January 5, 2013

Is Christianity Garbage?

Recently I read a comment an atheist made about Christmas movies. He noted that in a long list of favorite Christmas movies featured on the website RottenTomatoes.com, there was not a single movie about the birth of Jesus or about Jesus himself. All the films listed were about Santa Claus, the Christmas spirit, or some heart-warming incident that took place in December. While remarking the irony (and absurdity) of such a list, the atheist in question nevertheless thought it was justified because the Christian story is, as he put it, “garbage.”

Now whatever you think about the truth of Christianity’s claims, Christianity is not garbage. Christianity has done far more good in this world than harm, and anyone who denies this is either ignorant of history or intellectually dishonest. To the extent that evil has been done in the name of Christianity, it has been done contrary to the teachings of Jesus. As someone has said, “Christianity is not a source of savagery and fanaticism; it is the chief victim of savagery and fanaticism.” Like many good things, Christianity has often been co-opted by evil people for their own purposes. But despite the perversion of Christianity by some professing to be Christian, more good than evil has been done over the centuries because of Jesus’ influence.

It is important, I think, to distinguish between the influence for good on individuals and the influence for good on societies or entire nations. Christianity has influenced many individuals to be more kind and unselfish (remember Chaucer’s parson), but its influence on the broader culture has been much slower and spasmodic. Sometimes people reproach Christianity for spawning wars such as the Crusades or the European civil wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This seems remarkably naïve to me. War has been a constant throughout human history. Pre-Christian Europe was racked by war and conquest, as was pre-Christian Africa, Asia, and North America. The “Prince of Peace” may be criticized for not having eradicated the human propensity to violence, but he cannot be held responsible for inspiring or encouraging it. Christianity may have been a pretext for war, but it has never been the true cause of war.

Christian teaching has made individuals better, and over time the cumulative effect of those millions of individual behaviors have served to make society, or at least Christian societies, marginally better. Humanity as a whole still has a long way to go. I have a Chinese friend who did not grow up with any Christian influence but who has been stuck as an adult by the altruism of Christian behavior in America as contrasted with the daily life he experiences in China. Christians simply behave better toward one another and toward others than do the Chinese who have no religious upbringing. Christianity emphasizes generosity over selfishness, patience over anger, honesty over greed, forgiveness over hatred, and humility over arrogance. Where human nature is allowed to express itself uninfluenced by Christianity, you may expect the latter traits to overshadow the former.

Perhaps someone will object that they know several kind, compassionate, and noble people who are not believers in God. If they are North Americans or Europeans or South Americans, I would suggest that this is probably because they have been reared by Christian parents or at least in a society imbued over the last millennium with Christian values. They may not consciously recognize the source of their character traits and values, but you may be sure that Christianity is probably somewhere at the root.

Christianity has not been able to reform human nature entirely. That was not its intention from the outset. The goal of Christianity was and is to reconcile humanity to God despite the human inclination toward evil (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). That said, Christianity has tried to make the world a better place both one person at a time and nation by nation. As I write, Christian missionaries are at work in Russia, Ukraine, and China attempting to undo decades of atheistic indoctrination. Unfortunately, the moral progress of continents and nations is glacially slow. Slow, to be sure, but not completely unnoticeable. If American politics are slightly less corrupt than, say, Afghan politics, it is due in large part to the Christian foundation of our nation. If not that, then what does make the United States more amenable to justice and human rights than other nations?

I believe any unbiased historian must admit that Christianity has played a key role. The abolitionists of the nineteenth century were primarily Christian. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written by the daughter of a Christian minister, Henry Ward Beecher. The British slave trade was abolished largely through the efforts of William Wilberforce, a committed Christian. One may counter that southern preachers justified slavery using the Bible, but the simple truth is that their Christian theology was wrong. The New Testament nowhere justifies slavery or presents it as something desirable. Written in the days of the Roman Empire, it recognizes slavery as a societal reality dating from a pre-Christian antiquity, but it strives only to attenuate the evils of slavery, not to defend slavery itself.

The British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once wrote, “I’ve spent a number of years in India and Africa, where I found much righteous endeavor undertaken by Christians of all denominations; but I never, as it happens, came across a hospital or orphanage run by the Fabian Society [a British socialist association] or a Humanist leper colony.” Granted, in our day there are a few secular organizations like Doctors Without Borders (1971) that do amazing charitable work, but they are following the lead of a long and distinguished Christian tradition, for example, the work of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965).

Christians have established more colleges, hospitals, child-care facilities, and retirement homes than any other group, secular or governmental. Think about The Red Cross (1863), started by Jean Henri Dunant (1828-1910), reared a devout Christian in Switzerland. Dunant was also the father of the Geneva Convention and received the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. Consider The Salvation Army (1865), started by the Methodist minister William Booth (1829-1912). Goodwill (1902) was founded in Boston by Edgar J. Helms (1863-1942), a Methodist minister and social innovator. Alcoholics Anonymous (1935) sprang from ideas provided by an Episcopal rector, Sam Shoemaker (1893-1963), who led the American branch of a Christian movement known as the Oxford Group. The list of Christian good works is nigh endless.

Dennis Prager, a Jewish author and radio host, has said, “Imagine it’s midnight, and you are walking in a very bad area of the city. You’re alone in a dark alley, and all of a sudden you notice that ten men are walking toward you. Would you or would you not be relieved to know that they had just attended a Bible class?” I think that says it all. Whether Christianity is true or not, I may never know in this life, but I am absolutely sure it is good and beautiful. Christianity is by no means garbage.

December 14, 2012

Does Teaching French Have a Future?

Sitting in the waiting room of an automobile dealership while my car was being repaired, I overheard the conversation of a customer and a salesman as they waited for the sales manager to appear. “My son-in-law just got out of the Air Force, and he can’t find a job anywhere,” the customer said, “I don’t understand why; he speaks three languages.” “But what can you do with that,” the salesman countered, “hold a conversation?”

For some years now, it has been a family joke that all I can do with my knowledge of French is hold a conversation. There is some truth to that. It took me ten years of studying French before I really felt comfortable holding a conversation, before I actually knew I could talk about most anything to anyone without embarrassing myself. Reading Flaubert can in some ways be easier than holding a conversation. But that dodges the real question. Is learning French worthwhile in and of itself or is it largely useless unless combined with other knowledge and skills? And do large numbers of Americans feel an urge to converse in French, especially given the years of effort it requires?

The utilitarian arguments for learning French, in my experience, simply do not persuade doubters. Most people recognize that studying a language for two or even four years is not mastering a language. To conduct serious business in any language takes many years of study and practice. Ironically, the language you spend years mastering may not turn out to be the one in popular demand by the time you need a good job. When I was young, pundits said Americans needed to learn Russian. Now, the fad is to learn Mandarin Chinese or Arabic or Pashto. Who knows what the future language du jour will be?

The argument that studying a foreign language opens a whole new cultural world is not that compelling either. After all, deep cultural insights come mainly at higher levels of language proficiency when you can read sophisticated prose and poetry or experience the culture first-hand by living in it on its own terms—experiences few American students will ever have. Furthermore, cultural insights are not automatically beneficial. Sometimes experiencing a foreign culture only reinforces your ethnocentrism, especially when the contact is as superficial as that of most American students.

The claim that studying a particular foreign language opens the mind to understand the nature and structure of language is valid, but arguably someone could acquire much the same understanding in less time and with less effort by studying linguistics. When I was reading Homer in the original Greek, my professor suggested to our class that it was good for our English. I loved studying classical Greek, but that statement struck me as absurd. Besides, who, beyond an elite, actually needs to know the nature and structure of language?

Attempts to quantify the value of studying the humanities ultimately seem pointless to me. Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point. For most students, the purpose of studying a foreign language is to fulfill a requirement either for admission to college or for graduation from college. That is the primary utilitarian reason. Which language they choose, however, depends sometimes on what is available, sometimes on the advice of parents, and sometimes, magically, on their own personal dreams and predilections. French has a future to the extent it can capture the imagination of young people.

France did fuel the imagination of many Americans from Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin in the eighteenth century to ex-patriots like Ernest Hemingway and Richard Wright in the twentieth. When I was growing up in the 1950s, France seemed to be at the height of its popularity. Movies like An American in Paris (1951), Sabrina (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), Funny Face (1957), and Gigi (1958) honed the image of France as a place of sophistication and style where dreams could come true. Ella Fitzgerald made Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris” a big hit in 1956. No wonder, then, that French was the most commonly taught foreign language in the 1950s and continued its dominance until around 1967, when it was clearly beginning to lose ground to Spanish. France continues to charm many Americans, although it has evidently lost much of its allure among opinion makers such as film directors, song-writers, and politicians. Mitt Romney doesn’t like to advertise that he speaks French.

Does French have a future? Yes, of course. It has a future as long as France has a future. It has a future because of France’s glorious past and vibrant present. But the cultural hegemony of France, which once had a strong claim to exist, has declined, and stereotypes of France seem, generally speaking, to command the minds of average Americans. The real question is, “Does France have a future in American classrooms?”

Ultimately, the motivation to learn French, believe it or not, is much the same today as it was for Thomas Jefferson long before he became an ambassador. As a young man, his imagination was inspired by writers like Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire. His house was full of products imported from France, products he found both useful and pleasing in their style and sophistication. In purely utilitarian terms, it is hard to complete with Spanish and Chinese, but for “culture vultures” France competes quite well.

Almost forty years ago (March 1975), Jon R. Kimpton was arguing in the French Review that French was “for humanism, for culture, for literature.” He saw himself, even then, as a voice crying in the wilderness of utilitarianism to return to the old paths. While high culture should not be the sole aim of French studies, Americans simply do not associate French with practicality and probably never will. At best, they associate French with glamor and exoticism, with something different from the humdrum of pragmatic American culture. American French teachers, I think, must either work that angle or be kicked to the curb.

Young Americans deciding which language, if any, to study are only incipient “culture vultures.” Many of them know in their idealistic heart of hearts they want something more than practicality, but that spark has to be fanned into flame. Today, no longer aided by the popular culture of movies and music, the local French teacher has to do the fanning. Years ago, I met a retiring French professor who had run a small but successful program for many years. He loved French, and the students loved him. French today has a future in the United States to the extent that French teachers can project love for the language (in all its manifestations) and for their students. American students and schools, in turn, will be fair only to those teachers and electives they love.

July 24, 2010

Crystallized Intelligence

It stands to reason that the intellect of youth and the intellect of age are different. The human brain is an organ of the body that, like the arms, lungs, and legs, is stronger in one’s younger years. It is funny and sad at the same time to see a 45 or 50-year-old man trying to play basketball full court with the younger guys. And although the current world chess champion, Viswanathan Anand, is 40 years old, he, too, is considered past his prime. The highest rated chess player in the world, based on tournament results, is Magnus Carlsen, and Magnus is only 19. A professional chess player in his forties is much like a professional baseball player or a professional golfer in his forties: He may still play very well on a given day, but his overall performance is slowly in decline.

Are we surprised that many if not most of the world-changing discoveries in science and mathematics were made by young people? Einstein was 26 when he published his paper on the special theory of relativity. Isaac Newton was 22 when his discovery of the generalized binomial theorem led to the creation of calculus. In poetry, the same often holds true. John Keats composed his “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to Autumn” before turning 24. Arthur Rimbaud wrote “Le Bateau ivre” at 17. Jesus, another great poet, died at 33. I sometimes wonder what his thinking would have been had he lived another 33 years.

José Raúl Capablanca, the world champion of chess in the second and third decades of the twentieth century, wrote an interesting description of himself for The New York Times in 1927 (when he was soon to be 39 years old). He compares himself as an older player to himself as a young challenger in 1911. Using the royal “we,” he writes: “At San Sebastian in 1911, our first international encounter, we did not have much confidence of carrying the chief prize, but we had plenty of ambition . . . . Today we have plenty of confidence . . . but most of our ambition is gone. Then we were practically ignorant of our opponents’ qualities, but we had a tremendous capacity for work. Today we know our opponents thoroughly, but alas! our capacity for work is not the same. Then we were very nervous and upset. Today we are cool and collected and nothing short of an earthquake can ruffle us. We have more experience but less power.” Capablanca lost his title that year to a younger man and never regained it.

Most of us older folk can relate to what Capablanca said about himself. His analysis becomes only more germane as one moves into the forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies. We perceive that the raw intelligence of youth (the power) has been replaced by the crystallized intelligence of age (the experience). What are the characteristics of crystallized intelligence and how is it, in some ways perhaps, complementary to the raw intelligence of youth?

I believe crystallized intelligence presents at least three qualities: self-knowledge, perspective, and clarity.

Self-knowledge: The older we become, the more self-aware we generally become. We come to know who we really are, what our strengths and weaknesses truly are. We are less likely to deceive ourselves with flights of fancy. As we grow older, we become more curious about our grandparents, our parents, and the family tree in general. The senior intellect is more retrospective, more interested in making sense of the life it has lived and the self it has experienced.

Perspective: Cumulative thought and experience teaches us that intelligence and wisdom often do not cohabitate. The older mind tends to be more realistic and wary. It has learned that beauty and character do not always inhabit the same package, that de-accumulation may triumph over accumulation, and that many things represent a waste of both time and money. As the poet Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) once wrote:

When I can look Life in the eyes,
Grown calm and very coldly wise,
Life will have given me the Truth,
And taken in exchange--my youth.

Clarity: The term “crystallized” suggests hard yet clear. The older mind, while not as agile or quick, has a sharper sense of what it knows and doesn’t know. It may not be as powerful, but it is more settled. It often prefers non-fiction to fiction, and finds that passages of text (in, say, the Bible or the Declaration of Independence or a novel) deemed obscure in youth take on new meaning with age. Stendhal famously said that one could not fully appreciate his novel, La Chartreuse de Parme, until one had passed 40.

The reason baseball managers, basketball coaches, and head football coaches are rarely in their thirties is because the coach, while no longer able to perform spectacularly the sport he coaches, has nevertheless the insight, perspective, and perspicuity to tell young players how best to achieve excellence in the sport. In that sense, age can say, “Do as I say, even if I personally cannot do it myself.” No doubt, some young players resent this, but in time, as we know, they will come to appreciate its validity.

Crystallized should not imply fossilized. Older minds, to be sure, must keep on taking in information, keep on processing experience, and keep on refining ideas. The old and the young must work in tandem for society to be at its best. A church, for example, without at least three generations among its membership, remains incomplete and lacking. “Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait” (If youth but knew, if age but could) is a French proverb that still holds true. In short, age with its perspective and clarity can be of great service to youth with its power and acuity.

March 29, 2010

Unfair Ways to Argue or Debate

1. Use emotionally-charged words.

Example: Barack Obama is an ultra-liberal who is leading the country toward socialism.

Remedy: Translate the other person’s speech into emotionally neutral words before considering the soundness of the argument itself.

2. Label an opponent in an attempt to discredit him or her. This is also known as “poisoning the well.”

Example: Barack Hussein Obama is nothing but a closet Muslim.

Remedy: Point out that discrediting an opponent is not a valid form of argument because it merely distracts attention from the real issue or issues under discussion.

3. Make statements in which “all” is stated or implied but “some” is true.

Example: Democrats are for bigger and bigger government.

Remedy: Put the word “all” into your opponent’s statement and show it is false. All Democrats are not in favor of bigger government.

4. Prove one’s point by selected instances.

Example: Barack Obama is an extremist because he attended a church whose preacher made outrageous statements.

Remedy: Point out the fact that one instance taken out of context does not offer conclusive proof.

5. Extend an opponent’s proposition by contradiction or by misrepresentation of it.

Example: You Democrats think you can cure every social ill by throwing money at it.

Remedy: Restate the more moderate position that you are defending.

6. Defend one’s position by the use of a formulaic phrase that sounds true but is not.

Example: "Well, where there’s smoke, there’s fire." "You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs."

Remedy: Analyze the formulaic phrase and demonstrate its unsoundness or irrelevance.

7. Divert the conversation to another question, a side issue, or make some irrelevant (yet often controversial) objection. This fallacy is often called a “red herring.”

Example: That’s the kind of argument Communists used to make, and look where it got them.

Remedy: Refuse to be diverted from the real issue. Restate the real question under discussion.

8. Prove something with a logically invalid argument, such as the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy.

Example: Barack Obama gets elected and the stock market tanks. That shows he is bad news for American business.

Remedy: Ask the opponent to explain more clearly the connection between the statement and the proof. Might there be another reason the stock market went down?

9. Recommend a position because it is the mean between two extremes.

Example: John McCain is the best candidate because he is neither as liberal as Barack Obama nor as conservative as George W. Bush.

Remedy: Deny the usefulness of compromise as a method for discovering the truth. All candidates can be shown to be the mean between two extremes of one kind or another.

10. Use a syllogism with an undistributed middle term, often in the form of guilt by association.

Example: All liberals are citizens. All Democrats are citizens. Therefore, all Democrats are liberals.

Remedy: Make a diagram to show that the argument is unsound because the middle term (common to both the major and minor premise) is not universal, that is, not all citizens are either liberals or Democrats.

11. “Beg the question” by proposing a conclusion based on a premise that has not been proved. “Begging the question” is assuming the truth of something yet to be proven.

Example: Republicans must be smarter than Democrats because they have more money.

Remedy: Show that this begs the question by assuming that intelligence is directly related to the size of one’s bank account. Try to focus in on what the fundamental question is.

12. Argue in a circle (aka using "circular reasoning").

Example: If you want to help small business, vote Republican. Republicans are the party that supports business. Therefore, you must vote Republican candidates in order to support small business.

Remedy: Arguing in a circle is a longer form of begging the question, involving more than one step. Show that the point in question, in this case, that Republicans are the only pro-business party, has been assumed but not proven. Consequently, the conclusion is not necessarily valid.

13. Suggest something is true merely by repeatedly affirming it.

Example: Democrats are tax and spend liberals who have no respect for fiscal responsibility.

Remedy: Point out that just saying something repeatedly, loudly, or even eloquently doesn’t necessarily make it so.

14. Appeal to some admired or famous person as if he or she were an authority on the question when that really is not the case.

Example: Chuck Norris endorsed Mike Huckabee for president.

Remedy: Show that it is an appeal to an unsuitable authority, someone who is implied to be an authority on the question but who, in reality, is not.

15. Attempt to sound authoritative by using technical jargon (or sometimes pseudo-technical).

Example: Your account is safe on this website. It is protected by end-to-end 128 bit encryption.

Remedy: Modestly ask the speaker to explain in plain English what the jargon means. Explore the argument for flaws. For example, risks to Internet security are not limited to the lines of communication.

16. Use leading questions to draw out damaging admissions.

Example: When did you stop beating your wife?

Remedy: Refuse to be trapped by leading questions whose very wording assumes a mistake or fault.

17. Appeal to a “recognized” authority.

Example: Warren Buffett endorsed Barack Obama.

Remedy: Consider whether the person reputed to have authority had a sound reason for making the assertion attributed to him.

18. State a doubtful proposition in such a way that it fits with the thought habits or the prejudices of the hearer.

Example: A person with a name like “Barack Hussein Obama” ought to be the president of Kenya rather than the president of the United States.

Remedy: Show that the proposition is irrelevant to the real subject under discussion.

19. Suggest false alternatives.

Example: In his heart of hearts, is Barack Obama really a socialist or a capitalist?

Remedy: Show that the choice is not either/or.

20. Attempt to discredit an opponent by ridicule.

Example: If Barack Obama can’t even bowl decently, how can he lead the free world?

Remedy: Show there is no connection between the two statements that supposedly relate to each other.

21. Argue that something is true because it has not been proven false or false because it has yet to be proven true. This is making an appeal to ignorance.

Example: The State of Hawaii will not send me a copy of Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Therefore, Obama does not have an American birth certificate and is not qualified to be president.

Remedy: Show that just because someone has not personally seen an object does not mean it doesn’t exist. Explore what would be adequate proof of a proposition’s truth or falsehood.

22. Play upon the ambiguity of a word (or someone’s ignorance of its true meaning) to make an argument appear sound when it actually is not.

Example: Barack Obama is in favor of legitimizing the marriage of homosexuals because he is himself a homo sapiens.

Remedy: Document the true meaning of the word (such as “homo sapiens”) and show that it has nothing to do with the matter in question.

23. Create a “straw man” by offering a weak or ridiculous analogy to your opponent’s argument and then refuting it, thereby “refuting” your opponent’s argument as well.

Example: Socialized medicine often leads to rationing heath care, and rationing heath care will ultimately result in death panels that decide who should live and who should die. We don’t want a system that encourages the formation of death panels.

Remedy: Show that the “straw man” (here the “death-panel” system of health care) is a ridiculous misrepresentation of the matter under consideration. No one is proposing a plan that would allow the formation of death panels. The “death-panel” model is a straw man that is easy to dismiss, but it is not relevant to the argument because it is not the model being proposed.

This list was inspired by Robert H. Thouless, How to Think Straight: The Technique of Applying Logic Instead of Emotion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944): 171-179. Obviously, the examples are modern and may not be the best. If you know of unfair arguments I have overlooked or if you can come up with sharper examples, please comment.

February 23, 2010

Grace and Legalism

What characteristic most distinguishes Christianity from other world religions? Someone has suggested it is “grace”—the idea that one is saved solely by the unmerited sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross and not by any form of human merit or action.

Now “salvation” is largely a Judeo-Christian term, but the basic concept of getting right with God and being rewarded with eternal bliss has its counterparts in other religions as well. Muslims yearn for paradise; Buddhists seek enlightenment; Hindus desire to merge with the Absolute Soul and escape from the cycle of reincarnation.

The question, of course, is how does one attain ultimate bliss either before or after death? Is it a free gift with no strings attached or is it earned in some form or fashion? Most religions maintain you have to do something, even if, as some Christians say, it is as basic as just believing in Jesus as the Messiah and trusting in his atoning sacrifice.

Hindus have to seek the knowledge that helps overcome bad karma with good karma. Buddhists must look within themselves to conquer desire and acquire a true perception of reality. Muslims must uphold, insofar as possible, the five pillars of Islam to please Allah. Jews must attain the holiness of character and action that God requires. But in every religion, at least to some extent, it is the benevolent nature of deity or reality that allows such a path to bliss even to exist.

So, in the broadest sense, all religions have some notion of a universal benevolence one might term grace. But in the narrower sense, most religions teach that blissful outcomes are the result of human efforts rather than of a purely divine initiative. Christianity teaches that salvation is a divine gift whose only attached string is that the gift must be accepted.

Legalism is, in a way, the Christian counterpart to the teaching of most world religions that human action and initiative is essential. Legalism, like grace, has both a broad and narrow sense. Broadly speaking, it is the idea that one can please God only by adhering scrupulously to a law or a code of conduct. Narrowly speaking, legalism is the process of thinking like a lawyer and trying to define precisely every word and intent of that law code.

To give one simple example, a Christian legalist would see the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:32 to constitute a Christian law about divorce: “Everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Defining the meaning of each word in this law would then be necessary in order to obey the law perfectly. The paramount question becomes, “Is there a legal loophole that might justify divorce and remarriage for a good Christian?” If not, is there any way around this law of divorce—say, a generous policy regarding annulments?

The foundation of legalism is the belief that salvation depends on keeping the law, a human activity. The forgiveness found in Jesus (or, for Jews, in connection with Yom Kippur) goes only so far. If you continue to break the law of God, the sacrifice of Jesus will eventually lose its efficacy and forgiveness leading to salvation will become impossible. As Hebrews 10:26 says, “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.”

The tension between grace and legalism is strong in Christianity. Even Paul recognized it in the first century (Romans 6:1-4) by alluding to those who thought that grace (free pardon in Christ) might be a license to sin all the more. This tension is usually resolved by saying that good behavior is a grateful response to grace, not a way of earning salvation. As Thomas Erskine said, "Religion is grace; ethics is gratitude."

But this does not solve the tipping point issue: At what point does repeated bad behavior nullify grace? Even more to the point, exactly what kind of bad behavior will bring about a Christian’s damnation? Some Christians say, “Once saved by grace, always saved by grace.” Others are not so sure. They think the Bible teaches there are many things you can do to lose your salvation (e.g., Hebrews 3:12; 6:4-6; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 1 Corinthians 9:27).

A more subtle form of legalism is patternism. Patternism is the assumption that there is in the New Testament a detailed blueprint for the conduct of Christianity. Patternism becomes a variant of legalism when the perceived blueprint becomes a law in and of itself, and lawyers must argue over every detail of the pattern.

For example, in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, the writer lists the qualities one should look for in bishops (overseers) and deacons (servants) of the church. In 1 Timothy 3:1, Paul says an overseer should be “the husband of one wife.” According to patternism, this quality is a qualification that must be carefully defined. Obviously, the qualification requires an overseer to be married. But does it mean an overseer can never have been divorced (one and only one wife)? Does it mean an overseer cannot be a widower (one living wife)? Does it mean an overseer can never remarry if his first wife dies (one wife forever)?

Patternism taken to the extreme sees most everything mentioned in the New Testament (or even not mentioned) as a potential law whose infraction might send a person to hell. According to this thinking, divorcing a mate for any reason other than proven adultery is a grievous sin. But so is having a church kitchen, since kitchens are not mentioned in the New Testament. So is having multiple communion cups, since scripture says Jesus took “the cup.”

The list of prohibited things can be quite long, and one violation is just as damning as the next since God expects complete obedience. The lawyers of the church must constantly argue over what is binding and not binding, which practices unmentioned in the New Testament are mere aids to legal activities and which are illegal additions to the scriptural pattern.

For centuries, Christians have had to navigate between the extremes of legalism and license. Legalism often casts doubt on the hope of salvation because you never know if have lived just right. Patternism adds to the number of “laws” that must be followed and leads to even more bickering and division over how those laws must be obeyed. License, ironically, is just an egocentric form of legalistic thinking. License says, “If there is no law preventing it, I can do whatever I want.” The focus is still on outward constraint or absence of constraint rather than upon an inward directive to find and do what is truly right.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!” Despite how human beings distort it, religion is ultimately about magnanimity rather than pettiness. In Hinduism and Buddhism, everyone is eventually "saved," thanks to the fact that reincarnation gives you a billion or more tries to get it right. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam give you only one lifetime, but they assure you God really wants you to be saved—if you will only give Him a little cooperation.