Friday, March 28, 2014

The Quest for Salvation and Our Social Engagement: Are They Reconcilable?

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Justice and Faith: Surveying the Lay of the Land
The Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics, the Centre for Community Based Research, and the Christian Reformed Church of Canada, are currently partnering in an exciting research project entitled, “Justice and Faith: Individual Spirituality and Social Responsibility in the Christian Reformed Church of Canada.” Conceived as an attempt to identify the most significant trends in this community’s understanding of justice, faith, and the relationship between the two, the Justice and Faith project will process information from diverse sources (from scholarly articles to surveying the people in the pews), hoping to provide insights to the questions at hand.
One of the sources under construction is a literature review, a collective document where researchers compile findings from recent scholarship, trace emerging themes, and highlight points of dialogue between different authors. Through the review of academic and popular sources, the research team has already shed light on issues that are defining trends. This is the first of three articles written by three graduate research assistants working on the project, which contains some preliminary reflections on the literature reviewed to date.

The Quest for Salvation and Our Social Engagement: Are They Reconcilable?
by Hector Acero-Ferrer

This week, the Christian world remembers the life and work of the Salvadoran priest, theologian, and activist, Oscar Romero. It was 34 years ago when, in the middle of a church service, Romero was brutally assassinated by members of the Salvadoran “represión.” In the months prior to his death, Romero took advantage of every possible opportunity, on and off the pulpit, to speak out against the deteriorating socio-political situation of his country, inviting Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God’s call for justice and to stop the oppression openly enforced by their government and military.

Romero’s life was not always that of an activist and an adept pastoral leader. In fact, years of research in ascetic theology, a field of studies dedicated to explore the way to individual perfection through self-discipline, isolated him to the point that he remained a stranger to his own country’s cry for justice up until his appointment as a bishop. This radical shift obeyed both personal and professional reasons, and marked two definite stages in Romero’s work.

Throughout the first months of research in the Justice and Faith project, we have encountered the fact that the bifurcation expressed through Romero’s life--and the lives of many other leaders-represents the interaction of two basic “moods” within contemporary Christianity, as church members attempt to engage the world critically, responsibly, and faithfully. Current Christian activism has become one of the most prolific contexts for reflection on these “moods,” which are perceived as varied interpretations of the link between faith practice and social justice: while, for some, the path of eternal salvation is a hermetically sealed transaction between God and the individual, for others, the construction of God’s Kingdom is inexorably linked to the effects of our collective historical agency. As in many other cases, these tendencies are only the extremes of the plural spectrum that constitutes North American Christianity.  

Pastoral practitioners and political activists have explored the causes behind these “moods” through the analysis of the faith components inherent to political and social engagement and the way in which the Christian Scriptures are grounded in particular understandings of justice. Practicing activists and those who reflect on the reality of activism have engaged in active dialogue on the matter, often including references to the construction of God’s Kingdom and the role of hope in the opening of historical possibilities. Their goal is for other areas of Christian scholarship to become energized by this impulse, incorporating this exploration in the development of models oriented toward a greater understanding of the relationship between justice and faith. The Justice and Faith research project aims to be one of the groups working on this front.

At the grassroots level, activism that fosters integration between faith and justice from the perspective of the Christian tradition has been developed on two different fronts. While some groups of Christian activists start their engagement on the basis of their own reflections on the Christian call for action, others conclude, after their social engagement with the world has taken place, that it is not possible to sustain their activities unless they ground their work on a sustained faith formation. Either way, such social and political praxis seems to advocate for an integration of faith and justice, which interprets human agency as the action of God for a world in great need.

Those activists that come to a life of faith from social action, arriving at the notion of justice from their political/social experiences, encounter a different type of difficulty. Faith congregations do not necessarily agree on the integration of justice and faith, expressing their position in their apathy to interact, as communities, with other structures of life in society. The literature states that this apathy is rooted, for the most part, in the community’s understanding of three elements: [1]God’s action in creation, [2]the plausibility of collaboration between God and humanity, and [3]the practical effects of human agency in the world.

While some Christian groups are willing to describe their faith as rooted or connected to justice, there are a number of groups for which salvation, as the guiding principle of any Christian’s faith life is radically different from our action in the world. In The World Is Not Ours to Save, the pastor and activist Tyler Wigg-Stevenson describes this tension when he focuses his analysis on the possibility of human input into the salvation of the world. Wigg-Stevenson frames the two sides of this confrontation, which encourage bifurcation or integration, in his own experience as an activist, finding that the actual practice of the young activist reveals the validity of both approaches.

While it is pivotal to understand one’s action in the world as transformational and critically necessary for salvation, says Wigg-Stevenson, it is also important to see how the salvation of the world is not in anybody’s hands but in God’s hands alone. For Wigg-Stevenson, the Christian life, represented in that of the activist, expresses the tension between these premises, and concludes that the salvation of the world is not in our hands. Although this explains many of the frustrations and problems faced by activists in their work, it should not be a call to renounce such a work but to reframe it so that those involved are better able to understand that the transformation they are effecting is not equivalent to salvation.

Even though this position seems to incorporate some of the most important aspects of the two Christian “moods,” it does not accomplish a full integration, particularly in terms of the link between our drive for social justice and God’s overall plan, as it unfolds in history: whereas our agency in the world appears to carry significant meaning, it does not have any salvific effects. Is this position moving us closer to an integrative perspective? Does this analysis represent a gain for social/political activists? If not, which discourse would illuminate the projects of social activists in a more direct way? These, amongst many others, are the questions to explore as we delve into current literature on the way Christians engage today’s society.
Hector Acero Ferrer is a junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, currently focusing his research on philosophy of language and philosophy of religion.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Explosions in the Twitterverse: Coca-Cola and the Canonization of “America the Beautiful”

Art is a more universal mode of language than is the speech that exists in a multitude of mutually intelligible forms . . . The power of music in particular to merge different individualities in a common surrender, loyalty and inspiration, a power utilized in religion and in warfare alike, testifies to the relative universality of the language of art. The difference between English, French and German speech create barriers that are submerged when art speaks (349).
                           - John Dewey, Art as Experience

On Sunday February 2, a record breaking 111.5 million viewers bathed their brains in what has become the ultimate competition for the best television commercial (oh and also the Super Bowl game). Squeezing in a 30 second ad during the Super Bowl this year set you back $4 million, a fee that jangles like pocket change for a $78.4 billion corporation like Coca-Cola. As much as I hate to do free advertising by drawing more attention to a multi-billion dollar corporation, the reception of their Super Bowl commercial is too fascinating to pass up.

The 60 second commercial featured the classic American hymn “America the Beautiful” sung by seven young American women in seven different languages: English, Spanish, Keres, Tagalog, Hindi, Senegalese French and Hebrew. It’s a clever concoction of sentimentality, patriotism, smiling faces, and well-placed product that says, “You’re American, I’m American, Coca-Cola is proud to be American and also happens to be delicious. I guess we all have being American and drinking Coke in common, so buy Coke.”

After the commercial aired, the Twitterverse exploded in outrage and, subsequently, in outrage at the outrage. Needless to say, Coca-Cola was probably basking in the airtime at this point. Leaping to the aid of the multi-billion dollar corporation, a Tumblr account dedicated to exposing occurrences of “Public Shaming” documented the hundreds of outraged tweets and social media posts in response to Coke’s commercial. The tweets range from confused about what language Americans speak (“Speak American if your in America commercials are dumb”) to exaggerated sarcasm (“it’s called English , your in America … not 3542 different languages”) to just plain angry (“@CocaCola Since when is it okay to sing ‘America the Beautiful’ in any language other than English!! #cocacola #FAIL”). In response, Coke ran an extended cut of the ad during the coverage of the opening ceremonies in Sochi and released a behind-the-scenes video featuring interviews with the actual singers.

Even as an American myself, who grew up singing “America the Beautiful,” I was bewildered when I first heard of this controversy. It just didn’t seem to add up. What is the problem with translating an American hymn into different languages?

The work of social scientist Alfred Schütz is helpful in getting at some of the dynamics at play when people listen to or perform music together in a situation like this one. In his 1951 essay “Making Music Together,” Schütz identifies in music a power to sync people up with one another so that they share a moment together. “The flux of tones unrolling in inner time,” Schütz goes on to explain, “is an arrangement meaningful to both the composer and the beholder, because and in so far as it evokes in the stream of consciousness participating in it an interplay of recollections, retentions, potentions, and anticipations which interrelate the successive elements” (88). In other words, when listeners actively engage with music, they remember melodies (for example) and anticipate their movement in certain ways (such as through dissonance to resolution). As they sing together or listen to the same piece of music, all participants “tune-in” to one another, living the same flux of tones together. 

In the performance of a canonized song like “America the Beautiful,” there seem to be expectations about how it is performed and how it is to be sung together. These expectations are connected to the fact that this song is an expression of some sort of felt communal identity and way of life. So when a song like this is performed, participants can “tune in” to one another, and experience the flux of one another’s inner time and live the same moment, “growing old together while the musical process lasts” (95). Even watching it on TV makes the listener feel connected and tuned in to some kind of communal life. This makes it easier to see what might be at stake for those who feel scandalized by Coke’s interpretation of the classic American hymn. 

First, the performance is a departure from the canonized template, which turns a familiar identity expression into an unfamiliar song. This could make people feel like their own identity has been stolen from them and changed into something unrecognizable. A song that made people feel a part of something has been changed into something they cannot relate to or even sing along with. 

Second, as Alfred Schütz points out, a musical performance can bring people into a true face-to-face, or voice-to-voice, encounter. Or, as American philosopher John Dewey explains in his book Art as Experience, art, and especially music, is a universal mode of communication that has the power to transcend language barriers. Perhaps the music opened a moment of true communication for those who were willing to listen. For those who weren’t, however, it is a telling moment of intolerance and alienation. In this way, the performance of the song (or the playing of the commercial) is not really the target of criticism; it’s the sorts of people that the performance represents. Unfortunately, this amounts to a denial that non-English speakers should be allowed to participate in the American way of life. 

The beauty and power of art is that it provides therapy for this intolerance and alienation. As Dewey suggests art, and music in particular, is a universal language that penetrates deeper than any spoken tongue; it allows people to understand and communicate with each other, perhaps to meet each other face-to-face in real and important ways. Dewey identifies communication as the point at which civilization and civility succeeds or fails: “Civilization is uncivil because human beings are divided into non-communicating sects, races, nations, classes and cliques” (Art as Experience, 350). The cure is to communicate, to tune-in to one another, to “grow old together while the musical process lasts” (Schütz, 95). 

Perhaps what we learned from the response to the Coke commercial is how deeply uncivilized we are, despite our great technology and our impressive cultural accomplishments. Are we are still afraid to meet those different from us face-to-face and voice-to-voice? Maybe recognizing our fear and and meeting one another in music starts us down a road towards learning to grow old together happily with those we do not understand.

Matthew E. Johnson is a junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, focusing his philosophical studies on hermeneutics, aesthetics, discourse, and issues surrounding individual and group identity.

First image public domain, used fromütz.jpg. Second Image by Marek Matulka [(WT-Shared) Megaloman], used from

Friday, March 14, 2014

What's the Use of Philosophy? Richard Rorty on Why We Shouldn't Give Up and Go Home

I recently came across Richard Rorty’s article called “Philosopher as Expert,” published posthumously in the thirtieth-anniversary edition of his landmark work Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Richard Rorty recommends that philosophy end the pursuit of the objective truth about the world and human reality and start down a new path that is less concerned with making truth claims and drawing black-and-white conclusions. This landed him in hot water with philosophers of his day who labeled him a relativist and criticized him for being too slippery in the way he defended his claims. But perhaps he has some important insights to offer on what philosophy is good for and why it is important.

"Philosophy is unanimously agreed to be very difficult and crucially important, yet the experts in it talk only to themselves. But if one sees philosophy as being important because it attends to the formulation of questions, rather than because it answers them, this paradox begins to dissolve (404).

"Imaginative vision is, of course, just what distinguishes the first-rate scholar or scientist from the hack. Methodical care in exploring the possibilities of an idea or a technique is what distinguishes the artist from the dilettante. There is no discipline that does not require both “vision” and “method,” and whose practitioners are not praised for the presence and blamed for the absence of either. Philosophy is no exception. What still needs to be clarified, however, is the particular manner in which these virtues appear in a discipline whose product is dialogue. As to “vision,” of course, this is fairly obvious: what is demanded of a philosopher is that he should be able to see what is presupposed by asking a certain question that other philosophers (or scientists, or people at large) have been in the habit of asking. Having seen this, his contribution to dialogue is to raise a new question about whether this presupposition is justified. It is this “seeing-through” the unexpressed assumptions of a previous philosophy, or of a culture, or of some particular discipline, that sets apart a Kant, a Kierkegaard, a Whitehead, or a Wittgenstein. This is the side of philosophizing that is closest to the arts, the side where there is room for individual creativity and for “greatness.” It is also, oddly enough, the side that is most easily available to the outsider. The works of such men as these have a kind of freshness and power that (even when wrapped in the jargon of a Kant or a Whitehead) will make itself felt in a rapidly expanding series of extraphilosophical concerns" (406).

- Richard Rorty, “The Philosopher as Expert” in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Thirtieth Anniversary Edition (emphases mine).

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

On Being Against “Being Against Metaphysics”: The Case of Peter Hacker

by Joshua Harris

The science of metaphysics has been considered the noblest task of philosophers throughout a majority of the Western tradition. This special science, defined by Aristotle as an inquiry into “being qua being” or “being itself”, undergirds any imaginable account of the world and our place in it. Insofar as we use words like ‘is’ or ‘exists’, we are committing ourselves to some kind of metaphysics. These days, however, not everyone thinks doing metaphysics is a good idea.

Peter Hacker, renowned Oxford philosopher and author of an incredible multivolume commentary on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, recently penned a short article on the task of philosophy as a discipline. What do philosophers do? Or better, what should they be doing? Hacker answers both of these questions with a twofold thesis—one part negative, the other positive.

Hacker’s negative thesis is simple: whatever the task of philosophy is, it’s not metaphysics. He defines the content of metaphysics as “the essential, necessary features of all possible worlds” (an unhelpfully narrow definition, I think), then gives three reasons for thinking that it’s not good philosophy:
1. No progress in metaphysics: “[I]f it were the case, it would need a great deal of explaining to vindicate philosophy. For while physics has produced libraries of well established results (and chemistry and biology yet more libraries), we can look in vain for trustworthy books entitled Established Truths of Metaphysics or A Handbook of Philosophical Facts.
2. Metaphysics an unnecessary “add-on” to physics: “Moreover, there is more than an air of absurdity to the thought that chemists discover that water consists of H2O, and that philosophers then discover that this is not a contingent truth, but a necessary one; or that physicists discover that E=mc2, and meta-physicists then discover that this is true in all possible worlds.”
3. Metaphysics paradox-prone: “Finally, if we look at the kinds of results that meta-physicists do produce, it is evident that they are little more than paradox.”
Hacker then moves onto his positive thesis: philosophical problems are conceptual problems that do not “contribute to human knowledge of the world.” Although he gives many reasons supporting this position, again I cite three:
4. Philosophical problems are a priori: “The characteristic feature of philosophical problems is their non-empirical, a priori character: no scientific experiment can settle the question of whether the mind is the brain, what the meaning of a word is, whether human beings are responsible for their deeds (i.e. have free will), whether trees falling on uninhabited desert islands make any noise, what makes necessary truths necessary.”  
5. Philosopher as sense police: “Philosophy patrols the borders between sense and nonsense; science determines what is empirically true and what is empirically false. What falsehood is for science, nonsense is for philosophy.”

6. Philosophy begets healthy skepticism: “The study of philosophy cultivates a healthy scepticism about the moral opinions, political arguments and economic reasonings with which we are daily bombarded by ideologues, churchmen, politicians and economists.”
There is a lot that could be said about these critiques, but one thing in particular stands out: It’s simply not clear that metaphysics—returning to our definition of the science of “being qua being” or “being itself”—suffers from the faults Hacker ascribes to it. In fact, I submit that if we take a good look at Hacker’s criticisms of metaphysics, what we really get is a criticism of bad metaphysics. Even a cursory reading of a great metaphysician such as Thomas Aquinas reveals with intricate detail the manifold meanings of concepts (especially the great trascendentals such as being, truth and goodness). This is true to such an extent that a great commentator of Aquinas’ works, Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, remarks in his De Nominum Analogia, “[W]ithout an understanding of the doctrine of analogy [a linguistic concept, first and foremost] it is impossible to acquire a knowledge of metaphysics.” It’s no wonder, then, why the best philosophers associated with Hacker’s own “linguistic turn” of twentieth century (analytic and continental) philosophy find themselves coming back again to the great metaphysicians—in both deep agreement and disagreement, of course.

I recognize Hacker’s brilliance as both a leading Wittgenstein scholar and a philosopher in his own right. I also think his critique of contemporary “scientistic” strands of neuroscience is devastating. Yet I can’t help but think that Hacker falls victim to what is an unfortunate trend in contemporary philosophy: namely, the trend of “being against metaphysics.” Nothing could be worse, in my view, than abandoning the pursuit of the great “transcendental” concepts: being, unity, truth, goodness and beauty, among others, as somehow determinative of the world we inhabit. Pace Hacker, I submit that weighty topics like these are what philosophy—and metaphysics—is, really. I also submit that there probably isn’t as much disparity between Hacker’s Wittgensteinian philosophical motivations and the great metaphysicians as the Oxford don thinks. We should be for metaphysics for the same reason we should be for philosophy—to be vulnerable, creative and dedicated enough to do the hard work of telling the truth.

With that, allow me to conclude with some rather metaphysical thoughts from another great Wittgensteinian Peter Geach in an article entitled “Truth and God”:
Christ said that he was born and came into the world to bear witness to the Truth; unless in our small measure we too do that, we are worthless; our life has failed like a seed that never germinates. In comparison with this goal, how paltry it seems to devote oneself to the godling of some modern thinkers: a godling changeable, and ignorant, and liable just as we are to passions like anger and grief and excess of joy! I have not proved that the True is God, but I will worship nothing else: if the True is not God, there is no God.

Joshua Harris holds an MA in Philosophy from Trinity Western University, where he defended a thesis exploring the possibility of understanding Thomas Aquinas as a mediator in contemporary debates arising from the so-called "analytic-continental divide" in the twentieth century. As a PhD candidate in Phlosophy at the Institute for Christian Studies, his research interests include philosophy of language, philosophical theology and Christian social thought.

First image of Plato and Aristotle in Rafaello Sanzio's The School of Athens circa 1509, public domain, used from; second image used from; third image used from; fourth image used from

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

A Multiplying Fruitfulness: Meaning and/or Nihilism in Procreation

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by Andrew Van’t Land

North American Christianity has increasingly taken some heat (though perhaps not enough) for the ways in which it has promoted the family as the normative institutional shape for social life. These polemics come in response to the last several decades’ common refrain of “biblical family living”, a not-so-subtle idealizing of the 20th-century nuclear family unit as the “basic building block of society”. There are countless reasons why I love the institution of the family, and I am grateful for its mediating role between individual and society and between the private and the public domains. Yet recently, I have begun to wonder whether North American family-praising is complicit in the nihilism (erosion of meaning) which surfaces in some overly reductive biological portraits of the ends and means of organic existence.

In emphasizing the family’s importance, many Christians insist obsessively that “children are a gift from God.” The truth of this truism is rendered suspect by the cliché’s blind disregard for circumstances (viz., Richard Mourdock’s horrifying response to pregnant rape victims). North American Christians (NACs) have gained a reputation for loudly trumpeting “family values” and unchecked childbirth overtop the melodies of other types of relationships and commitments. Irksomely, the children-as-gift motif is often trotted out to shut down the gift status of other good things, such as other relationships and projects which childlessness might allow people to pursue more deeply.

A multiplicity of mindsets seem to have given rise to the phenomenon of North American family idolatry: Calvinist covenant theology, Catholic natural law theology, Evangelical biblical literalism, and others. These attitudes differ in their fundamental commitments, but they share a basic sense that the purpose of life is to generate life. I think that this is a profound—and profoundly correct—position; however, I also worry that overly narrow interpretations of this claim devolve quickly into nihilism. I suggest that we creatures re-gift life to each other in many other ways besides merely procreating: not only do humans negatively offer each other life by striving not to kill each other, but we positively offer each other life by caring for one another (viz. getting first aid training, throwing parties to celebrate an individual, giving each other gifts). To be sure, some of this positive life-giving involves sustaining life at the purely biological level (e.g., building a healthcare infrastructure to keep peoples’ bodies functioning properly). However, much of life-giving transcends the biological in order to care for others’ emotional well-being (e.g., tactfully approaching others in times of grieving) or for others’ aesthetic appreciation (e.g., sharing in artistic experiences). NACs often pay lip service to this multitude of life-giving practices, but we often undercut the variety of vectors in which creation flourishes by subordinating them to the foremost activity of creating children.

Take, for instance, the evangelical Quiverfull movement, the quintessential NAC organization dedicated to the expansion of the family. Quiverfull lists on its website “Ten Great Reasons to Have Another Child.” Some of these reasons (e.g., 2. “to bring joy into your life”, 6. “so you... won’t be lonely in your old age”) succumb easily to accusations that procreation is simply narcissism or vicarious living, whereby parents create clones of themselves out of self-love and/or fear of their own deaths. Other reasons (e.g., 7. “because people are our greatest resource,” 8. “to contribute to the economy”) might be criticized as functionalist, thereby ideologically legitimating and perpetuating the social status quo. However, not all of these reasons given can be considered either selfish or utilitarian (e.g., 1. “to join with God in the creation of an immortal soul,” 10. “to help populate heaven”). These last reasons seem to exhibit the very grace and gratuity which is God’s signature: the act of creation is good per se—it gives life abundantly. However, this is undercut by the article’s claim that “children are God’s greatest gifts.” This mis-translates the organization’s namesake scriptural passage, which claims that “children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from Him” (Psalm 137:3-5 NIV). Notice the difference between Quiverfull’s superlative emphasis (“greatest gift”) and the Psalmist’s emphasis on children being one gift among many (“a heritage”, “a reward”).

Elevating one gift above all others in this manner ultimately results in the devaluation of all gifts (including child-bearing). If the purposive end of all a given organism’s actions (means) is merely the procreation of new organisms, then it seems that life is meaningless. The purpose of existence in such an account reduces creatures—human beings, no less—to a series of dominos, each tipping the next over. What is lacking in this imaginary is a sense of entelechy, the state of a being which is fully actualizing its nature here and now, fulfilling and enjoying the work which it is created to enact. In this reductionistic account (which I think underpins both evangelical family-idolatry and evolutionary biologism), there is no sense in which a being’s telos (end, goal) can co-exist with its means: beings exist only to create more beings, which exist only to create more beings, and so on. Devoid of any immanent purpose, this dynamic is merely a viral proliferation, a cancerous generation, existing only to replicate itself. How many horror or sci-fi movies share this premise? And yet the church and the academy often adopt this nihilistic spiral of endlessly deferred significance as their default anthropology.

*           *           *

Permit me to shift from ecclesiastical matters to scientific ones for a moment. A prominent variety of biological reductionism hinges on this same assumption, that life exists only to propagate life. According to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, “We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” (The Selfish Gene, xxi). Procreation is an unquestionably crucial feature to creaturely existence: part of the way in which we receive the gift of life is by re-gifting life to others. Yet biological reductionism assumes that this gifting ultimately occurs only via sexual procreation: organisms exist merely to reproduce likenesses of themselves. The theoretical issue which troubles me is neither the evolutionary process by which new forms of life emerge, nor the significance of sexual activity in the life of an organism or community—these truths offer important descriptions of the variegated richness of life in creation. Instead, I am concerned with the word “merely” which tends to arise in overly reductive accounts of biology, evincing a “nothing-buttery” whereby any given effect is “nothing but” the sum of its material and efficient causes.

The problem with biological reductionism is that it assumes that the non-biological factors are simply superfluous epiphenomena, the mere products of biological interactions lacking any existence independent from the basic factors of organic matter in motion. Although I agree that the biological mode is a foundational dimension (a necessary base for all other modes of being), there is no reason to assume that it is fundamental (“more real” than all other modes of being). Instead, we can take the bull by both horns and assert that we are meant—teleologically purposed—to engage in the reality of many different functions simultaneously. To fail to include the rich panoply of other functions in life as purposive elements of life itself—that is, to be biologically reductive—puts the cart before the horse. One does not eat (devour other life-material) merely to perpetuate one’s own life, nor does one have sex merely to perpetuate one’s own genetic material. To refute these claims easily, simply reverse the propositions: one perpetuates one’s life in order that one can continue to experience gustatory pleasure. One procreates (perpetuates one’s own genetic material) in order to reach new complex levels of intimacy and pleasure with one’s spouse (which relationship grows as new relationships emerge with one’s children, who are themselves meant for eventual sexual relationships and a great deal many more good things to boot). To assign sex and food the status of means while assigning life itself (whether one’s own or that of one’s offspring) the status of end is to miss half of the causal spiral at work in creation.

This insufficient means-ends rendering empties life of its very vitality, leaving in its place the bare fact of existence (that something exists) without any hope of essence (exactly what it is that exists and why). Again, I’m not rejecting the importance of the purely biological—I’m simply saying that such biological “purity” is an impossible concept, because the form of life is always-already bound up with life’s varying content (meals, lovemaking, etc.). No life-action is more fundamental than any other; rather, all human functions can and should partake in “the chief end of (hu)man(ity)” as described by the Westminster Catechism: “to glorify God and to serve him forever.”

My purpose in addressing this issue is not to condemn or to straw-man the aforementioned scientistic attitude. Instead, it is to call us in the Christian church/es to task for creating the conditions for the mass popular acceptance of this bio-reductionistic nihilism. It seems plausible that Christianity’s idolizing of childbearing as the single summum bonum of human life (reducing all life functions to the process of procreation) has created the conditions for overly-reductive biologists to make the next logical step: eliminating any transcendent meaning for even this utmost of functions. Yet we need not interpret the circle of life as a vicious cycle which vacuates into nothingness. Instead, by emphasizing the plurality of good gifts found among God’s multi-faceted creation, we can interpret the life cycle as an ever-growing spiral of (pro)creation emanating from, and returning to, God’s infinite plenitude. I suggest that God’s call to “Be fruitful and multiply” is not necessarily two ways of saying the same thing (Genesis 1:38). Rather, it might be better understood as a single way of saying two things, quantitatively and qualitatively: make more life, and make life better. I propose that we all—familial reductionists and biological reductionists included—meditate on God’s twofold invitation.

Andrew Van't Land holds an MA in Social and Political Philosophy from the Institute for Christian Studies. His research focuses on the twin traditions of ancient philosophy and classical rhetoric, and their re-appropriation by postmodern philosophy and theology. Living in the Chicago area, he serves as the Support Community Liaison for the Friends of ICS and teaches philosophy and political science at Trinity Christian College.

First image by Ezra Katz, used from Second image used from Third image by Zephyris at English language Wikipedia, used from,_B-DNA_and_Z-DNA.png.