Today while I was listening to an online lecture from Hillsdale College on mathematics and logic, the professor giving the lecture discussed a revealing passage from the Screwtape Letters where Screwtape is chiding his naive and inexperienced relative and novice tempter Wormword on the inefficacy of seeking to prove anything, even diabolical things, on the basis of an argument. The rationale provided in C.S. Lewis’ work is that contemporary thought is so divorced from logic and reason that to attempt to reason someone into agreement is a practically worthless endeavor. Coming from a logic class, this is rather strong stuff. Obviously the speaker assumes that if one is taking a class that uses Euclid’s Elements in order to help demonstrate the logical nature of mathematics for fun that one is not being censured along with the remainder of one’s generation, but it did give me pause to think about the way in which so often we seek to lead others through a course of reasoning that is likely frequently to be wasted effort.
As it happens, there was plenty of basis for my wondering as to what our pastor was seeking to prove given that he started a new series in which he took more than an hour to get through eight verses of Psalm 119 and commented at various times in the message that in order to be pleasing to God one must have a high degree of respect for biblical law, and also commented on various words for law, statute, instruction, teaching, and so on, that are referred to in the first section of the psalm. As a listener, I was left to wonder what laws did he think his audience were not paying sufficient attention to. I do not consider myself to be sufficiently clever to be a mind-reader, and I am of the opinion that the vast majority of the people that listened to the message or would listen to the message would think themselves to be people who basically live in accordance with God’s law. This is not to say that any of us think that we live it perfectly, but rather that we affirm our will and intent to follow God’s laws to the best of our abilities. It would appear that our pastor disagrees, but rather than addressing specific laws that he thinks we might be falling particularly short in, he is seeking to discuss a psalm that is paradigmatic in its praise of the law as a whole, perhaps thinking that a stronger focus on obeying the law will lead perhaps to more technical obedience to one or more laws that are not being obeyed particularly well.
Before one can seek to influence and change the behavior of others on the basis of an argument, it is first necessary to bolster the importance of logical consistency in the behavior of people. So long as people hold a variety of incompatible ideas and worldviews and principles within them, as is likely to be the case for many of us, it is fruitless to seek to motivate people to change on the basis of logical consistency. For many people, logical consistency is not even a blip on the radar, not even a concern that they are thinking of. The affirmation of a commitment to follow Christ and obey God does not often entail for many people a specific understand of what exactly is required in that. It is contentious, to the highest degree, to define holiness in conduct to any specific degree. This is not to say that the Bible does not speak of these matters, but rather that neither in education nor in religious understanding are the detailed discussion of the standards of the Bible defended by either church or state in our wicked times. Our pastor is surely aware of those problems, but he has chosen, for whatever reason, to look at the praise of biblical law in the general sense as being a worthwhile entrance into our imperfect obedience to God’s laws on the individual and specific level.
It may be more obvious later on where exactly this is going. Is this going to be a discussion of general principles in which all of us would affirm, if not exactly knowing the specific implications and consequences of what has been agreed to? This was, after all, the sad state of ancient Israel when they affirmed that all that the Lord commanded them they would do at Sinai, only to never follow God over more than a thousand years of rebellion against the ways to which they had committed themselves and their descendants after them. Or is this general beginning going to eventually find its way into a discussion of more specific laws that we must live according to if we are to say with the psalmist of Psalm 119 that we love the law and that it has made us wiser than our unfriendly foes, as the song goes. It is interesting, at any rate, though, that our pastor has decided to urge us to greater obedience to God’s laws on the basis of an argument, and on a general argument at that whose specific details at present remain fuzzy and indistinct.