In Defence of War

[The following review is forthcoming in the Expository Times. It is reproduced here with permission.]

Nigel Biggar, In Defence of War, Oxford University Press, 2013. £25/$55. viii + 361 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-967261-5

In Defence of WarIn Defence of War is an excellent book with a somewhat misleading title. It isn’t a defence of war per se, but rather a defence of just war theory in the Augustinian Christian tradition and, by way of application, of three relatively recent military engagements involving Western nations. As Biggar explains in his introduction, one of his major targets is “the virus of wishful thinking”: the idea that there always must be a course of action better than military conflict. Justice entails that war is sometimes not only justifiable but necessary.

Just a Little Persecution

Intolerance Will Not Be ToleratedPredictably, there has been much comment from Christians about the Phil Robertson controversy, and (just as predictably) quite a diversity of viewpoints expressed. I concur with Mike Kruger’s commentary. But I also want to comment on a particular kind of response to the controversy, which goes something like this:

C’mon, guys! Compared to the kind of persecution Christians suffer in other countries, this is small potatoes. Christians in the US need to get a sense of perspective and move on. This really isn’t a big deal.

Here are four reasons why I think this sort of response is quite misguided.

Not So Pro-Choice

I learned this morning that NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, not content with regulating the size of people’s soft drinks, now wants to limit access to baby formula in hospitals. As a “pro-choice” liberal Bloomberg is eager to protect a woman’s choice to have her child killed in the womb, but apparently he’s not so eager to protect her choices about what to feed that child if she opts to keep him or her.

According to reports, new mothers in NYC hospitals will be lectured about the negative consequences of using formula instead of breast milk. But don’t expect to find new mothers-to-be being lectured about the negative consequences of abortion.

Will the Real Haters Please Stand Up?

Opponents of same-sex marriage (a.k.a. defenders of real marriage) are routinely characterized as hateful. But who are the real haters? What does the empirical evidence tell us?

On May 8, residents of North Carolina will have the opportunity to vote on whether the following amendment (“Amendment One”) should be added to the state’s constitution:

Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.

This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.

Not surprisingly, numerous yard signs are on display around Charlotte, where I live: some for the amendment, some against. One house on a busy road between my home and my office has three “Against” signs in its yard, right next to the road. They’ve been there for over a month now and no one has removed them, defaced them, or otherwise interfered with them. Free speech has been honored.

Vote for Marriage SignMeanwhile, a friend of mine put a “For” sign outside his house in a quiet middle-class neighborhood. Within days it had been vandalized with obscenities. A few weeks ago the seminary where I teach placed a single “For” sign on its grounds. Since then our receptionist has received what she described as a series of “ugly” telephone calls. Apparently these aren’t isolated incidents — far from it. They’re just two instances of a pattern of intolerance, intimidation, and flagrant disregard for free speech.

So who are the real haters here? Perhaps Freud’s projection theory has something to it after all.

Addendum: Another despicable example from yesterday’s local news. (This is also close to home: Pastor Kulp is a friend and a graduate of RTS.)

The Sting of Death

Death is the theme of the most recent issue of Philosophy Now. Two of the main articles debate whether it would be a good thing for scientists to overcome death. Nick Bostrom’s “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant” argues with vigor that death isn’t something we should “gracefully accommodate”. Technology to retard the aging process, and perhaps even to halt and reverse it, may well be within the grasp of this generation, and scientists should make it a priority to pursue such technology. We have “compelling moral reasons to get rid of human senescence.” On the other side, Mary Midgley argues that the promise of endless life is a poisoned chalice: the cost of prolonging our lives would outweigh the benefits.

“Coveting Is All Everyone Does”

Occasionally sermon illustrations are handed to you on a plate. Here’s a gift for any pastor preaching on the Tenth Commandment:

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17)

From today’s edition of The Telegraph:

With her culinary wizadry, [sic] melt-in-your mouth voice and Rubenesque figure, Nigella Lawson has made a career out of turning heads.

But while many husbands might resent such flirtatious behaviour, Charles Saatchi yesterday revealed his pleasure at his television chef wife’s appeal — declaring “who would want to be married to someone who nobody coveted?”

In extracts from his new book, the outspoken adman turned art collector also described the Ten Commandments as an “overrated lifestyle guide” which only succeed in “making people confused and guilty”.

Mr Saatchi, who has been married three times, insisted that the tenth commandment in particular was “obviously a no-hoper” because “coveting is all everyone does, all the time, every day.”

No kidding. Saatchi makes the right observation, but draws entirely the wrong conclusion. Let the apostle Paul set the record straight:

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. (Romans 7:7-12)

Dawkins is Disgusted

The Guardian has provided Richard Dawkins with a platform to explain why he won’t share a platform with Christian apologist William Lane Craig. Dawkins plays what he thinks is a trump card: the real reason he won’t publicly debate Craig is because — drumroll, please — Craig has defended the “genocides ordered by the God of the Old Testament.” It ought to be apparent to anyone who has compared Dawkins’ past debate performances with Craig’s (never mind their respective writings on the rationality of theism) that this explanation is, at best, a feeble rationalization. But that’s not the point I want to make in this post.

Dawkins, Disgusted

Dawkins’ piece reflects his trademark rhetorical devices — condescension, mockery, faux outrage, and a dash or two of genuine wit — but what stuck me most was the complete absence of any moral categories in his criticism of Craig and his views. Dawkins regards Craig’s views as ‘horrific’, ‘revolting’, ‘shocking’, and ‘deplorable’. But none of these descriptors function as objective moral evaluations of Craig or Craig’s God. In reality, they reflect little more than Dawkins’ feelings about Craig and Craig’s God (and the feelings of those who share Dawkins’ jaundiced outlook on the world).

I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising, given Dawkins’ published views on the nature of morality. For example, in The God Delusion he rejected and ridiculed the notion that there are moral absolutes. But if there are no moral absolutes, then there are no moral principles that absolutely rule out genocide. According to Dawkins’ moral outlook, then, genocide could be morally justified in some circumstances — just as late-term abortion is morally justified in some circumstances (as Dawkins apparently believes). Isn’t it therefore an open question whether the Old Testament ‘genocides’ were morally justified given the circumstances? Given Dawkins’ own premises, isn’t that question at least worthy of… debate? (I should state for the record that I don’t believe the destruction of the Canaanites was an instance of genocide; I’m just granting Dawkins’ characterization for the sake of argument.)

In the end, all Dawkins has really told us is that he won’t debate Craig because he finds Craig’s views personally offensive. It’s not that Craig’s views are unethical; it’s not that they’re immoral; it’s certainly not that they’re wicked or evil. It’s just that Dawkins finds them extremely distasteful. Dawkins is disgusted — and that’s all there is to it. Even if that were the real reason for his refusal to debate Craig, it would hardly be a compelling one. The only virtue of Dawkins’ dubious explanation, if it can be called a virtue, is its consistency with his moral nihilism.

Update: Here are some entertaining commentaries on Dawkins’ piece:

You Have a Basic Right to Read This Blog

If you’re looking for a new reductio ad absurdum of the modern conception of human rights, you can find it right here: Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, maintains that “access to the Web is now a human right.”

The modern conception of human rights runs along these lines: if a large number of people have X, would hate to have to do without X, and feel guilty about the fact that other people have to do without X, then having X must be a human right and governments across the globe must be enlisted to ensure that everybody gets X.

Of course, rights imply duties: if you have a right to X then someone somewhere must have a duty to ensure that you get X. So whose duty is it to ensure that everyone gets access to the World Wide Web? Presumably those who end up being forced to pay for it. No prizes for guessing who that will be!

In any case, if this is how human rights arise, why stop at access to the Web? Why not a human right to air conditioning, or to freshly ground coffee, or to live classical music? Remember, you heard it here first.

2K or not-2K?

In a previous post I posed some questions about David VanDrunen’s defense of Two-Kingdom (2K) doctrine and raised a general objection to his position (and to similar 2K views). In response to a comment on that thread, I tried to boil down the objection as follows. On my reading, VanDrunen seems to be committed to all of the following claims:

(K1) When living as citizens of the common kingdom, people should observe the moral standard of that kingdom.

(K2) The moral standard for the common kingdom is natural law (and only natural law).

(K3) When living as citizens of the common kingdom, Christians should observe the distinction between the two kingdoms.

(K4) It is not a deliverance of natural law that Christians should observe the distinction between the two kingdoms.

In a nutshell, my objection is that these claims form an inconsistent set: they can’t all be true. So the question is whether 2K advocates really are committed to all four claims, and if not, which do they reject.