September 20, 2006

Euthyphro, and Plato's Nagging Question

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 2:44 pm

One difference between conservative and moderate-to-progressive Christians seems to involve the nature of biblical authority, reason and morality. To explore this a bit, let me introduce a little pagan philosophy. According to Socrates, Plato posed this question to Euthyphro, translated here into Christian terms:

Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it’s commanded by God?

This is Euthyphro’s Dilemma, so-called because either answer presents us with theological problems. If something is commanded by God because it is moral, then God is not the highest authority, since God must be subservient to a greater quality called morality. On the other hand, if something is only moral because God commands that it is so, then morality is an entirely arbitrary standard that depends on God’s whim. Both alternatives seem equally unacceptable.

The resolution to this dilemma is that, included among the characteristics of God such as omniscience and omnipotence, is omnibenevolence. God is all-loving. Therefore, God can not command anything for us that is not ultimately best for us and the rest of God’s creation. God is not subservient to morality, but because of God’s love for us, God’s commands aren’t really arbitrary either. (For a fuller explanation, see God and Morality by Derrick Farnell.)

What I find interesting is an implication of this resolution to the dilemma. If God’s commands, as required by God’s very nature, are what is best for us, then morality can be objectively determined by reason independent of God’s revelation in Scripture. Now I accept the Bible as authoritative, but not as innerrant, and I’m often accused of “picking and choosing” Scripture to justify my opinions. In discussions on this blog and elsewhere, the conservative argument ultimately rests on “the Bible says it, so that settles it.” I’ve never had a good response to that argument other than the observation that the Bible contradicts itself, so we all end up picking and choosing verses to justify our positions.

But this observation that God is omnibenevolent and that God’s commands are therefore based on what is best for us gives another way to think about this. We must either accept that a) everything God commands us in the Bible is good for us, even if our intellect is not able to understand why, or that b) anything commanded in the Bible that is not good for us does not come from God. The first proposition places a belief in the inerrancy of the Bible over our ability to reason, and the second places our ability to reason over a belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.

There are many commandments in the Old Testament that we understand as having been superseded by the new covenant through Jesus Christ, so let me stick with the New Testament. Paul says that gays are condemned to live outside God’s grace, and that women can not hold positions of authority over men. Both these statements often seem to be in conflict with Jesus’ teachings, such as loving our neighbor as ourselves, or loving our enemies. (I really don’t want to get into yet another debate on these issues, but am just using them as examples.) If the Bible is inerrant, then we have to conclude that loving our neighbor as ourselves requires rejecting gay marriage and women pastors. It may seem that loving gays would mean allowing them the sacrament of holy marriage, or that loving women would mean allowing them full equality in our churches. But we are wrong. God, who is all-knowing as well as all-loving, has commanded us differently through the pen of the apostle Paul. This is the position of conservative Christians.

But I can’t buy it. I too believe in an all-knowing and all-loving God, but I also think our faculty of reasoning is a gift of God and not as fallible as conservatives would have us think. I just can’t logically see how loving gays means making them accept life-long celibacy or else forcing them from the church. I can’t think of any rational argument why keeping women out of positions of authority is an act of love. I humble myself before God and others, but I’m sorry, I just can’t see how these can be part of God’s morality, commanded by God out of God’s perfect love for us. Here I stand, I can do no other.

So this seems to be a fundamental difference in theology between Christian conservatives and progressives. By knowing God’s nature, are we capable of understanding God’s reasons for God’s commands to us, and thereby able to better discern God’s will? Or are we forever incapable of understanding why God has seemingly commanded those things that by our reasoning seem to violate God’s all-loving nature, and so forced to accept these commands anyway?

September 18, 2006

Baylor: Finally Someone Understands Us Lutherans

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 8:52 pm

I’ve had a bit of a chip on my shoulder for a while. It seems most people outside Lutherandom don’t really understand the Lutheran denominational landscape. But now my sense of being misunderstood is a bit assuaged by the Baylor University relgion survey, because they “get” us. But before I explain how Baylor got it right, let me bring up an egregious example of someone who got it horribly wrong.

American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21stCenturyIn Kevin Phillips’ book American Theocracy, he paints all American Lutherans with one very broad, conservative brush (p.214).

[T]he two major Lutheran denominations also tap a tradition of accommodating state power. The Missouri Synod Lutherans, arch-conservative and “corporatist”, regarded theirs as the one true church, followed the word of the Bible, upheld male authority, kept the German language as long as they could, and separated themselves from other faiths through parochial schools and church-related organizations. The evangelical Lutherans, as we have seen, came together in several stages from the multiplicity of German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish Lutheran churches of the upper Midwest, many of which were offshoots of state churches in the old country.

Pillips’ first error is a misunderstanding of the word “evangelical”. As I’ve explained elsewhere, Lutherans were calling their church “evangelical” long before the word was ever used to connote conservative biblical literalists. Luther didn’t name his new church “Lutheran” 500 years ago, he called it the “Evangelical” church, a term that has only recently been appropriated by conservative American Christians. In German, there are two distinct words, evangelikal and evangelisch, to differentiate between these two usages. Phillips seems to understand the word “evangelical” in the name of my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in its recent meaning, not its historical one.

September 17, 2006

Two New Sites for Christian Progressives

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:53 pm

Jim Wallis now has a blog. He has always had his columns at Sojourners, but he is now blogging at It is sponsored by both Sojourners and Beliefnet, and the blog itself is hosted on the Beliefnet site. The official promo is as follows:, Sojourner’s New Blog: It’s time for the monologue of the
Religious Right to end and for a real dialogue to begin.

Announcing the God’s Politics Blog with Jim Wallis and friends.

The New York Times bestseller God’s Politics by Jim Wallis has been
characterized as the “book that changed the conversation” on faith and
politics in the U.S.

Now read daily posts by Jim and a host of other noted commentators on
progressive faith and politics, including Amy Sullivan, Brian McLaren, Obery
Hendricks, and Tony Campolo.

Visit us at for the latest news from Jim Wallis and

Also, there’s a new site for Christian Democrats at (Why do all these sites have a .com domain name — are they really “commercial” sites, or do they figure that the .org, as in non-profit “organization”, domain is too hard to remember?) This site includes commentary from both the political and the theological side, plus reader diaries. From the site: is an online community and action center for Democrats of Christian faith. Chaired by social justice activist Rev. Romal Tune and Tennessee State Senator and author Roy Herron, our website is helping to frame the nation’s values debate around the Gospel message of justice and community — not the Religious Right’s message of fear and division. Through both dialogue and action, readers will be able to put their faith to work for the common good, holding our nation and the Democratic Party to their highest ideals.

So, two new sites with what I’m sure will be some interesting content to keep you thinking.

September 13, 2006

Baylor: Is Your God Authoritarian or Benevolent?

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:55 pm

Baylor University in Waco has just published their survey on religion. It follows the Pew religion survey by a couple weeks, but I found the Baylor survey questions far more intriguing. For people like me (okay, nerds like me) who enjoy poring through tons of data, this survey is like Christmas morning.

I’ll probably have more to say on the survey, but what jumps out at me (and USA Today) is Baylor’s definition of the four conceptions people have of God. From the USA Today article, the first two “Gods”:

• The Authoritarian God (31.4% of Americans overall, 43.3% in the South) is angry at humanity’s sins and engaged in every creature’s life and world affairs. He is ready to throw the thunderbolt of judgment down on “the unfaithful or ungodly,” Bader says.

Those who envision God this way “are religiously and politically conservative people, more often black Protestants and white evangelicals,” Bader says.

“(They) want an active, Christian-values-based government with federal funding for faith-based social services and prayer in the schools.”

They’re also the most inclined to say God favors the USA in world affairs (32.1% vs. 18.6% overall).

•The Benevolent God (23% overall, 28.7% in the Midwest) still sets absolute standards for mankind in the Bible. More than half (54.8%) want the government to advocate Christian values.

But this group, which draws more from mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews, sees primarily a forgiving God, more like the father who embraces his repentant prodigal son in the Bible, Froese says.

They’re inclined (68.1%) to say caring for the sick and needy ranks highest on the list of what it means to be a good person.

This is the group in which the Rev. Jeremy Johnston, executive pastor and communications director for his father’s 5,000-member Southern Baptist congregation in Overland Park, Kan., places himself.

“God is in control of everything. He’s grieved by the sin of the world, by any created person who doesn’t follow him. But I see (a) God … who loves us, who sees us for who we really are. We serve a God of the second, third, fourth and fifth chance,” Johnston says.

(The article goes on to describe the Critical God and the Distant God, both of which are interesting, but beside my point here.)

For those who have read my past posts on John Dean’s book Conservatives Without Conscience, you’ll understand why the word Authoritarian in the description of the first conception of God jumped out at me. The explanatory power of the psychological model Dean discusses seems to have gotten some validation from a Baptist university.

What fascinates me is the contrast between the Authoritarian and the Benevolent Gods. (I am clearly and solidly in the Benevolent God camp, in case you hadn’t guessed.) Of course in the Bible, God has both natures. Even in Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament, both the wrathful and the merciful God are present. However, the resurrection points to God’s mercy taking precedence over God’s judgement. The Christian story is one of redemption, not of damnation.

But there is the question of those who reject Jesus’ saving grace — what is to become of them? Those of us believing in a Benevolent God are content to spread the Word and let the fate of each person’s soul rest between them and God. We believe that God is merciful. We don’t worship a legalistic God ready to cast souls into the eternal lake of fire just because they didn’t have just the right born-again experience, or weren’t baptized as an adult, or voted for the wrong presidential candidate. We don’t surrender ourselves to God because God is just looking for a reason to damn us, but because God is doing everything possible to save us.

Apparently, believers in an Authoritarian God are more taken with God’s readiness to smite the ungodly than to forgive them. Instead of a faith in a God who has forgiven them, their faith is in a God who will damn their enemies. Is this really the essence of our God, as revealed to us through Jesus Christ?

Jim Wallis says that the Christian right is the victim of bad theology, and that our response to bad theology needs to be good theology. A theology that sees God as an authoritarian figure ready to validate our hatred by punishing the people that don’t go to our church is bad theology. It needs to be replaced with a better, truer theology, a theology of mercy, forgiveness and redemption, even for the “other” that we’d rather not see share our eternity. God’s love isn’t just for us. It is also for the prodigals that God embraces, while we stand off and stew about their unworthiness. That is the God we see in Christ.

September 12, 2006

Jesus and Mohammed: Super Best Friends

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 4:05 pm

President Bush talked about a clash of civilizations in his speech last night. He was careful to say that terrorists practice a perverted form of Islam, but still, his speech evoked an apocalyptic image of a Christian vs. Muslim smack-down. I just want to go on record that, as South Park has documented, Jesus and Mohammed are not just friends, but Super Best Friends.

South Park Super Best Friends

(HT Andrew Sullivan.)

Bush's 9/11 Speech: What He Really Meant

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 1:49 am

Lately I’ve tried to be less political and more thoughtful and considered, but President Bush’s speech tonight sent me through the roof. As a therapeutic exercise for my own sake, I will describe here some of the most egregious rhetorical excesses of the speech.

They murdered people of all colors, creeds, and nationalities — and made war upon the entire free world.

Made war upon the entire free world? Really? Then why doesn’t the entire free world seem to agree? This “free world” phrase harkens back to the Cold War, but doesn’t apply here. Al Qaeda has not declared war on, say, Japan or Norway, but has declared war on the rulers of Saudi Arabia, hardly a free country. It seems Bush’s speechwriters are trying to invoke the Cold War so that we will view the GWOT as the same kind of world-wide generational struggle, with the Iraq War as our generation’s Korean War.

More like the Vietnam War, and look how that turned out.

We saw courage in passengers aboard Flight 93, who recited the 23rd Psalm — and then charged the cockpit.

None too subtle implication that battling the terrorists is a Christian undertaking. Then there’s this:

It is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century, and the calling of our generation.

Any Christian understands that a calling is a religious term indicating a call from God. Pastors are called to minister. Prophets are called to speak truth to power. Missionaries are called to evangelize. And all of us are called, according to Bush, to fight. This is all very apocalyptic, especially when he speaks of the decisive ideological struggle. Anyone believing in the imminence of the rapture will get the coded message — this is the battle of the end-times, and anyone on the wrong side will be left behind.

And we know that if they were able to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction, they would use them against us.

Okay, so Saddam Hussein didn’t have nukes, and if he had, he never would have given them to Al Qaeda. But if he had and he did, Al Qaeda would have nuked us. Bush just can’t stop bringing up the nuclear-terrorist scenario, no matter how implausible. The far more important question is what Bush is doing to make sure Iran doesn’t get nuclear weapons. The Iraq War has only made Iran stronger and more aggressive.

I’m often asked why we’re in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The answer is that the regime of Saddam Hussein was a clear threat. My administration, the Congress, and the United Nations saw the threat — and after 9/11, Saddam’s regime posed a risk that the world could not afford to take. The world is safer because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power.

The UN saw the threat of Saddam Hussein? They saw a regime that was contained, and forced to allow weapons inspectors back in. And the world is safer because Saddam has been removed? I hate to say it, but a contained Saddam was marginally safer for the world than a chaotic breeding ground for more terrorists.

Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone. They will not leave us alone. They will follow us. The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad.

Did Bush just admit he made a mistake? Whoa!

Whatever “mistakes” have been made in Iraq have resulted in an Anbar Province that is under the control of Al Qaeda, where they can regroup and reorganize and plot attacks on the West. If our safety depends on the outcome in Iraq, it is only so because Bush made it that way.

Osama bin Laden calls this fight “the Third World War” — and he says that victory for the terrorists in Iraq will mean America’s “defeat and disgrace forever.”

And if bin Laden says it, it must be true, because he’s so honest and reliable. Really, who cares what Osama says? I’m more interested in where he is. And why he’s still loose.

This struggle has been called a clash of civilizations. In truth, it is a struggle for civilization. We are fighting to maintain the way of life enjoyed by free nations.

Really, his hyperbole is getting ridiculous. Does Bush really believe that Al Qaeda is capable of destroying civilzation? That Al Qaeda could ever destroy our way of life? I mean, it really is annoying not being able to take drinks on the plane, but that’s a long way from bringing down our civilization. 9/11 was a life-changing tragedy for many of us, but not a way-of-life-changing tragedy.

If you have any doubts that our way of life is as frivolous as ever, just take a look at the latest People magazine.

Winning this war will require the determined efforts of a unified country, and we must put aside our differences and work together to meet the test that history has given us.

I think he’s telling us that we can’t disagree with him, or criticize him, or second-guess him, or else we’re going to lose the war on terror.


At the start of this young century, America looks to the day when the people of the Middle East leave the desert of despotism for the fertile gardens of liberty, and resume their rightful place in a world of peace and prosperity.

Very biblical language here. Notice that he is not only alluding to the Jews leaving the desert to settle in Canaan, but he is also evoking a return to the Garden of Eden, which of course can only happen after the Battle of Armageddon and Christ’s return. More secret end-times messages to the faithful.

The attacks were meant to bring us to our knees, and they did, but not in the way the terrorists intended. Americans united in prayer, came to the aid of neighbors in need, and resolved that our enemies would not have the last word. The spirit of our people is the source of America’s strength. And we go forward with trust in that spirit, confidence in our purpose, and faith in a loving God who made us to be free.

God is on our side, and we have faith that our God can beat up their god.

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