February 04, 2016

The Golden Rule

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, February 4, 2016

The Golden Rule

Jesus famously set out the Golden Rule as follows: "Do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and Prophets" (Matthew 7:12).

We Westerners tend to take the Golden Rule for granted. Philosophically, though, the rule deserves close examination. Let's look at three positive points, an important assumption, plus a problem.

First positive point: Jesus said it. Because Jesus is God come to earth as a human being, the Golden Rule is hugely important, full stop.

Second positive point: the Golden Rule is hugely important for doing ethics. To know that what you want for yourself is what others want for themselves too, and thus what you ought to do, is important moral knowledge.

Third positive point: the Golden Rule is not just found in Christianity. Others such as Confucius and Rabbi Hillel have set out negative versions of it. Significantly, though, the Golden Rule goes beyond negative versions—don't do to others what you don't want done to yourself—to the now-standard positive version—do to others what you do want them to do to you.

As important as these positive points are, there's also an assumption that should be examined, especially if we are looking at Jesus' statement of the Golden Rule. (I think this assumption is a positive, too, but I'll let the reader decide.)

What's the assumption behind Jesus' Golden Rule? The assumption can be discerned from Jesus' context, i.e., the worldview Jesus holds.

The assumption is that Jesus is the God described in Genesis, i.e., the God who created human beings in God's own image. This means that the "others" described in "Do to others what you would have them do to you" include all human beings. Everyone. Not just those in my tribe, and not just those who share my religion. Everyone. Infidels included.

(If I understand Muhammad and the Qur'an correctly, Muhammad's positive version of the Golden Rule applies only to those who are Muslim.)

Moreover, Jesus' worldview holds that "others" include especially "the least of these." The least of these are human beings made in the image of God yet who are hungry, thirsty, lonely, unclothed, ill, or imprisoned—i.e., the poor and needy.

Today, the poor and needy include orphans, the disabled, the abused, the unborn, the struggling single parent, the elderly, the sick, the starving, the enslaved and trafficked, the refugee, tsunami victims, the persecuted, the homeless, the lonely, the depressed, the sexually abused and confused—the list is long.

In other words, the context of Jesus' espousal of the Golden Rule presupposes the view that because people reflect the Imago Dei, people—all people—have real and great moral worth, and equally so. This underwrites universal human rights.

So what could possibly be the problem with the Golden Rule? The problem arises from an ill-informed understanding of the Golden Rule (an ill-informed understanding on our part, not God's).

The Golden Rule prescribes consistency between my desires for myself and my actions toward others. So far, so good. But, as I tend to forget, my desires could be defective.

The truth is that my desires often are defective. I could be a masochist, i.e., a person who likes being abused physically. So for me to do to others what I want them to do to me puts a stamp of approval on my self-abuse and abuse of others.

Or I could I like adulterous (etc.) sex. So because I like adulterous (etc.) sex, I should engage others in such sex.

Or I could want others to kill me. So I should kill others.

Get the picture?

The reality of defective desires shows that Jesus' understanding of the Golden Rule presupposes a moral framework—i.e., the moral law which the Golden Rule summarizes—to govern my desires. (Jesus also intensifies the moral law when He tells us not only not to commit adultery or murder but also not even to indulge in thoughts about such things.)

To love self and others truly, then, we need God's grace to transform our desires into holy desires.

Enter the Good News: by accepting Jesus as Lord we can be transformed by the Holy Spirit.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence University College.)

For further reading: 

  • The Bible

January 21, 2016

Miracles and historical investigation

Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923)
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, January 21, 2016

Miracles and historical investigation

Theologian Ernst Troeltsch (1865-1923) argues it's not reasonable to discern that a miracle has occurred in history. But his argument fails.

According to Troeltsch, on the basis of analogy to events known to us coupled with the assumption that nature behaves uniformly, we apply what we know about the present onto evidence having to do with the past, and thereby we extend our knowledge into the realm of the past.

But we have no knowledge (supposedly) of miracles occurring today (e.g., all dead men stay dead), so when we are given historical evidence for a miracle (e.g., testimony that Jesus allegedly resurrected) we infer by analogy from the present that no miracle occurred in the past (i.e., no resurrection of Jesus occurred).

Troeltsch's use of analogy is an epic fail, however.

Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014) correctly points out that Troeltsch confuses a principle of method with a principle of content.

As a principle of method, the appeal to analogy should work like this: To say that a miracle didn’t occur requires positive knowledge of analogy of miracle testimonies to testimonies for which we know no actual object corresponds, whereas to say that a miracle did occur requires positive knowledge of analogy of miracle testimonies to testimonies for which we know a real object corresponds. The analogy should be between the testimonies per se, not that to which they testify.

But Troeltsch mistakenly uses analogy as a principle of content concerning what is to be known (i.e., the object of knowledge) rather than as a principle of method which works as a tool (i.e., the basis) by which we discern what is to be known.

Think of it this way. For testimonial evidence to allow us to come to knowledge of the past what we need is a positive analogy between past testimony and present known-to-be-true testimony (i.e., their comparable characteristics or virtues as credible testimonies/ sources); we do not need an analogy between the things testified to (i.e., the testimony's contents). Significantly, if uniqueness of what's testified to counts against a testimony, then nothing new would ever be learned from others!

Again, it is not the lack of a present-day analogy to the object of a testimony that counts against testimony; rather, what counts against a testimony is its positive analogy to present-day testimony to which we know no testified-to object conforms—i.e., what counts against a testimony is its positive analogy to known-to-be-false testimonies such as those of people who are known to exaggerate or hallucinate or lie.

In the case of reports of alleged miracles, to think that there must always be an analogy between the things (objects) testified to is to assume that there is no possibility of a special action by a supernatural cause such as God. But, if the issue is whether such an action actually occurred, this is to beg the question, i.e., assume as proven that which is at issue (a logical "sin").

Troeltsch's appeal to analogy presumes the nature of the object of a testimony because it (his appeal to analogy) requires that all events must be non-miraculous events like the (allegedly) non-miraculous events we see today. However, if the issue is whether all events are non-miraculous—which is the issue if we’re trying to determine whether an actual miracle has occurred by investigating evidence—then Troeltsch smuggles a predetermined outcome into an alleged investigation. He puts the cart before the horse.

At this juncture, one might follow philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) and object that a miracle such as Jesus' resurrection is maximally improbable. But this objection assumes either we know that God doesn't exist (so miracles are maximally improbable) or we know that, if God exists, God's intentions are wholly revealed by the laws of nature (so miracles are maximally improbable). But we don't know this! These assumptions are question-begging, too, if the issue is whether a God-caused event (such as Jesus' resurrection) has actually occurred and is evidence for a God who sometimes engages in special actions.

All this to say: miracles can be studied historically.

In view of competing worldview claims—e.g., Christianity vs. Islam vs. Atheism—such study should be done.

Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches philosophy at Providence University College.

Further reading:

January 07, 2016

Image of God

Pietà (1498-99) by Michelangelo 
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, January 7, 2016

Image of God

As we live in a culture in which mere feeling is the source of value (feelings that can change), it's important for Christians to remember that the image of God—the imago Dei—is the factual basis for human dignity.

Whether understood wholly literally or not, the biblical account of God's creation of humankind makes it clear that human dignity—our objective moral worth—is part of human nature: it's a built-in reflection of God. Therefore human worth simply is. And is huge.

According to Genesis, God created humans out of dust from the ground and God gave us "the breath of life."

According to Genesis, the various beasts and birds also have "the breath of life." Signficantly, however, humankind has such breath uniquely.

An ESV Study Bible commentator explains: "God breathes life—physical, mental, and spiritual—into the one created to bear his image...While human beings have much in common with other living beings, God gives them alone a royal and priestly status and makes them alone 'in his own image.'"

Disability advocate Joni Eareckson Tada and bioethicist Nigel Cameron add some helpful insights:

"[I]n Genesis 1 we read of God making the various 'kinds' of animals and birds and sea creatures. They reproduce 'after their kind.' The implication is that humankind is made 'after God's kind.' We are made within the confines of space and time to image—to mirror, to model—the nature of God. That decides our view of human nature. All human beings are created equal, and equally precious, in the sight of God... Every member of our species, Homo sapiens, are image bearers of God and thus reflect the dignity of God."

To drive home further the significance of the moral status of humankind, Genesis also tells us that just before humans come onto the scene, God proclaims that the creation is good (Genesis 1:25), and then immediately after humans are on the scene, God proclaims that the creation is very good (Genesis 1:31).

Although the creation contains many and various living creatures that all have worth, Genesis clearly informs us that, unlike the other creatures, humans are unique in their worth: humans are made in God's image, so humans are the moral pinnacle of the creation.

There is more. On the Christian view, as Eareckson Tada and Cameron point out, because God took on human flesh in the man Jesus, "God has twice placed his stamp on human dignity."

The biblical bottom line: Each and every member of the human species has real dignity—real intrinsic moral worth—which is non-negotiable. We do not control human dignity itself by our feelings, because each human life is sacred, period.

Thus, respect is due to every human being—whether young or old, born or unborn, abled or disabled, black or white, same-sex attracted or pedophilic, male or female or intersexed, Muslim or Hindu or Atheist or Wiccan or whatever.

This doesn't mean that all beliefs and behaviours are true and good (because they're not). But it does mean that we should show great respect to those with whom we might disagree.

Best wishes to all for 2016.

In memoriam

In recent years during my walks in Steinbach I often enjoyed short visits with a 90-plus-year-old gentleman named Alex. Alex regularly read my column "Apologia," and he encouraged me. I learned about Alex's rich life, and I quickly grew to admire him. In one of our conversations Alex mentioned he was in the second wave of troops that hit the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. I asked Alex how long that was after the first wave. He said six minutes. (Yes, when I think of Alex I think of the extended battle scene at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan.) It also turns out that Alex helped liberate the Netherlands, where my parents were living under Nazi occupation. Alex, I salute you. And I will miss you. Rest in peace.  Obituary: Alex Tarasenko (January 23, 1921 - December 26, 2015).

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College.)