Monthly Archives: July 2020

A Response to Alisa Childers (with Greg Koukl) from a progressive-leaning Christian

This video—the second part to a two-part conversation whose first part has close to nil content actually relating to progressive Christianity (the exception is in the last 5 minutes where they broach the issue of atonement, yet even here they make the classic error of conflating penal substitutionary atonement with substitution per se)—could perhaps more accurately be titled “How to make progressive Christians look as stupid and emotionally-driven as we depict them to be here.” In this post, I will survey and critically examine three key moments of what I find to be superficial and, ultimately, unhelpful commentary, all of which are linked in some way or another to what is perhaps the most beloved of tools in the amateur apologist’s toolbox of “tactics”—the “self-refuting” line:

(1) We shall begin around the 19 minute mark, after Alisa says that progressive Christians like Lisa Gungor “affirm some kind of relativism” (vagueness alert). Koukl shortly after begins his predictable discussion on the amorphous threat of “relativism” with defining the term in such a contrived and oversimplified way so as to reach his desired end of employing his “suicide tactic.” (This is his term for showing that the progressive interlocutor has “committed intellectual suicide” or made a self-refuting statement.) Relativism, says Koukl, is the view that “truth depends only on what a person believes, and not on anything in the objective world.” The central problem with this definition is that it sloppily conflates the objective/subjective contrast with the absolute/relative one. They often do overlap in many contexts, but there is a key difference between the two that is crucial in seeing why the eliding of this distinction fools so many unwitting listeners: generally speaking, the objective/subjective contrast concerns human beings or, more specifically, their individual consciousness; whereas the absolute/relative contrast is one that concerns all types of relations but has a distinctively impersonal connotation. And, precisely because it has such a connotation bypassing the personal nature of discourse, it is easy to wield as a rhetorical “tactic” to make your interlocutor seem as if they are so supremely stupid that they locate truth merely in their “individual preferences.” Yet, rarely if ever does someone speaking of “relativism” mean to express, leave alone actually believe, this: most minimally intelligent persons, if you press them on it, are willing to acknowledge that truth, or some truth about a topic, could be objective in some sense (i.e. having some basis in the objective world outside them); and they can do this precisely because their concern lies, instead, in the inevitably perspectival nature of attempting to grasp some object x two parties are looking at. Koukl, however, prefers to recommend the lazy tactic, which conduces to nothing but a smug rhetorical victory (despite pretensions to “clarify”), of finding a “self-refuting statement.” He goes on to relay a story which begins with his friend saying, “You Christians are nice people but pretty soon you get judgmental”, and ends with the triumphalist note of his friend being in “stunned silence” after being “exposed” for having a double standard regarding the rightness of judgement. (Insert skepticism that the friend was actually that stupid.) However impressed Alisa is at this being such “a very clever way to invite more conversation”, I’m afraid that she seems to mistake cleverness for sophistry.

(2) From around the 33 minute mark, Alisa proceeds to focus on the alleged redefinition of words, beginning with the word ‘tolerance’. Adverting to a talk he gave titled “The Intolerance of Tolerance”—one of those classic witty anti-leftist titles that you would find on PragerU (which is, unsurprisingly, precisely where you find Koukl summarising his talk)—Koukl says that tolerance “pertains to the way we treat people, not the way we treat ideas.” The central problem here is that this a legitimate distinction which is often—and quickly—turned into an almost complete separation. So, for example, when some pro-LGBT person calls a conservative evangelical “intolerant” for their belief in the (im)morality of homosexuality, it is all too easy for the latter to marginalize the extent to which their belief might have real-life consequences for the treatment of LGBT persons by rehearsing their shopworn line that “they love the sinner but not the sin.” (For a good discussion of the shortcomings of this sentiment, see ch 6 of Eric Reitan’s The Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic.) It may well be useful, as Koukl says, to ask the person calling you “intolerant” to define what they mean by the word—the definition might differ—but, once again, rarely if ever does such a person think that you are being “intolerant” only because (as Koukl reductively portrays) “you think you’re right and other people are wrong.”

(3) Lastly, from around the 40 minute mark, Alisa turns to the alleged “makeover” of the word ‘love’. (I say “alleged” because someone may not necessarily begin with the conservative evangelical view from which they evolve their notion of what love demands.) Koukl augments this by posing the question, “why do you think that [some course of action] is the most loving thing?” His attempt to illustrate how to answer this question through the go-to conservative instances of moral decadence—extra-marital sex and homosexuality (which, like many homophobes, he conflates with homosexual promiscuity)—is far less interesting—if no less unhelpful—than how he attempts to provide the “biblical” definition of love. Turning to the famous thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, Koukl claims that people (presumably progressive Christians and atheists alike—of whom Alisa has, in other places, depicted as ideological bedfellows: miss the line that “love does not rejoice in unrighteousness” (v. 6). Have they really, though? I don’t so much mean, ‘have they really skipped over this line?’, but more ‘have all progressive Christians really, as Alisa goes on to lament, uncritically adopted a “really secular definition of love” without grappling with such central biblical texts which say that “love does not rejoice in injustice [probably a better translation of adikia than the characteristically Protestant translation “unrighteousness” which can implicitly sever ‘the right’ from ‘the good’] but rejoices with the truth”? On the whole, I think not. Arguably, this is symptomatic of a common pattern amidst conservative Christians which can also manifest in the way in which, for instance, the sentiment in John 1:14 that Jesus “came from the Father, full of grace and truth” is converted into an implicit dualism between grace and truth (much like your average Calvinist responds to the problem of a loving God permitting an eternal hell by retorting, “ah, but he’s a just God too!” — as if God’s love is something different from his justice). Okay, so what exactly is wrong with saying that Christians must show grace and truth? Nothing unless it is used to refer, as it often is, to a kind of middle ground between giving someone “too much grace” (AKA lenience or laxity) and whacking someone over the head with (our notion of) the capital-T God-given “Truth” (AKA mercilessness or, to use a more colloquial phrase, self-righteous assholery). What is needed, therefore, when a conservative Christian talks to a progressive Christian on what “love” means, is not a rhetorical game wherein the former contents him/herself with pointing out that the latter’s definition is “suicidal” (in Koukl’s technical sense)—or that one party is guilty of separating grace from truth, or love from justice, while the other so brilliantly strikes the balance between the two—; but, instead, a loving dialogue wherein each in turn explains how they think the two are unified and not separated in Christ. After all, while “love rejoices with [sunchairei] the truth” we also now “see through a mirror as in an enigma/dimly [dia esoptrou en ainigmati]” and only “know in part” [ek merous]. And, if this leads you to thinking that the apostle Paul’s acknowledgement of our intrinsic epistemic limitations in grasping at truth is “relativistic”, then something is surely wrong with your definition of “relativism.”