Category Archives: Anthropology

What should you do with my dead body?

photo credit: 18thC tombstone, Ecclesmachan - Kim Traynor

No, I’m not dying. Well, actually I am, but I’m not dying any faster than the rest of you. Of course, maybe I am and I just don’t realize it. But that’s a topic for a different post. To the best of my knowledge, you won’t need to figure out what to do with my dead body any time soon. But, I want to ask the question anyway.

“I don’t care what you do with my body. It’s not me. Just throw it away.”

I’ve heard that sentiment many times from Christians. And, it worries me.

We should all affirm that “the story of me” does not end with the death of my physical body. Or, better said: “the story of me” continues because it has been drawn into the story of Jesus through the power of the Spirit. So, whatever I believe about what comprises a human person (one part, two parts, thirty-nine parts, whatever), we should affirm that physical death does bring the story to an end.

But, that’s not the same as saying that my body is extraneous and irrelevant. God created me with a body. And, in the end, he will raise me to live again as an embodied being. That should lead to the conclusion that my body is an important part of who I am. It’s not an annoyance that I just put up with for a time. It’s how God created me. And, I fear that the “just do whatever you want with that dead hunk of meat” stems from (and contributes to) a persistent failure to appreciate this fact.

Augustine wrestled with this very issue in City of God 1.13. In the previous chapter, he assured Christians that even if they were martyred and had their bodies torn apart or burned, they didn’t need to fear what would happen in the resurrection. God knows how to handle things, and he’ll get it all straightened out in the end. But, he didn’t want anyone to draw the conclusion that this means we can just do whatever we want with people’s bodies after they died.

This does not mean that the bodies of the departed are to be scorned and cast away, particularly not the bodies of the righteous and faithful, of which the Spirit has made holy use as instruments for good works of every kind. For if such things as a father’s clothes, and his ring, are dear to their children in proportion to their affection for their parents, then the actual bodies are certainly not to be treated with contempt, since we wear them in a much closer and more intimate way than any clothing. A man’s body is no mere adornment, or external convenience; it belongs to his very nature as a man….The Lord himself also, who was to rise again on the third day, proclaimed, and commanded that it should be proclaimed, that the pious woman had done ‘a good deed’, because she had poured costly ointment over his limbs, and had done this for his burial; and it is related in the Gospel, as a praiseworthy act, that those who received his body from the cross were careful to clothe it and bury it with all honour.

These authorities are not instructing us that dead bodies have any feeling; they are pointing out that the providence of God, who approves such acts of duty and piety, is concerned with the bodies of the dead, so as to promote faith in the resurrection. There is a further saving lesson to be learnt here – how great a reward there may be for alms which we give to those who live and feel, if any care and service we render to men’s lifeless bodies is not lost in the sight of God.

So, Augustine wants to walk the line between two false ideas:

  1. Our story is entirely wrapped up in our physical bodies.
  2. Our story has nothing to do with our physical bodies.

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. And, he thinks that how we treat people’s bodies after they’ve died has significance for life and ministry today. We should treat people’s dead bodies in a way that respects the person, honors God’s grand purposes for the physical world, and manifests faith in the resurrection. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily lead to any definite conclusions regarding specific burial practices (e.g. cremation), but it does provide a wise set of ideas to keep in mind when dealing with the issue.

Right-brain functions in a left-brain world

Here’s a great illustrated lecture correcting misconceptions people have regarding what the right and left sides of the brain do, and arguing that we have built a culture that largely neglects the importance of right brain functions. It’s worth a few minutes, so check it out.

[HT The Daily What]

Racial reconciliation and the Gospel

One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation by Jarvis J. Williams (B&H, 2010).

 

Evangelicals have worked hard over the last several decades to pursue a theological understanding of the human person, dealing with issues like fee will, gender, and mind/body, among others. But, on issues of race and ethnicity, we’ve been relatively quiet. I’m sure that’s partly because evangelicalism has a spotty track record on racial issues in general, making this a challenging topic for us to address. But, I think it may also stem from the fact that most of the books offering a theological perspective on race/ethnicity tend to be highly technical (i.e. nearly unintelligible to the uninitiated) and often do not spend much time on biblical/exegetical issues, which tend to be the primary interest of evangelical thinkers.

With One New Man, Jarvis Williams takes an important step forward in evangelical thinking about race/ethnicity. He offers a short, accessible work that deals extensively with the relevant biblical material. Its core argument is that humanity’s fall into sin involves both horizontal (God) and vertical (human) alienation, and, correspondingly, the Gospel promises both horizontal and vertical reconciliation. So, to understand racial reconciliation, we really need to understand the Gospel.

SUMMARY

With this emphasis on the Gospel as it relates to racial reconciliation, it should come as no surprise that the structure of the book follows the story of redemption. After a quick introduction, Williams explains that the reason for racial reconciliation lies in the tragedy of the Fall and its impact on humanity (chapter 2). So, the only possible solution to the problem lies in the reconciliation offered to all people through the atonement (chapter 3). This doesn’t just reconcile us to God, but creates the possibility, even the necessity, of racial reconciliation as we all become “one new man” in Christ (chapter 4). Finally, Williams offers a short chapter on the practical application of these insights in churches today (chapter 5).

STRENGTHS

The most obvious strength of the book lies in its commitment to exegesis. Almost unique among books dealing with race, Williams spends the bulk of his time doing biblical theology and exegesis. That’s a refreshing change of pace for the genre.

But, Williams’ most valuable contribution is in his clear connection between racial discord, racial reconciliation, and the Gospel. For Williams, racial reconciliation is not an optional feature of the Christian life that we can get around to whenever we have some time between evangelistic events and discipleship classes. Racial reconciliation is fundamental to the “good news” that God made available in Jesus Christ and something that all Christians should be working toward.

Another key contribution is the distinction between “racial diversity” and “racial reconciliation.” “Diversity” is the mere presence different races in a single group. “Reconciliation” involves healing the wounds of sin and alienation so that the various groups come together in the true unity made possible through the atonement. And, Williams argues throughout that mere diversity is inadequate given the grand scope of the Gospel.

Finally, Williams offers some very helpful comments at the end of the book for how this can (and should) play out with respect to specific ministry realities. Unsurprisingly, he criticizes efforts that focus on mere diversity (e.g. occasional “joint” worship services or just striving for “multiethnic” churches). And, although he doesn’t mention it by name, he has no use for the “homogenous unit principle” – i.e. the idea that churches are most effective when they target a single demographic. Even at its best, he sees this as yet another reflection of racial discord that belies the life-transforming power of the Gospel.

WEAKNESSES

Given the strengths of the book, I’d like to give it an unqualified endorsements. But, I can’t. Despite these strengths, the book does have some important drawbacks.

First, and most frustratingly, the book’s emphasis on the Gospel leads to a serious imbalance in the material. The two longest chapters of the book deal with sin and the atonement respectively. And, in those chapters, relatively little is said about race in particular. These chapters are just setting the stage by discussing the problem and the solution. But, that means Williams devotes over two-thirds of the book to setting up the discussion. By the time he finally reaches the material specific to racial reconciliation, the book is almost done. As important as I think the Gospel is in this discussion, I would have liked to see Williams spend less time on sin/atonement, work that has been done many times by others, so that he could devote more attention to making the connection with racial issues.

Second, the imbalance contributed to some important oversights. More interaction with other authors writing on race and theology would have alerted the reader to some of the complexities involved in the discussion. At the very least, it would have been good to see definitions of such key terms as “race,” “ethnicity,” and “racism.” Williams seems to view these as terms with relatively self-evident definitions. But that is far from the case, as a quick summary of the relevant literature would demonstrate. And, lacking clear definitions, it becomes difficult to assess Williams’ argument in places – especially in the final chapter where he writes on the practical application of his ideas. (For example, what exactly is a “racist” church? Is mere racial homogeneity sufficient to establish that a church is “racist”?)

Finally, a real problem arises when Williams tries to move from Pauline theology to racial reconciliation today. His discussion of “race” in the NT is really a discussion of Jew/Gentile relations. And, that makes sense given that Paul focuses primarily on these categories. But, he recognizes that “Jew” and “Gentile” in the NT are primarily religious rather than racial/ethnic terms: “The greatest difference was that the Jews’ and Gentiles’ hatred toward one another was not based on skin color, but on religion” (p. 122). But, if Jew/Gentile is fundamentally a religious rather than a racial distinction, how does one connect Paul’s theology of Jew/Gentile reconciliation to the problem of racial reconciliation today, which is a significantly different problem. I’m sure it’s possible to make important connections between the two, but unfortunately, Williams either doesn’t see the difficulty, or simply chooses not to engage it.

CONCLUSION

One New Man is a great book for seeing that racial reconciliation is a part of the Gospel story. It is neither optional nor secondary. Used in that sense, One New Man will be a helpful resources, particularly for those looking for more of an introductory survey of the relevant biblical material.

[Many thanks to Broadman & Holman for sending me a review copy of One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation.]

Women in the Roman World

It always makes me nervous to post videos I haven’t had a chance to watch yet, but when they look like interesting resources, I’m willing to take the chance. And, these certainly fit that bill. Thanks to Brian LePort for pointing out these videos of Linda Cohick, Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, discussing women in the ancient Roman world. Her book Women in the World of the Earliest Christians has gotten some really good reviews. So, I can only assume that the videos will be interesting as well.

Here’s the first one. You can view the other two at the Center for Public Christianity.

It Is Better to Receive than to Give

On Christmas parents everywhere try to persuade their children that giving away a valued toy is somehow better than getting one. We extol the virtue of generosity, castigate the vice of selfish hoarding, and hope that they’ll eventually see the light. It’s a difficult task since kids intuitively believe that “a toy in my hand is worth two in yours.” But, we face the challenge anyway because we want our kids to understand that it really is better to give than receive.

The problem is that it’s not true. At least, it’s not as true as we think it is. Sometimes it’s more important to learn how to receive. More important, and harder.

Giving a gift feels good. You’ve done something nice for the other person, improved their life in some way. You’re a giver. And, we like being givers because it makes us feel meaningful, like we’re contributing.

Receiving a gift, on the other hand, can be painful. Sure, getting stuff is nice. But, it can also be uncomfortable, making us feel needy, dependent, and obligated. When someone buys us a gift, we think we have to return the favor. So, they immediately go on our gift list. And, until we’ve reciprocated, the scales remain unbalanced. We stay needy receivers obligated to some giver, and we don’t like that. Because we all know that an important part of “success” is to arrive at that point in your life where you are no longer dependent upon others. We call that “maturity.”

And we’re wrong.

Well, we’re not completely wrong. There is an unhealthy dependency, the kind that prevents people from growing into maturity and locks them into the kind of relationship in which one person is viewed solely as the giver and the other solely as the receiver. This creates a patronizing form of dependence caused largely by the giver failing to recognize their need to receive as well.

Receiving lies at the heart of what it means to be human. Fundamentally, we are needy beings: dependent on God for our existence and all the good gifts of creation, and dependent on one another for community, relationship, sustenance, and so much more. We’re needy. God created us that way.

“It is better to give than to receive.”

That’s not quite right. It is better to receive, and then to give. Only by remaining receivers can we remember who we are and what this story is all about. When we try to become givers, we twist God’s good creation into something it was never intended to be.

And, I think that was part of the mistake Adam and Eve made. There wasn’t anything wrong with the things they wanted in the Garden; food, beauty, and wisdom are tremendous gifts. The problem was that they no longer wanted to receive these from God as gifts, expressions of his grace and glory. Instead, of being receivers, they wanted to be givers, giving themselves what they wanted. Instead of embracing their neediness and vulnerability, standing with hands outstretched and receiving all that God had in store for them, they reached out and took.

In essence, they wanted to put themselves in God’s place. Rejecting dependence, they tried to take control and make the story about them and their glory.

So, they took, and they ate, and they fell.

How many times do I do the same every day?

[You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel book page.]

How clear is the Bible on gender roles?

I love it when the Bible is clear. “Jesus is the Son of God.” Nice.

It’s a little more frustrating when the Bible is not clear: the nature of communion, precise forms of church government, whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. But, at least when it’s not clear, I can admit that there’s plenty of room for disagreement. If the Bible’s not clear, let’s talk.

But, what if I’m not clear about whether or not the Bible is clear?

This came up recently in a discussion on the question of gender roles in the church. According one perspective, the Bible is really clear on this issue: the role of elder/pastor is for men only. Since the Bible is clear, we simply need to affirm what it says regardless of our personal or cultural perspectives. And, given the Bible’s clarity, those who chose to have women serve as elders/pastors are being either intentionally or unintentionally disobedient to scripture.

The other perspective in the discussion actually agreed with the complementation position, but disagreed with respect to the Bible’s clarity on this issue. According to this view, there is enough ambiguity in the biblical texts that faithful, biblical Christians can legitimately come to different conclusions. So, interestingly, the resulting discussion wasn’t about the question of gender roles itself – everyone agreed on that – but on the clarity of the Bible at this point and what that means for how we assess contrary perspectives.

And, lest you think that this is just a complementarian thing, I’ve had exactly the same discussion with egalitarians – some of whom argue that the Bible clearly supports their view and see complementarians as being disobedience to Scripture, and others who disagree with complementarianism but still see the issue through the lens of legitimate diversity.

So, the issue really comes down to a question of how you determine when you think the Bible speaks with sufficient clarity on an issue for you to take a clear stance in opposition to other perspectives, or when you think that the Bible is ambiguous enough to leave room for legitimately different perspectives.

I’d be very curious to hear what you all think about this. Whether you’re a complementation or an egalitarian, where does this fall on your scale of biblical clarity? Is it something that you think is clear and that Christians can and should take a stand on? Or is it something that you think is rather opaque – you may have personal convictions, but you’re not troubled when other evangelicals disagree?

Just to be clear, I’m not looking for a debate on complementarianism/egalitarianism itself. But, I would like to hear how you rate the debate itself. Is it central and clear, or somewhat peripheral and murky?

It’s Groundhog Day…Again

The alarm clock beeps incessantly. Morning again. Reaching over, he fumbles with it a little before finding the snooze button. A few more minutes won’t hurt. A few more minutes to rest.

But, he can’t sleep. His mind already swirls with thoughts of the day ahead. So much to do. Little details, big projects, meetings. It’s going to be a busy day.

And, when it’s done, what does he have to look forward to? Doing it all over again. Tomorrow morning, it will be the same: hit the snooze button a few times, get out of bed, and face the same job, the same tasks, the same routine. He feels like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, endlessly living the same day over and over again,trying desperately to hide from the pointlessness of it all.

But hey, at least it’s a paycheck. He’s got bills to pay and groceries to buy. After all, if he didn’t have this job, his family wouldn’t be able to enjoy the good things in life either. Living for the weekends, as they say.

So, he rolls out of bed, stumbles into the bathroom, and starts his own personal Groundhog Day all over again.

And along the way, he messes up the Gospel.

It’s pretty easy to understand what the Gospel has to do with Sunday. But what about the rest of the week? If the Gospel doesn’t have anything to say about this part of your life, then it leaves most of your life untouched.

And, that’s often the impression that we give when we talk about the Gospel. If the good news is primarily that I can have my sins forgiven so I can spend eternity with God, then my job has relatively little to do with the Gospel. For most of us, work is just a necessary evil. It lets us earn money and maybe provide the occasional opportunity to share the Gospel. And even those of us who actually enjoy our jobs have a hard time seeing how it relates to the Gospel. So, work becomes a Gospel-free zone. The Gospel is for Sundays. The rest of the week is about something else entirely.

That’s not how it’s supposed to be.

Remember how the story beings. Imagine Adam standing in the garden listening to God explain what he’s supposed to do. He’s standing in stunned silence trying to process what he’s just heard. Finally, after several slow seconds, he stammers, “You want me to take responsibility for the whole thing? Animals, plants, mountains, streams, oceans, everything? I’m supposed to watch over it all so that you can manifest your glory everywhere? Seriously? Do you see what the monkeys are doing over there? What made them think it would be a good idea to pick that stuff up and throw it at each other? Oh great, now the dogs are eating it. And you want me to be in charge of all this? Do I at least get vacations?”

God created us for work. He set us in creation and gave us work to do as one of the ways in which he would manifest his glory through us. And, if we fast-forward to the end of the story, we’ll see the same thing. The eternity that God has in store for us is not one of unending boredom, sitting on fluffy clouds playing our harps all day. Instead, it will be an eternity of work. Not the endless drudgery that work often is now. But, the joyful realization of our purpose: to serve in creation as God’s image bearers in the world.

So, what does all this have to do with today? How does this help us understand how our work relates to the Gospel? Because God has summoned us back into his kingdom so that we can again be what God always intended us to be, living in the world as citizens of the kingdom, image bearers.

The alarm beeps incessantly. It can’t possibly be morning again, can it? She rolls over and hits snooze. She knows he should get up. Busy day ahead. Of course, every day is busy. Pretty much the same. She looks forward to the weekend and getting some time with her family. It’s not that she hates her job, though she definitely doesn’t love it either. But she does enjoy her weekends.

She lays there for a while struggling with the apparently meaninglessness of it all. She doesn’t like working for just a paycheck. She wishes it could be more.

And then she remembers. Every day is an opportunity to live out her purpose in the world, to image God everywhere, helping people see his glory and through her. That doesn’t make all of the frustration go away. She’s still going to keep her eye out for a different job, one that fits her gifts and interests a little better. But, in the meantime, she’d better get up. She has work to do today.

[You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel book page.]

Money, Markets, and the Making of Humanity

“Governments should protect the people,” John declared, pounding the table for emphasis. “I’m tired of hearing about Americans struggling to make ends meet. I wish there were enough jobs and money for the whole world, but that’s a pipe dream. The hard reality is that we need a government that will protect Americans and American jobs. That’s what government is for.”

Alex was already shaking his head. “You just don’t get it. That kind of protectionism will destroy us.”

He pointed out the window to the small store across the street. “You see that? That’s a great little business. What if we could create four more? Or ten? Or a hundred? Think about all the jobs that would mean. We need to do more than protect existing jobs, we need to create more jobs. And to do that, we have to be fully and freely involved in the global economy.”

He hesitated briefly and then said, “And, we need to support the banks so we have enough money to invest in these new businesses.”

“No!”

John and Alex both jumped slightly at this outburst from the third person at the table. Visibly agitated, Tom glared at Alex. “You want to give even more power to government and the banks? That’s insane! They’re the ones who got us into this mess to begin with.”

He took a deep breath before continuing, “You’re both missing the point anyway,” he said. “Our problem is that we’re too focused on money and jobs in the first place. It’s not a question of how many jobs we need, but what kind of people we should be. Jobs, governments, banks, all of that is secondary. We need them, of course. But they can distract from the real task of living fully human lives.”

He looked sadly out the window at the bustling city street. “We need to get back to simpler ways: less government, less busyness, more humanity.”

What is government for? What does government have to do with business? And, how does any of this matter for life and ministry today?

These are some of the questions that I’ve been chewing on since attending John Pinheiro‘s paper at Acton University on “The Political Economy of the American Founding.” The point of Dr. Pinheiro’s paper was that economic realities lay at the heart of early American history. And, I was fascinated to see how economic factors drove so much of the story. You really can’t understand the American Revolution, the development of the Constitution, or the factors leading up to the American Civil War, without understanding the economic dynamics at work.

But, as I listened to the lecture, I was struck by how competing views on government and economics are really competing views of human flourishing. That is, they are really arguments about what true human living looks like, what factors are necessary to sustain it, and what role (if any) government has in promoting those factors.

3 Views on Politics, Economics, and Human Flourishing

Consider the fictional conversation above. One one level, it was a discussion of government and economic policy. But, as Tom argued, these should be means to a greater end. So, their perspectives were really just different views of the goal, the means, and the proper relation between them. And, these three views have been with us for a while.

John (John Adams) argued for a form of mercantilism, the dominant economic model of the British Empire. On this view, wealth is a relatively fixed commodity, and everyone (individuals and nations) compete over this finite wealth. So, the role of government is to establish economic policies that will keep as much wealth as possible within the nation to promote the well-being of its own citizens. So, in this model, human flourishing requires wealth, and the government promotes human flourishing by increasing their share of the world’s limited resources.

Alex (Alexander Hamilton) offers a perspective more influenced by Adam Smith, who argued for economic policy based on creating wealth through the astute investment of capital. For Smith, wealth is not finite, but can be increased through economic policy. As in mercantilism, this approach believes that human flourishing requires wealth and that governments should, therefore, work to increase the wealth of its citizens. But, it has a different view of how governments should do this. Rather than establishing protectionistic policies aimed at retaining wealth, this view promotes open policies aimed at creating wealth.

Tom (Thomas Jefferson) represented the approach of the French physiocrats. They were much less concerned with creating or even retaining wealth. Instead, they focused on promoting the kind of living that would produce free and virtuous citizens, their view of human flourishing. And, for many of these thinkers, the best way to do this was through simple, agrarian, productive living. The growth of urban industrialism and wealth-oriented business practices were problems to be countered, not positive developments to be protected or (heaven forbid) increased. So, on this view, human flourishing does not require wealth creation. Instead, human flourishing requires stable, productive living. The role of government, then, is to make whatever policies necessary to facilitate such living, and nothing more.  .

Idealism, Greed, and Human Flourishing

I don’t want to go into which of these is right, or even what it means for an economic system to be “right.” But, to each of these systems I want to say “yes” and “no.” On the one hand, I’m deeply sympathetic with Jefferson’s notion of a simple life that focuses more on becoming the right kind of person than on creating and/or protecting the right amount of wealth. Jefferson’s ideal appeals to me: the simple farmer, intimately tied to the land, unencumbered by governments, banks, and big businesses, and growing into human flourishing in small, local communities.  But, at the same time, Jefferson’s ideal seems overly idealized. Most of the “simple farmers” I know work far too hard and rarely know if they’re going to have enough money to make it to the end of the season. And, that’s just in America. Move outside this country, and the life of the simple farmer is even more difficult. When you spend all day just trying to get enough food to survive, it’s difficult to find much time for human flourishing. Jefferson’s view of the simple life was probably colored by his experience as a wealthy plantation owner. It’s easy to say that wealth-creation is unnecessary when you already have more than you need. And it’s easy to tell government to get out of the way, when you already have the resources necessary to do what you want.

So, on the other hand, I also appreciate the goal of wealth creation promoted by the other two views. “Wealth” and “greed” are not synonymous. If we define “wealth” as the material goods that promote and sustain human flourishing, then we can see that wealth itself is not the problem, and promoting wealth can be helpful, even necessary, for promoting human flourishing. But, there are problems here as well. First, both of these systems can easily make wealth an end in itself. This isn’t necessary to these systems, but so much attention gets paid to increasing the wealth of a country and its citizens, that the broader questions of human flourishing easily get lost. If asked, I’m sure they would say, “Well, of course all of this wealth is for human flourishing.” But, by sidelining human flourishing and focusing on wealth creation, they’ve made a fundamental mistake that disorients the entire system. And, when that happens, both end up promoting greed. As I said earlier, wealth and greed are not the same. But, a system focused on wealth creation as an end in itself can only encourage greed as the system strives for “more,” either by taking from others (mercantilism) or by creating more (Smith). Either way, separated from a higher goal, wealth-creation lapses into a constant drive for more that can never be satisfied. And, as a result, both tend to promote competition over cooperation. Rather than highlighting human flourishing as the cooperative production of human communities, wealth-creation untethered from a higher goal creates the perfect context for the most destructive forms of economic competition.

All three of these systems, then, have something valuable to say about how government, economics, and human flourishing relate to one another. But, each manifests some limitations as well. And, they’ve been competing for primacy in American identity from the very beginning. There was no “winner” in the debate among the Founding Fathers. Instead, they compromised by including elements of each in our founding documents and policies. So, like me, many Americans have a conflicted, and possibly contradictory, view of these issues.

Two Fundamental Questions

In the end, I found this all to be very helpful in highlighting the need to press beyond discussions of economics and governmental practices to more fundamental questions:

  • What is human flourishing?
  • What factors are necessary to promote and sustain human flourishing?

These are core questions that should interest any human, but especially those of us involved in Christian ministry, because they’re the same questions that we’re asking. Only when we’ve offered our answers to these questions will we be in any position to have meaningful discussions about the best economic and political policies and practices for fostering them.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]

Live Blogging from Acton

I’ll be blogging from the Acton University conference this week. If you’re not familiar with Acton, it’s a conservative group that focuses on economics, politics, theology, and philosophy. So, I’ll be commenting on a fairly broad range of issues throughout the week.

I attended Acton last year and once again I find myself in the interesting position of being one of the least conservative people in the room. Hanging out here, I feel like a downright liberal as I push back on some of the ideas presented in the various papers. Indeed, if you look at my posts from last year (see below), you’ll see that I was pretty critical of many of the papers I attended before.

So, if that’s the case, why am I here again? Well, partly because they paid for me to attend again, and it’s hard to pass on a free conference. But, mostly it’s because Acton’s diversity in geography (over 20 countries are represented this week), tradition (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox), and discipline (theology, philosophy, economics, politics, ethics, etc.) helps press my understanding of what it means to be human in new and challenging ways.

Last night’s opening banquet was a great way to begin. They started us off with some humorous guidelines for the week. My favorites were the following:

  • To the Catholics and Orthodox: “You don’t need to talk about Mary all the time. We know that Mary has a lot to do with economics, but don’t tell the Protestants.”
  • To the Catholics: “Go back to your hotel room, open the dresser drawer, and pull out the book you find there. It will have the letters B-I-B-L-E on it. Open the book and peruse it. It’s okay, Mary’s in there.”

I’m sure he had some good comments for the Protestants as well, but I was probably too busy writing these down at the time.

After that, we were treated with a testimony from a woman who worked with the Dutch underground during WWII to rescue Jews from the Nazis. She shared openly about her struggles, fears, and sacrifices. But, in the end, she declared, “I’m nothing special. Anyone who loves Jesus would have done the same.” That was humbling.

Stay tuned for more from Acton. I’m attending papers today on the social and economic context of the New Testament, corruption and politics, political economy in early American history, and medieval economics. I’m hoping at least one of those will be interesting enough to keep me awake. (I didn’t sleep well in the hotel last night, so I’m already dragging a bit.)

Posts from last year’s Acton University:

Some concluding reflections on how to approach the free will debate

Thousands of years, countless philosophers, theologians, and scientists, and still no resolution to the free will debate. Maybe we should just stop talking about it.

But that won’t do either. Our view of free will has too many important implications for life, ministry, theology, and ethics. Far from being a speculative, philosophical discussion, the free will debate touches on nearly every aspect of what it means to be human.

So, we have a seemingly unsolvable problem that is, at the same time, vitally important for many of life’s most significant issues.

Oh, is that all?

We’ve been working through a series on Striving for Greater Clarity and Charity in the Free Will Debate (you can see all the posts in that series here). And, that’s a great place to start. But, it’s just a starting place. The hard task of actually understanding “free” will remains.

As I said at the beginning of this series, I have no intention of trying to resolve the issue here. But, to wrap up this series, I thought I should at least say something about how I approach the discussion. I haven’t come to a satisfying conclusion yet. But, I have landed on a way of framing the discussion that I find helpful.

The closest that I come to arguing for a particular view of free will is in my book Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed. (Yes, that was a shameless plug for my book.) The basic thrust of my argument in that chapter is that any adequate theological anthropology must affirm certain basic things about the human person, which I develop in my chapter on the image of God: christocentrism, qualified uniqueness, mystery, relationality, moral responsibility, embodiment, and brokenness. This is the theological framework within which particular scientific/philosophical theories must function to be theologically adequate. So, I evaluate any approach to free will by its ability to operate coherently and convincingly within this theological framework.

I won’t take the time here to unpack everything that I develop in that chapter. But, here’s the conclusion:

Working through each of these theories using our criteria for a theologically adequate anthropology, we can see that each struggles at certain key points. Certainly, classic compatibilism is viewed by most as inadequate both because of its failure to provide an adequate explanation of where desires and beliefs come from, as well as its inadequate explanation of alternate possibilities. New compatibilist theories have worked hard to overcome these weaknesses. Nonetheless, we have seen that they still struggle to explain how the complete determination of the human person’s character and affective states does not ultimately undermine the person’s responsibility for actions that result from that character and affective condition. The source of the person’s ‘deepest self’ seems important and unfortunately opaque in the compatibilist system. For theological compatibilists, this leaves them susceptible to concerns surrounding the origin of sin and the nature of evil.

Libertarian theories are subject to important critiques as well. Indeed, the libertarian approach struggles to explain how there can be sufficient indeterminism to allow libertarian free will, without ultimately foundering on the problem of luck or the loss of any causal significance for human reasons, beliefs, and desires. And theologically, libertarianism struggles to explain how God can be causally active in the lives of human persons without undermining their free will.

Our discussion in this chapter has not focused on trying to resolve these debates. Indeed, I have argued that given the currently ambiguous and debated relationship between moral responsibility, causality, and free will, it seems unlikely that the debate will be resolved any time soon. So, as with the mind/body debate, I think that we will be on safer ground identifying those things about the human person that must be affirmed in any adequate theological anthropology and use those as our guiding criteria. With these in place, we can acknowledge that each of these theories has important strengths and corresponding weaknesses. We cannot rule either of them out of bounds on this basis, but we can develop a picture of what any adequate view of free will must be able to affirm and move forward from there.

Like I said above, this isn’t a satisfying answer to the problem, though I do find it to be a compelling way of approaching the discussion.

[Scientia et Sapientia is sponsored by the Master of Theology (Th.M.) program at Western Seminary. It’s an open forum, so please feel free to join the discussion.]