The above video shows a preacher, Paul Washer, responding to a young mans’ open query about the doctrine of election (transcript here) The doctrine of election is the belief some Christians have that people are chosen solely by God’s free will (from before their birth) to be made able to be true Christians and thus to be spared the fate of the rest of humanity, hell. In fact Paul Washers explanation takes a while to get to election specifically. He is almost entirely focused on describing the complete evil of humanity. That’s his take* on a connected doctrine called total depravity and it’s also what I want to focus on in this post.
When I watched this clip I was fascinated. I was fascinated because there are statements made in this video which are excruciatingly difficult to refute. That isn’t because they are supported by a mountain of evidence or any evidence. Instead they are hard to refute because although the video shows those statements being made and being agreed to they are the sorts of statements I can’t figure out the how of disagreeing or agreeing with them. They are not nonsense but neither are they proper conclusions.
We could call these statements “first principles”; original premises we simply have to accept or not. First principles frame our discussion but they themselves are virtually impossible to actually talk about. An example of a first principle in rationalism might be that “Truth is constant.” If one person accepts that and another doesn’t then their conversation is going to be deeply difficult. It’s the sort of statement that defines the frame of conversation rather than exists within it.
A greater concern than how can two people with different first principles communicate is a question for our selves alone; How can we decide to accept or not “first principles” if we can’t say anything about them?; Are we obliged to just choose randomly between frames of conversation?; Or can we have a means of choosing one over another?
All this philoso-waffle about these statements doesn’t remove from us the responsibility of responding to them. Here they are filmed being received by a young man. I feel a moral responsibility to have something to say to that young man myself. Repeatedly they are being led to confess in this video that humanity is evil. My instinctual desire is to protect this young man from these ideas. To know oneself as evil seems to me to be a very primal harm. At least I want him to know he is not being given clear and obvious “facts”. Can I justify myself?
The claim that humanity is evil is also being received by me in viewing the video. What do I do with it? Is there really no way to test this? If I reject it am I doing so arbitrarily? Where does my disagreement come from?
Is the statement “humanity is evil” actually uncriticisable?
Are we all evil? This is a bit like asking if E.T. is a terrible movie. On the one hand, of course it isn’t. I can’t think of anyone who would say it is all that bad. It’s a bit cheesy but as a kid’s film it’s definitely not Care Bears 2. However what exactly is a terrible movie? Imagine that a perfect children’s film exists in the ideal although it has never been actually made. If my standard of a decent film is that high then even E.T. becomes terrible.
Arguing over whether humans are evil stands on similar shifting sand. If we define evil as incapable of any goodness then it’s hard to say all humans are evil. Fred Hollows comes to mind. If we define evil by some higher standard ie. you are evil if you ever told a lie then probably not even Fred Hollows isn’t evil. If our intent is to say that all humans are evil then we can simply achieve that by claming that an ideal standard exists which is both just a measure of decentness and which no-one has achieved.
Furthermore what if the very nature of our evil is to not think we are evil! What if that pride alone is sufficient to be evil? This would put us in a neat Catch 22 situation; either we think we are evil or we are being evil. My own experience of evangelical Christianity included just such a scenario.
The problem with defining evil by any specific criteria is that evil is a moral word. Moral words don’t translate to IS statements so much as they translate to SHOULD statements. So although some of us might think that Evil is committing murder without remorse, or that Evil is having told a single lie, someone else could just as easily say Evil is not worshipping God or Evil is not thinking you are evil. We are only trading measures not true definitions. The only common definition that we could ever establish for evil is something like evil is what should be condemned and shouldn’t be praised.
What “should” does humanity’s evil refer to? And what that uncovers.
Paul Washer is very specific about the type of should he is talking about with human evil. Paul provides an explanation of humanity as the orcs in The Lord of the Rings. Sauruman makes orcs come out of the ground evil.** Aragon and the others slaughter those orcs “like insects” and this is always to be celebrated because those orcs are always evil. Paul says his listener’s problem with the doctrine of election is because he doesn’t think that people are truly evil. It follows that treating human destruction as anything less celebratory than the destruction of orcs is an error based on that. That’s what human evil means when Paul is talking about it; we should celebrate humanities destruction.
The problem with this definition is that “should” is a word with its own variety of meanings. Usually we use “should” to indicate chains of positive consequences with a moral end. A common moral end is the quality of life for intelligent beings, particularly humans, and even more particularly “innocent” humans.
Eg. You “shouldn’t” drive while drunk. It could lead to hitting a pedestrian. They could end up brain-damaged or dead.
(Note: Killing the pedestrian is given more moral weight than killing yourself who as the drink driver is not innocent. However killing yourself and thus bereaving your child who is innocent has a similar moral weight as it also involves an innocent.)
Paul Washers “evil” employs a very different type of should to the common use above. Firstly in Paul Washers scenario there are no innocents; All people are evil by nature and this makes all peoples welfare an unimportant moral end. Here Paul has conflated a general badness with non-innocence. This is something which we all do.
Eg. You “shouldn’t” drive while drunk past a wanton child abusers house. It could lead to hitting them. They could end up brain-damaged or dead. Actually who cares?
However it is also something which we are wary about doing. The wanton child abuser may be generally evil (as in the orc/human of Paul Washers theology) however they are not specifically responsible for the drink driving so in regard to this crime they are an innocent (ie. just a pedestrian). Maintaining the relevance of specific innocence is a key way to maintain moral actions. Losing that distinction can be the basis for committing terrible acts precisely because people lose their status as moral ends.
Paul Washer doesn’t just stop with the erosion of the category of specific innocence however. For Paul it is not even a tally of peoples unrelated crimes that make them deserving of any destruction but their very nature. This means that even people who have yet to earn their destruction, such as children, already warrant it. This is a moral reasoning that goes far beyond that of the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Towers. It is actually more akin to the rationale behind the Holocaust.
None of this necessarily shows us that Paul is wrong. It merely shows us the historical implications of referring to a group of people as “evil” (on the basis of a broad tally of their crimes or worse on the basis of their nature). In Paul Washers defence he is not talking about a Holocaust of Jews only, but of Jews and Germans and all people equally. All we can really say is that Paul Washer is saying that we should delight in the coming holocaust against all humanity by God. And that’s where we were at the beginning.
Although we’ve added very little, if anything, to our understanding, we have uncovered along the way a means of provoking our self to disagree with Paul. That is the reason why even the death of a drink driver in their own accident can’t be celebrated; our children. There were eight children killed on the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Towers in New York. That’s a surprisingly low number given the total deaths. The youngest was two and a half. In the Holocaust 1.5 million children were killed. The circumstances of some of those deaths are what I would recognize as evil. The children however were not. They were innocents in the truest sense.
Another way of looking at morality.
By focusing on children we can recognize that there are two (amongst many) very different ways of looking at morality. Paul Washers use of “should” is a super-rational approach which imposes right and wrong over our instincts. If all are evil like Suaramon’s orcs then Aragon’s murder of them is to be enjoyed. That enjoyment is something Paul Washer encourages his young listener to identify with even though they are an orc (metaphorically speaking)! After all if something is right then it is right from all perspectives. Or rather if something is from Gods perspective then we should share it.
A very different way of looking at morality would notice that what is key to Tolkiens’ orcs is not that they come out of the ground universally evil but universally adult. There are no children orcs. If there were, then the adult orcs would need to look after them. That would create a dilemma because even if an adult is “evil” and their child is “evil” we would recognize the looking after the child by the adult as good. If we are orcs ourselves then we have such a moral responsibility to our children. This does not change if our children “are” evil in nature by any criteria ie. a propensity to lie or a taste for Hobbit flesh. We should never delight in their destruction. Essentially we should never see our children as evil (meaning that which we should condemn) even if they actually meet some objective measure of evil such as not wanting to worship God. Why? Because we should never condemn our children.
This second way of looking at morality doesn’t imbed it in a universal perspective but a parental perspective. The basis of morality is a tribal love of our children rather than a super structure of absolute truths. This is then universalized to others. Everyone is someone’s child and thus falls under a broadening umbrella of our love based on our sympathy with other parents.
This second way of looking at morality also presents us with a very different way of critiquing immorality. Immorality is not so much a matter of incorrect reasoning but of an incorrect intuitive, emotional and even physical response to a situation – such as a child’s destruction. No matter how sound a string of moral reasoning might be, if it contradicts a loving response to a child then the reasoning is itself immoral.
What I would say to the young man in the video.
I would encourage the young man to realize that what he has been told by Paul Washer should be forgotten if he ever holds a child, especially his own. The only definition of evil that we can all share is that evil is that which ought to be condemned. Paul takes that to mean the celebration of evils destruction. That child however is deserving of not being condemned, especially by their own father, not because of any innate meeting of good or bad criteria, but because of our right role as adults. Quite frankly if you aren’t prepared to feel that way then the rest of us are morally obliged to keep you away from children.
The very basis of morality is not our opinion about the opinions of a supreme being towards us. No matter how adamantly those opinions can be asserted (or how long ago they were written down even) this is clearly a shaky ground to stand on. The very basis of morality is our right response to our children, whether they are orcs or not.
*Paul Washers take on total depravity is not the same as everyone who uses that phrase. Paul Washers spends time on actually legitimising humanities destruction whereas others might merely mean total depravity as the human incapacity to know God or do good for the purposes of salvation. The two are connected but the latter leaves alone any actual justification for judgement. More importantly, Paul Washer is NOT representative of every Christian, many of whom do not even believe in any variation of total depravity.
**If we take this metaphor to its logical conclusion, then God who supposedly created humans is Sauramon. I suspect that wasn't Paul Washers intent. As I mentioned in this old blog post if we are going to say humans are evil we have the problem of sourcing that evil in humans.