Tag: Christianity

Anger as a Window into Your Soul

I recently read about a fascinating exchange between some liberal seminary students and a religiously conservative Imam:

My first “welcome to America” moment occurred when I invited an imam to my Introduction to Islam class at Columbia Theological Seminary. The imam talked about the basic tenets of Islam for an hour and asserted, among other things, that Jesus is not the Son of God, denied that he was crucified, and maintained that the Bible has been falsified. My students listened respectfully throughout the lecture. When he paused and invited discussion, the students replied with rather timid and politically correct queries, at which point the imam said: “Why are you not asking me about jihad, about terrorism, women? I know you have all these questions. Why are you not asking me the hard questions?” So one student queried him about Islamic teaching on homosexuality. The imam answered by defining the practice as un-Islamic, not of God, unnatural. Suddenly, the faces of a good number of the students went red with shock and rage. I stepped in and gently steered the discussion away from the topic.

I recall a similar situation during an NYU All University Gospel Choir concert, perhaps ten years ago now. As was tradition for such concerts, songs were interspersed with various testimonies, often given by the emcee. All of these were politely received by the theologically mixed audience, except one: a young African American gave a testimony where he mentioned, almost off-hand, how he had been saved out of the gay lifestyle.

I don’t recall all the details, but you could tell the mood in the room had shifted to something between discomfort and outrage. One guest my roommate had invited, who I think was a seminary student at the time, was particularly offended.

Everyone has some sense of justice, and when it is sufficiently violated, it causes us to become angry. We become upset that the world is not the way it is supposed to be, or at least the way we want it to be. In this case of the gospel choir concert, people were offended that something they deeply value was not cherished as they thought it should be. Moments like these can tell us a lot about others–and ourselves.

Our defensiveness is a window into the soul. It is rather telling that the professed Christians at Columbia Theological Seminary cared more about sexual autonomy than whether someone honored the revealed character of God. That suggests a near total capitulation to secular moral values.

But using the anger diagnostic on others is easy enough. It is rather convicting when used on yourself.

I was recently quite defensive about an insult I received on social media. It wasn’t really all that different from any of the other condescending and smug responses that all too often characterize interaction between groups with differing ideology. Yet for some reason it cut deeply. Was it because of external circumstances (say, a lack of sleep from raising young children)? Or perhaps the accusation was particularly unjust? Whatever the reasons, my defensiveness signaled to me that I cared a great deal–and probably far too much–what some stranger on the internet thought of me.

Compare that to Jesus’ sense of justice. He had a finely tuned sense of anger; he was defensive about all the right things. He often absorbed slights to his honor (and even commanded us not to trade insult for insult), yet was incensed when the religious elite put spiritual stumbling blocks between regular Israelites and God.

Jesus’ anger showed his love for others–for his people. What about yours?

Miracles and the Ad Hoc Fallacy

According to one atheist, the ad hoc fallacy:

is normally used more narrowly to refer to some explanation which is exists for no other reason but to save a favored hypothesis.

Typically, you will see statements referred to as “ad hoc rationalizations” or “ad hoc explanations” when someone’s attempt to explain an event is effectively disputed or undermined and so the speaker reaches for some way to salvage what he can. The result is an “explanation” which is not very coherent, does not really “explain” anything at all, and which has no testable consequences – even though to someone already inclined to believe it, it certainly looks valid.

Here is a commonly cited example:

I was healed from cancer by God!
Really? Does that mean that God will heal all others with cancer?
Well… God works in mysterious ways.

The author uses this examples to identify three key characteristics of an ad hoc fallacy. I will respond to each below:

A key characteristic of ad hoc rationalizations is that the “explanation” offered is only expected to apply to the one instance in question. For whatever reason, it is not applied any other time or place and is not offered as a general principle. Note in the above that God’s “miraculous powers of healing” are not applied to all cancer sufferers, but only this one at this time and for reasons which are completely unknown.

This is confused. Even if we accept the tedious formulation of this argument (why assume one is healed requires all are healed), I don’t see a reason to suggest this explanation must apply only to this one instance. The idea that divine providence is mysterious could apply to a great many miraculous healings.

This reply also seems to treat God’s healing activities as a uniform power or principle, rather than as an act of agency. But why expect that these miraculous powers should apply to all cancer sufferers?

Another key characteristic of an ad hoc rationalization is that it contradicts some other basic assumption – and often an assumption which is was either explicit or implicit in the original explanation itself. That is why, usually, an ad hoc statement is only applied in one instance and then quickly forgotten. Because of this, ad hoc explanations are often cited as an example of the fallacy of Special Pleading. In the above, the idea that not everyone will be healed by God contradicts the common belief that God loves everyone equally.

1) The term equally is hopelessly ambiguous. Is this supposed to imply that everyone should be treated in exactly the same way by God? I am going to assume otherwise, since this dissolves into absurdity almost immediately: does God love unequally when he creates one person taller than another?

2) Does it mean that if one good thing happens to one person, it should happen to everyone? For example, if one person gets a certain amount of money, everyone should get that amount of money too? That would be a set of miracles that treat everyone to the same good, yet clearly the cumulative effect would be merely to and devalue currency. And people value or use money differently than others. So I don’t imagine it’s that.

3) Or is equally only to do with the reduction of suffering (of certain kinds?) when someone asks for relief? For example, if a notorious, unrepentant serial killer–who is likely to kill again–is dying of cancer, should God heal him because a virtuous, selfless relief worker was healed of cancer last week?

4) While I am having trouble even salvaging this argument, at this point it’s trivial to note that no standard conception of Christian doctrine asserts any of these ideas. And Scripture is filled with examples of God treating various members of his people, whom he loves, differently. For example, compare Jesus’ fascinating treatment of Mary and Martha in John 11 (which the text identifies as an expression of Jesus’ “love”) as they dealt with the death of Lazarus.

5) I am also unclear what is meant by loves. Is the idea of love here that everyone should be happy, that serious suffering is contradictory the idea of a God who loves equally? That may work for definitions of Christianity languishing in Moral Therapeutic Deism, but it does not have any currency with theological frameworks that: (a) allow for suffering to produce more good (including personal joy and pleasure) than would have existed without it; and, (b) define love (agape) according to its New Testament use.


A third characteristic is the fact that the “explanation” has no testable consequences. What could possibly be done to test to see if God is working in “mysterious ways” or not? How could we tell when it is happening and when it is not? How could we differentiate between a system where God has acted in a “mysterious way” and one where the results are due to chance or some other cause?

These are questions in lieu of an argument. What does the author mean by testable? Does he mean replication in a lab? Eyewitness testimony from doctors? Divine revelation via dream or vision?

Let’s consider a recent miraculous healing account:

Over a year ago, a freak accident left me with 40% hearing loss in my left ear. After a wrong diagnosis, I was referred to Dr. David Haynes at@vanderbiltu, who correctly diagnosed me. I was the 2nd patient he had ever seen with this condition (the malleus bone broke, and surgery was too risky to attempt in this case). The bottom line is, there was no solution medically. It was a permanent issue I just had to learn to live with. He even consulted a colleague at the Mayo clinic bc it was such a crazy case. They agreed-nothing could be done.

I prayed for a miracle with Audrey, and I didn’t get it. I haven’t prayed for one since bc my heart was so wounded. A few months ago, the Lord prompted me to do exactly that, and today I cried in a hospital room as he stared at me, dumbfounded by the fact that my hearing has miraculously returned to a normal level. He looked in my left ear and said, “Wait-which side was the bad one?” I will never forget his face when he asked “What have you done in the last few months so I can explain this to my colleagues?” I replied, “I prayed.” Maybe you needed to be reminded (as I did) that we serve a God who is still in the miracle business…

What is ad hoc about attributing this healing to God? I’m not a doctor, but from what I understand, this is a highly unlikely natural coincidence.

I would assume the objection in this case is that it could still possibly be due to chance. But what makes that ad hoc under the definitions above? Does what counts as ad hoc have more to do with assumed metaphysical presuppositions than strict rules of logic?

It is incorrect to pit the natural against the supernatural. While the cause (or causes) of a healing can be ambiguous, even if we can identify a (proximate) physical cause, that doesn’t mean there is no (ultimate) nonmaterial cause. That just assumes metaphysical naturalism from the get go. Miracles are not simply a subtraction story, existing in shadows yet to be dispersed by scientific explanation. Miracles can be acts of what we might otherwise call extremely improbable coincidence.

So I am suspicious that testable here means anything other than replication in a lab. But why limit explanations to laboratory results? This omits a range of possible explanations.

Continuing with the ad hoc explanation:

The fact of the matter is, we can’t – the “explanation” offered above provides us with nothing to test, something which is a direct consequence of having failed to provide a better understanding of the circumstances at hand. That, of course, is what an explanation is supposed to do, and why an ad hoc explanation is a defective explanation.

Thus, most ad hoc rationalizations do not really “explain” anything at all. The claim that “God works in mysterious ways” does not tell us how or why this person was healed, much less how or why others will not be healed. A genuine explanation makes events more understandable, but if anything the above rationalization makes the situation less understandable and less coherent.

In high school I had a friend who received an anonymous check each year that covered her tuition. Without the money, she would not have been able to attend. Why did this benefactor choose my friend over another? There were plenty of other needy students, including students who wanted to attend but couldn’t because their parents were too poor.

The motives of the person were mysterious. In fact, they remain mysterious to this day. Yet the check was there, every year, without fail. Does the fact that we can’t explain this behavior mean any explanation involving agency is ad hoc? Or doesn’t count as a “genuine” explanation? I don’t see how that follows.

The Spirit of the Age

First Things announced their student essay contest winners today. (Congratulations to the winners!) Given the state of religious conservatism in America, I am not surprised the editors selected entries with an optimistic quality.

My own submission answered prompt #3, based on an R. R. Reno article (partially behind a paywall) encouraging religious conservatives to avoid defeatism in the face of secular opposition:

3. I have argued that “the Judeo-Christian culture spurned today will become more appealing as the weaknesses of the secular project become apparent.”

This was my response:

The Spirit of the Age

There are serious weaknesses in the progressive project. But capitalizing on them will be no easy task.

On a variety of important metrics, the deleterious effects of progressivism are felt far and wide. People today, especially the young, are significantly less content than in the past, when belief in God dominated public consciousness. On relationships, where progressive ideals of sexual liberation have made great advances, commentators openly discuss the emptiness of hook-up culture, the ruinous effects of divorce, and the withering expectations, particularly of women, inherent in cohabitation. On college campuses, professors lament the chilling effects of Title IX litigation on free speech and the infantilization of students with the rise of trigger warnings.

Even the progressive faith in technocratic solutions has, at least in some quarters, been tempered with the sober realization that humanity does not regularly use the power of innovation to better others. It turns out that the deliverances of big data are insufficient to curb the excesses of human vice. Slick apps are no antidote to the self-serving culture of corporate-political alliances. The Internet, which has revolutionized the exchange of information, has exposed the darkest corners of society and given free rein to trolls and their unconscionable programs of online harassment. The human condition cannot be changed by mere technological progress.

The disappointments of secularism are particularly acute in the realm of popular social media. In a culture that looks for salvation in self-marketing and the approval of peers, Facebook and Twitter have magnified the emptiness of a society ordered around self-expression. The promise of connecting with like-minded groups or distant family has not led to more satisfying relationships. Instead participants have experienced the sociological phenomenon of “Facebook-envy,” where users become depressed as they compare their boring private lives to their (online) friends’ endless stream of personal achievements and finely curated vacation albums.

As with any moral order built on the radical autonomy of the individual, discontent with progressivism was inevitable. While hardly every social ill is the result of progressive culture, many social ills (and, perhaps more importantly, the inability to emotionally cope with them) are the result of taking the materialistic project of self-actualization to its logical conclusions. We are observing, not always at a safe distance, the institutionalization of incurvatus in se—the inward turn of society to its own desires and away from transcendent norms. Where public virtue once treated individual desire with suspicion, it is now openly celebrated by a culture that commands Millennials to celebrate themselves, follow their dreams, and deny themselves no material pleasure. As traditionalists, we know this to be false. Lasting fulfillment can only be found in shared community practices that promote the good of the family, the neighborhood and broader society.

Some social conservatives see these weaknesses as a strategic opening. Yet despite the great sense of frustration with the current social order, society continues its inward turn. We are reminded by our cultural gatekeepers that the answers to life are found within, rather than above. And if we find satisfaction in the pursuit of our dreams and ambitions an elusive target, society offers to numb the pain through a panoply of materialistic medicines—untethered sex, addictive drugs, excessive alcohol, and endless television. There has been no indication of broader public interest in the sort of Christian values that would alleviate this self-inflicted suffering. We would do well to reflect on this.

It takes a certain set of (disputable) anthropological assumptions to believe that exposing the philosophical deficiencies of the progressive project will be a sufficient ground to return Judeo-Christian values to a place of cultural prominence. Contrary to earlier models, modern sociology has shown, fairly decisively, that rational deliberation is not the primary means by which people make decisions about the world. We are the product first of our family and then of our friends; socialization is the core driver of ideology, and narratives of desire, rather than abstract reason, play the most important role in determining the range of plausible belief structures.

The greatest difficulty for social conservatives is that the secular elite, along with an ever-increasing share of society, have dispensed almost entirely with traditional religion. While some of this is due to ignorance, many progressives have read the Bible and understand the sort of moral order social conservatives wish to impose on American public life. They simply reject it as false. When asked their position on the existence of God or his role in public life, staunch secularists will confidently assert that they have “no need of that hypothesis.” The less strident are hardly better, for they still seriously doubt the possibility of divine knowledge. The range of plausible belief structures lies somewhere between agnosticism and atheism, while religious claims are treated as dubious, or simply disgusting.  In the philosophical battle that has raged since the Enlightenment, secular progressives now occupy the epistemological high ground.

Any strategy social conservatives might implement in their quest to regain cultural dominance involves drawing, at least implicitly, but often directly, on the answer to a question no one is asking: what hath the LORD said? The vertical inquiry, once dominant for much of Western history, has been replaced by horizontal concerns. The modern educated American may dabble in Yoga or the spiritualism of Buddhism, but she has otherwise committed to a new, secular moral order, an inverse asceticism which grounds purpose and ethics in the innate solidarity of the human race. Belief in God now occupies a contested space, no longer a reliable guide to public policy.

More critical is the power of the progressive narrative, in which social conservatives feature as the villain. Traditional religionists are power-hungry oppressors who cause immense suffering for racial and sexual minorities, often while engaging in the very practices they condemn as immoral. We might complain that this narrative is grounded more in preference than fact, but that does not matter to a movement convinced of its inherent righteousness. Anything a villain says is suspect: who would give Mr. Wickham or Professor Moriarty a fair hearing? Regaining the public trust will require the narrative of an entire generation to be overturned. That is asking for nothing less than a conversion. Some may believe this is possible, but let us recognize it for what it is: a hope, rather than a viable political strategy.

As the progressive narrative has entrenched itself, the governing moral vision of America has become something we might call broadly libertarian. The individual refrain echoes out, in the words of that hollow poem, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” On most other social questions, the rules are simple: avoid harm and, when necessary, obtain consent. We may (rightly) indicate the weaknesses of this pluralistic vision—the idea that what one does in private has no meaningful effect on the public good is demonstrably false and the cause of much real and lasting harm—but intellectual efforts on this front have had virtually no effect on the relentless leftward march of public culture. The elites have affected their desired change: as recent polling has revealed, Americans, especially the young, are ever more accepting of physician-assisted suicide, sex outside of marriage, having and raising children outside of marriage, human cloning, and even polygamy. These moral shifts are the natural outworking of a socially libertarian view of the world, a view that seems unburdened by the backward, probably bigoted, concerns of otherwise discredited religious institutions.

And so the banner of progressivism continues to conquer new territory. The recent Vanity Fair cover, which blazons the physical transformation of Bruce Jenner into Caitlyn Jenner, has been met with almost universal acclaim in popular media. Culturally, the range of acceptable responses to Jenner’s life choices is narrow: you must either praise her (and certainly with the right pronoun) or keep any mild reservations you might have to yourself until such a time as you are able to unreservedly join the parade of sexual autonomy. Those who would dare openly criticize, rather than celebrate, Caitlyn’s decision will quickly find themselves ostracized from polite society, if they were not the sort of backward clod who was already in exile. This should be considered another defeat—if the current rearguard actions we are fighting can even be called a war—for the cause of social conservatism, one like the refusal of large corporations to back mild religious freedom bills. What would have been seen as a lamentable state of confusion in a previous generation is now championed as a brave example for all who suffer from gender dysphoria.

Only a few areas of culture have consistently fought against the progressive moral ethic, and it is instructive to consider the way in which these battles have been conducted. Most notable is the counter-cultural movement known as “GamerGate,” an ideological conflict primarily over whether game developers and consumers must pay deference to (sometimes radical) notions of progressive feminism in computer and video game design. Although most of gamer culture seems to have rejected the neo-puritanism of progressive media critics, these critics are seen as no different from earlier conservatives who attempted to ban violent video games. The conflict may be best described as a division between authoritarian left and libertarian left. Even though the libertarian elements of the movement are able to identify many of the shortcomings of progressivism, dissatisfaction with this moral order has not led to any sort of tolerance, let alone embrace, of traditional social values. Most in the movement have diagnosed social conservatives and moral progressives as two symptoms of the same authoritarian disease.

Given the direction of the country, traditionally minded Christians should not overplay their hand: marginal success on the abortion front is not to be confused with some sort of return to Judeo-Christian values. The same radical individualism that drives the now overwhelming support for same-sex marriage is likely the only ground on which to make further gains for the pro-life cause in the public sphere. It is not a sense of Christian or Jewish moral duty that compels the secular pro-life impulse, but rather as technology reveals the unborn to be more like our global tribe than not, society may wonder why we do not give these individuals the same chance at self-fulfillment that we enjoy. Yet this is hardly a stable beachhead. As we have seen with the willingness of mothers to abort most children with Down syndrome, Americans will discreetly end a life if it threatens to interfere with their own radical autonomy or violate some vague sense of what counts as a life worth living.

These trends have implications for fiscal conservatives as well. If radical individualism becomes the highest, most popular societal good, we will continue to see voters look to the state for aid beyond the provision of basic needs. And as conservatives become less religious, we may see a drop in charitable giving comparable to non-religious liberals, which will only reinforce cycles of poverty and intensify the cry of the poor for government relief. If radical individualism continues to supplant traditional mores, it may not be enough for business conservatives and economic libertarians to hope that “common sense” fiscal and pocketbook appeals will be sufficient to prevent the rise of an ever more powerful, intrusive state.

It is not hard to understand recent calls for Christians to prepare orthodox communities for the defensive task of preserving the beliefs and practices of traditional Christianity. While society turns inward and pushes orthodox expressions of Christianity out, we must resist another sort of inward turn. While not entailed by the Benedict Option, there will be a temptation to withdraw from public life and retreat to religious communities of shared practice. Such a retreat would result in little to no outward reach and a set of public values expressed primarily at the voting booth, if at all.

As they prepare the Benedict Option, it would be wise for traditional Christians to consider living out the narrative of Christian self-sacrifice in more publicly visible ways. While there are many opportunities here, perhaps some of the most powerful will be in those places most forgotten by society.

To take a personal example, I once attended a church in New York City that ministered to AIDS victims. While the church had an orthodox view of sexuality, the credibility of the church came not from its public pronouncements on the subject (which were rare and often veiled) but arose from concrete actions of service to suffering members of a group historically marginalized for its sexual choices. Another area where we can make significant inroads is care for the elderly. Millions of people waste away in nursing homes each year, forgotten by a society that valorizes youth.

If social conservatives hope to have any chance of regaining cultural hegemony without relying on propaganda or deceit, it must begin with a rehabilitation of its public image. This will not occur through public relations stunts, but a generational commitment to serving the poor and marginalized with little expectation of reward. We should not withdraw from politics, nor should we temper our message, but we should certainly not expect a society suspicious of traditional Christianity to embrace Judeo-Christian values until trust in social conservatism is regained. The destructive project of exposing the progressive myth for what it is—a great lie that will end in tragedy—is a necessary but insufficient condition for regaining the public square.

But we are merely gesturing at possibilities. Does the American church have moral credibility anywhere these days? The great emptying of Catholic and mainline churches is ominous. Only Evangelical churches are retaining members, which may be more a function of glossy presentation than robust belief; as the cancer of Moral Therapeutic Deism continues to rot the Evangelical movement, we may see a rupture of believers paralleling that of other Christian groups.

Can social conservatives win? All things are possible. Yet there is little indication the miasma of our secular age is abating. It continues to obscure the lux aeterna, driving Americans ever inward. It atrophies the public sense of the divine, undermining any attempt to reinstate a Christian conception of the good. All signs suggest our epistemological and moral horizons are darkening. As it comes ever more into conflict with traditional Christianity, the American Spirit of polite indifference is morphing into one of disdain, even animosity.

As Christ said of another indomitable spirit, “This kind only comes out through prayer.”