Friday, December 23, 2016

How Gifts to God Heal Divides

"Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 

When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 

When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?"

How is it possible to give God a gift?

In his lesson (Matthew 25: 31-46) Jesus answers:

"Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."

I was with a group of students visiting an orphanage. At the end of the day we stopped for a meal. That's when I noticed one of our young men had no shoes. During the day, he noticed a young man's shoes were falling apart. In response, he took off his shoes and gave them away.

The poverty in this world can be overwhelming. In Western nations many have their needs met in abundance. We can take the Matthew verses literally to give food, water, and clothes to the needy. We can visit the marginalized.

We can also respond to those who needs aren't so literal but nontheless need assistance to cope with illness, loneliness and so on.

How Does Giving Heal?

I have written and spoken about the problems in Christian Cultures, which often appear as A House Divided.

The lesson in Matthew 25 reminds us of God's commandment to love others. Acts of love build relationships even as needs are met. Building relationships is one antidote to creating divisions.

Christians caring for others are busy people. Their work will never end. The poor will always be with us. Human needs are everywhere. I suspect those busily doing what they can have little time to invest in dividng the church by arguing about different interpretations of Scripture.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Masturbation and Christianity Part 2

I didn't know what to say. Most of us got quiet... embarassed in fact. We met weekly for devotions. It was normally a time to share some inspiration and pray. Mostly a rowdy bunch, these guys were Christians. The unusual event was the time when Rob (not his real name) apparently felt considerable anguish. With head down, he was crying real tears. He seemed to feel so unworthy. He confessed to all of us that he masturbated. He felt called to become a pastor. It wasn't long before he left our group. And I never knew what happened to him.

John Piper's comment about masturbation and men in ministry is likely the trigger that reminded me of this story. In any event, Christian leaders have given young men different advice for years. In this post I look at a sample of comments and offer some thoughts on the subject.


“Christians need a theology of masturbation.” Really?

In the previous post, I considered what Christian thinkers wrote about female masturbation. In this post, I look at comments focused on men. And I look at how they use the Bible and reasoning to reach conclusions.

What the Bible says about male masturbation:
(The Bible does not address male masturbation unless Judges 3:24 is an indirect reference.)

What do Christian leaders say about masturbation?

They say a lot of things about sex. And some have opinions about masturbation.

John Piper (8 April, 2008) “votes no” in a simple and straightforward commentary. My understanding of Piper’s reasoning is that male masturbation involves imagery of a woman, which treats her as a sex object. Masturbation creates guilt that interferes with obeying God’s will. He acknowledges that most people masturbate but encourages men not to let this sin keep them from their calling.

Jesse Eubanks and Josh Hatcher of Relevant Magazine (2 July 2009) combine the issue of masturbation with lust and sexual immorality. Amidst the back and forth comments on concerns about lust and addiction, Jesse wrote: “Masturbation has the potential to be healthy and even a continuation of worship in our lives. It also has the potential to destroy life and fellowship with God.” Josh responds with several concerns such as the effects of masturbation on a married couple’s relationship. In the next to the last paragraph he writes: “Ultimately, the decision must be made between the individual and God.”

Driscoll and Driscoll say a lot. I searched the digital version of their book, Real Marriage, and found 100 matches to the term (several are to the reference section). They provide statistics consistent with what you will read most places -- most men masturbate—especially young single men. You will read about the neurological and biochemical components of the sexual pleasure involved in the motoric act of masturbation usually coupled with pornographic imagery. They address the issue of pornography, which is likened to prostitution.

Finally, they consider the Bible and affirm what was said above: “The Bible does not forbid masturbation (p. 182).” There is a reference to possible masturbation in the Song of Songs but again-- no forbidden act. Additional consideration is given to questions about the helpfulness of masturbation and deciding if it is enslaving. My take is that the bottom line advice is masturbation become sin when it interferes with God’s design for sex between a married man and woman. (Read the book for a full context.)

Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (24 May 2016). In response to a question “…is masturbation a sin?” The BGEA advised abstaining from masturbation as follows (see the link for details):

Masturbation is not specifically referred to in the Bible. However, several scriptural principles indicate that it is a practice from which a Christian should abstain. First, it is usually accompanied by the sin of willfully entertaining lustful thoughts and desires which are clearly forbidden by the Lord (Matthew 5:28). The more one dwells on such fantasy, the more likely it is to become a reality in behavior (James 1:14-15). Second, masturbation easily becomes a habit that people become dependent on (Romans 6:12-14). Third, self-directed sex violates God’s creation design for the right use of His good gift of sexuality (Genesis 1:24, 1 Corinthians 7:3-4, 9). Persistent, compulsive masturbation can also be the symptom of deeper psychological or spiritual problems, such as destructive feelings of inadequacy, rejection and loneliness.

James Dobson answered questions about masturbation and many other issues during his career. In an old letter, he observed that Bible scholars disagreed on the subject. He asserted that from a medical perspective, the act is not harmful. He focused on four problematic issues: Guilt, obsession with masturbation, addiction to pornography, and a habit that can continue into and affect marriage. Read the short letter to get the details and context.

Some thoughts…(See also my previous post)

1. As in the previous post, Christians won’t find biblical rules specifically addressing the sex act of masturbation. I suspect this would pose a problem for those who usually take a biblical rule and apply that rule in a literal fashion.

2. As with many matters, Christians must use reason if they wish to create a life principle form biblical texts. As we can see, Christian thinkers in a position to influence large numbers of people, offer different opinions about masturbation.

 3. I continue to think that analyzing the morality of masturbation and other topics requires some sort of rubric. That’s why I still recommend the six-factor approach (harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, liberty, purity) based on the work of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues. This approach promotes understanding of an issue. It does not answer the question as to whether it is right or wrong. Most of my comments on masturbation can be found in chapter 7 of A House Divided.

4. Dobson’s comment about obsession indicates a better term for a problem with sexual behavior that interferes with life functioning than the term addiction.

5. Concerns about guilt are not uncommon. Guilt can interfere with well-being thus it must be removed. Those who feel convicted of sin will find God forgives. Those who feel guilty of violating personal standards may benefit from self-forgiveness. Those who continue to struggle with guilt and other distress related to any form of sexuality will be best served by seeking counseling.

6. The conservative Christian sources I read focus mostly on boys or men and the problem with pornography. That’s an important concern but Christians will need to realize that the human sexual response varies from person to person. Movies considered acceptable by contemporary Christians would be considered pornographic by Christians a few decades ago. Advertisements for women’s wear can stimulate a sexual response in men yet not violate any laws of decency in some countries.

I’ve seen posters about porn designed to scare young Christian men. An intelligent approach to the pervasiveness of porn requires setting principled standards of decency. Treating people as sex objects, exploitation of vulnerable persons, and depictions of rape and harm are common starting points for setting limits. The problem of deciding what is porn and what is not porn should not hinder efforts to set moral boundaries.

8. I still think every church and Christian school needs a sex education program with age-appropriate details. Sex education needs to be a life-long process. Masturbation is just one topic to include. I cannot imagine how pastors and psychotherapists can do their job if they haven't studied human sexuality.

9. I still don’t see any writers offering opinions about masturbation and sexual minorities. I wonder if those who identify both as a Christian and as a sexual minority and feel committed to a single life find masturbation to be an alternative to marriage?

CONCLUSION: Christian Theology, Sex, Masturbation

After considering what others have written, I think a theology of masturbation and even sex might not make sense because there is insufficient context to provide a meaningful framework. I have given some thought to the NEA booklet, Theology of Sex, which I still recommend as a basis for considering your own views about sex from a Christian perspective.

 Although the NEA referred to love in the booklet they do not establish sexuality on a foundation of love, which I consider vital to an integrated Christian-Faith perspective.

When Jesus summed up the law he gave two commandments pointing us to love of God and others (Matthew 22: 36-40). We know Christians are to be marked by love (John 13:35). Love is the foundation for a theology of sex, more appropriately viewed as a Theology of Human Relationships.

Healthy relationships are characterized by love with attributes of caring and sacrifice. Marital relationships include the gift of sex. And sex is one aspect of love that helps bind couples together. Strong healthy relationships provide a supportive setting for those couples whose sex produces children. 

This love-sex connection that brings couples together in a strong relationship ideal for raising children provides not only a basis for a theology of healthy relationships inclusive of sex but it also provides a basis for integrating theology with biopsychology.

As several have pointed out, the Bible does not address the sex act of masturbation. Clearly masturbation does not fit into heterosexual love-based relationships.

Unfortunately for sincere young Christians, when Christian leaders offer reasons to consider masturbation as an acceptable or unacceptable alternative to marital sex they disagree. And several writers want to make a point about pornograhpy, which is understandably denounced. No one supports pornography; though no one provided specific guidelines as to what should be off-limits. 

For practices neither mentioned in Scripture nor clearly violating general moral principles prohibiting harm, infidelity, and so forth, Christians are left with the commonly quoted "law of liberty" offerred by St. Paul in regard to disagreements over the Sabbath (See Romans 14: 5-6). For those feeling distressed over masturbation or related issues of lust and porn, several writers wisely remind readers about forgiveness.

There are some weak points in the various arguments but I did not consider the critiques worth pursuing in providing any more definitive guidance for Christians. So much has been said. 

Previous posts

Theology of Masturbation (Women)


Of course, I want you to buy my book, A House Divided available from the publisher, Pickwick, and inexpensively as a Kindle ebook on Amazon. I refer to the scriptures on masturbation and many other sex topics.

I wrote the book to promote discussions about healthy sexuality and Christian morality.
I will send you a free copy of the study guide for A House Divided by sending me an email and giving me your name. I will attach the pdf file to the email you send. This is a 50+ page book to accompany the A House Divided book.

I hope it helps with personal study, book study groups, and related courses at Christian schools and colleges. Send an email with your full name to this address: I do not ask for your phone number, age, or any other information.

There’s also a free website with more information about sexuality and morality in Christian cultures.

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 A House Divided

Friday, December 2, 2016

Masturbation & Christian Women

Recently, various Christian sources included articles on masturbation. And in the last year, I was struck by a comment from a clergyman who opined, Christians need a “theology of masturbation.”

“Christians need a theology of masturbation.” Really?

Is a theology of masturbation possible? I had examined the opinions of various scholars and Christian speakers when writing, A House Divided. Christians are divided over the morality of masturbation but not in the emotionally charged way they disagree about same-sex marriage.

In this post I look at data and opinions concerning women. In Part 2, I look at information for men.

I like data so here’s a link to some stats from a U S Survey conducted by Indiana University (Huffington). Bottom line: 20 to 25% of young to middle age women masturbate monthly or weekly. And much more than half masturbated in the past year- so about half the women in church- if the women in your church are like other American women.

Who needs a theology of masturbation?

Since I’m not a theologian and often find myself wondering what could possibly be new about a faith that’s 2,000 years old, I wondered why the clergyman would ask such a question.

Then I remembered a scene from Fiddler on the Roof—the one where the tailor, Motel, asks the Rabbi to bless his new sewing machine. I think a theology of masturbation must be something like a blessing. Some way of saying, if something is not clearly in the Bible can we at least get an “official” blessing.

I actually found a small handout by the National Association of Evangelicals called the Theology of Sex. It’s a free download but there’s no theology of masturbation there.

What the Bible says about female masturbation:

Teresa J. Hornsby (Sex Texts from the Bible) identifies passages in Song of Songs (5: 2-6) and Ezekiel 16:17; 23:7) that may be related to female masturbation. By the way, there is no prohibition against masturbation in the Bible.

What do Christian leaders say about female masturbation?

They say a lot of things about sex. And some have opinions about masturbation.

Popular Christian author, Rachel Held Evans (3 June, 2013) began her article on masturbation with a reader’s question: “…could you look at masturbation from a theological perspective?”

Evans contacted Christians with expertise.

 Here’s my abbreviated take on what they wrote. Do see her post before critiquing what these people wrote because my summary may be inadequate in terms of details.

Abigail Rine of George Fox University, did not see a biblical problem and opined, “I think masturbation can absolutely be a healthy part of both married and unmarried sexuality.” Rine’s first point deals with the expectation of a long sexual abstinence for teens, which she calls unrealistic. She also noted the contribution of masturbation to achieving orgasm often not possible for women via vaginal intercourse. In contrast, Anna Broadway reasons that biblical sex is relational, which rules out masturbation.

Richard Beck, Psychology Professor at Abilene Christian University, began his response with a focus on the widespread problem of pornography. So porn provided the context. After also noting the years of delay until young singles marry, he opines “masturbation may be a critical part in how single persons cultivate and achieve sexual chastity.” But he again turns back to the problem of lust (Matthew 5: 27-28) and suggests the importance of a shift away from thinking about masturbation to a “theology of lust.” By asking a question about the meaning of lust, he directs readers to think about the nonerotic features of lust (e.g., greediness, passiveness). If this nonsexualized meaning of lust is true then he raises the notion that “masturbation might be a great tool to combat lust.”

[I’m inserting links to the meaning of “biblical lust” IVP commentary; Biblehub commentaries and the Greek texts.]

Dianne Anderson begins with an affirmation of masturbation as part of healthy sexuality and soon raises the specter of pornography. She opines that masturbation may be sinful for some and not others.

Matthew Lee Anderson invites us to consider a Christian ethical stance in view of the cross and resurrection of Jesus as a pattern for love of others rather than self-pleasure. For Matthew Anderson, masturbation falls short of Christian love.

Jenell Williams Paris, professor of anthropology at Messiah College (Grantham, PA) believes there is a problem in the way Christians ask about the morality of masturbation. She suggests a different question, which gets us back to the theology issue: “Given that most people masturbate, how can we see even this area of life in the light of faith?” Paris wanders through positive and negative aspects of human sexuality. Her biblical context is the call to find rest from being weary and burdened (Matthew 11: 28-30). She gently invites readers to move from judgment and shame toward an unburdened faith. And she skirts the issue –leaving the decision about masturbation to the reader.

Tara Owens suggests Christians have lived by a false dichotomy when it comes to sex—In my words she’s talking about “marry or burn” theology. She argues for a broad view of sexuality in the context of relationships. Then she gets to the question of masturbation and healthy sexuality: “The answer will be different for different people in different contexts…”

Here's some other comments.

Eve Tushnet (February 2016), writing for Christianity Today, asked: “What Could Possibly Be Wrong with Christian Masturbation?” She provides a review of common ethical concerns focusing on harm-- she finds no negative impact. She contextualizes masturbation by framing Christianity as an erotic faith with images of a divine bridegroom and a human bride.

Ed Mazza (11 April, 2016) of The Huffington Post reported a warning from Christian writer, Mack Major: “too many Christian women are losing their salvation because they masturbate.” He reportedly warned about sex toys-- items used in “demonic sex rituals.”

I figured Focus on the Family would have something. I was not disappointed. There’s guidance from Geremy Keeton but the focus is on “kids.” At first you will see a common interest among conservative Christians to provide a context for sex—married persons. And kind advice to avoid shame. There’s also helpful advice to introduce the topic before puberty.

Keeton offers a list of things that can “pose danger.” It is the common list of items such as compulsivity or an “addictive habit” and pornography. There’s a suggestion about getting involved in alternate activities. They even offer an 800 number to call for more help.

So what about Catholics? Boorstein (8 June 2009) reported an eye-catching title in The Washington Post, “Catholic theologians are divided into camps on masturbation, marriage and other church teachings.” According to the article, masturbation is banned by the church but a feminist theologian believes the practice is neither good nor bad. The reason for the ban is that masturbation does not meet the criteria for good sex. Good sex (in an ethical sense of good) is between a married man and a woman focused on procreation.
Related Notes

Martha Rosenthal (25 Jan 2012) reminds readers that the sinfulness associated with masturbation can be traced back to St. Thomas Aquinas. According to her reading, Aquinas believed masturbation was worse than rape and adultery because the biblical aim of sex is procreation. She also reminds readers of the multiple harms previously thought to occur because of masturbation-- things like depression and blindness.

Joy Wilson made news (NPR) a few years ago when she started a Christian sex toy business (; named for the Bible’s sexy love poem, Song of Solomon). A variety of sex products (e.g., vibrators, lubricants) are available at Evangelical store websites, which promote the use of love toys within marriage and advertise as being free from pornography. The Evangelical stores provide a Christian context via biblical references about sex.

Why focus on female masturbation?

I focused on female masturbation first because women are often excluded from the opinions of Christian writers about sex. And the comments about male masturbation may not apply to women. See the next post about Christians views on male masturbation.

Reflections on a Theology of Masturbation

1. Masturbation is a sex act so a place to begin a discussion is with a Theology of Sex. I suggest getting the free booklet but you will need more than that short document so consider A House Divided. Create a framework for sex according to your faith tradition.

2. Begin with moral principles when thinking about practical theology. Unfortunately, the principles referred to by different writers can be used to support or condemn masturbation. A great deal of morality deals with factors improving or destroying relationships. 

The good depends on thinking of sex as God’s gift and the pleasure it brings. The bad depends on how people deal with associated issues like defining pornography and measuring harm to self or others—as in damaging a relationship.

3. I think when it comes to masturbation and other topics you need a rubric to examine morality. That’s why I use the six-factor approach (harm, fairness, loyalty, authority, liberty, purity) based on the work of Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues. Most of my comments on masturbation can be found in chapter 7 of A House Divided. The comments I quoted above suggest a limited perspective on the breadth of morality.

4. Beck's idea about a "theology of lust" and his challenge to understand lust seems like a helpful contribution. Lust is not just about sexual activity.

5. You don’t find a lot about sexual addiction in the opinions about female masturbation compared to the content in opinions about male masturbation. But there is some evidence that at least some women feel distress about masturbation. In my experience as a psychologist, it is difficult to think oneself out of emotional distress so it’s probably best to see a Christian Psychotherapist.

6. Some writers offer opinions about “mutual masturbation.” Frankly, I think that confuses the issue. Enjoying sexuality with someone else is not the same activity as the usual understanding of masturbation as solo sex.

7. The conservative Christian sources I read focus mostly on boys or men and the problem with pornography. It is true that most people who masturbate are heterosexual teen boys and young men. The advice given does not always apply to girls or women. Women deserve their own post. Also, the advice does not address the sexuality of sexual minorities. 

A theology of sex does need to address poornography. But what's art to some is porn to others. Modesty is in the eye of the beholder. See previous posts about porn in the links below.

8. Every church, Christian school, and Christian College, University, and Seminary needs a sex education program. Those in higher education need to offer a course. Sex education needs to be a life-long process. Christian sex education needs a multidisciplinary focus. Christian sex education inlcudes Theology, Biology, Psychology, Sociology that is, theobiopsychosocial. Masturbation is just one topic to include in the context.

Take a look at the limited thinking in extant online comments about masturbation and other topics by widely followed Christian writers. They are likely sincere folks and great communicators but the lack of substance suggests the need for Christian education about sexuality.

9. I don’t see any writers offering opinions about masturbation and sexual minorities. I wonder if those who identify as a minority and feel their faith requires a single life would find masturbation to be a viable alternative for sex when their convictions imply that same-sex marriage is not a viable option.

10. Several write about guilt. Guilt and masturbation have a long history. And health care folks have worked to normalize masturbation and strip the practice of guilt. I wonder if the guilt, and sometimes shame, along with the history of negative religious views about nonmarital sex, are consistent with evolution. If so, the guilt-shame-religious connection may be tied to biopsychosocial dimensions of human sexuality.

11. To expand on thought nine, none of the Christian authors focus much on biology or deal with the biological theories addressing sexuality (e.g., Modern Synthesis).  In my limited understanding of biology, the traditional stance of the church concerning sex is aligned with what needs to happen for a species to survive until they can reproduce and raise their young. In conservative Christian settings, young heterosexuals come together in a supportive family-like culture, mate for life, and are encouraged to raise their offspring as a team. That conservative stance seems to provide a culturally supportive environment for the best way for the species to survive.

12. When it comes to masturbation, like other sex linked moral issues, Christians are A House Divided. Peace comes with a focus on loving God and others. Peace requires respect. Understanding the issues is a necessary but insufficient basis for constructing a theology of sex, masturbation, or anything. At first I found Paris’ response to be a puzzlement, but on reflection she has wisely guided us toward Jesus who offers to lovingly share life’s burdens.


Of course, I want you to buy my book, A House Divided available from the publisher, Pickwick, and inexpensively as a Kindle ebook on Amazon. I refer to the scriptures on masturbation and many other sex topics. I wrote the book to promote discussions about healthy sexuality and Christian morality.

I will send you a free copy of the study guide for A House Divided if you send me an email with your name. I will attach the pdf file to the email you send. This is a 50+ page book to accompany A House Divided.

I hope the A House Divided and the study guide helps with personal study, book study groups, and related courses at Christian schools and colleges. Send an email with your full name to this address: I do not ask for your phone number, age, or any other information.

If you want a talk or workshop based on the chapters / topics in A House Divided, contact me via email:

There’s also a free website with more information about sexuality and morality in Christian cultures.

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Thursday, September 29, 2016

Philosopher Swinburne Stimulates Same-Sex Strife

Richard Swinburne at MSU photo by Geoff W Sutton
Before becoming a psychologist, I took a number of courses in philosophy. As I recall, many of the professors seemed to enjoy saying edgy things to engage students in thinking clearly about one thing or another.

Swinburne and Sex

Strangely, Professor Swinburne caused quite a stir last week when he made comments about same-sex orientation (his term, homosexuality) and other matters of sexual ethics in a talk on the subject at the Midwestern conference of the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP). I'm used to hearing Christians offer reasons why same-sex orientation is morally wrong, sinful, and so forth.

Here's the link to Swinburne's talk on YouTube

What would be surprising to me at such a venue is to hear a defense of same-sex orientation as a moral good or perhaps not an issue worthy of moral judgment. Nevertheless, Swinburne's comments stirred a pot that bubbled up to the head of the president of the SCP, Michael Rea who posted an apology on his Facebook page.

Rea's apology provoked further discussion, which went in many directions. I'll post a few quotes and encourage you to read more to get a sense of how professors of philosophy write about same-sex relationships and the freedom to express diverse views. In addition, there are hundreds of comments offering even more ingredients to the mix.

J. Edward Hackett's reaction
 to the Swinburne talk.

Yesterday, I gave Richard Swinburne, the famous Oxford Christian philosopher, a piece of my mind. As one of the keynotes of the Midwest Meeting of Society of Christian Philosophers, he referred to homosexuality as a “disability” and a “incurable condition.” While Swinburne did not think homosexuality was intrinsically wrong in the same way that adultery was wrong, he argued (if that’s the right verb under some principle of charity) that homosexuality was extrinsically wrong. Homosexuality was a disability in the lacking of the ability to have children, and God’s commands of abstaining from homosexuality might prevent others from fostering this incurable condition in others.
My response was mixture of abhorrence and overwhelming anger, and I tried as I might to encounter this idea calmly. 

I want to express my regret regarding the hurt caused by the recent Midwest meeting of the Society for Christian Philosophers. The views expressed in Professor Swinburne's keynote are not those of the SCP itself. Though our membership is broadly united by way of religious faith, the views of our members are otherwise diverse. As Preisdent of the SCP, I am committed to promoting the intellectual life of our philosophical community. Consequently (among other reasons), I am committed to the values of diversity and inclusion. As an organization, we have fallen short of those ideals before, and surely we will again. Nonetheless, I will strive for them going forward. If you have thoughts or feedback you would like to share with me, I would welcome hearing from you via email or private message.

Dreher refers to Swinburne's talk and the surrounding controversy. He includes additional quotes before referring to the "rot in academia." Dreher refers us to a book he recently read by Polish Catholic philosopher Ryszard Legutko. A particular quote caught my attention as worthy of consideration:
 "Legutko, who lived under Polish communism and under Poland’s transition to liberal democracy, writes about how contemporary liberal democracy has adopted the communist habit of denouncing dissenters from its dogmas. He says this is politically useful to the left."

In a lengthy post, Feser observes some "odd things about Rea's statement." I won't repeat all of them here. Suffice it to say, I found Hackett's response surprising given the context of the conference and the known views of Richard Swinburne. And I was surprised at Rea's "apology." At the time of this writing, Feser's blog has 72 comments-- I'll leave it to you to wade through his opinions and the many comments at your leisure.

My Thoughts

1. I support freedom of speech as long as it does not incite people to take harmful action. 

I believe this is Mill's view. I hardly think the mild mannered Swinburne is encouraging anyone to do harm to members of the LGBT community-- especially those who would attend a philosophy conference. 

2. I appreciate hearing views that differ from my own as they provide a basis to consider the merits of different arguments.

Frankly, I heard Swinburne speak on evil and suffering at Missouri State University on the 21st September. His arguments were not impressive but I'd like to see them in print to make sure I am clear why he failed to make a good case for his views. I'm applying what I've learned from neuropsychology— our memories are not perfect recording devices. I cannot apply my meager capacity for philosophical analysis without being able to carefully examine the arguments.

3. I didn't know I was on the progressive side of social thinking until I moved to the Midwestern United States. 

That's where I discovered I wasn't as conservative as many locals. Context matters. I learned to listen closely to intelligent Christians. Some denounced extreme right wing views of vocal clergy but most hid their views in obscure metaphors and theological obfuscations. That's too bad but I suspect that's how they avoid the pain of expressing liberal views in a conservative context.

4. Given my experience noted in number three, I remain surprised by the reaction to Swinburne's lecture.

 He articulates a conservative position quite clearly. It's the varied opinions among Christians that stimulated my own pursuit of differences on sexual morality, which I published in A House Divided earlier this year.

5. Some views were expressed with emotional-laden language.

I hardly think of philosophers as people with a passion. Stereotypes abound. It would have been more helpful if the philosophers disagreeing with Swinburne would articulate the bases for their disagreement.

Ironically, I gave a talk at the same conference on Saturday morning. My subject was moral psychology and philosophy and I used an example of same-sex marriage to illustrate moral foundation theory and the arguments conservative and progressive Christians employ. Here's the link to my paper.  Everyone was no polite. I actually wanted more engagement.

6. Another odd event happened that reveals the community context.

At the same time as the philosophy conference, another group of people attended a Faith and Science conference where the them was the Biology of Sin. I also gave a talk there titled, "What is Sin?" I presented some data on the views of Christian counselors about sin-- many, but not all, considered same-sex marriage as sinful. Considering other data, I commented that Christian counselors were often not in sync with most Americans. During the question and answer period, one participant asked a rhetorical question to the effect of, "Is that (being out of sync) bad?" (Link to my paper).

I suspect my questioner might be more concerned with the importance of holding fast to the traditional interpretations of Scripture on matters of sexual sin. Nevertheless, in view of the discussion at hand, I think it serves a greater good to hear conservative and progressive voices on this and other topics. 

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A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures

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Monday, September 26, 2016

When evil follows - the moral licensing effect

The moral licensing effect is a well-documented phenomenon that deserves some consideration in cultures where we see evidence of ridicule, bigotry, and hate speech.

Recently, my friend, Martin Mittlestadt, recommended Gladwell's new podcast about revisionist history. I took his advice and found the first episode illustrated the phenomenon of the moral licensing effect.

It's about two women who were recognized as leaders--one in art and the other in politics. Once the women were recognized for their social status, the men around them acted as if they had done their moral duty and behaved horribly toward them. Gladwell reasonably wonderered what might happen to Hillary Clinton as the first serious candidate for president. I did too. More importantly, I wonder when the U S will be led by a woman.

You can read more about this effect in a helpful summary offered by Anna C. Merritt and her colleagues at Stanford University (2010). I've summarized a few points.

Moral Self-Licensing and Discrimination

At the individual level, people who establish themselves as morally good seem to feel they now have a license to behave badly. Experiments revealed evidence for this effect in decisions about hiring minorities.

Other studies reveal a tendency for people to seek out opportunities to act morally if they are expecting to take moral liberties.

The lesson: racism and sexism are trait-like phenomena. Statements and single acts do not establish a pattern. Such acts may be no more than building moral credentials as a precursor to granting a moral self-license to act immorally or even emphasize racism and sexism.

Morality of Generosity and Selfishness

Most of us are impressed when we hear stories of billionaires giving mega-donations to charity. Indeed, some gifts may be motivated by a sincere effort to do good.

Research studies have documented tendencies toward licensing less virtuous behavior following establishing credibility for such virtues as generosity, kindness, and compassion. Morally good actions appear to reduce inhibitions against future violations of virtue norms.

Interestingly, you don't even have to do good for the self-licensing effect to work. Just imagining doing good can inhibit virtuous behavior.

Morality and Consumption

Some people feel guilty when they indulge in an expensive purchase or a tasty high calorie treat. In both cases, engaging in morally good choices provides the moral self-license to permit oneself to indulge in "sinful" behavior.


I've been examining and conducting moral psychology research in recent years. My special focus has been morality in Christian cultures given the obvious concerns of leaders that Christians live morally and vote for candidates likely to promote a more moral society.

Of course, Christian cultures are often divided about what is moral. The loud voices of the Christian right often dominate news reports as they are often dramatically opposed to those who hold a moderate or leftist stance.

What's intriguing about moral licensing is that people seem to want to have their cake and eat it too. They feel as if a healthy dose of moral goodness offsets questionable behavior.

I suspect that moral license can be a particular temptation for those who have been moral leaders only to be tripped up by a moral failure that, in the eyes of followers, tends to undercut decades of overt "good conduct."

Think:  How much good does it take to overcome what type of moral failure?

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A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures

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Monday, September 19, 2016

Porn and Christian Sex Education

“[I want] better education regarding sex for both boys and girls [and] information about pornography, and the way it influences harmful sexual practices.” (Liszewski, 2016).

The quote comes from a 15-year old girl who was part of an Australian study of women and girls published earlier this year. This week I saw several posts about the study on Facebook. Summaries of the study of 600 young Australians can be found at Collective Shout and

Most Christians I know are aware of the easy availability of porn. Stories about sexting occasionally make national news. Those of us who provided psychotherapy or are involved in the care of youth heard many stories of sexual abuse. The statistics are helpful to understand the scope of the problem in Australia. 

People in other countries can turn to their government bureaus for related statistics. But what’s helpful about this Australian study are the quotations from the girls, which provide insight into how boys and girls relate and how porn figures into the encounters.

You can't really begin to do anything until you understand the extent of the problem in your community. In the U.S. you can find some information as a part of the stopbullying campaign. This effort addresses cyberbullying and sexual harassment.

Christian Sex Education

The 15-year old girl’s request for sex education particularly caught my attention because of two recent publications dealing with the issues from a Christian perspective. In A House Divided I looked at various sexual issues, including sexual assault and sex education. 

In a separate book, Christian Morality, just out last month, April Montoya and Shonna Crawford wrote a chapter on Christian sex education (Chapter 10).

Ironically, April Montoya also led off their chapter with a quote from a 15-year old girl.

“I think I’m ready to start having sex with my boyfriend.”

At the time, April and her husband had been youth pastors. It was clear to April that the girl did not view sex in the same way she did. Most Christian that have lived more than a few decades know attitudes toward sex have become more permissive. But we may not know how things have changed among Christian youth. That’s why the Australian study is so helpful. And it’s also why an understanding of both sexuality and morality is important to those who want to make a change.

As Montoya and Crawford point out, the common Christian approaches to sex education are not working well. To be sure, there is a decline in the teen pregnancy rate but in the U.S., the rate is above that of most developed countries. In the U.S., most High School seniors have had sexual intercourse.

In my own chapter, I reported findings from a Southern Baptist sample indicating that 80% of those who married after age 25 had premarital sex­–obviously not following the conservative and traditional teaching of evangelicals. Of course, not all of this sex was a result of coercion. We may never know exactly how much of sex among youth is freely chosen versus coerced. But we do know most yough have sex.

From the Australian study and U S sites on cyberbullying we must now be sure to include information and guidance on sexual harassment in sex education programs.

What to do?

1. Learn more about sexual health and functioning.
 Get the facts straight before offering misinformation to youth or anyone else. It won’t do any good to communicate Christian moral values if they are communicated along with false information about sex.

2. All Christians need to confront the troublesome sexuality reported in the Bible.
Failing to deal honestly with Bible stories of rape, incest, adultery and so on can discredit any Christian’s attempt to communicate Christian sex education. The books I referenced include extensive bibliographies to help you understand what the Bible has to say about sex. and offer guidelines on Christian morality. A general approach to sex education can be found at the Mayo Clinic.

3. Encourage Christian schools to mandate sex education.
For those college students not taking courses on sexuality in Christian schools, work with local churches to routinely offer a course. If no expert lives in a small community, work with Christian colleges and universities to provide online coursework, onsite workshops, or better yet, teach someone in your community how to teach sex education from a Christian perspective.

4. Require coursework in sexuality of all Christian workers.
 Local Christian colleges and universities can offer classes on the topic. There are a variety of books teaching the details of sexuality and helping people to think morally about sexuality and other related issue of relationships. And by the way, all Christian organizations ought to provide employees with training in sexual harassment. In my experience, secular employment settings provided better and more regularly scheduled programs (e.g., annual) compared to those in Christian settings.

5. Learn more about the problems young people experience with sexual harassment.
You can start by reading the Australian study mentioned above. You can learn more by reading the chapters in the books I recommended. Other people in your church may have other recommendations. All sex education programs need to include a unit on sexual harassment relevant to the age group and applicable laws as well as support services.

5. Support Christian counseling services. When I provided psychotherapy (I’m retired now), I was pleased to see several churches helping families afford the cost of psychotherapy. On occasion I was invited to speak in churches on healthy relationships and even sex education. Often it was just a one-time talk–not much but better than nothing at all. 

Today, there are thousands of Christian counselors and psychotherapists who are knowledgeable about sexuality. You can find them through organizations like Christian Association for Psychological Studies, North American Association of Christians in Social Work, and the American Association of Christian Counselors.

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A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures

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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Censored Napalm Girl A Symbol of Hope and Forgiveness

Christian Morality

AP Photo by Nick Ut from the Kim Foundation

This week, Kim Phuc made headlines again as she did more than 40 years ago (June 8, 1972). Facebook censored the photo of the naked 9-year-old running from a napalm bomb (The Independent). The painful burns covered nearly two-thirds of her body.

The image that went round the world was credited as a factor toward ending America's involvement in the war (CNN).

But Kim battled pain, anger, and bitterness for years. At age 19, she converted to Christianity and began the transformation of becoming a new woman. She formed a foundation dedicated to healing the wounds of others. She now goes throughout the world to tell her story of love and forgiveness.

As a part of her journey, Kim visited the Vietnam War Memorial. She met Captain John Plummer, a pilot linked to the air strike on her village. Here, at the Memorial Wall, Kim expressed forgiveness to John which was a part of her reconciliation.

She has told her story at meetings, in a book, and on film. Her road to recovery illustrates many lessons that deserve to be retold.

The power of the original image added to her amazing story continues to provoke many discussions. Facebook's 2016 ban on the image adds to the lessons from Kim Phuc.

Morality and War

It is rather ironic that Kim's photo should be banned by Facebook because for many, the message of the photo captures the immorality of war, an act that destroys the lives of so many. Our history as humans suggests we will not soon stop killing other humans. We can hope that the long peace among major powers since World War II prevails. We need constant reminders of the damage done to people like Kim. Not everyone in a combat zone is the enemy. But we can make enemies when we hurt those who have no intention of hurting us.

But we must also be mindful of the terrible toll war takes from the soldiers who carry out the aggressive strategies of a nation's leaders. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is often a lifelong battle with the past that continually punctures the present. Not only do soldiers suffer pain and die by suicide but their families suffer as well. Warriors and their loved ones pay a steep price for the decisions of leaders about a nation's interests.

Morality and Nudity

Of course, the reason for the 2016 story is the banning of  Kim's photo from Facebook based on nudity. Facebook was slammed for their policy. But should we not care about what images are posted online? How does context work to change a photo of a nude child into an internationally recognized moral message? In her story, Kim relates that she was initially embarrassed by the photo. Who wouldn't be?

Few people are overly concerned about nudity in art. But conservative Christians and people in other religions are concerned about nudity. They preach modesty in dress and set limits on acceptable art in their schools and organizations. Normally a picture of a naked girl would be prohibited. We want to protect our young from exploitation. Our awareness of sex trafficking has been heightened by news reports. In the case of Kim's photo, the moral judgment has somehow shifted from what's in the picture to the story behind the picture.

Morality, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation

In my view, morality is about right relationships. For Christians, morality begins with a right relationship with God and extends toward others.

Harmful acts break relationships --sin in religious language. Forgiveness is the quintessential Christian way of repairing the damage from the pain of the past. As in Kim's life, forgiveness takes time. And as in Kim's case, forgiveness works to promote healing and concomitantly reduce anger.

Reconciliation is a different process. Kim was able to make that journey as well. Forgiveness frees us from the past and can serve as a catalyst for reconciliation but it's not always safe to reconcile with those intent on continuing abuse.

Kim was able to grant forgiveness and participate in reconciliation. But remember the soldiers with PTSD. Forgiveness and reconciliation interventions if often part of their healing as well. Forgiveness and reconciliation won't cure PTSD but it may help soldiers deal with anger and guilt.

In addition to the conflicts around the world, Christians and others are divided over social-moral issues, which has been part of my focus in the past few years in writing A House Divided and editing Christian Morality. Clearly, forgiveness and reconciliation are ways to bring divided people together and promote peace.

There are more lessons to learn from Kim's journey. I'm grateful that the news events of the week brought her story back.

Heads up: My post ends here and ads for my books follow.

A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures.

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