Respect for the President

[Historical Note: this blog post was written prior to the U.S. Presidential election of 2016.  However, it highlights an issue which I think has been a problem with American politics for as long as I've been paying attention to it.]

"You shall not revile God, nor curse the ruler of your people." (Exodus 22:28)

Treat everyone with high regard: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:7)

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.... This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.  Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.  (Romans 13:1, 6-7)

Given the chaos of the election season, I just wanted to write a reminder to my fellow Christians who live in the United States about our civic and Christian duty to respect whichever person ends up being President next year.

I am writing this now, when both candidates have a significant chance of being elected, so that nobody will think I am a hypocrite, who only cares about this issue when somebody I like is in the White House.

(That does not mean I am neutral when it comes to this election.  While I am not a huge fan of either candidate this season, Donald Trump is far more dangerous, irresponsible, and crude than his rival, and I may have some personal difficulty in following my own advice if he is elected.  Although it is conceivable he would keep his promise to appoint justices to the Supreme Court in keeping with my own views, this year the "worst case scenarios" for the Executive Branch seem way worse than for the Judicial Branch.  But that doesn't change what I am going to say.)

Anyway, the Bible says you are supposed to honor the ruler of your country, because all rulers are appointed by God—not in the sense that God necessarily approves of their rise to power, nor the things they do while in charge—but rather in the sense that it is God's general will that governments exist and that, under normal circumstances, people should submit to duly constituted authorities.

There are two communities naturally ordained by God, based on the way he created human nature: family and governments.  Similarly, there are two communities that were supernaturally ordained by God: Israel and the Church.  The members of all these communities owe their leaders some degree of obedience and respect, because without that they cannot function as healthy communities.

In every other nation besides ancient Israel, God has left the details of how the government should be structured up to the human beings in that area.  At the time of the Bible, most governments were monarchies of various sorts.  Now we live in a democracy, where we have the privilege of choosing our own rulers.  That is a great blessing, but it does not change the fundamental reality of the situation.  Once we have chosen these rulers, in principle they have the exact same divine authority that would have existed in a monarchy—I mean when they are acting within the scope of their delegated powers; I'm very grateful we don't live in a society where the president is an absolute dictator!  (The President has no direct authority to command American citizens except where authorized to do so by law.)

Just as it is God's will that children should obey their parents, and (even after they grow up and are no longer subject to them) give them due honor for providing them with life, sustenance, and upbringing, so too should Christians obey legitimate government authority, and also give due respect to the individuals who exercise that authority, in a way that is appropriate given the democratic customs of our own society.

It does not matter if the individual in question is unworthy of the honor.  As people in the military say: "you salute the uniform, not the man".  When Sts. Peter and Paul wrote their letters, most likely the man in charge was NERO CAESER, who was not a very nice man.  If you are concerned about infanticide, torture, foreign conquests, denial of religious freedom, undermining separation of powers, or the "Imperial Presidency", well these things were all much worse in the Roman Empire than they are today, and yet the Apostles still taught that Christians should honor the king!  Jesus himself taught that we should "Render to Caeser what belongs to Caeser, and to God what belongs to God".

Of course, sometimes other ethical principles must take precedence over that of obeying authority.  If our earthly leaders tell us to sin, then we must "obey God rather than men".  For example, many early Christians were martyred rather than participating in the cult of Emperor worship.  A more recent American example was the civil disobedience that took place during the Civil Rights Movement.  In some extreme situations, a government may be so tyrannical that armed rebellion against it is morally necessary.  But I take it as obvious that the USA is not currently such a tyranny.

Of course, raw power is not the same as government authority.  To a brigand or conqueror who makes no pretense of ruling in his subjects' interest, but merely comes to plunder and rape and kill, we owe no respect or obedience whatsoever, quite the contrary!  But once such a person sets up laws and officials in order to promote the common good of society, then to that extent it is a government, and it should be submitted to in ordinary affairs until such time as it can be replaced with something better.

The Bible passages above make it clear that we are required to give respect and not merely grudging obedience to our leaders.  Of course, it is perfectly acceptable to criticize the President's policy decisions, to sound the alarm at usurpations of power, to whistleblow crimes, to reject immorality etc.  You are not required to agree with him or her, any more than the command to "honor your father and mother" means you must always agree with their decisions.

What is not acceptable is to take a constant tone of bitter disrespect, to express continual contempt, to make mean-spirited jokes (a genuinely funny joke is another matter), to make unwarranted comparisons to Hitler and Stalin, to believe every slanderous rumor you hear about them, to despise half the population for voting for them, etc.

Whenever a party's own politician is in charge, they can see quite clearly just how deranged the critics on the other side have become, and how it harms our ability to unite as a nation and make important decisions.  I urge you all to remember that the same thing is true when the other party's choice is in charge.  Politicizing every single issue isn't actually good for the country.  Each of the last 3 Presidents has been hated by the opposition party to a far greater extent than can possibly be healthy.  And "the other party started it" is not a good excuse.

Just as in other areas of life, people tend to rise and fall towards the expectations other people set for them.  As St. Chesterton once wrote:

"It is a practical course to destroy a thing; but the only other practical course is to idealize it. A respected despot may sometimes be good; but a despi[sed] despot must always be despicable."

[Brackets are my own speculative attempt to correct what I believe to be a 111 year old typo.]

If whatever the President does is viewed as an unprecedented assault on all the liberties we hold dear, the there is no incentive for them to be better than that, because the other side won't respect them even if they do follow the law.

We should also remember to pray for them, not just that they would do a good job, but also because the job is spiritually dangerous and they risk losing their own souls in the process.  Few Presidents escape the White House without rubbing off part of their consciences, through supporting actions that they would at one time have been outraged at.

Since the President is the representative of the whole nation, whoever curses the President also curses the nation, and therefore curses himself.  So instead be a blessing.  The same principles apply in politics as anywhere else:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)

Some last thoughts about voting:

1) Mathematically, your vote can make a significant difference on average (at least if an election is close).

2) There are other elections on Nov 8 besides the Presidential election, and they are also important!  Please research the candidates and cast an informed vote.

3) But, if you've walked into the voting booth just to vote for President, and you have no idea who or what the other things on the ballot are, then I recommend you leave these other ballot questions blank so that the voters who have researched those issues can decide them.  Please don't cast an uninformed vote; that just adds noise to the system.

Posted in Ethics, Politics, Theology | 17 Comments

Slides for Fining Tuning talk

Here are the slides for my recent talk at Ratio Christi, "Explanations for Fine Tuning":


Click on that link to find out about:

Part I: The physics of constants and units
Part II: How physicists diagnose fine-tuning
Part III: Some examples of fine tuned constants
Part IV: My own take on proposed explanations

Regrettably there was no recording, so those of you who weren't there won't get the benefit of the marathon Q&A session.  I try to put a lot of words on my slides, so hopefully most of them will be at least somewhat self-explanatory without me talking over them.  (I assumed the audience was already familiar with scientific notation...)

If you want to know more about the fine tuning of constants of Nature you could check out Luke Barnes' blog or order his book.  Or, if you are thirsting for a few more details about the "renormalization group flow" you could start with John Baez's explanation.

Posted in Talks | 71 Comments

Ratio Christi talk on Fine Tuning

Some of you may recall that last February I gave a talk on Science and the Resurrection to Ratio Christi, an apologetics club that meets at Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

Well, this Monday (the 26th) I'm giving a talk on "Explanations for Fine Tuning":

Were the laws of physics selected to produce life? This talk will
describe several examples of fundamental physics parameters which seem to be "fine-tuned", i.e. taking on special values that permit life to exist. We can use techniques from modern particle physics, such as the "renormalization group flow", to help decide which claims of fine-tuning are real, and which are only apparent. Some examples, such as the Cosmological Constant Problem, seem very unlikely to have any normal scientific explanation. I will argue that the only plausible solutions involve God or a multiverse.

Any of you who are in the area are welcome to attend.  This one is at 9 pm at the College Ave Student Center, room 411C.  For more details, see their Facebook page.  Please note that the location and time are different from my previous talk.

Posted in Talks | 19 Comments

Saints and Miracles

A reader kashyap asks:

Excuse me for a completely off-topic question, but this is of current interest to me.  I read in the paper that sainthood was bestowed upon Mother Theresa. One of the requirement is performance of two miracles.  I understand as a devout Christian, you believe that resurrection (a miracle) was so important that God made exception to the laws of nature to make it possible.  I do not have any problem in people believing in their faith. But my problem would be that if you require exceptions (miracles) for every sainthood, there would be too many exceptions to the laws of nature.  What is your opinion on this? If you have talked about such things before, please just give a reference.  Thanks.

The canonization of saints is a Roman Catholic thing, whereas Protestants like myself do not recognize the authority of the Pope, nor do we pray to saints.  Therefore I am not responsible for defending their canonization process, even though (in this case) it couldn't have happened to a nicer person...  ;-)

What is common ground, accepted by both groups, is that God calls all Christians to be saints, people who are holy just like he is holy, and fills us with his Holy Spirit in order to accomplish this.  Obviously, the results are more effective in some people's lives than in others, depending on our response to his grace.

Catholics* believe that people who are especially holy go directly to Heaven when they die (whereas they say that most Christians need to spend time in "Purgatory" being cleansed from their sins, before they can enter Heaven).  They believe that these people have an especially powerful ability to intercede with God, and that Christians on earth can petition saints in heaven to pray for their needs.  They also believe that the Pope has the power to infallibly* declare that certain deceased people are, in this sense, "saints"; although in modern times he normally only does this on the recommendation of a committee that investigates the person for evidence of "heroic virtue" and (yes) a minimum number of miracles.  (However, it is a common journalistic mistake, misrepresenting Catholic doctrine, to say that "sainthood was bestowed" on the person; in their theology it is God who makes somebody a saint; the church merely recognizes the fact afterwards, in some subset of cases.  On Nov 1st there is an "All Saints Day" holiday to commemorate all the saints who served in positions of obscurity, without earthly recognition.)  They also believe that the good works of the saints build up a "treasury of merit" which can be dispensed by the Pope to any Catholic who performs certain actions called "indulgences", in order to reduce or eliminate their time in Purgatory.

* at least, many Catholic theologians believe it is infallible

* The term catholic means "universal".  I generally use their preferred term out of politeness, although obviously I believe that Protestants are also full members of the "holy catholic church" founded by Jesus.

Whereas Protestants generally reject most of the things I mentioned in the previous paragraph.  We believe that the sacrifice of Christ already provides full forgiveness for all sins without needing to add any extra "merit" from saints on Earth or in Heaven.  And that, while there is nothing wrong with thanking God for the accomplishments of Christians of past ages, or of asking people on earth to pray for us, the practice of asking deceased people for favors is spiritually dangerous because of the temptation to idolatry, and the danger of treating saints (especially St. Mary) as though they were polytheistic deities having power of their own.  (Of course Catholics deny that this is what they are doing, but I don't think there are enough "safety measures" in place to prevent it from happening sometimes.)  Because of this danger, and because the practice is not commanded or authorized by the Bible, we avoid it.  We also do not believe that Purgatory has sufficient warrant in Scripture to be accepted as a doctrine; instead we teach that everyone who is saved goes directly to be with Jesus when they die.

It is the practice of the New Testament to refer to groups of Christian believers as "saints".  He wants us all to be holy, because he is Holy.  This is the justification for this blog's highly unique canonization policy.  To me holiness is a more important thing than miraculous signs, and there may be exceptionally holy people who never do any miracles at all.  The more important "miracle" is the work of transformation that God wants to do in people's hearts, in order to fill them with love, because he is Love.

Now none of this actually answers your question about the prevalence of signs and wonders.  I personally believe that God does a fairly large number of miracles even in modern times (associated with the ministries of many kinds of Christians, including Catholics and Protestants).  The most scholarly compilation of modern day Christian miracles I know of is in this 2 volume tome, by St. Craig Keener.  Despite the subtitle, the book is really mostly about modern times.  Since you are a Hindu I should also mention that non-Christian miracles are outside the scope of his work.  (I plan to blog about Keener's book eventually, but I haven't gotten around to it.)

Is this "too many exceptions"?  Well, too many for what purpose?  Most of these are miracles of healing, and judged from the poverty and diseases we see in many countries, one might just as easily argue that there are too few miracles in the present day, rather than too many.  Certainly there are not so many miracles that we are unable to do Science, and identify the usual course of events in Nature!

I guess the real question concerns the trade-offs God is making between consistency, mercy, and revelation, as he governs the world, but:

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.  (Psalm 139:6)


I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.  (Psalm 131:1)

where that the last Bible verse ought to be the motto for this blog, because I violate it almost every time I submit a post!

The Bible also records many miracles besides the Resurrection, although these miracles are more like "signs" or "pointers" that help illustrate particular points about the meaning of creation and salvation.  (This viewpoint is explained in St. Lewis book on Miracles, which is in turn based on St. Athanasius' book On the Incarnation.)  For example, when Jesus miraculously multiplied the bread and fish of a child's lunch in order to feed thousands of hungry people, this miracle illustrates the fact that God is always multiplying grain and fish in Nature, and that every time we eat we can be thankful for his loving provision.  It also reminds us of the spiritual nourishment which Jesus, the Bread of Heaven, provides to those that trust him.

Whereas the Incarnation of Christ, and especially his Death and Resurrection, is the central event of the Christian faith, the event that vanquishes sin, defeats death, and brings in life everlasting.  It permanently negotiated a new relationship between God and Man, and when Christ comes back from Heaven to Earth (I am talking about the return of the same body that was crucified in the 1st century, not reincarnation as a new human) his resurrection power will cause every human being who has ever lived to come back to life again with immortal physical bodies.  But it is not enough to merely ransom the human race; the entire universe will be renewed as well, so that there will be "a new Heaven and a new Earth, the home of righteousness" (2 Pet 3:13).  And there, his saints will reign with him forever.  So the Resurrection is indeed what you might call an important miracle, one that catalyzes a whole host of other miracles.

(Since earlier I was talking about disputes between different kinds of Christians, I should probably state that everything in the previous paragraph is agreed upon by all major branches of Christianity, including Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Coptics, and the Assyrian Church of the East.  In my view, the beliefs that all Christians share in common are more important than the doctrines that divide us.)

Anyway, you don't really say in your comment why you think it would be a problem to have "too many miracles", so I'm not sure how to respond right now.  But feel free to elaborate on your thinking in the comments section.

Posted in Theology | 25 Comments