On Definitions

I’m not a huge fan of using logical fallacies as a “I win the argument” button, especially informal ones that aren’t always super critical. But one fallacy I see a lot, and am myself prone to, is the No True Scotsman fallacy.

In writing yesterday’s post it occurs to me that when I talk about Christian empires, both Catholic and Protestant, there’s going to be an impulse to say “Ah, well, those were Christian in name only”, or “Catholics aren’t Christians”, or what have you.

I get that. Growing up Reformed it took me a really long time to even admit that Catholics were Christians (which seems odd to say now).

That’s not to say that we have to throw out the definition of Christian entirely. Of course not. Otherwise it’s not super useful to have the definition at all.

But that’s exactly what I’m thinking about right now: The usefulness of definitions.

Definitions are conceptual categories, and as such they’re constructed inside human minds. There’s nothing about, say, a tree that you can examine with a microscope to discover its treeness. That category exists in your head, and only in your head.

But of course you have the concept of tree, and presumably you have that concept because it’s in some way useful to you, or at the very least you’ve inherited it as part of a cultural legacy (and you can imagine for yourself how treeness might seem different to a carpenter versus a biologist).

One of the uses of definitions is to structure power. One of the ways the Nazi state structured power was to exclude types of people from its definition of human. Once of the ways that American state structured power before its civil war was to categorize Black people as property. One of the ways that Christian empires structured power was to categorize non-European indigenous people as savages.

Now, the ways that we structure power don’t necessarily lead to genocide and exploitation. But it sure would be nice if we could be aware that it can.

When you seek to exclude, say, Christian empires from your definition of what it means to be Christian, you structure power in your own favour. That is to say, you benefit from that, in this case quite immediately, since you no longer have to explain how your religious beliefs can either lead to or be coopted by Empire.

A few examples (unfortunately mostly about culture war stuff, forgive me):

There’s a persistent meme amongst Young Earth Creationists that evolution is just a theory. Now, in some senses, this is trivial confusion about what the word theory means in a scientific context versus what it means in casual, everyday speech. But this meme was started, I think quite intentionally, by people who absolutely should know better, who are aware of this discrepancy in language, and are exploiting it to give folks the appearance of epistemological cover. After all, if we exclude from the definition of theory all the stuff about testing and evidence and observation and falsifiability, it suddenly becomes easy to equate a scientific theory with a naive reading of a religious text.

Or take gender. Right now we have skirmishes over what does it mean to be a man and what does it mean to be a woman and can you be neither of these. What is this but a debate over definitions? Traditionalists try to smush sex and gender together into a binary; progressives try the opposite.

How about abortion? The entire debate hinges on a definition: When does life start? Pro-life folks try to push the definition of life as far back as possible (sometimes as far as conception, which I find both logically and scripturally unsupportable, but you understand the impulse to do so, right?), and pro-choice folks do the opposite. Nominally, pro-life folks are doing this to prevent a child’s death, and pro-choice folks are doing this to protect a mother’s bodily autonomy, though considering that both these positions are leveraged by political parties as wedge issues, I’d say that’s very much what the debate means, but not what the debate does.

I could go on.

The point, anyways, is that definitions are powerful. Conceptual categories are important. They have real effects in the world, and we ignore them at our peril.

That’s not to say any of these things are real, per se. All definitions, all conceptual categories, are constructed in some way. They can be structured in different ways, with different effects. The real question is who benefits.

On Fear II

Yesterday I gave what I thought was the most charitable interpretation of this fear for the end of the church in the west. Today, a less charitable interpretation. And, I think, a more realistic one.

The church in the west has inherited a legacy of incredible influence. Or to put it another way, power. From the Roman Catholic church’s political and military height, where it held an almost unimaginable amount of influence over European polities, to the empires, both Catholic and Protestant, that spanned the globe.

If you choose, you can get granular and break this down into the individual structures use to propagate and perpetuate this power (empire, state churches, colonization, whiteness, heteronormativity, patriarchy).

Or you can just acknowledge that there is a certain type of person who has inherited this legacy (white, male, Christian).

Now, the church as an institution has been forced to move from nakedly structuring power using force, at least for the most part. Since the rise of the enlightenment in the west, the church has gradually been forced to structure power more subtly by leaning on ideology.

In this case, I mean ideology as in the anointing of particular definitions as Biblical or Christian or what have you. When you adopt Biblical Womanhood or a Christian Worldview (for example) as defined by the institutional church, you are participating in that structuring. Whether that womanhood is actually biblical, or that worldview is actually Christian is largely beside the point.

The end result is the same. Militarily or ideologically, we see the same sorts of people ascendant at the top of this pyramid.

And the people who are invested in a doom-and-gloom outlook on the church in the west, at least in my experience, are exactly these people.

So I have to ask: Are you concerned with the wellbeing of the church of Jesus Christ? Or are you concerned with your cherished categories being disrupted at the cost of your own social standing and influence? Are you concerned about people? Or just people that look and act like you?

I think a lot of the paranoia and neurosis about persecution and tyranny in the church springs from exactly that (not to mention the extremely way Christians often demand to be taken seriously by the “educated elite”). It’s not a loss of life. It’s a loss of social standing.


I’d recommend reading Richard Beck’s The Slavery Of Death if you want to understand more why this sort of existential dread produces a death anxiety that inevitably leads to sin.

On Fear

No matter how often it happens (often!) I never cease to be amazed by how we’re all driven to our moral/ethical stances by circumstance and practice and community. This goes, by the way, for me, you, elected officials, pastors, educators, etc. No one is immune, not even (and perhaps especially) moral philosophers.

The problem is this dog-wagging is easy to spot in others and incredibly difficult to see in ourselves. After all, our cognitive bias is to assume that we’re correct, but even further, that we’re good people with good opinions.

I recently read a blog post by a pastor bemoaning the utter destruction of the church due to COVID restrictions, going on and on about how the church is being laid low by this overblown response.

Lots of problems with this. Not the least of which is trying to protect the church as an institution over and above the parishioner and clergy that make up that church, without whom there is no church.

To my eyes, this lack of wisdom on the part of this minister is astonishing. But you can see how you’d get there, right? Your livelihood depends on the church. It pays your bills. It pays the bills of others like you. How can you help but feel immediately and existentially threatened when people stop showing up?

This is the most charitable way I can read these sorts of things. I see a person who is fundamentally scared and pessimistic about the future of the church in general, and their church in particular. And that orientation drives belief.

Imagine looking at the facts, at the statistics, at the death toll for this disease, and still saying “Yes, some of you may die, but that’s a chance I am willing to take”.

Well that’s horrible. You obviously can’t do that. So instead you choose the third path: Downplay the facts, buy into the conspiracy theories, start to believe that it’s all an overblown hoax.

You believe what you have to believe.

There’s a fourth path, of course. But it’s difficult, and if you have a gloom-and-doom disposition (as clergy often and oddly seem to), it’s going to be a bit of an emotional workout. Especially if your eschatology leans toward the dispensational.

The path is faith. If you believe, as I assume you do, that Christ is the head of his church, and that your God is all-powerful and at work in the world, and that the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church, why are you so worried?

Do you honestly think this is the end of the church in the west? Do you really have that little confidence in this thing that you’ve given your life to?

I find it ironic when Christian folks talk about COVID in terms of a “spirit of fear”, because I think more than anything, their rejection of the mitigation efforts (lockdowns, masks, vaccines, whatever) is rooted in exactly that. It seems to me, rather plainly, to be a fear of tyranny, fear of the end of the church, fear of persecution, fear of government, fear of the future and on and on.

I’m choosing to take this fourth path. I think whatever emerges on the other side of the pandemonium will be the better for it. Maybe this will help us shed some of the toxicity that’s made the church, especially the western evangelical church, so hard to root for.

Maybe I only believe that because I have to. But I’d rather be optimistic and be wrong than be made a fool by fear.

Justifying baptism

I wrote this blog post on baptism nearly fifteen years ago.

That’s a long time. Reading the post is sort of weird. I don’t really recognize my own voice or fingerprints in that post, at least for the most part. There’s bits in there that still sound like me, but it might as well have been written by anyone.

But let’s not dwell on that more than we have to. I have enough grey in my beard already.

Let’s talk about what I was doing in that post, instead. I’m pretty clearly trying to apologize (in the sense of offer up an argument for) infant baptism, using covenants and continuity as my justifications.

But why am I doing that?

Well, I think there are at least a few things going on here. First, infant baptism is hard to support directly from scripture. The Anabaptist claim is simpler, more direct, and requires less framework-style theology. That’s not to say it’s not as laden with assumptions as infant baptism, but that the theology is simpler.

I think this is one of the reasons (though not the only one) why evangelicals in the Americas are overwhelmingly adult baptists. You don’t come to evangelicalism, let’s be honest here, for its deep doctrinal traditions. It’s the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” strain of Christianity. Simple is better.

Second, I was raised an infant baptist, and continue to prefer that tradition (though I belong to a church that is, at least nominally, Baptist).

Third, and most importantly, in that post I have ideological commitments that make it necessary for me to justify that preference or belief or doctrine or whatever you like to call it. My rhetorical goal in that post is to offer up a scriptural defence of infant baptism, but that rhetorical goal is driven by prior ideological commitments.

One of those commitments is, roughly, if the church does something it must be justified against the pages of scripture. This is the milieu I was raised in, a usually unspoken tenet. A sort of jacked-up sola scriptura. There were looser and stricter adherence to the tenet (FRC, if I recall correctly, would only sing Psalms, but URC would sing psalms and hymns), but the tenet itself was inviolable. The structure of the service had to be justified from scripture, etc, etc, etc.

It was exhausting.

It was also bullshit.

The problem was the test failed its own test. After all, if the church does something it must be justified is itself something that the church does, and cannot be justified. It’s just tradition rolled up in a carpet and snuck in the side door.

It provides intellectual cover, if you don’t look too hard, for the thus far but no further crowd, who view everything from the past as sacred and everything from the present and the future as an abomination.

Which, I mean, fine. You can keep the same church service from the 1940s or whatever. No one’s trying to make you change it, except maybe your kids. Just be honest about it and stop investing your sense of personal holiness in the way your parents and grandparents did church.

Because at the end of the day, this scriptural justification… you can’t do it. You can’t do it. You just can’t do it.

Infant baptists, adult baptists, whatever baptists can’t do it. There’s, at best, very little Biblical data to support your position. Your position comes from somewhere else. From your upbringing, your preferences, your intellectual orientation, your culture, your tradition, whatever.

Catholics and Anglicans and Orthodox all get this. They lean as much on tradition as they do on the Bible. This is, I think, the more honest approach. The corpus of stuff the church does is as much, and probably more, decided on by the church itself through time as it is directly plucked from the pages of scripture.

My current thinking is this: The church has, historically, decided on infant baptism for various reasons. Those reasons are not all great, because the historical church didn’t have access to the breadth and depth of scholarship we have now. But baptizing infants is a way of connecting with the traditions and practices of the church through time, at least for me. I think adopting the Anabaptist tradition does violence to those traditions, especially when it tacitly assumes that a) we have to justify our practices from the Bible and the Bible only, which, again, fails its own test, and b) that the best reading of the Bible is the most naive one.

The best we can say is you have to do it. The how and where and when? You and your community decide.

Arguments that frustrate

If you’re making an argument, you should want your argument to be taken in good faith.

But in order to do that you need to make good faith arguments.

A lot of what I see happening online (and this isn’t recent, by the way, it’s happened since at least since I was on the internet, which is pretty much since the beginning of the world wide web) is folks making arguments not because they believe them, but because they believe their opponents will be unable to refute them.

A common antivax argument goes, “Woah woah woah, what about bodily autonomy? What about my body, my choice? Why should I have to get a vaccine?”

To be clear, antivaxxers do not believe this argument. They do not believe in bodily autonomy in the same way they imagine their opponents do (whether or not that’s true). They’re not speaking out of some deep respect for anyone’s bodily autonomy, if they even understand what that means.

They make this argument not to convince, but to frustrate. That’s the definition of a bad faith argument. There’s no way you can take this kind of logic seriously because no one in the discussion actually believes it.

Personally, I think there’s some ideological underpinnings here (leaning on Eco’s Ur-Fascism and Sartre’s view of anti-Semitic speech), in that some ideologies simply don’t take their own words seriously. Or, to put it another way, they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert.

A note on viruses

I’ve heard a few folks say “oh well I’m not worried about COVID variants, you see, as viruses mutate, they get less deadly.”

But this doesn’t make sense. If that were the case, we’d have no deadly viruses at all. Think about where the first COVID pathogen came from. Did it spring up, fully formed, ex nihilo? No, it mutated from something else. Maybe a virus in bats, maybe not. It doesn’t really matter.

Allele frequency, which is what these mutations are, changes in allele frequency, isn’t sentient. It doesn’t have a plan. It’s not trying to get somewhere. As mutations happen, they either make the virus better at reproducing, or they don’t. Deadliness is really a sort of knock-on effect.

If it were the case that mutations decrease deadlines, again, we’d have no deadly viruses, because all viruses are related to eachother and have been piling up these mutations for many, many years. If that were indeed the case, we’d see no new viral diseases develop at all.

The opposite of dogma isn’t dogma

I guess I’m going on a posting spree 🤷‍♀️

Here’s some dogma: The Bible says x.

Dogma in this case isn’t pejorative. It’s just to say that this an undefended statement made with certainty. It makes a claim. In this case, it actually makes a few claims, because it assumes univocality of scripture. It assumes that when the Bible talks about something in different places, it’s talking about the same thing in the same way (or more technically, that the Bible can be thought of having a single theological paradigm).

A lot of systematic theology (but not all) assumes the same thing, tacitly or not. If we can just collect all the different biblical data, they will reveal to us a correct theological paradigm. The history of the church’s attempts at doing this and the (very) many traditions that survive and continue to be developed should really put the kibosh on that.

How do deal with a scripture that isn’t univocal is a really tough problem. It’s at least partly why the Catholic church, to take a single example, has come to rely on its ecclesiastical megastructure like it has, or why Anglicans have adopted a “three-legged-stool” approach to interpretation.

But for the recovering fundamentalist, the trappings of this are hard to shed. Take one of the big bones of contention, the doctrine of Hell as a place of eternal conscious torment.

When we read the Bible earnestly, taking it seriously in its context, recognizing the rhetorical goals of its authors, not simply assuming univocality, it’s clear that the Bible in the Old and New Testaments talks about the afterlife in a bunch of different ways. Which makes sense, considering the different cultural contexts (ANE vs Greco-Roman) these books were written in. The Old Testament talks about the afterlife in a variety of different ways, and the New Testament in a different variety. Broadly, it support (at minimum!) annihilationism, punishment followed by annihilation, and eternal punishment.

The temptation for the recovering fundamentalist is to read passages that seem to support annihilationism and say, Ah, actually the Bible doesn’t say x after all!

How is this better? It’s still a bit of dogma. It doesn’t match the biblical data. If we take that data seriously we have to say that the Bible says at least both. Which is confusing. Because we don’t want our scriptures to say two different, opposing things, on the same subject.

This is a hard thing to recognize and reconcile. We want to make propositions about stuff. We don’t want to consider that the Bible contains polemic, speculation, errors, rhetoric, and all that.

But it’s worth asking a big question. If we’re taking the Bible seriously, if we’re reading it as a guide to faith and life… where does it ask us to make these propositions?

I don’t think it does.

Addendum

Just quick bit of context. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you might get the impression that I think fundamentalists are stupid or evil or something.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

You can read these posts as me interrogating a much younger me; if it seems I’m aiming a bit of snark at you, don’t worry. It’s aimed at Younger Me (and, I assure you, he was a bit of a turd).

I think fundamentalism as a system of belief is built to address an angst that I, on the whole, very much share. That is to say, how do we arrive at capital-t Truth? In the modernist milieu, we’re expected to construct certainty, and in the division of waters between the secular and the sacred, it seems like the secular has arrived, via the scientific method and so forth, on a way to do that.

So how do we echo that in the sacred space? One way is fundamentalism, an attempt to construct certainty by casting the Bible as a document without error. What could be more certain than that?

The fact that the biblical data neither demand nor support such a doctrine is beside the point. The Bible is what it we need it to be, so it can do what we need it to do: answer the seemingly airtight secularist brand of certainty with our own.

Of course, this is in many ways ouroboros (you have to do this only because you believe you have to do this), and very much a departure from historic Christian belief.

But then, historic Christian belief didn’t exist in the Modern era, did it? And the angst at the heart of fundamentalism is a very good angst to have. It just doesn’t need to be resolved in such a destructive, inhuman, and disenchanting manner.

Bad Arguments

When I was younger, I attended a Reformed church which had some very strong ideas about what we should and should not do on a Sunday. They called Sunday the sabbath, treated it like the sabbath, and had a whole series of dos and don’ts. I got caught up in a lot of these arguments (they were, and still are, interesting to me), like “is it acceptable to purchase something from a vending machine on a Sunday/the sabbath, since no-one’s actually doing any labour there?”

The answer was generally probably not; you don’t want to get too close to the line.

These skirmishes around what is and is not acceptable on the sabbath are a bit of pharisaical fun, but they tended to obscure the real question: Why are we treating Sunday like the Sabbath?

After all, sabbath is pretty clearly supposed to be Saturday, and Sunday isn’t Saturday, so what gives?

Now, I’m not particularly interested in litigating that stuff again (I’m sure I’ve written almost this exact post, up to this point, before), even if I do find it interesting in a sort of abstract, academic, looking-at-the-giraffes-at-the-zoo sort of way. And my current answer, that the Christian tradition decided sabbath rules no longer apply at some point and that the Christian tradition gets to change those sorts of things, isn’t going to be satisfying to certain sola scriptura types. But then no answer will be, because you can’t just sola the scriptura harder to find justification for traditions that simply don’t appear in its pages.

I very distinctly remember one of the answers: “Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath”.

To be clear, this is a terrible answer, one that anyone with any theological education whatsoever should be embarrassed to give. It’s uniquely unconvincing because it just doesn’t connect any dots. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath therefore we observe the Sabbath on a Sunday is, plainly, nonsense. Look at the amount of work “therefore” is doing in that sentence!

This is a Bad Argument. You can try to make it a Good Argument but you’ll have to make it a Different Argument to do that.

So why would anyone use it? Well… I can think of a few reasons.

  • They’re not very bright
  • They’ve never had to think about this before and they chose the first thing that came to mind
  • They find that argument convincing, so they think that you should too
  • They meant to make a different argument, or thought they were answering a different question
  • I’m remembering the situation wrong and they actually did make a different argument

I think the most charitable interpretation, to all sides, is that they found this argument convincing. Keeping in mind that I’ve had many versions of this logic thrown at me over the years (Do not be conformed to this world… therefore… you shouldn’t wear pants with flames on them), each version seemingly convincing to whoever said it.

And why not? Imagine a world where you’re generally non-evangelistic, non-ecumenical, where even your seminaries are hermetically sealed off from the broader Christian world: who’s going to tell you that your arguments suck? Other than, I guess, some annoying, rebellious teenager?

Anyways, the larger point is this: a lot of arguments have rhetorical utility outside being good arguments. We might use them to convince ourselves and folks who agree with us of something. These bad arguments might have the rhetorical function of a firewall, that is to say, not to convince you that the argument is a good argument for proposition x, but that arguments simply exist in support of proposition x. Which might just be enough. Not to know that you have good arguments, but that you know that there are arguments.

That is to say, a flimsy justification is better than no justification at all. I know, for me, that I use flimsy justifications all the time. How often have you decided to do something you knew was harmful using the absolute barest of pretexts to justify your actions?

That’s a uniquely human experience, I think.


A brief footnote: Trying to parse out the rhetorical goals of an argument isn’t taking the argument seriously. I get that response. But I think in cases where an argument is prima facie absurd, it’s the only way to give a little grace to the person making it. Otherwise you really do have to consider whether person you’re talking to is, after all, an idiot.


Another one, sorry, I guess we’re going to keep doing this: Let’s say that the church I was attending at the time had decided to ditch the whole “everything we do must 100% be justified from the very word of God” and gone with a more “this is how we’ve decided to do things in our tradition, based on our extrapolation of these principles that we feel best interpolates God’s intentions”. Would this have been much better for me as that annoying, rebellious teenager? I suspect, based on what I remember myself being like in those days, probably not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a better approach, or at least one that fits the actual data better. At the very least it’s a more honest approach; if you’re going to have traditions, don’t pretend like you don’t.

Complications

Just a quick note.

One of Fundamentalist Christianity’s strengths is that is appears simple. It is, of course, not simple (nothing is simple). But it claims to be, and can appear to be.

Take the doctrine of inerrancy. It’s a very easy thing to say. The fact that it’s incredibly difficult to follow, or in other words, it’s difficult to reconcile the available biblical data with this notion, is entirely beside the point. It’s simple, it’s uncomplicated, and if you’re choosing doctrines with Occam’s razor (and you absolutely should not be) it might seem obvious.

Once you understand, though, that the inerrantist position developed in opposition to scientific propositions like evolution, you can start to see one of the ways it can be attractive, and that’s as a bulwark against complexity.

It’s obviously possible to reconcile science and the Bible: even the Catholic church has managed to do it. So why would you not do that?

The inerrantist pushes back against the scientific proposition of evolution because it is data that complicates their dogma. They go so far as to form an entire pseudoscientific community around attempting to provide inerrantist alternative solutions to scientific challenges to their dogma. The fact that these explanations are (from the outside at least) ludicrous, isn’t the least bit worrying to them, because all they need to do is assert that there are alternative solutions, not prove that these solutions are actually better in terms of actual science. They’re already better because they support the inerrantist approach.

The whole point of developing all this intellectual scaffolding is to support the inerrantist interpretive framework. To keep things simple. But, well, actually, it’s not so simple after all.

Why bother? Why do all this work when you can simply… not do it? Yes, switching dogmas is tough, but people do it all the time. The reality is, this is the big one that fundamentalism simply can’t move on from without becoming non-fundamentalist. The inerrantist approach (or something like it) undergirds the entire Reformation project, which switcherooed the Big Question of Christianity from “is your belief in God sincere” to “are your propositions true”.

And you simply can’t tell if your propositions are in capital-t True in the modernist sense unless you’re basing them off something that is also capital-t True. Ergo inerrancy. This is the fundamental in fundamentalism. The rest is icing.

Of course the fact that Christianity thrived for a good 1500 years without needing these sort of propositional, capital-t Truth claims is probably a good indication that when we’ve finally come back round to Jesus’s refinement of the law and prophets (love God, love others), we’ll probably be just fine.