Burning Channels: Four Ways Evangelism Undermines Evangelism

burning

When I was a product manager on social games, we enjoyed several different avenues of direct communication to our players, like e-mails or mobile push notifications. These we called “channels.”

In order to remind players that our games existed, we took advantage of these channels and sent messages. Up to a certain point, the more frequently you sent messages, the higher rate of average user engagement you’d receive in return.

The problem was that in order to fill that “air time,” you’d be forced to send more and more messages that wouldn’t be considered meaningful. It would start to come across as spam. Eventually, players could get so annoyed that they’d either block us, or they’d mentally ignore our messages. We’d have “burned our channel.”

Remember “The Boy Who Cried Wolf?”

“There was a shepherd boy who was so bored that he cried, ‘Wolf! Wolf!’ to feign an emergency, summon the town, and prompt some excitement and attention. The town showed up, and the boy claimed that the wolf fled just before they arrived.

Each time this happened, the town’s trust in the boy eroded more and more, until eventually they concluded that the boy wasn’t trustworthy.

One day, a wolf really did show up, and the town ignored the boy’s cries.”

The boy, in this story, also burned a channel — his avenue of receptive communication to the town.

In the former case, the catalyst was true information that lacked value to the receiver. In the latter case, the catalyst was false information (which thereby lacked value to the receiver). Notice that whether the information is true or not is not important for catalysis; rather, the catalyst is whether the information has or lacks value to the receiver.

Put another way, “Can the receiver trust that the information being conveyed is dependably important?”

There are 4 big ways for communication to lack or lose value to the receiver.

  1. It is completely non-resonant; it’s aggressive, offensive, confusing, or eccentric.
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  2. It’s seemingly worth less than its postage. As with the case of spamming to players, there’s some resonance, but the updates are too anemic and/or non-novel.
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  3. It’s a “wolf cry“; the information is knowingly deceptive or disingenuously toes the line.
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  4. It’s a “shadow cry.” What if the boy, each time, really did think he saw a wolf’s shadow flitting along the tree line at the edge of the field? The boy’s paranoia and excessive panicking over shadow problems would similarly burn his channel to the town, even if he isn’t trying to be malicious.

The endeavor of Christian evangelism has been guilty of all 4 of these communication blunders.

That wouldn’t be a big deal, except that these blunders burn channels.

1. Non-Resonant Evangelism

Paul saw evangelization as a process of slavish bowing to resonance in order to convey the Gospel therethrough.

1 Corinthians 9

“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

Evangelization wasn’t a prideful bulldozing. It wasn’t a juggernaut, let alone a state-sponsored and state-funded juggernaut.

It was a crawling appeal, in person, for the cause of Christ.

Consider Paul’s evangelization strategy with the pagans in Athens:

Acts 17

“Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘to an unknown god.’ So you are unaware of the very thing you worship, and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. … He made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone — an image made by human design and skill.'”

The controversy and confrontation was there, such that “some of them sneered,” but it was full of shrewd parleying along vectors of shared resonance.

This aligns with Jesus’s command for evangelization in Matthew 10: “Be as shrewd as snakes but as innocent as doves.”

Paul recognized the Athenians’ genuine sense of spirituality. He quoted their own poets. And he appealed to their reason, arguing how a genuine deity wouldn’t need anything, let alone need to be graven into visibility — rather, a genuine deity would be known by his power, found through genuine seeking and finding.

duh

Anti-atheism is now a business. Under the auspices of evangelization, and/or “fighting fire with fire” against the New Atheist luminaries, some notable Christians have taken it upon themselves to launch acid volleys at anyone who dares doubt the “obviousness” of our God — our God, who is invisible and must be sought.

Books, blogs, Twitter accounts, seminars, and conferences are being filled with what amounts to choir-preaching that reaches very few atheists at all.

Acts 17 says that some Athenians sneered, but some became followers.

What is the response from unbelievers when faced with aggressive charges of nihilism, amoralism, immoralism, or outright stupidity?

90% sneer?

99% sneer?

99.99% sneer?

I’m probably lowballing it still.

And when I hear, “But New Atheist luminary X is acerbic, too!,” I must ask, is X to what we should aspire?

When the reputation and impression of Christ is on the line, we shouldn’t be weaponizing our witnessing, nor should we be banking on the efficacy of excessive eccentricity. God wants to meet people where they’re at, and we’re called to help foster that rendezvous.

2. Spam Evangelism

Dropping millions of leaflets from the sky is a great way to get raw volume. But are recipients more likely to read and absorb the content, or are they more likely to gripe about the litter in their lawn?

tip

Whether one’s evangelical “carpet-bombing” is in the form of something as benign as bumper stickers or as insulting as tip tracts, cheap volume floods and destroys channels.

Think about it. Which is more effective?

  • A bumper sticker with “WWJD” on it, or a co-worker exemplifying patience and wisdom?
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  • A tract on a car window, or a commitment to volunteer work?
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  • A billboard with a scary Bible verse, or an invitation to church?

Now, this isn’t a zero-sum proposition, as if doing the latter precludes the former. But the former things are so cheap — and thereby ubiquitous — that they can mold what following Jesus “looks like” to nonbelievers.

And it looks like spam.

Folks aren’t deeply reached through sterile, inauthentic ad blasts.

3. Crying Wolf

You can convince a lot of people that you’re healing people when you’re not. False faith healers are exploiting people all around the world, giving false promises of recoveries of which they are obviously uncertain.

But there’s another kind of faith healing: Healing bank accounts.

osteenSome — like Pat Robertson’s 700 Club — insinuate that by sending them money, miraculous wads of money will start showing up in return.

Others — like Joel Osteen — giftwrap “The Secret” positive thinking in vaguely-Christian clothing. From his book, “Your Best Life Now”:

“Each day, you must choose to live with an attitude that expects good things to happen to you. … Friend, that’s what faith is all about. You have to start believing that good things are coming your way, and they will!”

And what if they don’t? What if no miraculous money wad pops into their mailbox? What if they don’t get that promotion or that new house? What if monetary success and security is not at all a guarantee for every believer, and the “Prosperity Gospel” is a load of garbage?

What happens, of course, is that the disappointed folks will stay silent or stop attending, and the successful folks will stay hooked.

Such a result is great for business, if we’re talking about the publishing and broadcasting businesses of Robertson and Osteen.

But not so good for the health of the church.

Like crying wolf, crying “Monetary success is headed your way!” is dishonest and reckless. It hooks plenty, but it burns the channel of genuine, healthy communion with Christ and his church.

4. Crying Shadow

Apocalyptism — the idea that the world is getting worse and that we’re on the precipice of a collapse — is extremely dopamine stimulative. However frightening such a situation might sound on the surface, it’s actually an exciting narrative that provides many folks with a sense of existential meaning and self-validation.

Apocalyptism subsists on a perception of “shadow wolves” — that any tree-line movement is from vicious, drooling wolves, planning their imminent attack.

In the case of Christianity — at least, American Christianity — it’s most often in the form of overblown “Culture War” memes in a grand persecution narrative.

churchstate

Consider the following facts:

  • Increasingly, government institutions are being barred from praising God as part of their official state business.
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  • Department store employees are commonly instructed to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
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  • States are overturning, as unconstitutional, bills that outlawed same-sex marriage.

These facts are easily woven into a persecution narrative that’s powered by the fuel of apocalyptism. And the paranoid alarmism about these facts is, in turn, crafted into what the general public perceives Christianity to be “about.”

But these three facts are, at the end of the day, rather trivial, regardless of where you stand on they’re being good or bad.

Even if these facts are considered lamentable (which is debatable), they frankly aren’t that big of a deal compared to the horrors, injustices, vice, idolatry, laziness, violence, and wanton selfishness that pervade our culture.

And, thus, the outrageous focus on “Culture War” drama burns that channel of authentic Christ-seeking. Outsiders can’t depend on Christian expertise on moral issues because the high-volume, apocalyptic kind of Christianity is so obsessed with trivial things.

In these cases, the boy does think a wolf is stalking his flock from the tree-line. But that doesn’t change the fact that the town has learned, rightly, to ignore his paranoid cries.

Self-Control

It’s hard to articulate the virtue of self-control when it comes to something that is, in proper doses and proper method, a good thing.

We humans generally have trouble leaving food on the plate, even when we’re full.

That’s why it can be useful to put vice and virtue in terms of fables or parables, like Highlights for Children‘s “Goofus and Gallant.”

goofus

As we weigh evangelization strategies and how bad ones might burn bridges and damage the mission for Christ, Goofus and Gallant provide for us an easy way to envision which strategies are praiseworthy.

Regarding non-resonant evangelism, Goofus:

  • … Brags about how he is saved and everyone else is going to hell.
  • … Goes out of his way to insult those who disagree with him.
  • … Is needlessly offensive to those of other religions.
  • … Puts non-believers into pigeonholing boxes.
  • … Gossips about other groups with which he is unfamiliar.

Whereas Gallant:

  • … Finds common ground.
  • … Recognizes the good in contrary positions while staying honestly critical.
  • … Is enviously courteous and charitable.
  • … Is warm and polite.
  • … Is patiently articulate and slow to anger.
  • … “Walks” more than he “talks.”

1 Corinthians 10

“I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.”

Regarding spam evangelism, Goofus:

  • … Leaves a tract instead of a tip, while brazenly assuming his waitress isn’t a believer.
  • … Litters driveways and windshields with literature, causing more irritation than interest.
  • … Plasters his car with loud, aggressive slogans unlikely to intrigue anyone.
  • … Pays for billboards that make people more afraid of Christianity than attracted.

Whereas Gallant:

  • … Searches for opportunities to reach non-believers in meaningful ways.
  • … Acts in service of people individually rather than as a group to be pelted.
  • … Finds creative ways to avoid offense and irritation while prompting interest.
  • … Engages folks with authentic, personal witnessing, even though it takes longer and targets fewer.

Galatians 6

“Each one should carry their own load… Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

Regarding crying wolf, Goofus:

  • … Promises that life will be easy with Christ.
  • … Assures folks that any suffering will yield payoffs in life (Zophar’s fallacy).
  • … Guarantees that giving to the church will yield monetary dividends in return.
  • … Insists that some fortunate event must have been due to God’s miraculous blessing.
  • … Insists that some unfortunate event must have been due to God’s miraculous judgment.
  • … Insists that some amazing natural wonder or mechanism must have been due to God’s miraculous, exceptional intervention.

Whereas Gallant:

  • … Preaches a hope in a downward payoff for any suffering in life.
  • … Paints a realistic picture of the difficulties but peaceful promise of the Christian faith.
  • … Stays reluctant about reckless prophesying, encouraging others to admit the mystery of the intricacies of God’s plans.
  • … Searches for natural explanations for the amazing, natural phenomena of God’s creation, rather than rushing to, “God zapped this!”
  • … Helps folks make wise, responsible decisions given our stewarding role on Earth, rather than fatalistically punting on decisionmaking.

2 Corinthians 8

“For we aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man.”

And regarding crying shadow, Goofus:

  • … Gets worried about the extrication of church from state.
  • … Sees “agendas” around every corner.
  • … Thinks state sponsorship of gay marriage is a “top 10″ issue to which to devote his attention.
  • … Imagines Satan’s visage behind anything with which he disagrees.
  • … Imagines Satan’s visage behind anything he hasn’t taken the time to research or understand.
  • … Falls for “news entertainment” that hooks people into paranoid, apocalyptic narratives.

Whereas Gallant:

  • … Understands that the Kingdom of God needs no theocratic representation.
  • … Recognizes that of which he’s ignorant and which deserves close, critical investigation.
  • … Is skeptical of “news entertainment”; he checks his food before eating.
  • … Is earnest and diligent about keeping Christ’s message pure and undefiled by the image-crafting of commercial interests that seek to exploit Christians and the Christian “brand.”
  • … Prioritizes important problems like violence, sickness, poverty, laziness, injustice, and oppression above trivial things like how department store employees send good December tidings to customers.

Romans 12

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Like chocolate, there is such thing as too much evangelism, even though evangelism is good.

“Too much” is when our ministerial message is crafted haphazardly and broadcasted brainlessly.

“Too much” is when we find ourselves enthralled by numbers games, lazy carpet-bombing, and manufactured culture controversies.

The ministry of Christ, to which we’re called to passionately and carefully pursue, is a ministry of the heart. Let’s not get carried away by the loud, aggressive, reckless patterns of this world, however tempting that too-much-chocolate can be.

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The Big Three Sovereignties

sovereignties

What do you think “God’s sovereignty” means?

Your answer to this question likely dictates what soteriology (salvation theology) you follow, as well as to what eschatology (theology of last things) you adhere.

The following article outlines what I consider to be the “Big Three Sovereignties”:

  • The “Free Will” brand, roughly represented by Erasmus of Rotterdam in the above image.
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  • The “Reformed” brand, roughly represented by John Calvin in the above image.
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  • The “Purgatorial” brand with the “Heterophroneo,” roughly represented by St. Isaac of Ninevah in the above image.

The first two brands are, by far, the most popular brands in modern Christianity.

What problems do the first two have, such that the adherents of the former “fight” so doggedly against the adherents of the latter, and vice versa?

The “Free Will” Brand

The first is the “Free Will” brand. This encapsulates all Christians who make appeals to free will in order to explain the evil that happens in the world, as will as the exclusive culpability a person has for their own damnation.

This includes everyone from Open Theists, to semi-Pelagians, to Arminians, to most Catholics, to most Eastern Orthodox, to Evangelicals that lack subscription to Reformed theology.

sov_freewill

Some in this camp believe that humans, of their exclusive choice, cooperate with God for their redemption. Others believe that they must first be miraculously “activated” or “enabled” toward this ability. And there are many others still. I’ve abstracted this variety of specific articulations of soteriology within this brand by using a “half-gold, half-purple” arrow.

There are lots of different eschatologies, so “Endless Hell or Annihilation” represents those in which folks will be damned forever with no prospective point. These include endless torment in literal fire, endless torment due to the absence of God, endless torment due to the unsaved bathing in the white-hot fire of God’s presence, punish-then-annihilation, and “partial resurrection” conditionalism.

The Problems

In order for God’s ordination to “move out of the way” for libertarian free will, one of the following statements must be rejected:

  • God is omnipotent (having complete authority over creation to heal, stop, or functionally undo anything he pleases).
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  • God is omniscient (even if only about the present).
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  • God has a will (he isn’t indifferent or inactive).
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  • God has at least an occasional willingness to intervene in the affairs of mankind to direct or course-correct.

The only other option is:

  • Practice a form of cognitive dissonance or abandon reason to a mysterious contradiction.

(All of those seem pretty bad to me.)

Furthermore, even if granted libertarian free will, God ordained every single constraint. Everyone’s will has boundaries, and God ultimately chose what those would be (and/or chose not to alter them as they took shape).

I don’t have ultimate control over who I’ve become. Put another way, I didn’t knit myself in my mother’s womb, and thus I cannot have exclusive and exhaustive culpability.

What does this all mean (if we don’t jettison any of the first 4 bullets, nor take the 5th)? It means the “(And it’s completely your doing!)” is false. Libertarian free will wants the contributions to your fate to be “buck stops here,” but revelation + reason very plainly tell us this is wrong.

(Why does libertarian free will seem to “provide” something that is, upon consideration, plainly wrong? The answer is an examination of what libertarian free will actually is.)

The “Reformed” Brand

The second is the “Reformed” brand. This encapsulates all Christians who believe God’s teleology courses through everything, even if indirectly, to eventually accomplish his good pleasure — which necessarily involves the everlasting damnation of the reprobate. This brand includes most Calvinists and many Lutherans, among others.

In order to explain the evil that happens in the world, it makes appeals to the selective indirection of God’s will and/or his circumstantially incommensurable interests. When all is said and done, a perpetual appeal is made to a divine “glory-extraction” from the eternal suffering and/or obliteration of the unreconciled.

sov_reformed

The Problems

Notice that everything in the universe is “gold” — even if “shadowy gold” — which represents the fact that, under this paradigm, God’s sovereignty means that everything is part of his teleological plan, whether directly or indirectly. This proceeds logically from God’s attributes as explicated in Scripture, and aligns with Scriptural statements that God, though wholly benevolent, has superordinate responsibility even for the “bad stuff” — Heb. “raah” — because he instantiated everything and is only selectively interventionist.

But something is still purple, up there, isn’t it? There’s a lingering “(And it’s completely your doing!)” hiding out under the fate of the unsaved!

Where on Earth did that come from?

How could purple come out of gold, even shadowy gold?

It didn’t come from anywhere, but represents the lingering vestiges of libertarian freedom that even Calvinism harbors. This incongruity makes itself manifest in logically incoherent doctrines like “single predestination” and “sufficient for all, efficient for some.”

But this brand needs that purple.

Why?

Because it’s on-its-face cruel for God to set folks up for failure without some future instrumental justification. And when such sadness, despair, hopelessness, and loss is forevera down-the-road payoff is impossible by definition.

The Situation

The former is a brand of sovereignty+soteriology+eschatology often called “synergism.”

The latter is a brand of sovereignty+soteriology+eschatology often called “monergism.”

The situation is that these paradigms together:

  • Are overwhelmingly dominant across modern Christendom.
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  • Both include a hopeless and prospectively-pointless forever-doom for many, if not most, of God’s “in the image of God” creatures.
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  • Require at least a dash of purple in order that “a man damns himself,” in an attempt to “excuse” God of the above “love problem.”

And here are three false statements about these two paradigms:

  • Throughout the history of the church, these have been the only paradigms.
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  • In the early church, no other paradigm was popularly held by faithful Christians.
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  • Only the above paradigms have a robust Scriptural case to make.

The “Purgatorial” Brand (with the “Heterophroneo”)

There’s another brand, however, which lacks the logical incoherence and/or cruelty problems of the previous brands.

sov_purg

First, it bites the bullet on God’s “golden” sovereignty, but punts all purple. As a result, it’s free to say that our salvation is synergistic, because there’s always a valid synergistic perspective riding alongside God’s global sovereignty. (Notice how our salvation from punishment is colored cooperative.)

This “dual perspective” — which we can nickname “the heterophroneo” — uses compatibilism, the view of destiny preferred by the vast majority of philosophers, to solve the age-old “Christian puzzle.” And lest you think it is a modern retrofit, it also makes by far the most sense with Scripture at every juncture.

Second, it doesn’t need any purple because it doesn’t need to make excuses for an interminable doom (whether in torment or in obliteration) in response to human folly.

Rather, hell is purgatorial, a historical doctrine with popular subscription in the early Church.

From our last post on hell:

Evidence proves that by the late 4th century, there were at least two popular views of hell in the Church:

  • “Hell is purgatorial.”
  • “Hell is endless torment.”

The primary proof of this state of affairs comes “straight from the horse’s mouth”: The individual most pivotally responsible for the ubiquity of endless hell belief over the last 1500 years, St. Augustine, admitted the great popularity of purgatorialism in his day (Enchiridion 29).

(Note that St. Augustine agreed with the purgatorialists that there would be a purgatorial fire for at least some, but thought the wholly unsaved would be in torment forever.)

Purgatorialism wasn’t yet considered heretical; St. Augustine regarded it an “amicable controversy” (City of God 17) and purgatorialists “not… contrary to Scripture.”

But the 5th century saw a major shift in attitude, much in thanks to St. Augustine’s campaigning. A few decades later, it was conflated with wacky, violent Late Origenism, reckless bishops unofficially declared it anathema at the 5th Ecumenical Council, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Result

The result is pretty amazing:

  • Purgatorialism solves the indomitable theodicean problem of endless hell/doom by invalidating it as doctrinal error.
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  • “Heterophroneo” compatibilism ends the controversy of sovereignty and freedom, syncretizing both synergism and monergism.

So, what’s the catch?

  • It requires calling into question the age-old belief in libertarian free will. We do have libertarian feelings, just as when we look up at a starry sky, it appears as if the sky is a light-speckled dome. We must instead adopt compatibilism, which most philosophers have already come to realize is the correct course.
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  • It requires rewinding before the Reformation, before St. Thomas Aquinas, calling St. Augustine into question, and heeding the early Church purgatorialists. (The purgatorial counterpart, in eloquence and reason, to St. Augustine was St. Gregory of Nyssa.)
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  • It requires a deeper look at Biblical source languages and calling into question translations that recklessly translate Heb. olam and Gr. aion/aionios/aionion as “forever” and “everlasting” — when we know that’s not what they meant.

Those three “requirements” aren’t trivial. They take scrutiny and hard work.

And hard work catalyzes memetic weakness. However beautiful and elegant a solution this might be, memetic weaknesses are like when you accidentally leave your car’s emergency brake on.

And there’s probably no way around this.

St. Isaac of Ninevah on the Folly of the First Two Brands

In 1983, documents written by the 7th century ascetic St. Isaac of Ninevah were discovered, confirming his advocacy of purgatorial hell, and his view on God’s “shades of gold” sovereignty — a conclusion he knew was unavoidable even with his fondness for free will (if he were here today, I venture, he might be a compatibilist alongside the majority of philosophers).

The following are excerpts from Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s citations of St. Isaac’s writings, which you can read in a must-have volume.

St. Isaac on the absurdity of a Benevolence knowingly creating beings in his image for ultimate doom:

“If someone says that [God] has put up with them here on earth in order that his patience may be known — with the idea that he would later punish them mercilessly — such a person thinks [wrongly about God because of his way of thinking]: he is removing from God his kindness, goodness, and compassion: all the things because of which he truly bears with sinners and wicked men.

Such a person is attributing to God enslavement to passion, imagining that he has not consented to their being chastised here with a view to a much greater misfortune he has prepared for them, in exchange for a short-lived patience. Not only does such a person fail to attribute something praiseworthy to God, but he also calumniates him.”

St. Isaac on “shades of gold” sovereignty and God’s cunning foreknowledge and planning:

“You should see that, while God’s caring is guiding us all the time to what he wishes for us, as things outwardly appear, it is from us that he takes the occasion to providing things, his aim being to carry out by every means what he has intended for our advantage.

All this is because he knew beforehand our inclination towards all sorts of wickedness, and so he cunningly made the harmful consequences which would result from this into a means of entry to the future good and the setting right of our corrupted state.”

St. Isaac on the consequential and instrumental nature of God’s teleology:

“These are things which are known only to him. But after we have been exercised and assisted little by little as a result of these consequences after they have occurred, we realize and perceive that it could not turn out otherwise than in accordance with what has been foreseen by him.

This is how everything works with him, even though things may seem otherwise to us: with him it is not a matter of [pure] retribution, but he is always looking beyond to the advantage that will come from his dealings with humanity. And one such thing is the matter of gehenna, [which is to say, the hell of judgment].”

St. Isaac on what things have fleeting patience and reactionary vengeance, and Who — of course — lacks these things:

“It is not the way of the compassionate Maker to create rational being sin order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which he knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when he created them — and whom nonetheless he created. All the more since malicious foreplanning and the taking of vengeance are characteristic of the passions of created beings, and do not belong to the Creator.

For all this characterizes people who do not know or who are unaware of what they are doing… for as a result of some matter that has occurred unexpectedly to them they are incited by the vehemence of anger to take vengeance. Such action does not belong to the Creator who, even before the cycle of the depiction of creation has been portrayed, knew of all that was before and all that was after in connection with the actions and intentions of rational beings.”

St. Isaac on how his spiritual and doctrinal forebears lay for him, and for all of us, a foundation of thinking rationally and logically about God’s characteristics and what conclusions they necessitate.

“[The opinions of our church forefathers] will cast away from our way of thinking the… opinion of God expressed by those who introduce evil and passibility into his nature, saying that he is changed by circumstances and times.

At the same time these opinions will teach us about the nature of his chastisements and punishments, whether here or there, instructing us concerning what sort of compassionate intentions and purposes he has in allowing these to come upon us, what are the excellent outcomes resulting from them, how it is not the matter of our being destroyed by them or enduring the same for eternity, how he allows them to come in a fatherly way, and not vengefully — which would be a sign of hatred.

Their purpose was that, by thinking in this way, we might come to know about God, and wonder at him would draw us to love him, and as a result of that love we might feel ashamed at ourselves and set aright the conduct of our lives here.”

We know that doctrine develops.

Our theological understanding gets more detailed and more exhaustive.

But perhaps, when we “rewind” through Christianity — past late political councils and violent doctrinal controversies — we’ll find that on certain topics there are things yet to discover: Treasure troves of earlier sound logic and reason, buried by the sands of time, and quietly objecting to the loudness of memetically powerful mistakes.


Under any “shades of gold” sovereignty, it may appear that God authors evil. It’s important, at this juncture, to theologically dive into what “want/will” mean, God’s interest set, and how “shadowy gold” is God’s business only in a limited sense. Read “Is God the Author of Evil? (Semantics of ‘Want/Will’).”

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“Genuineness” by Association

genuineness

Perhaps you’ve heard of the “No True Scotsman” logical fallacy. It goes something like this:

“All Scotsmen enjoy haggis,” says Mike.

“My father’s Scottish, though, and he hates haggis!” objects Julia.

“Then your father,” replies Mike, “is not a true Scotsman.”

Instead of “true,” Mike could have said “genuine” or “real,” but the fallacy remains: he is, on the fly, stipulating a persuasive definition in order to defend his original claim against the clear rebuttal.

Let’s look at another version of the above exchange for a moment.

“All Scotsmen hate haggis,” says Mike.

“My brother’s Scottish, though, and he loves haggis,” objects Julia.

“Then your brother,” replies Mike, “is not a true Scotsman.”

This exchange is much more absurd, isn’t it?

Why is that?

Even though Mike’s original claims in both situations are false, and even though Mike’s replies in both situations are fallacious, his second reply is zanier because there is indeed an association between being from Scotland and enjoying traditional Scottish food, like haggis.

It’s one thing to fashion a stereotype along a vector of strong association; it’s quite another to fashion a stereotype completely against that association.

I think you’ll agree that this is pretty basic stuff so far.

But it turns out that these odd exchanges can go a long way toward helping us think about theology and philosophy.

Step 1: The Red Flag

Any time someone prepends the qualifiers “true,” “genuine,” or “real” in front of a relatively familiar concept, it should serve as a red flag to you that a persuasive definition might be at play.

Often times, such persuasive definitions aren’t employed as dirty tricks as with the “No True Scotsman” fallacy, but as sincerely felt foundations for various theological claims.

So when you see those words, your brain should tell you, “Shields up!

Step 2: Recognize the Association

Remember that most persuasive definitions — “true _______,” “genuine _______,” “real _______,” etc. — subsist upon stereotyping a strong association.

(I say “most” because, sometimes, a theologian or philosopher really is attempting to advance a new, bizarre, idiosyncratic definition in order to provoke a dopamine-exciting response. These maneuvers are usually recognized easily, without need for shields or red alerts.)

So step 2 is to recognize that association.

For example, Fred might say, “Risk is innate to love. Without risk, there cannot be genuine love.”

The association here is clear: In some of the most loving relationships and loving actions we can take, there’s something about that relationship or action that can be correctly described as “risky.”

Furthermore, risk multiplies against evaluation. I may value something, but if the work necessary to acquire or reaquire that thing is very intense — particularly if it is something that cannot be reaquired if I lose it —  it does a number on our prospect-seeking and our loss-aversive neurotransmitter activity.

This is why the evil “Art of Seduction” fad involves emotionally abusing a partner into being afraid you’ll leave and uncertain about your ultimate intentions. This makes unsuspecting partners fall in love way earlier than is healthy, “cheating” people into love using the “hack” of perceptive risk cultivation.

That’s the “dark side” of risk.

The “light side” includes when I have awful dreams about being married to someone else, I wake up feeling a buzz of thankfulness that I’m with my wife. My imagination races to the numerous possible worlds in which I missed out on this blessing in my life. The overwhelming gratitude I feel in being fortunate to be her husband, when so many things could have gone wrong, and when so many disasters may befall us in the future, multiplies against the natural satisfaction I have enjoying her company and interacting with her every day.

And thus, for emotions to escalate into being “in love,” it often takes the perceptive value-multiplier of risk.

There is a very, very strong association here.

Step 3: Search for Decoupling Corner-Cases

So the question here is, “Is X merely strongly associated with Y, or is X absolutely necessary for ‘true’ Y?”

To put it in terms of our example, “Is risk merely strongly associated with love, or is risk absolutely necessary for ‘true’ love?”

To answer this question, we can go through the exercise of searching for “decoupling corner-cases.” This are the uncommon instances in which there is Y without X — e.g., a Scotsman without the affinity for haggis.

In terms of our example, we’d be searching for situations in which there is love expressed — which everyone would describe as genuine, true, and real — but in which there is very low, even zero risk.

One corner case might be the love a (particular, loving) new mother has for her newborn. There is no risk of the newborn defying her or rebelling against her, and yet the love toward the baby is genuine.

Down the road, the baby will inevitably leave the mother, and there are thoughts about the child’s path in life and destination, and this multiplies against the perceptive value. But this risk is not a predicate. The mother need not appeal to some future risk in order to genuinely love her child.

(Neither must the mother have a measure of unreliability to express such! Good gravy!)

The next corner case is much less heartfelt, but shows how affinity is a product of interest resonance independent of any risk-driven “multipliers.”

Over the last 20 years, I’ve written many simulations of deterministic automata. These are virtual worlds in which little, simplistic virtual organisms go about their business.

The following is from a schema called “Durdle Dwarves.”

dwarves

Even though these virtual units act deterministically, they find themselves in all sorts of situations.

In the following, two units chase one another in an endless race in the larger cell on the right. On the left, a unique condition is changing mindless rock into a mobile unit and he fumbles about before turning back into stone.

cycling

But there are many less-stable patterns as well. These “dwarves,” like the stalwart dwarf adventurers from Lord of the Rings, dig walls, build bridges, carve mines, push minecarts, collect rocks from one location and deposit them in others, and more.

When I watch one unit chase another, or watch a unit build a long bridge, I know exactly what he’s going to do. The delight for me isn’t in the “riskiness” of his endeavor — after all, these are all deterministic. Rather, I delight simply because they are doing things that resonate with me. These aren’t real-life bridges or minecarts or rocks, but the patterns are so analogous that I like watching them. (I used the pronoun “he” in this paragraph — did you notice that, or did the word feel acceptably natural?)

None of this is to imply that we are much akin to the “Durdle Dwarves.” We’re much more complicated, for one. We also make decisions, through a neural process called “decisionmaking,” in which we measure and select an action according to an evaluation of imaginary opportunities.

This is only meant to show that I can “enjoy” or “have affinity for” things that literally cannot defy my foreknowledge.

I can imagine a world in which I’ve created a hyper-complicated automata with extremely human-like units, and genuinely love and feel for them as my creations even if I know exactly what they’re going to do, just as I genuinely love and feel for my dog even though his behavior is almost completely predictable — and as that predictability increases, my love continues fully and ever onward, unscathed.

That isn’t a stretch to me. To me, this is a valid demonstration of the “decoupling” of affinity from risk and, eventually, given a sufficient increase in resonance and affinity, genuine love and care.

In the Abstract

This 3-step process should be our modus operandi whenever we see someone making a persuasive argument using a “limited” sense of “true _______,” “genuine _______,” or “real _______.”

“Genuine love” isn’t the only word finding itself used in this persuasive, stipulative manner.

As you engage in theological and philosophical discussions, you’ll see all sorts of terms like this:

  • Real freedom”
  • Genuine choice”
  • True Christians”
  • Real value”
  • Genuine altriusm”
  • True justice”
  • Real spirituality”
  • Genuine possibility”
  • Truly rational”

Each of these probably trigger a few mental images and concepts. You might even feel a sense of what the author might be intending.

But is that the same sense the author intended?

Remember that I’m the author, here…

… And I didn’t intend anything by any of them!

I have no idea what those stipulative “reals/genuines/trues” are doing to those words. They could be doing anything! (Thank goodness they’re not being employed toward some rhetorical strategy right now! They’d be really dangerous if they were!)

And that’s why those words should always prompt “shields up” as part of that slow, “boring,” critical, 3-step evaluation.

Where have you seen these kinds of phrases being used?

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Thorny Moral Chestnuts, Pt. 2

ignorance

Catchy quotes and sayings — “chestnuts” — can undergo slight mutations over time.

Sometimes, those chestnuts are proverbs or rules. And sometimes, those gradual mutations can modify those proverbs or rules so much that their original wisdom is completely destroyed, converted into non-wisdom.

Last time in this 2-part series, we talked about “The Ends Can’t Justify the Means.” Today, we’ll talk about “Ignorance is No Excuse.” Both of these are false chestnuts.


“Ignorance is No Excuse”

Let’s say you’re a manager who delegates many of your responsibilities to your subordinates.

One day, one of your subordinates mails a package without including a special serial number, and it causes problems for your team. You call him into your office.

“You’re in trouble,” you say. “You mailed a package off to finance without including the sorting number.”

“But I had no idea I was supposed to do that!” he replies.

“Ignorance is no excuse,” you say.

The thing is, it was your responsibility to train him, a week ago, in applying proper serial numbers on special packages. You know that you failed to do this; you cut the training short to pick up your dog and didn’t get to the part about numbering packages. You knew this would leave a gap in his ability to make right decisions according to your company’s processes, and yet you did it anyway, and didn’t bother to fill him in later.

The reason I transferred the responsibility for this mistake to you is because it most obviously alleviates the subordinate’s responsibility. Clearly, ignorance was a perfectly valid excuse.

How can you act upon what you did not know, and couldn’t have known?

When Ignorance is Blameworthy

Here are some alternative versions of the above thought experiment.

  • You (the manager) stayed for the whole training, but the subordinate left early, and never followed-up to get the information he missed.
    -
  • The training hasn’t happened yet, but it was expected of the subordinate to ask a superior or experienced coworker to make sure that new-to-him tasks are done properly.

In these cases, the subordinate’s ignorance was catalyzed by his own blameworthy behavior — in this case, negligent behavior.

“Invincible Ignorance”

Ignorance that was not catalyzed by blameworthy behavior is called “invincible ignorance.” Invincible ignorance is a legitimate excuse.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church correctly identifies this brand of ignorance (1790-1791, 1793a):

A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.” In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.

If — on the contrary — the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him.

When Ignorance Cannot be Respected

Even though invincible ignorance is a legitimate excuse, there’s no way for one human to know for certain that another’s ignorance is invincible.

Humans lie all the time, and will (if given a cultivating environment) pretend that their blameworthy (usually by way of negligence) ignorance is invincible.

We will, in fact, lie to ourselves to alleviate guilt of this kind. “I couldn’t have known,” is a common self-encouraging mantra, when we often could have known, if only we had practiced some due exploratory diligence.

(The trick, here, is not to “overcorrect” into paranoia or worry — that is, excessive and deleterious bet-hedging and consciously-made anxiety. Diligence is a “too cold,” “too hot,” “just right,” Goldilocks issue, like with many virtues.)

Humans Can’t Verify Invincibility… but God Can

Of course, verifying invincibility isn’t a problem for an omniscient God.

This is why the judgment to which we Christians look forward judges the secret thoughts of everyone. A person’s thoughts will at times accuse them, but at other times excuse them.

Romans 2:15-16

They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

… But, Again, Humans Can’t

Many practical human-to-human systems will have “ignorance is no excuse” as an official position because of the impracticality of verifying invincibility.

This position, though not how morality “works,” is a decent practical rule to account for the failings of human weakness (that of one party to lie, and that of the other party to be unable to verify).

The previous article in this series, if you remember, ended similarly. And this gives us a cool pattern in the abstract against which to evaluate those funny moral chestnuts. It tells us that just because something is a classic chestnut, and is a popular rule, and is a useful rule very often, doesn’t mean it should be considered fundamental when we’re talking meta-ethics — that is, how morality “works” underneath.

 

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Thorny Moral Chestnuts, Pt. 1

chestnut

Catchy quotes and sayings — “chestnuts” — can undergo slight mutations over time.

Sometimes, those chestnuts are proverbs or rules. And sometimes, those gradual mutations can modify those proverbs or rules so much that their original wisdom is completely destroyed, converted into non-wisdom.

Today, we’ll talk about “The Ends Can’t Justify the Means.” In the next post, we’ll talk about “Ignorance is No Excuse.” Both of these are false chestnuts.


“The Ends Can’t Justify the Means”

I’m sure you’ve heard this one a billion times.

It’s usually uttered by the hero of a story, against some villain who’s decided to bring about some praiseworthy conclusion by means of a horrific plan.

“But I’ll create a better world!” cries the villain, Viktor.

“No,” responds the hero, Herbert. “The ends can’t justify the means.”

We cheer the Herbert at this point, right?

Okay. Now let’s take these characters and transplant them into a different situation.

Viktor and Herbert are shop owners in Nazi Germany. For months, they’ve been harboring a Jewish family in a secret attic above their shop. This morning, they’ve heard that Nazi investigators will be going shop to shop and asking for information about harbored Jews in the area.

“We should lie to the investigators,” says Viktor. “A little dishonesty will bring about a greater good by saving lives.”

“No,” responds the “hero,” Hubert. “The ends can’t justify the means.”

Notice how in both cases, Viktor wants to do something considered morally wrong in order to bring about a greater good. But in the latter situation, we can all clearly see that it is no longer Viktor who is the villain — rather, it is Hubert who we all rebuke as morally askew.

We’re quite practiced at cheering duty-bound heroes and chastising “good ends / ill means” supervillains. What we forget is that there are plenty of “good ends / ill means” heroes as well, from Oskar Schindler to Rahab, who we (alongside James) recognize as righteous for heroism that required deception.

The Better Chestnut

The answer to that “why” is the “The ends can justify ill means.”

The question is, when?

Well, ends are more likely to justify ill means when:

  • The ends are really, really good…
    -
  • … and you’re really, really sure that they’ll come about.
    -
  • The ill means aren’t that bad…
    -
  • … and you’re really, really sure that there won’t be horrible unintended consequences, neither for those in your local area, nor for the world in general, and neither for things right now, nor for things down the road.
    -
  • There aren’t safer, more praiseworthy ways to seek those good ends.

Similarly, ends are less likely to justify ill means when:

  • The ends are good, but not that great.
    -
  • You’re not sure they’ll come about.
    -
  • The ill means are pretty bad.
    -
  • You aren’t sure that there won’t be a bunch of horrible unintended consequences.
    -
  • There are safer, more praiseworthy ways to seek those good ends.

Decisionmaking is Complicated

Consider the following diagram, where the ill dark-red “bad” circle is committed, while intended to make the green “good” circle come about.

cons1

Wouldn’t it be nice if it were that simple? We could say, “You can’t use bad things to make good things happen.”

In reality, those “circles” need moral weight/gravity/intensity assigned to them according to what we value.

cons2

Suddenly, that seems okay. Once we account for the moral weights, a tiny moral ill can indeed be acceptable in service of a huge moral payoff.

But it still isn’t that simple! We need to account for the likelihood of that good consequence coming about!

cons3

If there’s only a 20%, or one-fifth, chance of that big payoff happening, it might still be a good investment, but it’s “worth less” as a prospect. In decision theory, we call that “net worth” our “expected value” or “EV.”

But it still isn’t that simple! We haven’t accounted for any of the consequences that are foreseeable but unintended!

cons4

Ew, gross! This decision is looking pretty ghastly now, isn’t it?

But…

… wait for it…

… it still isn’t that simple! That’s because there are all sorts of unforeseen consequences lurking in the shadows of human unknowability.

cons5

It turns out that we, as humans, are so bad at considering the unintended and unforeseen consequences — often when a bee-line prospect looks very tantalizing — that “blind rule-following” has a certain consequential strength or fitness. This is especially the case when, in the shadows of human unknowability, habitual ill behavior can translate into numerous personal erosions of character and will.

And that’s why “The ends can’t justify the means,” is a decent “rule” for folks who can’t handle the complications of decision theory, or who think themselves wiser and/or more knowledgeable than they really are — which is almost everybody.

But it’s not really true.

That’s what makes it thorny.

And so when we’re engaged in lofty discourse about how morality “works,” we need to be careful not to treat that thorny chestnut as fundamental or sacrosanct.


For more about how deontology (“morality is about rules”) and consequentialism (“morality is about consequences”) “converge” on the practicalities of human weakness, take a gander at the Angelic Ladder.

 

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We Know Endless Hell Doesn’t Really Make Sense

gregory2

Evidence proves that by the late 4th century, there were at least two popular views of hell in the Church:

  • “Hell is purgatorial. It is agonizing, humiliating, and may last a long time, but ultimately purges away sin and reconciles. Salvation from hell means salvation from the imminent, terrifying outpouring of the wrath of remedial justice due our sins.”
    -
  • “Hell is endless. It is an interminable torment due those who did not accept salvation in life. Beyond death’s threshold, hope is gone. Salvation from hell means salvation from this endless horror.”

The primary proof of this state of affairs comes “straight from the horse’s mouth”: The individual most pivotally responsible for the ubiquity of endless hell belief over the last 1500 years, St. Augustine, admitted the great popularity of purgatorialism in his day (Enchiridion 29).

(Note that St. Augustine agreed with the purgatorialists that there would be a purgatorial fire for at least some, but thought the wholly unsaved would be in torment forever.)

Purgatorialism wasn’t yet considered heretical; St. Augustine regarded it an “amicable controversy” (City of God 17) and purgatorialists “not… contrary to Scripture.”

But the 5th century saw a major shift in attitude, much in thanks to St. Augustine’s campaigning. A few decades later, it was conflated with wacky, violent Late Origenism, reckless bishops unofficially declared it anathema at the 5th Ecumenical Council, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Scriptural Issues

We’ve already covered many of the Scriptural issues at play here and elsewhere.

But there are simple “sniff test” problems with endless hell as well.

In other words, even though the case for purgatorialism is stronger than that of endless hell using Scripture alone, we can also apply common sense against the idea of a just, benevolent God prescribing an endless hell.

And I think all of us Christians have done this, at one time or another. You’ve done it, I’m sure!

I’ll bet that, like me, you’ve asked a minister about one of these problems. And, if you’re like me, you got an unsatisfying response in return, perhaps something like, “I know it doesn’t make much sense, but the Bible says it, so we believe it.” Or, perhaps, you were given something more creative and elaborate.

The Odd Smell

At the end of the day, even if someone is convinced that “the Bible says it” or has bought in to some elaborate system, we can all agree in our heart of hearts that endless hell just doesn’t make much sense for many reasons:

  • It is an interminable punishment for a finite infraction. How could that be considered just?
    -
  • Humans aren’t that complicated. An omniscient God could figure anyone out and fix them somehow, correct?
    -
  • Even with libertarian freedom, God is ultimately responsible for a person’s constraints. Our steps are not exclusively our own. Isn’t it cruel to ordain to a hopeless destiny?
    -
  • Surely infants and toddlers wouldn’t be thrown into endless torment, right?
    -
  • And if they’re not thrown into torment, wouldn’t right decisionmaking dictate euthanasia (!?) to hedge bets against an infinite agony? God forbid! (But is “God forbid!” the only reason?)
    -
  • Surely a person never given the opportunity to hear the Gospel wouldn’t be guaranteed endless torment, right?
    -
  • And if that’s the case, aren’t we doing such folks a disservice through missions? Wouldn’t we rather they remain invincibly ignorant?
    -
  • Doesn’t the Bible say that God would rather redeem someone if it’s an option?
    -
  • What about the threshold of death “ties God’s hands”? What mechanism or tether would make this the case?
    -
  • Won’t the saved agonize over their loved ones in torment?

I don’t think we should feel guilty about asking these questions. If you’ve asked or pondered these questions, it means that you have:

  • An understanding of how goal-oriented decisionmaking works.
    -
  • An understanding of what satisfies justice vs. what makes a mockery thereof.
    -
  • A visceral, intuitive, and reliable sense of what a truly benevolent God would and wouldn’t do, even while being wholly just.

I’m not trying to tickle your ears or make you feel validated or something. Those questions are simply the products of having some measure of those properties — however obviously imperfect they are — before being twisted by elaborately systemized doctrinal error.

Now, questions and uncertainties should never trump prudent Scripturally-acquired revelation. After all, it’s called revelation, which means we couldn’t access it ourselves without being handed it.

Furthermore, human understanding is notoriously limited: We’re bad at perception, recognition, foresight, higher-order interest-seeking, and all manner of other things.

But if a Scriptural interpretation smells like garbage, our first inclination shouldn’t be to doubt our noses. Our first inclination should be to investigate what Scripture really says and doesn’t say.

A Dilemma-Free Eschatology

Aside from the intimidating Scriptural case for purgatorialism, there’s also the fact that purgatorialism yields none of the dilemmas and questions listed above, all without sacrificing any justice.

  • Those dilemmas simply evaporate, cleanly and elegantly.
    -
  • God’s justice suddenly makes sense.
    -
  • We don’t have to erase or ignore the Bible’s statements about how and why God punishes.
    -
  • We don’t have to erase or ignore the Bible’s statements about his ultimate, lofty, final goals.
    -
  • When an infant dies, we don’t have to invent Limbos or special baby exceptions, but instead answer confidently, like St. Gregory of Nyssa, “Will it receive the just recompense by being purged, according to the Gospel utterances, in fire…? But I do not see how we can imagine that, in the case of such a soul. The word ‘retribution’ implies that something must have been previously given…” (On Infants’ Early Deaths)

Decades before St. Augustine’s campaign, that same St. Gregory, who was our most eloquent early purgatorialist, wrote the following beautiful exposition of purgatorialism:

“… It will be useless to talk of [the contingency upon earthly failures] then, and to imagine that objections based upon such things can prove God’s power to be impeded in arriving at His end.

His end is one, and one only; it is this: when the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last—some having at once in this life been cleansed from evil, others having afterwards in the necessary periods been healed by the Fire… to offer to every one of us participation in the blessings which are in Him, which, the Scripture tells us, ‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor thought ever reached.’

… But the difference between the virtuous and the vicious life led at the present time will be illustrated in this way: In the quicker or more tardy participation of each in that promised blessedness. According to the amount of the ingrained wickedness of each will be computed the duration of his cure. This cure consists in the cleansing of his soul, and that cannot be achieved without an excruciating condition, as has been expounded in our previous discussion.”

Puragtorialism is not “no-punishment universalism.” There is punishment. There is wrath. There is agony.

There is also mercy and salvation. We can avoid this hellish purgation! We can be forgiven! Our sins will be remembered no more! What Good News!

Let us chase after and cling to the view of punishment that has the best Scriptural case. And if it also “smells nice,” let us smile all the wider, and rejoice all the louder, for having a God even more completely benevolent than we thought before.

 

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A Theological Payoff of Meaning’s Funny Foundation

napkin

As we’ve talked about before on this blog, the determination or judgment of a right decision — a “should” — is made up of what is valued (preferences, interests, goals, etc.) and what thing(s) would happen as a result of various decisions.consequentialismBoth of the above pieces are required.

  • If you’re not looking at prospective results, you’ll have nothing to gauge.
  • If you’re not looking at what is valued — at least implicitly — then you’ll have no metric (like weighing a bowl of cereal without any reference to “grams” or “ounces”).

The following illustrates how goofy it is to weigh things while lacking one or the other:

scales

This isn’t some stretched analogy, as if this double contingency is a requirement for cereal-weighing but not for decision-gauging. Try to build a decisionmaking A.I. without both of these. It can’t be done without building a pure deontological A.I. (what’s called an “expert system,” which blindly follows a pile of “If this do that” rules).

Most of us understand that prospects are important. Unfortunately, we forget that the value definition is equally as important. It’s just that we normally define that value implicitly and ambiguously — it’s usually some vague amalgamation of things like happiness, satisfaction, contentment, fulfilled aspiration, liberty, delight, and nonsuffering.

That we think these things are “good” does not require some ultimately rational appeal. In fact, if we go groping for a rational “justification” for “liking satisfaction,” we’ll end up making appeals endlessly. That’s because each value justification must, in turn, have a justifying value, giving us a disaster like this:

infinite

 

The Funny Solution

The strange, unsatisfying solution is to admit that our decision judgments, while containing rational and objective components (“What thing(s) would result?”), also necessarily contain non-rational parts that represent values we “just have.”

You could say that they’re “part of us” or “part of our nature,” but because we’re causal and contingent and mutable beings, we have to remember that “who we are” is dynamic and can change.

So, at the end of the day, we’re stuck with this: There’s stuff we just like, and some of it can be changed, and some of it can’t, and it cannot be ultimately rationally justified.

It’s — ultimately — non-rational.

Is That Biblical?

Ecclesiastes tells us that there is no ultimately objective meaning, and that this is an “upright and true” teaching.

We dealt with this before:

But the fact of the Bible teaching us about a certain philosophy does not mean that this philosophy is useful to us as we develop and criticize theology. It might just be a ball-and-chain we must “endure.”

In my experience, this is one of the most common reactions to the Bible’s existential view of meaning.

“Sure, the Bible says it,” one might admit. “But all that means is that we’re now burdened to deal with this sad, useless, but true philosophy.”

But what if the non-rational basis of value was theologically useful? What if the Bible told about the ultimate non-rationality of meaning not just to burden us, but to help solve some of our most vexing problems when thinking about God, his will, and his plan?

It’s Theologically Useful

The essential non-rationality of meaning serves as a reduction-stopper, which aids us significantly toward solve questions of God’s interests, theodicean problems, and maintaining the difference between God’s direct and indirect orchestration.

Let’s talk about two examples of reduction-stopping that we employ for the every-day concepts of:

  • Appreciating pets
  • Recognizing altruism

Appreciating Pets

I know that my dog is material. He is a complicated machine, a collection or colony of cells.

In turn, those cells are colonies of organic molecules, which are in turn bundles of atoms. My dog is, thus, a bundle of atoms when we fully reduce.

I also know that a dirty napkin is also, at its fundamental level, a bundle of atoms when we fully reduce.

Given these facts, are these my only two options?:

  • Treat my dog and a dirty napkin equivalently
  • Deny that they are both, ultimately, collections of atoms

No, of course not.

The third option is reduction-stopping.

I love my dog. I interact with him, and like doing that. He does all sorts of things that resonate with me, in good ways and bad. He keeps me occupied and energized and satisfied.

A dirty napkin, by contrast, cannot do those things I like.

As such, I can stop that radical reduction as it suits my interests, and proclaim, “My dog is quite meaningfully different from this dirty napkin.”

Where did that meaning come from? My interests. Do I need to justify those interests? No; such a justification is ultimately impossible (as we discussed), and it’s moot. The fact is that I have those interests and, as such, a meaningful distinction is appreciated.

Recognizing Altruism

There are selfish motivations and altruistic motivations.

But I know that even altruistic motivations are driven by my own interests. In a very real sense, even sacrificing my life is an egoistic act, since it is a product of self-satisfaction, where the part of myself interested in preserving others is taking control over that of which is interested in preserving myself — but it’s still my interest!

Some folks say, then, that we can practice “eliminative egoism” and call all willed actions “selfish.”

But do we have to do this?

No, because we are also interested in a meaningful difference between actions that are grossly in self-service, often at the expense of others, versus those that overflowingly serve others!

It’s true that both are merely “actions in the world” and that both “proceed from self’s interests in the self’s brain,” but we appreciate the difference such that we stop that reduction, and proclaim, “Some actions are selfish, others altruistic.”

Direct and Indirect Orchestration

Those of us who “bite the bullet” on God’s complete sovereignty realize the difficulty in admitting that God is superordinately responsible for the “bad stuff” — Heb. raah.

We take some comfort in the fact that, when we parse out the different senses of “wanting” and “willing,” God creates evil only in one very limited and special sense, and does not create it in the 5 other, more common senses.

We talked about this a few weeks ago in the following article:

But even if we accept this approach (and I think we should), there’s still a problem of the reduction of orchestration. After all, the above argument only “works” if God finds value in being “hands off” — that he loves his creation, but prefers that it develop mostly naturally, in a “chaotic garden bloom” of emergence.

This yields the “bloom vestiges” of trivialities and non-instrumental evils (or, instrumental, but only insofar as it satisfies that “mostly hands-off” interest). It also explains God’s preference to remain invisible but be sought, explains his indirection through prophets and the like, and syncs-up very well with Scripture’s holistic picture of God’s activity (which, as it so happens, doesn’t involve a high frequency of public miracles).

But what’s the difference, if God ultimately orchestrates it all?

After all, under this theory, God set up the initial “rules,” as well as the initial conditions, of the “garden.” His sovereign “paint” covers the Earth and, as such, even indirect products of his plan can be reduced to “it was up to him.”

In other words, direct action and indirect actions (often through what’s termed “permissive will”) can both be reduced to “orchestration,” like how a napkin and my dog can both be reduced to “a bundle of atoms.”

This is where God “just preferring” to be mostly hands-off becomes useful. When we don’t require some ultimately rational justification for that interest — which, again, is impossible — this frees us to say, “God just prefers it.”

And this serves as our reduction-stopper.

God’s omniscience and omnipotence know no boundaries, and as such, his sovereign plan encompasses everything.

But just as God can appreciate the difference between a napkin vs. a dog according to his interests, and altruistic motivation vs. selfish motivation according to his interests, he can also appreciate direct intervention vs. indirect teleology according to his interests.

What a payoff! The “non-rational” foundation of meaning empowers reduction-stopping in all three cases.

By biting the bullet on the impossibility of “ultimately rational meaning,” a truth the Bible teaches anyway, we’re no longer (as theologians trying to understand and share the reality of God) burdened to justify — in an “ultimately rational” way — the point at which a reduction is halted.

And this allows us to say, “God is mostly hands-off because that’s what he prefers. And this preference, alongside his other interests (like to intervene when absolutely vital), yields everything that comes to pass.”

 

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