Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Wednesday Meditation: Specks, Beams and Creeping Moral Relativism

Today's thoughts are inspired by the thoughtful criticism of 42's last post (below) regarding Lakewood's new Megachurch.
Shane Raynor over at Wesley Blog offers the following response to 42's admittedly (and intentionally) provocative criticism of Lakewood:
Tony Campolo preaches a sermon called, "Would a Christian Drive a BMW?" The answer, of course, is supposed to be no, but I'm afraid that if we expect BMW drivers to be content with Hondas, then that same reasoning will require Honda people to switch to Fords, and so on, until we're all condemned unless we're riding bikes. Then the pedestrians will blast the bike riders for not taking such an "obvious opportunity" to sell those bikes and help the poor. When we head down the road of condemning specific churches (or individuals) for how they spend their money, we open ourselves up to judgment. I'm not saying it should never be done, but we need to know what we're getting ourselves into before we do it. Sure, Jesus preached strong words to the wealthy, but he was also essentially homeless with few, if any, material possessions. Condemning the wealthy is, quite honestly, hypocrisy for most Americans, because we live in a country where even many of the poor among us are obsessed with materialism.

Raynor's argument against "calling out" Lakewood's extravagance has substantial appeal at first glance. It powerfully combines a biblical injunction against judgment - which I firmly believe dates back to Jesus - with a straight up reductio ad absurdem proof. Since none of us will (or should be reasonably expected to?), sell all we have and give it to the poor, we had all better tread lightly in our criticism of wealth.

First off, let's look the reductio ad absurdem aspect of Raynor's argument -- assuming I'm not imagining it. We SHOULD all sell our Hondas, our Fords and, yep, even our bikes and give the proceeds to the poor - as Luke's gospel unambiguously requires. Jesus is the Great Example, and Raynor is right: He was legitimately destitute. So, to be clear, this stereo that I'm listening to right now (and probably this computer that I'm typing on) should be immediately sold with the proceeds given to the poor. So, the argument against Lakewood's extravagance doesn't lead to an absurdity - at least I don't think it's absurd. Tough, yes. Absurd? Not unless Jesus was absurd to ask us to do it.

Second, what about the hypocricy and injunctions against judging others? Can we carry Raynor's concept of avoiding judgment out to its logical conclusion while retaining any moral foundation whatsoever? Let's say that my next door neighbor commits rape. Can I come out and say, "what that guy did was wrong"? What if I've had pre-marital sex (assuming rape is a sexual-type sin) or gotten into a fight (assuming rape is a crime of assault)? Wouldn't I be, under Raynor's logic "estopped," as we lawyers say, from pointing out that the rape was wrong?

If so, this looks a lot less like trying to be non-judgmental and a lot more like de facto moral relativism.

So how do we uphold the sanctity of Jesus' moral commands -- such as "not storing up our treasures on earth" -- along with the injunctions against judging others. Well, first with an unambiguous admission that Paul's observation that "all have sinned" is fully applicable to us. I'm a sinner and a hypocrite. We all are. We also might do well to heed the admittedly trite traditional advice to "hate the sin but love the sinner." As applied to Lakewood, this would mean I could assert that the church's extravagance is, in my opinion, unambiguously wrong. But that doesn't mean that I think Lakewood's administration or membership are bad people. It doesn't mean I bear them any ill will. How could I? "We all have sinned"!!!

This is my attempt to reconcile both upholding moral absolutes and refraining from judgment. I'd love to hear others' thoughts.


At 9:51 AM, Blogger Poppa B said...

I've been to Lakewood's old church, it was a monster. It was always full though, so I guess they did probably need more capacity. Bit off the topic of my comment though. I do agree that it's a bit excessive though to have a church like that.
My comment is about the prevailing theme of give up all your earthly possessions because that's what the Bible instructs. Here's my view.
1) I believe the "give up your earthly possesions" lesson is really actually not an intended lesson at all but actually this is intended to show people to both: not form attachments to objects(idol worship) and teach you to care for your fellow man. These two lessons are much more prevalent throughout the Bible than "give up all your possessions". Further, it would be the only teaching of Jesus that I can think of that one could potentially follow and it would do no good. Let me explain--I could renounce all my possessions today, leave them in a house I owned and just walk to a cave in the Rocky Mountains. What good does that do? The only reason to give up your belongings is to prevent idol worship and to help your fellow man. It's not being rich that prevents the rich man usually from going to heaven, it's the worship of possessions above God and not looking out for his fellow man. in my view this "lesson" is actually a misinterpretation of Jesus' teaching.
2) Further, if this is suppossed to be a lesson the the logical conclusion of this lesson is to give up EVERY earthly possession. This would include your clothes, shelter, your Bible, and would even preclude any sort of storage of food. This is absurd. What other "lesson" from the Bible, if strictly followed would cause a person to do this sort of stuff?
3) Just because Jesus did something doesn't make it the ultimate example on how we are suppossed to live. Being a carpenter isn't a better profession in the eyes of God simply because Jesus did it.
4) Times are simply different. When Jesus lived, if you wanted to live off the land it was easy. You could simply go a few miles outside of the towns and find uninhabited land, chop down some trees to build a shelter, feed of wildlife, hunt wild game, drink from a river or stream, etc., etc. Try to do that today. Not possible. You need quite a bit of money to buy farmland. There is very little wild game. Drinking water straight from a stream is the surest way to get dysentery. It's simply different, giving up your possessions then was quite common, possessions were very few, there was an abundance of land, wildlife, water, trees, etc. None of that is true today.
That's all I have for now, I'm sure I have alot of broken thoughts in there but I didn't want to take all day to write this with all the studying I have left to do.

At 11:03 AM, Blogger Infission said...

Poppa B,

You've definitely given me something to think about. It is true that Jesus did teach in hyperbole. He was obviously a phenomenal orator and would use all such techniques to make His points more powerfully. The "sell all you have" could be hyperbole.

My (intellectual/analytical) rigor with respect to the "sell all" command is probably a result of the slippery slope I see most people falling into in terms of wealth. If we're not required to sell all, then maybe we can keep for ourselves what is
"reasonable"? But, then, how do we define "reasonable"? Most Christians end up defining it with an eye to what the average person in their community has. I.e., sure, I have a new car, but it's just a sedan - not a flashy SUV. Sure, I have jewelry, but not a 2 carat diamond ring like so and so. Etc., etc., etc.

I think you've made a good argument that perhaps we should be permitted to keep enough possessions to (1) keep us alive and (2) further The Purpose of helping others, especially the least. But I think that nominally keeping the flat injunction against possessions as the standard keeps people vigilant. The "burden of proof," on possessions should be, in other words, high.

Compare: the Constitution says that Congress shall make "NO LAW" abridging the freedom of speech. We SAY "no law," but in fact we uphold speech regulation that is, e.g., narrowly tailored to a compelling government interest. The "NO LAW" injunction is to prevent us from falling into the reasonableness trap.

The "sell all you have" command serves a similar function. Just as we should feel some unease when Congress makes a law regulating speech, even if it is justified by a "compelling" government interest, we should feel unease in keeping possessions, even when the same are necessary to serve others.

Is it too much of a stretch to think that Jesus had all this in mind?

At 1:25 PM, Blogger Poppa B said...

Well, it's been awhile, probably 3 years so I had to break out the old trusty Bible to read the quote that all this comes from. I probably should have done that in the first place, but when have I ever tried to find support before making a claim? Anyways on to my points

1) I understand the slippery slope very well. I also agree that it needs to be guarded against.

2) As far as the keep us alive and further argument. I don't believe at all that Jesus intended us to sell every last possession. My point is that selling all your possessions would potentially be a far reaching and important teaching if it was in fact a teaching. However, why would he have left it so open to interpretation if we are in agreement that strict observance of the rule would lead to our deaths? In comparison look at Jesus' teachings in Matthew 5:17-6:18---approximately. You get stuff like: Marrying a divored woman is committing adultery, looking or thinking lustfully is adultery, to love all men even those who hurt you, and even instructions on worship and prayer. He could be very in depth and detailed when he spoke yet on something this important he left it wide open?

3) OK, now to clarify my earlier point that giving up all possessions wasn't the real point of the teaching. I assume this is taken from Matthew 19:16-26? If not, let me know. In Summary: Caps added for emphasis on certain points
Man: How can I get into Heaven?
Jesus: Keep the Commandments.
M: Which ones?
J: All of them.
M: I have, what else do I need to do?
J: Go sell your possessions and give your money to the poor and "THEN COME, FOLLOW ME"
OK so here's what I see. Jesus is speaking directly to the man who has told him he has followed all the commandments. He says fine then sell all your stuff and follow me. However, the guy is sad because he values the items more than following God. This is a direct lesson in never putting anything before God. This would be no different than if Jesus were here today and said to you or me "Leave your wife, come follow me". Nothing comes before God, you are supposed to happily obey. That would not mean however that Jesus instructs everyone to leave their wives to get closer to God. The lesson dates back to Abraham and Isaac. God is testing you with your most valued thing/person on earth.

Anyways, that's how I see it.

At 1:44 PM, Blogger Infission said...

The sell-all injunction is found outside the Rich Young Ruler story context, eg, in Luke.

At 4:27 PM, Blogger ats54 said...

Ooh, fun stuff...

I tend to agree with "Poppa B" on the actual intent of the Rich Young Ruler story (parable?). I think Jesus knew the heart of the young man, and showed him exactly where his priorities really were. He was attempting to feign holiness in front of the crowd: "Hey, I've followed all the commandments! What else ya got for me?" Jesus promptly took him down a peg.

I think "Poppa B" does well to compare this to Abraham being willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac.

Peter left family and home to follow Jesus. Would we do the same if called?

Jesus did not actually sell all possessions and give it all to the poor. Judas Iscariot was mentioned as being the "money-handler" of the gang. So, they at least had some carryin' around money.

More to come...hopefully.


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