[Turing 2013] Christian Entry #10

This is the tenth entry in the Christian round of the 2013 Ideological Turing Test.  This year, atheists and Christians responded to questions about sex, death, and literature.  



Well, first of all, I’m a Protestant, and Protestants generally only consider baptism and communion to be sacraments. That said, I have a lot to say about the ethics of polyamory from a Christian perspective, way more than I could ever fit in here, but I’ll try to give a summary.

One reason I find this issue interesting is that it shows the limitations of the approach to Biblical interpretation that focuses on looking for prooftexts to show that one particular view is True. I suspect a lot of conservative Christians assume there must be a pro-monogamy prooftext somewhere in the Bible, when such prooftexts are actually very hard to find. Some of the Bible’s most famous stories, like the story of Isaac and Ishmael, or the story of Rachel and Leah, assume a cultural background where polygamy is considered totally acceptable. (Or more accurately, there’s a cultural backdrop of polygyny, where a man can have multiple wives but not the other way around.)

To be clear, I do NOT think that the specific practices recorded in the Old Testament would be appropriate for us today. That’s because I see the Bible as a record of people’s experiences with the Divine, filtered through their own understanding of the world and cultural assumptions, rather than a word-for-word dictation by God.

A more helpful approach here would be to look at the issues in light of the core message of the Bible. According to Jesus, the whole of the law could be summed up in two commandments: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. When talking about romantic relationships it’s tempting to assume love means eros, but in most of the the New Testament the word being translated as “love” is agape. Love, in this sense, requires among other things that we not put ourselves above other people (equality), or coerce other people into do what we want regardless of whether it’s what they want (consent).

Now whenever I talk about polyamory with people who don’t live in San Francisco, they tend to hear “polygamy” and think of Mormon fundamentalists. Mormon polygamy (or polygyny), though, is rather obviously not based on male-female equality. On that model, an already-married man is allowed to take additional wives (sometimes without even consulting existing wives), but it would be totally unthinkable for a woman to have multiple husbands. Often, marriages are arranged by a woman’s (or young girl’s) male relatives, with her getting little say in the process. That model isn’t something I support or condone.

Polyamory as I understand it is based on equality, openness, honesty, consent, and mutual respect. That doesn’t mean people just doing whatever they feel like. People need to communicate with their partners to build relationships that work for everyone involved, and respect the boundaries they lay down. It also doesn’t necessarily mean having exactly the same rules for everybody involved in a relationship. “Do to others as you would have them do to you” doesn’t mean you ignore the way other people’s preferences differ from your preferences, instead it should mean recognizing that you wouldn’t like it if someone else went around acting like everyone should share their preferences, and then adjusting your own behavior in a way that recognizes that fact. The key thing is that people communicate their preferences, and that the relationship is built on a foundation of equality and mutual respect.

(And now I really want to talk about some of the things Leah has written on marriage, but I guess I should move on to the next question.)



Leah worded this question really broadly, and it’s tempting to go off in all sorts of directions with it. There’s the issue of forgiveness and how Christians should respond to violence, and how that interacts with Christianity’s unfortunate history of militarism, from Constantine down to certain “Christians” in the US today. And, um, this may be a weird reaction, but when I hear “is there a difference between killing and not administering medical treatment?” my first thought is to feel guilty about the things I spend money on for myself when so many people in the world don’t have access to basic health care (not to mention food and clean water). But since the question is supposed to be about euthanasia, I’ll try to focus on that.

So some people assume that everything is God’s will, even things like teenagers dying in a car crash or something equally tragic. But the God I believe in is not a God who would will anyone to die when they have a full life ahead of them. On the other hand, nor are they a God who would will anyone to die a slow, agonizing death. So it would be wrong to withhold life-saving medical care for fear of interfering with God’s will, but by the same token, it would be simplistic to try to settle the issue of euthanasia by saying that euthanasia is, necessarily, interfering with God’s will.

The key issue for me is how we can best follow the principle of love. I don’t think I can definitely say that there are cases where providing active euthanasia would be the most loving thing to do, especially if the pain of a terminal illness can be managed through pain killers. But I don’t think I can definitely say there aren’t such cases, either. In fact, it would be pretty arrogant of me to do so. As for whether we might ever have an ethical obligation to provide active euthanasia, that’s an even more difficult question. That would be a very hard thing for most people to do, but as Christians, we should always strive to do the most loving, compassionate thing we can, even when it’s difficult.



You can vote on whether you think these answers were written by a Christian or an Atheist here.  Comments are open to discuss the substance of the post and for speculation about the true beliefs of the author, so please vote before looking at the comments.

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  • Very unsure about this one.

    There are lots of people who could honestly write something like this and there’s nothing that would be a tell in general situations. Still, I’m going with likely atheist for basically Bayesian reasons. Seeming realistic isn’t good enough evidence in this context, because someone from San Francisco with a connection to Leah or the blog seems much more likely to be a Less Wrong type person and good actor than this kind of liberal Protestant. Plus the third world concern makes special sense for someone actually into the efficient charity thing.

    I can add some small content-related things (Ishmael is only a semi-good example and the Old Testament has better ones, the (no prooftexts) -> (right to the core message) thing is a bit fast given the proof-texts on divorce making no sense if polygamy is allowed) but I think I still would have gone with likely Christian if the San Francisco mention hadn’t pushed me over the edge.

    Quite possible I’m too clever by half here.

    • Martha O’Keeffe

      Mind you, if I never again hear an invocation of Constantine as to blame for everything that went wrong with Christianity not being au courant with the values of 21st century white Westerners from the get-go, it will be too soon. You know who was militant? Julian the Apostate. Crushed the Alemanni, would have faced into a civil war if Constantinus hadn’t popped his clogs first, and fell off the branch himself in the middle of taking on the Sassanid Empire. Not A Christian (see “the Apostate” bit).

      Know who else was militant? The all-but-sainted Marcus Aurelius, who I am sick, sore and sorry of seeing quoted all over the shop. Saw off the Parthian attempt at reviving their empire, took on a bunch of various other uprisings, and wrote his blasted “Meditations” not while living a frugal old-style Republic life back home in Rome at his country villa but while on campaign keeping the Germans in their place. Also Not A Christian.

      But noooo, it’s that bad ol’ Constantine and his taking over Christianity as a state religion that is to blame for all the warring and fighting.

      This now ends your history nerd rage rant 🙂

      • g

        I think people who say Constantine spoiled Christianity don’t mean “… because he was so much worse than all other Roman Emperors”, they mean “because he — like many Roman Emperors — was so much worse than Christianity could have been without him”.

        As for the entry, I’ll remark that (1) it seems very credible as a liberal Protestant response to the questions but (2) I none the less think it much more likely to have been written by an atheist. I’m going to make (without much confidence) the further conjecture that it was written by Chris Hallquist.

    • KL

      Quite possible I’m too clever by half here.

      Quite possible, but if so your instincts are the same as mine. I also felt skeptical despite the inoffensiveness of the content, for much the same reasons. Plus I’ve voted “likely Christian” on quite a few entries and know that I’ve got to balance it out somehow…

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    Since they say they’re a Protestant right out of the gate, that takes the guesswork out of it, unless it’s a lying liar bad naughty atheist trying to deceive us 🙂

    Okay, I am a bit curious as to which or what denomination of Protestant this person allegedly is, since the “only two sacraments” part tends – in my limited experience – to be Low Church, while the more Broad Church types – as evinced by the “conservative Christian what I ain’t” implication about prooftexting – are more flexible on the number and/or tend to cherrypick the parts from Tradition that they like (e.g. High Church Anglicans/Episcopalians who are all ‘smells and bells’ but just as likely to have a partnered lesbian lady vicar celebrating the Lord’s Supper – or Eucharist, and yes, there is a difference and it does count).

    So that does make me wonder. The rest of it sounds reasonably like a progressive/mainline Protestant, if a bit vague in parts – the euthanasia answer wambled all over the place. I’m not sure, but taking them at face value, I have to vote Christian, but not a hugely strong argument.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      Lutheran. Everything in it reminds me of theological discussions I had with my 6th grade girlfriend after we reconnected as adults.

    • Jakeithus

      I too had the feeling of Lutheran. Although really it is vague enough to fit almost any mainline Protestant denomination in my opinion.

      My thought when I see a progressive Christian entry such as this is that if I was an atheist, it wouldn’t be the first place my mind would go if I were to attempt a Turing test. That, combined with its vagueness makes me think likely Christian.

  • Dan

    Seems to me like an authentic liberal Protestant viewpoint. So I’m guessing “likely Christian.”

  • Kristen inDallas

    I almosty went Christian but now I’m changing my mind. I’ve heard plenty of liberal protestants make these sorts of arguments, with similar logic (Jesus said love everyone and that means be nice and let them do whatever they want and ok, I’m going to stop reading now). But not one of them has ever refered to Constantine, differentiated between eros and agape, or been anywhere near leah’s blog.
    This is either a pretty well-rounded atheist strawmanning. Or it’s Leah just toying around wth us trying to throw us off the scent and guess atheist. 🙂

  • Brendan Hodge

    I find this difficult, because I find this sort of liberal Protestantism so hard to respect that I’m not good at telling an honest example from a fake.

    That said, I certainly know self described Christians (some of them living in the Bay Area no less) who would write this, and it seems like the sort of thing that would not be top of mind for a fake, so I’m voting likely Christian.

  • Niemand

    I’m guessing atheist here for the possibly odd reason that I don’t think a Christian would make this many references to the Bible. The Bible is sort of background assumption to a Christian, not something that needs to be mentioned in every second sentence (or at least that’s my impression.) Possibly atheist with a Uni Uni background.