A Talk for Northwestern College’s ‘Day of Learning’


The Parable of the Unjust Judge

Luke 18:1-8

In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.  In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent!’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear   of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ 

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.  And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” 

Some Pharisees ask Jesus when the Kingdom of God will arrive.  When will long-suffering Israel at last receive its glorious reward? When will God’s avenging angels decimate the Roman legions? When will the collaborators be punished, the faithless humiliated? When will the righteous be vindicated? God accepts us and rejects them: when will the world see it? When will there be justice

Jesus’ answer shocks them.  He predicts a horrifying apocalypse. What’s coming will be like the days of Noah; sudden destruction overcoming the unsuspecting: wedding parties swept away in the flood. Like Sodom; fire and sulfur raining from the sky. People snatched away to disappear into captivity.

Not the vindication that they anticipate but hell on Earth. That’s where their quest for justice leads. 

It’s in the face of this impending horror that Jesus says not to “lose heart,” and tells the little tale about the justice humankind is ready to live, die, and kill for. Our hope and help is the justice of God, not human justice.

Jesus puts human justice in its place.  We keep score. We calculate each person’s due, who ought to get what, good for good, evil for evil, punishment and reward proportioned to our just desserts.  This is human justice. But its relentless pursuit leads to disaster. This thing we call justice can be deadly. 

And justice can be a joke. It’s mostly bogus, true not even to itself.  Not ultimately to be taken too seriously.  The judge, human justice embodied, is unjust.  He says to himself, “This widow keeps bothering me. I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out!” Our translation obscures the comedy.  The term blandly translated, “wear me out,” is literally something close to, “give me a black eye.” The pugnacious old woman gets what’s hers not because the judge cares about what she deserves, but just to shut her up.  Justice is what happens when the woman’s badgering finally outweighs her opponent’s payoffs to the judge.  

Maybe the case has dragged on interminably; whatever was once at stake has receded into insignificance in contrast to the need to win, to be vindicated, not to let that SOB get away with it, to get justice.  Maybe she’s gotten a bit crazy over it: that’s how these things go.  Maybe everyone involved is in for a little mockery.  

The standard lesson: even an unjust judge will give you what you ask for if you persist in asking. How much more confident can we be that God, who is just, will hear our pleas?

Maybe this is not exactly wrong, but it seems a bit off.  Note quite what Jesus means. The woman isn’t asking for what she wants, or for what she needs. She is demanding her due.  She insists that the judge grant her what is hers by right. 

Whatever we hope for from God, it’s not this.  It’s not justice.  What we seek from God is love, help, mercy, grace, forgiveness, none of it deserved. When it comes to giving, with God it’s always more and better than we can ask or imagine, not what we deserve.  Nor, on the down side, do we want an exacting divine judge who sees to it that we get precisely what our misdeeds warrant. (The other guy, sure, but not me!) 

When it comes to God, justice bites the dust: the prisoners are freed, debts forgotten, sins forgiven. Someone said, “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall!” but this is not the voice of God.  God speaks from the cross, and he says, “Father, forgive them.” 

Yet God is just.  But the justice of God is not the justice of human beings.  God’s justice, the biblical righteousness of God, is something else altogether.  This is the contrast that emerges in the parable. It is nothing less than God’s unshakable faithfulness, his firm commitment to his covenant, his steadfast love for his people, no matter how unworthy of that love we manage to be.  

God is just: this means that God is love. God’s justice does not compete with his love and mercy; it’s one thing, not two.  He is not—thank God!—the judge who metes out what we’ve earned, but the compassionate one who hears us and does not delay in helping us, not because it is our due, but because he is true to his love for us. 


God’s justice and human justice are easily confused, not simply because one word denotes both; but because they overlap.  To help those in need and to avoid harm to all is to practice justice on either account.  But the overlap is partial: God’s justice is not an ideal version of our justice: it is discontinuous with it and ultimately at odds with it. The justice of God also calls for actions that are in human terms outrageously unjust.   

Individuals, and communities, of faith are called to share in God’s justice, to ignore the humanly all-important question of who deserves what, and to take up, so far as we can now, between the times, God’s righteousness.  Forgive seventy times seven. Turn the other cheek.  Pray for those who persecute you. Forgive your debtors. When they demand your coat, offer your shirt too. No doubt, our propensity is to underestimate the possibilities to do God’s justice, and to overestimate the inescapability of mere human justice. 

Put in its place, our justice, as a component of human morality, an articulation of our innate moral sensibilities, has a reality and integrity of its own.  Human justice finds its humble and temporary home in the political realm.  Government is not God and doing God’s justice is not its function.  At its very best the state enforces something that approximates authentic human justice. God’s justice is not its concern.  Unconditional love, unstinting forgiveness, indifference to what we deserve: God alone has the wisdom and power to act on these principles.  

Governments that try produce little that is good and do much that is bad.  Plenty of mischief follows from confusing our justice and God’s, and doing so results in neither.  A good deal of what some call ‘social justice,’ the pursuit of equality, and pacifism are examples; but all that’s another story…

More on Equality

Someone asked what I thought of an essay by N. Gregory Mankiw: “Spreading the Wealth Around: Reflections Inspired by Joe the Plumber” (Eastern Economics Journal, 36(2010)). Here are the comments with which I responded:

The fundamental issue here is the moral status of equality/inequality.  My view is that equality per se has no moral significance.  If someone owns something, or otherwise has a moral right to distribute it, then, under certain conditions he has a moral obligation to distribute it and, when he does, to distribute it in certain ways.  Sometimes, his moral obligation is to distribute it equally.  If he does not own something, or otherwise have a right to distribute it, then the question of how he ought to distribute it does not arise, except hypothetically.  E.g., if you have some medicine, A and B are healthy, while C will die without (all of) it, then you might be morally obligated to distribute 100% to C and 0% to the other two.  An equal distribution would be morally impermissible.  (What might be morally permissible for others to do to you to get you to distribute as you ought is, of course, a further question.) Often, there are no moral constraints on whether and, if so, how one distributes what he has.  If you feel like giving away your jelly beans, you may, as you please, give the same number to A, B, and C, or 90% to A, 10% to B, and 0% to C, as you prefer.  There are scenarios in which a distributor is obligated to distribute equally, but I suppose that these are relatively rare and typically occur in some institutional setting which imposes on him precisely that obligation, e.g., you are the father of A, B, and C and an unequal distribution will cause psychological harm to the child who gets less than a sibling, or it will simply send the false—or at least best left unexpressed—message that you value the child who gets more more.  Perhaps the best that can be said on behalf of equal distributions in general is that when there is no reason to make an unequal distribution the equal distribution seems less arbitrary than other possibilities. But such arbitrariness is not necessarily morally problematic.

There’s plenty of talk of how “we,” or “society,” i.e., the government, ought to distribute something, but it depends on the implicit and false assumption that the wealth of the nation is collectively owned and that it really belongs to the government to distribute, or redistribute, as it sees fit.  This is the case whether it aims at equality or anything else.  And it would be true even if it were true as well that an equal distribution of things is morally superior to an unequal distribution.  At least the bare fact that some situation would be morally superior to another does not justify any particular means to achieve it.  If A has no kidney and B has two kidneys then, all things being equal, it would be morally better if the kidneys were distributed so that A and B have one apiece, yet this tells us nothing about which means to bringing about the redistribution are morally permissible; presumably, some are and some are not, and there is no general guarantee that those that are morally permissible are also effective.

There’s no simple route from moral judgments about distributions in the sense of situations to those about distributions in the sense of acts of distributing.

A further source of confusion lies in the fact that unequal distributions do sometimes correspond to need.  But A’s problem, out of which arise moral demands on the rest of us, is not that B has two kidneys while he has none; it’s that he has no kidney.  He’d be no better off if B’s kidneys simply vanished so that kidney-wise, he and B are equal.  Poverty, insofar as this means that people are in need, morally matters, but inequality per se doesn’t.  A society in which the poorest individual gets $100,000/yr while the richest get $10 billion/yr is at face value morally preferable to one in which everyone gets $1000/yr.  Because of envy, someone might prefer to be needy but equal, but envy is neither rational nor morally good. (In A Theory of Justice, Rawls tries to justify a qualified egalitarianism (his “difference principle”) by treating some of the things others call envy as matters of self-esteem, which he construes as rational and morally worthy.)

The other way inequality is associated with what does morally matter lies in the fact that inequality is often caused by morally bad behavior.  The politically well-connected rich influence government policies to cause wealth to flow in their direction from those who are poorer and less well-connected.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that it is morally permissible for governments to tax: it is not morally permissible for it to tax for the purpose of achieving a more equal distribution of wealth.  (Of course, redistribution for purposes of rectification, as when A has two bananas and B has none because A stole B’s banana, is another matter.) Is progressive taxation justifiable?  Our current system is doubly progressive: rather than everyone paying the same, one pays a percentage of one’s income, so the rich pay more; then the percentage increases.  Arguably, the system is triply progressive, since much of the income of the rich is in the form of profits on investments which are subject to capital gains taxes, despite the fact that the invested money was taxed when initially earned.

Is it fair to force the rich to pay more? When I go to the store and pay the set price for a loaf of bread, it is not unfair that the next customer, who earns ten times what I earn, pays the same price.  In a free market a fair price is whatever the informed, uncoerced parties to the transaction agree to.  (Whether it is morally right to charge what it economically a fair price is a further matter.) Forced payments for government services do not, of course, occur in a free market.  If it is possible morally to justify forcing people to purchase these services, possibly in that justification we can find grounds for counting some charges as fair and others not.  If it is morally wrong to steal from A and from B, it is worse to take $1 million from the billionaire B than to take $1000 from A, who has only $10,000 altogether.  All things being equal, more harmful wrongful acts are morally worse than less harmful wrongful acts.  But I doubt that this is the kind of justification the statist seeks.  Perhaps there is no point to looking for moral justification: governments simply find that they can get more, with less resistance, by means of a system in which the rich pay more, especially if the rich who gain political favor are given preferential treatment in the form of deductions, allowance, loopholes, etc.

A standard argument, construing taxation as payment for services, one of which is protection of property, claims that the rich, having more to protect, get a more valuable service.  This is not fully convincing.  If I am poor, I have little and can devote little of that to buying protection of the rest, but if I am rich I can afford to buy the protection I need on the private market.  If I live on a large estate, I probably pay for more own security and see the police as superfluous.  If I am poor and live in the inner city, my only protection might be the local cops, however inadequate it is.  Similarly for various other public goods funded by taxation, e.g., parks, education, medical care.  So in one sense, it’s the poor, not the rich, who benefit most from tax-funded government services.

In any event, so far as I know no one who claims that the rich are not paying their “fair share” has ever said what that share might be.  In practice, “fair share” appears to be just code for “more.”

An ancient tradition in political thought is that democracy is ultimately infeasible.  Every democratic regime self-destructs, the inevitable collapse coming some time after the poorer 51% expropriate the richer 49% but long before the poorer 99% expropriate the richer 1%.  This was taken as a given in, e.g., Plato’s Republic. The US Constitution was the first serious attempt to create a democracy that would not inevitably self-destruct, by way of stringent constraints placed upon the power of the majority.  Whether this can now be considered a success is, I assume, currently debatable.

Traditionally, utilitarianism  rejects appeals to fairness out of hand. The only fairness utilitarianism demands is that each individual capable of pleasure or happiness has his utility weighed the same as that of everyone else.  But this is consistent with any sort of treatment of the individual, e.g., torturing him to death because it turns out that the pleasure the spectacle affords others outweighs his suffering.  In this and any number of other cases utilitarianism is at odds with our moral intuitions.  This is why it is seen as an alternative to “common sense” morality, not as a way to articulate and systematize it. So it’s odd to see Mankiw treating this as some sort of discovery.  Utilitarianism claims that common sense morality is often wrong, so pointing out its conflicts with common sense morality has no weight as an objection.

Also, Mankiw’s educational explanation of the increase in inequality in this country strikes me as focused on something of secondary importance. What seems much more significant is the confluence, by about 1970, of the US facing serious economic competition from emerging third-world economies as well as from first-world nations finally fully recovered from WW2, with government policies that discourage the production of wealth and facilitate its transfer to non-productive sectors.

Mankiw’s construal of the alleviation of poverty as a public good seems dubious to me. Are free rider problems really an issue when it comes to private help for the poor? Personally, I think I’m especially motivated to contribute precisely when I know that others won’t.  In instances in which one fears that one’s contribution will go to waste, is there an obstacle to agreements to contribute if, but only if, others contribute a certain amount?  We already have something like this when individuals and corporations offer to make “matching contributions,” e.g., your employer offers to contribute to PBS as much as you contribute.

But the underlying empirical claim that private charity “cannot do the job” is a familiar one.  I think whether it is true depends on what “the job” is taken to be.  Statists benefit from the ambiguity: is poverty having relatively less than others, or is it a matter of some people not having what they need for a decent life, however we measure that? It is probably true that nothing short of massive and systemic state action—”spreading the wealth around”—can do away with poverty in the former sense, but, as I said above, I see no reason to regard that as a good of any kind.  What government welfare programs—not just the obvious ones like the subsidy of one-parent households, but things like subsidies for college tuition and medical care—achieve are in the main results no sane person would want.  If instead doing away with poverty is a matter of bringing it about that everyone has their basic needs seen to, this (I would argue) is achievable by private means, at least in a society where there is no powerful central government working to increase need.



A Prayer for Students

Northwestern College


9 May 2014


O God, gracious and wise, consider these students, your servants, your sons and daughters, beloved in Christ before the foundation of the world.

Protect them, encourage them, sustain and uphold them for the sake of your Son our Savior.  Jesus, light of the world: may they see through your eyes.  Jesus, Word of God spoken as flesh: may your way become theirs.

Bless them with a joyful and living faith: not fragile, not rigid, but a deep, resilient trust in Jesus, the truth around whom all truths turn.  A faith that welcomes the world God so loves. Let them embrace that world’s need as their own.  Let them find Jesus in all who are lost, hungry, wounded, judged, condemned, broken. Give them the Spirit of Christ, who did not hold back, but went forth, and gave himself.

Trouble them when they are too sure, but strengthen them when their confidence fades.  Ever-faithful Lord, great in mercy, humble and relentless in love, even when they forsake you, pursue them, bear them up, and restore them to you.

Make seekers of the settled. Give them courage to go the hard way.  Lead them beyond themselves to what’s difficult and strange, to where you wait, Lord of all, ever new.

Endow them with a holy curiosity, discontent with what’s pat, shallow, safe and false.  Teach them to love the questions as well as the answers.  Show them the seams where things don’t fit, the questions they were afraid to ask.  Guide them to the places where you, God of wonder, have more to teach them.

Stand with them in trouble.  Be their beacon in uncertainty.  Within their doubt, hold them fast, their unseen anchor.  Beyond whatever darkness they endure, you their true hope. Past all loss, you their true love.

Provoke them, prod them, surprise and shock them.  Gentle Lord: soften their hearts, sharpen their minds, liberate their imaginations.   Let them never forget they have nothing to fear: Christ is risen!  Free but securely held, their names written on the palm of your hand. Now called, now sent out, forever blessed, forever beloved.


Sermons, etc.

As a Lay Preacher in the Episcopal Church I sometimes preach

 at the Church of the Savior in Orange City, Iowa,

 and other places.

To by converted by my own preaching
-saying of the Desert Fathers

Hurry Up And Wait! 1 Advent 1999

 A Space For Waiting: 1 Advent 2003

The Power of Distraction: 2 Advent 1994

Repentance: 2 Advent 2007

The God of Peace: 3 Advent 1993

Repent! 3 Advent 1996

God Inescapable: 3 Epiphany 1993

Laying Down The Law: 3 Epiphany 1999

 On A Mission From God: 3 Epiphany 2003

What’s Your Law? 3 Epiphany 2004

Get Poor Quick! 4 Epiphany 2002

Throwing Jesus Off The Cliff 4 Epiphany 2010

Vocation: 5 Epiphany 1995

  Victims and Villains: 7 Epiphany 2000

Forgiving God: 7 Epiphany 2001

The Last Word: Last Epiphany 2000

Self-Denial: 2 Lent 2006

Finding Jesus in the Dark: 5 Lent 2005

 How To Make God Mad: 3 Lent 2003

   No Deal: 4 Lent 2001

The Last Judgment: 5 Lent 2000

The Cross of Christ: Palm Sunday 1994

Who Cares? Palm Sunday 1999

Palm Sunday Homily: Palm Sunday 2002

Bad Dogs in the Kingdom of Heaven: 2 Easter 2007

Fish Naked! 3 Easter 2001

Beloved Betrayers: 5 Easter 2004

Looking For Jesus: 5 Easter 2007

Love or Death: 5 Easter 2009

Blessed Are the Cheese Makers? Six Easter 2000

 The Forgiven: Six Easter 2003

Where in the World is Jesus Christ? 7 Easter 2002

For The World: Seven Easter 2009

 Back to the Future: 7 Easter/Ascension 2001

Left Behind: Seven Easter/Ascension 2014

God At Work: Pentecost 1999

No Loopholes: 2 Pentecost 1994

Doubting Disciples: Trinity Sunday 1993

Born Again: Trinity Sunday 2006

To Share God’s Life: Trinity Sunday 2010

Now We Know: Trinity Sunday 2011

Explaining the Trinity? Trinity Sunday 2013

Are You Putting Me On? 3 Pentecost 2004

 The Giver: 3 Pentecost 2000

 A God With Skin On: 3 Pentecost 2003

The Loving Father: 4 Pentecost 2002

Go And Learn What This Means: 4 Pentecost 2008

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? 5 Pentecost 2001

The Sword of the Lord: 6 Pentecost 2005

Gentle and Humble in Heart: 7 Pentecost 2005

 The Bread of Life: 9 Pentecost 2003

Jesus or Nothing! 11 Pentecost 2000

The Man Who Saw Christ: 13 Pentecost 1996

God’s Party: 13 Pentecost 2001

Doing the Word: 15 Pentecost 1994

Losers for Jesus: 15 Pentecost 2009

Of Kings and Kids: 17 Pentecost 1994

A Season in Hell: 17 Pentecost 2001

The Faithful Servant: 17 Pentecost 2007

Down and Out With Jesus of Nazareth: 18 Pentecost 1999

 It’s Not Fair! 18 Pentecost 2002

Saying Yes To God: 19 Pentecost 2005

Get To Work! 19 Pentecost 2008

A Leap in the Dark: 20 Pentecost 2003

The Ransom: 20 Pentecost 2009

Yes! 20 Pentecost 2014

The House of Christ: 21 Pentecost 2001

Beneath Contempt: 21 Pentecost 2004

The Badgered Judge 22 Pentecost 2013

It’s the End of the World as We Know It: 23 Pentecost 2000

Climb the Tree! 23 Pentecost 2010

Nothing for God: 23 Pentecost 2006

 Down from the Mountain: All Saints Sunday 2005

The Sheep, the Goats, and a Couple of Cats: Last Pentecost 2002

Fear and Loving in Las Vegas: Christ the King Sunday 1998

Some college chapel addresses and other occasional pieces:

A Prayer for Students

NWC Chapel Talk February 2007  

Restoring Family Values

What Does It Mean To Be Reformed?

NWC Theological Identity

The Sermon on the Mount and the Third Use of the Law

Only A Symbol?

God in the Hands of Angry Sinners

The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers

Christmas Meditation

I Was Just Wondering: What If Things Had Been Different?

Bearing One Another’s Burdens: NWC Faculty Meeting Jan 21 2010

Homily for Henry J. Halvorsen

As a participant in St. George’s Education for Ministry program I wrote a brief “Spiritual Autobiography

The Van Hook Tribute

Interfaith Dialogue

 St Gregory's

Responses for a Panel Discussion at Northwestern College

1. What are the dos and don’ts of conversing with people of other faiths?

Respect the context: is the aim mutual understanding, arguing, evangelizing?

Avoid cheap and lazy relativism: accept that if you are a Christian, then you believe that many of the other guy’s most important beliefs are false. It’s condescending to act as though we all really agree beneath some superficial differences.  Respect and toleration matter precisely where the differences are deep and important.

Assume persons who are not Christians grasp that the most interesting feature of Christianity is what it says about Jesus Christ. Try to talk about Jesus, not about some shared, generic belief in God.

Have the goal of being the best critic of your own beliefs, not those of the other guy. Don’t leave it to someone who does not share them to raise the questions you cannot answer.

If your goal is to help change the other guy’s mind and bring him to faith in Christ, then try to help him to see Christianity as something a rational, sane human being could hope is true. People rarely change their minds and start believing things they hope are false.

2. Many students don’t know a lot about other religions. How important is it to understand the basics of other religions for dialogue to happen?

More important than knowing about other religions is knowing your own faith: the particularities of the Christian faith, not a generic belief in God.  Let the other person explain his beliefs. You don’t want him to tell you what you believe; don’t do that to him.

Many people define “faith” as unjustified belief, i.e., as what we believe despite lacking adequate reasons to believe it.  They think that attaching the label “faith” to something we have no good reason to believe somehow makes it O.K., or even commendable, to believe it.  (Why would it?) If this is what faith is, then there can be little meaningful dialogue between persons of different faiths. There can be dialogue between faiths only if there is a common ground where different beliefs can be rationally criticized and the evidence, or the absence of evidence, for them can be displayed.  Otherwise, “I’m a Christian; she’s a Muslim” is not much different than, “I like coffee, but he hates it:” not much to dialogue about! I assume that meaningful dialogue isn’t mostly a matter of finding out what the other person believes, but why he believes it. If he has no reasons for believing it, then there’s not much to say.

It can be less challenging to discuss matter of faith with someone outside Christianity altogether than with fellow Christians who differ on relatively minor matters. If you’re Protestant and you find it hard to engage in dialogue with a Roman Catholic or RCA and find that you cannot have reasonable, friendly discourse with someone who is CRC, then you can’t seriously engage with a Hindu or a Muslim.

3. Explain the difference between exclusivism vs. inclusivism vs. universalism.

I don’t find these categories very helpful. If the issue is truth or falsity, then the truth is exclusivism: the essential claims of Christianity are true and those of other religions are false. The idea that religious truth is culturally relative is incoherent, as is the idea that all religions are objectively true. If the issue is salvation, then the truth is universalism, i.e., the salvation of the world by Jesus Christ, the unique revelation of the true God.  Well, some diffidence is in order on this matter, but universal salvation is the rational hope in light of Scripture.

An implicit assumption I reject is that anyone is ultimately saved or damned in virtue of his religion. I believe that we are all saved not because of, but largely despite, our religions, and this includes those of us who adhere to the Christian religion. We go down the wrong road if we’re asking whether that other religion enough like Christianity for its adherents to be saved too.  Religion, like morality, is a natural characteristic of the human species to which God condescends, using it for his purposes, but in a critical way: it’s always under divine judgment in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  For human beings religion is inevitably where we manifest our rejection of the Gospel; it’s the principal context in which we seek to justify ourselves in God’s eyes, where we manifest our disbelief that we are made right with God by grace, through faith in the imputed righteousness of Jesus. All religions are good or bad in various other ways and it’s not obvious that the Christian religion is better in every way than all other religions. (As a technology for making people better, I suspect Buddhism does at least as good a job as the Reformed Church in America!) Various religions might well meliorate or exacerbate various bad human inclinations. Religions, including the true religion, bring out both the good and bad in people. As Christians we are often unsettled when we discover that adherents of some other religion are better human beings than we are, but we shouldn’t be. We should see what we might learn from them.

4. There seems to be a big jump between “we have a monopoly on truth” and “there is some truth and true values in other religions”…discuss the difference, and some specific things to learn from other faiths.

If you believe something, then you believe that it is true, and you believe that whatever isn’t logically consistent with it is false, unless we’re in the realm of relative truth, which we’re not, talking about religious beliefs; they are beliefs, true or false, about objective reality.

Christians have the great good fortune to have been entrusted with the truth about the God who became flesh in Jesus.  This hardly implies that we know more than, or even as much as, other people do about lots of important matters. What they know might be of value to us as seek to work out our faith in Christ.

Picture: The Dancing Saints at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco.


Questions for a Forum on Evolution


1. Explain the process of evolution

A story: There’s a group of creatures, about half are green, half white.  They migrate to a place covered in green grass. It’s easier for predators to find the white ones than the green ones. More white ones get eaten before they have a chance to have babies. When a green creature has babies, they are usually green too, though occasionally a green mother gives birth to a white baby. When a white mother has babies, they are usually white too, though occasionally a white mother gives birth to a green baby. Once in a while, a white gets lucky and lives long enough to have babies, and sometimes predators get lucky and eat a green before it reproduces.  But it’s no surprise when, after many generations, there are proportionally fewer whites and more greens. Eventually, almost all of them are green. It’s as though the environment, the green grass and the predators, have selected the greens for life and the whites for death.  But no one intentionally selected anything; it was just nature: natural selection.  Over many generations, these creatures have adapted to life in their green and grassy place.

The world does not stand still. At first, winter in the land of green grass was hardly noticeable. The climate begins to change and most years the snow lasts longer than the year before. The greens are easy to see on the white snow but the whites, of which there are just a few, are harder for predators to find. The greens’ chances of having babies begin to decline and the whites’ chances of reproducing start to go up. Eventually, snow covers the land all year, and almost all the creatures are white. Just a few greens remain.  The creatures have again adapted to their environment.

More time goes by.  The creatures have spread over a wide area. Things have gradually warmed up again; the snow is gone, and they are green again.  The melting snow causes the sea level to rise and a low lying area floods, cutting off some of the creatures from the rest. Conditions on the island, and on the mainland, continue to change, though in slightly different ways.  Both the islanders and the mainlanders adapt, so after a while they differ from one another. The predators on the island are sea birds that fly off with their prey. At first, just a lucky few of the creatures are too large to be suitable victims, but it’s no surprise that, eventually, almost all the island creatures are too large for the birds to capture.  They are now much larger than their mainland cousins. Things cool down again, the sea level drops, and the island is now a peninsula. The two groups now mingle.  But now they barely recognize one another as possible mates.  Island creatures tend to mate with similarly large island creatures, and the smaller mainland creatures tend to mate with other, smaller mainland creatures. The adventuresome few who ignore the difference in size find that mating attempts don’t go well.  (Try breeding a Great Dane with a Chihuaha; it’s biologically possible, but awkward.)  More time goes by and the two groups continue to adapt in different ways, and interbreeding becomes impossible, not just unlikely.  Temporary geographical isolation has resulted in permanent reproductive isolation.  What started out as one species has become two. And so it goes.

2. Explain how your field connects to evolution.

Philosophy connects to evolution in two ways:

First, the philosophy of science concerns itself with evolutionary theory as a part of science. We’re interested in how it comes up with its hypotheses, how it tests, confirms, or disconfirms them, and in the structure of evolutionary explanation. The latter gives rise to lots of interesting problems, e.g., what is the “unit of selection?”

Second, by providing knowledge about human beings, evolutionary theory bears, in some cases decisively, on traditional philosophical questions about such matters as the mind-body problem, skepticism, innate knowledge, and moral reasoning.

3. Micro vs. macroevolution?

Microevolution is evolutionary change within a species and macroevolution is change that leads to new species.  Speciation is not thoroughly understood, but it’s clear that micro- and macroevolution are not essentially different processes.  There is no known mechanism to prevent microevolution from causing speciation.  Under the right conditions, the changes we label microevolution result in the formation of new species. The “ring species” are famous textbook examples of this.

4.  Theistic v. atheistic Evolution?

Theists assert, and atheists deny, that what happens in accord with the laws of nature is God’s doing, i.e., what God does indirectly, by means of secondary causes.  All theists agree that God created the human species.  But we disagree about how God did so: some of us believe that he did it the way he has created most things, i.e., by means of natural causes, specifically, by means of the processes described by evolutionary biology. Other theists believe that God created the human species directly, by way of one or more miraculous interventions.  (Some who purport to endorse “theistic evolution” in reality reject the view that God created the first humans by means of entirely natural processes, claiming instead that God “guides” the evolutionary process, where guidance amounts to a number of unobtrusive, but still miraculous, nudges.)

5. Why do you believe in evolution?

If evolution by means of natural section were not to occur, we’d need to explain why not, because it’s predictable, given what we know about living things: they reproduce, making good but inexact copies of themselves, the copies inherit characteristics that can raise or lower the probability, in a particular environment, of their making copies of themselves, and environments change.  Starting with one relatively simple living organism, we should expect after billions of years to find a diversity of complex living things adapted to particular environments.  The empirical evidence could have defeated this expectation in many ways, but it hasn’t.  Indeed, support for it has been accumulating relentlessly for over 150 years. The evidence for the evolutionary explanation of the diversity, complexity, and adaptedness of living things, with natural selection as the primary causal mechanism, is now exceedingly good.  In general, science is our best way to obtain knowledge, and it is unreasonable not to believe well-confirmed scientific theories. The theory that the diversity, complexity, and adaptedness of life on Earth is the result of natural selection is a very well-confirmed scientific theory. 

6. How can I believe in evolution and Christianity?

A short answer:

The evidence for evolution is so good that it is unreasonable not to believe it.

The evidence for Christianity is good enough to make believing it reasonable.

There is no good reason to believe that evolution and Christianity are mutually inconsistent.

A longer answer:

Evolutionary theory’s account of the origin and by implication, the nature, of human beings coheres well with the Christian faith.  Here, as in other cases, what contemporary science tells us about the world is antecedently probable from the perspective of Christian faith, i.e., the world it portrays is what we should expect to find, given the truth of Christianity. In light of what God has revealed about his creative purposes, it’s reasonable to think he would choose to achieve his ends by means of natural processes of the sort science has uncovered.

7. How do I view Scripture?

The Bible is God’s infallible revelation; whatever it teaches is true, the word of God. In it we learn that God created the world; its basic laws and initial conditions are directly due to his creative action and answer to his intentions. The latter effects of that initial act of creation, the formation of atoms, galaxies, stars, planets, and the diversity of complex living things, are what God creates indirectly.

The scientific investigation of nature, and the interpretation of the Bible, are both reliable ways of finding out about God’s creation.  Neither is infallible, but scientific methods are obviously more reliable than those of biblical hermeneutics.  When apparent conflict arises, it’s generally more reasonable to suspect we’ve misinterpreted Scripture than that scientific inquiry has gone wrong.  Further, supposed conflicts between Scripture and science are often merely apparent and reveal, not the misreading of the Bible, but implicit commitments to dispensable philosophical theories. We should recall that our predecessors thought Copernicanism, lunar craters, and Newtonian inertia needed to be reconciled with biblical creation.

It is our good fortune to encounter conflicts between what science says and what we think the Bible says, since they push us to reconsider, and improve, our understanding of the biblical text.

Although tied to the real acts of God in the creation of this world, the Genesis creation stories are neither history nor science; they are theology expressed in poetic narrative.  Much mischief arises from the fact that in colloquial English the term “literally” has come to mean “really,” so some hear the statement that these texts are not literally true as equivalent to not really true.  On the contrary, they really are true, but figuratively, not literally. To take a figurative text literally is to fail to take it seriously. The not literally true story—the naked man named “Man,” the woman named “Woman” made from his rib, the talking snake, the trees bearing magical fruit—asserts the literal theological truth about the God who for our sake created the world.

8. What about the Fall and Imago Dei?

Evolution has no particular bearing on our being made in God’s image. The popular, traditional understanding is that our being made imago Dei consists in some kind of similarity of humans to God.  We are, e.g., made in God’s image in virtue of being persons.  Evolution is the scientific explanation of how human persons came into existence.  However, the biblically and theologically superior account is that to be made in God’s image is to be given a particular vocation, a calling to represent—image—God in creation.  Being God’s image is not a matter of what we are, but of God electing us to share in his life and work. God creates persons by natural, evolutionary means and then calls them into relationship with himself. The evaluation of hypotheses about how God created us should be guided by what God reveals about why he created us.

The Genesis story of God breathing the “breath of life” into the man-shaped being formed from the soil, i.e., the special creation of humans, cast in the vitalist framework of Ancient Near Eastern thought, reveals the special vocation humans have been given in God’s creation.  God created this world with the aim of there being creatures like us, persons invited to share in God’s triune life.  Special creation is properly understood in terms of God’s purposes in creating us, not the means by which he created us.

Traditional ways of understanding the Fall are undermined by the discovery of the evolutionary origins of human beings.  It is not true that human beings were initially morally perfect but became morally imperfect.  Our moral proclivities, good and bad, were present in rudimentary form in our pre-human ancestors.  Instead, the figurative Genesis story of the Fall as an historical event points to the theologically vital fact that sin is not necessitated by human nature.  Nor is it moral wrongdoing.  Human beings are sinners: this means that our relationship with God is impaired by our unwillingness to trust him, and our willingness to usurp his place in the world.  The truth of original sin is that we are bereft of God’s empirical presence, born into a world from which we have individually and collectively expelled God, who always intended to become incarnate as one of us.  Because of our fallen condition, God incarnate is also our crucified and resurrected savior.


Some  responses to a survey someone sent me on the subject of prayer:

What is prayer?

Prayer is speaking with God, i.e., speaking to God with the intention of listening for him speaking to me.

Why do you pray?

Because those who put their faith in Christ are commanded to do so, because communal prayer as a component of Christian worship helps to form and sustain the community of faith, and because at times I feel the need to articulate my hopes, fears, worries, etc., to God.  (I believe that God exists in some temporal fashion, and thus that our prayers actually do have an effect upon him. Even if God already knows what I need, my asking him for it gives him a reason to provide it he did not already have. The future of God’s creation is open, and how things go depends in part on what we and God work out together; our prayers are, I think, a significant part of that.)

How important is prayer to you, and why?

God created this world with the aim of it being inhabited by creatures he can invite to share in his triune life.  Now, prior the resurrected life when he will again be empirically present with us, our speaking with God, communally, and also individually, is the principal way to be living that life. Many times, to pray is to remind myself, in the face of the countervailing evidence, that there really is a God who listens, cares and acts.

I do not assume that God has the ability to know precisely what goes on in a human being’s mind, nor, if he has that ability, that he would exercise it in a systematic way, given the value he places on the integrity of persons distinct from himself.  I assume instead that what God knows of our inner selves depends to some degree on what we choose to tell him. The physicist Leo Szilard once told a friend that he was writing an account of his experiences, but that he wasn’t planning to publish it. The friend asked why he was doing it, and Szilard said he was writing it for God. The friend said, “But God already knows what happened!” To which Szilard replied, “Yes, but not from my point of view.” I believe that to pray privately is to invite God into my subjective world, asking him to see things from my point of view, and seeking help to begin to see things from his point of view.

How often do you think a person should pray, and why?

This varies greatly from one individual to the next. It’s analogous to, “How often should a person talk to his wife, to his best friends, etc.?” Because God is God, he is not everything; he wants us to live our human lives and not be concerned principally with religious matters.  But he does intend for our relationship with him to be uniquely important in our lives.

Have you experienced the impact of your prayer in your own personal life? If so how?

The most important prayer for me has been in corporate Eucharistic worship, particularly the “prayer of humble access,” in the (old) Book of Common Prayer, where one kneels at the altar to receive the elements. Praying that prayer, one finds oneself simultaneously alone before God and together with one’s fellow worshippers, all of us being shaped by God’s unconditional acceptance and love. I grew up within evangelicalism, which was for me in many ways a religion of condemnation and control, so this has been a decisive, transformative experience. Now when I pray I know I speak to a God who really does love me as I am, a God in whose presence I have no need to pretend to be more faithful, or wiser, more serious, more committed, or better than I am.