SHORT AND SWEET – 13

‘Are you having great sex with your wife/husband nowadays?’

I wonder how you’d react if someone asked you a question like this after church one Sunday. And imagine if they wanted details. I doubt if you’d start sharing.

In Britain, we’re relatively private, so we don’t ask questions like this. Actually, I’m not sure I know of any culture where people make inquiries of this sort. However, there’s another question we never, ever ask and it’s this one:

‘Would you mind sending me your bank statements for the past year?’

When you think about it, your financial affairs are probably just as private as your sex life. You don’t want people knowing how you spend your money. Why is that?

Just as the question about sex focuses on the most private details of how you use your body, your financial data tells them something far more important.

It tells them about your soul. Who you really are.

Your spending, your giving, your priorities, your values, they’re all to be found in your bank statement. And who wants to give away that kind of information?

So be careful of judging people based on appearances. You have no idea how much they are giving away, or even what their expenses are, let alone their income or savings.

Second, bank statements don’t lie. If you’re ready to be challenged by God, then get on your knees with a Bible in one hand and your bank statement in the other.

And please don’t worry. If I see you in church, I won’t be asking you about your income.

Or your sex life. Promise!

SHORT AND SWEET – 12

Authority.

I have a love/hate relationship with this word. Instinctively I dislike it intensely. I misbehaved at school. Rather a lot. I couldn’t stand being told what to do. I wasn’t disrespectful, but I lived in my own world and authority figures cramped my style.

And yet, the collapse of authority in our society has been a catastrophe. Along with the loss of authority is the loss of deference. Everyone is open to abuse. Even the queen of England is taunted at times. It’s soul-destroying.

We so love democracy that we erroneously believe that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. It isn’t. We may all have opinions but we should respect those who simply know more than we do. Sorry if you thought that simply having an opinion was sufficient to challenge the truly wise in our world.

So I resist authority while simultaneously acknowledging how important it is. It is good to submit to and learn from wise teachers. It is right that we see our own deficiencies, our own ignorance, so that we can grow. Authority figures help us do this.

And of course, most important of all, each day I bow before the Ultimate Authority Figure. I willingly and without resistance, seek to follow the only authority figure who completely warrants my worship and devotion.

Just need to control that ‘naughty boy’ inside, who doesn’t want to do what he’s told!

Have a great day.

SHORT AND SWEET – 11

Apart from watching The Wizard of Oz, ever met a straw man? Straw man is code in discussion forums for ‘an argument I’m not making.’ You struggle to make progress against the actual argument, so you mischaracterize your opponent’s argument, making it easier to dismantle.

Presumably because a straw man collapses so easily. Poof! It’s gone.

Here’s one you’ll hear a lot:

We secular humanists, we can be good too! You high-and-mighty religious people, you claim we can’t be good. That’s so unfair!

Behold the straw man.

So-called religious people – that is a perjorative very often, for Christians – never claim that secular people can’t be good people. That’s the straw man. Poof! Down he falls.

The argument we make is this:

Secularism cannot give a sound basis for ‘the good.’ There’s nothing here about a secular person not being virtuous or anything of the sort. It’s a philosophical argument, and it takes deep thinking to tease it out.

Doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian or secular, don’t mischaracterize your opponent. It’s wrong and misleading. Christians do it too. So, be careful to understand what your opponent is saying, so you can answer. How else will you be faithful to 1 Peter 3.15 if you’re not listening properly?

Have a great day.

SHORT AND SWEET – 10

So why doesn’t objectivity provide the basis for morality? Isn’t it clear what is good and what is bad? Well, no it isn’t. The reason is found in the meaning of two words:

Descriptive.

Prescriptive.

Descriptive means the act of describing. You can describe as much as you like and what you have is information. How things are. Science is great for this. It tells us all kinds of things about our world.

Prescriptive means the act of expressing ‘how things should be.’ Politics is the art of trying to turn the world into the kind we think it ‘should be.’ Ethics is the discipline of determining how we ‘should behave.’

Descriptive activities, like science, tell us ‘what is.’ Prescriptive statements tell us our desires and our moral sensibilities.

From ‘what is’ to ‘what ought to be.’ Now, that is a vast chasm. Can it be bridged? I think it can.

But you need some imagination. Join me next week for an adventure.

SHORT AND SWEET – 9

Yesterday, I noted that prominent atheist Sam Harris doesn’t believe in free will. He follows the majority view among science writers. He’s a neuro-scientist.

His answer? Science can give us morals. No kidding. That’s his answer. Essentially, it’s this. Science describes the world. It is by far the best (and possibly only) source of knowledge that we have, so they argue.

It is not hard to come up with a description of human flourishing. Not subjective, but objective. Then, all we have to do, is use science to show us how to get there. Eg. A child dying of malnutrition in Africa is a worse state of affairs than a healthy child attending school in the West, where good parenting and positive social interaction and learning lead to a happy life. We just have to figure out – using science – how to increase the latter while decreasing the former.

Sounds appealing, doesn’t it? I think he’s right.

Half right. The half he’s right about is this: The world can be described objectively. In other words, there is such a thing as Truth. We can discover and evaluate, through a whole variety of disciplines, what leads to beneficial results for ourselves and our children.

But then we come to that word ‘moral.’ Objectivity, I’m afraid, doesn’t lead to morality.

Tomorrow, some thoughts on why that is.

SHORT AND SWEET – 8

Most atheists don’t believe in free will. Did you know that? In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris writes,

From the perspective of your conscious mind, you are no more responsible for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world. 

Why is this? Because in a purely physical world, every event can only be caused by physical stuff. There’s no room for a ‘ghost in the machine.’ There is only the machine, whirring away. Consciousness is, therefore, something for which they have no real explanation. It just is. And free will is an illusion.

So far, so good. Your assumptions lead you to believe that free will doesn’t exist. Be my guest. But be bold, Sam, Richard D and Steven P. Follow the logic wherever it leads. Surely, no free will means no responsibility for our actions, right? Well, how could we be responsible if we’re not responsible for what we think?

Yet, suddenly, cold feet appear. Sam Harris certainly doesn’t want to exonerate those who commit hideous crimes, does he? No, he doesn’t. No one wants to look like they don’t believe in morality.

Tomorrow, his answer, which will make your head spin.

SHORT AND SWEET – 5

You can’t buy God. That’s religion, isn’t it? Paying for God’s approval. Good behavior that earns God’s favour and love. Or let’s face it, a much baser assumption, you’ll get what you want. The prosperity gospel. Ugh.

But you can’t download God either.

This is a truth we struggle to cope with. Really? Stay with me.

Almost everything we do nowadays is done through the medium of the computer. All our shopping. Our social interaction. It’s the source of our news, our entertainment, our information, even our wisdom. It’s a tool so powerful, surely it should be possible to download the Creator himself.

But of course, that’s not possible. Downloading is initiated and controlled by the user. Genesis 3 reveals that we have an innate desire to be God, to be in control, the ultimate master of our own destinies. And we know how Genesis 3 ends.

You can’t download God because you can’t control him. He is unfathomable and like the wind, he blows who knows where. The desire to download God is like wishing you could herd cats, lasso the moon, make a woman love you.

You can’t. Because ultimately you’re not in control.

Time, instead, for a little faith.

SHORT AND SWEET – 3

‘You’re imposing your morality on me.’

Two responses. First, ‘Well, yes, of course, because morality is supposed to apply to all of us. It’s about how we should behave. All of us. It’s wrong to mistreat children. Yes, you over there. And me too. So, yes, I think some behaviours are right and some are wrong. Probably a little old-fashioned for our culture, but there you go.’ Pause.

‘But don’t you think the same? Don’t you also hold certain moral views? What privileges your views over mine? And when you accuse me of ‘imposing mine,’ isn’t that exactly what you’re doing to me? Rejecting my views because they conflict with yours?

Why is this attitude so common? Partly because it’s assumed that there’s actually an over-arching position of neutrality from which all views can be assessed and judged. From the outside. But that isn’t true. We’re all on the inside. The view is called the Myth of the Neutral Centre. Not a very sexy title, but true.

So, when you think I’m imposing my morality, methinks a little humility and clear-thinking might be in order.

And I haven’t even addressed assumptions. More soon on that.

SHORT AND SWEET – 2

What drives your moral judgements? Yesterday I suggested heart and not head. Here’s an example to get you started. It’s a story about ‘gendering’ in Manchester. Yes, it’s about toilets. My apologies.

Gendering? Where did this word come from? And it’s transitive. Oh my gosh, it’s actually transitive! You are gendering me! How dare you? There are few things more emotive than the charge ‘don’t gender me!’ Even with this horrible use of language. Forget reason, this is all emotion.

But it’s really postmodernism gone completely mad. There is no longer male and female. We are what we choose to be and apparently, it’s fluid. You want to cause massive confusion in a young person’s life, tell him/her that genitalia are no indicator of gender. Really. You can make it up as you go along.

I’m thinking three Scriptures, just for some enlightenment.

Male and female he created them. Gen. 1

For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God. Gen 3

In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit. Judges 21 

I hope you don’t think I’m ‘imposing my religion on you.’

That hot chestnut I’ll address tomorrow.

Free . . . but don’t hurt others

It has various names and tag lines. Live and let live. That’s probably the most popular slogan. It’s also called libertarian freedom. I’m referring to Western culture’s prevailing philosophy, the one which governs and underpins Western democracy and most of our political engagement.

Do what you want, but don’t hurt others.

There it is. In all its glory. It dominates the thinking of the vast majority of social commentators, those who write Leaders in our major newspapers, those who represent the arts and culture. In the past, in a nominally Christian country, we affirmed the value of a particular religion: Christianity. No longer. Now we’re multi-cultural; we’re tolerant. We endorse no one philosophy, with the exception . . ahem . . . of evolutionary biology (yes, it is a philosophy), which we embrace with a faith-like grip. More on that another time.

But back to libertarian freedom.

First, the positive. When you think about it, it sounds pretty good. What’s not to like? Freedom to make my own moral choices – I like that. Don’t hurt others – hard to see a problem there. Superficially, there is much to commend this philosophy. Indeed, it provides Christians in the West with the liberty to share the gospel, meet together regularly, heal on the street, if we so choose. Without it, great suffering ensues. Three cheers for libertarian freedom!

So, yes, freedom – which includes both free speech and free association – are goods which should be recognized. And the ‘don’t hurt people’ is simply a no-brainer.

Actually, hold your horses just for a moment. ‘Not hurting people’ sounds good but when you think about it, life just isn’t that simple. The fact is that avoiding hurting people, which seems like a noble goal, also turns out to be unattainable. Not only that, it’s undesirable. In disciplining my children, I certainly do wish them to suffer, to the extent that they must learn the consequences of their poor choices. And I’m fine with criminals paying for their crimes in prison. In addition, I hurt people every time I drive my car. To a limited extent.

Pain, it turns out, isn’t a universal bad to be avoided at all costs; there are nuances to its application.

But there is a deeper problem.

When you look more closely, the philosophy is so empty, it’s almost hardly there at all. Just saying, ‘I want to be free to live as I choose’ is a morally vacuous thing to state. It acknowledges no familial or societal obligations whatsoever. It is, then, entirely focused on the individual with no recognition of communal responsibilities. It might work for a single-handed sailor, but it doesn’t say enough to help us live together and build a better world. We need a lot more than this.

Second, libertarian freedom, I think, is a fig leaf to cover up a form of nihilism which I hear often on the BBC. You see, we’re world class at using our freedom to run people down, at stating what we don’t like and don’t approve of, but we’re wimps when it comes to saying what we actually believe in. In fact, sometimes it seems as though we live by this philosophy: The one thing we believe in and hold to is the belief that there’s nothing to believe in. This is the result of self-confident atheism, which has begun to stretch its wings in our culture. Just listen to 6.30pm comedy on Radio Four, especially the Now Show, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

Let me return to the emptiness of live and let live. Just stating ‘I’m free’ is like a sign outside your house stating, ‘Keep Out!’ It doesn’t tell me anything about what’s going on in the house at all. And therefore, it’s not a philosophy which is fit for purpose in promoting actual values; values, I might add which are essential to the building of healthy families and local communities.

You like serving the poor? Why? Inside your little libertarian vacuum, the only available answer is ‘because I choose to do it.’ Any more and now you’re venturing further than ‘live and let live.’ The moment you say, ‘because I believe it’s a moral duty’ or ‘because my religion teaches that it’s a good and right thing to do’ you’re no longer basing your behaviour on libertarian freedom. Now you’re building real foundations.

The bubble of freedom may give you the oxygen to serve the poor, but it will never ground and justify the behaviour itself. For that, you need more. A lot more.

In the past, religion informed public policy. It provided real, firm, gritty, justification for how to behave individually and communally. No longer. But don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not advocating a return to the bad old days of Victorian heavy-handed state-religion-imposed morality. Not at all. I like freedom of religion. But Freedom – Capital F – by itself isn’t up to the job of telling us how to live. It’s too flimsy.

But don’t we have Natural Law?

So you want to base a whole-life philosophy on Natural Law? Be my guest. Well done, John Locke. Your problem is that our current account of human origins is constantly undermining the project. Why should a society affirm particular values merely because we’ve ‘evolved’ in a particular way. No, I’m afraid Natural Law – as currently proposed – doesn’t do the job.

In my opinion, without God, you’re just flapping about in the air. Yes, you’re free up there to do whatever you want, but you can’t tell me why I should care for others, value life, give to charity, etc. When you do, you’re just trumpeting your own subjectivity. And simply because you happen to ride the current zeitgeist – that, I’m afraid, does not amount to rational justification.

In the end, I’m with Dostoevsky, who wrote, Without God, everything is permitted. You want to know the number one objection that Muslims have to Western culture? (not foreign policy – that’s different) Its permissiveness. On the back of Freedom, we have imported pornography, the sex trade and ever increasing levels of nudity. Be free but don’t hurt others. Who says people aren’t getting hurt? But I’m straying from my subject.

To continue . . .

To build a society, you need foundations. And foundations, to hold up an entire society, well, they need to be immensely strong. They need to be solid.

Christianity may have been misused and misrepresented over the ages, but at its heart, it has always recognized and championed moral virtues. Not to mention promoting compassion for the poor. Under broadly ‘Christian values,’ at least when people misbehaved, they knew they were misbehaving and that makes a huge difference. A sinner who doesn’t call himself a sinner is a scary thing. And we’re pretty close to that now.

So I affirm that Christian belief is substantial and solid.

Faith, hope and love are not empty values, they’re meaty. They provide a positive, ‘planted flag’ way to live. Freedom, for all its virtues (and yes, there are many without which we are doomed), well, it can never tell humanity how to live well.

You’ve got to believe in something solid for that.

And there’s no one with greater solidity than the man, Jesus of Nazareth. He’s the only person who is of sufficient stature to guide my behaviour and inform my moral choices. To quote C.S. Lewis, he may not be safe, but he is good and that’s enough for me.

© Richard Collins 2015