. But either way, ID is fundamentally a specific claim about particular mechanisms that allegedly can't be explained by Neo-Darwinian theory.

ID is not the same thing as the philosophical "argument from design" associated with William Paley, though it has affinities with it. And neither ID nor Paley's argument is the same thing as Aquinas' Fifth Way, although the latter is sometimes called the "earliest philosophically rigorous version of the design argument". ID rests on the claim that certain specific structures cannot be accounted for by natural explanations. Aquinas' Fifth Way, like his other arguments for God's existence, rests on the regularity of natural laws, not on anomalous features that can't be explained by them. Aquinas' view is further distinguished from Paley's version of the argument for design (as Edward Feser explains) by the fact that Aquinas is speaking of the natural properties of created things, while Paley equates them to constructed artifacts. Paley's version of a philosophical "argument from design" provides the framework for ID. But nonetheless, it is philosophy or philosophical theology, while ID is not.

ID advocates are often mocked for their apparently dishonest claim that the "designer" might not be what Christians mean by God. Clearly few if any ID advocates think that this is a realistic possibility. But they are making the point as a formal way of distinguishing between the scientific claims of ID and the philosophical religious beliefs that ID advocates hold. According to proponents of ID, science can only tell us that there are certain phenomena best explained by an intelligent designer. Theology and philosophy tell us that this designer is likely to be God. To ignore this distinction is to fail to deal with ID on its own terms.

From the standpoint of "orthodox" science ID is clearly bad science. In the terms formulated by Imre Lakatos, it is a "degenerative" rather than a "progressive" research program. That is to say, it doesn't provide any new, productive insights into the world, but simply interprets the existing evidence in a defensive manner. At least that's how it seems to me, and clearly that's what most scientists think. But perhaps they're wrong. Perhaps Lakatos' criteria are inadequate (I'm more influenced by Kuhn, myself, though from the descriptions I've read it seems to me that Lakatos may provide some needed precision to Kuhn's thesis). Perhaps ID hasn't really had a chance to be productive yet because it's under such constant attack.

Whatever its scientific credentials or lack thereof, the fact remains that ID is not theology. Or if it is theology, it is a very bad form of natural theology which makes God a kind of tinkerer rather than a true Creator.