Is It Time To Redefine Evil? Take 2

The Death of SatanIn my most recent News and Views article (November 2014), I critiqued a portion of Andrew Delbanco’s argument in  his book, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil. Delbanco argues that once a view of evil has been superseded by history, it is wrong to try to return to it. For example, uncontrolled female sexuality cannot be called evil after technology broke the cause-and-effect relationship between sex and pregnancy. It was the consequences to the individual and society that made uncontrolled sex wrong. I argued that Delbanco’s argument was not correct. While his argument is coherent and largely accepted by our modern culture, it is based upon the assumption that a consequentialist theory of morals and ethics is a right and true theory. I argued that a consequentialist theory of morals and ethics is not the true theory of morals and ethics; rather, a “duty” theory of morals and ethics is the true theory because it is the one assumed in the Scriptures. Uncontrolled sexuality is not wrong because of its consequences; it is wrong because it disobeys the commandments of God that a person is duty-bound to obey. Consequences are not the basis for deciding whether an action is right or wrong. In this post, I will examine a second way that Delbanco’s argument could be understood. Here is the relevant text:

…Everyone wants to live in a world in which evil can still be recognized, have meaning, and require a response.

When this desire takes the form of an effort to get back the sense of evil in ways that have been superseded by history, it can’t succeed. Sin and sexuality, for instance, will never be reconnected as they once were, because the original linkage doubtless arose as a means of establishing social stability at a time when sex could not be separated from pregnancy. Morals do not have genealogies, and like an infertile family, a particular moral idea can reach a point where the linage comes to an end. For most of human history, uncontrolled female sexuality was deemed sinful because it had a calculable social cost. It was incompatible with the patrilinear family and, later, with the whole social organization of bourgeois society. It was taboo, or sin, whose rationality needed no defense. But when the technology of modern contraception broke this chain of cause and effect between sex, pregnancy, and morality, it broke it permanently. To try to get back this shattered ideal of chastity as virtue, as some well-meaning people are trying to do, is to tinker with the fragments that cannot be reassembled into their old integrity. Our understanding of evil needs to be renewed, not restored. (The Death of Satan: How American’s Have Lost the Sense of Evil. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, New York 1995, p.16.)

In the second way of understanding Delbanco’s argument, a consequentialist theory of morals and ethics is assumed to be true, but it is not the individual that believes it; rather, it is the culture that believes it. In other words, the specific argument is this: if the culture assumes a modern consequentialist theory, then an individual or a group cannot succeed in redefining a concept like evil as it was defined using a different theory of ethics at a different point in history. For instance, Delbanco claims that it is wrong for an individual or a group to try to impose the early Puritan definition of evil in modern America. To define uncontrolled female sexuality as evil using the Puritan concept of sin and evil will never be accepted by modern culture because it has accepted a consequentialist theory of ethics and technology has removed the consequence—the risk of pregnancy. So rather than try to restore the Puritan concept of sin and evil, a more successful strategy would be to start the dialogue from where we are now and try to develop a new theory of evil.

I agree that it is highly unlikely that America would ever return to a Puritan perspective on sin and evil as long as the majority of the culture accepts the modern concept of sin and evil, and a strategy to restore it is unlikely to succeed. There would be too much resistance to defining those concepts in our modern language. Furthermore, even if a duty-based theory of morals and ethics is true, if the culture at large accepts a consequentialist theory, it is unwise to try to impose the true theory by trying to change the language. Starting where we are now, however, and initiating a dialog to redefine evil and sin does seem like a reasonable strategy. If this is the substance of Delbanco’s argument, then I agree with him—with two caveats.

First caveat: I am not saying that Christians have no obligation to communicate the Gospel and its understanding of sin and evil to individuals in the culture. All Christians have that obligation, but that obligation is to the individual, not to the culture at large. It is not the case that all Christians ought to be working to impose a Christian understanding of sin and evil on the vocabulary of modern American culture. I believe that the trajectory of American language and concepts is in God’s hands, not ours.

Second caveat: I am not saying that God may not give some people the job of influencing the culture at large. He may grant some individuals—writers, for example—a unique platform to directly influence the concepts and meanings of words in the culture. God may call them to use this platform to communicate biblical concepts, such as sin and evil, to the culture in words not commonly understood. In most cases, however, their task is not to impose their concepts and word meanings on the culture but to bring these concepts and meanings to cultural consciousness. I would not absolutely rule out the possibility that God might call such a “prophet” to confront the culture with a biblical concept of sin and evil; however, I do not see this scenario as one that God has commonly used in America recently.

In summary, Delbanco’s line of reasoning can be understood two ways. I analyzed the first in my News and Views article. With the exception of my two caveats, I largely agree with the second way of understanding his argument, namely that in a culture which accepts a consequentialist theory of morals and ethics, it would be unwise for a minority to think that they could impose concepts of “sin” and “evil” on the culture at large by trying to define those words within their own language and not the culture’s.


How a Volcano Changed History

I just finished reading an enlightening book: The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History by William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman. What made this book particularly interesting is that one author is a Ph.D. in American history and the other a Ph.D. in meteorology. They wove a compelling story of the chronology of a volcanic event, describing both its physical effects and its effects on the politics, the economy, the arts, and the social structure in North America and Europe.

In April 1815, the most explosive volcanic eruption in recorded history occurred in Tamora, Indonesia. This event was ten times larger than Krakatoa and a hundred times larger than Mount St. Helens. Weather patterns were disrupted worldwide.

In North America, the explosion led to excessive rain in some areas and severe drought in others. In the northeastern United States, it led to snow, some of it brightly colored (reds, blues, yellows), throughout the summer months. Crops were almost a total loss. In New England, grain harvest was five percent of normal. “In the United States, the extraordinary weather produced food shortages, religious revivals, and extensive migration of people from New England to the Midwest” (overleaf).

“In Europe it led to famine, food riots, the transformation of stable communities into bands of wandering beggars, and one of the worst typhus epidemics in history….It was also responsible for the creation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and J.M.W. Turner’s fiery sunset paintings” (overleaf).

In 1815, air masses moved faster than communication. Communication was so slow that little weather prediction and no recording were done. Weather records were kept primarily by gentlemen scientists. As a result, obtaining the facts in this book was an arduous task.

Also in 1815, no one connected the strange weather patterns to a volcanic eruption. Not until the early twentieth century did an America meteorologist, William Humphreys, publish a paper linking volcanic eruptions with abnormal weather patterns. As is often the case, many scientists were skeptical of his findings. Without large volcanic eruptions, climate scientists used industrial pollution and, in the 1950s, nuclear bomb testing to model the possible effects of volcanic eruptions. The models were largely confirmed in 1980 with the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

The effects of natural events are not often tracked as extensively as The Year Without Summer has done. Since no one at the time saw the connections, the authors had to spend an extraordinary amount of time searching diaries and journals in North America and Europe. This book is an interesting read.

“The Rocks Don’t Lie”: A Review

I recently finished reading a colleague’s book, The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood (W. W. Norton & Company, 2012). As Dave (David R. Montgomery) tells it, he started out to write a straightforward refutation of “Creationism” (i.e., “Young Earth Creationism” with the topography of the modern world shaped by Noah’s Flood). Through the reading of old books, he learned how stories of ancient floods shaped both scientific and religious views through history, coming away with “an appreciation for the rich and engaging interplay between biblical interpretation and the development of geology” (p. xiv). He also came to a different conclusion about the nature of faith (p. xii).



This book should be on the reading list of everyone interested in the interaction of science and religion, especially in the context of geology. You will find it well written by a world-class geologist and MacArthur Fellow. While I highly recommend the book, I disagree with Montgomery on a number of fundamental points.

I share the love of reading landscapes with David Montgomery. Without question, my best university class was a field physical geography class that I took from Harold “Duke” Winters at Michigan State University. We spent a quarter in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin looking at the deglaciation history of the upper Midwest. Winters would drop us at a site for the day, and we had to figure out what was significant about the site and how it helped us put together the story of the deglaciation history. We were graded on our observations, clarity of field notes, and how well we reconstructed the deglaciation history of the upper Midwest. This skill of reading landscapes has helped me understand what salmon habitat looked like prior to the arrival of Europeans, which is an essential step for me in understanding how to recover salmon populations. While I share Dave’s enthusiasm for reading landscapes, I must admit I am nowhere near as skilled as he is. To spend a day in the field with Dave Montgomery is an experience. To watch him discover clues and build a story is to observe a virtuoso.

Because I believe that the skills of observing the clues and building a story are the heart of good science, I also believe that good science is high art conducted by virtuosos. But that is not what we are told today. We are told that science is a method of testing hypotheses; that it is objective, and any practitioner will get the same results by following the method. We are told that by following this objective method, we get more certain results than we can through other endeavors, like the arts. In his book, Dave Montgomery seems to hold a view of science closer to science as a method rather than science as an art form. I hold the later view.

Similarly, I believe that interpreting the Bible—biblical exegesis—is high art. For over thirty years, I have had the pleasure of apprenticing biblical exegesis with a number of virtuosos in our community. Just as I am not a landscape-reading virtuoso, so I am not an exegesis virtuoso, but I enjoy the opportunity to watch them in action, and I appreciate their skill.

Through the last thirty years, I have come to see that doing science and doing biblical exegesis are similar processes; the subject matter is the primary difference. In doing science, we start with everything that we believe to be true (our pre-understanding). As we acquire new information, we incorporate it with our pre-understanding and refine our existing theories. There is fundamentally nothing different here from how we navigate our everyday lives. The difference is that virtuosos hone their skills into high art. However, sometimes new information comes along that cannot be made coherent with our existing theories and pre-understanding; it resists our attempts to incorporate it into our theories and pre-understanding. At this point, I would argue that integrity and pursuit of truth do not necessarily demand that we abandon our theories and pre-understanding that have served us well. (I disagree with philosopher of science Karl Popper on this point.) We would be wrong to jettison everything that we have built just because a piece of information is contrary to what we expect.

The best example of this I know comes from the experience of physicist D. C. Miller as reported by Michael Polanyi in his book, Personal Knowledge (p. 12-13). Over a period of twenty-four years, D. C. Miller and collaborators repeated the Michelson-Morley speed-of-light experiments many thousands of times with increasingly more sophisticated equipment. Miller presented his results in his presidential address to the American Physical Society in 1925. Never once did he get the results predicted by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Polanyi argues that the scientists were right to set the experiments aside, at least for a period of time, because there were many good reasons for retaining the theory; there must have been a source of error in the measurements. However, there does come a point where the information that will not fit the existing theory becomes the focus of the search for a new theory. The new theory then becomes part of our pre-understanding. The history of geology presented by David Montgomery represents just such an endeavor by geologists.

Just as when doing science, when doing biblical exegesis the individual starts with his pre-understanding. The exegete will interpret the text according to his pre-understanding as long as he is “tracking” with the text—that is, as long as the words and meaning flow coherently. A problem occurs when a word resists being understood in the flow and appears incoherent. At that point, the exegete will stop and try to understand the word within his existing pre-understanding and the flow of the ideas. If a sentence cannot be understood, then, like the Michelson-Morley example above, the exegete does not have to abandon his pre-understanding or theory of the flow of ideas; he can, with integrity, hold the section as a problem to be solved later. But just like the science example, sometimes the word or phrase requires a search for a whole new line of understanding. If the exegete accepts a new understanding, it not only affects the flow of the argument but also is incorporated into the exegete’s pre-understanding. (The Language of God: A Commonsense Approach to Understanding and Applying the Bible, a book by three of my Gutenberg colleagues, provides a good understanding of the role of pre-understanding in biblical exegesis.)

My disagreements with Dave Montgomery derive from our differing views on philosophy of science, biblical exegesis, and the nature of faith. As I read his book, Dave is more on the side of science being an objective method than I am. Also, he sees more differences between doing science and doing biblical exegesis than I do. He rejects the idea that science and exegesis are both high-art forms. For instance, he believes that the development of “scientific” or literary criticism with regards to biblical exegesis is a positive step, while I view it as a giant step backwards. I do not believe that skills can ever be reduced to methodologies in science or in exegesis.

I agree with Dave Montgomery that doing biblical exegesis is more difficult than doing geology. More of the questions in geology are probably answerable, although some obviously are not answerable at this point. I also agree that geologists had an easier time agreeing on the methods than have interpreters of the Bible. However, what is at stake in the study of geology and the study of the Bible is profoundly different. Little is at stake if my geological theory is wrong. At stake with regard to studying the Bible and understanding the biblical worldview are the most fundamentally important questions in a person’s life: life and death issues.

This brings me to another substantive disagreement that I have with Montgomery’s book. When I became a Christian in my thirties, I was confronted with the issues of how to interpret the Bible and what kind of authority it ought to play in my life. To help me answer those basic questions, I joined the Gutenberg community and was a student in the Biblical Exegesis Program. I became convinced that the method of how to interpret the Bible is similar to how we understand any form of communication. We are trying to ascertain what the author is trying to communicate. In order to do that, we need to try to recover as much of an author’s pre-understanding as possible. The more we share with or understand about an author, the greater likelihood that communication can succeed. Again, I see this endeavor as high art, whereas Dave does not.

As far as the authority of the Bible is concerned, it seems to me that to claim to be a Christian is to claim to accept the teachings of Jesus Christ. First and foremost, a Christian ought to acknowledge that Jesus is who He says He is. Second, when it comes to the authority of the Bible, a Christian should examine what kind of authority Jesus gives to the Bible. It seems to me that He grants the Bible absolute authority, accepting it as the word of God—that is, if a belief He holds does not agree with the biblical perspective, He will change his view. He accepts the Bible as the word of God. (This of course assumes that He has arrived at the right interpretation).

Lastly, Dave Montgomery argues for two different ways of viewing faith (p.248). One way of viewing faith is a trust in a method (like the scientific method); while the second way of viewing faith is trust in a particular idea, view, or conclusion (like scientific theories or religious ideas). In his view, faith and reason offer different lenses through which people seek to understand the world and our place in it (p. 256). I do not agree that these are two legitimate ways of viewing faith. In a recent Gutenberg College “News and Views” article (October 2013), philosopher Jack Crabtree made an important distinction between intellectual and religious commitment:

An intellectual commitment to a belief (or value) is a personal commitment that one makes to embrace that belief so long (and to the extent that) one is rationally and intellectually justified in doing so. A religious commitment is a personal commitment that one makes to hold and embrace that particular belief no matter what.

Jack then proceeded to argue that a believer in the teaching of Jesus Christ ought never to make a “religious commitment” to his belief. It seems to me that the second way of faith articulated by Dave Montgomery entails such a religious commitment. I do not agree that a definition of faith grounded in a religious commitment is ever justified in religion or in any other field of knowledge.

In summary, I highly recommend Dave’s book. However, that is not to say that I agree with everything in it.


Study Science at a Great Books College?

When I tell people that I am a tutor at Gutenberg College and explain that it is a four-year Great Books college, invariably they ask about job prospects for its graduates. Many people assume that a liberal arts education is outmoded; it is not considered suited to the modern job market. I do not agree. Below are three reasons why.

  1. A Gutenberg education is the best choice for an undergraduate education for some students in science. As an ecologist, I would argue that it is among the best choices for a scientist.
  2. A Gutenberg education is an excellent choice if a student wants to be a good citizen.
  3. A Gutenberg education focuses on the important questions of life.

A competent scientist must make important decisions about the nature of science and its methods. Without this background, the individual is a mere technician. Gutenberg students are trained to make such decisions because, throughout their four years, they participate in science seminars in which they read large selections from the major scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Darwin, and Leopold to understand not only their theories but also to see what they thought science was and how it is done.


Science at Gutenberg College

Examining major questions like “What is a meaningful life?” or “How important is a particular career choice to my life?” are more important than job training. The core of the Gutenberg project seeks to examine these questions.

And, focusing on job training does not adequately prepare a citizen to help continue the American experiment. The founding fathers saw clearly that a republic not grounded in virtue would not long endure. Gutenberg students have seen the role of virtue in the rise and fall of ancient Greece and Rome. They are well aware of the role of virtue and morality in culture and, most importantly, in their own lives as well.

[This edited excerpt is from “Why Should Anyone Interested in Science Come to Gutenberg College?” by Charley Dewberry. To read the original article, click here. More about Gutenberg College here. Or check us out on Facebook.]


Man’s Relationship to Nature

As a working scientist, I meet people who view all Christians as ultra right-wing conservatives. They believe that Christians view the environment through the lens of economic expediency; that Christians, like other conservatives, are working to gut existing environmental regulations on public and private land so that supply-and-demand market forces can work. Viewed this way, Christians have no morals with regard to man’s relationship to nature; Christians have no environmental ethic.

Conversely, when I am introduced to Christians as a person who works in salmon restoration, I am sometimes asked how I can be both a Christian and an environmentalist. To these Christians, anyone who does the kind of work I do must be an environmentalist, and an environmentalist means someone who worships the environment and cares more for nature than for people.

I propose a third environmental ethic—a biblical perspective on our relationship to nature distinct from the two perspectives mentioned above. The chart below will help illustrate the differences between the three.

 Question Free-market Environmentalist Biblical
Ultimate good for mankind? Material prosperity Moral/ethical man protects biosphere “Life”
Purpose of nature? Man’s material needs Spiritual and/or material Man’s material needs & context for working out faith in creation
Immediate good? Profit Protect integrity of ecosystems Faith & material needs
Mechanism for management? Supply & demand Government regulations in lieu of individual moral decisions Moral
Model of dominion? Absolute ruler No dominion Steward
Man’s responsibility? Maximize economic efficiency Protect biosphere Meet material needs & make moral decisions
Does nature have intrinsic worth? No Yes Yes
Is it necessary to protect all species? No Yes No


The biblical perspective of man’s relationship to nature is significantly different from either the free-market or the environmentalist perspective. The free-market perspective is an economic model devoid of moral dimension. The environmentalist perspective is an ethical model; it incorporates a moral dimension that rightly recognizes that man is morally culpable for his actions with regard to nature. However, the highest moral good and the ultimate goal of life are not those the Bible teaches. From the environmentalist perspective, the highest good is protecting and restoring the biosphere, and the ultimate goal is to protect all species by increasing the number of individuals committed to the goal.

The biblical perspective is a model uniquely different from the other two. It recognizes that a purpose of nature is to provide for man’s material needs, and yet it incorporates a moral dimension as well. The biblical view provides a means for balancing the material needs of man with man’s moral obligations to the rest of creation, and it provides adequate grounds for the established moral standards. Therefore, the biblical model is superior to either of the other two models.

Surprisingly, however, in the current national debate over environmental issues, no dominant voice propounds the biblical perspective. As a result, environmentalists lump Christians with those who hold a free-market perspective even though the biblical perspective differs significantly. And those who hold the free-market perspective believe that any Christian who speaks about moral obligations with regard to nature must hold the environmentalist perspective. In each case, the held assumption is in error and needs to be corrected. Unfortunately, no strong Christian voice is correcting them or proclaiming the biblical model of man’s relationship to nature, which is unique and superior to the dominant free-market and environmentalist models.

[This edited excerpt is from: “Is There a Christian Environmental Ethic?” by Dr. Charley Dewberry. To read the original article, click here. More about Gutenberg College here. Or check us out on Facebook.]


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