Trans Transformation

It has been several months now since my professor friend and I met for coffee at one of the coffee shops at Biola University. I often reflect on that sobering moment. We chatted about the latest goings on in culture as reflected in news outlets and social media, lamenting the fact that Evangelicalism today has increasingly appeared less relevant and more repugnant in modern society, especially in areas in which traditional moral values is the subject. It’s not just that progressives find Christian values outdated, ill-suited to modern times, they are incorrigibly incensed by their stance in public discourse.

My friend suggested that perhaps one of the reasons for such vehemence is a reaction against what believers did during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 90s—which was nothing. “The church has been noticeably silent,” charged Earl E. Help and Ronald H. Sunderland, research fellows at the Texas Medical Center’s Institute of Religion. “The personal tragedies and social failures associated with the disease appear to have been ignored by the church—except for those strident segments that view AIDS as God’s retribution on sinful people.”1 Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, even blocked legislation givings basic rights to gay people.

Christian leaders in the 1980s and 90s were sanctimoniously watching AIDS victims die in the tens of thousands, offering no help. By God’s grace, the tide of criticism and disdain eventually turned and by the early 2000s, emergency plans for AIDS relief were set in motion saving millions. Thanks in part to efforts led by Kay and Rick Warren, evangelical leaders who had their own personal encounters with those suffering from HIV and AIDS.2 But could all this have been too little too late? Could this have been handled better by the church? I can imagine a gay friend saying to me “you judged us, you distanced yourself from us offering nothing while we were dying of AIDS, and now, all of a sudden you care?”

We are in a similar situation today. According to Barna Research, “GenZ, more than older generations, considers their sexuality or gender to be central to their sense of self.”3 Heather Brunkskell-Evans and Michele Moore, editors of Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body confirm this trend. Contributing author Stephanie Davies-Arai reports a 1000% increase of adolescents being referred to the Tavistock gender clinic in London.4 Treatments there often are pursued based on political pressure to conform to the prevailing progressive idea that gender is whatever one feels. And if gender is indeed a matter of personal choice, then no one or no organization has the right to stop transexuals from obtaining disfiguring surgeries and lifelong hormone regiments. It’s too early to ascertain the effects of undergoing these treatments but common sense tells us that there ought to be “a serious public concern that practices of transgendering children involve the use of puberty suppression, cross-sex hormonal mediation that harms children’s reproductive capacity, their bodily integrity and future physical and psychological health, and possible surgery involving the amputation of penises and breasts that cannot be re-attached”5 be treated with extreme caution.

It is hoped that Christian leaders by now have learned the painful lessons of failure to care for the “least of these.” Will we idly watch our young gender dysphoric community suffer or will we be ready to help this time? The church can ill afford to miss this opportunity to demonstrate neighborly love. The stakes are too high. Doing what Jesus would do does not affirm the sin. Yes, we live in a complex and broken world, wracked by sin. But Scripture commands us to be imitators of our Lord who loved the lost while admonishing them to sin no more.6 Truth and grace always go together. The aphorism is true: “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Common Ground Apologetics

Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature argues that the popular idea that human beings are born sans innate properties is fallacious. Related concepts such as the Noble Savage and Ghost in the Machine fall under the same misunderstood categories that must be corrected. Pinker offers at least three reasons why this correction must take place: (1) Arguing for a Blank Slate distorts the nature of human beings and much research is guided by these false assumptions; (2) It has discredited logic, civility and common sense in the academy and beyond; (3) and finally, it has done harm to the lives of real people.1

These are valid concerns and if left unchecked we risk perpetuating the harm. For example, we tacitly believe that to raise the best children, parents must be loving and intentionally training them towards maturity. But if children do not turn out well then it must be the parent’s fault. However, this conclusion depends on the belief that children are blank slates.2 Parents and anyone who works with kids know this is not the case.

In one sense the opposite of a Christian is an atheist. Pinker is an atheist. In Evangelicalism today, especially in the rarified group of Christian apologists, the sine qua non measure of successful ministry seems to be about converting an atheist. The strategy appears to be a two-step process. First, create an atheist straw man with all his attending false ideas. Second, eviscerate him with the truth. This would be a good strategy if words posses magical powers on their own to transform people. No, it is more complex than that. In this case, an atheist reminds Christians of the pitfalls of sloppy thinking. Many times, an apologist’s zeal might lead them to blur the distinctions between “some” versus “all,” “probable,” versus “always,” “is” versus “ought.”3 Establishing clear distinctions is a mark of sound and valid thinking.

Instead of employing an “us” versus “them” mentality in apologetics engagement may I suggesting another way. What if apologists engaged the skeptic on their own turf? What if they used disarming language in their presentations that skeptics can relate to? I call this Common Ground apologetics. Common Ground apologetics seeks to establish commonality of first-order ideas with an interlocutor. From that base, arguments can be built upon. Examples of these fundamental ideas include aesthetics, ethics and agency.4 Pinker offers the faithful a few of these commonalities, specifically the blank slate. This is a point of connection. Scripture says that human beings are created in God’s image (Imago Dei). Pinker says this “image” is partly composed in the human genome structure. Both have a vision of humanity that does not invoke a blank slate. This is a significant win for both sides. If Christians and atheists can agree on certain items of knowledge regarding a first-order ideas such as human nature, then the chances of continued conversation increases.

The Christian worldview has exclusive claims. But it does not have to sound arrogant, pretentious and condescending which regrettably have become all too common. Analogies is another helpful tool to establish common ground. Instead of leading with an exclusive bent, consider the path to truth like a maze.5 What is helpful about the maze analogy is that it (1) places value on exploration and self-discovery; (2) it is careful not to understate or orverstate the claims of others since the different paths in a maze denote distinctions; and (3) at times some routes head in the same direction or run parallel to each other. First-order ideas such as human nature, soul, origins, purpose and things of the same nature, while may posses disparate grounding, do run parallel to each other at times. These are the opportunities of further discussion. Sometimes an apologist must learn to moderate their goals, especially in today’s polarized culture. Making the case for Christ sometimes may mean just enough effort in reasoning to be invited back to the table.

Where Is The Hope?

I am not quite sure how I feel about Steve Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. It was like riding a roller coaster for me. There is the thrill and edge-of-the-seat anticipation of ratcheting to the peak just before a heart stopping descent through the twist and turns, not knowing which way is up or down. Pinker does this by introducing supposed societal ills only to present counter arguments buttressed by facts. He does a wonderful job of showing that the world is indeed a better place since the Enlightenment and the evidence is unassailable.

However, just like the roller coaster analogy, there are the pivots and zigzags in Pinker that I have trouble understanding. For example, on the one hand he supports Kishore Mahbubani’s ideas in The Great Convergence1 that help explain the causes for worldwide progress: decline of communism, leadership, end of the Cold War, globalization, and science and technology. And yet on the other vilify Ronald Reagan as a “know-nothing.”2 Really? The person who was a significant influencer in two (decline of communism and end of the Cold War) out of the five factors leading to worldwide progress is someone to blame?

Be that as it may, what intrigued me about Pinker’s project is the effusive manner in which he wrote about all the positive indexes pointing to the fact that we live in a better world. Human progress in areas of health, food, wealth, inequality, the environment, peace, safety, equal rights, terrorism, democracy, quality of life and other measurable indicators of progress all have good trajectories pointing to an optimistic view of the future. But he had to pause and backpedal a bit when it came to the happiness index in the United States. Apparently studies show that happiness increases with a nation’s wealth.3 Countries such as Denmark and Singapore report outsized levels of happiness compared with countries having weaker economic growth.4 The United States is a country with a strong economy and is wealthy by all accounts. But the United States reports a lower level of happiness in relation to its wealth. “Whatever the reason, happyologists agree that the United States is an outlier from the global trend in subjective well-being.”5

Why is the United States an outlier on the happiness index? That is good question and worth exploring. But I’ll have to save that for another time. For now what intrigues me is the idea of hope. There were several missed opportunities for the author to connect the idea of a future-looking human flourishing with hope. But he did not. Sure he would begin sentences with a trivial “I hope to show….” or “I can give you no hope….” but that is far different than the kind of hope intrinsic to humanity. This is not the “pie in the sky, bye and bye” kind of hope where one rails against reality to escape it. Rather, it is the mature hope that C.S. Lewis talks about in Mere Christianity; the kind that looks longingly to a future eternal world. Lewis says this is not a form of escapism or simple wishful thinking.

In a world without hope Pinker is clear, that if all of the advances in knowledge, peace, safety, democracy, rights have left us no happier but just lonelier and suicidal, that it would be history’s greatest joke on humanity. And clearly suicide is a final solution that is diametrically opposed to happiness. But is history a jokester? Is the field of study called history even blameworthy? What is humanism’s response if humans are ending their own lives? The sad reality is, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting that the suicide rate for people aged 10 to 24 increased by 56% between 2007 to 2017. Suicide is now the 2nd leading cause of death among members of Gen Z. Studies show drastic changes in outlook of life among teens, all pointing to an all time low. Jean Twenge says teens today are “on the verge of the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades.”6

Gen Z is not happy and yet hope remains illusive. Humanism’s answer is to hope in humans. But that is no hope. The Humanist Manifesto III from 2003 proudly affirms that humans are “the result of unguided evolutionary change.”7 That is like saying “I’m hoping to visit the Cotswolds” but without a map, means, or the ability to ask for directions. After all it is “unguided.” Gen Zers are smarter than that but they need to know there is a better way. On the topic of human progress, Lewis says “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”8 Gen Z’s hope must be directed heavenward. It is a strange rule, Lewis says, but “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in;’ aim at earth and you will get neither.”9