It’s Not Really Good Bye . . .

Dear readers, it is with great sadness that I announce the end of this blog. I started it years ago when I was an undergraduate student. There was no plan or theme or direction; just random diatribes, research papers, the occasional biographical sketch, and odd quotes. All of which were shared sporadically and sometimes with significant gaps in between posts.

Much has changed in my life since I first started blogging; thus, I have decided to move things to a new platform and have a fresh start. I have also decided to give the blog a definite goal or purpose. As such, the new blog will focus more on philosophy of religion and ethics; it will be primarily academic in nature.

So, it’s not really good bye; only a fresh beginning!

For those interested in my new writing please follow this link:

http://jmatthanbrown.blogspot.co.uk/ 

Thank you all for your encouragement and feedback all these years. God bless!

Eric Jobe on Violence in the Old Testament

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Eric Jobe is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.  My friend Joel recently shared Eric’s blog, Departing Horeb, on Facebook and I was very impressed.

Currently, he’s writing a series on understanding violence in the Old Testament. I found the first essay extremely fascinating and very informative.  For anyone interested in gaining a better understanding of the historical context of the time in which the Old Testament documents were written and compiledI highly recommend this blog.

Here’s the introduction to Eric’s first post on this fascinating topic:

Deuteronomy 21:10-14 presents commandments regarding the taking of female prisoners of war, and the process of how a soldier may go about taking his female prisoner of war as a wife.

10 “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your God delivers them into your hand, and you take them captive, 11 and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her and would take her for your wife,  12 then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails.  13 She shall put off the clothes of her captivity, remain in your house, and mourn her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife.  14 And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall set her free, but you certainly shall not sell her for money; you shall not treat her brutally, because you have humbled her. (NKJV)

Immediately, we blush at the notion of God giving instructions on what and what not to do in regard to forced marriage of female prisoners, and herein lies our problem, which is an apparent ethical disparity between the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age and our own day. Before we look at Christian interpretations of this passage and some possible ways we can resolve this disparity in our own minds, let’s look at Jewish exegesis of this passage to see what these men, who spent their entire lives meticulously contemplating the Torah, had to say.

click here to read the entire blog.

Hypocrisy, Stupidity, Dishonesty, Ignorance, and Evil in the Bible

noah-drunk One reason I find Christianity believable is the hypocrisy, stupidity, dishonesty, ignorance, and evil in the Bible.

Take, for instance, those remarkable individuals who made it into the spiritual “hall-of-fame” in Hebrews 11:4-38.  A list of some of the most important saints who ever lived; individuals God worked through to accomplish incredible things; individuals whose lives were built on faith.  Yet, every one of them were hypocrites–that is, their lives did not always match up to the values they cherished most.

Consider Noah, one of the only men to remain faithful to God in his lifetime–“humanities last hope”.  After the flood, whilst in the primordial stages of building a new civilization, he gets wasted and exposes himself to his sons (Genesis 9:20-23).  Or take Abraham, for example, who, out of fear, led a king to believe his wife was actually his sister; thus allowing the king to take his wife into his harem (see Genesis 20).  And who can forget King David who lusted after a married woman, committed adultery, then had her husband killed so as to take her hand in marriage (see 2 Samuel 11)?  This is only a sample of the hypocrisy, stupidity, ignorance, and evil in the Bible. There’s so much more.

The Bible is simply filled with greedy, selfish, double-crossing, murderous, people (many of whom are the saints).  In one moment they are the epitome of virtue; demonstrating unwavering trust in God.  In the next, they are fearful, doubtful, conniving, lying, stealing, cheating, coveting, misfits.

The Bible is a remarkably authentic book.  It doesn’t seek to hide or distort the reality of life.  Namely, the reality that everyone is inconsistent; everyone fails; everyone gives way to anger, fear, envy or lust; everyone is a hypocrite.

From the biblical framework, even the most extreme nihilist, who rejects objective values completely, is a hypocrite.  Nietzsche, for example, was a hypocrite.  He exercised his will-to-power to create his own values; but failed to live up to his own standards.  We all fail to live up to the values we cherish most; we all fail to live consistently.

The Bible doesn’t overlook this aspect of human nature.  It doesn’t try to hide it or pretend that life is clean, or pretty, or harmonious–it doesn’t pretend that everyone gets a fairytale ending.  The saints are not depicted like Joel Osteen.  This is why I find it so convincing. The biblical authors could have easily overlooked the embarrassments and failures of the saints in order to create a more pristine and tidy view of the past; but they didn’t.  Instead they were honest and objective.

In so doing, the Bible teaches two things: (1)that the problem of evil is intractably human and (2) that we are in dire need of help.  Irrespective of one’s culture or nationality or race or gender or ideology anyone can be evil and everyone, at some point or another, is.  We are all imperfect and limited and, thus, unable to save ourselves from this awful mess.

For this reason, I find it odd that so many people leave Christianity on the basis of hypocrisy.  Christians, like everyone else, are inconsistent, imperfect, and prone to make major mistakes.  In fact, this is one of the core messages of the Gospel: that we are sick, that we are broken, that we need help, and that we can’t solve the problem on our own.

The Church, like a hospital, is a place for those who are spiritually sick to be made well (not a consortium of already perfected people).  We are not surprised to find unhealthy people in a hospital; neither should we be surprised to find unhealthy people in the Church.

What is surprising, however, is when we encounter someone truly pure, innocent, honest, trustworthy, and loving.  People of this sort do exist, but are very rare; and our reaction to such people is complex and more often than not negative (see Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot for an exploration of this).

Our hypocrisy and the hypocrisy of other’s makes us cold and cynical–we are suspicious and doubt the sincerity of sanctitude.  In fact, due to our pride, we usually lash out at such individuals.  Or, at least, over scrutinize their lives and hold them to such high standards that the slightest lapse causes us to throw our hands in the air and proclaim, “I knew  it! I knew he was bluffing!” (sorry for the shameless Princess Bride allusion). We then use their apparent failure to justify our “doubts” about Christianity and play the hypocrisy card.

Yet again, I say, this is odd. Like the saints in the Bible, the saints living in the Church are merely broken people in dire need of help. This help is what theologians call God’s grace.  The failures of others are meant to remind us of our own fragility, and hypocrisy, and draw us closer to the God who can repair our damaged souls.

So, what’s the conclusion of this meandering post?  It is this: If authenticity is part of the litmus test of truth then the Bible passes with flying colors! . . . and this: If you’ve read and thought deeply about the Bible, you won’t be surprised when you find hypocrisy, stupidity, ignorance, and evil in the Church.

The Pain, Embarrassment, and Bitterness of the Past

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I started this blog in 2008–back when I was a young, arrogant, over-zealous, Evangelical Fundamentalist.  A far cry from the slightly older, arrogant, over-zealous, Catholic I am today.

When I survey my early writings, I feel a pain in my stomach, a sense of embarrassment, and, even a touch of bitterness.  How could I have been so naive; so careless; so proud; so callous?  As I read through the old diatribes–with all their passion and bravado–I am tempted to delete them all; to erase my past completely; to start anew.  But something holds me back.

I remember the words allegedly spoken by Abraham Lincoln in response to an artist who attempted to disguise his imperfections: “Paint my picture, warts and all.”

There is a real temptation to disguise our imperfections and failures; to hide the mistakes from our past; to live a non-authentic life.  But, at its core, this temptation to maintain an air of perfection and respectability is a manifestation of pride.  We don’t want people to realize we’re fallible, that we make mistakes, and that we often make bad decisions because we don’t want people to realize what we truly are: temporary, limited, finite, dust.

Pride is, as the Church Father’s often said, a pernicious form of self-love and stands as the root of all sin.  It cares nothing for others and, therefore, builds itself on an illusion.  The illusion that what matters most in life is our own subjective experience, our individuality.  This illusion, however, is a foundation of sand that will crumble upon the high tide.  As a wise man once said, “all come from dust, and to dust all return” (Eccl. 3:20).

For we are not mere individuals but, in virtue of our person-hood (i.e., our very existence as distinct beings), stand in a reciprocal relation to the external world; and especially to other rational agencies.  Therefore, how we treat others, how we relate to the world around us, truly matters.  We are a community of beings–not isolated free-floating substances.  To live in harmony means we must truly care about the other; our self-love, thus, must be transformed to self-giving.  This is to live an authentic life; to be a person and not a mere individual.

This is why the Bible never hides the imperfections, embarrassments, and utter failures of its protagonists.  They are presented authentically, warts and all, so that we might learn the futility of living a life built upon self-love.

I have, thus, concluded not to delete the blog post’s of my past.  Should someone ever care to read them (and I feel deep sympathy for anyone who does) they will learn that I am a man with deep imperfections; a man often given to self-love.  They might also learn, I pray, that I am a man who desires to change; to grow in my love  and live a life directed towards others.  I, like Honest Abe, desire to be authentic.

So, here stands my blog, warts and all.

random musings: the value of a sex slave

1) what is the value of a sex slave?

2) picture in your mind a young girl, sold by her parents into the sex industry when she was but eleven years of age; her body and her mind ravished by drugs and hordes of foul men.  Perhaps the value of such a girl is merely a matter of utility.  If this is the case, she is only as valuable as she is useful.  But what is her use to society?  She is uneducated, she is addicted to drugs, she is psychologically damaged . . . how useful to society is such a person?  Perhaps, her usefulness is tied to the only job she has ever known?  Perhaps the only thing which shall ever define her is one word: prostitute.  Is this her identity?  Is this her fate?

3) tell me, dear ethicist, does such a girl cease to have value when she ceases to be useful? Do your ethical theories align you with the slave drivers–those dealers in human flesh?  When the slaver deems his product useless, the product losses its value–and it is only fitting, in the mind of such a business man, to destroy what has become a worthless commodity.  After all, this is only good business.

4) how wretched is this thought!  How degrading!  How base!  That a human life should be reduced to mere utility . . . but, if God is dead, if we are simply the endless motion of atoms, what else shall we conclude?

5) I thank my Father in heaven, the Creator and sustainer of all life, that such is not the fate of this young sex slave.  For she is made in your ineffable  image–in the likeness of Beauty, and Life, and Goodness Himself.  I thank you that she has value and dignity–that she is worthy of love and compassion–that she is worthy of our respect.  For her identity, her nature, will never be destroyed because her circumstances do not define her.  For as long as she has being, no amount of torture or abuse can destroy the image of the invisible God that constitutes her essence.

6) I extol the wonders of our Lord who loves this young girl, who bled for this girl, who died for this girl–that she might have life.  Truly you ground our being; our very existence depends upon You.  Truly, it is in you that human beings find their eternal value; and, in turn, their usefulness.

Some Thoughts on ‘Morality Without God . . .’

Let me begin by stating clearly that this is not a review of Mr. Armstrong’s well received book, Morality Without God.  For I have not yet had the pleasure of reading his book and do not wish to mislead anyone into thinking that I have.  Nevertheless, the topic at hand is, according to the editorial reviews I’ve read, a prominent theme in Mr. Armstrong’s book.  More importantly, the issue is commonly espoused in the writings of the ‘New Atheists’ and evident in the writings of other popular humanist thinkers as well (e.g. Greg Epstein).  The basic form of the argument runs something like this: atheists can do good things (i.e. be moral) without reference to some Deity; hence, there is no need to believe in God in order for someone to be moral.

For the record, I think this is a great argument!  Atheists can, in fact, do moral things without reference to a deity; and, atheists who do good things do so without holding a belief in God (a statement, I should think, is rather obvious).  Christians should not simply affirm this fact but embrace it whole heartedly and with joy.  Why?  Because the fact that Atheists can do moral things proves what we Christians have been saying all the time—namely, that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God.

You see, the ethical dilemma facing Atheists has never been a matter of whether or not someone who denies God’s existence can do moral things—the dilemma has always revolved around how someone who denies God’s existence can justify the existence of morality in the first place.  There are three primary ways that atheists have responded to this dilemma: (1) to reject the true existence of any and all values; thus removing the problem of morality from the table, (2) to deny that morality is objective and reduce morality to a set of norms arbitrarily adopted by an individual or a society, (3) to maintain that morality is objective and claim that we understand it and explain it by means of science.   But are any of these responses satisfactory?

Let’s begin by analyzing the third response—which is ardently advocated, in some form or another, by the so called “New Atheists.”  The idea that science can provide answers about the nature of morality—namely, that science provides sufficient justification for belief in objective morality—is simply mistaken.  Science can provide us with tons of information about what human beings and societies do, how the brain works, how creatures evolve over time, and what type of nervous system a mammal has; sadly, it fails to provide one shred of information about what human beings ought to do.  In other words, sociologists can tell us what a billion nonreligious people believe about morality; but they can’t tell us what a billion nonreligious people ought to believe about morality.  A neurologist can give me a physiological description of pain, but he can’t tell me—by utilizing the study of neurology—why inflicting unwarranted pain on others is morally reprehensible.  Sadly, science simply can’t provide the justification we are looking for.

Option two fairs no better.  Followers of option two insist that morality is real but maintain that it’s not objective.  Rather, they argue that morality is merely an arbitrary convention adopted by an individual or a society.  In other words, morality is said to be totally subjective or relative.  The problem with this view of morality is that, intuitively, most people don’t believe the brutal rape and murder of an eight year old child is wrong simply as a matter of personal preference or because society deems it wrong; rather, they believe it’s wrong because such heinous acts ought not to be done–which is simply to say that certain actions are objectively evil no matter who you are, what you believe, or where you live.  If morality is objective, and I believe everyone (aside from a handful of sociopaths) believes that it is, then to define morality in terms of the conventions of individuals or societies hardly provides us with justification for accepting objective morality.  Sadly, option two also fails to provide the justification we are looking for.

Frankly, the first option is the only option fully consistent with the atheistic worldview.  One should simply recognize and accept the fact that values do not exist.  There is no such thing as evil or good—there are merely physical events and observers who assign values to physical events.  Like those in option two, all notions of morality are completely arbitrary—entirely dependent upon the observer or on a society.  Unlike adherents to option two, followers of option one fail to acknowledge the importance of subjective values and certainly don’t believe that morality is real.  Rather, they view adherence to any set of values—any socially contrived moral system–as either weakness or folly.  After all, why does it matter what I think is good or bad? – For “I” am simply a temporary configuration of atoms which will soon dissipate and quickly be forgotten.  There is no life after death and no one to whom I must answer; there is no overarching meaning or purpose to existence; hence, there is no morality.  The only thing that is important is my will to power.

Obviously, if you accept option one you don’t have to justify the existence of objective morality—for such morality, upon your view, does not exist.  However, this hardly addresses the problem we set out to solve; namely, how atheists who do good things justify the existence of “good things.”  So, option one also fails to provide the justification we are looking for.

Christians, on the other hand, have an answer to the question of why we ought to do what is good; and, in fact, why it is that anybody (whether atheist, agnostic, Hindu, Buddhist, or whatever) can do good.  The answer is rooted in the fact that we are all made in the image and likeness of God.  The fact is, we were created with the innate ability to discern right from wrong—to comprehend the natural law woven within the fabric of creation.  Furthermore, being made in the image of God, human beings are truly valuable and it is, therefore, objectively wrong to mistreat, lie to, abuse, steal from, or murder another human being.  Being made in the image of God also means that we have free will, that we were made for the purpose of directing our will towards the good (which is objectively grounded in God’s very nature), and that  we are, in fact, capable of doing so.

Now, the fact that atheists deny God’s existence and scoff at the notion that God  has anything to do with morality, has little effect on their ontological status as human beings.  In other words–one does not fail to be made in the image of God simply because he denies God’s existence.  It is this very truth which explains why atheists can and will continue to do good things.

Abortion and the Philosophy of Mind

In all of the debates raging over the status of the fetus I have yet to come across material which articulates the connection this issue has with the philosophy of mind.  This strikes me as odd, because one’s theory of mind is inextricably tied to one’s anthropology.  More to the point, one’s theory of the mind will have a dramatic impact on how he views the fetus.

The most pertinent topic in the philosophy of mind relating to this issue is the so called mind/body problem—which deals with defining what a mind is and how it relates to the brain.  Philosophers tackling the mind/body problem usually fall into two camps: dualists-those who believe both immaterial and material substances exist–and physicalists—those who believe only material substances exist.   In more common language, dualists believe human beings have a soul and physicalists do not.  In relation to issues regarding the fetus, the question boils down to this: if souls exist, does a fetus have a soul?  And how does this impact the abortion debate?

How one answers the mind/body problem will not only have a dramatic impact on how he views the fetus, but on how he views a full grown human being.  This is because one’s theory of mind reflects his general ontology of the human being.  For example, if one adheres to a physicalist theory of the mind then he believes that a human being is nothing more than matter and energy—the hapless byproduct of billions of years of evolution.   Under this scheme, human beings are not endowed with any special or unique importance or value-our existence is just a brute fact of nature.

In contrast, those who hold to some form of substance dualism—that both material and immaterial substances exist—believe human beings have a soul.   If human beings have a soul, this entails the existence of a transcendent immaterial being—namely God.  In natural theology, this forms the basis for the so called Argument from Consciousness which has recently been reformulated by J. P. Moreland (Consciousness and the Existence of God, Routledge Studies in the Philosophy of Religion.)   If the argument from consciousness is sound, then God exists; and if human beings are a special part of his creation, it stands to reason that human beings have a purpose—a reason for existence–and that they are inherently valuable.

So we see how foundational our theory of mind is to the status of the fetus.  If the fetus is merely matter and energy, and God does not exist, then the fetus has no intrinsic or objective value or importance.  But, according to the physicalist scheme, this is true for the full grown adult as well.  In essence, there is no ontological difference between a fetus and a full grown human being under the physicalist perspective—both are simply matter and energy and neither one possess intrinsic value or dignity.

However, if substance dualism is correct, then there is a strong possibility that God exists.  If God exists, man has a purpose and is intrinsically valuable.  Like the physcialist, the dualist theory does not delineate an ontological difference between the fetus and a full grown adult.  Both posses a human soul, both are made in the image of God, and therefore, both are intrinsically valuable.

It becomes obvious that the position one holds on the status of the fetus and abortion is inextricably tied to ones theory of the mind.  If a fetus is simply matter and energy then it is ontologically equal to a full grown human being—that is, it possesses no intrinsic value or dignity.  As such, there is no objective reason why abortion is wrong—and for that matter there is no objective reason why the killing of a full grown human being is wrong either.

Conversely, if the fetus is made up of more than matter and energy—if it has a soul—then it is ontologically equal to a full grown human being.  More importantly, if a fetus has a soul, it has intrinsic value and worth—and this is true of the full grown human being as well.  Accordingly, there is an objective reason why abortion is wrong; because it is the killing of a human being; the destruction of a life endowed with the same value, dignity, and worth of a full grown adult.