Sunday, April 22, 2012

We Are the Depraved

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In my previous blog entry I described the sensus divinitatis and the conviction of sin. The big moral principles are (1) love God with all your heart, soul and mind; (2) love thy neighbor as thyself. We don’t follow these principles as well as we should; hence sin. Part of the Christian faith is that we are sinners in need of a savior, but are we really that bad?

I think we human beings are a lot more depraved than we tend to think, and that we don’t always value what we claim to value. We may say we value our fellow human being as much as ourselves, but how often do we buy things we don’t need when that money could go to clothe the naked or feed the hungry? For definiteness, consider a hypothetical man named Smith who buys an expensive big screen television. I being the occasionally unpleasant fellow ask Smith, “Do you value having a big screen television over starving children being fed?” Smith answers, “Of course not.” I reply, “Then why are you spending a sizable sum on the big screen television instead of donating that money to feed starving children?” Smith might say that such an act would be supererogatory rather than morally obligatory. Perhaps it would be supererogatory, but that doesn’t change the unpleasant fact that Smith is valuing having a large television over feeding starving children. Smith has a choice between having children desperately in need of food being fed and having a big screen television, and Smith chooses the television. For this reason Smith is more depraved than he thinks, and Smith is not alone. Most if not all of us are depraved in having a similarly selfish and lopsided value system (e.g. valuing a large television over a fellow human being) and this is largely why the human race has failed to conquer world hunger.

On a similar note, to what degree would forgoing the television purchase and feeding the hungry really be supererogatory? When Smith’s flawed value system is considered, how well is Smith fulfilling his moral obligation to love others as himself? Would Smith let himself starve so that another could have a large television? Probably not. Smith is not, I think, being entirely successful in following the Jesus’ command here.

I do not consider myself more righteous than Smith; if anything I am worse because I am more acutely aware of the problem on a more consistent basis, and while I donate to charity to some degree, it is far below the threshold of what a perfectly moral being would do. I do not value in a way that I ought to value. I, like Smith, am a depraved sinner.

God values us more than we value our fellow human beings. God was willing not merely to give up a large television but suffer to the extreme for our benefit—to die and bleed on a cross. He did this not merely for those who loved him but even for those who hated him. Would we do this for strangers or our enemies? We’d like to say we’d die for others, but we are often unwilling to make even little sacrifices (televisions etc.) for those who desperately need it.

When the call to give is given, the knowledge of Christ’s sacrifice for us makes it more painful for me to refuse, but does it make it easier to accept? Not as much as I’d like. In my my previous blog entry I noted that if I were not a Christian I would still believe that there is a moral standard beyond me and that I have fallen short of it. But it goes further. Even if I were not a Christian I would recognize that if there is heaven where people eternally commune with God, I am very much unworthy of it. I would need God’s grace to enter into something like that.

We value televisions over people. We value our own personal comfort over the desperate needs of the starving orphan. We are the depraved.

God help us.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Awakening the Sensus Divinitatis

Home  >  Philosophy  >  Atheism/Theism

This entry is an epilogue to a series on the moral argument. The entries in that series:
  1. The Moral Argument for God Part 1: Going from Morality’s Existence to God’s Existence
  2. The Moral Argument for God Part 2: Does Objective Morality Exist If God Does Not Exist?
  3. The Moral Argument for God Part 3: Does Objective Morality Exist?
  4. The Euthyphro Dilemma
  5. Epilogue: Awakening the Sensus Divinitatis
It is recommended, though not necessary (especially if you already believe God is the source of moral obligation), to read the other entries in the series first. In the course of the series I argue that God is the probable source of moral obligation.

The Sensus Divinitatis

A huge portion of people in humanity’s history have come to believe in God or at least something like God; it more or less comes naturally. Theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) used the term sensus divinitatis (SEN-suhss div-inn-uh-TAW-tuhss) to refer to an intuitive sense or awareness of God.

If you’re like me, for at least a large portion of your life you didn’t quite have this, at least not very strongly. When I was a child, even though I was much more theologically conservative than I am now, I believed in God and angels and all that but I was of the “I wish I could see a miracle or an angel, just to be sure” mindset. I didn’t quite feel an assurance of God’s existence that the sensus divinitatis seems to suggest. Now I don’t have that much doubt anymore. My own experience is somewhere between knowing that God exists and sensing God’s presence. Still, I wondered how that happened. As far as I know, I haven’t become any less sinful. I do know this happened after I accepted the moral argument for God’s existence and concluded that God is probably the source of moral obligation. I’m about as confident in the existence of God as I am about objective morality existing. From a previous blog entry:
When it comes to flagrantly morally wrong behavior like impaling babies with bayonets just for fun, most of us intuitively recognize that there is something in reality, transcending our opinion, that says people shouldn’t behave that way. It seems that raping children and committing genocide would remain morally atrocious regardless of what we believed. Even for many who don’t believe that God is the source of moral obligation (as I didn’t at one time), there just seems to be some component of reality beyond us, even if we can’t identify what it is, that says we should not do such things.
I now know that God is that component of reality beyond us that says we shouldn’t do certain things, so that when I ponder on the wrong I’ve done, I feel accountable to a sort of presence that exists beyond myself. It thus occurred to me that my acceptance of objective morality and God as the source of moral obligation was likely the cause of my sensus divinitatis experience.

From Christianity to Atheism to Christianity

When I read Why I Am a Christian: Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe, a book written by a variety of authors, J. Budziszewski wrote what was for me the most insightful of all the book’s essays. He is a Christian who became an atheist who then became a Christian again. How he converted back to theism mirrored how I think I would return to theism if I ever became an atheist. Budziszewski tells what happened one night when he prayed to God as an atheist.
I told him that I thought I was talking to the wall. I said that if he existed, he could have me, but he would have to show me because I couldn’t tell. As the minutes ticked past, the wall looked more and more like a wall, and I felt a fool.

Yet he did hear my prayer. I came, months later, to feel a greater and greater horror about myself, not exactly a feeling of guilt, nor of shame, nor of inadequacy—just horror: an overpowering true intuition that my condition was objectively evil. I could not have told why my condition was objectively horrible; I only perceived that it was. It was as though a man noticed one afternoon that the sky is blue when for years he had considered it red.

Nothing like this had ever happened to me before, and I could not explain it. The intuition of the objective evil of my condition appeared as though from nowhere and contradicted everything I had been telling myself. I experienced it not as an inference but as direct knowledge. It had authority, commanding assent—and I assented. Though I did not know it at the time, it was what John’s Gospel calls the conviction of sin. I believe that the Holy Spirit, in answer to my prayer, had been secretly cutting a door in the stone wall of my self-deception.
The conviction of sin is something I’ve felt as well. Though I am a Christian and believe I am saved through Christ’s sacrifice, I have no self-righteous delusions of being a sinless creature. Even if I were not a Christian I would believe that there is a moral standard beyond me and I have fallen short of it, and I would know the probable source of this moral standard. For me, the moral sense was the gateway to sensus divinitatis.