On same-sex marriage

Last Friday, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across all 50 states. I had long intended to write something on this important and contentious issue - in fact, you can see that my last few posts have been laying the foundation in preparation for speaking on this topic. But, as many observers noted, the matter has moved with surprising speed, with no regard to the schedule of my little blog here. It's caught me a little off guard.

But this post must be about same-sex marriage, as now is the opportune time for such a post. I must begin with some disclaimers:
This post will focus on the public policy aspects of the marriage debate. I will not go too deeply into the theology on the nature of homosexuality, or how we should treat gay people, or what this means for the future. These issues are actually much more important than a debate about public policy, and I would have liked to addressed them before making this post, but they will have to wait until some future time. 
I am not a lawyer or a politician. I'm not even all that political most of the time. I'm first a Christian, who's also a citizen, who likes to think about things. So many of the things I say here will be outside of my domain. I welcome any corrections or advice on existing laws, studies, or policies that I'm unaware of. 
I am fairly certain, but not absolutely certain, on all of this. I can be convinced to change my mind by clear and well-reasoned arguments, but my hope is that by putting all this in writing, I don't simply drift with the flow of the times or get tossed by the waves.
Remember that it's more important to love than to be right
Let's get right to it: same-sex marriage should be legal, even though homosexual activity is a sin.

And although I said this mostly wasn't going to be about theology, that word - "sin" - is such an important theological concept that so many people misunderstand and misuse, that I feel compelled to explain it a bit. When I use that word, the foremost example that I have in mind is myself. I am a sinner, in part, because it is simply a part of the human condition. Please, understand what I mean by that word before you jump to any conclusions about what I'm trying to say.

Now, the Bible does have some things to say about homosexuality in general, but that theological discussion is the topic for another day (for real this time). But specifically with respect to the marriage question, the most applicable thing the Bible has to say is its teachings on divorce.

The Bible clearly teaches that divorce is something terrible. When a divorce takes place, it is almost certainly the result of some grave sins on the part of at least one party. I personally would put a very high moral value on the keeping a marriage together - it has, to me, a value equivalent to some non-negligible fraction of a human life.

And yet, despite the awfulness of divorce - despite the fact that all the arguments against same-sex marriage applies many times more for divorce - Americans get divorced all the time, and I know of no Christian movement to make divorce outright illegal. How could that be? Are we being grossly negligent in our duty to live out our faith?

I don't think so. In fact, God himself seems to agree, because he did give the Law through Moses which allowed for divorce. Jesus then clarifies the law and says that God does not approve of divorce, but allows for it "because your hearts were hard". Jesus is making a distinction between what God wants, and what God allows for as a result of human sin.

Some people have the idea that "the law of the land" should be synonymous with "the Good". I disagree. As Christians in particular, we should be aware of the duality of the Law and Grace at the heart of the Gospel. The Law - even the divinely inspired Mosaic Law - is not the ultimate good. It was never meant to be. American law is no different. There are legal things that are evil, and illegal things that are good. This is as it should be.

So, if we shouldn't make American law to be the ultimate good, what should it do instead? There is no single answer, but it's generally thought that the law should be good in its own domain: in particular, it should promote social harmony, equality, justice, liberty, and the like.

Again comparing same-sex marriage to divorce, you see that this is in fact what God has done with his law. He has allowed divorce, although it's not what he wants for us, to accommodate for our sinfulness. And this accommodation is made so that even in our sinfulness not everything is as bad as it can be: allowing for an official divorce is better than a lifetime of enmity, or a simple abandonment of your spouse and children. Likewise, although homosexuality is not something God wants for us, he's allowed us to accommodate it to achieve some social good.

In particular, we, as Americans, value equality before the law. Nobody should have to feels like they're second-class citizens. This, it seems to me, is a powerful and compelling argument, because its effects are so immediate: a homosexual couple can't get married, while a heterosexual couple can. The counterarguments (about some social consequences, such as the effect on children or whatnot) seem weaker in comparison, because they require more steps, and each step diminishes the probability of the ultimate consequence coming through.

If I had my way, I would simply get the government out of the marriage business altogether, rather than having it clumsily dictate what kinds of marriages are allowed or not allowed. I think that would be the most straightforward way to achieve equality, and disabuse people from thinking that "marriage" is some kind of prize that the government hands out. But failing that, I believe that allowing same-sex marriage is not a terrible solution, and better than the alternative of having a whole population excluded from the equal protection of the law.

There is much more to say, and much for me to think through - certainly, this issue will not simply end with just a this Supreme Court decision. As I said, I will revisit this topic in the future.

You may next want to read:
I am a sinner.
History, moral progress, and moral perfection (part 1)
Another post, from the table of contents

History, moral progress, and moral perfection (part 1)

Do you think that you live at the apex of moral history? That, after thousands of years bumbling and mistakes, your particular place (America, for instance) and time (June 2015) is when your society has finally gotten things right and achieved perfect virtue?

Obviously you don't. I hope none of us are so foolish, provincial, and self-absorbed as to think that. I think that a common and sensible reply to the question would be, "OF COURSE we don't have everything right. There are still many things wrong with our society, but we're slowly getting things right, even though we take many wrong turns along the way". Or, as someone else put it: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

Since I've just quoted Martin Luther King Jr., his cause will serve well to illustrate my point. In MLK's time, a good segment of the population apparently thought that racial discrimination was morally good. We, as a society, know better now. We've made moral progress, and we will continue to do so.

There are, of course, numerous other examples. The role of women in society has changed dramatically over the past century, and attitudes about gender roles from even just fifty years ago seem hopelessly outdated and sexist. In political ideology, the past century had powerful nation-states experiment with communism or fascism, and the world saw how incredibly wrong all that turned out. Tied up with some of these ideas was the practice of eugenics, which is now widely understood to be unethical.

Through all this, we, as a society, have come to understand something about morality: sometimes by changing and progressing to something better, other times by changing and realizing that it lead to horrible consequences. But ever so slowly, through many missteps, we've traced out a small section of the moral arc of the universe - and we can testify both to the fact that it's long and slow-changing, and that it bends towards moral improvement.

Now, consider that you almost certainly do not live in a special time in this moral arc of the universe. In particular, you do not live at that unique time when we've finally achieved moral perfection. The world will go on turning in the future, as it has throughout human history. The moral arc will continue to bend - towards perfection, and away from you.

What will the people in the future think of you?

In another human lifetime - say, eighty years - how will the people appraise your attitudes? They will have eighty years of moral progress on you. We can't know for sure, but we can get a glimpse of what may happen by looking back eighty years - to the 1930's - and evaluating the moral attitudes of the people from that time period.

Imagine meeting someone today, who believes that blacks ought to be kept separated and suppressed, that women are inferior to men and are only good for housework, that Stalin had the right idea about how to run a country, and that we should actively employ eugenics to achieve these goals. You would rightly judge such a man to be a moral monster. Now, let's turn this around and look forward. What reason do you have for believing that in just one more human lifetime, the people from a more progressive future won't rightly condemn you in the same way?

You may object that this moral monster I've cited from eighty years ago is an artificial construction, made solely to embody the worst aspects of the age. Surely, if you had lived in that time, you would not be like that man. You're special! Being the morally progressive-minded person you are, surely you would have rejected racism and sexism, and seen that communism and eugenics were wrong! Because you're a good person, who's oh-so forward thinking! Right?

Perhaps. Never mind that claiming "special" status like this is no better than claiming special status for 2015 being the pinnacle of humanity's moral progress. But even if we were to grant that you're "special" to this extent, all we have to do to see the futility of such maneuvering is to simply go back another human lifetime: 80 more years, to the 1850's.

Consider the following racist quote, from a political debate in 1858 -
“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
- spoken by none other than Abraham Lincoln. You see, EVERYONE was racist back then - including even the Great Emancipator. There was essentially nobody who was foresighted enough to have our current attitudes about race relations. And if you think you're so special that you could have resisted the society-wide evil that even Lincoln could not, then you're certainly a whole another kind of "special" altogether.

So, we are moral monsters. I mean, sure, we're better than the people from the previous times, but that's only because we're living now, at the latest slice of time. And maybe you're progressive and forward thinking enough to be, say, a couple decades ahead of your time. But when we are judged by the morally superior people of the far future, we will surely to fall far short of their standards.

So what are we to do?

We will address that question in the next post.

You may next want to read:
History, moral progress, and moral perfection (part 2) (Next post of this series)
The Gospel: the central message of Christianity
I am a sinner.
Another post, from the table of contents

I am a sinner.

In any extended discussion about theology, there comes a time when one must talk about morality. It's important - moreso than any of the other oft-discussed topics on this blog - as it lies at the heart of the Gospel. That time is pretty much here for this blog: in the future, I will occasionally post about what is right, what is wrong, and what we are to do. But before I can start, there is this bit of preliminary to go through:

I am a sinner.

I confess that I fall utterly short of God himself, who is the sole source and standard for morality. This is, I'm quite sure, the first correct step to any sound thinking about morality. That is why I have taken it, and declared my own sinfulness. But perhaps I'm wrong about this being the first step, despite my certainty: I am, after all, only a sinner.

(Incidentally, that last disclaimer - "I am, after all, only a sinner" should be attached to everything I say about morality, in this and all other posts. To make that explicit is one of the purposes of this post. But, for the sake of clear writing, I will almost always omit it in the future.)

Insofar as confessions go, I'm afraid this one is going to be pretty boring. I'm sorry to disappoint you if you were looking for salacious details. My sins are, I think, mundane. They're nothing you haven't heard of from the culture at large. To describe them in detail would be embarrassing to me and not particularly edifying to my readers. But my intent in saying this is not to trivialize or dismiss them: it is rather to explicitly acknowledge them, hopefully without having to spell out all the specifics. If you're confused, just pretend that I'm a murderer or something, without all the drama that would imply.

Again, I'm not trying to minimize my sins by calling them mundane or boring. Sin is sin. Just because I regularly commit them, or because everyone else also does the same, does not make them okay. The proper measure of my sinfulness is not against my personal baseline, or against my cultural background: it is against the standards of God himself. The fact that I've been acclimatized to sin does not make sin less sinful; if anything it only makes my situation more dire.

I'll not say that I'm "no better than anyone else", or that we are "all equally sinful". I have no means of measuring that - I am, after all, only a sinner. As far as I can tell, some of us are actually better or worse than others, but that's not particularly important. That's like a bunch of students who all failed a test arguing about who's smarter. To say that "we're all equally smart", or "nobody is better than anyone else here" in that situation may or may not be accurate. But if those words were actually spoken, I would strongly suspect that the speaker's motive was actually to alleviate their own feelings of inadequacy, or to deflect the accusation that they thought they were better than others, or to make everyone feel better by establishing failure as "normal". None of it would be an accurate assessment of the students' condition, which the statement purports to be. The true, accurate assessment, which the students need to hear but do not say, would be "we've all failed".

So my purpose in confessing that I'm a sinner is not to show that I'm no better than anyone else, or to deflect some possible accusation about being "holier than thou". The fact is that I have no idea if I'm better than anyone else (because I'm a sinner), but I do sometimes think that I'm "holier than thou" (because I'm a sinner). And that - the fact that I'm a sinner, before God - is far more important than any silly comparison that I can make with other people.

So you see, I ended up talking about other people, even as I was saying that this is about me and God. I'm not even sure if that's what I meant to do. Such are the pitfalls of being a sinner and trying to talk about sin: God's standards are perfect, and yet I must somehow talk about them in my sinful state.

Some would call that hypocrisy - to speak of God's standards, while still being a sinner. I'm not sure that this is a good definition of hypocrisy. Some have taken "hypocrisy" to mean something like "not practicing what you preach", but this is not the proper meaning of the word. "Hypocrisy" originally comes from the Greek word "acting", and it is actually the pretense of having a virtuous character that one does not actually possess. So, if I were to pretend to have met God's standards, then I would be a hypocrite. But if I admit that I have fallen short of them, while holding that these standards are good things that I ought to strive towards, then I am not a hypocrite.

Now that the definition is cleared up, which one applies to me? Doesn't admitting that I'm a sinner at least make me less likely to be a hypocrite in the second, more accurate sense? Ah - but I am guilty of hypocrisy in both senses of the word. For on the one hand, I always fall short of what I believe: I "preach" (or believe) what is good and right - God and his perfect righteousness - and yet I am a sinner. I feel no additional guilt over this beyond the fact that I am already a sinner, because it is good and right that I should believe in God and his righteousness. Given that I'm a sinner, it is better that I at least believe in the Perfect Good, rather than abandon that belief to lower my standards down to my sinful actions.

And on the other hand, I am also a hypocrite in the second, more accurate sense, of pretending to be more righteous than the sinful sinner that I actually am. For at times, I mislead people into thinking that I'm better than what I know myself to be.

But what I am not is the perfect man: one who lives up to the perfect standard and doesn't pretend otherwise. Again, this is the most important facet of this discussion; the exact nature of my hypocrisy is merely a footnote to the much more important fact that I am a sinner, period. I am not the perfect man; I have utterly fallen short of God's standards.

Apart from these "everyone does it" or "at least you admit it" excuses above, there is another part of me that tries to justify my sins, by saying "well, you can't help it". But that's a lie. The fact of the matter is that there were plenty of times when I could have chosen differently, when I knew I had the power to choose good rather than evil, and yet I still actively chose the wrong thing. In those times I did not fall short in physical willpower or sufficient knowledge, but rather in moral character.

There is also the argument that says "well, sometimes you make a mistake. Some accidents are bound to happen." But some of my sins are not "accidents". They are not something that just randomly happens because of an unfortunate combination of circumstances. At times I planned to commit some sins then executed the plan. I chose to commit these sins. I am a sinner. I don't just occasionally mess up; I AM messed up.

But then again, another voice whispers "well who can blame you for merely choosing what's easy or natural or pleasurable?" But this is also a lie. Some of my sins have consisted of deciding to sin explicitly in the face of knowing that it will bring me pain and hardship. It was completely irrational of me, from nearly any perspective. The only explanation that I have is that I am a sinner.

And lastly, because the Devil is nothing if not nauseatingly repetitious, he whispers "well at least you're not like THOSE people, the ones who are REALLY sinful". But I don't know that. I'm pretty sure that I'm capable of great evil. The circumstances just have to be right. Under a different moon, who can say whether I might have been a convict rotting in jail, and another person teaching Sunday school in my stead? I only know that greater events than that have been decided on a minuscule turning of circumstances.

All that, then, is my understanding of my sins. May God have mercy on my soul, for I've decided to talk about his perfect morality in spite of all that.

I need Christ.

You may next want to read:
The Gospel: the central message of Christianity
Merry Christmas! And happy one year anniversary for this blog!
Another post, from the table of contents

How to make a fractal: version 2.3

My fractal program has been updated. It can be found at:

How to make a fractal (http://www.naclhv.com/2014/06/how-to-make-fractal.html)

I've implemented smooth color changes for refined pictures, as well as the option to blur the pictures if you want to further smooth out some jagged edges. These take effect when you use the "Refine picture" menu on the full fractal. The pictures look awesome - go give it a try!

Here are some screenshots:

You may next want to read:
Sherlock Bayes, logical detective: a murder mystery game
The role of evidence in the Christian faith
Another post, from the table of contents

How to make a fractal: version 2.2

The latest version of my fractal program has been updated, and it can be found at:

How to make a fractal (http://www.naclhv.com/2014/06/how-to-make-fractal.html)

I've implemented a feature which allows you to resize the canvas. You can now generate fractals in various canvas sizes, up to 1920 x 1080. Give it a try! You can generate your own desktop wallpapers!

Here are some screenshots. You can click on them to see them at a larger size:

You may next want to read:
Sherlock Bayes, logical detective: a murder mystery game
Basic Bayesian reasoning: a better way to think (Part 1)
Another post, from the table of contents