Friday, June 29, 2012


“Original sin is the one Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable.”
(attributed to G. K. Chesterton) 

Last week a friend sent me the following e-mail:

I heard on the radio this morning that Sandusky was sentenced to life in prison. In the background I could hear people cheering and was reminded of your post concerning people cheering for the number of executions in Texas. In this case, I suspect that the cheering crowd was comprised mostly of people on the left of the political spectrum, or at least a good mix of both.

I will accept that he is guilty and that the punishment is appropriate, but I feel no elation in any of this. Why do you think we are so 'bloodthirsty'? I don't think the Bible indicates we should act this way (I know you will correct me if I am wrong). Should the church be taking a stand on this behavior?”

I replied that I agree with his comments, but had never really thought about whether the church should “be taking a stand” and said I’d “think on this one awhile.”

I also mentioned that I had published a few posts on these topics before:  VENGEANCE, WHOSE PREROGATIVE? and BLOODLUST?.

There is more to this matter, however, than simply seeing this sort of behavior as an ethical problem, to be addressed as a series of “you oughts” and “you ought-nots.”  I believe it’s a symptom of our lack of understanding of the above mentioned doctrine.  In fact, I believe this neglect lies behind much of our twisted thinking today.

The doctrine of Original Sin along with its sister doctrine of Total Depravity is a fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith.  Its basis is found in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments.  It is found in some form in nearly every creed or doctrinal statement of nearly every denomination. (See:  WHAT HAPPENED? and GOOD GUYS AND BAD GUYS).

This doctrine teaches that the whole human race is in some way corrupt, that we have inherited this corruption from our ancestors.  It means that we are sinners by birth and sinners by practice.  It does not mean that everyone’s sins are the same as everyone else’s.  But it does imply, I believe, that we are all capable of evil acts.

Our modern thinking rejects this teaching.  Today we like to think in the categories of pop psychology and pop theology.  We like to think that our greatest need is more self-esteem.  We have TV preachers telling us that God is some sort of Cosmic Grandpa who just wants us to be happy.  We have secular gurus telling us similar tales.  We’re not so bad.  We’re nice.  God’s nice.  He just wants us to be happy

I realize that I am oversimplifying.  Forgive me.  But this doctrine is, in the minds of many, something to be relegated to the Dark Ages.  It doesn’t dovetail well with the doctrine of progress.  It contradicts the idea that “every day in every way we’re getting better and better.

Nor does it fit well with the doctrine of a glorious past, of a Christian America.  It contradicts the idea that everything is getting worse and worse and that we can somehow restore this glorious past whether by political action or evangelism.

And this doctrine contradicts our concept of “the other,” which we’re told has been around since prehistoric times – the belief that there are good guys and bad guys; and, of course, the other guys are always the bad.

There are, of course, many who claim to accept this doctrine as true, who recognize that the human race is made up of sinners.  I would place myself in this group.  But if we really
believe it, do our actions demonstrate that we do?

·        When Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse of boys, we cheered.
·        When the reports came in about the death of Osama Bin Laden, we cheered.
·        When the reports came in about Saddam Hussein, we cheered.
·        When the governor of Texas was questioned about the fact that more people have been executed under his watch than under any other governor in modern history, we cheered.

The list could go on ad nauseam.

Why do we cheer?

We would, I am sure, give our own particular reasons for the cheering.  Most of them could be boiled down to the fact that we feel these persons committed despicable acts and deserved whatever punishment was meted out to them.  Justice is being done.  But I also suspect it is because we know that we would never do such things.

Or would we?

We might say that we’ve never done anything like the horrible things these persons have done.  We’ve never even been tempted to.  I’ve never raped young boys, blown up buildings, gassed my own people.  I’ve never even been tempted to.  So it’s easy to condemn those who have done such things.

But I have lusted.  I have probably been angry enough to kill someone.  We all have!  And Jesus says that to do it in my mind is the same as doing it in my actions.  And many of those who cheer have committed these things in more than just their minds.

I suspect that the main reason for our cheering, for our “blood-thirstiness” is that we are unable to see ourselves in those we condemn.  Though we may not have committed these atrocities, we are capable of similar – if not the same – acts.  We don’t understand the doctrine of original sin.

Yes, some acts are more sinful than others, some, like those of the people listed, are downright evil.  But what am I capable of?

When the New Testament lists the sins that people are guilty of and capable of, it includes not just the horrible acts, but even those we may feel are not so bad.   And these lists are given, not so that we can condemn any and all whom we find in the lists, but so that we can see our need for the Savior.

“… all sinned and are coming short of the glory of God, being justified by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23, 24).

If we don’t understand sin we’ll never understand grace!  Christ died on the cross for the sins of people like Jerry Sandusky, Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, etc.  He died for my sins.  Who am I to cheer over the justice they receive?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


In my previous post I reviewed the book, The Republican Brain by Chris Mooney.  I attempted to give a reasonable honest evaluation, but I confessed that I have shared the author’s expressed frustrations.  I also stated that “this book has helped me in unexpected and unintended way in dealing with these frustrations.”  I said of this a number of times, “more later.”

Well, this is the “later”!

There were times in reading the book that I almost came to tears.  I kept telling Uni, “I feel like this guy has got inside my brain” and “now I understand why I think the way I do!”

No, I don’t have a “Republican Brain.”  Mooney spends much time analyzing more than that.  Mainly he attempts to show the differences between the liberal and the conservative brains.  He gives characteristics of both kinds of brain, which I tried to list on the previous post.  Sherry gave some good definitions in her comment:  “it was always my understanding that the original meanings of liberal & conservative, before the religious or political connotations, had to do with how we accept new ideas which seems to be the bulk of what he's saying.
liberal: broad-minded; especially not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms
conservative: traditional; tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions; marked by moderation or caution.”

Yes, it’s that clear.  All the studies reinforce these definitions.

And I am a liberal.  I can’t help it!  According to the studies, my brain is wired that way.  I apparently was born with these characteristics and they were there long before I made any political commitments.  God made me this way!  Yes, it’s true that external circumstances have and have had much to do with my thinking, my political, religious and other views, but it is the mind I was born with that interacted with my circumstances and formed these views.

As far back as I can remember I have thought differently and never knew why I did so.  I questioned my teachers and was suspicious of authority.  All through elementary school, high school, college and seminary (grad school) I frequently found myself out of step.  And what bothered me most was that most of my contemporaries hadn’t any problems with the questions that troubled me.

It seems that the teachers and professors that I clashed with were those that other students loved, while the ones I loved were often thought of as second rate.  I even discovered this of my students when I taught in college.

I have often found myself in conflict with persons with whom I thought I shared many basic views and opinions.  I have been called a contrarian, a non-conformist, a radical, a liberal or just plain ignorant.  I’ve had my faith called into question.  I can’t count the times I’ve been told that I “have trouble with authority.”  And Mooney’s book has helped me understand both myself and those with whom I clash.  I am a liberal.  And apparently most of those I associate with are conservatives.

When I read a book (see:  BOOKS) or an article (or am given any new information), I absorb it, I take it in.  In a sense, I “suspend disbelief.”  I want to know the writer’s thinking.  I question his or her assertions.  I compare them with my existing beliefs and opinions.  Some of the assertions I accept, some I integrate, some I reject, some I allow to correct me and some I “suspend” without accepting or rejecting.  And much of this happens without my necessarily being conscious of it.  According to the definitions and characteristics mentioned in my previous post, this is the way a liberal thinks!

I am “open to experience”; I “hold my views tentatively”; I am “tolerant of uncertainty”’ I am “nuanced in my thinking.”  It’s not that I make any effort to think this way – I just do!  [And it’s taken me a lifetime to learn to accept that I am this way and be comfortable with who I am.]

But many of those with whom I dialogue (or attempt to) seem to have an automatic reject button.  New information is examined as to whether it comports with their currently held beliefs.  If not, it is not only rejected, there is an immediate attempt to refute it.  These people are “less open to experience”; they are “authoritarian”; the “need to defend their beliefs strongly.”  Again, they just think this way – they are conservatives.  They exercise “motivated reasoning.”

I recognize that most of us do not fit cleanly and clearly into these categories.  In fact, most of us could be considered conservatives at some times and liberals at others.  We employ the characteristics of the other group at times.  I believe that liberals are especially prone to become conservatives when they are absolutely convinced of their position.   After all, as some wise person warned in the past, we mustn’t keep our minds so open that everything falls out.

I would even go so far as to say that there are many in the liberal “camp,” especially politically – those who hold positions usually attributed to liberals – who are actually psychologically conservatives and demonstrate all the characteristics usually attributed to conservatives.  Their motivated reasoning outdoes that of those who disagree with them.  Then, too, there are those in the conservative camp who demonstrate liberal thinking.

So, while according to the psychological studies, I have a liberal brain, when it comes to my faith in Christ and my acceptance of the Scriptures, I am a conservative.  Psychological studies have no way of accounting for the work of the Spirit of God (WHY DO I BELIEVE?).

Yet, at the same time I find myself questioning many of the cherished beliefs of my conservative Christian friends.  In fact, my certainty of the truthfulness of Scripture works with my liberal brain when I apply Scriptural truth to those beliefs.  And many of my beliefs are changing.  My conservative friends may feel revulsion when I say that my thoughts are evolving, but they are.  I hope they keep evolving.   And I pray that they are in the direction of conformity to Christ.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate!”
The Captain in Cool Hand Luke

My latest “gotta-read” book was by Chris Mooney, entitled:  The Republican Brain:  The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality.  As soon as I saw it on Amazon, I knew that this was something I HAD to read.  I had read some material by Mooney before (DON’T CONFUSE ME WITH THE FACTS), was intrigued by the assertions he made and was eager for more.

Mooney is a journalist who has been published quite widely.  His specialty is science reporting, even though he clearly claims that he himself is not a scientist.  He is also an unabashed political liberal.  His best known book is The Republican War on Science (which I have not read), in which he attempted to deal with how, as he perceived it, “the political right was wrong, and attacking reality on issues where the evidence was incontrovertible …” (page 19).

Mooney apparently had the idea that by presenting the facts and refuting false assumptions he would be able to change minds and ultimately contribute to “a truly enlightened society.”  However, he found that this was not the case; this book is for the most part an attempt at explaining why.

Before I get too far in this review, I need to say that I have shared the author’s frustrations.  Though he and I are from very different backgrounds and even different belief systems (he is an Atheist), yet I have felt a sort of kinship.  And this book has helped me in unexpected and unintended ways in dealing with these frustrations.  But more of that later.  First I need to attempt to summarize Mooney’s thesis.

If I may state it briefly, Mooney argues that there are real differences in the ways liberals and conservatives think, not just what they think.  While there are many explanations for these differences:  their environment, their shared information, their education, even their upbringing, we must also take into account that there are psychological differences – our brains are wired differently!

Before discussing these differences in the brains of these folks, Mooney discusses the theory of “cognitive dissonance” (page 28).  “…when the mind holds thoughts or ideas that are in conflict, or when it is assaulted by facts that contradict core beliefs …one moves to resolve the dissonance by bringing ideas into compatibility again.”  New discoveries and studies in psychology verify this theory and out of it developed the theory called “motivated reasoning.”

We reason, he tells us, from our emotions.  They take precedence.  As he says elsewhere, “We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers.  New data that threaten our current beliefs and opinions are not processed, but instead trigger a “fight or flight” response.  Our reasoning is not used to determine truth, but to defend truth as we perceive it.

I’ll not get into Mooney’s discussion of what he contends is an evolutionary basis for this type of reasoning, but would have to agree that we all engage in it.

Throughout the book, Mooney quotes and references study after study to back up his thesis.  He clearly contends that these differences in thinking are real.  Some of his descriptions follow.  Please note that he is not here arguing that one group is better or smarter or more ethical than the other, but that there are genuine differences in the way people in these groups think.  Also note that these are general descriptions and do not necessarily apply to each individual conservative or liberal.  Forgive me if I’ve missed any important ones.

Liberal characteristics:
            open to experience
            hold their views tentatively
            often are agents of change
            need cognition – take pride in thinking
            view issues from multiple perspectives
            tolerant of uncertainty
            nuanced in their thinking           

Conservative characteristics:
            less open to new experience
            need to defend their beliefs strongly
            need closure
            intolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty

The studies demonstrate that because of these characteristics, conservatives are much more prone to use motivated reasoning.  Mooney even refers to “what has been termed a backfire effect.”  When people hold strong but incorrect beliefs, evidence that contradicts these beliefs causes them to “hold their wrong views more tenaciously” (page 44).

A corollary effect is what Mooney calls the “smart idiots” effect.  Those who are more informed or knowledgeable, or as he terms “politically sophisticated” are “often more biased, and less persuadable than the ignorant” (page 46).  He blames this to a certain extent on their sources of information.  Conservatives are more like to get their information from conservative sources, such as Fox News (page 48), whereas liberals are generally open to various sources.  An explanation for this is that a conservative ideology meets our human psychological needs, especially our “desire to manage uncertainty and fear” (page 60).

And a conclusion that follows these studies is that political liberals and political conservatives are different in ways that go beyond politics.  “They are different people” (page 62).

Much more data is presented and various objections are dealt with, many having to do with exceptions or perceived exceptions to these contentions.  One objection is the question “Why don’t you psychoanalyze liberals too?”  Mooney’s reply is, “I have.  Didn’t you notice?” (page 93)  He goes on to explain that liberals also have a certain psychological profile and certain psychological needs.  And they too address these needs through their reasoning processes.  More on that later.

He also discusses the selective way data is processed by conservatives as well as selective sources:  Fox News, talk radio, think tanks.  When confronted with contradictory data, conservatives can always find “experts” who reinforce their opinions, whether on science (global warming, evolution, etc.), economics or history.  Large amounts of threatening data can always be fought off with countering arguments.

If I may summarize:  liberals tend to approach new data in a much different way than conservatives.  Liberals (and I generalize) receive new data and process it and are willing to revise their positions; conservatives tend to absorb agreeable data and reject data that contradicts their positions.

Though I find myself in essential agreement with Mr. Mooney, as a good liberal I found myself wondering about a couple of questions I felt were not dealt with at enough length.
·        First, the chicken and egg question:  are liberals liberal and conservatives conservative because their brains are wired differently?  Or are their brains the way they are because of their previous experiences and exposure and their own choices?
·        Secondly, what about the liberals’ use of motivated reasoning?  Mr. Mooney sees dogmatism as a characteristic of the conservative brain, but he himself seems quite dogmatic on the findings of science.  Is he looking at the specks in his brothers’ eyes and ignoring the beam in his own?

This book answered many questions for me, not only regarding the current political situation, but also regarding my own ways of thinking in many areas.  This was its main value for me.  I found myself in its pages.  I will have more to say about this on another post.

Anyway, I highly recommend this book to both my liberal and conservative friends.  In fact, I would say that the reader’s reaction to the book (and to this post) would be a good standard for determining whether or not she or he was a liberal or a conservative.

However, I suspect that my conservative friends won’t bother to read it!

Saturday, June 9, 2012


A while back, I made a comment on one of the posts on this blog, relating how I had changed my position on a certain social issue.  After I had done so, I had some second thoughts, not on my position, but on whether I should have mentioned it.  I feared I might offend some readers who hold to the position I had abandoned.

Then the other morning I found a comment on my comment.  My friend, Canadian Atheist, simply repeated what I had said and remarked, “Bless you Bill.”  At first I was elated; I had never to my knowledge, been blessed by an atheist before!  But immediately those fears came back.  What would those other readers think of that?  Not only might I lose readers, I could lose friends.

Almost immediately as I sat down with my New Testament for my morning reading, I came across Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:

31.       “Whether then you eat or whether you drink or whatever you do, do all things to the glory of God.
32.       Don’t become a cause of stumbling – to Jews, or Greeks or to the church of God,
33.       just as I also please all in all things, not seeking my own benefit, but that of the many, that they may be saved.”

I asked myself, Isn’t that what I’m doing?  I had removed a stumbling block from my friend’s way.  As far as those others, they can keep holding to their position; if they take offense – well?

Of course, this brought a number of thoughts to mind.  Why do we who claim to be followers of Christ do so many things to turn people off?  We hold others to moral positions that we ourselves have difficulty with.  We argue with little provocation with those with whom we disagree.  We hold and defend positions that aren’t really worth defending.  We call people names.

Brothers, it ought not to be this way!

The message we believe and proclaim is enough of a tripper-upper; we don’t need to add other things in the way.  Paul said it clearly earlier in this same letter:

1:18.   “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing …
21.       … God was well pleased through the foolishness of the proclaimed message to save those who believe.
23.       …but we are proclaiming a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”

Paul is not contradicting himself in chapter 10!  In chapter 9, verses 19-23, he even says that he became “all things to all.”

If I can restate these apparently paradoxical thoughts:  Paul was absolutely unwilling to compromise his message, but he was willing to compromise himself.  I’m not saying he compromised his ethics or morals.  But he was willing to leave himself behind and enter into the thoughts and needs of others.  He was living out the life and love of Christ.

I believed he lived this way because, like the One who was his Savior and Master, he genuinely loved people; and because of this love, he desired to see them come to know this same Savior.

Are we like Paul in this?  Or are we more willing to compromise our message rather than ourselves?

Monday, June 4, 2012


A recent article in The Week magazine (6/8/2012) entitled “An Ever-Changing Union” – (on-line entitled “How Marriage has Changed over Centuries”) got my attention, especially since I have been leading an adult Sunday school class on man/woman relationships in the book of Genesis.  Beneath the title was a line, “Critics of gay marriage see it as an affront to sacred, time-tested traditions.  How has marriage been defined in the past?”

The article went on to discuss the fact that marriage has been evolving since the beginning, which the writer tells us was in the Stone Age.  The article goes on to describe different marriage customs down through history, including the fact that “the ancient Hebrews … engaged in polygamy,” citing of course, the Bible’s statement that King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.  (They didn’t note, however, that Solomon was not a typical “ancient Hebrew.”)  We are told that polygamy has been, and still is practiced “in cultures throughout the world,”

The real kicker and apparent thesis of the article is “The idea of marriage as a sexually exclusive, romantic union between one man and one woman is a relatively recent development.”  Wow!  We “traditionalists” are really non-traditionalists!  We’re the odd ones.

The article describes briefly the history of marriage and marriage contracts, secular and sacred.  It even informs us that “male-bonding ceremonies were common in churches across the Mediterranean” up till the 13th century.

We are also informed that “for most of human history” love and romance had little, if any role in marriage, that love in marriage was even frowned on in many ancient cultures, and that the idea of marrying for love and/or romance was a product of Enlightenment thinking (the “pursuit of happiness”).

The article concludes by telling us “for better and for worse, traditional marriage has already been destroyed … and the process began long before anyone even dreamed of legalizing same-sex marriage.”

The article, I believe, pretty much got its facts straight, though some of its generalizations and conclusions were painted with a pretty broad brush.

I took the article with me on Sunday and read excerpts from it to my class.  Besides a considerable amount of eye-rolling, it also generated a stimulating discussion.  Most of the discussion took us back to matters we had already been studying in Genesis.  We soon left the article behind, however, so I felt that I needed to say a few more things about it.

As a Christian who takes the biblical claims literally and seriously, I have to say that I basically agree with the article’s conclusion; traditional marriage is, if not destroyed, in deep trouble, and this has little to do with whether or not same-sex marriage is legalized.  And this is not some recent phenomenon; it has been going on since the beginning.  And an honest study of the Scripture would verify that claim.

I believe that there are different ways of looking at, even of defining marriage.  I also believe that we need to distinguish the differences, and that we Christians often confuse them; for instance “traditional marriage,” “legal marriage,” “biblical marriage,” are not all the same.

If the article is correct, then “traditional marriage” is as stated, “an ever-changing union.”  Multiple partners, arranged marriages, even same-sex unions have all been, at one time or another throughout history, considered “traditional.”  We would do well to cease our advocacy of traditional marriage.

What about “legal marriage”?  Throughout history, and in many nations today, marriage was and is simply a civil union whatever it is called.  It affords legal protection to the partners and can be entered into and exited through legal means.  And of course, this is the issue today regarding gay marriage.  We may disagree about its morality and we may emphasize that it is not biblical.  But if it is legitimized, it would afford homosexual partners the same rights (and problems) that heterosexual partners have.

As a Christian, as a follower of the Scripture, I am not bound by “tradition” or by someone else’s legal status; I am bound by the Word of God.  And it is my obligation to do my best to ascertain what the Word teaches about marriage.  That is not my aim here; it would take (and has taken) volumes and volumes.  There are a few matters in this area, however, that I believe need clarification.

First, as I have often pointed out to my students, we must distinguish between “description” and “prescription.”  The Bible, as any other good history, describes all sorts of human behavior, often without making any moral pronouncements at all.  This does not necessarily imply that the behavior is approved by God, and it certainly does not imply that it is prescribed by God.  Case in point:  polygamy.  Though it was practiced very early on in biblical history, it is nowhere, to my knowledge commanded or even approved of.  The reference in the article to King Solomon and his multiple wives, does not mention that these marriages are said to have been a leading cause of his moral downfall (1 Kings 11:1-9) or that in this case he was acting in direct violation of specific commands in the Law (Deuteronomy 17:14-17).

Another matter is the Mosaic Law itself.  The Law was not given, as some claim, as a perfect expression of God’s will.  It was given, among other reasons, as a system of regulating the behavior of a redeemed but very sinful, hard hearted people.  So its regulations on multiple marriages, regulations on divorce were not meant to show approval of these acts any more than regulations on sheep stealing.

“If a man takes a wife and marries her, and if it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes … and he writes her a certificate of divorce …” (Deuteronomy 24:1, 2).

“If a man has two wives …” (Deuteronomy 21:15).

“If a man steals a sheep …” (Exodus 22:1).

Jesus when questioned by the Pharisees regarding His position on divorce, took them to the one man/one woman union established by God at creation (Matthew 19:3-6; Genesis 1:27; 2:24).  When they referred to the Mosaic Law of Deuteronomy 24:1ff, Jesus answered them, “Because of your hardheartedness, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not thus” (Matthew 19:8).

By the way, as far as romantic love being some sort of a Johnny-come-lately on the marital scene, perhaps we should look at the story of Jacob and Rachel, which occurred around the 19th century BC and was recorded around the 15th.  [Even those critics who desire to date these writings much later are still stuck with a recorded date of nearly 3,000 years ago.]

“… Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful of face.  And Jacob loved Rachel …  And Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they were in his eyes as a few days because of his love for her” (Genesis 29:17-20).

                  WHAT IS LOVE?