Sunday, August 17, 2014

The parable, the prodigal, and the pagan

Our gospel reading at church this morning was the parable of the Prodigal Son. I was meditating on the fact that Jesus is almost certainly representing the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles and the salvation of the Gentiles in this parable, and the following thoughts occurred to me:

This parable should be reassuring, though not answering many specific questions, concerning God's attitude toward pagans who have never explicitly heard of Him. First, the prodigal son in the parable is considered morally culpable for his wrong acts. When the father, who represents God the Father, says, "This my son was dead and is alive again," there is no question about the spiritual overtones of "dead." And if this applies to the Gentiles generally, then inter alia it applies to those Gentiles who have never heard of Jesus Christ. They, too, are responsible for their sins. They don't just do them because they don't know any better. There is some sense in which the prodigal son knows that what he's doing is wrong. His "riotous living" is a form of rebellion.

The Gentiles didn't have the Law of Moses. But that didn't mean that the Gentiles were invincibly ignorant of the wrongness of "riotous living." Similarly, if a man is part of a tribe that commits murder and cannibalism, the mere fact that he has not been told the Gospel of Jesus Christ does not make him non-culpable for committing murder and cannibalism.

This should be comforting, in a sense, because it should remove a kind of cultural relativism that haunts the edges of our thinking about pagans who have never heard. Everyone commits sins, and they really are sins, even if one hasn't heard of Jesus. No, they aren't all on the level of murder and cannibalism, but even those who don't explicitly know God do some things that are wrong and are, in that sense, in rebellion against God. Hence, if they are punished for their sins, God isn't just arbitrarily punishing people who didn't know any better.

But there's much clearer good news in the parable. The father (who is the Father) reacts with overwhelming joy over the repentance and return of the prodigal. And he chides the jealous older brother who begrudges the feast. Surely this must say something positive, even if we don't know all the details, about God's love for those who have never heard or who have scarcely heard. God desires that they would return. God does not want them to continue to be dead in trespasses and sins. There will be rejoicing in heaven over one who repents.

One cannot imagine the Father portrayed by this parable as playing a gotcha game in which he sends a repentant prodigal off into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. The Father in this parable is just waiting for the opportunity to welcome the wanderer home.

It's true that we don't in this parable see the Father going and searching for the lost one. The search is portrayed in the parable of the lost sheep. But after reading both of those parables I defy anyone to portray as biblical the picture of a Father who sits back and says, "Too bad, so sad. You're under my wrath because of original sin, and I had no responsibility to send you the gospel, so you're going to hell. Don't complain to me, man, complain to Adam."

I don't know the answer to the concrete question: What does happen to the virtuous (at least somewhat virtuous) pagan? Does God send more light in this world--a missionary, a dream, a book--if the person embraces the light as far as he has it and attempts to follow the Good? Does God give a blinding self-revelation and a moment of choice, a cross-roads, at the moment of death, to one who has not previously heard of the true God? I don't know. Nor do these musings on the prodigal son answer those questions.

What I think these musings do tell us is that, since the prodigal son represents the Gentiles, we can learn something there about God's attitude (for want of a better word) toward even the most far-removed, sinful, and clueless Gentiles. From there on, we should become the instrument of that love and forgiveness--God's hands and voice, bringing the Good News.

How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace. (Romans 10:15)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Matt Walsh Rocks II: Suicide is always a bad thing, and so is sloppy sentimentalism.

While I'm on a Matt Walsh kick...

(Digression: Yes, I do sometimes use the work of more brilliant and prolific bloggers to make up for my own lack of creativity. I've done it before with John C. Wright. Digression on the digression: Wright should take notes from Walsh. In some ways they have similar styles, and they are alike in their immunity to public hysteria over their politically incorrect views, but Walsh is the more disciplined writer. He writes posts that are more like essays and less like free-association fantasias.)

Walsh wrote two posts about the recent tragic death of R.W. (initials used so as not to bring upon myself the venom of the entire Internet). Walsh's posts on this subject seem to me moderate, sensitive, wise, and rightly concerned about the romanticizing of suicide that is prevalent in our culture and that comes out, inter alia, in people's gooey ways of talking when someone talented and famous kills himself. But Walsh committed the unforgivable sin of interrupting Americans in their orgy of sentimental narcissism, and that called down upon him all the vileness that one has learned to expect in the Internet age.

So, while I don't have Walsh's bravery and hence have used the initials of the star in question, let me say right here to my small group of readers that Walsh makes excellent and important points. Suicide is never "freeing." We should never speak of a person who has committed suicide as if we know that he is now happy and free. Think what this says to suicidal people: "If you kill yourself, all of your problems will be over. You will be in the arms of the angels. You will be free of this world and all its troubles. Moreover, just maybe, people will worship you and romanticize you and go on and on about you as they just did over him. Go ahead, try it."

If you've ever seen the slightly creepy scene in Oklahoma where Curly tries to get Judd Fry (the villain) to commit suicide, telling him that then everyone will love him, you may recognize the pattern. Only Curly does it because he hates and fears Judd. These people are doing it because...well, partly because they aren't thinking, partly because they think what they are saying is kind and loving, and partly because they want to make themselves feel better when they are sad over someone's death. Also because some of them, at least, don't really believe that suicide is all that bad. They don't intend to motivate anyone to kill himself, but they could hardly choose a better way to do so if they tried.

Walsh also makes the correct point that phrases like "depression kills" and the like communicate to a depressed person that he is helpless and bereft of free will, that he is simply driven by his dark feelings. Telling a depressed person that will plausibly make him more likely to try to harm himself. So, too, do all the attempts to be compassionate that take the form of saying outright that depressed people are completely without responsibility for what they do. Again, when you tell a man that he can't help killing himself, that his disease of depression has completely taken him over, you are encouraging him to give up.

Now, it's true (and perhaps Walsh could have spent a couple of sentences acknowledging this) that a condition such as depression mitigates the sinfulness of acts committed by the depressed person and diminishes personal responsibility. But it is no true compassion simply to take away from the depressed person any concept of his own responsibility. Indeed, telling a depressed person that he has a responsibility to stay alive for the sake of someone else can be one useful tactic to prevent suicide. But if a depressed person has no choice in the matter, why bother?

Of course, those who are so furious with Matt Walsh aren't really trying to be logical. They will turn from venomous anger at Walsh for implying that a depressed person has any free will to saying, in the next moment, "If you know someone who suffers from depression, get him to seek help." But if he has no freedom, how can he even seek help?

Walsh might also have pointed out that there is a very strong pro-suicide movement in our culture for those who are ill or elderly, so this is by no means a merely theoretical matter. In fact, this post by New York Daily News author Denis Hamill expressly makes the connection to "death with dignity" rhetoric. It's not always the same people, of course. It would be interesting to find out what the ghouls of the Hemlock Society really think, in their heart of hearts, about R.W.'s suicide. How could they oppose it consistently? Much of the nonsense being talked right now is coming from the well-intentioned and muddled. But Christians and anyone else who wants to fight the culture of death cannot afford to be unclear: Suicide is always bad. There is nothing positive, freeing, or romantic about it. That is why we should try to prevent it, for everyone, by helping people to make the choice to live, not to die.

Kudos to Walsh for his courage.

Matt Walsh Rocks I: Sex isn't safe

I meant to post something about this a week or two ago but got involved in other things. (We've been raising caterpillars around my house. You'd be surprised at how time-consuming raising monarch caterpillars can be, especially if they get sick and you feel a compulsion to stare at them, worry about them, and wonder if they are really sick and if they are going to get better and whether you should isolate the ones you're worried about from the others. Of course you have to google all these questions. So as not to leave you in suspense, I will tell you that we raised two successfully earlier in the summer on beginner's luck. Out of the twelve thereafter, eleven died; one turned into a beautiful butterfly and has just been released. We're now done for the summer. End of digression.)

Matt Walsh put a wonderful post up about the lie of "safe sex." It contains so much wisdom that I'll just put up some quotes. (It is not, of course, a child-safe post.)

In truth, though, most of the people in this country are petrified of sex. The very thought of it terrifies them. Modern society plays host to the most pathetic collection of bored, sexless cowards ever to walk the Earth. We have taken the honesty, love, passion, beauty, and creative power out of the act, and replaced it with something sterile, guarded, frivolous, and disinterested.
It’s kind of ironic, really.
In this nation, we are concerned about the integrity of our produce and our peanut butter, so we only buy them if they have words like ‘organic’ and ‘raw’ on the packaging. But, when it comes to human sexuality, we’ll sip whatever chemicals we need in order to stave off the natural emotional and physical consequences of our behavior. Imagine the college students who have to chug 6 rum cocktails and 8 Natty Lights between them before they can anonymously copulate in someone’s dorm room. But they require more than booze; they also need pills and condoms and explanations the morning after about how this was all just for fun and it didn’t mean anything.
Why do we say that these people enjoy sex? The man who makes love to his wife of 20 years enjoys sex; these people only enjoy certain physical sensations.


Perhaps most absurd of all is that we call these alcohol-fused...sessions ‘safe,’ so long as they involve a layer of latex and a dose of steroids. We tell young people to wear condoms to protect against ailments like hepatitis and AIDS. The obvious insinuation here is that there is a ‘safe’ way to fornicate with a diseased stranger.
Nameless, random, uncommitted sex is never safe. Not emotionally, not spiritually, not physically. In fact, no sex is safe. Sex is not supposed to be safe. Sex isn’t supposed to be physically perilous like it often is these days — thanks, mostly, to years of ‘safe sex’ education — but it is supposed to be an act of great depth and consequence. Sex is meant to be open and exposed. It’s meant to bring out scary and mysterious feelings of desire and devotion.
Call that whatever you like, but you can’t call it safe.

I think one of my favorite lines in his entire post is, "The obvious insinuation here is that there is a 'safe' way to fornicate with a diseased stranger." It's hilarious, in a dark and sad way.

That passage reminds me of this, from C.S. Lewis, about Aslan:

"Is - is he a man?" asked Lucy
"Aslan a man!" said Mr. Beaver sternly. "Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don't you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion."
"Ooh," said Susan, "I thought he was a man. Is he - quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."
"That you will, dearie, and make no mistake," said Mrs. Beaver; "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly."
"Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.
"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver; "don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the king I tell you."
Precisely. Not everything that is good is safe. There are also holy things, which are anything but safe.

Back to Walsh:

It’s funny that in the world of petty one night stands, when someone commits the crime of being a human being who develops natural pangs of emotional closeness and affection, the other person is allowed to accuse them of being ‘weird’ or ‘moving too fast.’ And when the manmade barricades fail and a human life is tragically formed, both parties can, with a straight face, say that it was an ‘accident.’
This is like planting a seed in the ground and calling it a mistake when a tree begins to sprout because you thought the soil was infertile. You may have believed this, but still the seed is doing exactly what seeds are supposed to do, and you did exactly what a person is supposed to do if they want to make a tree grow. You may be a fool, but this was no accident.
That is positively Chestertonian. Compare this, from Chesterton's "Birth and Brain Control," with reference to a correspondent who wrote that a man does not want sex to have "unforeseen and undesired consequences" such as pregnancy. Says Chesterton, in response,

And then comes the joyous culmination and collapse; of calling a baby an unforeseen consequence of getting married. It would be entertaining to wander through the world with Mr. Neuberg, sharing all the unforeseen consequences of the most ordinary actions. Life must be full of surprises for him; he strikes a match and is indignant that it burns the sulphur; he throws a stone into a puddle and is irritated that it makes a splash; he keeps bees and is furious because they fertilise flowers; he breeds dogs and stands astounded before the unforeseen consequence of puppies. Wonder is a wonderful thing and, with less irritation, might be a beautiful thing. But we rather doubt whether anyone who argues like this has any right to a tone of such extreme intellectual arrogance.

Back to Matt Walsh:

The abstinence-before-marriage plan paints an affirmative and uplifting picture. It says, “this is something so good and so important and so joyful that you should leave it be until you grow up and find one special person to share it with.”
The ‘safe sex’ model, however, tells a sterilized and paranoid story. It says, “this is something so frivolous and so joyless that you can do it with whoever, for whatever reason, even if just to alleviate boredom. By the way, though it is just a recreational activity, like Parcheesi or air hockey, it can also lead to broken hearts, chlamydia, pregnancy, and AIDS. So, in that sense, it’s a little different from a board game. Hey, let’s look at some super-magnified images of genital warts!”
And, somehow, that version gets to pretend it’s the ‘positive’ and ‘encouraging’ one.


You don’t want your kid to drink and drive, but if he did, you’d prefer he wear a seatbelt, right? Well, would you ever say to him: “junior, I know you’re going to drink and drive. You shouldn’t, but everyone does. So just wear your seatbelt”?
Why not?
Because that statement seriously dilutes your anti-drunk driving message, lends a tacit endorsement to the behavior, and assumes the worst in your son before he even has a chance to make his own choices?
Also, what is your job as a parent? Is it to give your child low bars, easy goals, and mild challenges to meet? Or is it to point her towards what is right and good, and then give her the tools to attain it?
Also, for how long have the majority of parents been using the “well, my kids are going to have sex anyway” logic? Decades, maybe? And has sex among unmarried people become generally more or less prevalent during that time? More, right? So do we, perhaps, have here a case of a self-fulfilling prophesy?

Okay, I've left a little unquoted, so feel free to go and read the rest.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Willingness to die: True religion and fakery

This video is doing the rounds on Facebook. In it, with a chilling smile on her face, a "Palestinian" mother chats with a reporter about how she hopes her son will grow up to be a suicide bomber. She talks about how she considers death to be "normal" and how all her people, including children, hope for martyrdom and are unafraid of death in the cause they serve. That cause, she makes clear, is the total destruction of the Jewish state of Israel and the complete takeover of Jerusalem by the Palestinian Arabs. The worst part of it is that the conversation takes place while her child is being medically treated by the very Jewish people she is hoping he will grow up and kill. (Note: It seems to me to be possible that the video is mis-labeled as far as timing. It may be a scene from the documentary Precious Life, which is several years old. See this story. If so, the reporter claims that the mother gradually changed her mind about the value of human life and even came to hope for peace with Israel in the course of the filming. I haven't been able to verify that the video is indeed a snippet from that movie, but it seems likely, as the dialogue quoted is similar.)

As I listened to her, I was struck by the fact that in its glorification of so-called "martyrs"--suicide bombers--Islam is taking an important Christian idea and twisting it. No lie, of course, is so powerful as the lie that starts with truth and then corrupts that truth. The truth is that we should be willing to give up our lives for a cause greater than ourselves. Christians teach their children this as well. The hymn "Faith of Our Fathers" says, speaking of the heroes of old, "And truly blest would be our fate, if we, like them, should die for Thee. Faith of our fathers, holy faith! We will be true to thee till death."

But Christian martyrdom could not be more different from Muslim "martyrdom." Christian martyrdom consists in refusing to deny Christ or in carrying out some noble task such as missions, even if this means that one is killed by one's enemies. Christian martyrs going back to Stephen ask God to forgive their enemies, in this following our Lord Jesus Christ's prayer on the cross.

It is a wicked perversion of the desire for transcendence to admire as martyrs those whose entire goal is to kill innocent civilians and who kill themselves in the process. To teach children to grow up to be "martyrs" of this type is an abuse of their innocence.

Islam is a counterfeit religion, and here we see one aspect of its fakery: Islam counterfeits Christian martyrdom and harnesses, in the service of murder, the human desire to give ultimate service to a transcendent cause.

There is an apologetic point to the contrast as well. If you do much work in Christian apologetics at all, it is guaranteed that sooner or later someone will dismiss the disciples' willingness to die for their testimony by saying, "A lot of people are willing to die for what they believe," instancing suicide bombers, Japanese kamikaze pilots, and who knows what else. Most discouraging of all is when that sort of flippant dismissal comes from a fellow Christian who, for whatever reason, wants to dismiss the historical case for Christianity as weak.

Not only did the apostles not commit murder like Muslim suicide bombers, not only did they not die in war, like Japanese pilots, not only were they not under the spell of a charismatic leader who urged them to suicide, like the followers of Jim Jones. Beyond all of that, they were willing to die not for an ideology but for their testimony to specific, empirical facts that they had heard and seen for themselves. They did not die, nor did they risk death, merely for a feeling, merely for a desire to serve something beyond themselves. Their cause was not a political policy nor even a religion but rather a Person whom they had seen alive again after his death. Their cause, to put it as bluntly as possible, was plain fact, fact so clear and undeniable to them that they could not deny it on pain of being deceivers themselves. The relevance of this point to the evidential value of their testimony would be difficult to stress too strongly.

We must pray for those who worship death, like this "Palestinian" mother. We should also pray for her son, that he learns the truth of the Gospel. Let us offer to our own children the true concept of martyrdom, the true willingness to die for our faith, and let us teach them the difference between that and counterfeits. And let us thank God for the apostles, who offered their lives that we might know the truth, and that the truth might set us free.

Blog housekeeping--new follow by email widget added

My plethora of readers will be happy to know that I have added a "follow by e-mail" widget on the left side. Note: It won't show if you have Adblock turned on.

This addition was inspired by a reader at W4 who asked to be added to any e-mail list that provides notifications when I publish. At W4 you can subscribe to our RSS post feed as well, if you would like.

What this presumably means is that I need to post to this blog more often. I await inspiration...

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Encouraging words from Spurgeon

Via the Pyromaniacs blog, here are some wonderfully encouraging words from the great Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Sermons Preached on Unusual Occasions:

For the moment our great Captain puts his hand into his bosom and allows the enemy to exult, but he is not defeated, nor is he in the least disquieted....Let us never be daunted by the apparent failures of the cause of God and truth, for these are but the trial of patience, the test of valour, and the means to a grander victory. Pharaoh defies Jehovah while he sees only two Hebrews and a rod, but he will be of another mind when the Lord’s reserves shall set themselves in battle array and discharge plague upon plague against him.

To-day, also, the immediate present is dark, and there is room for sad forebodings; but if we look a little further, and by faith behold the brilliant future which will arise out of the gloom, we shall be of good cheer. My eye rests at this moment somewhat sorrowfully upon the battle field of religious opinion; truly, there is much to rivet my gaze.
It is a perilous moment. The prince of darkness is bringing up his reserves. The soldiers of the devil’s old guard, on whom he places his chief reliance, are now rushing like a whirlwind upon our ranks. They threaten to carry everything before them, deceiving the very elect, if it be possible. Never were foes more cunning and daring. They spare nothing however sacred, but assail the Lord himself: his book they criticise, his gospel they mutilate, his wrath they deny, his truth they abhor.
Of confused noise and vapour of smoke there is more than enough; but it will blow over in due time, and when it is all gone we shall see that the Lord reigneth, and his enemies are broken in pieces.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The wrong Mr. Spock

Old Star Trek fans will remember the episode "Mirror Mirror," in which some members of the Enterprise crew end up switched with their evil counterparts in a parallel universe. Mr. Spock is one of the switched characters. His counterpart is just as smart as the Mr. Spock we all know and (sort of) love, but this Alternate Spock uses his intellectual gifts in an amoral way to achieve wicked ends. Naturally, in the end, the real Kirk suggests to the evil Spock that the system of assassination and intrigue in his world is illogical.

Well, yes and no. Far be it from me to disparage logic. God is the source of all truth and reason, and true reason will lead us to God. However, there is such a thing as being merely consistent while starting with bad premises. If, in that case, one regards it as a virtue of logic (a false kind of logic) to refuse to admit any reductio ad absurdam, to be consistent with the premises one started with to the bitter end, then one will be in one sense logical (i.e., consistent with one's original premises) but not therefore rational in the broader sense of conforming to true reason. For true reason can never contradict true goodness. But logic, very narrowly conceived, can be one tool in a toolkit, as used by fallen man, that leads one away from true goodness. In that case, one can become the wrong Mr. Spock.

Now, I'm going to launch out here into the realm of speculation, being sure to offend as many different types of people as possible in the process: There are certain corners of the blogosphere (if you haven't encountered them, count yourself lucky) in which misogyny lives on, partly as a reaction to feminism. One will sometimes see conjectures in these corners, or in (as it were) corners adjacent to them, to the effect that perhaps men are naturally more virtuous than women because men are more logical. If one has ever tried to discuss the humanity of the unborn child with a ditzy, hysterical, pro-abortion woman who refuses to stick to the point, one will have some understanding of where such a conjecture might come from. Those conversations can get really wearisome really fast.

I'm a complementarian and by no means a feminist, so I don't entirely mind discussing virtues and vices as "more masculine" or "more feminine," as long as those concepts are sufficiently qualified. E.g., Many individual women manifest "more masculine" virtues (such as being logical, sportsmanlike, and professional) and many individual men manifest "more feminine" vices (such as being illogical, whiny, and manipulative).

But as regards the question of whether being more logical leads one to be more virtuous, an interesting point arises: Just as there is a "more masculine" virtue of being highly logical, there is also a "more masculine" vice of turning oneself into the wrong Mr. Spock. The ability to turn off one's emotions and one's instinctive reactions has some utilitarian value. For example, a soldier has to be able to turn off his instinctive aversion to killing people. A surgeon has to be able to overcome any instinctive aversion to plunging a knife into someone. But sometimes one's emotions and instincts are deeply important clues to the meaning of the universe. The instinctive aversion to strangling a baby, for example, is part of the braking system that God has placed into mankind. It's the good part of human nature, a manifestation of the image of God in man. It is that part of the imago dei that pro-lifers access when they show either beautiful images of babies in the womb or shocking images of aborted children. When one says that that instinct is "mere emotion" and turns it off in response to a false "logic," one becomes Kermit Gosnell.

I conjecture that men are somewhat more likely than women to stifle their instinctive aversion to doing bad things by way of reasoning consistently from faulty premises. For example:

1) This being in the womb of this woman is not a person. (Because I studied personhood theory in ethics class, and there I learned that the fetus has not attained personhood.)

2) It is not always wrong to kill non-persons. In fact, non-persons can be killed for sufficient reasons of convenience as determined by persons.


3) It is not always wrong to kill this being in this woman's womb.

4) This woman is a person and has a sufficient reason for wanting to kill this non-person in her womb.


5) It is not wrong now to kill this non-person in this woman's womb.

6) I am a professional technician who can help this woman to kill this non-person without doing harm to her, the person.


7) It is not wrong for me to kill this fetus in this woman's womb.

And proceeds to carry out the procedure, however bloody, stifling all his horrors and qualms as simply something he needs to get over to be consistent with "logic."

Don't misunderstand me: There are plenty of women who go through this reasoning process as well. But I conjecture that this sort of false use of logic is somewhat more common among men, especially the sort who pride themselves on being logical (as does Mr. Spock).

Something similar is at work in the thinking of the ethicists that I discuss in this post. They argue that it is legitimate to dehydrate some people to death even if they are asking for water, because the patients lack "true capacity" to change their minds and ask for something they previously refused. As I pointed out in that post, this position is consistent with the ethicists' own premises regarding food and water, autonomy, and so forth. But that doesn't make it any less crazy. The ethicist who argues for dehydrating a woman to death even when she verbally asks for water has become the wrong Mr. Spock. A good dose of yuck factor and human compassion could cure the craziness and would be in an important sense more rational to follow than the argument they are using, but they have deliberately cut themselves off from that source.

What all of this means is that human nature is a many-orbed thing. God has given us various ways of getting access to moral truths, and we should not despise instinctive responses as simply unreliable as a guide to moral truth while elevating logical reasoning from given premises as simply reliable. At that point, it all comes down to the premises, doesn't it? What this means about men and women is that, if it's true that men are in general more logical and women in general more emotional, we are given to one another to complement one another, and this complementary value can sometimes carry over into the realm of morals, where we should each value the other's gifts. Women should value logic, and men, especially men who enter philosophy, should watch out for the danger of becoming the wrong Mr. Spock.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Whenever you leave me to myself

Dr. Dimble drove out to St. Anne's dissatisfied with himself, haunted with the suspicion that if he had been wiser, or more perfectly in charity with this very miserable young man, he might have done something for him. "Did I give way to my temper? Was I self-righteous? Did I tell him as much as I dared?" he thought. Then came the deeper self-distrust that was habitual with him. "Did you fail to make things clear because you really wanted not to? Just wanted to hurt and humiliate? To enjoy your own self-righteousness? Is there a whole Belbury inside you too?" The sadness that came over him had novelty in it. "And thus," he quoted from Brother Lawrence, "thus I shall always do, whenever You leave me to myself."

C.S. Lewis That Hideous Strength, p. 224

The original, from The Practice of the Presence of God, second conversation:

That when he had failed in his duty, he only confessed his fault, saying to GOD, I shall never do otherwise, if You leave me to myself; ’tis You must hinder my falling, and mend what is amiss.

I Need Thee Every Hour - Randy Owen & The Isaacs from rlmelco on GodTube.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

On Dating--Getting to Know You

I'm going to venture here into the tricky realm of dating philosophy, especially as it concerns Christian parents of young women. This typically blunt post by Matt Walsh has been doing the rounds on Facebook, and I like it. I have one reservation about it, which I'll get to in due course.

First of all, what I like about it: Walsh is right that "hanging out" should not be a male-female relationship category. It is so vague as to be postmodern. It typifies the unfortunate and baffling paralysis that seems to have descended upon American young men, including even Christian young men who want marriage. It is insulting to a young woman for a young man to be unwilling to admit that he is even somewhat interested in her while at the same time it is obvious that he is interested in her. It puts her in the position of not knowing what is going on. "Hanging out" as a category in itself embodies this type of insult. It says, "I want to say that this girl and I have something, but God forbid I should say that I'm dating her, or even that we have gone on one single date. That would be way too committal."

Moreover, "hanging out" as a category is, in the secular world, tied sociologically to the hook-up culture, which is an abomination. You hang out in groups and then you have sex with strangers or near strangers. The ultimate anti-relationship. Walsh is, it goes without saying, right to deplore "hooking up."

Walsh is also right that marriage is a good thing and that both men and women should value marriage and should seek it, unless called to singleness or unable to marry for some overriding reason.

Walsh is also right in his tacit complementarianism. He implies the shockingly anti-feminist idea that the young man is responsible for the course of the relationship and should pursue the young woman, rather than vice versa.

My one hesitation about the post is this: Walsh implies that the men who are "hanging out" with women rather than dating them actually know what they want and should be actively courting one particular woman instead of "hanging out." Perhaps in some cases that is true, but in other cases, they may in fact need to get to know a girl better before they know if they should be, or want to be, courting her.

I'm certainly not going to say that there was some golden age of dating in which this was all perfect, but it does seem that a category is getting left out here. Unfortunately, it's a category that young men nowadays seem to be encouraged to leave out both by the secular crowd and by some in the Christian crowd, though for vastly different reasons. That category is the getting-to-know-you date. It's perfectly legitimate for either a man or a woman to be somewhat interested in a member of the opposite sex but to want to get to know the other person better before deepening their relationship. If you have regular group activities where you can just chat casually and be friends, that's great, and it doesn't need any special label. In fact, it would be (as implied above) insulting to a girl to tell her, "I'm a tiny little bit interested in you, but I just want to continue hanging out with you at church. I don't want to take you out, because I'm not sure I like you enough to take you out." If that's how you feel, and if you see her so frequently at church, then just be normal and friendly with her at church and make up your mind whether you want to take her out! But also, don't overlook the fact that you can take a girl out to dinner without putting a ring on her finger! Taking a lady out can be a way of getting to know her better. In fact, it seems that some such category is extremely useful, because it gives two people a chance to talk to each other in semi-privacy and find out more about one another without making others feel excluded. E-mail could serve that purpose to some extent as well, but it really is no substitute for face-to-face conversation.

What seems to have happened is that some Christians decided to emphasize extremely serious courtship rather than dating at an unfortunate time in social history. They decided to tell young men to get very serious very fast about a young woman, to talk to her father before so much as taking her out to dinner, to treat a date as an extremely heavy thing, just at the moment when the hedonistic secular world was also telling the young man that a date is an extremely heavy thing. But the secular world has a different agenda. The secular world's agenda is, "You don't need to have a relationship with a woman to have sex with her."

Good Christian young men are, by definition, not part of the hook-up culture. (If they were, they wouldn't be good.) But they can nonetheless hear and accept the message from the secular side of society that a date can't be used to get to know a girl and to admit merely some degree of interest, short of very serious interest. When that message is fully internalized (to use a bit of jargon), it contributes to a debilitating paralysis in the development of further relationships between the sexes. There are many factors at work, of course, including feminism. Feminism would teach that it isn't one person's role in a male-female relationship to ask the other out (or to pay) any more than the other's. So why not wait for the girl to ask you out? Then you don't risk rejection.

The fear of rejection has always been a difficulty to be gotten over for men asking women out, but now it seems to have grown to a monstrous size, aided and abetted by both secular and Christian attitudes that getting-to-know-you dating is out of fashion and is not an option.

Let me be clear: I am not saying, literally, that a date, even a casual date, has absolutely nothing to do with marriage. Such an extreme statement is false. If that were the case, there would be no problem with a married man's taking out a woman other than his wife on a date! Obviously, dating has, or ought to have, something to do with marriage, if only as a possibility "out there." That is why in my generation Christian girls were carefully enjoined not to date non-Christians--because dating has something to do with marriage.

The courtship idea in Christian circles developed in part as an understandable negative reaction to the complete divorce (if I may use that word) of dating from marriage. Young couples could be "dating," even "going steady," for five years without anyone's so much as breathing the m-word. Or worse, ten-year-old girls had "boyfriends" whom they thought of themselves as "dating." (And then the parents wondered, after years of encouraging early sexualization and childhood romance as cute, why their unmarried daughters became sexually active at fifteen!) In fact, I gather that both of these phenomena still go on as well, parallel to the secular hookup culture and the Christian courtship culture.

So, yes, it's important to be mature about dating and not to pretend it is nothing at all. But the opposite confusion is to bind burdens on men's backs by telling them, "You must never take a girl out until you are ready to court her seriously." My one caveat about Matt Walsh's post is that it might encourage that idea. I strongly support telling men to man up, but it's perfectly understandable for the best of young men to want a period of discernment in which to get to know a woman better. If we can restore the delicate, in-between category of the getting-to-know-you date, we give young people an additional tool for that purpose so that they can move by reasonable steps towards marriage and the formation of Christian families. That is a goal that all Christians should support.