Vacuous Theology, Empty Morality

Vacuous Theology, Empty Morality July 5, 2015

photo Bob Miller (CC BY 2.0)
photo Bob Miller (CC BY 2.0)

I consider myself a thoroughly secular person, but I like to keep a foot in the evangelical world that I’ve left behind, in part because it influences the thinking of people I care about and of people who have an influence over them. I have my limits, though, because so much of the evangelical subculture just gets to me (and was probably one of the major reasons why I became disillusioned with Christianity).

So when I saw people (including many of my Christian friends) talking about pastor Doug Wilson’s article “Time for a Little Q&A,” I didn’t want to write about it. I didn’t want to even think about it. (If you also don’t think you can stomach the original article, RL Stollar has a great summary with supplementary material.)

A quick summary: Kevin DeYoung at the Gospel Coalition (an evangelical site) posted a piece entitled “40 Questions for Christians Now Waving Rainbow Flags” in the wake of the Obergefell SCOTUS decision, and Matthew Vines (an outspoken gay Christian) responded with “40 questions for Christians who oppose marriage equality.” Doug Wilson’s “Q&A” is a response to Vines’ piece, in which he answers the questions (or sometimes just evades them).

In particular, there are two questions that stand out, in which Vines related same-sex marriage to another moral issue of the Bible: slavery.

16. Do you think supporting same-sex marriage is a more serious problem than supporting slavery?

[Wilson:] Yes, far more serious.

17. Did you spend any time studying the Bible’s passages about slavery before you felt comfortable believing that slavery is wrong?

[Wilson:] Heh.

Those are Wilson’s exact responses. The first (#16) is bad enough, but the second smacks of a certain arrogant dismissiveness that is incredibly off-putting, at best. (Charitably, Wilson may have meant that “Heh” as a shorthand for “You have no idea how much time I’ve spent” – he links to an article he wrote on the book of Philemon, which indicates that he has given some thought to the issue – but it is still a response that ill befits such serious topics.)

After the backlash, Wilson wrote a follow-up piece, in which he attempts to defend his answer while not seeming like a moral monster (a pretty herculean task given his frequent immature references to “same sex mirage” – and no, that’s not a typo). I found one part of his response incredibly telling:

1. We know that sodomy is worse than slavery by how God responds to it. In the book of Jude, we are told how the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the surrounding cities, gave themselves over to the celebration of fornication and “going after strange flesh.” In doing this, they were imitating the angels who abandoned their proper habitation, and went after human women in order to marry them. In both these instances, God visited them with divine wrath and judgment, one in the form of the Genesis Flood and the other a visitation of fire. Jude goes on to say that it was done this way to serve as an example to us. When God judges rebel humanity in such a way as to have our ears tingle and burn, we should pay closer heed than we are currently doing. (emphasis mine)

There is a sort of perverse logic at play here, so for the purposes of clarity, let me lay out in a syllogism what I think Wilson is saying (as best I can make out the argument):

  1. We can tell how opposed to something God is by how strongly he responds to it in the Bible.
  2. Sodom and Gomorrah are obliterated for the sin of sodomy*, while no individual, group, or society in the Bible receives any kind of drastic punishment for having slavery as an institution.
  3. Therefore, God is more opposed to homosexuality than slavery.

This is what I would call “theology in a vacuum” – the application of generic principles (which are virtually always extrabiblical) within the confines of the biblical text in order to reach some conclusion not actually made in the text itself.

And like a vacuum, the moral position Wilson is left with is essentially empty.†

Part of this is the clear fact that Wilson is just rationalizing: There are a multitude of horrific things that the God of the Bible does nothing about, and thus it is hardly conceivable that this could be a useful heuristic for comparing how badly God hates something. And that doesn’t even include the clearly immoral things that God not only refuses to vindicate as with Sodom and Gomorrah but actually commands or indeed inflicts personally – genocide, for instance, or the forced marriage and rape of women captured in the conquest of other tribes. Would Wilson thus argue that homosexuality is worse than genocide? Is genocide more acceptable than slavery?

Still worse, however, is how this way of determining moral stances doesn’t even pretend to look at what these “evils” even do in reality. Wilson says in his Q&A that he’s spent “[m]any, many hours” talking to LGBT Christians, but it doesn’t seem to matter because the entirety of his moral stance is in the self-contained logic above. No amount of experience talking to people who are personally living at the intersection of LGBT issues and Christianity matters to Wilson. There is only the vacuous logic, no extra data points. The conclusion is preordained with no need to test the hypothesis.

I grew up hearing that the Bible is an instruction manual or a roadmap or [insert other directional/guide metaphor here], but the truth is anyone trying to get a full-throated morality from the Bible is going to do a lot of guessing, and like with Wilson’s extrabiblical supposition above about how to determine how mad God gets with certain things (conveniently ignoring, of course, how the Bible talks about how “His ways are higher than our ways” and how the psalmists bemoan injustice and ask God when he’ll come resolve it), Christians are going to have to rely on extrabiblical and often arbitrary principles to ground those arguments.

And yet that won’t stop Christians from speculating what Jesus would and wouldn’t approve of (and that has happened on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate, to be fair) or from claiming that atheists have no way to ground morality.

Personally, I will take a reality-based approach to ethics over the empty morality of people like Wilson any day.

*Leave aside for now the issue of whether that was actually the crime of Sodom and Gomorrah.
†Yes, I know that a vacuum is not actually empty. Don’t leave me nasty comments, physicists.

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