Design and Default

Michael Metzger

A double standard?
Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson seems to have a special talent for knocking down straw men. Earlier this year he castigated conservative Episcopalians for rejecting the ordination of a homosexual bishop and the sanctioning of same sex relationships. Meyerson’s spin on the story reminds me of the philandering husband who takes up with another woman, moves her into his home and then blames his wife when she says enough is enough and leaves.

Now, in a new sleight of hand, Meyerson turns his talents toward the Baptists. It seems that he can’t resist ridiculing religion. The Reverent R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville recently acknowledged the direction research increasingly points toward a biological orientation for homosexuality. Meyerson pounces on this intriguing possibility – it’s not been scientifically validated – to point out a “theological dilemma for the Mohlers among us.” What exactly is that? If homosexuality is wrong, then “God is making people, who in the midst of what may otherwise be morally exemplary lives, have a special predisposition to sin.” Because some people are genetically straight and others are not, “Mohler’s deity, in short, is the God of Double Standards.” People who “follow the same God-given instincts as a straight person… end up damned while the straight person ends up saved.”1

Uh, not quite. First of all, God doesn’t condemn people because they aren’t straight. Second, Meyerson’s argument contains a fallacy – failing to distinguish between design and default. He would benefit from a refresher course in Aristotelian logic and Augustinian argument. A little dab of orthodox theology wouldn’t hurt either.

Aristotle (384-322BC) was the first to codify the rules of correct and incorrect reasoning in his book On Sophistical Refutations. Harold ought to pick up a copy. Incorrect reasoning is called a fallacy, defined as an emotionally persuasive argument that proves nothing. Meyerson’s rant against religion is a time worn tirade successfully rebutted by the early church father Augustine (AD346-430).

The argument went like this: God created all things. If homosexuality for example is a thing and evil, then God created evil. The fallacy, however, is in considering homosexuality a created “thing.” God did create everything good. But evil, while something real, is not a “thing” in the conventional sense. It is spoiled goodness.

The easiest way to understand this is to go outside and find a patch of rust on a car. Even though I did poorly in college chemistry, I do remember that rust is Ferris oxide. Iron and oxygen are inherently good things. It’s the bastard combination of one part iron and two parts oxygen that creates rust. So rust is not a designed “thing.” It’s a corruption of two good things. Augustine said as much: “Where is evil then, and whence, and how crept it in hither? What is its root, and what its seed? Or hath it no being?”2 To this Augustine answered: “Evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name “evil.’”3

In addition to Aristotle and Augustine, Meyerson would benefit from a refresher course in orthodoxy. The Judeo-Christian gospel was originally understood as a “four-chapter” story. It described how things ought to be. That’s creation. Second, it recognized the way it is. That’s the fall. Third, it envisioned what we can do to make things better. That’s redemption. Last, it looked toward a day when the world is fully restored – the final restoration. Meyerson has overlooked “chapter two.” Our default (or “normal” behavior) is not necessarily the way God designed it nor as it’s supposed to be.

In this gospel, the second chapter reminds us that everything got mucked up. It probably goes as deep as our DNA. If someone’s default behavior is found to be genetically inclined toward violence, incest, or duplicity, do we excuse it or accuse God of designing the person that way? No way. Even if it’s “in their genes,” we forbid it. Myerson is confusing logical categories – and theological chapters – when he says God-given instincts end up damned. It’s only corrupted nature that can end up damned.

The unfortunate truth is that fallacious arguments are as common as websites (and that’s where we find most of them!). They’re also plentiful in newspaper columns. The aims of responsible journalism ought to include sharpening our minds, not grinding an axe. I’d suggest Meyerson tap into Aristotle, Augustine and orthodox theology the next time he rails against religion.

1 Harold Meyerson, “God and His Gays,” Washington Post, March 21, 2007, p.A15
2 Augustine, Confessions, VII: V 7.
3 Augustine, The City of God, XI, Chp. 9.


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