Joseph and Mary on the road to Bethlehem

A Gift From God

A Gift From God

This is the time of year that is high with excitement. It is special as no other season is. And it’s because our attention is once again drawn to the Great Story of a gift from God. The baby in the manger, his virgin mother, the angels announcing the good news of great joy for all people. We buy gifts for those we love as an echo of the greatest of all gifts.  We echo the gift of the Savior God gave to us. And once again, we sing the carols that we have come to cherish over the years The songs remind us of what the celebration is all about: Joy to the world the Lord is come! Love came down at Christmas. (See also here.A manger scene

Just because this season is so special, it is also a time we lovingly anticipate being with family and friends. These, too, are a gift from God. What CS Lewis reminded us about concerning friends, applies even more so to family members:

A Quote from C.S. Lewis

“…for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking,  no chances. A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to his disciples, “You have not chosen me but I have chosen you,” can truly say to every group of Christian friends, “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.” The friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It  is  the instruImage result for friends in christment by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others. They are no greater than the beauties of a thousand other men; by Friendship God opens our eyes to them. They are, like all beauties, derived from Him through the Friendship itself, so that it is his instrument for creating as well as revealing. At this feast it is He who has spread the board and it is He who has chosen the guests. It is He, we may dare to hope, who sometimes does, and always should, preside.  Let us not reckon without our Host.

Therefore ….

This is the central truth behind the celebration. The love we share with others is not merely the consequence of God’s love for us. Rather, the love we give and receive IS the love of God shown to us through them and to them through us. This season, celebrate a gift from God.

Wishing you all a blessed Christmas,

Roy Clouser

 

 

Death Experiences Confirm Faith

Do Near Death Experiences Confirm Faith about the After Life?

Separation of Church and State

Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 Letter About Separation of Church and State

The expression “separation of church and state” does not appear in any of the founding documents of the US. It comes, instead, from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to an association of Baptists in Danbury, Conn. Baptists had a history of being persecuted in countries with an official religion, and wrote to the newly elected President Jefferson with concerns that their state had no specific statutes protecting their religious liberty.

In reply, Jefferson quotes the first amendment to the effect that “Congress shall make no law” to establish an official religion or to prohibit “the free exercise thereof…” Jefferson then expresses his understanding of that amendment to mean there should be “a wall of separation between church and state.”

Kuyper’s “Sphere Sovereignty.”

In an earlier blog, I gave a brief introduction to Abraham Kuyper’s idea of “sphere sovereignty.” (See also the blog here.) This was based on the way scripture recognizes different authorities in life. This recognition is, in Kuyper’s thinking, a hint as to how to come up with a general theory about the relations between the different forms of authority that naturally arise in human society.

The scriptures speak with approval of the authority of parents in a family, of the clergy in the church, of the owners of a business, the officials in government, and even of teachers in a school. Extrapolating from these examples, Kuyper proposes recognizing other natural authorities such as arise, for example, in medical practice, charity work, artistic organizations, political parties, and unions.

From the sphere sovereignty point of view, it isn’t only state and church that have different spheres of authority. Rather, there are multiple types of it throughout human social life all of which need legal protection from encroachment by other authorities.

These Are Not the Same

At first blush, then, it appears that Jefferson has anticipated by a century the Christian theory of sphere sovereignty with his idea of a “wall of separation” or the idea of the separation of church and state. A closer look, however, shows they are not quite the same ideas. For one thing, Kuyper never spoke about walling off any social sphere from any other. That, he believed, is impossible.

The church exercises its proper authority when it governs the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and regulates church membership. The government exercises its proper authority when it makes and enforces a public legal order. This means for sure that the church doesn’t make or enforce public law, and the government doesn’t set theological standards or make requirements for church membership. But can these two institutions of society actually be completely walled off from one another?

Spheres Influence One Another

Scientific ideas influence art, and artistic trends influence how people understand their history. So, too, the moral teachings of the church cannot fail to  have an impact on what people believe should be included or not in public law. This includes, but is not limited to, how public law must go about protecting people’s right to freedom of religion. (See, for example, the 4th myth in the Washington Post article Five Myths About the Constitution.)

This is a clever image showing a separation of church and state
Separation of Church and State

If this sounds like a tidy prescription, it isn’t. In practice, it can be a messy business to sort out precisely where and how one authority limits another. Consider, for example, the ways Federal law has sought to prevent workplace discrimination. The law, by unintended consequence, ends up endangering a religious institution’s right to hire only employees who are devotees of that religion. That wrinkle got ironed out, but spin-offs of it remain to be sorted out. (See this article.)

Don’t Take It Too Literally

John F Kennedy wanted an absolute separation of Church and state
JFK Quote

My point here is that – famous as it is – the expression separation of church and state may not be taken too literally or it will be in danger of bringing itself into disrepute. There is a proper separation (of distinct) of authorities, to be sure. And that includes all types of authorities, not just the church and the government. But any “wall” between them is porous, not airtight. That is why the sphere sovereignty idea is not a panacea. It does not guarantee we will never draw the boundaries between different authorities correctly. But we are still better off tackling political/legal issues from within that idea than we would be without it. We will still come closer to what is just than if we begin without recognizing that there are a number of legitimate authorities to be done justice to.   

To Sum Up

In sum, this means we must continue to do the hard work of thinking through each specific issue to see where we, as Christians, should stand. There is no short-cut of proclaiming an impenetrable wall between any two of them. Instead, this “thinking through” must be multi-sided. Just as there are many spheres of social life (not only the state, church, and family), there are equally many sides to every major issue of life. And all sides must receive their due, just as all must be protected by the law.

Roy Clouser

Basic Morality

Defining Basic Morality

The term “basic morality” is one which I think of as the basis for ethical positions taken on any number of subjects.  Basic morality is the moral vision which is shared by a whole community. Ethics is a shared group of moral values which help a community to exist. Basic morality is the foundation for a society that can function justly.  Basic morality is the shared understanding of what is expected from all members of society.

An Illustration

Cartoon of landscaper and tools

Perhaps an illustration is called for here. As I write this, there is a group of five men working on the landscaping at a property I own. Basic morality says that since they are working, they are to be paid for their work. It would not be just for me to refuse to pay them. But I am going to only pay the company itself for the work. There is one man who is the owner of the company, therefore I am fulfilling my moral obligation in extending payment to the company through him. The company, in turn, is expected to pay the employees. That is the moral thing to do.  The company cannot withhold payment from the workers without incurring moral judgement which could lead to legal judgement in a court of law.

There are several places in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures which call upon a person who employs another to pay that worker for his/her efforts.  That is the “right thing” to do.  Jesus (in Luke 10) referred to a verse in Deuteronomy when he said, “A workman is worthy of his hire.” When a person gives of her time for another, it is a basic morality obligation to remunerate her for her work.

All of this requires a mutually agreed upon basic morality. I did not ask each of the men who are working for me to arrive such and such a day at this time, and work. They arrived by agreement with the owner of the business. The various workmen do not expect me to pay them for their labor. It is understood by all of us that the company will pay them. Therefore, my observation is that basic morality leads to a system that is deemed to have justice at its core.

Incarnational Ethics

When we seek justice, we embody basic morality for our community. The commonly agreed upon moral order needs people who will “en-flesh” that moral order. The principles of the moral order need embodiment in society.  The principles must be put into practice by people who are moral agents fully aware of the implications of their actions for society.

planting a shrub

So, when you decide on a certain course of action for your life as a laborer, you are expecting (rightly so) that the person who hires you will treat you honestly. However, there are far too many occasions where employers are less than honest when dealing with their employees. It is when that happens that we all become moral/ethical  thinkers who rely on a philosophical outlook to shape our response to the situation.  

What is your take on this? Were you aware of being a philosopher when asking for a paycheck? Philosophy is not so abstract after all!