Naturally Artificial: The Interaction of Technology and Nature

In my previous post we explored the two components of the theology of creation and the importance of both. This is a continuation of that discussion (because Nikki said it was too long for one post)…

Nature as Revealing God

If we ignore the importance of nature as a revelation of God’s beauty, we can quickly turn to an exploitative approach to nature. If we treat nature as merely a resource, a source of extraction of goods, and fail to value the preservation of the beauty of creation. If agricultural or genetic engineering is coupled with species elimination, we have are ignoring God’s design of diversity in creation. Even within technology, we can be guided by the principles of God’s creation. When we engineer for homogeneity, we are not engineering according to God’s style. If we engineer without regard for sustainability, we are not follow God’s approach.

If we ignore God, the creator, it is quite reasonable to erroneously value nature for nothing more than its means of providing resources for humans. But acknowledging a creator demands that we put a value on nature as God’s artwork, something with a value worth preserving beyond just its utility to humanity. Those who worship God, should be those most invested in protecting and honoring God’s creation, yet Christians have acquired a reputation for having the least concern for our planet, our climate, and the creation that surrounds us.

Likewise, this concept is important for how we treat people. We live in a world where people tend to be assessed by what they can produce, their performance. Yet God’s creation reveals beauty that goes far beyond just resource production. The beauty of creation has so many facets and intricacies that no one can be truly appreciated if only seen for their function. Likewise as we approach others, we must look for beauty beyond just productivity. We must appreciate the beauty of diversity, of the uniqueness of individuals, the wide range of gifts that God has given people.

Delegated Creation

On the other hand if we ignore the important of the delegation of creation, it is easy to fall for the appeal to nature fallacy. And not only does the theology of creation teach us that the concept that God has called man to create and design, but the Bible also teaches that while nature may reveal God, nature itself is fallen (Rom 8:19-22), and natural instincts and the natural process of “natural selection” are ruthless, God has called man to step above these. I recently saw Monkey Kingdom, a great documentary of the life and society of monkeys. One thing was clear: monkeys are horrifyingly ruthless towards each other. They have brutal caste systems and the elites will hoard food and inflict horrible punishment on lower caste who attempt to break rank. The natural systems, societies, and structures of monkeys and man are broken and ruthless, God has called us to challenge these with a greater concept of society.

This has implications for how we assess (or can’t assess) ethics, organization, and morality as well. While God’s design reveals His purpose, the delegation and progression of creation means that we can not hold up an image of original creation as an infallible blueprint for morality. We can’t use Adam and Eve as a definition of proper moral living.

This also means we can’t assume that there are “natural” forms of economics or governance that are superior. There are no easy solutions from simple economic models or democratic structures, we are constantly challenged to think, innovate, and consider new ways of improving upon our systems. Simply letting things be is rarely the answer.

Appeal to nature fallacy can lead astray in everyday ways as well. Millions flock to “natural” foods, remedies, and other products that often lack any substantial verification of superiority, and are merely marketed on the basis of being more natural. The tremendous commercial success of organic products has largely been attributed to the appeal to nature, and fear of the artificial. Where these products help improve labor practices, increase species diversity, and reduce antibiotic resistance they are to be welcome and appreciated, but the intuitive superiority of their naturalness is easily overestimated. For many, this “naturalism” distortions may simply lead to extra spending, but for others, on the edge of development, where small improvements in agricultural efficiency can provide the opportunity to properly feed one’s family, advances in genetic engineering can be a matter of life and death, with thousands of lives at stake. Distorted perspectives may not have big consequences for us, but denying the opportunities of engineering, that God has given us, can really mean life or death for others.

If we are to properly respond to God’s design of delegated creation, it means that God has invited us into creation in every aspect. We can’t inconsistently assume that we can rightly engineer computer chips and attempt to actively influence people’s beliefs, while we ignore God’s invitation into creating that also extends to genetic engineering, sophisticated medical and pharmaceutical innovations as well.

Likewise, environmental protection is critical to helping to preserve the beauty of God’s creation, but excessive zeal is manifested in the attitude that any and all human interaction with nature and consumption of natural resources is negative and should be avoided. Shortly after Nikki and I were married, we had the opportunity to go to Switzerland. One of the things that I was very impressed by was not only the beauty of the mountains (of course!), but how the homes that dotted the hillsides actually accented and added to the beauty of the amazing mountain valleys. In the states it seems there is often either total take over of develop-able land, or complete protection. But in Switzerland, I was amazed at how thoughtful design can actually complement nature.

God intends for man to continue to invent, dream, innovate, and create with everything from electronics to genetics, while still being guided by the principles of creation: caring and providing for for others, while cherishing the principles of beauty, diversity and sustainability. Let us embrace both of these aspects of creation.

Naturally Artificial: Two Components of the Theology of Creation

The first teaching about God, or theology, introduced in scriptures, is the theology of creation. This is actually best understood as two sub-teachings that are coupled together to reveal the foundation of God’s purpose and plan in his creation. The first part is the creation of nature, the first “five days” of creation, and the second is the creation and the delegated dominion of man, the sixth day of creation (note: this topic nothing to do with whether you interpret the days of creation as literal 24 hour periods or as figurative descriptions of creation that equally reveal these same principles).

Genesis begins with creation, and the result of God’s creation, nature, reveals God’s creativity and demonstrates His image of beauty and goodness, through that which He created. When we look at nature, we are offered a glimpse of God’s designs, his artwork, firsthand. Any art lover can tell you that looking at artwork tells us more than just about the art itself, but it helps us to understand the artist. Likewise, nature can reveal much about God. Some of this may be opaque, but some attributes of God we can readily observe from creation. While some look to a nature as a validation of God’s existence, this is perhaps the simplest and crudest revelation of God that we can attribute to nature. Nature reveals much about who He is and His goodness, and that goes far beyond simply verifying that He exists.

Nature clearly demonstrates God’s diverse creativity. It consists of millions species with amazingly unique traits and spectacular, wild landscapes. Nature demonstrates God’s grandeur, with vast mountains and oceans, and those in front of us are tiny compared to vast realm of solar systems, galaxies, undiscovered worlds, supernovas and other unimaginably huge, hot, and intense stellar entities (or immense voids). Nature also demonstrates the nuances and attention to detail of God, with amazing the intricacies of cellular and molecular biology, chemistry, even sub-atomic physics. God’s value on sustainability is also revealed through nature. Rather than simply creating something one time that would eventually fall apart, God designed nature to continually recreate itself through reproduction, and even grow both individually and in genetic adaption and evolution.

Scripture reveals the theology of nature in chapter 1, but then reveals the second component of theology of creation before chapter 1 is even finished. In fact, this rapid sequence is important, because these two components must remain coupled to each other. On their own each component risks distortion and misuse.

The second component is the theology of delegated creation, in which God created man, who is then given dominion over creation. God didn’t just create nature, and let it remain as a static piece of art. He invites man to join and partner in creativity. Humans, as caretakers of creation, weren’t just called to pull some weeds and protect a garden, but to continue to advancing creation. God immediately invited man into a creative role, letting him name the animals.

At each stage of creation, God stated that it was “good”, but interestingly, he did not state that it was “good enough”, “perfect”, or “complete”. God could have easily ended creation before he got to man. Man was not simply the addition of another species to nature. God’s creation of man, was the creation of those with the specific purpose of joining with him in creating, in expressing creativity, design, and construction of new ideas, organizations, and structures.

This means that while we can look to nature and creation for understanding God’s design and purpose, we must see it as a starting point, not a final static image that must be preserved. By creating man, God declared creation as something that would continue to grow as humans build in a progression of new ideas, new creations, new art, and new beauty. Creation is a not static model to be preserved, but a growing flourishing dynamic ecosystem, continually bringing forth new, creative elements.

The Lego Movie, provides a surprisingly interesting illustration of the natural-design only God (the plot isn’t completely unique to this movie, but is well-portrayed). In the movie, the evil Lord Business is the main villain, and is intent on freezing creation into its original intended design, with his powerful super-weapon, the Kragle (Krazy Glue with a few letters rubbed out). Lord Business has a great hatred for the Master Builders, who are constantly coming up with creative new combinations of legos, greatly infuriating Lord Business’ pursuit of a static perfect state of the legos. The best solution in Lego World is super-gluing everything in place to ensure that nothing can depart from its intended perfect state. Of course, this is completely contrary to the purpose of legos. While they come with instructions for a certain model, they are specifically designed to be built and rearranged in limitless ways.

The idea of assuming nature to be superior to engineered products is known as the “appeal to nature fallacy“. This fallacy is particularly demonstrated when we deem something natural as superior despite contrary evidence. Not only is this illogical, but the theology of delegated creation directly repudiates this fallacy. Delegated creation means that nature is not intrinsically superior to engineering. While we typically use the term “artificial” negatively (even though it is simply means created or modified by humans), God’s plan is for human intervention, progression, and design to build on nature. And God calls us to often even go against our own natural desires. God’s plan is a synthesis of both the natural and artificial.

Interestingly there are some areas where this reality is more obvious than others. For example, it is quite clear that God intends for evangelism to occur “artificially”, through human proclamation, rather than “naturally” just through observation of nature. Likewise, discipleship generally occurs through human interaction, it is not simply something that naturally occurs without any effort. And in the non-spiritual, few doubt the benefits and usefulness of products like computers, smartphones, and tablets that are tremendously engineered.

The Bible goes on to describe our natural instincts, intuitions, inclinations, and desires as being in contradiction to God. “The heart is deceitful above all else” (Jer 17:9), and the “works of flesh” are described as depraved and in contradiction to the Kingdom of God (Gal 5:19). We are specifically called to “crucify the flesh”. To follow Christ is to against our natural “passions and desires” (Gal 5:24).

These two components of the theology of creation have important implications on numerous aspects of the interaction of technology and nature. In my next post we will look at how holding both of these components together is important, and devaluing either nature as a revelation of God, or delegation of creation, creates distortion.

Immigration: Rule of Law vs Rule of God

Imagine for instance that you lived in a country where worshiping God was punishable by execution. Perhaps you had been quietly defying the law and continuing to worship God. Why would you do that? Presumably you would do that because you believe that there is an ethic or morality that stands above the law. What if someone came up to you and said that while the laws may not be perfect, it is more important that the rule of law be enforced. And that before we can have a conversation about how to improve the laws, we need to make sure that the current laws be fully enforced. Therefore anyone who was worshiping God has to be executed, and once that has happened, then we can talk about how to improve the law. What would you say?

Furthermore, suppose this person claimed that they were actually a Christian, and suppose that there were even some efforts by the leaders to change the law, but this person claimed that these efforts to change the law were going against rule of law, and should therefore be opposed.

Of course such a response to an unjust law is completely absurd. If there is injustice, one does not seek justice by waiting for more enforcement of injustice. If a law is wrong, it does not become less wrong when it is more widely enforced. Our call to obey God supercedes any government laws. We judge the merit of a law not by itself, but by a higher standard of morality. To judge and choose laws with no more guidance than merely the law itself is hopelessly circular with no foundation on higher principles or truth. For Christians to abandon a core teaching of God because it goes against the laws of the state is to abandon actively putting God first. Yet, I would suggest that this type of compromise of faith is almost exactly the situation we find ourselves in today with regards to immigration laws. Scriptures have numerous passages that exhort Christians to welcome the alien, the stranger, the immigrant. Yet one of the most frequent objections to more welcoming immigration policy is that we need to enforce the rule of law.

Yes, enforcing laws is important, but enforcement does not determine the righteousness of a law. Current law and policy has been held up as the determinate of future law and policy, rather than the higher ethics of the Bible. This is circular logic lifts up American law above obedience to Christ. The challenges faced in immigrating to America are huge, and often nearly impossible for the millions seeking a better opportunity for their family. The incredible difficulty and challenges facing the immigrants who are working hard to provide a better life for their family, contrast with the ease of life that we enjoy, in absolute terms, is simply unjust. With the same clarity that the Bible calls Christians to worship, the Bible also calls Christians to welcome the stranger, with the same passion to ensure laws protect the act of worship, we must also pursue law and policy that protects and welcomes the stranger. We must pursue justice of giving all an opportunity to succeed.

Let us not compromise our faith in regards to obedience to worship or welcoming. Those pushing against immigration are generally not intentionally compromising obedience to God. However, when faced with immigration policy, let us not choose to be advocates for simply enforcing the current law because it is law without questioning its righteousness. Instead let us faithfully choose to obey God, not man, and be willing to challenge the current system.

Collective Generosity

Generosity is almost universally regarded as a virtue. When someone with wealth makes a decision to give in order to help the poor, this is generally applauded. However, when a decision is made on behalf of a group, to generously give of that group’s resources to some cause, this type of decision is often less popular. When and how should groups make decisions to be generous, to help those less fortunate? How we view collective generosity can have a big impact on how we see the role of the church and the government. Many feel that when an individuals help the poor it is generous, but when organizations or governments use their resources to help the poor, it is coercion, or even theft. In this post, I wanted to examine what scriptures say about this subject.

Looking for direct scriptural examples can be helpful, but difficult. In 2 Corinthians, Paul points to the church in Macedonia as an example of a church collectively demonstrating generosity, and uses this to encourage the church of Corinthians to follow suit. This certainly appears to be an useful example. However, due to the lack of details, we can’t be certain of exactly how this was carried out, how people gave, and how these decisions to give were made.

It is worth remembering that in reality there is actually a wide spectrum of scenarios from true individual generosity to completely leader-dictated giving. When a family has a discussion and based on the outcome of the discussion decide to give to cause, this has an element of group decision making with a high degree of individual input. What about if a church votes and decides to give a certain amount of the budget to a specific cause? This has a larger degree of group decision making, there may be some members that vote against it. What if leaders make recommendations for causes to donate to? What if a country or state votes on a budget, choosing to allocate a certain amount for helping the poor? What if individuals vote for representatives who then decide on budgets? Again in all of these situations there may be decisions made to use resources that some disagree with, but there was also free-will input from individuals that influenced that decision as well. Of course, on the far side of the spectrum, you could have a dictator that makes decisions on budgets with no input from citizens. However, the majority of group decisions that we experience fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

Returning to scriptures, is there any other teaching that can be applied? One of the most important keys that Jesus taught in understanding scriptures is to look for purpose. I described this in more depth in the previous post. One of Jesus biggest critiques of the Pharisees was that they went through surface obedience, yet ignored the purpose behind the law. Likewise, if we take a look at generosity, what it might mean to a group of people, we should examine possible purposes behind generosity. There are a couple possible purposes I think we can consider (and they are not mutually exclusive). Determining the purpose behind generosity has a big impact on what it means for how we apply it to a group.

First, we can consider that generosity is for the purpose of the giver making a sacrifice. In particular, the purpose of generosity might be the voluntary, free-will decision of a person to make a sacrifice. Certainly the notion of sacrifice is incredibly important throughout the Bible. The Old Testament law has a heavy focus on sacrifice, and Christ, as our example, paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Furthermore, freely making a decision to sacrifice, is an opportunity for a giver to demonstrate love. Certainly, love is most clearly demonstrated when someone makes a decision to sacrifice on behalf of another. Without this free-will decision, the giver is not really demonstrating love.

And acts of sacrifice are not simply a negative experience for the giver, a giver, who gives cheerfully can expect to be rewarded by God. As Paul said, it is better to give than receive.

This element of an individual’s choice to sacrifice is indeed important, and in the context of the question about collective giving, we should definitely seek to maximize the opportunity that people have to freely choose their contribution. However, the possible purposes don’t end there.

Next, we can consider that the purpose of generosity for the sake of the recipient. While generosity is important as an act of sacrifice of the giver, obviously it also serves a purpose for the recipient. Generosity is an act that offers mercy for those who are in need. As we consider generosity as a form of mercy, it is important to note the center of focus: the focus is on the target of generosity instead of the donor. This is important when we consider generosity as an act of love, and what form of love that might be. Love may take an emotional form, often manifested by the emotions that a donor may experience as they feel the satisfaction of helping another. However, the Bible frequently lifts up “agape” (one of the Greek words for love) love as the highest form of love. Agape is characterized by a sincere interest in well-being of the object of love, rather than the experience or emotion of love. Generosity with focus on the donor may be an exercise in the emotions of love, but generosity with a focus on the benefit to the recipient is an act of agape love.

Again, the purpose of generosity has a significant impact on how we assess the collective versus individual generosity. If the purpose is making individual choices of sacrifice, than collective giving is pointless. However, if the purpose is mercy for the recipients, than the nature of the donation is not of substantial importance, and trying to make a significant distinction between individual and collective giving is erroneous.

Interestingly, when we analyze generosity from the perspective of purpose, the Bible is suddenly surprisingly clear. Hosea is very explicit about the true, underlying purpose:

Hosea 6:6 For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice;

In fact, this is not only stated in the Old Testament, but it is so important that Jesus actually repeats this verse:

Matt 9:13 But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

This is one of the clearest declaration’s of purpose found in scriptures. Based on this, it is unavoidably clear that generosity is not all about individual’s exercise of sacrifice (although that is an important mechanism), that the true end goal is to bring mercy.

Another helpful insight from scriptures comes from the emphasis we see on community in scriptures. While the scriptures certainly demonstrate that individual’s are responsible for the decisions, this does negate the strong theme of building community. And community is shallowest when it is simply a group of individuals that tolerate and stay out each other’s way as they all make their own decisions. True, deep community comes when we actually consider, discuss, and see to understand, and work through our values, priorities, and commitments, and seek purpose together, sharpening each other in the process.

The Bible teaches that wisdom is found in the multitude of counselors, and giving wisely has tremendous impact on our giving. If our generosity is for the purpose of mercy, than we should be deeply concerned with the fact some forms of giving have 10s, 100s, or 1000s of times more impact in bringing mercy than other forms. Wisdom is important to the true purpose of generosity, and we can be much wiser together. We should not be surprised to find that the collective generosity of a group has an impact far beyond what individuals might do on their own because the collective wisdom can multiply the effect of the collective resources.

In assessing collective generosity, it is often important to think in absolute terms, rather than in relative terms. While we can certainly make comparisons between individual and collective generosity, we also have to recognize that in many situations these are not even mutually exclusive options. When a group, organization, company, or government is considering generosity, such possibilities are often compared negatively to individual giving, when in fact that this does not replace individual’s opportunity to be generous as well. Leaders that are making decisions to be generous are usually only using a small fraction of available resources, and this has a negligible impact on the individual’s resources and ability (in fact collective generosity can often be just as likely to encourage individual giving as to discourage). The frequent complaint that collective generosity will replace individual generosity or vice versa is a false dichotomy and a poor excuse for the generosity of a group or society.

By looking at the purpose of generosity, we can hopefully can gain a better understanding of appropriate forms of giving. We should indeed strive to encourage individuals to freely choose to sacrifice for the sake of others. However, when individual generosity and collective generosity are not mutually exclusive, the true purpose of giving reveals that we should pursue collective generosity alongside individual generosity.

Legalism vs Purpose

In this post I wanted to consider what I believe to be one of most critical lessons in the Bible on how to actually interpret the Bible itself: we must look for the purpose as we read scriptures. I intend to do some other posts that will build on this principle, so I wanted to layout this post as a foundation for later posts.

One of the key narratives from the gospels is Jesus’ challenge to the Pharisees and their legalism. Traditionally, when we speak of legalism in the church, it is contrasted with grace. And Paul clearly teaches us to leave behind legalism and accept grace. Paul’s challenge to legalism addresses the issue of attribution of righteousness. His main focus was on helping us to see that we would not attain righteousness on our own, but only through the grace of Christ.

However, Jesus addresses a distinctly different issue, as he confronts the Pharisees. A substantial portion of the gospels is devoted to Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees (and Sadducees). This rebuke perhaps reaches a climax in Matthew 23, which is entirely devoted to this subject. Interestingly though, this chapter (and most other passages) never says that the problem with Pharisees is that they aren’t relying on grace for righteousness. Jesus never tells the pharisees that their righteousness is insufficient, and that they need to lean on faith in Christ instead. As far as I can tell, he never tells them anything remotely close to this. Jesus accuses the Pharisees of many things, including pride and hypocrisy, but one of the biggest issue addressed in this chapter is how they’ve been following the law. Jesus accuses them of observing the law legalistically without any concern for the purpose of the law. This is less of an issue of attributing righteousness to one-self (although their pride does indicate that is an problem), and more to do with purpose, and looking below the surface to see what God was revealing through the law. This is more than an issue of attitude, but Jesus is actually saying that they aren’t even interpreting and obeying the law correctly.

Jesus demonstrates a correct interpretation and obedience to the law, in contrast to the Pharisees, in the beginning of Matthew 12. Here Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath. According to the shallow interpretation of the Pharisees, this was a clear violation of the 4th (or 3rd, depending on your tradition) commandment. But Jesus says that they are not understanding the law properly, they need to look deeper, to understand the *purpose* of the 4th commandment. He corrects them, saying that the purpose of this law is that the Sabbath is for man (Mark 2:27). Note again, Jesus doesn’t make any suggestion of eliminating the law, that grace will replace the law, or any such thing. His point is very clear: we must look to the purpose that is being revealed by ordinances, and not just at the surface statement of behavior.

Going back to Matthew 23, there are a number of examples of how Jesus criticizes legalistic shallowness and points to deeper purpose. He condemns a legalistic approach to tithing, where even herbs are tithed (Matt 23:23), and points to the deeper purpose of tithing: to pursue justice, mercy, and faithfulness. He condemns the legalistic obsession with cleanliness (Matt 23:24-26), while pointing to the deeper purpose of being cleansed from greed and self-indulgence.

To reiterate this point, according to Jesus’ teachings, we are and will fail to obediently submit to God if we only mechanically follow the surface readings of ordinances and rules without seeking to understand the purpose of these rules, and the deeper concepts and truths that they are seeking to reveal about God and His Kingdom. This is true regardless of whether these rules are found in the Old or New Testament. Jesus’ teaching on obedience holds true for the whole of scriptures.

It is worth pointing out that Jesus’ different angle of condemnation of legalism than Paul’s is not contradictory, but instead is a foundation. Demonstrating how our mechanical legalism falls far short of true obedience to the deeper concepts that these laws reveal, provides foundational proof of how desperately we need the grace that counters attributive legalism. Jesus rebuke of the Pharisees gives us an important lesson on legalism.

As we read the Bible, let us not treat the Bible like the Pharisees, who viewed it as instructions to mechanically follow for divine favor, but rather see every law, story, parable, and exhortation as a revelation of who God is and what His purpose is, and how we can join in that. We must constantly be seeking to understand what scriptures is telling us about God, for this its purpose. If we simply go through the motions of obeying Biblical rules, without regard for understand the purpose behind these rules, we have come no closer to God’s intent for scriptures than if we were to ignore them altogether.

More to come…

Assessing Belief Importance

Inevitably in our interaction with other Christians, we will encounter differences in beliefs on different questions and issues. Some of the differences may be minor, and some may be more significant. But how do we assess how important a given difference really is?

This has been a particularly interesting question for me lately, we have been reviewing applicants for the position of pastor at our church. With this process, we have been reviewing many statements of doctrine, philosophy of ministry, sermons, and other communications that express a variety of beliefs. With the large number of different beliefs that can be covered, we naturally occasionally encounter some that we perhaps disagree with to some extent. But how important is that?

We often tend expend to a large amount of energy in establishing and defending our beliefs, with the main focus on whether something is right or wrong. But how do we know how important each of these beliefs are? How do we determine which ones are critical, and which ones aren’t?

Typically, these decisions seem to be prone to be a very subjective and vague determination, directed by pretty unhelpful measures, like how strange I think someone’s view is. Those seeking to be more objective, may choose to apply a more verifiable standard. We can divide issues into essential and non-essential, with the essential beliefs typically being something along the lines of a statement of faith, or orthodox creed.

While this is a helpful step, and a great and simple way to describe the variation that exists, a simple binary division still does not address the fact that our beliefs exist on a wide spectrum of importance. Many beliefs might be considered non-essential, but still could have a very large impact on our perspective and behavior. Beliefs can range from totally shaping our lives, to being very important, to somewhat important, to slightly important, to completely irrelevant. Placing beliefs on this spectrum requires a closer look than just determining if it is part of a statement of faith.

For a more objective assessment, I would suggest three measures:

  • Epistemic: This is an assessment of how confident we can really be in our position. Some beliefs can be easily corroborated, having been upheld by centuries of orthodoxy, and we may hold these beliefs with greater confidence. Other beliefs may be more esoteric, or have been hotly contested, with many brilliant people evenly divided on both sides of a belief. It is sometimes foolish and arrogant to claim a strong confidence in the latter beliefs.
  • Theological: The theological measure is an assessment of how a belief affects our perspective of God. How much does this belief shape our image of God? However, we must be very careful with this measure, often this can easily turn into a circular logic fallacy attempt to defend a belief, with both sides thinking their perspective is most God glorifying because they think it is true.
  • Empirical: The empirical measure is an assessment of how much we can actually measure a real distinction in behavior due to a belief. Does a particular belief cause truly distinct behavior? We must exercise caution here as well. We frequently tend to expect a certain behavior, based on our own understanding of someone’s belief. We can easily fail to look no further than our expectation, or even allow our expectation to bias our interpretation of behavior. However, to properly assess a belief by this measure, we must make an honest look at if behavior is really affected by the belief.

Hopefully these measures might provide a little more objectivity as you consider which beliefs are important and really how important they are. There are certainly beliefs that are indeed are very important, and others that are not worth much energy. Are there any other measures that you would apply?

Systemic Injustice

When someone harms someone else, they should be punished.

This is perhaps the most basic and instinctive description of justice, and virtually everyone, every culture, every religion would agree with this notion. As Christians we are called to pursue justice, but we face the common trap of simply allowing our definition of justice to be defined by our culture. The Bible calls us to a much deeper and nuanced understanding of justice.

To put it in simple logical terms, justice is a battle against injustice. When see injustice in the world, it is our natural instinct to try to find the perpetrator and punish him. And indeed, this is extremely valuable. But, we must not think this is the end of the battle against injustice. In Ephesians 6:12, Paul makes one of the profound and powerful statements about the real source of evil and injustice:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Paul clearly articulates our natural instinct, that our fight against injustice is against specific individuals, and then directly refutes it. Quite simply, Paul says, fighting injustice by merely fighting against specific individuals is misguided. There is someone else to blame.

This by no means easy or natural. Our instinctive appeal to justice is naturally drawn toward finding blame with someone, some individual that we can point a finger at, accuse, and punish. When the Bible refutes this instinct, it goes against our instincts. And it is always hard to go beyond our intuitions, and look deeper. While it is certainly true that restraining individuals is critical part of pursuing justice, it is important to understand, from scriptures, that the primary forces of evil aren’t originated in individuals schemes, but the systemic and pervasive strategies and schemes of powers and principalities.

Not only does the human tendency towards blame-based injustice point the blame in the wrong direction, it can also lead to wrongly dismissing injustice. As many voice the frustrations and pain of pervasive and systemic injustice that has been sown, a frequent response is to distill this down to individuals. When others look for individual perpetrators and their intentional acts of evil and can’t find them, then they can easily and wrongly assume that injustice must not exist. This, according to scriptures, is a false conclusion. The vindication or condemnation of individuals and their acts of injustice can neither verify nor confirm the much more widespread and insidious reality of systemic injustice.

So does this mean the battle against injustice is hopeless? Without being able to fully address injustice by tracking down and punishing villains, are we without any real concrete means for bringing greater justice and righteousness into the world? John provides further insight, that points to where we go from here, in 1 John 3:8 (b):

The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.

To understand this verse, imagine for a bit that there was a developer that was having a new housing development built, but realized it was being built with rotten wood that would not stand. So he hired a demolition crew to come in, and destroy the house. Now imagine the developer shows up to check on the demolition crew and finds them sitting around looking at the building, and so he asks when they are going to start tearing down the building. They respond saying that their approach is to carefully avoid adding any more rotten wood to the construction. The developer might say that is well and good, but he wants it torn down. The crew again responds that they don’t want to actually tear anything down, that the problem was the improper building materials, and so they think the best thing to do is to make sure they don’t add anymore faulty materials to the building. Of course at this point, the developer would naturally fire this crew, and look for someone that would actually destroy the building and not just avoid causing any further problems.

Likewise, let’s consider what John is saying about Jesus’ purpose. He doesn’t say that Jesus came to *avoid* the devil’s work. John’s description of His purpose is completely different than suggesting he came to try to get people to avoid contributing to the devil’s and encouraging people to avoid sinning and harming others. This isn’t even remotely close to what John says. John says that Jesus came to destroy the devil’s work. This isn’t just avoiding complicity, it is actively undoing and destroying and tearing down the fruit and consequences of the devil’s labor, work, and efforts.

So what is the devil’s work? To be clear, it is not simply some abstract offense against God. It is the real pain and frustration we experience in our lives and in our world. If we are willing to listen attentively, it is not hard to see the depths of the devil’s work of injustice around us. If we are paying attention at all, we should hear the pain and frustrations of racism, inequality, abuse, and violence.

Combining these two teachings should reorient our perspective on justice, on how we respond to these cries of frustration. The natural instinct to find someone to blame and give up if we can’t find a villain is misguided. Systemic injustice won’t be solved by finding a particular police officer, politician, or other leader to blame. Or even worse, it certainly won’t be addressed by blaming victims of injustice, accusing them of just getting what they deserved.

The reality is that the enemy’s strategy is pervasively and insidiously woven into society. Let’s consider the devil’s work in racism. As John Piper recently said, “Racism is part of the seamless fabric of sin in human life.” The truth is that today, most people are not intentionally engaging in racism or perpetrating inequality. And this is an important distinction to make: we generally are not actively engaging in malicious acts of racism. However, at the same time, as humans we are all prone to making imperfect judgments. We are all prone to having our judgment slightly clouded by stereotypes and fears. Of course we aren’t aware of these tendencies, we aren’t making malicious judgments, but the subtle nature of our racial tendencies is exactly why we can’t see it. We are all racists to some degree, because we are all sinners. I am racist, you are, even the greatest champions of equality have bits of racism. And we have also inherited bits of racism here and there in our society.

These slight bits of racial inequalities may seem so subtle as to be completely innocuous in isolation. But our society consists of innumerable layers. Slight differences in education, culture, family life, geography, civil treatment, inherited wealth, and so on, gradually add up. After the collective impact of dozens of layers of subtle inequality add up, the reality of racism becomes real and substantive. The final impact of these layers can easily be measured and verified and the pain and frustration of that experience are deeply grounded in reality.

Is our ability to recognize and respond to injustice, constrained by our desire to identify the perpetrator of the injustice? Again, our response can be to enter into the blame-game, and find someone to blame that will befit our ideological tendencies. Jesus’ purpose was to destroy the works of the devil. That means undoing and tearing apart the results of racism. The devil has worked to leave many minorities in the state of disadvantage and hardship. We undo and destroy that work when we work to advantage and benefit those that have been on the painful side of these disadvantages. When we defend and lift up those that society has stacked the odds against, we are destroying the devil’s work.

When we see injustice and seek to blame, we are letting powers and principalities continue their strategy. But every time we step beyond this, helping those that we might otherwise accuse, defending those that are victims of the systems and schemes of these powers, we are undermining their work and strategy. Helping those who have the odds against them is an act of destroying the devil’s work.