The Briefing 08-31-17

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The new functionalist understanding of religion and how it contrasts with biblical Christianity

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Finding refuge in the muddled middle: What can we learn from responses to the Nashville Statement?

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Knowledge vs. Faith: Is there a new chasm in American intellectual and religious life?

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Should children be told that they can be anything they want to be?

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Transcript

The Briefing

August 31, 2017

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Thursday, August 31, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Today we’re going to see the new functionalist understanding of religion and see that contrast with biblical Christianity. We’re going to understand what we can learn from responses to the Nashville statement. We’re going to look at a claim that there is a new chasm between faith and knowledge, and we’re going to ask if children really should be told that they can be anything they want to be.

The new functionalist understanding of religion and how it contrasts with biblical Christianity

Seeking to be faithful Christians have to be faithful listeners, very careful listeners, listeners to the conversation of the world taking place around us. Now of course it starts with the myriad of private conversations we have but also extends to the public conversation that is going on constantly in our culture at any given time. The cultural conversation is focused on many different issues in many different events, some of them seem to be quite recurring, others of them pop-ups virtually as a surprise. But in every case if we listen carefully, there are huge issues to be addressed, and sometimes these are found in comments that don’t make their way into the headline, comments that might not appear at first glance to be all that important but upon reflection turn out to be incredibly revealing.

Yesterday on The Briefing, I gave attention to the release on Tuesday of what’s known as the Nashville Statement. It’s a manifesto released by evangelical leaders on the Bible’s clear teachings concerning sex, marriage, and gender identity, speaking specifically and vocally to the transgender revolution that is going on around us. As you might expect, the response in the media and in the public conversation has been very interesting. One of the articles that appeared in the context of a response to the Nashville Statement was an article in the Chicago Tribune by Rex Huppke. He wrote his own manifesto in response and in rejection of the Nashville Statement. Remember that the purpose of the Nashville Statement was to make clear what the Bible says. Because as the introduction to the statement makes clear, what the Bible says is what God says, and whatever God says is true and not only true but for our good. But what you see in this comment in the Chicago Tribune is an answer to an alternative to the Nashville Statement. In this case Mr. Huppke wrote and I quote,

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“I believe God gave humans the ability to learn and grow and expand their understanding of each other and the world. The Nashville Statement,” he writes, “says that being gay or lesbian or transgender is an offense to God. I believe it’s an offense to God to not acknowledge that all humans are different, to ignore the fact that telling LBGT people that they’re sinners, that their identity is wrong, that they’re somehow imperfect, is wildly and dangerously damaging, not to mention a sin in and of itself.”

Now let’s just understand what’s at stake here. Mr. Huppke is no doubt writing out of his own worldview and his own conviction. And out of that worldview, he sees the Nashville statement as horrifyingly out of step with what human beings now know or now are supposed to know or think they know about sex, what it means to be human, sexuality, marriage, and the entire issue of gender. And you’ll notice he puts it in moral terms. That’s a very honest response to the Nashville Statement, which is a moral statement. In corresponding moral language, Mr. Huppke says the Nashville Statement is wrong. It’s immoral. It does harm. And instead he proposes his own statement, which means unconditional acceptance of all persons and their sexual orientation and their sexual behaviors and their understanding of marriage and of gender identity and on and on.

Now what’s the big point here? The point is this – what you really have here is not just a disagreement over sexuality, gender, or marriage. You do not merely have here a clash of worldviews over sex. Instead what you have here is an absolute clash of worldviews over the very issue of truth, and most importantly what we simply have to ask is the function of faith and religion. Now I use those terms just as I did in order to make this point. What is reflected in this article is what is known as an instrumental or functional understanding of religion. That means that religion is a human artifact. We shape it according to what the prevailing morality demands. The issue of truth is really not even on the table at least truth as revealed truth because this modern functionalist understanding of religion sees it merely as a sociological phenomenon that must add meaning in some kind of communal significance to life. But this runs right into conflict with the Bible’s definition of what it means to know God, to hear God, and to obey God. It runs right into a collision with biblical Christianity, which as its most fundamental premise acknowledges the existence of God as the source of all truth and looks to God’s word, the Holy Scriptures, as how God speaks to us.

Thus, you have two completely different worldviews that are reflected here. So far as the media is concerned, this is an argument over sex and gender and marriage. It is that of course. It’s just a whole lot more than that. It’s actually a clash of absolutely irreconcilable understandings of what it means even to speak of God, and to speak of God’s will, to speak of the good, the beautiful, and the true. According to this functionalist understanding of religion, religion as a social artifact just has to be reshaped in order to meet the demands of the current moment, and that’s exactly what it must do. The fundamental revelation here is simply whatever reality human beings at any given time declare to be real. But what you see in biblical Christianity is exactly the opposite. You have the fact that God has spoken, that God is the author and creator of the entire world, that he has the right to tell us who we are, and furthermore as biblical Christianity affirms God has spoken in his word precisely so that we can know not only who he is but who we are. So what appears to be merely a debate, a controversy over sexuality marriage turns out to be a great deal more than that and a great deal more important than that.

Finding refuge in the muddled middle: What can we learn from responses to the Nashville Statement?

So when you see something like the Nashville Statement released, you’ll see at least four different patterns of response, and we need to pay attention to what those four patterns of response are. On the one hand you have those who read it understand it immediately to have the ring of biblical truth. They understand that it’s not only true but that it needed to be said. And they will emphatically support it. Secondly, you will have those who are a bit more reticent. They’re going to say I know that’s what the Bible says. But do you really have to say that out loud? The third response is people who say I don’t think that’s right. I’m not sure why I don’t think it’s right, but I’m not comfortable saying that, and I wish you hadn’t said it. And the fourth response is we operate from an entirely different worldview. You’re absolutely wrong evangelicals when you set out the national statement, and we’re going to correct you, and we’re going to repudiate you.

Now you see there are at least those four different patterns of response. Those middle positions are ones that we see over and over again. And that muddled middle in which so many people find refuge, people who say yes I know what you said is true but I wish you hadn’t said it, and those who say I don’t think what you said is true but I really have no idea why I think that. That’s where the muddled middle of so much humanity is always found. But when you look at those who say yes this is true, they not only believe it to be true. Those who released the Nashville Statement believe it to be true, and thus because God has made it true for our good, we cannot possibly know who we are unless we understand what the creator has said about us who he has said that we are. And on the other hand you have those who reject it outright. And you should expect that they will be very vocal in days ahead, but that can be helpful in and of itself as they also in their own way make the issues abundantly clear.

Knowledge vs. Faith: Is there a new chasm in American intellectual and religious life?

Next considering the kind of conversation we need to pay attention to, the kind of comment we need to think about, one of those appears in a recent article that appeared just this week in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It’s an article by Tracie Mauriello for the Post-Gazette Washington Bureau, and she’s writing about the impending opening of the Museum of the Bible in Washington D.C. This is a really interesting story. Of course it is about the Museum of the Bible that will be opening in a matter of weeks in Washington D.C. It’s going to be a massive museum to the Scripture. It’s going to tell the scriptural story. It is likely to get a great deal of attention deservedly so. But what’s really, really interesting is the initial response before the museum has even opened.

Tracie Mauriello, the reporter behind this article, does what reporters do. She goes to sources on various sides or at least both sides of what’s perceived to be a contentious cultural conversation. She goes to those who represent the Green family and the Museum of the Bible in order to talk about why they have undertaken this massive project. And of course why they have established a museum to the Bible. And then she goes to someone who will be a critic. In this case, that is Jeffrey Robbins identified as department chairman, a professor of religion and philosophy at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. But in this case, she might have gotten a good deal more than she bargained for. Professor Robbins says,

“they,” speaking of those who are behind the Museum of the Bible, “They seem to be excluding a great deal of diversity that makes early history much more interesting than the mythologized version of history.”

He went on to speak of museum saying,

“It traffics in myth rather than history, and perpetrates the chasm that has opened up in American intellectual and religious life between faith and knowledge.”

Now I’ll just state boldly that there are smarter and less smart ways of discussing this. This is one of the less smart ways. The distinction here is not between even what you see amongst many more liberal figures between say faith in history or faith in fact. Those are also invalid contrast, but nonetheless they’re ones with which we are somewhat familiar. In this case, Professor Robbins goes further to speak of this chasm that,

“has opened up in American intellectual and religious life between faith and knowledge.”

That’s incredibly telling. Here you have a professor of religion and philosophy at a college in Pennsylvania who speaks of what he calls the chasm that,

“has opened up in American intellectual and religious life between faith and knowledge.”

So faith and knowledge are now absolutely incompatible? Faith and knowledge now represent two sides of the chasm that has opened in American intellectual life? Now perhaps you’re expecting me to say that Professor Robbins is completely off-base here, but I’m not going to say that. I’m going to say that working out of his worldview it makes perfect sense. It’s just remarkably honest. Because according to the modern secular worldview, faith itself has no content whatsoever. It’s not actually a knowledge. Revelation is simply eradicated as a possibility, and so religion just becomes a human artifact. And in this case faith is used as an alternative to knowledge.

Of course that’s not only the rejection of Western civilization and the understanding of faith and knowledge through centuries. It is at least to his credit an acknowledgment of something that is more recent. This chasm he says that has opened up in American intellectual and religious life between faith and knowledge. This is a new development. But here you see the great myth of the modern university, the great myth of the modern secular worldview. That now we know what those before us did not know that faith and knowledge are not only not compatible they are on opposite ends of a chasm that has opened up in intellectual life. But here you see exactly the contrast between the Christian worldview that is based in the existence of God and in divine Revelation and in the authority of Scripture over against a modern worldview that sees those beliefs as not only out of date but incompatible with the modern world.

Professor Robbins went on to be even more critical of the Museum of the Bible. According to the reporter, he highlighted the dangerous intersection of public policy and muddied interest that can,

“trump the sometimes unsettling truths that come from the rigors of science and academic inquiry.”

Well, once again you see a nearly undiluted statement of the most secular dimension of the modern secular worldview. Intellectual honesty compels any thinking person to acknowledge that there are certain authorities in our hierarchy of thinking that are far more important than other authorities. So let’s just go back to his chasm that’s opened up between faith and knowledge, and let’s point out that on the side of faith the most basic knowledge actually comes by divine Revelation. Again, that’s completely out of step with the modern age. But that’s made clear when he speaks of science and academic inquiry as the ultimate intellectual authorities in his worldview that trump everything else.

So let’s just be honest. According to the biblical Christian worldview, revelation trumps any other form of knowledge, and according to the modern secular worldview, just about any other form of knowledge trumps revelation. So here you have a reporter for the Pittsburgh newspaper’s Washington Bureau who writes a story about the Museum of the Bible. But upon closer look, it’s really about a great deal more. It’s not only about a museum. It’s not only about the Bible. It’s about truth and the authority of knowledge. In this case we should be thankful to this professor for his candor in making this clash of worldviews so very visible.

Should children be told that they can be anything they want to be?

Finally in the Guardian, a major British newspaper, ran a story in recent days with the headline,

“Disneyland apologises for banning boy from Princess experience”

Now this actually is about Disneyland Paris, and we are told that Disneyland Paris has apologized after barring a three-year-old boy from participating in its princes for a day experience because he’s not a girl. The mother of this boy, Haley McLean-Glass said that she wanted to give this is as a Christmas present for her son who is a super fan of the Disney film Frozen, loves to dress up as Elsa, one of its lead characters. But this week after she was denied permission to book this for her son, she wrote an open letter to the firm. According to the Guardian, on the very following day,

“a Disneyland Paris spokesperson said: ‘This experience is available to all children ages three-to-12 and we’ve reached out to the family to apologise for them being provided with inaccurate information.’”

Now the firm’s website describes this experience as the opportunity,

“‘grant every little girl’s wish with a real princess’ make-up and hair-styling session; a fairytale transformation they’ll treasure forever”.

The original response to the mom by Disneyland Paris was,

“At this time it is not possible to book Princess for a Day for a boy.”

The mother’s response,

“We have spent a small fortune in Disney items for [Noah], he wears his beloved Elsa dress all day every day … he even refuses to take it off at bedtime. He knows every single word to Let It Go and all of the other Frozen songs, he’d be able to stand on your stage in the Frozen show and give your Elsa a run for her money I’m sure! If there’s such a thing as a Frozen superfan, Noah is it!”

Now at this point we need to reflect just a moment and say this does tell us a great deal about Noah. But in reality it also tells us a great deal more about Noah’s mom. And this is an issue that goes far beyond gender identity, sexuality, and whether a boy can be a princes for a day. This all comes down to the statement made by the mom when she wrote,

“If a little girl wants to be a superhero, she can be. If she wants to be a Jedi, she can be. She can be whatever she wants.”

And there you see one of the mythologies of so many modern parents and of the modern society thinking about children. That the right messaging is to tell children whether girls or boys are confused about whether they are girls or boys that they can be whatever they want to be. Now behind some of this messaging is parental sentimentality about their child. And furthermore, it’s a reflection of this great revolution in morals and even in the definition of reality that is going on around us. But beyond that it’s something even more dangerous. There is no way to say to any human being you can actually be whatever you want to be. That is just simply false messaging. It isn’t true. It isn’t even close to being true. Somehow we’ve reached a point in the culture where we think it is right and righteous to look each other in the face or even to look at our children and say you can be whatever you want to be. But in our hearts and in our minds we simply have to know even those who are operating out of the most secular worldview, they are promising more than they can deliver.

As for Disneyland Paris, well as you might expect, it went into full retreat. According to the Guardian, it said that it was sorry for upsetting the family. It insisted that it did not have a policy of barring boys from the Princess for a Day experience, and a spokesman said,

“We are taking this situation very seriously and sincerely apologise to Hayley and Noah for the distress caused.”

The problem is of course that when it comes to an issue like this there is no end to the distress.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing