Friday, August 1, 2014

Who Then Should I Kill?

I stumbled upon Richard Dawkins's website today. He wrote an article defending his recent tweets about rape and paedophilia and logic. It's his description of moral philosophy that's most intriguing, however. He begins the article with these paragraphs:

Are there kingdoms of emotion where logic is taboo, dare not show its face, zones where reason is too intimidated to speak? 
Moral philosophers make full use of the technique of thought experiment. In a hospital there are four dying men. Each could be saved by a transplant of a different organ, but no donors are available. In the hospital waiting room is a healthy man who, if we killed him, could provide the requisite organ to each dying patient, thereby saving four lives for the price of one. Is it morally right to kill the healthy man and harvest his organs? 
Everyone says no, but the moral philosopher wants to discuss the question further. Why is it wrong? Is it because of Kant’s Principle: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” How do we justify Kant’s principle? Are there ever exceptions? Could we imagine a hypothetical scenario in which . . . 
What if the dying men were Beethoven, Shakespeare, Einstein and Martin Luther King? Would it be then right to sacrifice a man who is homeless and friendless, dragged in from a ditch? And so on. 
Two miners are trapped underground by an explosion. They could be saved, but it would cost a million dollars. That million could be spent on saving the lives of thousands of starving people. Could it ever be morally right to abandon the miners to their fate and spend the money on saving the thousands? Most of us would say no. Would you? Or do you think it is wrong even to raise such questions? 
These dilemmas are uncomfortable. It is the business of moral philosophers to face up to the discomfort and teach their students to do the same.

It is true that moral philosophy has been (and continues to be) practised along these lines. But my word is this the most boring and pointless way to do moral philosophy, not to mention the most morbid. Moral philosophy, it seems, boils down to who we should kill!

You can either throw Andres Iniesta into a pool of piranhas or starve 2 homeless men to death. Which should you do?

Your father and mother are drowning in the ocean. You are only able to rescue one of them on your two-person dinghy. Your father is a surgeon who saves hundreds of lives a year. Your mother is a social worker who transforms the lives of families in poor communities. Your father has cancer and will die in a year. Your mother has a brain tumour, but she will live if it is operated on. The only person in the world who can operate on her is your father. Who should you save?

While fun for about three minutes, this is the worst form that moral philosophy can take. Rather than it being the business of moral philosophers to face up to these uncomfortable and useless dilemmas, it should be the business of moral philosophers to once and for all put this way of doing moral philosophy to death. Ironically, it has no utility.

A Response to Kevin's Blog Series

Over at Creideamh Kevin has just completed a perceptive blog series on The Meaning of Marriage by the Kellers, which culminated in a review of Trevor Morrow’s Equal to Rule. Rather than having to wait each day for a new episode, the whole season can now be watched in one sitting. That’s the beauty of the Netflix age.

To summarise, Kevin praised the Keller’s for being complimentarians who are as uncomplimentarian as it’s possible to be while still remaining complimentarians. But then he criticised them for the implicit (and explicit) natural theology which props up their perspective, and for the subordinationist doctrine of the Trinity which appears at important junctures. (I wonder if in fact these two problems are simply two sides of the same coin, with the Trinitarian life of the God-head receiving its intelligibility from the natural world. The complimentarian position then becomes a way of “explaining” or “understanding” the ineffable mystery of the Trinity. As Augustine once said, if you understand it then it isn’t God. Basing a social ethic off of it implies understanding it, and claiming to understand it is a sign that it isn’t God!)

Whether the Kellers are guilty of what Kevin charges them with I don’t know, because I made a vow before God never to read another book on “relationships.” But Kevin is a gracious and judicious reader of texts, so there is good reason to trust his argument.

There is one issue I have with Kevin’s series which I’ve highlighted in the comments, and which he touched on in the final instalment. It is the issue of biblical interpretation. Kevin, based on Morrow’s book, describes the following hermeneutic:

You begin in Genesis 1 and 2 with equality. In Genesis 3 there is Fall and the distortion of gender identity that produces, among all the other chaos, misogyny and the rest of the sin that we bear. But from that point onwards the culture-transcending revelation of God pierces through with judges and prophets and poets and saints that direct our attention to the restoration of creation’s goodness. This comes to fruition in Jesus, and Morrow reads the succeeding letters of the New Testament as part of the real-time working-out of what the Kingdom means for worshipping communities. Figuring out what it means for gender is why we have the passages over which people battle.

This is a hermeneutic that will go a long way toward figuring out what it means to live in the Kingdom, but I have one problem with it. The word which pierces us is not “culture-transcending” – or at least not all the time. The fall pervades even the biblical text. The word which (when read in a certain way) calls us out of patriarchy is also implicated in the very patriarchy which it calls us out of. This is why figuring what the Kingdom means for gender necessarily involves critical reading. This isn’t a simplistic criticism which lambasts Paul for how wrong he was. Nevertheless, it is possible to be critical of Paul while being faithful to the Gospel which he preached. Consider some of New Testament scholar and United Methodist minister Richard Hays’s comments on 1 Corinthians 11.

This is a difficult text that has been omitted from the revised lectionary. In it Paul speaks of man being “the image and glory of God” and woman being “the glory of man”. Hays says that “regrettably, Paul gets himself into a theological quagmire” (186). This is regrettable, argues Hays, because Paul’s interpretation of Genesis 1:27 is faulty, most likely based on a tradition which sees only the man as the original image-bearer. This interpretation leaves Paul espousing “the ontological priority of the male” (187). Hays says that “[Paul’s] arguments may appear unpersuasive and objectionable to modern readers, but there is no point in attempting to explain away what Paul actually wrote” (187).

What is also interesting about this passage from 1 Corinthians 11 is that Paul appeals to “nature” (physis) as a source for normative behaviour (1 Cor. 11:14). This appeal, Hays writes, was characteristic of Stoic and Cynic philosophers (189). Given the Corinthians’ love of Greek wisdom Paul perhaps adopts it as a rhetorical device, but he nevertheless adopts it. Barth’s “nein!” may quite rightly be aimed in Paul’s direction at this point.

Hays’s “reflections for teachers and preachers” offers some practical advice on how such a passage can help us to figure out what it means to live in the Kingdom. First, he says that we should practice “hermeneutical honesty,” never pretending to understand more than we can (190). This is a culturally-conditioned text whose details often lie beyond our grasp. Yet Hays states that all texts are culturally conditioned, and so the cultural idiosyncrasies of this particular text do not mean that it does not apply to us. Rather, it applies to us as much as any other text.

Hays says that the aim of Paul’s letters in general (and this letter in particular) “is to reshape his churches into cultural patterns that he takes to be consistent with the gospel” (190). Hays then brings the following question to 1 Corinthians 11: are Paul’s directives persuasive on their own terms? In other words, does Paul mount an argument that is consonant with his own theological vision? (190) Hays’s answer is yes and no. On the one hand, the created distinction between man and woman is consonant with Paul’s theological vision. On the other hand, the hierarchy which he justifies based on a “problematical exegesis” of Genesis leads to a weak argument (190-1). What then should we do with this passage? Hays offers three pieces of advice.

First, the created distinction between man and woman should be upheld by the church. “We are not disembodied spirits,” says Hays, and so the particularity of our bodies should be reflected in our dress and appearance (191). Second, Hays sees in this passage a Pauline argument for the functional equality of men and women. He goes so far as to say that “[a]nyone who appeals to this passage to silence women or to deny them leadership roles in the church is flagrantly misusing the text” (191). Third, Hays says that the “patriarchal implications” of verses 3 and 7-9 must be confronted. How should we confront them? Hays suggests that we consider other readings of Genesis that might challenge Paul’s and which “might lead us to conclusions about the relation between male and female that are not precisely the same as Paul’s” (192).

Another strategy suggested by Hays is to begin with the clause “God is the head of Christ” and to explore what this headship might mean within a Trinitarian understanding of God. Hays claims, rather uncontentiously, that Paul had no explicit doctrine of the Trinity (192). He also claims that Paul appears to operate with a subordinationist Christology (see 1 Cor. 15:28). According to Hays, the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity actually works against the subordinationist implications of Paul’s argument. These suggested strategies do not lead to “simplistic arguments about whether Paul was right or wrong” but rather “enable us to rethink more deeply the substantive theological issues raised by his treatment of hairstyles in the worship of the Corinthian church” (192).

I offer Hays’s interpretation of this contentious Pauline text as a way of showing how a gracious and judicious reading of the biblical text might be carried out. Bringing this back to Kevin’s series, it is interesting that the charge of “natural theology” or “subordinationism” could be levelled at Paul’s own work on gender relations. This leads me to believe that as long as Paul cannot be read critically, the complimentarianism of the Kellers will continue to flourish.

Thursday, July 31, 2014


Since October I have been on a mission to write 56,000 words. So far I have written about 46,000. That means I'm averaging just over 153 words per day, which is about 10 words per waking hour. That's right. 10. You're impressed. I can tell.

It sounds a bit rubbish when I reduce it to numbers, but it's been quite a slog so far, yet a hell of an enjoyable one. The final essay I wrote captures the experience well. I was tormented by it, thinking about it all the time, settling on a position and then almost immediately moving away from it. And in the end, I found refuge in the theologians that have accompanied me since I first began my studies in Belfast: Brueggemann and Barth. (That said, Barth wouldn't appreciate my allowing "natural theology" a certain claim.)

The essay itself is a theological reading of the conquest narrative in Joshua. I evaluate the readings of Calvin, Stephen Williams, Douglas Earl, and Eric Seibert, and then propose a hermeneutical lens of my own. How convincing or useful it is I don't really know. But have a read and see what you think:

Theological Reading of Joshua 1-11

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Virginity: Overrated?

I read two articles via Facebook this morning:

The first one makes the point that virginity has become so prized that those who no longer possess it are sometimes viewed as irreparably damaged Christians. Their special present to their spouse has already been unwrapped, and it's now soiled with bodily fluids. The shame that one feels at such a scenario may have been wiped clean by Christ's own bodily fluid (blood), but something has been lost that's never coming back. You may be convinced that there is no condemnation in Christ, but there certainly is regret.

The author blames this perspective on the idolisation of the purity ideal.

[Spoiler alert] I recently watched Chasing Amy, which deals with a similar topic though on a whole other level. A man falls in love with a woman, but the woman is gay. She is gay not so much by nature as by choice (if you'll allow me that distinction). She eventually falls for him and they end up in a strange and strangely sweet relationship. But here's the problem: she has a past! Of course the man knew this, but only to a limited extent. When he discovers the full extent of his new girlfriend's sexual history, however, he is disgusted. He thought he was the first man she had ever been with, but my word was that not the case. And so he makes her feel shame. It doesn't matter that she is madly in love with him and committed to him and that the past is in the past. She has become damaged goods in his eyes.

Given the woman's extraordinary sexual escapades it is tempting to forgive the man for reacting the way he did. Yet in the end it is quite obvious who is in the wrong. I mention this film because it portrays how Christians are sometimes made to feel with regard to sexual purity: on the one hand, disgust or resentment over a standard that was breached in the past, on the other hand, unacceptable, damaged, inferior. To the extent that this article criticises this tendency it is to be lauded.

Yet there are problems with it. First, the author separates holiness from the body, as if holiness has nothing to do with what we do with our genitals. This leads to a further distinction between "sexual purity" and "spiritual purity" which is at best problematic. I understand the desire to move away from the sex-obsessed discourse of evangelicalism. The Christian church has always had the sexual life of humans in view, yet it is arguable that the ascetical teaching of the Church has historically been more concerned with what you do with your money or your food than with what you do with your sexual organs.

Nevertheless, virginity was a topic addressed by many Christian theologians, and was widely considered a virtue to be prized. The apostle Paul, for example, encourages people to remain virgins so as to better serve the Lord. And my new friend Maximus the Confessor thought that virginity as a "single" was the highest form of self-control. The lowest form was marriage with lots of sex. The next lowest was marriage with a little bit of sex. After that, marriage with sex only for the sake of procreation. And just below virginity, marriage with sex only for the sake of procreation, and then after one or two children are born no sex at all. In other words, the less sex the better.

This segues nicely into the second article, which is written by an asexual man who is married to a woman and who does not have sex with her. It's a sort of reverse Mayor Quimby: "This is my wife, but I am not sleeping with her." He is a virgin not so much by choice as by nature (if you'll allow me that distinction. If you will, then I wonder if virginity by nature would be considered ethical by Christian theologians such as Maximus, or is it the choice of virginity that makes it a moral act?).

What is most peculiar about this situation is how in line it is with early Christian teaching on sexual ethics and how out of line it is even with sex-obsessed evangelicals.

Which leaves me wondering: is the issue a matter of "conservative" vs "liberal" attitudes to sex, or something deeper - something which includes our rather laissez-faire practices with regard to money and food?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Barely Trinitarian

I have a confession to make: I am a student of theology who dislikes reading about the doctrine of the Trinity. When reading Tertullian for my dissertation I usually sprinted through his work on the Trinity. I have read a lot of Karl Barth, but I have not read a lot of Barth on the Trinity. David Bentley Hart's Beauty of the Infinite opens its dogmatic part with a chapter on the Trinity. It was the last chapter I read, and even then I only half-read it at best.

Perhaps the Trinity is like Guinness or coffee or a Terrence Malick film: appreciation for it is earned through hard work, and even then appreciation is not guaranteed. But rather than put the work in, I begin with the conclusion that nobody who writes about the Trinity knows what they are writing about. Don't get me wrong: I presuppose the truth of the doctrine of the Trinity as best I can. But I'm happy to take it as mystery pointing to a mystery and then move on to other things that make for better reading.

Since this can't go on forever, is there any writing on the Trinity that will make me not want to skip over all those other writings on the Trinity?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Body and Soul

The 20th century's pre-eminent philosopher made the following profoundly Christian statement:

The human body is the best picture of the human soul.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations.

This is a re-jigging of Jesus's statement that his disciples will be known by their fruit. As I read Jonathan Edwards I am encouraged to find amidst his talk of affections and ideas and minds and hearts that same commitment to the indispensability of bodily praxis:

…if a professor of Christianity manifests in his behaviour a pitiful tender spirit towards others in calamity, if he is ready to bear their burdens with them, willing to spend his substance for them, and to suffer many inconveniences in his worldly interest to promote the good of others’ souls and bodies; is not this a more credible manifestation of a spirit of love to men, than only a man’s telling what love he felt to others at certain times, how he pitied their souls, how his soul was in travail for them, and how he felt hearty love and pity to his enemies; when in his behaviour he seems to be of a very selfish spirit, close and niggardly, all for himself, and none for this neighbours, and perhaps envious and contentious?” 
- Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections.

Monday, June 9, 2014


Maximus the Confessor finds in the heron a supreme example of chastity. How so?

They say that a "heron" is a bird, and it lives with such chastity that whenever it is about to come together for sexual intercourse it mourns for forty days, and after these, again, another forty days.

Cue the "that sounds just like my wife" jokes.

Battle of the Anthems

The World Cup is, among other things, a war of national anthems, which themselves usually have some kind of war behind them. These patriotic tunes which open every game of the tournament are somewhat at odds with the make-up of "national" teams these days. Many players cannot sing them, either because they don't know the words or because the words don't reflect their convictions or sense of identity (or, as is the case with Ireland, they don't know the language!). What it means to be German or French or Irish may no longer be reflected (or may never have been reflected) in the ideological lyrics that accompany the often beautiful melodies.

To my ears, no melody is more beautiful (and, perhaps, no lyrics are more troubling) than the German national anthem, Deutschlandlied. The part about Germany being above everything in the world is left out, however, so the usual cliches about fraternity and justice are all that is sung by some, though by no means all, of the German players. Podolski, Ozil, Khedira and Boateng remain silent in the video below as their team mates belt out the lyrics with gusto. One wonders what this obvious divide does to team spirit? Certainly this cosmopolitan German team, for all its talent, has not been exemplary in its cohesion in the way that previous German teams were. Time to ditch Deutschlandlied?

Leaving all this to one side, however, the tune is elegant and graceful, and remains my favourite World Cup anthem. Here is what Chris De Burgh of, er, Guardian Sport, has to say about it:

I have a great connection with this piece of music, which was written by Haydn in 1797. I went to Marlborough College in Wiltshire, and they had a beautiful chapel where we had matins most days. I remember singing the hymn Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken, to this tune, which with 800 voices was a thrilling sound. I was brought up Church of Ireland, and one of my earliest memories would have been in church with mum and dad, listening to this melody. There’s an interesting thing with music like this, how the beat falls with the melody; they often say music is mathematical in construction and this is a very good example. The melodic pattern repeats itself several times throughout, then you have a mid eight, and for me the most thrilling part is the reprise, those rising notes, and then it hits the top. It’s a hell of a piece of music.

Here, also, is the hymn version of the song, mentioned above by De Burgh:

I look forward to my local Church of Ireland (which, on the topic of nationalism, has a British flag hanging up inside!) belting out this song some time.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Uniqueness not a Virtue?

Q & A sessions at the end of a lecture/talk are brilliant, even if the questions tend to be in the form of either a) "Here is an interesting thought I have. Can you confirm for everybody here that it is interesting?" or b) a completely irrelevant or bizarre line of inquiry that gets the conversation nowhere. At a Terry Eagleton lecture last week there were quite a few questions veering towards the second form, yet it was precisely in his answers to these questions that Eagleton's true genius, and his patience, was revealed. I didn't ask him a question, partly because I get nervous in these situations and partly because I'm afraid of asking a question that takes one of the two forms mentioned above. Of course as soon as I left the building I had formulated in my head a question which perhaps would have been worth asking, namely: How does Terry Eagleton's interpretation of Jesus relate to the metaphysically-tinged creeds of the Church? 

Eagleton made two intentionally provocative statements in his lecture. The first was "God does not have genitals." The second was "God is an animal." I wondered about the relation between these statements, since they are essentially contradictory. It seems to me that the creeds provide a way to hold them together, but Eagleton's interpretation of Jesus basically removed metaphysics (and therefore later Christian understandings of Jesus) from the picture. I wondered if that was his intention, or if he thought his reading of the Gospels could be squared with the creeds. Perhaps that line of questioning would have been too confessional for Queen's, which Eagleton memorably described as a "constitutionally godless institution."

Anyway, I bring up Q & A's not only to name drop, but because I listened online to a Q & A after a Miroslav Volf lecture on faith and violence, and something he said has got me thinking, or at least has got me thinking that I need to get thinking. Here is what he said:

There is so much talk about Christian uniqueness, as if uniqueness were a value. But it isn't. It's a fake value. Truth is a value, but not uniqueness. The fact that Christian faith is unique, I'm troubled by this. I want a state of affairs in which Christian faith isn't unique....In heaven it won't be unique. It just will be. Truth. So if we emphasize uniqueness we are interested in difference. And there is a kind of a pride associated with a stress on uniqueness which wants others to be different than we are, wants others to be outside so that we can reel them in....I think that's a mistake.

The reason Volf's words have got me thinking is because they are quite at odds with much of what I have read in the last 5 years, which has been about the distinctiveness or uniqueness of Christianity and its ethics.