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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Critical Review of Ian A. McFarland's In Adam's Fall: A Meditation on the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin

Without intending to do so, I've ended up creating a mini-series of posts on misconceived or downright wicked attempts by Christians to defend their beliefs. This third post in the series leaves me ambivalent. The author of this book is a professional theologian. His work is more carefully thought-out and balanced, handles other texts more responsibly, whether they happen to support his own views or not, and makes significant advances over some of the traditional views he critiques. In the end, despite all these positives, Dr. McFarland's commitment to an unsustainable theology leads him to defend patent falsehoods. I genuinely believe Dr. McFarland is a better man than his theology allows, and for that reason alone it is worthwhile to me to present his work as a cautionary tale of what happens when a Christian fails to carry out a complete reconstruction of "Christian faith" from the ground up.

You might wonder how I happened on this book. It was lying around the house and I just picked it up and start reading it, even though it isn't on my "list of things I plan to read." You may ask how it is that a book like this is just "lying around the house," but never you mind. Don't worry, I didn't do anything illegal or immoral to get my hands on it. Call it God's providence, if you prefer.

This book is difficult. I hope to keep my comments as brief as possible, but it will probably require a series of short posts to cover everything. Let's start with the positives. The book is written to defend and update the Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin. As part of his defense, McFarland endorses a classical form of compatibilism. As I will argue later, this combination is fatal to his argument. On the other hand, he handles the views of Augustine and supporters of Pelagius fairly, as far as I can tell. He points out strengths, weaknesses and problems in both views.

This even-handedness and care in dealing with other writers continued throughout the book. To the extent that I was already familiar or could double-check, I found McFarland basically accurate in his summaries of others' views. Compared to the authors in my other recent "Liars for Jesus" posts, this is a huge improvement. It is nice to be able to trust an author. McFarland deserves a hearty thanks for this.

McFarland points out that given our inevitably distorted view of ourselves and our actions, individually and collectively, we need to listen carefully to people who complain that they are being hurt by our behavior. He stresses the importance of communities listening to their weakest and most vulnerable members. Even though their views are also inevitably distorted only by considering them can we avoid the danger of deceiving ourselves that great injustices are actually virtues.

On the way to reconstructing the doctrine of Original Sin, McFarland exposes fallacies in all the traditional accounts of the transmission of Adam's sin to his descendants, including Augustine's relatively undeveloped traducianism, William G. T. Shedd's realism, and classic, Reformed federalism.

McFarland accepts the current scientific consensus that human beings evolved and that the origin of the species cannot be traced to a single ancestral couple. He spends some time discussing how other modern theologians have attempted to reconceive Original Sin in light of our evolutionary history and spends a good deal of time developing his own reconception. Although he retains entirely too much of traditional Christian orthodoxy, his willingness to rethink the doctrine in light of settled science is a vast improvement over the existing Fundamentalist or Evangelical approaches.

McFarland appears to be a universalist. He does not provide a soteriology, even in outline, but it is comforting to hear someone so insistent that we are all condemned sinners also insisting that God intends to and will save every last one of us.

Unfortunately, McFarland's exposition of original sin presents us with nothing more than a new variation on God as moral monster. In the next post I will start demonstrating why this is so

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Liars for Jesus: Peter Leithart in Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture

The other day I was asked to read a 4-page excerpt from Peter Leithart's Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scriptureabout the historical consequences of Darwinism in Nazi Germany. The request was motivated by the desire that I reconsider whether it is a good thing to accept Darwinian evolution, in light of the terrible things people have done with Darwin's theory. As I read the pages (68-71) I almost fell off my chair in disbelief. Leithart not only accepts the idea that Nazism's doctrine of racial purification via forced sterilization and mass murder is a logical application of evolutionary theory, he even presents three quotes from Darwin that he says prove the point.

I've never read any of Darwin's works extensively. My knowledge of evolutionary theory comes from contemporary scientists and science writers, some of whom summarize and quote from Darwin's works from time to time and deal with objections to Darwin's ideas in abbreviated form. I recall rebuttals of the accusation that Darwinism led to Nazism by Jerry Coyne, Robert Wright, and Steven Jay Gould. Wright in particular warns that Darwin himself was a racist of sorts, but compared to most of his peers was already shedding Eurocentrism. With all that, the excerpts provided by Leithart were a bit unnerving.

I wanted to check out the passages in their original context to see how badly Darwin came off, so I looked up the citations Leithart provided. That's where things got interesting. Over the span of 4 pages discussing Darwin, Earnest Haeckel and Nazism, Leithart cites Richard Weikart, Benjamin Wiker, and Marilynne Robinson. Darwin? Not directly cited. Haeckel? Nada. Any secondary source that is not written by a committed orthodox Christian? Nope. Citing the secondary sources rather than the subjects' own works is a minor but irritating inconvenience for the reader and sloppy scholarship. I smelled a rat. I already know about Robinson. She is about as qualified to critique evolution scientifically as she is the IEEE 802.11i standard. I quickly discovered that Wiker is a member of the Discovery Institute and Weikart's book, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, was sponsored by the Discovery Institute. Publications sponsored by the Discovery Institute or written by its members have an extensive track record of scientific incompetence and/or dishonesty. Turns out that Leithart cites all his Darwin quotes from Robinson's essay, "Darwinism" in The Death of Adam. I read her novel Gilead and enjoyed it. Her nonfiction -- not so much. She has an annoying tendency to misrepresent ideas she doesn't like. Demonstrating this would take another post or series of them, for which I have no time right now. Nonetheless, you would like to think a credentialed scholar would be cautious enough, knowing the tendencies of these authors, to double-check them. Leithart apparently didn't bother.

I pulled up a copy of The Descent of Man and began reading. It didn't take long to find out that Leithart -- I hesitate to accuse Robinson of this without direct evidence -- has quote-mined Darwin badly. He strings together excerpts provided by Robinson without checking the larger context. This is unbelievably bad scholarship. And this guy is a Cambridge Ph.D. Worse, he's also a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary, my own alma mater! We might have had classes together at some point. Sheesh.

OK, time to lower the boom on Leithart in some detail. His discussion of Darwin occurs in the chapter "Texts as Events" in a section entitled "Texts and their Fruits." At the beginning he poses a question like so: "Take Darwin: should Darwin be read in the light of what Darwinians have dpne with his theories? Do his texts mean something different now than [sic] they did then?" (p. 68) Right off we run into problems. Who decides what makes a "Darwinian" and on what basis? Leithart attempts to skip over that problem and immediately steps in it by using Earnest Haeckel as his first example of a "Darwinian." While Haeckel was an evolutionist, he mixed up Lamarckism (the inheritance of acquired characteristics) with natural selection as the mechanism for evolutionary change and rejected Darwin's theory that humans of whatever race were members of the same species in favor of a theory that modern humankind consists of several different more or less advanced species that can be identified based on the pedigree of their languages. Leithart goes on, "Darwin admiringly quotes Haeckel a number of times in his own work." (p. 68) Indeed he did, because Haeckel, among other things, discovered Monerans, was an early proponent of sexual selection, produced useful illustrations of many embryonic forms, and developed the outlines of the human lineage from old-world monkeys. Darwin nowhere praises Haeckel for his Lamarckism, his theories of the human races or his applications of evolutionary theory to social problems. I found this by simply searching for every mention of Haeckel in The Descent of Man.

Leithart continues, "[Haekel] was an avowed Darwinian who pressed the social and political implications of Darwinism more vigorously than Darwin himself. Societies, he insisted, could not rely on natural selection, but had to engage in artificial selection to ensure the health and fitness of the nation. 'In the same way as by careful rooting out of weeds, light, air, and ground is gained for good and useful plants, in like manner, by the indiscriminate destruction of all incorrigible criminals, not only would the struggle for life among the better portion of mankind be made easier, but also an advantageous artificial process of selection would be set in practice, since the possibility of transmitting their injurious qualities by inheritance would be taken from those degenerate outcasts.'" Leithart does not consider the possibility that Haeckel was not pressing the social and political implications of Darwinism at all, but rather the implications of his own modified evolutionary views. When Haeckel urges the execution of "incorrigible criminals" to prevent the transmission of their bad qualities to descendants, his Lamarckism lends an urgency to the matter that is missing in Darwin, as we shall see later. For Haeckel, the learned, habitual behavior of a career criminal becomes a biologically-transmissible trait. Leithart finds Haeckel's advocacy of execution "chilling," but this is surely insincere. For one thing, had Leithart read the context of Haeckel's quote, he would have seen that Haeckel was not advocating for an extension of the death penalty to petty thieves, prostitutes, Jews, or the mentally disabled. He was urging the social utility of the death penalty for career felons against those who were agitating in his day for the elimination of the death penalty. (See The History of Creation: Or, The Development of the Earth and Its Inhabitants by the Action of Natural Causes. A Popular Exposition of the Doctrine of Evolution in General, and of that of Darwin, Goethe, and Lamarck in Particular. eighth German edition, translation Rev. by Sir E. Ray Lankester, p. 178) Leithart would probably make the same kind of argument against contemporary opponents of the death penalty, minus the evolutionary trappings and probably would not want to wait until the criminal has been proven "incorrigible." If Leithart had read the context of Haeckel's comments more fully, however, he would have picked up something far more damning, for Haeckel appears to approve of the ancient Spartan practice of killing newborns with signs of sickness or infirmity. (pp. 170-1) This is no one-off comment either. Haeckel repeated this position in other publications, just as he consistently defended the use of capital punishment in the case of "incorrigible criminals." Where did Haeckel's ruthlessness come from, his Darwinism? Not likely, since, as we shall see, Darwin explicitly rejects the intentional destruction of human lives in order to further the evolutionary progress of the human species and argues for his position on the basis of his own theory!

Leithart then provides three quotes from Hitler that express what Leithart considers "Darwinian" ideas that probably came to him from Haeckel or other "Darwinians." In these quotes Hitler urges that to enforce the right requires power, because the strong always gain mastery over the weak. Furthermore, nature promotes human welfare by eliminating the weak to make way for the strong. Finally, "humaneness" that protects vulnerable members of society is actually cruel to the human race because it reduces the fitness for survival of the population as a whole. (p. 69) Leithart then raises some "hermeneutical" questions: "Assuming that we can make the historical connections, is it eisegesis to read Darwin in the light of the Darwinian echoes in Haeckel and Hitler? ... Is it legitimate to to interpret Darwin's texts as seeds of Nazism and the Holocaust?" (p. 70) Anticipating objections like those I will raise below, Leithart lays down some constraints for answering these questions: "Traditions of interpretation can be traditions of misinterpretation.... An interpretive tradition can belie its source, and the tradition should be tested against the source text. Readers may misconstrue a text and read it in away that not only goes beyond the author's intention but also direcly contradicts the text and its author." (p. 70) Leithart says we must go back to Darwin's text. Yes, he really said that even though, amazingly enough, he failed to do so himself!

In advance of providing what he regards as the clincher excerpts, he asserts, "In this case, the original does not belie the interpretive tradition but confirms it. Examined in the aftermath of the Nazi regime, Darwin's notorious comments on breeding, human evolution, and racial/national superiority are horrifying." (p. 70) Unlike Leithart, we are going to take a close look at each of the quotes he provides in context, and in each case we will find that Darwin meant something other than what Leithart supposes and that Darwin's ideas are not at all horrifying because the "chilling" applications proposed by Haeckel and Hitler are not logical implications of Darwinism.

Here is the first excerpt. It is taken from chapter 6 of The Origin of Species

Natural selection in each well-stocked country, must act chiefly through the competition of the inhabitants one with another, and consequently will produce perfection, or strength in the battle for life, only according to the standard of that country. Hence the inhabitants of one country, generally the smaller one, will often yield, as we see they do yield, to the inhabitants of another and generally larger country. For in the larger country there will have existed more individuals, and more diversified forms, and the competition will have been severer, and thus the standard of perfection will have been rendered higher.

This excerpt is part of Darwin's summary of the chapter. It restates the following, more detailed argument:

Natural selection tends only to make each organic being as perfect as, or slightly more perfect than, the other inhabitants of the same country with which it has to struggle for existence. And we see that this is the degree of perfection attained under nature. The endemic productions of New Zealand, for instance, are perfect one compared with another; but they are now rapidly yielding before the advancing legions of plants and animals introduced from Europe. Natural selection will not produce absolute perfection, nor do we always meet, as far as we can judge, with this high standard under nature. The correction for the aberration of light is said, on high authority, not to be perfect even in that most perfect organ, the eye. If our reason leads us to admire with enthusiasm a multitude of inimitable contrivances in nature, this same reason tells us, though we may easily err on both sides, that some other contrivances are less perfect. Can we consider the sting of the wasp or of the bee as perfect, which, when used against many attacking animals, cannot be withdrawn, owing to the backward serratures, and so inevitably causes the death of the insect by tearing out its viscera?

Whatever Leithart thinks the text means, Darwin is clearly attempting to explain the economy of natural selection. During the course of "competition" between individuals adaptations to a particular organ or body part that provide a reproductive advantage accumulate until competetive pressure drops off, and no further. Thus, a prey species that has never encountered a predator faster than a snake will not develop the speed and endurance of a rabbit. When foxes invade the prey species's habitat, it will likely become extinct. This is not a prescription for any particular social policy, it is simply a description of what takes place in the natural world. I suspect that Leithart is bothered by this excerpt because he assumes an underlying commitment to the "naturalistic fallacy" on the part of Darwinians. Admittedly I'm speculating here, but Leithart seems to be thinking, "Hey, if Darwin says it's natural for one species to overpower another, then he must think it's the right thing to do. Haeckel seems to be making that type of argument. Why not suspect Darwin of the same?" As it turns out, Leithart is at least partly correct about Darwin. He does appear to approve of the outcome of human evolution, but in a sense far different from what Leithart fears. Darwin believed that humans had evolved a profound sense of sympathy and compassion for the weak and vulnerable as a result of natural selection! and that not only is this a good thing, but it is part of the reason that civilized societies have and will continue to outcompete "savage" societies. I will demonstrate that point in my comments on the last excerpt.

Here is the second excerpt. It appears in Chapter 7 in the section "On the Birthplace and Antiquity of Man" as part of a discussion as to why there are not not more species similar to humans in existence now. Darwin has been pointing out that there is no continuous gradation in the amount of variation between species making up a larger grouping, such as a family or order. Instead, some species appear to be outliers in the larger group to which they belong. He explains this as a consequence of differential rates of extinction between similar species in a given group. In some situations, not only the directly-ancestral species, but also all the other closely-related species except for one have perished, leaving the surviving species without apparent near relatives. It is at this point that he says,

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.
Right off, note that Darwin's statement is a prediction, not a prescription. Nonetheless, there are a few apparently troubling aspects to this comment. First, what are we to make of Darwin's prediction that the civilized human races will "exterminate" the savage races? To modern ears "exterminate" sounds like genocide. This is a misunderstanding. Darwin uses that word repeatedly in The Origin of Species to refer to one species' success in outcompeting another and in so doing driving it toward extinction. But obviously this is not a result of a purposeful attempt to rid the earth of the competing species. European rats did not "exterminate" Kiore rats in much of New Zealand by gassing them, shooting them, or eating them. Neither does Darwin conceive of this process in the case of humans as calculated mass murder on the part of civilized societies. Darwin does not leave us to guess at what he intends by "extermination." It is worth quoting him at length to understand what he is driving at:
Seeing how general is this law of the susceptibility of the reproductive system to changed conditions of life, and that it holds good with our nearest allies, the Quadrumana, I can hardly doubt that it applies to man in his primeval state. Hence if savages of any race are induced suddenly to change their habits of life, they become more or less sterile, and their young offspring suffer in health, in the same manner and from the same cause, as do the elephant and hunting-leopard in India, many monkeys in America, and a host of animals of all kinds, on removal from their natural conditions. We can see why it is that aborigines, who have long inhabited islands, and who must have been long exposed to nearly uniform conditions, should be specially affected by any change in their habits, as seems to be the case. Civilised races can certainly resist changes of all kinds far better than savages; and in this respect they resemble domesticated animals, for though the latter sometimes suffer in health (for instance European dogs in India), yet they are rarely rendered sterile, though a few such instances have been recorded.* The immunity of civilised races and domesticated animals is probably due to their having been subjected to a greater extent, and therefore having grown somewhat more accustomed, to diversified or varying conditions, than the majority of wild animals; and to their having formerly immigrated or been carried from country to country, and to different families or subraces having inter-crossed. It appears that a cross with civilised races at once gives to an aboriginal race an immunity from the evil consequences of changed conditions. Thus the crossed offspring from the Tahitians and English, when settled in Pitcairn Island, increased so rapidly that the island was soon overstocked; and in June 1856 they were removed to Norfolk Island. They then consisted of 60 married persons and 134 children, making a total of 194. Here they likewise increased so rapidly, that although sixteen of them returned to Pitcairn Island in 1859, they numbered in January 1868, 300 souls; the males and females being in exactly equal numbers. What a contrast does this case present with that of the Tasmanians; the Norfolk Islanders increased in only twelve and a half years from 194 to 300; whereas the Tasmanians decreased during fifteen years from 120 to 46, of which latter number only ten were children.
So again in the interval between the census of 1866 and 1872 the natives of full blood in the Sandwich Islands decreased by 8081, whilst the half-castes, who are believed to be healthier, increased by 847; but I do not know whether the latter number includes the offspring from the half-castes, or only the half-castes of the first generation. The cases which I have here given all relate to aborigines, who have been subjected to new conditions as the result of the immigration of civilised men. But sterility and ill-health would probably follow, if savages were compelled by any cause, such as the inroad of a conquering tribe, to desert their homes and to change their habits. It is an interesting circumstance that the chief check to wild animals becoming domesticated, which implies the power of their breeding freely when first captured, and one chief check to wild men, when brought into contact with civilisation, surviving to form a civilised race, is the same, namely, sterility from changed conditions of life. Finally, although the gradual decrease and ultimate extinction of the races of man is a highly complex problem, depending on many causes which differ in different places and at different times; it is the same problem as that presented by the extinction of one of the higher animals- of the fossil horse, for instance, which disappeared from South America, soon afterwards to be replaced, within the same districts, by countless troups of the Spanish horse. The New Zealander seems conscious of this parallelism, for he compares his future fate with that of the native rat now almost exterminated by the European rat. Though the difficulty is great to our imagination, and really great, if we wish to ascertain the precise causes and their manner of action, it ought not to be so to our reason, as long as we keep steadily in mind that the increase of each species and each race is constantly checked in various ways; so that if any new check, even a slight one, be superadded, the race will surely decrease in number; and decreasing numbers will sooner or later lead to extinction; the end, in most cases, being promptly determined by the inroads of conquering tribes. (pp. 189-192)
OK, so Darwin is not advocating genocide, but he still ranks "savage races" as somehow biologically inferior to "civilized races," right? This apparent problem is magnified when one considers that in Darwin the word "race" is a bit fuzzy. Sometimes it appears to mean "species" in a way similar to what we would understand by species. Other times it appears to refer to a sub-population within a species. Either way, it indicates a group of organisms that share unique biological traits inherited from a common ancestor. There are some contexts, such as Leithart's second excerpt above, in which we would like Darwin to mean "society" or "culture," because it would more accurately describe what has actually happened. It is certainly true that some native populations have been decimated by contact with Europeans, mostly due to susceptibility to newly-introduced infectious diseases, which Darwin also discusses at length earlier in the same chapter. But over the long term, it appears that most isolated human populations have already gone through this stage, and most have left survivors, many of whom have successfully assimilated into majority cultures and populations, despite Darwin's objections about the sterility and biological inflexibility of "savage" populations. What appears to be going "extinct" is not so much a set of individuals but the genetic and cultural isolation that marked off some native populations. This is distinctly different from the extinction of a species, and it is a shame Darwin did not frame his prediction in these terms. Nevertheless, we need to keep in mind that Darwin is making a prediction and that the process he is describing will take place even if civilized societies take active steps to counteract it. Nowhere does he encourage anyone to speed along this process.

We move now to Leithart's last and most inflammatory excerpt from Darwin. This excerpt is taken from the section "Natural Selection as affecting Civilised Nations" in Chapter 5 of The Descent of Man:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. (Part I, p. 134, 2nd edition, 1874)

Well, now Leithart has caught the true Darwin, the ruthless, bloodthirsty murderer of the weak and vulnerable, someone worthy to have Adolf Hitler as an intellectual protege. Although Darwin doesn't come right out and say it here, isn't he implying that "the imbecile, maimed, and sick" are the "worst animals" that even the most ignorant breeder would eliminate from his herd? So, it would seem, if you failed to read the very next paragraph! Darwin goes on to say

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely that the weaker and inferior members of society do not marry so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage, though this is more to be hoped for than expected.

In case someone is still determined to get Darwin signed off on the "final solution," let me call attention to the following words in particular: "... if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind ...." Darwin calls even "neglecting" the weak and helpless an "overwhelming present evil." Furthermore, the long-term evolutionary good for the species resulting from their elimination is a "contingent benefit," i.e., their elimination may or may not actually do any good in the long run. His conclusion? We "must" -- that is "should," "ought to," "are morally obligated to" -- protect the weak and helpless and live with the possible long-term bad evolutionary consequences of doing so.


Lest someone suppose that this paragraph is just a weak moment, consider the following comment made in the section "Concluding Remarks" of chapter 4in The Descent of Man:

Our great philosopher, Herbert Spencer, has recently explained his views on the moral sense. He says, "I believe that the experiences of utility organised and consolidated through all past generations of the human race, have been producing corresponding modifications, which, by continued transmission and accumulation, have become in us certain faculties of moral intuition- certain emotions responding to right and wrong conduct, which have no apparent basis in the individual experiences of utility." There is not the least inherent improbability, as it seems to me, in virtuous tendencies being more or less strongly inherited; for, not to mention the various dispositions and habits transmitted by many of our domestic animals to their offspring, I have heard of authentic cases in which a desire to steal and a tendency to lie appeared to run in families of the upper ranks; and as stealing is a rare crime in the wealthy classes, we can hardly account by accidental coincidence for the tendency occurring in two or three members of the same family. If bad tendencies are transmitted, it is probable that good ones are likewise transmitted. That the state of the body by affecting the brain, has great influence on the moral tendencies is known to most of those who have suffered from chronic derangements of the digestion or liver. The same fact is likewise shewn by the "perversion or destruction of the moral sense being often one of the earliest symptoms of mental derangement"; and insanity is notoriously often inherited. Except through the principle of the transmission of moral tendencies, we cannot understand the differences believed to exist in this respect between the various races of mankind.
Even the partial transmission of virtuous tendencies would be an immense assistance to the primary impulse derived directly and indirectly from the social instincts. Admitting for a moment that virtuous tendencies are inherited, it appears probable, at least in such cases as chastity, temperance, humanity to animals, &c., that they become first impressed on the mental organization through habit, instruction and example, continued during several generations in the same family, and in a quite subordinate degree, or not at all, by the individuals possessing such virtues having succeeded best in the struggle for life. My chief source of doubt with respect to any such inheritance, is that senseless customs, superstitions, and tastes, such as the horror of a Hindoo for unclean food, ought on the same principle to be transmitted. I have not met with any evidence in support of the transmission of superstitious customs or senseless habits, although in itself it is perhaps not less probable than that animals should acquire inherited tastes for certain kinds of food or fear of certain foes.
Finally the social instincts, which no doubt were acquired by man as by the lower animals for the good of the community, will from the first have given to him some wish to aid his fellows, some feeling of sympathy, and have compelled him to regard their approbation and disapprobation. Such impulses will have served him at a very early period as a rude rule of right and wrong. But as man gradually advanced in intellectual power, and was enabled to trace the more remote consequences of his actions; as he aequired sufficient knowledge to reject baneful customs and superstitions; as he regarded more and more, not only the welfare, but the happiness of his fellow-men; as from habit, following on beneficial experience, instruction and example, his sympathies became more tender and widely diffused, extending to men of all races, to the imbecile, maimed, and other useless members of society, and finally to the lower animals,- so would the standard of his morality rise higher and higher. And it is admitted by moralists of the derivative school and by some intuitionists, that the standard of morality has risen since an early period in the history of man.
As a struggle may sometimes be seen going on between the various instincts of the lower animals, it is not surprising that there should be a struggle in man between his social instincts, with their derived virtues, and his lower, though momentarily stronger impulses or desires. This, as Mr. Galton has remarked, is all the less surprising, as man has emerged from a state of barbarism within a comparatively recent period. After having yielded to some temptation we feel a sense of dissatisfaction, shame, repentance, or remorse, analogous to the feelings caused by other powerful instincts or desires, when left unsatisfied or baulked. We compare the weakened impression of a past temptation with the ever present social instincts, or with habits, gained in early youth and strengthened during our whole lives, until they have become almost as strong as instincts. If with the temptation still before us we do not yield, it is because either the social instinct or some custom is at the moment predominant, or because we have learnt that it will appear to us hereafter the stronger, when compared with the weakened impression of the temptation, and we realise that its violation would cause us suffering. Looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger, becoming perhaps fixed by inheritance. In this case the struggle between our higher and lower impulses will be less severe, and virtue will be triumphant.

This excerpt by itself should put to rest finally the slanderous, dishonorable, and downright wicked claim that Nazism derived its social policies regarding Jews and the mentally and physically disabled from Darwin's theory of evolution. Leithart should be ashamed of himself for perpetrating this idiocy and doubly ashamed for failing to do his scholarly duty and finding out what I've posted here himself.

I conclude with my reasons for styling Leithart a "liar for Jesus." On the surface it appears that he is only guilty of gullibility. But when one considers his prior theological commitments, it is clear that he picks Charles Darwin for the topic of a text's "fruits" intentionally. Darwinism is a threat to evangelical Christianity, because if it is correct, evangelical Christianity is false. Obviously there are "evangelicals" who believe in Darwinian evolution and Christianity. IMHO they are attempting to hold two fundamentally inconsistent beliefs at the same time. Leithart is not one of these. He sees the threat and thinks he has found a way to help turn it aside with this 4-page "expose" of the dangers of Darwinism. He is certainly welcome to attempt this; he is not welcome to misrepresent Darwin's views and quote-mine his writings in order to accomplish his goals. For this reason, I refuse to grant him any extenuating considerations. He lied.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Liars for Jesus: Eric Metaxas in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

A few weeks ago I began reading Eric Metaxas' Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. I have another blog devoted to books I'd recommend. This book won't make that list. Mr. Metaxas writes from an Evangelical Christian perspective. I don't share that perspective, but in and of itself that would not make me overly critical of a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What makes me critical is Metaxas's failure to tell the whole truth about Bonhoeffer and the Christians around him.

First, he has an animus against old-line liberal Christians of the sort who battled fundamentalists in the early 20th century. Of course, Bonhoeffer didn't think much of liberalism either, and given this is a biography of Bonhoeffer, we could expect it to reflect Bonhoeffer's viewpoints. On the other hand, one would like a biographer to introduce some balance or perspective on the matter. Not having been trained in post-modernist suspicion of authors, I tend to trust an author of a biography to get at and tell the truth about his subject, as much as possible. When I start to encounter errors or belabored opinions, I get suspicious. When the errors tend to run the same way, trust goes out the window, and with it my deference to the author's research. In fact, I get really angry that the author has forced me to do research to find and fix his mistakes in order to get the story straight.

Metaxas has gotten me angry. Here is a short list of things I'm angry about regarding his treatment of old-line liberals:

  1. On p. 332 Metaxas has a footnote in which he accuses the preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick of "appeasing" Hitler using the "moral equivalency" argument. Fosdick was a pacifist. Did this render him sympathetic to the Nazis? WTF kind of thinking is that? Was Dr. Martin Luther King sympathetic to white racists? Was Gandhi sympathetic to the British Empire? Metaxas's representation is false, as is pointed out in Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet by Robert Moats Miller. Now, you'd think that Metaxas would have read this book, given the similarity of the titles. But no, it doesn't show up in his listed bibliography. So, where did he get his idea about Fosdick's attitudes toward the Nazis? I have no idea, but apparently Metaxas didn't bother to double-check his source.
  2. Metaxas focuses on Bonhoeffer's interest in race relations in the United States and his attraction to African-American churches. Somehow, Metaxas fails to mention the fact that the majority of white American racists attended evangelical churches and justified their racism by the (mis)use of the Bible. OK, sure, this is peripheral to his task of writing about Bonhoeffer, but he also fails to mention that it was the old-line liberals at Union, including the despicable Harry Emerson Fosdick, who were in the Christian front lines against American racism.
  3. Out of all the encounters Bonhoeffer had with Henry Sloane Coffin as a student and visiting scholar, Metaxas singles out one assessment for mention. Bonhoeffer attended morning prayer led by Coffin and found the prayer "poor" (Metaxas's translation) or "pitiful." Metaxas neglects to mention that in another letter Bonhoeffer praised Coffin for recognizing the need to "preach Christ."

Then there's Metaxas's attempt to blame Nazism on the acceptance of evolutionary theory. This is a cliche among evangelicals, but completely false. I reserve comment for a later post where I deal with this slur in detail.

Finally, Metaxas fails to inform his readers about the crucial distinction between Bonhoeffer's modernist version of Christian orthodoxy and classical Christian orthodoxy. Here is a short list of things he misrepresents or just fails to mention:

  1. Bonhoeffer was an evolutionist. A piss-poor evolutionist to be sure, as are nearly all Christian theologians, but an evolutionist nonetheless. Metaxas doesn't mention it.
  2. Bonhoeffer thought highly of Karl Barth and his theology. Metaxas doesn't attempt to explain what Barth's theology was all about. Plenty of evangelicals have done so, and for the most part, they find it heretical.
  3. Metaxas fails to mention that Bonhoeffer learned a lot from Paul Tillich. Tillich is a nemesis of evangelicalism.
  4. Metaxas fails to mention that Bonhoeffer learned from and had some sympathy with Rudolf Bultmann's project of "demythologization." Bultmann is another nemesis of evangelicalism
  5. Metaxas attempts an interpretation of Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity" that basically turns it into the classic neo-evangelical distinction between "religion" and "relationship," or alternatively, between "works righteousness" and "grace of God." That may be part of what Bonhoeffer was getting at, but by no means the whole thing or even the most important thing. Other writers have pointed out the long list of books Bonhoeffer had been reading in prison and the influence his conversations with his (non-Christian) physicist brother, Karl-Friedrich, had been having on his thinking. "Religionless" implied "not needing God" in a fundamental sense. Metaxas excoriates the radical "God is dead" theologians for misreading Bonhoeffer's late and fragmentary writings for a purpose far from Bonhoeffer's own intentions. Maybe, but that doesn't justify using them to turn Bonhoeffer into a clone of Bill Bright.

In light of this list of authorial abuses, it appears that Metaxas is attempting an evangelical hijacking of Bonhoeffer's legacy. If you want a truer picture, read Eberhard Bethge's Dietrich Bonhoeffer: a biography instead.

Metaxas spends some time explaining Bonhoeffer's decision to deceive the Nazi authorities about his involvement in the plots against Hitler. Bonhoeffer lied to protect him and his colleagues and to prevent discovery of the plots. Apparently, Metaxas has taken Bonhoeffer's ethical guidance to a new level. For the greater purpose of defending genuine Christianity from liberal and modernist heretics, Metaxas decided that it is OK to tell his readers lies about the Christianity of Bonhoeffer and his American associates.