If Only

‘If only,’ I think for the hundredth time… If only my pitching arm had lasted a little longer, or my teeth had been a little straighter, or my conversation more funny. So many things that might have been if only I were different.

It’s very near the heart of life, this longing to be more, this suspicion that it would matter. And the suspicion is probably true. Our circumstances often hinge on smaller things than these.

But this raises a question we hardly have words to discuss.

Somehow, the sum of our attributes and circumstances – however thoroughly and sensitively we perform this calculation – does not add up. The result is real and important, but the most real and important thing has been left out.

We all know this, or our world would be a different place. We would choose a spouse as we choose a vacuum cleaner, and friends as we choose a refrigerator. We would not care who someone is, only what. We would love them for their size and shape, their capacity and color.

If this seems a poor way to live, consider our national discussion. We are told to do this very thing, to blur the distinction between who people are and what they are – to sort them by the features of their bodies and overlook the features of their souls. We are told that changing our body changes our identity. We are told that what we are is who we are, and none of this is true.

In fact, we cannot change what we are. We are born into a particular body – its genetics and appearance, its potential for strength, and for weakness. We are born into a place and a time. We are born into a family. These things are real and important, but they are not our identity. They are the shape of our world but not the shape of our soul.

Of course, I am saying the obvious, but only because we are asked to forget the obvious. MLK hoped his children would be judged “not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character,” and this is the obvious good we are asked to forget – that we are, above all else, a soul with a particular shape which we have chosen, moment by moment. That shape is who we are and, in a just society, how we will be judged.

On this anniversary of our nation’s founding, it’s still true that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” That’s a strong foundation for a just and peaceful society, even on Earth, where our attributes and circumstances are – and will always be – highly unequal.

The Death of Irony

The changes sweeping across America are not, as some claim, the birth of a new ideology but only the death of an old irony. Our normal was abnormal, and having euthanized the irony that made us, we finally fall into line with the predictable, immutable, heartbreaking trajectory of nations.

There is nothing new happening in America, only a return to Earth’s sad and ancient normal. Here, as in most places and most times in human history, some people are not worth protecting.

Who those people are depends on the topic. Women, for example, are not protected if they wish to compete against other women or use a shower or restroom without male observers. Peaceful citizens are not protected if this might unfairly burden criminals. Business people are not protected if their property is burned or looted for a good cause. Children are not protected if they are unwanted, or wanted for the wrong reasons, or if their confusion can be made to serve a political end.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with such people and nothing unreasonable in their desires; they just find themselves on the wrong side of arguments that powerful people want to win.

And their misfortune is not surprising. It has always been that way on Earth, where some people matter more than others.

Which makes the American experiment all the more astonishing. Our nation started with a very unearthly idea, bucking the system, claiming that “all men are created equal” with “inalienable rights endowed by their Creator.”

Those who demand a separation between the state and religious expression want us to forget that the formation of America really was a religious expression – a dramatic reversal of human tradition, rooted in the otherworldly premise of God’s concern for every person.

This was the irony that made us: the conviction that power is given to protect the weak and authority is not a prize but a responsibility – an irony most clearly expressed when Jesus, a person of unlimited power, “laid down his life for his friends,” especially those friends whom important people considered “the least of these.”

The changes sweeping across America have a common effect and share a common aim. They narrow our vision and reduce our independence. They dictate our understanding of the world, often in contradiction to our own senses. They restore to its normal beneficiaries the sad and ancient use of power.

If the vision of citizens known and loved by God made us long to soar like the American eagle, the current vision would make us content to hover like drones, awaiting our controllers’ next instruction.

It will take some time to erase the old American vision because, of course, the vision is true. God loves people and made us to be free. God gave us reason. God gave us a sense of justice and morality. Our founders’ unearthly vision for a free society in which every person has great value turns out to be normal after all, though fatally inconvenient to those who love power.

A Place of Dreams

I love this dream. I lift my arms and pull myself from Earth into the brilliant sky. There is a thrilling sense of rising and great height, of floating, but not control. Whatever magic makes me fly, it mostly ignores my fledgling attempts to steer or speed ahead, and soon, the dream is gone.

I wake in a body that is often stiff and sore, and this I do not love, which raises a fundamental question. Is it enough to feel and not do, to somehow elude the difficulties of inhabiting a real body in a real world? If so, we might better remain asleep.

And yet reality has its charms, too – notably the fact that it is real. This alone might lend a measure of authority that outweighs the charm of any dream. But, curiously, it does not.

Here is the strange hallmark of humanity: this layer of consciousness that lies atop our experience, this capacity to ignore or reinterpret the data of our senses. It may produce hope in the heart of a prisoner or despair in the soul of a magnate, for it transcends physical circumstances, and – far more than our body – it expresses our unique personality and worldview.

And thus, the challenge of humanity: To use this power well. To align our understanding and imagination with reality. To be, in other words, sane.

That may not sound controversial, but it is the fight of our generation because reality itself is on trial.

Like an ancient relic, reality is often considered accidental and meaningless, an obstacle for humanity to overcome. It does not deserve our loyalty or respect. It does not embody some moral to be understood. It is raw material for us to manipulate in any way we choose.

Our new sanity is, for example, to discard the reality of Woman, though every one of us was born to a woman. Or to reject the humanity of newly conceived children, though we were all newly conceived children. Or to pronounce with the utmost dignity that luck made the world, though we know from experience that luck makes nothing.

Our new sanity is insanity, for it turns its back on the evidence that refutes it. It is a waking dream that shuts its eyes to the brilliant world. It is a lunatic, striking out in rage against the light.

Its greatest cruelty is reserved for the innocent. We have become our children’s enemies, denying their inherent value, laying traps for their inexperience, applauding their mutilation, and betraying the trust they place in us.

Our teachers’ unions and school boards were formed to support parents and promote knowledge, sparing children from pain that understanding can prevent. They now subvert parents and suppress knowledge, inviting children into irreversible pain that even rudimentary understanding could prevent.

Our new sanity lives by lies, even lies that no one believes. There are plenty of disputes but little discussion – just the full-throated roar of those who would drown out the question, the silence of those afraid to disagree, and the sophisticated censorship of dissent.

This is the new America, and there is nothing the new Americans hate more than historic America, founded on a bedrock reality they have been unable to suppress.

Our founders recognized that reality is neither accidental nor meaningless. It deserves our respect and embodies a moral easily understood: “All men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights.” They recognized that humans do, by nature, understand the “Law of Nature and of Nature’s God,” whether we admit to this knowledge or not.

Nature’s God is not a popular figure in America today. He brings clarity where clarity is not wanted. He is also our only hope for waking from the cruelty and insanity that surround us.

God and Government

I was born in the U.S., but I will die in a different country. At the current rate, I might even have lunch in a different country. Our government is redefining itself, even as we speak, and the old rules no longer apply.

What does this mean for American Christians, who have long assumed a connection between governmental authority and virtue – a strong connection that made submission to the government an obvious requirement for believers?

We often quote St. Paul on this subject, and his words are plain: Submit to authorities because God ordained governmental authority. To resist such authority is to resist God.

And there we often stop, though Paul does not stop.

Reading a little further, we see that the connection between governmental authority and virtue gets more attention from him than it has from us.

We might recall, for example, that George Washington and Joseph Stalin were both heads of state, but were they both governors? Paul says no. He defines a governing authority by the ruler’s behavior, not by their power or title.

Paul says…

* A governor commends those who do good but terrifies those who do evil.

* A governor is good to those who do right but an agent of wrath to punish the one who does wrong.

* Good people have no reason to fear him.

* A governor’s policies are to be followed, not only because he has the power to enforce them but because they echo the claims of God and our own conscience.

* Governors are servants of God who give their full time to governing. Their faithful service creates a debt of gratitude we are obligated to pay.

We notice several remarkable things. First, that the moral law is timeless and global. Every human in every century on every continent knows the difference between good and evil.

Second, rulers have a mandate and the authority to enforce this divine moral code, even though they are human. Even, in fact, if they are not Godly humans.

Third, he says that governors are policemen, not lawmakers. The law has already been written – on our hearts, and by God himself. Governors are ordained to enforce that law, protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty.

In short, Paul is saying something quite different than we might have imagined.

He is saying that God-ordained governments are implemented by human rulers, not that every human ruler is a God-ordained government.

When rulers step outside of their mandate – by failing to enforce the natural law or by replacing that law with ideas of their own – they step outside of their authority as governors.

This explains the rather frequent episodes of civil disobedience in scripture.

* Jesus disobeyed human rulers. (Mark 2, Matt. 12, Luke 6)

* Moses’ parents, the Jewish midwives, and, later, Moses himself disobeyed human rulers. (Ex. 1,2.)

* Elijah disobeyed human rulers. (1 Kings 18)

* Jeremiah disobeyed human rulers. (Jer. 38)

* Daniel and his friends disobeyed human rulers. (Daniel 3, 6)

* Esther disobeyed human rulers. (Esther 4)

* Mordecai disobeyed human rulers. (Esther 3)

* The Wise Men disobeyed human rulers. (Matt. 2)

* Peter and John disobeyed human rulers. (Acts 4)

* The apostles disobeyed human rulers. (Acts 5)

* Paul and Silas disobeyed human rulers. (Acts 6)

* In our own era, faithful people like Corrie TenBoom and Deitrick Bonhoeffer have disobeyed human rulers.

And so, it is not a simple thing, this question of obedience to authorities, or not simple in the way we have long considered it.

Rulers have no inherent moral authority. Morally unqualified people are often desperate to rule, and history is littered with the wreckage and misery caused by their success. Christians are not called to cooperate. To obey a rebel is rebellion.

Rulers who accept God’s mandate inherit moral authority and maintain it through righteous (not to say religious) conduct. No ruler will do this perfectly, but Christians should lean toward respect for human authority, remembering that we were designed to live in obedience to God under the protection of a human government.

Of course, I’m raising this question because a strong connection between governmental authority and virtue no longer exists in America. Our rulers increasingly reject their mandate, approving those who do wrong and punishing those who do good. This puts a heavy weight of discernment on individuals and, especially, on pastors.

We should not falsely simplify Paul’s guidance on this difficult issue. Like many before us, we must prepare for the expensive choice to obey God rather than men.

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Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.

-Romans 13

The Brains We Are Building

It’s the most important job of each generation, and we get to do it twice.

We are building the brains that will replace us – those of our children but also those vast new mechanical brains that read and remember more than we can imagine.

The brains we build will believe us, at least for a while.

And that might be a problem. Take the recent experience of law professor Jonathan Turley. A recent article composed by the artificial intelligence (AI) tool, ChatGPT “reported on a claim of sexual harassment that was never made against me on a trip that never occurred while I was on a faculty where I never taught. ChapGPT relied on a cited Post article that was never written and quotes a statement that was never made.”

This is a helpful example because the facts can be easily verified. The AI brain lied.

Our Washington representatives have been discussing “the weaponization of Government,” which is indeed a disastrous thing. But, here, we meet something dramatically more disastrous – the weaponization of speech.

Speech is at the heart of human relationships. We speak to transmit. We listen to learn. The invisibly obvious assumption behind every conversation is that the words will be true.

A lie murders speech. It makes a weapon of the hearer’s good faith and uses it against her. It betrays trust and attacks the very possibility of human connection.

And our culture is full of lies.

The brains we build will believe us, at least for a while. The vast mechanical brains of AI will be as truthful as their programmers, and the lies they create will be bigger, faster, and more alluring. The brains of our children will be as discerning as our educational system, which distorts our history and can no longer tell a girl from a boy.

It’s the most important job of each generation, and we’re failing at it twice, in heartbreaking ways that may cripple future generations.

Let’s hope their precious brains don’t believe us for long.

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“He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
-Jesus, describing Satan in John 8.

More about Professor Turley and AI: https://jonathanturley.org/2023/04/06/defamed-by-chatgpt-my-own-bizarre-experience-with-artificiality-of-artificial-intelligence/