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Iran and the Ossification of US Foreign Policy

UPDATE (30/8/2019): My sincerest apologies to early readers for the many grammatical and spelling errors in this essay. I wrote the piece in relative haste, and rushed to put it up — before doing a thorough audit, it seems. The crashing of my personal computer didn’t help matters either, as it forced me to hastily chip away at the post between calls at work. Anyway, all mistakes have (hopefully) been rectified.

Introduction

The world of US foreign policy is dotted by an archipelago* of think tanks, media outlets, and advocacy groups, all of which sustain the dogma of American interventionism. One of the most influential is The Heritage Foundation, which has long supported the vision of an activist United States. Grounded in a robust neoconservatism, and coming to prominence during the Reagan years, The Heritage Foundation continues to advocate for the application of American hard power around the globe, believing it to be an indispensable source of order and prosperity. Lately, the think tank has argued strenuously for a more confrontational approach with Iran. To the extent that the Trump Administration is guided by intellectual clarity on the matter, it’s organisations like The Heritage Foundation that are supplying the necessary conceptual scaffolding for the government’s policy decisions.

A good example of Heritage’s muscular approach to the Islamic Republic came with the publication in June of a piece applauding President Trump’s decision to tighten economic sanctions against Iran. Authored by defence expert, James Jay Carafano, the article defends the president’s decision to abort a planned missile strike against Iran (proposed retaliation for the downing of an American-made unmanned drone), before justifying the expanded economic penalties the US elected to impose upon Tehran instead. Calling such penalties “surgical”, Carafano insists that the president has now shown the Islamic Republic a bright “red light”, rightly punishing the regime for what he calls “bad behaviour”.

We can be thankful that Carafano thinks well of President Trump’s eleventh-hour decision to cancel the United States’ planned strike against Iran. The rest of his argument, however, is grounded in the unspoken assumption that the US has the right and duty to try and maintain global order — as if delegated by Providence herself to police the international system and confront the forces of chaos. This has the lamentable effect of skewing his examination of the issue.

Historical distortions

There are several grave problems with Carafano’s analysis, undermining his thesis at both the level of theory and history. Let’s take the second point first. Like so many Iran hawks, Carafano adopts an extremely narrow interpretation of the causes of the current crisis. He writes that the president opted for “precision-guided sanctions” in response to Iran’s “provocation[s]”. Certainly in a restricted sense, it’s true that Iran is responsible for fuelling the latest round of tensions with the US. But as I and others have written, Tehran’s actions over the last several weeks, condemnable though they may be, are largely a response to repeated American provocations in the 15 months since the US withdrew from the JCPOA. That act — which, despite Iran’s adherence to the terms of the deal, was made unilaterally — inaugurated the administration’s strategy of “maximum pressure”, which it has applied to Tehran as a way of forcing it to yield to Washington’s demands. This has involved a battery of rhetorical, pecuniary, and military moves designed to corral the Islamic Republic and strangle its economy.

As such, the provocative acts for which the US now “punishes” Iran are largely the result of unremitting American pressure, which has fostered the conditions for the present escalation of tensions.  Whether this represents deliberate calculation or a failure to predict the consequences of blunt-force pressure is difficult to tell. But as if to underscore the point, former Bush official, Kori Schake, has remarked that most European governments believe the current uptick in Iran’s threatening behaviour is a product of Washington’s desire to force Tehran’s capitulation.

Carafano’s piece recognizes none of this context. This absence means that his analysis is almost entirely ahistorical, which inevitably makes it easier for him to establish clear lines of justification for American sanctions. The problem is that it reflects a highly distorted presentation of the causal sequence in question, and provides no illumination — beyond tired tropes concerning Iran’s incorrigible aggression — as to the reasons for Tehran’s recent activity.

We should also emphasise the fact that the imposition of sanctions upon Iran has already had a deleterious effect on the country’s economy. Far from being “surgical”, the consequences extend far beyond members of the ruling regime, and have begun to erode the lives of ordinary Iranians. US sanctions have asphyxiated Iran’s economic capacity, leading to a great deal of suffering amongst the populace. Unemployment has risen apace, whilst people’s life savings have been wiped out. Furthermore, the application of American economic penalties has made it far more difficult for Iranians battling life-threatening diseases to obtain the drugs they so desperately need. Recent news reports have suggested that many locals are on the verge of death as they are unable to receive the kind of treatment that could save their lives. Not only does Carafano not address the gravity of these issues; he also fails to consider the compounding effects of this latest round of sanctions.

All this is made worse by the fact that Carafano’s interpretation of the US’s sanctions regime against Iran is inconsistent with the Trump Administration’s own account. I’ll return to Carafano’s commentary on sanctions below, but his amnesia in this area needs to be noted. The administration itself has argued that the battery of responses mounted by the United States is designed to force Iran’s re-negotiation of the JCPOA — the theory being that Tehran will not be able to withstand Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign indefinitely, and will be compelled to seek relief through capitulation. The strategy is based on the absurd proposition that under such circumstances, Iran is likely to do the president’s bidding — someting that has proven to be an abject failure. But what’s key is that the US has predicated its sanctions regime on the assumption that it will alter Iran’s behaviour. Carafano explicitly denies this.

Troublesome theory

So much for recent history. What of the theoretical issues with Carafano’s article? These, I’d argue, are even more serious. Two observations are worth highlighting.

First, his commentary reveals a lack of clarity concerning the purpose of sanctions, and indeed, the purpose of “punishment” in general. It’s commonly suggested that there are three broad reasons for punishment: retribution, rehabilitation, and deterrence. In the context of the international system, the last two purposes would imply an effort to effect some change in the offending state’s behaviour.** However, Carafano argues that the Trump Administration isn’t trying to modify Iran’s conduct. The only other alternative, then, is an expression of moral opprobrium as the animating principle for this new tranche of sanctions. But apart from contradicting official US government statements on its governing rationale, this view rests on an implausible interpretation of sanctions regimes. As the Council of Foreign Relations notes, sanctions are invariably imposed to alter the strategic behaviour of a state or non-state actor deemed to be a threat to vital interests or international norms. This is the reason for enacting them in the first place, upon which their practical utility is founded.

Carafano is either confused about the underlying logic of sanctions, or he’s equivocating on their purpose. He excoriates the Obama Administration for failing to enforce a “red line” against the Assad regime in Syria, arguing that this failure gave tacit permission to the Syrian government to continue its murderous campaign. But behind that criticism lies the assumption that American retaliation at the time — whether undertaken via sanctions or military strikes — was going to affect Assad’s behaviour. So why not in the case of Trump and Iran? It’s difficult to resist the conclusion that Carafano’s view represents a desperate ex post facto rationalisation of the (predictable) failure of Trumpian statecraft. Indeed, he explicitly acknowledges that sanctions aren’t likely to draw Tehran back to the “negotiating table any time soon” — tacit admission, perhaps, that Trump’s strategy wasn’t so “shrewd” after all.

Second, the broader assumptions underlying Carafano’s justification for the Trump Administration’s new sanctions regime are deeply concerning. It’s possible to understand why penalties might be imposed upon a country to dissuade it from acts that threaten the vital interests of the sanctioning state(s). But the kind of moralistic, unilateral action Carafano supports has to rely upon the grounding belief that the United States bears the transcendent duty to act as global policeman, and alone has the right to execute moral judgment over the conduct of others. This seems to be the best interpretation of Carafano’s laudatory article, in which he confidently avers that the US is right to apply sanctions against Iran to punish its “bad behaviour”.

Several cogent objections can be levelled at this conception of the US’s role in world affairs. Writing in The American Conservative earlier this year, Byzantine historian and seasoned Middle East observer, Daniel Larison, outlined four such rejoinders. I won’t recapitulate them in detail, but suffice it to say, they are difficult to counter. For one thing, no one has appointed the US to act in this role; doing so simply places it outside of — and indeed, above — the norms of the international system. What right, we may ask, does it have to act in this manner? The United States has simply arrogated the role of moral arbiter to itself. For another thing, the US is inconsistent, taking action to punish only those states it happens to despise. It works strenuously to strangle Iran economically for its supposed infractions, whilst leaving Saudi Arabia untouched — despite the Kingdom prosecuting an illegal war in Yemen with untold savagery. Finally, Larison notes that such a role lacks accountability, which means that the only restraint upon American action is an internal one. To accept this is to play hostage to fortune.

To these four points I’d briefly add two more. For the United States to act in this manner invites the kind of reckless decisions that have so successfully destabilised the Middle East recently. If the US believes itself unbeholden to the normal rules of international statecraft, then there is little to prevent it from pursuing an assertive foreign policy, particularly when it is fuelled by the conviction of American power as an unalloyed good. Conversely, to do nothing during times of crisis would be seen as a dereliction of duty. But as the past 16 years have demonstrated, chaos and suffering have followed in the wake of American interventionism in the Middle East.

And what of other states, and their self-perceived interests? While many American commentators, politicians, and thought leaders would claim that the the US possesses a unique, inalienable role within world affairs, other countries might not be so sanguine about it. Then there are those states that emulate US assertiveness on a more local (though no less destructive) scale. The Saudis’ activity in Yemen and Syria may be highlighted as a good example of this phenomenon. American actions in foreign lands, then, may simply encourage other state (and non-state) actors to adopt activist foreign policies in their own spheres of influence — thereby adding to the sum total of global crises.

Carafano fails to grapple with observations like these, so committed is he to the axiom that the United States ought to engage the world as its chief arbiter. In so doing, he repeats the same old, ideological tropes that have sustained a supposedly conservative approach to US foreign policy and national security. Of course, this isn’t a unique view: American interventionism has long been a bi-partisan position in the US, enjoying approbation on both sides of the political aisle. For those inhabiting that world, anything else projects weakness and invites chaos. But to the extent that the US lacks strength and permits turmoil to thrive, then it’s precisely the ideas that movement conservatism cherishes — ideas blandly regurgitated in Carafano’s article — that have produced this state of affairs.

* I can’t claim this rather evocative description for myself. I owe it to Rod Dreher, the conservative journalist and writer, who first used it some months ago in a blog post on similar issues.

** This, of course, assumes that talk of “punishment” in the context of the international system is appropriate — something I would dispute (or at least heavily qualify).

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Religious Schools and LGBTI Rights: a Delicate Balance

Note: a slightly different version of this article recently appeared in Engage.mailthe monthly online newsletter administered by the Evangelical Alliance’s Ethos think-tank. 

Introduction

The rancorous debate concerning religious freedom and the rights of the LGBTI community has produced several troubling side-effects, not least of which has been a tug-of-war over language. Take the word “discrimination”, which is now contested linguistic and conceptual territory. While all sides acknowledge that invidious discrimination can occur in the public sphere, many LGBTI activists are convinced that to make distinctions on the basis of sexual expression or gender identity – even those grounded in a wider system of religious beliefs – constitutes action that is, by its very nature, unfair.

I have been reminded of this repeatedly over the past year or so, as a series of disputes concerning LGBTI students and teachers in religious schools continues to smoulder. On one side stand religious liberty advocates, who argue that a faith-based school should be permitted to hire or dismiss staff according to its guiding system of values. On the other side are LGBTI activists and their allies, all of whom are equally convinced that such practices are intrinsically unjust and stall the liberationist enterprise. I don’t doubt the sincerity of many of those fighting for what they view as the fundamental rights of gays, lesbians, transgender people and so forth. Moreover, on the question of LGBTI students in faith-based schools, I’d suggest we’re largely in agreement. Even in the case of teachers, the issue is not, for example, sexual orientation per se, but competing lifestyles and value systems. But having said all that, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that there exist many activists who cynically weaponise the language of discrimination to subjugate their ideological opponents.

Demands that anti-discrimination laws be broadly applied to religious schools – institutions that have traditionally enjoyed exemptions from this legal architecture – have grown more strident. Brandishing placards and shouting their slogans, advocates decry religious schools choosing not to employ LGBTI teachers as an illegitimate expression of religious freedom. For them, all further discussion is foreclosed. Advocates passionately insist that, if a teacher’s primary role is to educate students according her specialty, then other attributes (e.g., homosexuality and any resultant conduct) should be seen as immaterial to the inherent requirements of the position. Any attempt to deny employment on such grounds is a manifest example of invidious discrimination and religious bigotry. This fervent activism is buttressed by the more sober reflections of advocates for reform in the legal profession, who attempt to argue upon jurisprudential grounds that faith-based schools should enjoy only the narrowest of exemptions in this domain.

The marriage of white-hot ardour and cool rationality forms a potent mix. And to be fair, the debate is not helped by current legal uses of the word ‘discrimination’ and its scope. Mischievous though some activists may be, their position is inadvertently reinforced by the way religious exemptions to such laws are currently articulated. As at least one commentator has observed, saying that religious institutions ought to sit outside the bounds of relevant anti-discrimination legislation invites the idea that the religious have been grudgingly given a reprieve from what is otherwise deemed to be objectionable conduct. This likely gives succour to some people calling for such exemptions to be repealed. But even if one concedes that the framing of current legislation is inadequate, it’s still true that, in prosecuting their case, many LGBTI advocates – whether sincere or cynical – who denounce religious schools appear to elide the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate instances of discrimination.

The purpose of faith-based schools

The real question, then, is not whether religious freedom entails freedom of discrimination per se, but what kinds of discrimination are appropriate or fair. Should a faith-based school be permitted to distinguish between staff on the basis of particular types of sexual conduct (or the promotion thereof)? Or does such permission implicitly endorse decisions that are manifestly cruel and bigoted?

It is here that an account of what religious schools are, and what they seek to achieve, is germane. For a religious school to hire teachers according to their adherence to the school’s guiding ethos is, I would argue, neither unfair nor invidious. Rather, it represents the natural sequel to the foundational principles supplying the institution with its raison d’etre in the first place. Such practices are critical if a religious educational institution is to maintain its specific identity. It is difficult to see how one could disagree with the proposition, considered generically, that a faith-based school should be given some autonomy to employ staff that will, in both confession and conduct, uphold the institution’s governing philosophy.

On this view, pedagogy is about far more than the transmission of discretely-packaged information to students. Religious educational institutions exist in part to convey such information within the context of a religiously-grounded worldview, and to engage students in a process of moral formation according to the tenets of the traditions they represent. Obviously, such a project will not always succeed: many students leave such schools unchanged, or may even repudiate the institution’s teachings entirely. But this oft-repeated reality has nothing to do with the principle at issue. For those schools that have been self-consciously established to communicate the ethos of a particular religion (apart from the task of instructing students in the various subjects common to all schools), it would seem self-defeating not to try and employ educators who can successfully embody them.

In the case of, say, conservative Christian institutions, this will likely mean upholding certain standards concerning sexuality and sexual identity. Faith-based schools seeking to imbue the life of their community with the values of their grounding tradition will normally do so through the conduits of teachers’ lives (among other means). Thus, if their goal is to uphold the particulars of their religious worldview, and doing so is partly achieved through the modelling behaviour of staff, then whether or not a person’s life reflects those values is deeply relevant. None of this is unique to faith-based schools, either. A moment’s thought will reveal that institutions of all types make certain demands on prospective members and stakeholders as way of maintaining their identity. Take political parties, for example. Would it be illegitimate for, say, the Liberal Party to continue formal association with a member who suddenly began espousing Marxist ideology? Similarly, would the Greens be wrong to expel someone – or refuse to hire them in the first place – if that individual were a so-called climate ‘denier’ and an enthusiast for fossil fuels? If these are legitimate forms of discrimination (owing to the character of certain beliefs and behavioural traits), what makes religious institutions any different?

Just how important is the issue of sexuality, really?

So far, so good. However, while some LGBTI advocates accept certain forms of differentiation, they are likely to maintain that one’s sexuality should be largely immune to discriminatory action. The Human Rights Law Commission offered an example of this distinction, seen in their submission to the relevant senate inquiry last year. Lying behind the claim seems to be the notion that sexual orientation and gender identity aren’t relevant to education at a faith-based school in the way, say, that creedal differences are, for they allegedly lack the defining importance of belief in Christ’s divinity or Muhammed’s supreme prophethood. But this assumes precisely what is at issue. To contend or imply that a person’s sexual mores are immaterial to their job as an educator in a religious context presumes without warrant that such conduct lies outside a given religion’s central doctrines – a minor piece of adiaphora, as it were.

I can’t speak for Jews, Muslims and other religionists who may bristle at the thought of faith-based schools being compelled to hire people whose lives fail to embody their traditions. But orthodox Christianity would regard such a view as deeply unsatisfactory. Even if the expression of one’s sexuality does not sit at the heart of the Christian faith – a privileged locale reserved for such distinguishing claims as God’s triune nature, or the atoning sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ – it is far from trivial. After all, the book of Genesis has God create man and woman, who are called to bind themselves to each other in a union of sexual complements (Genesis 1:26-28). That this passage lies at the very head of the biblical narrative, prior to the catastrophic irruption of sin within creation, implies that it is a special part of the Creator’s originating vision for those bearing his likeness. Indeed, the creative endowments of human beings – seen most uniquely in the intrinsic capacity to generate new life – crucially reflect God’s far superior creativity. A glance at the New Testament reinforces the significance of this design. Its pages reveal both a renewed endorsement of that vision, as proclaimed by Jesus himself (Matthew 19:4-6), and a denunciation of same-sex erotic relationships as a particularly clear manifestation of humanity’s disordered nature and conduct (Romans 1:26-27).

Obviously, these points would need to be fleshed out in greater detail, and I don’t expect everyone to agree with their underlying assumptions. However, on a Christian analysis, sexuality and sexual expression are indelibly tied to our status as God’s image-bearers and the divinely sanctioned order we are meant to inhabit. For those reasons, questions of sex take on heightened significance, concerning as they do the degree to which one’s life reflects that order. Indeed, an orthodox Christian view of sex recognises it as a key manifestation of a particular anthropology (i.e., what humans are) and a particular cosmology (i.e., the created framework within which humans must conduct their lives). Gendered complementarity in human sexual relationships is, in other words, something that has been woven into the fabric of creation by God. As the Eastern Orthodox writer and cultural commentator, Rod Dreher, notes in his book, The Benedict Option, to live contrary to the divine will in this regard doesn’t simply break a set of ancient taboos. Rather, it constitutes one’s failure ‘to live in accord with the structure of [created] reality itself’.

All this is to say that, in the context of a Christian educational institution, the sexual relationships of its teachers cannot be dismissed as of little importance. Nor can it be condemned as a rationalisation of the basest kind of bigotry. We do well to return to my earlier, general comments concerning the goals of such schools. Efforts to permeate their corporate lives with the religious principles on which they were founded must logically include the ethical and behavioural demands that flow from them; anything else simply drives an artificial wedge between the cognitive and practical dimensions of the faith. And given that one of the key means of transmitting this ethos to students is via their embodiment in staff, adherence to the standards of orthodox Christianity is hardly irrelevant. Quite the opposite, in fact: conformity to a Christian ethic is inseparable from maintenance of a religious school’s peculiar identity, such that the inherent requirements of teaching roles extend beyond mere pedagogy and discipline-specific knowledge, and into the domain of Christian praxis.

The imposition of state-sanctioned beliefs: an intolerable outcome

To be sure, we have lately witnessed the splintering of the Western church on the issue of sexuality. Consensus on this question is rapidly eroding. But even if there exists internal dispute over the importance of sexual conduct to Christian faith, there is no compelling reason why the state should arrogate to itself the task of determining the proper contours of a particular religion. Writing his dissenting opinion in Christian Youth Camps v Cobaw Community Health Service some years ago, Redlich JA trenchantly noted that the Victorian Supreme Court was not properly trained to assess whether opposition to homosexuality was a key doctrine of the faith-based group concerned (p.13):

Neither human rights law nor the terms of the exemption required a secular tribunal to attempt to assess theological propriety. The tribunal was neither equipped nor required to evaluate the applicants’ moral calculus.

Secular state officials are manifestly ill-equipped to judge theological and doctrinal matters. Moreover, they lack the requisite ‘insider’ knowledge to be able to weigh the relative importance of creedal claims. But heeding calls to end exemptions to anti-discrimination legislation would lead to precisely this kind of judicial oversight. Anyone who values the institutional separation of church and state (where ‘church’ is defined somewhat more broadly) should be alarmed by this proposal. Such advocacy, if successful, means inhibiting a religious entity from articulating and embodying its governing ethos. In other words, it entails the encroachment of government institutions upon sacred territory traditionally regarded as verboten, that is, fundamentally impermissible. I don’t know how else to describe this but as an assault on religious liberty and a subversion of our modern pluralistic culture. If, as a society, we’re willing to permit religious educational institutions to make employment decisions based on their grounding principles, then this surely includes some latitude in regard to which principles are to be used as a framework to guide those decisions. The alternative simply invites interference by external authorities in what ought to be the free expression of a religious worldview.

Tackling another illegitimate distinction

The argument I have tried to delineate also has a deflationary effect on another distinction some advocates attempt to make – namely, between positions in a religious school that are connected with ritual observance or doctrinal teaching, and those that aren’t. This could be called a form of meta-discrimination, with only one type of role being susceptible to a process of discriminatory action. Again, the HRLC provides a ready example of this cast of mind (p.18): it recommends rescinding exemptions to the Sex Discrimination Act in most instances, whilst permitting ongoing differentiation/discrimination when it comes to conventional ‘religious’ roles. Behind these respective suggestions lies the apparent assumption that there exists a fundamental difference between positions involving pastoral care, religious observance and the like, and those that don’t (pp.16-17).

Unfortunately, the suggestion introduces an artificial disjunction into the understanding of religion generally, and faith-based schools specifically. For serious adherents of any religion, manifestations of spirituality are not confined to particular acts of ritual or devotion. Such activity, while central, is only one component in the complex web of faith. For Christians, say, one’s allegiance to Christ is not simply a case of verbal confession or cognitive belief. Nor is it exhausted by overt expressions of religious observance. Rather, it is meant to be worked out in the mosaic of everyday life, shaping the believer’s approach to everything from work and friendships to time and political participation. And, as I have already indicated, a religious school seeks to inculcate just this comprehensive understanding of faith – a task that is, once again, partly achieved through the embodiment of that faith in school staff. Their comprehensive approach to education means that positions within such institutions cannot be distinguished so simplistically.

It’s true, of course, that some roles might be more directly identified with the architecture of the school’s governing religion. Chaplaincy comes to mind as one obvious example. But it does not follow from this that other staff members may not be called upon to exhibit the virtues of the faith, provide (informal) pastoral care to students, offer general vocational advice within the context of Christian faithfulness, answer a student’s awkward questions, or attempt to situate various domains of knowledge within a Christian worldview. What I have argued concerning faith-based schools and their constitutive goals indicates that any attempt to starkly divide ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ roles is forced to rely on a false dichotomy – one recognised by most serious adherents as unfaithful to a holistic, integrated expression of religion.

Conclusion

Earlier, I noted that the language of discrimination is often used in cynical fashion by some LGBTI activists. Notwithstanding the presence of genuine, good-faith differences between advocates on either side of the issue, brandishing the word “discrimination” has the (often intended) effect of de-legitimising the views of religious liberty advocates before they have been properly aired. But this isn’t the only unwelcome consequence. LGBTI activists also succeed in corrupting portions of our language by using words like “discrimination” so cavelierly. History has repetedly shown that when words become the handmaidens of nakedly political projects, the prospects for open, rational discourse — discourse committed to the pursuit of truth — rapidly recede. That is something no one should want, even those who are prepared to conscript language for their own ends.

Where do we go from here? The victory of the Coalition during Australia’s recent Federal election seems to have had a retarding effect on the activist tide. Indeed, several analyses have already appeared, partly attributing the Australian Labor Party’s loss to the party’s alienation of large swathes of religious people. This may force the party to re-assess its attitude to matters of religious liberty and to adopt a more nuanced understanding of the issues involved – rejecting barely-concealed disdain (see 7:11-7:50 in this Q & A segment) for people of conservative faith, and recognising the electoral value in taking them seriously. I hope this is the case, and that such concerns will now receive bi-partisan support. If Australia is to maintain its status as an authentically pluralist society – in which mutually irreconcilable views and practices nonetheless exist in relative harmony – then I think a robust re-commitment to such freedoms is the most sensible path forward.

Re-thinking the Virgin Birth

Introduction

The birth of a new child truly is extraordinary, being perhaps the closest thing that our secular, materialistic world has to a miracle: a small cluster of cells, endowed with an innate propensity towards life, is mysteriously transformed by nature’s unseen hand into a living, breathing human being. Witnessing the emergence of an infant – writhing and crying and seeking comfort – out of what was once inert matter is something to behold.

If people of all stripes are prone to seeing faint reflections of the transcendent in such an occurrence, then Christians should surely celebrate the true miracle of the one birth (or more precisely, conception) that could genuinely be called “unique”. Of course, I am referring to the birth of Christ himself, an event that his followers will soon have the privilege of commemorating. Its annual recurrence means that Christians are accorded at least one opportunity each year to formally mark an event of epochal significance. Alongside nativity plays and Christmas hymns will be dramatic readings of Matthew and Luke, as the story of the Christ-child coming into this world is rehearsed through song and word and sign. For many, it is still a time of sober reflection and humble gratitude.

But amidst the yuletide pageantry, it’s easy to forget just how momentous the birth of Christ was. Indeed, the very regularity of the tradition can induce a conventional, almost unthinking, approach to it: we hurriedly attend our Christmas services, sing (or more likely, mumble) the relevant songs, and laugh good-naturedly at stilted acting or forgotten lines. Meanwhile, our minds are straining ahead, occupied with what many of us perceive (perhaps subconsciously) to be the real purpose of Christmas – presents and feasting and games of backyard cricket. None of these things are wrong in themselves, to be sure. Far from it. Nevertheless, it can mean that recalling God’s gracious inbreaking via the person of his Son is inadvertently relegated to a mere step along the way, rather than being cherished as the very reason we celebrate Christmas in the first place. To the extent that this is true – and in all honesty, I think each of us has been guilty of it – then it should not be. Perhaps if we were to examine Jesus’ birth afresh, we might then be in a better position to celebrate it with renewed fulsomeness.

Three Key Categories

There are a number of categories that can help us think more clearly about the birth of Christ – conceptual aids, if you like, that allow us to grasp more surely its manifold significance. A few such aids immediately spring to mind. We might refer to them as the union of humanity and divinity, a signpost of new creation, and a revelation of true kingship. These don’t exhaust the event’s meaning, by any means, although they do offer three convenient avenues towards greater understanding. I’ll examine each category in turn.

The Union of Humanity and Divinity

The ministry of Jesus Christ can be interpreted in a dizzying variety of ways. But one of the broad purposes of his appearing was to set in motion the (re-)union of humanity and God. More than that, it was by his own person that this cosmic reconciliation was to be accomplished. The pages of the New Testament are replete with references to what Christ achieved in this regard. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, for example, the apostle Paul waxes lyrical about the fact that in Christ, God was reconciling himself to the world (i.e., humanity; cf. 2 Cor 5:19). In a similar vein, 1 Timothy 2:5 refers to Jesus as the “one God and the one mediator between God and mankind”. These are just two of a multitude of texts that could be cited.

Reconciliation within a Christian schema, however, far exceeds the resumption of cordial relations between previously-estranged parties. For the writers of the NT, it means nothing less than the transformative union of God with his people. A battery of images is deployed, which try and convey the substantial nature of this divine-human concord. Paul compares the joining together of Christ with his church (and thus, with each individual Christian) to the “one-flesh” union between husband and wife. So profoundly intimate is the relationship between the Messiah and his people – one that is secured, of course, via the operation of the Spirit – that the apostle can use, as an analogy, the deep and comprehensive unity of the spousal bond (Eph 5:31-32). Or what about the Fourth Evangelist? In a stunning development of “new temple” theology, the Johannine Jesus speaks of making his “home” in the one who believes in him and does his will (John 15:23). This, too, surpasses mere unity of purpose or direction, and veers into the province of ontology [1]. It is why the author of 2 Peter could write that part of the goal of the Christian life is, remarkably, participation in the “divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). This isn’t to say that Christians somehow become divine. But the consistent witness of the NT is that those who are “in Christ” are consequently joined to the Triune God, in a process that entails the fundamental re-ordering of their beings.

I say all this by way of context. Jesus’ birth represents this union, this “marriage”, in his own person. And whilst the incarnation (i.e., the act by which the eternal logos took on human flesh) was possible without a miraculous birth, his spirit-generated conception dramatizes the joining together of those two natures – divinity and humanity – thereby foreshadowing the salvific reality his people will enjoy as they become temples for his presence. This is no arbitrary point. We shouldn’t forget that just as the NT is adamant that God’s people will experience immersion in the unsearchable depths of divine reality, it is equally convinced that Jesus Christ exemplifies (and indeed, enables) this kind of life. He is the pristine model for a truly human existence – human, because it is joined to, grounded in, and pervaded by, God’s nature and life. What is true of him will, in a sense, be true of his people as well (e.g., 1 Cor 15:47-49).

Of course, Jesus was (and is) unique, in that he is truly God and truly man; as I have already noted, the telos of the Christian life is reformation and renewal via a mystical bond with the divine, not divinization in a literal sense. Still, we can look to Jesus’ conception and birth – where God graciously imparted his own life into the womb of a young Jewess (Luke 1:34-35) – as an embodied reminder that it was always the Creator’s intention to forge a people who would live in perfect and constant communion with him. It was there, in the darkness of that womb, that the Creator “stitched together” (as it were) two, apparently irreconcilable categories of being [2]. The manner of Jesus’ first advent was at once authentically human and entirely the product of divine grace – signalling, in concrete form, a believer’s transfiguration as he or she is drawn into the divine nature.

Earlier parts of Scripture bear faint witness to this glorious prospect. Genesis 1-2, with its positioning of God’s image-bearers as the capstone of his creative work, is one of the more familiar texts in this regard. But the Nativity signals something far more substantive for those who are found to be in Christ. Again, what it does is provide us with a vivid picture of the goal that lies at the end of God’s redemptive enterprise: the establishment of a body of individuals who have not only conformed themselves to his will, but who are united to him in an act of spiritual betrothal.

A Signpost for New Creation

The prospective “marriage” between God and each believer (such that those who are being saved might enjoy the life-giving permeation of divine energy) is one element in the wider goal of liberating creation from its “bondage to decay” (cf. Rom 8:21). Here, too, the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth is instructive. In addition to providing us with a picture of that perfect union between the human and the divine, the Nativity also acts as a signpost of new creation. To be sure, the Bible’s salvific narrative climaxes with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It was there, and not at the point of his birth, that sin and death were broken; moreover, with the raising of Jesus from the dead, new creation truly began, breaking into the present, decaying world. One might even say that from a Christian perspective, history pivots on the resurrection, for in that event, we discover the commencement of the new age in microcosm – i.e., in the resurrected body of one man. Christ’s birth did not change the course of history per se, so to that extent, it differs structurally from the event of his resurrection. Nonetheless, it points (however unobtrusively) to the dawning of that greater reality. The birth of Jesus represented a fresh act of the Creator God, who imbued life into a willing Mary. With it, something unprecedented happened, as the fecundity of the divine took root in a broken, earthen world. This wasn’t simply the product of the created order’s internal drives and forces. Rather, it was the result of an apocalyptic work of God, who pierced the veil of death shrouding the old world with the shear of fresh life. His was an incursion into creation, achieving what no natural process could. In this way, then, the virgin birth continues to offer Christians an incarnate symbol that directs them to creation’s renewal – something that includes, of course, God’s reclaimed image-bearers, who experience their own supernatural birth.

This brings me back to the Nativity’s significance as it applies specifically to the people of God. If Jesus’ birth unveils the goal for redeemed human beings (whose lives are being conformed to his), then it also offers up a symbolic parallel for the spiritual “new birth” that every Christian enjoys. Latent in that term is an idea drawn from the third chapter of John’s Gospel. During a night-time rendezvous, the Johannine Jesus declares to an uncomprehending Nicodemus that anyone seeking entry into God’s kingdom “must be born again” (John 3:3, 5). With the assured finality of God’s incarnate logos, he claims that this is the only way a person can enter salvation. What Jesus seems to be saying is that the believer must undergo such a radical change of one’s being, one’s nature, that it can only be described as being “born again”. It is a deep-rooted transformation that God alone can accomplish (which explains why the phrase is sometimes rendered as “born from above”).

The beginning of one’s life in God is indeed akin to a new birth, for it represents a comprehensive break with the old world of sin and death. Jesus’ birth – and behind that, his conception – offers a concrete sign of this reality. Commenting on John’s theological perspective in the first few chapters of his gospel, the theologian, A.N.S. Lane, wrote that the evangelist may have even drawn a deliberate correlation between the believer’s regeneration and Christ’s virginal birth (cf. John 1:13) [3]. In any case, it is both a signal that new life had been unleashed upon creation, and, within that process of renewal, a witness to the Christian’s own “transfer” from one realm to another. The virgin birth reminds us that what is required is nothing less than the commencement of a new form of existence – a “supernatural begetting” (C.K. Barrett) – wrought by God’s (re)generative power. At this point, I can do no better than quote from N.T. Wright, who wrote about the miraculous nature of Christ’s birth thus:

“And if we believe that the God we’re talking about is the creator of the world, who longs to rescue the world from its corruption and decay, then an act of real new creation, anticipating in fact the great moment of Easter itself, might just be what we should expect…it is the notion that a new world really might be starting up within the midst of the old…”

A Revelation of the True King

So far, I have examined the birth of Jesus using the categories of biblical and systematic theology. Its function as a revelation of Christ’s kingship, on the other hand, is tied more closely to the biblical narratives themselves. Matthew, for instance, has Magi from the East visit Jesus, who worship him and present gifts as a form of tribute (Matt 2:1-12). The royal overtones of those acts are difficult to miss. The First Evangelist also quotes from Micah 5:2, applying that messianic (read: kingly) prophecy to the remarkable baby born to Mary and Joseph. Luke, for his part, sets his infancy narrative within the context of Roman history. His reference to an imperial decree, ordering all subjects of the Roman Empire to return to their ancestral lands for a census (Luke 2:1-3), subtly establishes a contrast between the earthly power of Caesar and the cosmic power – then hidden – of the world’s true Lord.

Strictly speaking, a miraculous birth was not necessary to ground an acclamation of Jesus’ kingship. However, it witnesses to the unique form that kingship took. Not only was Christ Israel’s king and a rightful heir to the throne of David; not only was he the nation’s messianic saviour; he was also her (and the world’s) transcendent king, having come in the flesh – a remarkable fulfilment of Yahweh’s promise to return to his wayward, exiled people (note the use of Isaiah 40:3ff, not only in Matthew in Luke, but in Mark and John as well). As I have already suggested, the virgin birth reveals the perfect union of humanity with divinity in the person of Jesus. But in so doing, it testifies to the fact of Jesus’ cosmic lordship.

Luke’s retelling of the event is illuminating in this regard. In his account, an angel appears to Mary and declares to her that she will bear a son. The language used to describe the still-future child is of a clearly regal nature: “Son of the Most High”, a descendant of David, and king over an eternal dynasty (Luke 1:30-33). When Mary asks how all this can be (given the fact of her virginity) the angel states that God’s own spirit and presence will “overshadow” her (v.35), enabling the young Jewess to conceive. The second half of verse 35 is crucial. Application of the title “Son of God” to Jesus is somehow linked to his spiritual conception, as if the latter is reason for the former being given (cf. v.35b: “So…”). Now, “Son of God” was a term familiar within Jewish culture, given its traditional connection to royal/Davidic figures. This is seen, for instance, in a passage like Psalm 2:7, which bears some affinity with 2 Samuel 7:14. By the time of Jesus’ advent, it had come to be associated with hopes for a messianic deliverer. However, the title was also used of the emperor at the time, Caesar Augustus – the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who himself had been formally deified after his assassination in 44BC. It is no accident, then, that Luke lodges his birth story within the context of a manifestation of imperial power; the fact that the emperor appropriated the status of God’s son only serves to sharpen the implied contrast I have already noted.

Paired with the promise of a miraculous, spirit-impelled birth, Luke’s use of “Son of God” functions as an important titular signpost, not merely to Jesus’ status as Israel’s anointed liberator, but to something far loftier. Like the other evangelists, Luke often employs the phrase in an elevated sense; as his own gospel unfolds, it’s apparent that Jesus conceives of his relationship with God in a way that only a son would with his father. It was a relationship that stretched back to the very beginning of his earthly life (and beyond); an intimate reality, in other words, to which the virgin birth testified. The NT scholar, Darrel Bock, observesd that “the presence of a divine element in [the Lukan] Jesus’ birth” suggests that for the Third Evangelist, “Jesus is from God in a unique way” (emphasis mine). It provided evidence that Christ was not merely sent by God, as an emissary might be commissioned by his master, but that he proceeded from the eternal Godhead as someone who, remarkably, shared the same nature.

The Lukan rendition of the virgin birth vividly shows that Jesus’ sonship was not exhausted by the prerogatives associated with mundane royalty. To be sure, it encompassed such notions, such that it was co-extensive with the belief that he was the promised Davidic heir. But that status – and the title through which it came to be expressed – exceeded all previous understandings of the concept, touching upon the very being of the transcendent Creator. Although Luke does not greatly emphasise the ontological overtones of Jesus’ sonship in his birth narrative (and is certainly not as explicit as, say, the Gospel of John), the basic contours of his theological convictions can still be detected. Whatever declarations others might have made regarding a unique, filial relationship with the Deity (particularly Caesar), they remained mere charlatans – parodies of the reality to which they aspired. Eclipsing them all was the world’s true sovereign, who alone could claim divine “parentage”: singularly conceived by God’s own creative power, and born to a poor Jewish couple on the margins of imperial society.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this little essay has revealed new insights into the significance of Jesus’ birth. Much more could be said, of course. But in it, I have tried to set down some markers for how to think about this momentous event. This is important amidst ongoing scepticism, even among Christians. In some quarters, the virgin birth is relegated to the status of mere myth or legend (where the term “myth” is synonymous with what is historically dubious). Aside from a philosophical prejudice against miracles, such a conclusion seems to be driven by the unstated assumption that Jesus’ birth constitutes an act of arbitrary wonderworking – and as such, is unworthy of God. But as I have sought to demonstrate, the virgin birth pulsates with theological meaning. It was not the work of a capricious deity, keen only to advertise his supernatural “bag of tricks”. Rather, it offered, and continues to offer, a window into the nature of the One who even now presides over creation. In his birth, Jesus was revealed as the true Son of God, who proceeded from the Father to assume his rightful role as saviour and regent. Moreover, the Nativity brims with the promise that those who are “in” him – who yield to his loving authority – will shed their old lives and enjoy life in union with their redeemer. These are things we can, and should, joyfully celebrate this Christmas.

[1] Using a term like “ontology” in relation to a believer’s relationship with God is always fraught with danger. Let me emphasise that I do not want to suggest that as Christians are conformed to the likeness of the Son, or participate in the divine nature, they thereby become gods (“quasi-divine”) themselves. This is idolatry. However, one gets the sense when reading the NT that what is envisioned is a substantial transformation of the redeemed individual, down to the very roots of his or her nature. Indeed, when Paul spoke of those in Christ being “new creations” (2 Cor 5:17), I think he intended his words to be read as more than mere metaphor or hyperbole.

[2] Again, care is required, lest one takes the birth of Christ to be an instance of two natures being brought together in such a way that the resultant individual is half-human, half-God: a tertium quid, but neither wholly human, nor wholly divine. This is not what I am aiming at with my (admittedly) metaphorical use of language. I merely mean to suggest that the virgin birth, in witnessing to the union of divinity and humanity in the person of Christ, functions as something of a symbol and pattern for Christians’ own lives.

[3] It’s quite possible that John was aware of a tradition concerning the unusual circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. See John 8:41b.

One Same-Sex Marriage, a Conscientious Objector, and Three Failed Arguments (Part Two)

Introduction

A few weeks ago, I began a short series examining several arguments that have been put forward by Australian advocates of same-sex marriage, many of whom think that conscientious objectors within the commercial wedding industry should not be allowed to withhold their creative talents from a same-sex wedding. In my first post, I critically engaged the claim that a dissenting wedding operator is analogous to a racist business owner who refuses to serve certain people based on the colour of their skin. As anybody who read that piece will know, I found the argument sadly wanting, even as I acknowledged that efforts like mine to rebut it aren’t likely to make a substantial difference to the overall trajectory of the debate. Nevertheless, I continue in the hope that conducting discussions on the basis of a shared commitment to reason and civility — not to mention a sincere and open pursuit of the truth — remains a worthwhile enterprise. This is particularly so in a liberal democracy, which can only properly survive if such conduct is not just accepted in theory, but adhered to in practice.

Religious Expression and Journalistic Fallacies

In this post, I want to tackle a slightly different attempt to legitimize restrictions upon dissenting wedding operators. Like the focus of my previous piece, this argument is based on the alleged analogy between opposition to SSM and forms of conduct that are widely (if not universally) condemned. Unlike the analogy between race and SSM, this one is concerned with narrower questions regarding acceptable (and indeed, unacceptable) manifestations of religiosity.

On the day the results of Australia’s SSM plebiscite were revealed, the journalist Michael Bachelard wrote a piece for the Fairfax press, in which he averred that “religious freedom is, and should be, limited”. This basic thesis formed the backdrop to his specific point: namely, that there is no reason to allow a wedding vendor to refuse service to a same-sex couple on the grounds of a sincere religious belief. In fact, he claimed that there are obvious reasons why such practices should be prohibited, and went on to cite several examples of religiously-inspired activity that is nonetheless deemed illegal. Among them were the Jesus People and Children of God (cultish groups that have engaged in the violent sexual abuse of women and children) and certain Muslim sects that practice female genital mutilation (hereafter, FGM). Bachelard seemed to think that because Australian law already prohibits sexual abuse and FGM — even if they are practiced by sincere religious individuals — there exists clear and principled precedent for restricting the ability of a religious wedding operator to refuse to service to a same-sex wedding.

At a glance, the argument appears to be quite persuasive. But in this instance, outward appearance and substantive reality enjoy little more than a passing acquaintance with each other. Beneath its superficial cogency lie several problems, which taken together prove to be fatal. Bachelard’s claimed analogies aren’t really analogous at all, at least in the relevant sense. Quite the opposite: as we shall see, there are a number of crucial differences between Bachelard’s selected examples, and the case of a dissenting wedding vendor.

Excursus: Pre-empting a Predictable Objection (Yet Again)

I will examine those differences shortly. But before I do that, I want to briefly highlight another erroneous element in Bachelard’s argument. At one point, he criticises the (since aborted) attempts by Liberal Senator, James Paterson, to introduce a SSM bill into parliament, which would have given conscientious objectors in the commercial wedding industry the right to refuse service to a same-sex wedding. Bachelard contends that everyone ought to abide by anti-discrimination laws, “in the name of a civilized society, in not discriminating against people for who they are” (emphasis mine). Bachelard wants to say that a religiously conservative wedding vendor who does not wish to service a same-sex wedding is in clear violation of anti-discrimination law — and is, to that extent, engaging in self-evidently unlawful activity, just as the abusive member of the Jesus People is when he molests children.

Such activity would of course be unjust if it were done on the basis of the italicised portion of the quote above. But is someone who refuses to lend his creative talents to a same-sex wedding really “discriminating against people for who they are”? As I sought to show in my previous essay, that refusal is grounded in one’s beliefs about the true shape and nature of marriage. It is not about the identities or attributes of the participants per se, but about the structure of the event in which they are participating. Indeed, as I also demonstrated in that earlier piece, the parties to an event and the event itself are logically distinct; to oppose the latter does not require a person to hold any animus against, or evince bad faith towards, the former. Dissenting wedding operators who have been hauled before judges and anti-discrimination boards have made it abundantly clear that they are more than happy to serve gay and lesbian couples for a variety of occasions. In addition, the recent ruling by a Californian judge in just such a case suggests that not only is a refusal to service a same-sex wedding not a genuine instance of unfair discrimination; being compelled to provide that service may actually constitute a violation of the rights of the wedding vendor in question. So it’s not at all clear that what Bachelard assumes (which is precisely what he does) is correct. This will be important as we proceed, lest anyone reading this is tempted to rest on the facile riposte that conduct of this kind is unjustly — and obviously — discriminatory.

Same-Sex Weddings, FGM and Sexual Abuse: Some Crucial Dis-analogies

Let’s return, however, to Bachelard’s alleged analogies, and why they fail on multiple levels. To begin, there is a wide gulf in the degree of harm experienced by those who have supposedly been wronged. I would argue that the examples in Bachelard’s article are, in fact, vastly different in their effects. For example, a girl who endures FGM suffers injury in a way that a same-sex couple — who might be faced with the indignity of a religiously conservative florist refusing to arrange their wedding bouquets — does not. Apart from the excruciating pain of the procedure itself, a victim of FGM will likely experience a combination of some (or all) of the following symptoms, often for many years: painful periods, excessive bleeding, labour difficulties, infections, urinary problems, unhealed wounds, or even death.  Of course, a same-sex couple confronted with an unwilling wedding operator is likely to feel aggrieved and embarrassed. No one would want to deny that such an experience could well leave one feeling quite humiliated. Nor would one wish to trivialise such experiences. But the question of degree or proportion is paramount. Certainly, it’s difficult to equate that kind emotional hardship — which may be rather ephemeral, depending on the circumstances — with the acute, long-term physical and psychological suffering a young female experiences as a result of a forced clitoridectomy.  The severity of the one is, I would suggest, far outweighed by the other.

This is not to say that such differences are sufficient in themselves to secure dissenting wedding vendors a reprieve (even if they should give us pause to wonder whether Bachelard has been too hasty in grouping these examples together): if publicly manifesting one’s religious beliefs occasions injury (whether physical or emotional), then perhaps it doesn’t really matter how severe or enduring that injury is. One may argue that even if they do differ in degree, they might nonetheless fall under the same broad rubric of “harm”; as such (so the argument might go), they should be liable to penalties commensurate with the severity of the offence.

But in this instance, a difference in degree is accompanied by, and connected to, a qualitative distinction. Whilst measuring the harm experienced by the victim of FGM or sexual abuse is relatively straightforward, at least in legal terms, things are not so easy in the case of a same-sex couple claiming emotional or dignitary harm as a result of being refused service by a wedding vendor. The former case involves material injury to one’s person — in other words, harms that can be publicly identified and verified. They possess a tangibility that injuries associated with supposedly insulting conduct by another person lack. Indeed, the relationship between a certain act and one’s subjective experience of offence or emotional distress is more remote than the tight, causal connection between the practice of, say, FGM and the experience of personal suffering. Whilst the latter is, by its very nature, bound to cause harm, the extent to which the former causes injury is based on the internal states and perceptions of those who may be in a position to make such a claim. This renders the notion of dignitary or emotional injury far more slippery: whilst the consequences of FGM can be readily defined and substantiated, it is much more difficult to obtain proof of emotional harm that can be publicly countenanced.  This is not to say that it does not, in general, exist, or that those making such claims are lying. It is merely to argue that they are far harder to capture legally than actions that quite clearly violate the liberty of another individual by causing material — and, supervening upon that, psychological — injury.

This brings me to a further dis-analogy: that which concerns the distribution of rights and possible harms between the two parties. In the case of religious leaders practicing FGM or sexual abuse, there is a clear, even radical, asymmetry of rights or entitlements. The right of vulnerable individuals not to be violated by the activity of others automatically negates the alleged “right” of the person perpetrating those acts to manifest his religious convictions in this way. The sacrosanct nature of one’s person is part of the bedrock of our legal system. It is regarded as morally and legally inviolable, such that an act that attempts to impinge upon that status is necessarily deemed unlawful. Religious motivation, however genuine it may be, is irrelevant in these circumstances — as are any claims of “harm” that might be “suffered” by the perpetrator if he were compelled to cease his activity. Moreover, whilst the injuries associated with Bachelard’s examples are readily apparent in the case of the victims, corresponding claims made by perpetrators would be so intangible — so indefinable — as to defy verification.

However, there seems to be a much closer balance between the alleged rights or harms of a dissenting wedding vendor and those of a same-sex couple wanting to wed. Whatever rights a same-sex couple may claim in this context, and whatever alleged distress they may have experienced as a result of being rebuffed — these must be weighed against the rights of a person to maintain integrity and cohesion between inner conviction and outward expression. On the one hand, we have noted that claims of emotional injury or dignitary harm are theoretically problematic. Even on the assumption that such notions could be defined coherently and measured intelligibly, it does not follow that precipitating conduct should be penalized (in the way that conduct causing material or bodily harm ought to be). Indeed, as the American legal scholar, Andrew Koppelman (himself an advocate for SSM) has pointed out:*

“The dignitary harm of knowing that some of your fellow citizens condemn your way of life is not one from which a law can or should protect you in a regime of free speech”.

On the other hand, dissenting wedding vendors can also claim that they possess certain rights. Religiously conservative wedding vendors can assert that having to lend their creative talents to a same-sex wedding potentially violates their deeply-held convictions: engaging in activity that implicitly legitimizes a ceremony of which a person disapproves forces them to dis-integrate their views and their conduct. It is at least arguable that the religiously conservative cake-maker (for example) has the right not to participate in something he regards as immoral, in order to avoid complicity. We might recall what I said earlier about the Californian judge, who recently ruled that forcing a Christian baker to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple was a violation of her right to freedom of speech and expressive conduct. In addition, Bachelard’s argument ignores the possible harms such vendors may have to endure, regardless of the choice they make. Those who do not wish to participate in a same-sex wedding are, in many instances, confronted with the prospect of two unwelcome alternatives: violate their consciences and sacred convictions; or succumb to often hefty financial and pecuniary penalties.

Active and Passive Manifestations of Religion: A Fundamental Difference

There is one final difference between Bachelard’s chosen examples, and that of the dissenting wedding vendor. In many respects, it is fundamental to the entire debate. It centres on the direction of activity between the two parties, and the asymmetry between passive and active manifestations of one’s (in this case, religious) beliefs. I have hinted at this difference already, in referring to the kinds of violations of which a practitioner of FGM is guilty, but which appear to be absent in the case of a religiously conservative wedding vendor. However, I think it important to flesh this out a little more.

In the case, say, of an acolyte of the Jesus People abusing a minor within their spiritual community, we have a clear example of one individual acting upon another, thereby curtailing his right to liberty and freedom from degrading treatment. Indeed, I think most would agree that the act, by its very nature, violates the victim’s person, and, in most cases, harms them materially. The religious believer in this instance manifests his convictions in an active manner; he commits a certain act against another individual, which necessarily restricts or smothers their rights. In that sense, it’s a zero sum game: the active party imposes himself upon a vulnerable, unconsenting or unwilling recipient, which entails the simultaneous extension and restriction of one’s freedom of action. As I have already noted, it is for this reason that such behaviour, whatever its inspiration, is rightly considered unlawful — and indeed, criminal.

However, the religiously-inclined wedding vendor who refuses to lend his creative talents to a same-sex wedding is engaged in passive abstention. Here, the question of (religiously-motivated) imposition is irrelevant, for it simply does not exist. The vendor seeks to preserve coherence between inner conviction and outward activity, whilst avoiding duplicitous, hypocritical or morally inconsistent behaviour, and does so by refraining from participation in the event. In other words, he merely omits to do something. As the American columnist David Brooks (another advocate of SSM) has recently written, religiously conservative wedding operators who refuse to participate creatively in a same-sex wedding aren’t trying to restrict others’ (in this case, gay) rights; nor are they imposing themselves on other people. They are simply asking not “to be forced to take part” — i.e., they seek leave to abstain from contributing materially to something with which they disagree. Where someone who practices FGM assumes an active, dominant role in the relationship with the victim of such a procedure, a Jack Phillips or a Barronelle Stutzman is simply “withdrawing” from certain activity. This does not affect the hypothetical same-sex couple in the same way that sexual abuse, say, affects its victim: apart from the relative difficulties surrounding the notion of dignitary harm, the couple in this scenario is not restricted or coercively acted upon, as the passive parties in Bachelard’s initial examples most certainly are.

Indeed, whereas the individuals in Bachelard’s opening examples necessarily violate the integrity of another’s person, the same cannot be said of the hypothetical wedding vendor. In arguing for limits to expressions of religious belief, Bachelard presumes that anything less would lead to the unwelcome expansion of pernicious activity, under the guise of maintaining religious liberty (Bachelard even dismisses countervailing calls as “bogus”, clearly implying that those who advocate in this direction are cynically using religious freedom as a veneer to advance oppressive practices). This, of course, would explain why he has framed the debate with examples that most people are likely to see as clear and violent threats to civil liberties. But again, he overlooks key features of the active-passive distinction I have tried to highlight. Religious practices such as FGM and cultish sexual abuse are what we might term inherently “expansionist” — that is, they expand the range of the perpetrator’s activity at the expense of his victim. By contrast, the actions of conscientious objectors within the commercial wedding industry are “preservationist”: as Brooks’ earlier observation suggests, they seek merely to preserve what they believe could be undermined through participation in an event that contradicts their basic convictions. Limiting freedom of religion in the former instances goes without saying, given their active tendency towards the suppression of rights and the generation of suffering. The notion that similar restrictions should be applied to the latter is, at the very least, a contestable proposition.

Final Reflections

Bachelard’s argument is likely to appeal to those who already agree that withholding commercial wedding services to a same-sex couple is an egregious example of invidious discrimination. It’s also bound to appeal to many of the uncommitted, who aren’t likely to ask whether his contention has any merit, or whether it’s fair to group an unwilling baker (say) with child rapists and mutilators of the flesh. In that sense, Bachelard’s not unlike the targets of my last piece on this topic, since they also sought to draw connections between superficially similar acts. Intentional or not, his rhetoric has the effect of circumventing a person’s critical faculties: having first been confronted with examples of religiously-motivated violence, the unwary reader is lured into docile acceptance of the proposition that the sacred convictions of religiously-sensitive wedding operators should be met with the same kind of righteous fury. This is simply guilt-by-association, but without the label.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, I am not arguing that there should be no limits on alleged expressions of religious belief. What I have written here should make that clear. But I also think that there are principled reasons for allowing some religious freedoms whilst disallowing others. That, too, should be clear from what I have written. But the problem, as I see it, lies in the basic orientation of a piece like Bachelard’s. Underlying the words themselves is the fundamentally negative belief that religion is, and has been, a largely malignant influence on society. Whether one is referring to an imam who mutilates young girls or a dissenting wedding vendor, it is important that manifestations of religious or spiritual belief — especially those in the public arena — be kept on a taut leash. That leash, of course, is to be held by the secular state, which (to change the metaphor) must corral such expressions so that the baleful forces of superstition and religious bigotry do not corrode our modern, progressive way of life. If anyone objects to this project, their claims can safely be dismissed as a rear-guard action, aimed at  shoring up the last vestiges of religious privilege. Or so the assumption goes, anyway.

But it’s time to conclude. Despite his own certainty on this question — one might call it a kind of secular zeal — Bachelard’s claimed analogy breaks down at almost every relevant point. He is left with the mere shell of an argument, which not only fails to advance a good-faith dialogue, but positively frustrates it. Unfortunately, given the times in which we live, his offering is likely to fuel efforts that further restrict the right of religious conservatives to live in harmony with their deeply-held convictions.

*Please note that the article to which I have linked was not penned by Koppelman, but by the legal academic, Sherif Girgis, who quoted the same excerpt that I did. It appears the original piece is no longer available for viewing online (it was originally published in the Southern Californian Law Review).

 

Worshiping the “God” of MTD: Modern Idolatry, Ancient Roots

This is a piece I wrote a couple of years ago for a certain magazine, but it was not published. So you, dear readers, may enjoy it now. 

A little over a decade ago, the sociologist of religion, Christian Smith, examined the lives of religious contemporary American teenagers, interviewing, among others, young Christians. What he discovered was very revealing.

According to Smith, most of those he spoke with held views about God and their relationship to him, which, whilst bearing a faint resemblance to the religion in which they had grown up, were, in many ways, dramatically different – owing more to contemporary cultural and spiritual norms than to ancient religious traditions. Smith argued that these beliefs formed a kind of spiritual ‘complex’, and was the de facto (and dominant) religion amongst teens in the United States. Smith christened this phenomenon, ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ (or MTD for short).

The concept of MTD needs some unpacking. Smith contended that religious teens held to several fixed points in their creed: God, generically defined, wants all people to “be good, nice and fair to each other,” with goodness here being defined in a vague sort of way; God also, governs the world at a distance, though he might not intervene all that frequently; when he does intervene, it is to help people solve problems that confront in their lives; the chief aim in life is to develop a positive self-image – something that God is supposed to guarantee; and that ‘good’ people will go to heaven. For the teens Smith interviewed, these elements were axiomatic, amounting to belief in a laissez-faire god, whose interventions are chiefly therapeutic, who asks people to practice a fairly banal kind of morality, and who guarantees – based upon adherence to that morality – a place of enjoyment in the hereafter.

What was really astounding was Smith’s discovery that most of his subjects had not developed their ideas independently; rather, they had imbibed them from the religious communities of which were a part. This led Smith to contend that they were simply reflections of a wider phenomenon, prevalent in mosques, synagogues and (importantly) churches. If that is so, then MTD encompasses many more people, not just those Smith interviewed.

* * *

Whilst the modern world – with its consumerism, deep individualism and transactional view of so much of life – is particularly conducive to the propagation of something like MTD, we should not make the mistake of thinking that some “golden age” of religion lies somewhere beyond the range of our own historical grasp. And, more to the point, neither Christians individually, nor the church corporately, has been immune to the phenomenon. I am reminded, for example, of the great popularity that the Prosperity “Gospel” has achieved in many putative Christian communities: trust in God, and all your (material) dreams will come true! A generation or two ago, families may have gone to church, not because they discerned a divine summons to be a part of a new, spiritual community, but because of cultural constraints. The real goal, it seems, was not obedience to God, the ground and centre of all that is, but cultural integration and local respectability. Similarly, when Christianity was the dominant civil religion in the West, developing contacts within a local church community could do wonders for an aspiring businessman. Again, God was seen an instrument, and religion merely functional – lacking, perhaps, truth and significance in itself, and reduced to a means towards a more fundamental (in this case, economic) end.

Such a phenomenon stretches back even further, all the way to the very dawning of Christianity. About two decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul had to wrestle with a raft of problems besetting the church in Corinth. Called to live out a life of holiness and obedience before the God that had liberated them, the Corinthian Christians had tried to fuse the Gospel with pagan ideas of religion and spirituality. Far from seeing the Gospel – and the God who stood behind it – as something to which they were called to yield, the Corinthians viewed it as something that could be used to get ahead. This is reflected, amongst other things, in what Paul says about personality cults (1 Cor 1:10-12, 3:1-9), sexual immorality (5:1-6), and self-aggrandizement through the exercise of spiritual gifts (Chs. 12-14). In all these ways, the Corinthians had fallen into the trap of treating God as secondary, as little more than an instrument that could be manipulated for other ends.

It is for these reasons that contemporary individualism can only ever function as one type of explanation for the phenomenon of MTD. Sure, it can well flourish in such an environment: a spiritual creed that emphatically places the individual at its centre certainly plays well to our present age. But if what I have said is true, then using God, or the divine, for oneself is not merely the preserve of the modern age; using God as an instrument – a kind of secondary tool – is something to which people in every age are prone. Perhaps, beneath the varied manifestations of superficial spirituality and counterfeit piety lies the primal reality of the humanity’s propensity towards idolatry – of reducing the transcendent God to a human fabrication, which can then be tamed and exploited. Paul, of course, knew this well, when he excoriated humanity for its tendency to exchange the glory of the immortal Creator for bits of his creation (Romans 1:20-23, 25). Even the Corinthians, living so soon after the events of Easter, had constructed for themselves an idol that bore only faint resemblance to the God of the Gospel that Paul preached. Whether it’s in its ancient or modern guise, idolatry succeeds in turning God – and the spirituality that flows from him – into a mere function of a person’s own psychological interests and desires.

* * *

How different this is from an authentically Christian view of God and ourselves. As I was thinking about MTD, three main differences stood out, which together have profound implications for the construction of a genuine Christian spirituality. First, MTD seems to reflect a very ego-centric view of spirituality and religion, and is to that extent well-suited to our present, individualistic age. This is seen particularly in the way it shapes a person’s ethical outlook. Whilst MTD makes room for fairness and niceties, it promotes a kind of ‘no-cost’ morality, which will only go so far as the needs and interests of the individual will allow. As Smith discovered even this system of morality was, for many of his subjects, another means of attaining subjective wellbeing: ‘do good, feel good’, in other words. Neither (divinely-mandated) goodness, nor the image-bearing objects of that goodness, are ends in themselves; on the view of MTD, they are instruments for the more self-centred goal of bolstering personal self-esteem.

Christian ethics is much more radical than that, for two main reasons. On the one hand, it is founded upon the figure of Jesus himself, who gave us a model of sacrificial service before God and others. Where MTD uses the self as the yardstick of what is right and good, for Christian spirituality, it is the character and life of Jesus that grounds all ethics. Similarly, where MTD is focused primarily upon the individual, Christianity is focused, in large part, upon others. Many of Jesus’ parables have this flavour about them. He talks, for example, of the “wise and faithful” person as characterised by a willingness, in deference to God, to serve others with what he or she has (e.g., Luke 12:42ff).

It’s hard, too, not to think of what Paul says when he writes to the church in Philippi. The believers there should adopt an attitude like that of Jesus himself, who “made himself nothing”, “taking the…nature of a servant”, and “humbling himself…to death…on a cross” on behalf of others (Philippians 2:5-8). This represents a far more comprehensive, far more sweeping, approach to the ethical – indeed, the righteous – life. It is a life that revolves, not around the needs of self, but around the needs of others, even if that means sacrificing what is cherished or treasured. True Christian spirituality asks a person to order his or her life around an enduring commitment to the needs of others. Indeed, Paul’s exhortation in Philippians points to the dramatic nature of this commitment, as the Christian seeks to emulate Christ: it must lead to an imitative willingness to put aside any claims one might have, whether those claims relate to one’s status, possessions, comforts – even, according to the passage, one’s own life.

On the other hand, the kind of ethical change that authentic Christian spirituality demands – indeed, enables – moves far beyond the essentially affirmative formula of MTD. Given that MTD rests on the individual’s moral estimations for its ethical centre, it can never be truly transformative. Jesus’ well-known exhortation that one must be “born again” in order to “see” God (John 3:3) points subtly in this direction: the present, transient world can never provide the resources for a genuinely spiritual life; one must “begin again”, as it were, with the life of the Christian representing such a break from the past that it can be described as a new birth. In this, we must remember the centrality of the figure of Christ: he functions, not only as the paradigm for authentic Christian living, but as the foundation making it possible in the first place. Christian orthodoxy calls for a complete re-ordering of a person’s life, ethically and spiritually, as a person’s old nature is left behind, and a new nature is adopted (Col 3:5, 10). And this can only come about because of the pioneering work of Jesus himself. It is, of course, through him that one may undergo that change, as one is taken from the realm of sin and death and corruption, and placed under the aegis of him who sets the pattern for true, image-bearing living. MTD, by contrast, makes no room for the fundamental renovation of a person’s nature, nor can it; it can only encourage superficial change at best.

The second main difference I discerned is deeply related to the first. The ego-centric nature of MTD implies that God is also treated as a means to an end. God is reduced to a kind of “cosmic butler” (Smith), there largely to satisfy our wants and resolve our problems. God is ‘consumed’, so to speak, providing a product – in this case, spiritual harmony and psychological peace – to people whose main concern is to derive from religion whatever they can to help them along in life. Again, it’s difficult to overstate the difference here from a genuine Christian view of God. If true religion calls for service to others as a clear demonstration of piety, then it also sees obedience to God – from which flows the call to give of oneself to one’s fellows – as the greatest good. What the Gospel does is upend our relationship to the transcendent. God is not a “cosmic butler”, but the Lord of the cosmos; Christ, as the one who uniquely reveals this God, is the master; his claim over our lives – leading inevitably to the summons to self-giving love – is total and comprehensive. Moreover, he is not some kind of instrument, or the means to a more fundamental end, precisely because he is, in himself, the ultimate end and fulfilment of all things. He is utterly transcendent — sovereign over everything — whilst also constituting the existential ground of all that is. As Paul put it, when he preached to the pagans of Athens, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Christian spirituality remains adrift unless it is tethered to an acknowledgement of God as the One upon whom everything exists, and from whom all life flows. He is the beginning and the end, the source and the summit, of all existence. Trying to use God to reach something that one sees as the ultimate goal (as MTD implicitly does) is like a person who, having lost a torch in the middle of the day, decides to use the brilliance of the sun to search for it – hoping then they will be able to find that little source of light, and use it for the illumination they so desperately seek.

At any rate, the deism of MTD ironically undercuts whatever comfort one might seek from this kind of god. He is a distant deity: neither greatly concerned with the world’s affairs (save for wanting to guarantee psychological stability in certain people), nor driven to do anything, fundamentally, about it. He is the absentee-landlord of eighteenth-century deism, with a little bit of Oprah-inspired therapeutic wisdom thrown in for good measure. This brings me to the third main difference between the creed of MTD and authentic Christian belief. Whilst the God of Christian theology and tradition is transcendent, he is most certainly not distant. For it is in his transcendence – his freedom from all constraints, both material and metaphysical – that he is able, at the same time, to be intimately involved in the affairs of his creation. Reading through, say, John’s Gospel, shows us the twin truths of God’s supremacy and closeness, upon which a robust Christian spirituality may be built. He is, on the one hand, the Creator of all things, who through his Word has fashioned and animated this world (John 1:1-3). But he is also the heavenly Father, who condescends to those who are his, welcoming them into the intimate fellowship of the Trinitarian community (John 14:23; 17:26). What follows is an abiding, deep-rooted joy, based upon the enduring presence of the Creator himself. It is, in other words, the goal and focal point of true spirituality. With its offers of superficial succour, tied as they are to the vagaries of a person’s psychological state, the God of MTD represents a parody of what union with the divine is meant to look like.

* * *

MTD, then, is simply the latest in a litany of creeds and spiritual ‘packages’ offering the mirage of piety and religious devotion. At any rate, if we were to follow its underlying logic, we’d be left with a domesticated deity, denuded of his sovereign majesty. Any claim he might want to make upon us would be empty, since we would ultimately be at the centre of our spiritual lives. Such a relationship appears to be a far cry from what both Scripture and Christian tradition have affirmed about the Creator: he who brought the worlds into being with his command, who declared that he is the self-existent “I AM”, and who confronted Job in the storm. The temptation towards idolatry which confronts every age is something that also confronts the church as it seeks to represent God faithfully and genuinely.

The challenge for us, I suppose, is to humbly yield to the God who has created us, and upon whom we utterly depend. We must allow ourselves to be shaped by this God, who calls us – summons us – to be his. We cannot afford to fall into the trap of trying to look beyond him for whatever he can provide for us. He is, as I said, the ultimate foundation of everything else, such that there is no ‘beyond’. That way lies the false gods of human imagination, as do all efforts to ‘massage’ our image of the divine according to whatever cultural trends may presently be in vogue. The God Christians are called to follow cannot be tamed by human designs, or be made to fit into convenient packages, for the very reason that he is the One within whose plans and purposes we are called to fit. Such an acknowledgment is part of the very fabric of authentic Christian spirituality. Being a Christian, and pursuing a life of discipleship, requires the willingness to enter into a narrative that is not of one’s own making, one that has been opened up by the epochal work of Christ: a “world” that establishes the boundaries of truth and reality, morality and holiness. It can be difficult and demanding, in that we are not the ultimate legitimators of what constitutes the good. However, with that acknowledgement comes the opportunity to reflect and embody the ultimate Ground of all goodness – to live and act according to our (divinely-intended) natures.

To embody a fully-orbed life of Christian faith, we cannot fall into the trap of ‘consuming’ religion in order simply to satisfy some kind of spiritual dimension. As we approach God – as we approach the crucified and resurrected Christ – we are confronted with One who upends our assumptions about our relation to the divine, and subverts all of the idols that we may have constructed. For God is the One over every dimension, public and private, which compose the rather messy projects we call our lives. When we adopt this kind of posture, and clothe ourselves in this kind of thinking, we will find that those longings for fulfilment, transcendence, completeness and calm – all worthwhile and legitimate in themselves – are paradoxically met. It is a life of death and resurrection, of radical transformation, where one’s old existence is swallowed up by newness of life (cf. 1 Cor 15:53-54). It is something that contemporary constructions of spirituality, reflecting as they do the strictures and finitude of the present world, could never hope to emulate.

What is Free Speech? Don’t Ask Peter Van Onselen

I like reading The Australian newspaper, but whenever I come across an article by one of its star columnists, Peter Van Onselen, I always find myself having to remember that he has a PhD. Why must I do this? Because I naively believe that possession of a doctoral degree means that a person is capable of engaging in subtle thinking, and rendering sound judgments based on fine distinctions — skills that Van Onselen consistently, and conspicuously, fails to practice.

Recently, I highlighted Van Onselen’s rather facile (and erroneous) equation of religiously conservative wedding operators who decline to lend their creative talents to a same-sex wedding, and racist business owners who refuse to serve someone because of the colour of their skin. Last weekend, he committed another grievous sin against clear-headed thinking (article paywalled, unfortunately). Speaking about the recent furore surrounding the date of Australia Day, Van Onselen argued that conservatives who doggedly oppose Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act are guilty of high hypocrisy for supposedly “shut[ting] down debate about whether Australia Day should” be shifted to another date. After caricaturing the views of S18C’s opponents — it is quite misleading to say their goal is that “humiliating and intimidating rhetoric should prevail” — Van Onselen suggests that their dismissal of such discussion amounts to “mind-boggling” sanctimony. He gleefully thinks he’s exposed an egregious example of moral posturing by political conservatives: of individuals hobbled by unacknowledged double-standards, whose apparent devotion to principle masks a willingness to censor others if their own sacred cows are at risk of slaughter.

To be sure, Van Onselen does make a number of pertinent points later in the article. But when it comes to the alleged inconsistency of free speech advocates, he only manages to cite one example of the phenomenon he claims to have uncovered. In the first couple of paragraphs, he makes passing reference to Citizenship Minister Alan Tudge, who apparently labelled calls to change the date of Australia Day as “ridiculous”. If this is the most troubling instance Van Onselen can find to substantiate his argument, then I’d say the prospects for the Australia Day debate are pretty healthy.

Let me put this as plainly as I can. Whatever one thinks of changing the date of Australia Day, or of dismissive responses to such calls, there is an entire world of difference between criticising another person’s view as “ridiculous”, and deploying the apparatus of the state to silence individuals — on pain of financial penalty — who utter views that are deemed unacceptable. This is precisely what happened to a group of university students at the Queensland University of Technology a few years ago, under the auspices of S18C. It dramatically highlighted the problem with the law, and why so many conservatives have opposed it as an affront to free speech. If Van Onselen can’t distinguish between this and the (robust) dismissal of a view with which one disagrees, I’m not really sure what else to say.

But say something I will. Just so there is no misunderstanding, free speech advocates — and in particular, advocates of the repeal of S18C — do not argue that a person ought to be immune from criticism, or even ridicule. In fact, advocacy of free speech demands that all ideas be exposed to such scrutiny. Nor does it mean that one is obliged to listen to, or entertain, an idea that another person propounds. What the so-called “hairy-chested warriors” for free speech (Van Onselen’s words) argue for is the freedom to speak one’s mind without fear of censorship or punishment — especially when it is practised by the state.  As an embodiment of this kind of legalistic restriction upon freedom of speech, S18C represents just such a threat. There is absolutely no weight to the charge of hypocrisy that Van Onselen levels at political conservatives (who, aside from Tudge, remain curiously anonymous). They oppose S18C as a corrosive element in a modern liberal democracy, since it hampers the free exchange of ideas. But again, this in no way entails that ideas should remain quarantined from either critical examination or blunt rejection. Meanwhile, calling an opinion “ridiculous” hardly qualifies as “shutting down” debate, whatever Van Onselen thinks. A sense of proportion would certainly go a long way.

***

I said earlier that having a PhD should mean that one is least able to demonstrate a commitment to fine-grained thinking. But it now seems reasonably clear that the distinctions Van Onselen fails to recognize aren’t fine at all. Rather, they’re quite obvious — so obvious, in fact, that someone without an ideological axe to grind, and without a penchant for trying to humiliate so-called “reactionaries” in every article,* is able to see it quite easily.

*Just Google “Peter Van Onselen” and “reactionaries”, and observe the results.

Meaning and God’s Attributes

My last few blog posts have tackled some fairly controversial issues, which have a habit of arousing very strong emotions. The intensity of those debates can tax both the mind and the soul, so every once in a while a change of pace is warranted. This brings me to the topic of the present piece, namely, the nature of God. Lately, I have been reflecting on some rather thorny questions concerning God and certain of his attributes. Some may think this a boring, irrelevant or altogether esoteric matter. However, if (as I believe) God is the very foundation and source of all there is — the ground of all being, as it were — then it’s difficult to think of anything more exciting, or important. Moreover, as a Christian, it is my duty (and indeed, a rare pleasure) to try and develop as clear a picture of the Creator as my finite mind will permit.

I don’t intend to examine the existence of God per se. Instead, I want to explore two related features of the Christian conception of God, the problems they can pose for understanding, and the means by which they might be illuminated in new and fresh ways. I am referring, on the one hand, to God’s dual nature — at once transcendent and immanent — whilst on the other, to the uniquely Christian declaration that Christ is the principle of unity within creation. These are heady concepts, to be sure; a word about each is therefore in order.

To begin, Christianity insists that God is simultaneously transcendent over creation and immanent within it. Other monotheisms — Judaism, for example — share this way of talking about God, though the way the doctrine is expressed and extrapolated in those traditions may be somewhat different. Christians consistently affirm God’s complete and utter sovereignty over the creation; creation itself relies on his conserving activity to remain in being, moment-by-moment. Given he is the metaphysical ground of all there is, God is not confined by what he has created: he is not limited by it, or susceptible to its influences (unless he deigns to be so influenced). He is radically distinct from the world he has fashioned, operating, if you like, on his own, unique plane of being. Additionally, God is neither exhausted nor fully comprehended by our conceptual categories; the frames of reference we may have devised to understand him are necessarily limited, for their “object” transcends them all. Indeed, for all their intellectual and theological value (and they can be very valuable), those categories cannot possibly capture a being — Being itself — who is by nature completely unbound by finite reality.

At the same time, God is no absentee landlord; rather, he deeply involved in this creation. The world over which God presides is filled at every point by the divine presence; God’s immanence means that he is intimately related to  it, permeating every nook and cranny so that creation brims with his essence. This dual nature is beautifully captured by Isaiah 55:9-11, which speaks of Yahweh’s purposes being higher than those of man — “as the heavens are higher than the earth” — even as he sends out his word, his wisdom, into the world to nourish his works. It is also why the Apostle Paul can declare in Ephesians 4:6 that God is not only “over all”, but “through all and in all”.*

The second attribute is, to my mind, probably more difficult to comprehend. It is the somewhat astounding theological claim that Christ, the Word and Wisdom of God, is the principle of unity within creation — that is, the One in whom “all things hold together”, as Paul declares (Col 1:17). The doctrine bears some resemblance to certain strains of Greco-Roman philosophy, even if its formulation under the aegis of apostolic and patristic thought was quite unprecedented. Like the ancient Stoics, the writers of the NT held that the phenomenal world is not simply a random, unintelligible mass: they affirmed the belief that it is an ordered place, pervaded by a principle of rationality which bequeaths to it unity and coherency. For the apostolic writers, this principle has an intrinsically personal — indeed, relational — dimension. Whether this was expressed in the Johannine concept of the incarnate Logos (John 1:1, 14), or by way of Paul’s wisdom Christology (e.g., Col 1:17), the writers of the NT declared that the world is pervaded by the cosmic Christ — God’s very word, wisdom and mind. Borrowing ideas from the OT’s wisdom tradition (e.g., Prov 8:22ff), they claimed that Christ is just that principle of rationality to which the Stoics and others referred. As the medium of God’s creative prowess, he provides the unifying structure for what would otherwise be a fragmented or chaotic realm; he draws together the various members of the created world into a harmonious whole, “sustaining” it in power (Hebrews 1:3).

It should be noted that these doctrines are deeply intertwined. Christ’s role as the principle of unity within creation presupposes a God who is both intimately involved with it, whilst remaining utterly sovereign. Indeed, if Christ, a reflection of the divine character, was not transcendent, then he could not be the sustaining, unifying cause that underlies creation; he would simply be a finite part of it, as little able to govern all things as we are. If he was not immanent, he would not — could not — be the principle of unity holding the disparate parts of creation together. He could not be the metaphysical “cement” that inheres, and adheres, all things. Conversely, God’s dual nature comes to full expression in the cosmic Christ’s powerful conserving activity, as he penetrates and upholds the created order. His immanence is not amorphous — a vague and nebulous presence — but guarantees the wise and ordered nature of the world we inhabit. Similarly, his transcendence does not entail distance, but omnipresence, so that everything is imbued with, and held together by, his own effulgence.

Intertwined, complementary…and also rather arcane**. However clear these summaries may be, they do not change the fact that we are handling some very enigmatic ideas — ones that have caused an endless parade of philosophers and theologians (not to mention laypeople at large) a great deal of intellectual angst. The fact that God is not an object of sense experience, and so is not susceptible to empirical observation, makes this task even more vexing. Trying to comprehend such stubbornly elusive concepts is like attempting to grasp the rapidly fading tendrils of an early-morning mist. For instance, I’ve tried to offer an intelligible snapshot of the doctrine of Christ as the principle of creation, but how can we understand the truth that lies behind it? In what way does the invisible and immaterial God hold material things together (that is part of the larger question of how an immaterial God interacts with materiality)? How does one actually conceive of the Christian’s claim that the apparently disparate elements of creation find coherency as they are drawn together by, and in, the divine Logos? As for God’s simultaneous transcendence and immanence, this has been a stumbling block to many people, and can appear at first glance to be inherently, embarrassingly, contradictory. As just one example among many, the atheist blogger Austin Cline has argued that at an “irresolvable tension” exists between these two poles of the divine nature. He is of the opinion that something simply cannot be transcendent and immanent simultaneously, and that any affirmation to the contrary forces one into an intellectual muddle.

Theologians and philosophers of a theistic bent have tried to offer solutions to these problems over the centuries. For example, Thomas Aquinas wrote that God’s transcendence actually entails his immanence. Far from being irreconcilable or contradictory, Aquinas argued that they are, in fact, complementary attributes. Because he is the sustaining cause of all that exists (and as such, transcends all things), God must be present — that is, immanent — in order to uphold the entire cosmic production. Moreover, because being is, according to Aquinas, a thing’s fundamental quality, then God must be present “in all things innermostly”. I, for one, think this is quite persuasive. I am also persuaded that, however difficult it may be to think of the world as pervaded by a kind of cosmic rationality (understood in personal terms by Christians), it seems likelier than the atomistic, mechanistic picture favoured by many moderns. At the same time, I also recognize that formulations like Aquinas’ are bound to strike some as recondite as the (apparent) conundrums they are designed to unravel. Is there any way of making these doctrines a little more intelligible? A “real-world” analogy, perhaps, that concretizes what might otherwise appear to be abstract and vaporous? I think there is.

Meaning as an Aid to Understanding

The concept of meaning can act as an aid to understanding as we grapple with the aspects of God’s being (as conceived by Christians) that I have outlined. It can shed light on how God can be simultaneously transcendent and immanent, whilst illuminating the view that there exists a (personal) principle of order and rationality that permeates the phenomenal world. But what do I…er…mean by “meaning”? Simply this: meaning could be described as the “aboutness” of something, be it a sentence, a picture, or a facial expression. For something like a sentence, meaning is the message “encoded” in the combination of words the author or speaker has chosen to use. It is the information that the user (broadly defined) intends to convey in his or her message. My writing this blog post is designed to communicate certain propositions, thoughts, etc., which are reflected in the words I have chosen to deploy.

The above will suffice as a good, working definition of meaning. Let’s see, firstly, how it can help us understand God’s dual nature. Take the following sentence: “The boy threw the ball to the girl”. If you’re a competent user of English, you’re likely to recognize the scenario the sentence is about — that is, the event to which it points. It will inevitably conjure a particular image, consisting of a male child using a casting action to convey a spherical object (often of recreational value) to a female child. The marks that compose the sentence will be readily understood as constituting an intelligible message. Indeed, the message is immanent within the sentence, in that the latter is “invested” with the former. Meaning is also immanent within individual words. By means of physical markings, “boy” means, points to, or represents a male child (usually under 18). Going back to the level of syntax and sentence structure, it would seem that not only does a message somehow “infuse” the physical marks one might use to communicate it; as theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, author of the stimulating book, Is There A Meaning in This Text?, has argued, meaning “cannot grasped apart from them [i.e., those marks]”. As he goes on to say, the intangibility of meaning is known through the tangibility of written characters (or, alternatively, audible sounds).

And yet, meaning is not confined to a particular collection of markings. It’s not “shut in”, as it were, but transcends any one set of words. “It is more than vocabulary and syntax”, as Vanhoozer observes. It may pervade those markings, but is neither restricted nor reducible to them. Indeed, the meaning of a sentence is more than the sum of its constituent parts. We might think about it this way: whilst I can write “the boy threw the ball to the girl”, and successfully convey my intended meaning, this in no way precludes others from simultaneously doing the same thing. Conversely, their writing the same sentence does not evacuate meaning from my own scribblings. We can all successfully “point to” the objects that are represented by the words we are using, even if the sentences we write are identical. If meaning were to be tied to words in a non-transcendent way, this would be impossible. As it is, whilst meaning and words are intimately related — such that it could be called a relation of “immanence” — it does not exclude the former’s capacity to outstrip the limits of the latter. In fact, being able to convey the same information, using the same words as other language users, presupposes it.

Like God, then, meaning bears a dual nature: transcendent on the one hand, immanent on the other. As we have seen, these qualities are not contradictory; rather, they are complimentary, and necessarily so. If something as mundane as the meaning of words and sentences can be understood in this manner, then whatever other difficulties attach themselves to grasping the divine nature, the simultaneity of his transcendence and immanence should not be one of them.

So much for that conundrum. What about the idea that, for Christians, there exists a principle of order or rationality within creation, one that is identified with Christ, the very wisdom of God (cf. John 1:1-4)? Again, meaning provides a model for comprehension. As we have seen, the meaning of words invests them with intelligibility, whilst the principles of language supply shape and coherency to an otherwise random assemblage of markings. Of course, this is not the whole story. As Vanhoozer (among others) has noted, meaning is as much a verb (something that results from human action) as it is a noun (something that is “embedded” in words). The principle of unity is ultimately sourced in the intentions of the speaker/writer. Nevertheless, meaning acts as the proximate principle of unity, order and rationality for a chain of words a language user may string together. We may use our stock example once more: “The boy threw the ball to the girl”. Each word is imbued with its own meaning, such that the marks are no longer unintelligible etchings, but vehicles of representation that can be understood by other language users. Similarly, the sentence as a whole is ordered by those same principles of intelligibility: the words that compose it are rationally related, in that they are arranged in a given sequence to communicate a particular message. Meaning, though immaterial, is a substantial reality, and is mediated through the variety of linguistic combinations (“deeds and events”, as one literary theorist put it) to which it bequeaths order.

Hopefully, you can see where I am going with all this. Christ, the divine Word, permeates the created world, supplying it with a kind of order that resembles meaning’s relationship to words and sentences (incidentally, the example I am using also offers us very rough analogy as to how something immaterial [meaning] can exert some kind of influence over something material [written or spoken words]). Like meaning’s role in structuring the sounds and signs of which a  certain message is composed, the divine wisdom structures this world in a way that ensures its rational intelligibility. It is a world of reasoned cause-and-effect, of patterned beauty, which is (in principle, anyway) susceptible to rational, scientific explanation. Both meaning and divine wisdom act as adhering agents, cementing the various constituents of their respective worlds — one linguistic, the other phenomenal — in a comprehensible way.

Conclusion

My aim in this essay has been to show that certain Christian doctrines, whilst apparently guilty of incomprehensibility, can in fact be readily understood. If I am right, there is no need for special pleading here: the common example of meaning’s relationship to words — something of which we are all intuitively aware — suggests that superficial contradictions regarding God’s nature, or allegedly esoteric claims about cosmic principles of rationality, have analogues in the world of everyday material things.

*Yes, I am aware that some scholars dispute Pauline authorship of Ephesians. I myself think that Paul wrote the letter, but I acknowledge that not everybody sees it that way.

**Of course, this is not the same as saying they are untrue.