The Indefensible Senate

Indefensible: incapable of being maintained as right or valid; incapable of being justified or excused. So says Miriam-Webster.

Today the United States Senate made an indefensible decision.

Sometimes, an abortion fails. Despite the efforts of the abortionist, the baby is instead born alive. The Senate voted on legislation intended to protect newborn, living children—the living miracles of botched abortions. The bill was simple: require physicians to offer medical care to a living newborn baby. In other words, the legislation, if passed, would have forbidden an abortion doctor to allow a newborn child to die from lack of medical care.

But the bill failed to pass. A bill to forbid physicians from engaging in passive infanticide could not muster the requisite 60 votes.

This decision is a moral abomination. It is barbarous. It is savagery. It is stomach-turning. It is, in a word, indefensible.

Slow, All-Too-Human, and Inefficient

With that title, you’d think I’m about to address government bureaucracy, geriatric yoga classes, or land wars in Asia. But really I’m talking about the Church. The progress of the Church on earth is slow, all-too-human, and inefficient. But it’s also supernaturally-empowered, relentless, and miraculously effective.

Recently I watched a video of lava. No, not the bright red, fast-flowing kind that you always imagined when, as a child, you jumped from couch to chair to couch across your living room, but the slow moving, crumbling, inexorably consuming everything in its path kind of lava. This particular video featured a time-lapse record of a sloth-like but unstoppable wall of lava consuming a small car. Inch by inch it advanced, taking ground, while burning and grinding under its heat and weight any and every object in its path. It wasn’t fast, but it was effective.

The Church is often a mess. It moves slowly. Sometimes in the providence of God great winds of revival blow across the land and the Church advances quickly. More often, however, the Church is crumbling lava. Its movement is barely perceptible, and its advances stand nearly invisible to the naked eye. But that type of advance, viewed through the lens of 2000 years, boasts of profound victories. From a small band of disciples, the Christian Church now inhabits the globe. Its missionaries relentlessly seek out unreached people groups. Its pastors continue slowly and methodically to teach men and women to love God and their neighbors, and to share the reason for the hope that girds the heart of every Christian. Nations rise and fall, governments come and go, and cultures ebb and change. But the Church remains. Word, sacraments, and prayer. Repeat.

In America today, Christians seem to have lost sight of this long view. Sometimes, the slow, steady work of gospel ministry gives way to rapid advances. At other times the Church appears to recede. But in the long view, the Kingdom of Christ ever advances, inexorably, inch-by-inch taking ground. Because Jesus himself empowers the work of the Church, his supernatural influence guarantees that his Church never can be, in the long run, unsuccessful. It will accomplish all that he has designed it to accomplish. No obstacle will thwart its advance—not men, nations, ideologies, or cultural changes—not even the abject failures and sins of the Church itself.

When tortoises run they do not excite us in the same way a bounding jackrabbit does. But maybe there’s something to be said for slow and steady. It works for lava. And it works for the Church.

On Education and Humility

When, as a child, I imagined adulthood, I assumed that my sense of self would match the calendar—that I would feel as old as my birthday suggested. But, like many before me, I have navigated much of my adult life feeling little different inside than I did when I was seventeen. What I expected from adulthood is very different from the reality.

In the same way, when I began a PhD program I assumed I would feel educated upon completing it. But, not unlike my assumptions about adulthood, the reality has proven different from the expectation.

Two factors contribute to this feeling. First, deep study in any given field reveals to the student just how much knowledge comprises that field. The more educated the student becomes, the more he realizes just how little he knows. Second, deep study in any given field requires the student to remain ignorant of many other fields. James W. Alexander once quipped that to master a given field of study the student must “heroically . . . determine to be ignorant of many things in which men take pride.” During the time in which I focused my energies to master one discipline, my ignorance of many others necessarily grew.

As a result, my reticence to speak authoritatively—to declaim as if I know something—has increased as my education has increased. In the past I have spoken, blogged, and engaged on social media, often fancying myself some kind of expert or authority. Never mind that everything I know of economics or art or nuclear physics could fit into a thimble with room to spare. I read an article on Facebook. Hence, I was an expert. If further academic work has taught me anything, it has taught me a much-needed lesson in humility. Going forward, I hope to bite my tongue far more than I use it.

Sometimes a person who possesses genuine expertise in one field mistakenly fancies himself an expert in all fields. I knew a man whose expertise resides in the field of fluid dynamics, but who nevertheless spoke confidently about theology, law, and a variety of other fields in which he possessed no training whatsoever. I found him slow to learn and apt to argue. Although I had enjoyed far more training in theology, he could not learn from me, for he fancied himself more an expert than me. I hope not to repeat his error, and to remember that my particular expertise is profoundly limited in scope and non-transferrable to other disciplines.

In short, more than any fact I learned or expertise I gained, my education has given me a healthy dose of caution about the limits of my education.