Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Seeing Through Dame Reason's Stylish Sunglasses

It was pointed out how I end up approach things from a more modernist perspective, rather than the approach that was taken classically amongst Lutherans in terms of my epistemology (the study of how one thinks). This is fair.

It was noted that classically there was more of an ontological approach, where the focus was upon what a thing is, where it's form determines its function. Nature itself reveals what something is to do. I take what some have apparently termed the "strong divine command ethic", where the focus is upon simply what the Word of God has said.

First, let it be noted that there is validity in both these approaches. There is ontological reality - a woman's body is designed to be able possibly to carry a child - a man's is not. Simple as that. There is a real difference in nature. On the other hand, I'm sure none of the people who get all bent out of shape on my approach to contraceptives would say that we should ignore the Word of God, or would denigrate the Word of God intentionally in any fashion.

But when it boils down to it, when push comes to shove, the question becomes which is the higher, better, more trusted way of thinking -- looking at the ontological nature of a thing, or looking directly at the Word of God.

I have to go with the latter.

Why? Well, consider Romans 1:18-20: For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

"But wait," one might say, "this is just confirming that ontological approach - things should have been obvious to them, clearly perceived in the things that have been made - that's ontology!" Yep. You are right. And here's my question. What happened to all those people who had all that wonderful ontological evidence to consider?

They died condemned. Romans 1:21-23: For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

They moved to their own wisdom, their own thoughts, they claimed to be wise and became fools, and then made up religion of their own devising. And they were lost.

This is the point, the thing I fear. As Luther has pointed out, Dame Reason is a whore.

What do I see what I see constructs on the basis of natural law? What do I see when I hear people then make logical jumps and arrive at conclusions that God has not revealed in His Word? I just see the creation of new idols, new righteous fertility gods which we must worship in order for people to think we are good.

I see people dimming the light of God's revealed Word by choosing to look through dame reason's stylish sunglasses.

"but, but, but," one might say, "look how often the Lutheran Fathers took this approach, look at how Luther took this approach." Yes - and what schools was Luther trained in? Classical education, scholasticism, even humanism. And what's always running around in there -- well, what's Luther's beef with transubstantiation? That it's an attempt to apply a system of human logic to a mystery of God using terminology not present in the Scripture and binding people to accept it.

Hmm.... Reason moving beyond what is revealed in the Scriptures.

You know - maybe on the basis of ontology, you make a wonderful observation. Perhaps you even come up with a wonderful, useful connection, a great philosophy or approach to life. It may even be good... but without a clear Word from God, how do I know you haven't just been cavorting with the old harlot for your own pleasure and self-aggrandizement? This is what happened throughout the Old Testament, whenever people chose new ways to worship God - either in Samaria when it was to be in Jerusalem, whether it was new laws designed to aid one in keeping God's revealed Law (revealed in the Word), whether it was syncretic hedging of the bets, whether it was the establishment of Korban and things like that.

All seemed reasonable derivations, but all abandoned what God has said. And that's tragic. But the Word of God - ah, now that is a lamp unto my feet that is constant and flickers not. Thus, I will make my stand there.

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The counter that may come up is this - "alright, well tell me where the clear Word of God is that says that you *can* use contraception!"

There's not.

But tell me this. When have I ever claimed that using contraception is a holy and righteous way of worshiping God? I haven't. I've only claimed that it is neutral and free, not forbidden. And if you come across folks who argue that "as good Christians we must limit the number of kids" I'll gladly join with you in ripping that apart. That too is establishing a new righteousness on the basis of reason.

But that's not what I've been arguing for. (Nor, frankly, am I interested in trying to prove myself righteous or fall into some American-Finneyesque attempt to use the Christian faith to make the world a better place as though the purpose of the Church was to improve sinner's postures. If you have been talking for a while and have not talked about forgiveness, or it's just sort of appended on -- oh, I suppose there's forgiveness if you aren't as righteous as I -- then I'd rather just go listen to an old timey Methodist if I could find one)

You see, our lives are not about demonstrating our righteousness, or showing forth our own holiness by how proper we live. Christ is my righteousness, why would I ever point to my own acts as "righteous".

Rather this - I am concerned about showing love for the neighbor. And telling a neighbor "you must" when God has not said "you must" does nothing but crush them.


Christopher Gillespie said...

Pr. Brown,

Out of curiosity, what has motivated this latest series arguing for a righteous use of contraception? I understand your arguments despite not agreeing with your conclusion. Your posts are full of passion, which gives me pause to consider what life situation has motivated them. I'm curious if you have something personal at stake? Its probably none of my business.

The ontological argument does not necessarily rely upon reason. You could simply use the Genesis account (myth?) to demonstrate that creatures were given to procreate. This givenness was repeated after the fall to Noah and implicit to the promise to Abraham.

Your argumentation is severe and may give the impression that Christian couples are free of their created nature. That's the dangerous road leading to antinomianism. While there are exceptions, why not speak in the positive of what is natural course of marriage as given by God?

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Pr. Gillespie,

"While there are exceptions, why not speak in the positive of what is natural course of marriage as given by God?"

That is an excellent question. But here is the thing - I don't see that being done. I am passionate because I see such a focus on "nature" and what is natural that two things happen:

1. The exceptions never get mentioned, or if they do they are brushed aside, or they are put in a category of being so rare an exception that *you* can't possibly have any reason for using contraception at all.

2. The Scriptures are thrown onto a back burner. I just despise it when people go off instructing people on how they are to live without being in the word of God.

From my study of history I know this to be true - every heresy has its equal and opposite heresy. You have Marcion and you have the Ebionites, you have Euctyches and you have Nestorius. Sinful man in his zeal to reproach one error can swing past what is scriptural and on into another error.

I have no problem with people speaking positively about marriage begetting children. I have no problem with teaching and shouting to the rafters that children are a blessing. This is true -- but what I do find problematic is when there is that "therefore, you cannot do ...." which gets added.

That's what leads to error.

We speak where the Scriptures speak. We remain silent where the Scriptures are silent.

The Scriptures say that children are a blessing - so let us say that loudly and gladly.

The Scriptures nowhere say, "You cannot use contraception or try to postpone birth". Therefore, let us be silent in that condemnation as well.


Also - "The ontological argument does not necessarily rely upon reason. You could simply use the Genesis account (myth?) to demonstrate that creatures were given to procreate. This givenness was repeated after the fall to Noah and implicit to the promise to Abraham."

Yes - this is true. Now, what do you do with this? Do you thus say, "You, oh Christian, must go make babies for Jesus!" That's pretty close.

See, here's the thing - we will by our sinfulness turn blessings into curses. We will take a blessing and make it an idol (is not money often turned into an idol), we will make a blessing a burden, a hoop, a litmus test for being a real Christian (if you only had more faith and were more open to God, you wouldn't need contraception)... and that just crushes people.

What good is it to say to the world, "World who hates children, it is a good and God pleasing thing to have children, and I will delight in it" if the next words out of your mouth then crush people by saying, "and if you aren't having kids, this isn't natural and you are just a tool of abortionists and death dealers!"

Seriously - what good is that?

Christopher Gillespie said...

Thanks for the clarification. I think you're getting to the heart of the matter, at least pastorally. You'll agree that speaking of a good gift of God in the positive will result in the condemnation of the law for those who refuse it.

This is especially the case for the Sacraments. Sure, you can be saved without baptism but why would you deny its blessing? Ouch, that's some painful law for the weak or obdurate. Same with the Supper. Yeah, you don't have to receive it but why would you refuse?

In both cases, we can probably come up with reasonable cases of exception. Perhaps by baptizing the infant you will offend the tender conscience of the Muslim father, who heretofore was moving towards Christianity. Or someone is struggling with an oral sickness and doesn't want to cough in the chalice, so abstains. Is this fitting? Probably for a time unless a better solution can be reached.

Children are the normal result of Christian marriage. We need to be sensitive in language for the tender consciences bearing the curse of infertility or struggling with single or marital chastity. Rarely, this will necessitate difficult choices, such as abstinence. Contraception is normally not part of the Christian life. Its only used when the curse of creation gets in the way biologically or physically and it ought to be communicated as a last resort.

That's the heart of the matter. Its dogmatic banning or lack of coverage by CHP in no way removes the possible necessity. Yet, we have a duty as a church to speak positively (from the rafters, as you said.) This will de facto be contra culture, which is neither chaste nor largely procreative. This is unavoidable and the sticky matter of contraception will be revealed.

That's my $0.02 for the time being.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I think the comparison to the Sacraments is interesting. Consider - the Lord's Supper is a blessing, but someone only communes once a month. Would you say to them, "This is a blessing - if you would be a real Christian you must receive it more often"? No - and one of the things Luther resisted was saying how often (in terms of number) that a person needed to commune. It's a good thing - commune. But I'm not going to make it into a law.

Likewise, kids are a blessing. Go enjoy lots of kids. But I'm not going to turn having lots of kids into a law or a sign of being a true Christian. I'm not going to make up a new law in order to browbeat the weak or fearful into enjoying a gift. It's just not... right to do so, it's not safe.

And of course -- if you want to change the culture and attitudes, no Law is going to do that... especially not one of our own devising.

Christopher Gillespie said...

Luther was willing to say something about communing four times a year, minimum. Oh, and something about going to confession. :)

Perhaps had he been our situation, he might have made some prescription for the number of children one might have to be called a Christian? Ha!

I think we're on the same page now. Thanks.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Maybe following Solomon he would have said that you should be content with just half a child =o)