“Because I must, I can”

Kant wrote, “Because I must, I can” in defense of the existence of human free will, but I like the line’s application in a different context: as a concise summary of the Christian attitude towards challenge and adversity. Whether it’s David facing Goliath or Daniel before the lions’ den, or a modern-day Christian confronted with a seemingly insurmountable temptation or obstacle, the correct response is a smile, squared shoulders, and “Because I must, I can.”

“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

In which I eventually get around to discussing sex and purity

As I glanced through one of evangelical Christianity’s best-selling books on male sexual purity this afternoon, I was struck anew by the fact that there is something deeply wrong with the way that this most-important of topics is usually addressed. The book’s central message (illustrated with creepily-gratuitous anecdotes of sexual sin), could be summarized, “To be male is to be inevitably drawn to sexual perversity and misconduct by the almost-irresistible force of your masculine sexual energy. Your job as a Christian is to spend the rest of your life holding back the force of this tide, while using your wife to funnel off as much sexual energy as possible to ease the arduous task of maintaining sexual purity.”

Faced with so overwhelming a task, and one so apparently at odds with one’s most basic nature, it is small wonder so many young men don’t bother to try at all; or, if they do try, end up struggling and exhausted by a task made impossibly strenuous by their misunderstanding.

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Any discussion of sexual purity ought to begin, not with sex, but with morality generally. And any discussion of morality must begin with the self, and the effects of our choices and behavior on our self.

By “the self,” I mean that part of me which I most truly and deeply am; that part which is immortal, who I am now and ever will be, eternity without end. It’s a rather sobering thought, this realization that I cannot escape my self. If you mess up your first car, or your first marriage, it is at least possible to get a new one; not so one’s self.

And “mess up” we can, for the self is in a continual state of transition. In fact, the self changes its own nature, by its own choices, like a block of granite come alive to sculpt itself. Every choice I make shapes my self just a little bit, making me not quite what I was before: piling on something new, stripping off something old, changing the shape of what I am by perhaps imperceptible degrees.

Both good and evil become easier with practice, not merely through habituation, but because the doer is making himself more and more the sort of person for whom such acts come naturally. (And “naturally” is exactly the right word, for it is his very nature which is being shaped by his choices.) The man who beats his children, the boy who pulls the wings off butterflies, and the girl who passes along cruel gossip are all following the same blueprint in their self-transformation; the difference is merely one of degree, rather than kind. We cannot help but be shaped by what we do.

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The tragedy of fallen mankind is the downward spiral in which corrupt choices shape corrupted selves whose further choices can only continue the hopeless pattern. Christian morality offers escape from this pattern, holding out the blueprint for right choices – for the choices that will lead to true joy and meaning in right relationship with God and with our fellow humans – while divine grace makes possible those right choices which would otherwise be impossible for our broken selves.

And because right choices, like evil, shape the self, this divinely-enabled right conduct will inevitably result in selves for whom goodness is increasingly pleasant. The man who loves his neighbor because he ought soon finds himself loving his neighbor merely because he does!

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And this brings us back to where we started, on the topic of sexual purity. The divine rule as regards sex is fairly simple: It is a good which is to be enjoyed within the bounds of a marriage between a man and a woman.

In other words, when humans were invented as sexual beings, that was how sex was supposed to work; what it is designed to be. For a properly-functioning human creature – either male or female – this is what is best. What is natural. What offers highest joy and highest pleasure, in the fullest sense of the words. Anything else can only be corruption and diminution, because that is all that evil can offer.

Of course, this means that sexual purity would be terribly easy, if only we were properly-functioning human creatures. Unfortunately, even after turning towards Christ, the process by which we are straightened and restored is a slow and at-times-painful one. In the meantime, in sex as in the rest of our lives, we find ourselves in love with what is lesser, meaner, and lower. The desire is no less real for being unnatural and deathly. Like a falcon that has been taught to seek only rotting carrion, our own corrupted desires betray us.

This is where so many Christians, with the best intentions, fail to make a crucial distinction. When a man views pornography, for example, he is not acting out of a natural masculinity that must be suppressed for the sake of righteousness. Rather, he is dining on rotten, maggoty carrion unawares. And so long as he gluts on what is lower, he is ingraining ever deeper in himself a distaste for what is truly good and an appetite for what is death to him. This is why the excuse, “I’ll stop viewing pornography once I’m married” would be laughable if it were not so tragic. Oh no, he won’t stop, not for long, for he has just spent years making himself exactly the sort of person who needs pornography. Marriage will not – can not – make him a different person than what he has himself created.

However, there is a flip side that offers tremendous hope to those who struggle with sexual sin. For just as choosing what is corrupt cannot help but cultivate one’s appetite for what is lower, so also, choosing – by the grace of God – what is higher will create a love for what is higher and better. (A love which grows more naturally and swiftly because of the goodness of its object.) The man who chooses not to view pornography, or have extramarital sex, or sin sexually in some other way, is not only not sinning at the moment of his choice, but is inexorably making himself the sort of man who loves what is actually good and so will make the right choice tomorrow as well.

None of this is to say that it is easy to be sexually virtuous. Far from it. The choices to which I just so casually referred are agonizingly difficult, particularly in a culture in which most young men are exposed to sexual perversion so early that they have developed a taste for it before they really even understand what it is. “Oh, but God will help me.” Yes, He will. That doesn’t mean the choice will be easy – it means what would otherwise be impossible will be possible. Barely.

It’s a choice that must be made daily, again and again, and one which is particularly difficult initially, as the grooves and pits worn in the self by unnatural appetites are destroyed. However, those who try can know two things: The change is possible, by the grace of God, if we will only choose it. And when the choice is made, it will result in the sort of man who loves what is good; what is natural; what is real.

Thoughts on video games

A recent discussion in one of my classes regarding video games inspired me to summarize my thoughts on the topic here. There are two issues that must be considered when evaluating if and to what extent a video game is acceptable.

The first area to be evaluated relates to the content of the game itself. Any game in which a player is rewarded for behavior which would be wrong in real life should not be tolerated. Grand Theft Auto, in which players are encouraged to shoot police officers and prostitutes, is an obvious example of this sort of game. Some might argue that the rules are different in virtual reality – after all, you aren’t actually shooting anybody, and a computer pixel is just a computer pixel. Nobody is actually hurt when you beat up the prostitute or line up your sights on the back of the police officer’s head.

And that’s true. The problem, though, is not what you are doing to the policeman; rather, what shooting the policeman is doing to you. Every choice we make inexorably changes who we are on a fundamental level. We create our character by the choices we make, and no choice is without consequence. Every time I look away when someone is in trouble, I become a little more of a coward; every time I ignore the bank error in my favor, I become a little more of a cheat; every time I kick the dog, a little more cruel. Our choices make us. Hoping otherwise is like wishing that gravity would relent.

How does this apply to video games? Because video games make us choose as well. We must choose to beat the prostitute or shoot the policeman. Of course, doing so in virtual reality is less-worse than doing so in real life, but it’s merely a question of degree. American soldiers train with video-game-style simulators because experience in virtual reality transfers so easily to real life.

Beating the prostitute draws you a little closer to being the sort of man who beats women. Shooting the cop makes you value innocent life a little bit less. Obviously, this does not mean that everyone who plays GTA will becoming a cop-killing woman-beater. However, their soul has been nudged a bit farther in that direction. It is simply impossible to choose evil – even virtually – without effect. Do we really want to make the argument, “Well, yes, my soul is becoming more and more the soul of a man who would beat a woman, but I wouldn’t ever actually beat women, so it’s okay”?

It should be noted that the foregoing is not intended to be an argument against all violent video games. After all, violence is not inherently evil. Who would not want a man to be ready to defend those in need, or fight against an invading enemy, or perhaps braid a scourge of cords and clear the Temple courts? Now, I’m not suggesting that video games are the best training for such acts of appropriate violence, but a game in which players battle a legitimate enemy while following specified rules of engagement (like many war games, for example), would at least not carry the same inherent moral danger as a game in which the violence is unequivocally immoral. On the other hand, there are other concerns to be raised against even a game with unobjectionable content, which brings us to the second issue that must be considered in a discussion of the value of video games.

In a nutshell, the interactive, immersive quality of video gaming (one that will only increase) creates the possibility of its serving as a sort of “life placebo.” Why bother with the challenges, struggles, and hard-bitten victories of real life when you can pull up a game and experience the same feelings of triumph without the trouble and with the added benefit of a “reset” button if things get out of hand? In Boys Adrift, Dr. Leonard Sax writes,

It’s not hard to see how boys motivated by the will to power might have been successful in earlier generations. They might have grown up to be successful entrepreneurs, daring innovators, explorers, politicians, or soldiers. They could readily create a productive niche for themselves. […]

If these men were reborn today, it is less likely that they would undertake a meaningful career. I suspect that a boy born today with the DNA of General Patton or Howard Hughes would more likely become a video game addict. He might have a job, but there’s a real risk that his drive and his energy would be directed into the video games rather than into his career. […]

Football coach Greg Sullivan, Mr. Welsh’s colleague, says that he sees fewer and fewer boys playing outside when he drives around northern Virginia. “They are inside playing video games,” he says. “More kids are finding real sports too demanding.”

I’ve talked with other football coaches who describe, with amazement, teenage boys who think that because they can win at Madden NFL, they therefore know something about playing the real-life game of football. “These guys are five-minute wonders,” one coach told me. “They get out on the field, run around for a few minutes, and then they’re done. They have no endurance. They’re in pathetic shape. And they don’t want to do the work that they would have to do, to train the way they would have to train, to get in shape.”

Virtual success is much easier than real life, and no less satisfying if one doesn’t think about it too much. The flood of endorphins from a virtual touchdown or a virtual military victory is just as real, even if the accomplishment itself is not. Because video games so effectively mimic the rewards that once could only be achieved by actually living, they can divert the drive that pushes a young man toward lasting and meaningful accomplishment. If a boy has been too busy developing his skills in virtual reality to learn how to grit his teeth, dig his heels in, and do something real, when will he ever learn?

Of course, a few hours of Halo aren’t going to destroy a boy’s life, and most boys who play video games are able to do so in moderation. Picking up a joystick doesn’t immediately condemn you to a life in which your greatest accomplishment is saved on a hard drive. However, video games should be approached with the cautious awareness that they offer a powerful draw to invest too much of ourselves into struggles which are ultimately without meaning. As Plutarch observes in his Lives, “He who busies himself in mean occupations produces, in the very pains he takes about things of little or no use, an evidence against himself of his negligence and indisposition to what is really good.”

Genetic influence and human responsibility

Via FuturePundit, an interesting look at the influence of genetic factors on human behavior. New Scientist reports a new study of twins that suggests genetic factors affect the age of first intercourse.

“It’s not like there’s a gene for having a sex at a certain date,” says Nancy Segal, a psychologist at California State University in Fullerton who led the new study. Instead, heritable behavioural traits such as impulsivity could help determine when people first have sex, she says.

As genetic determinism goes, the new findings are modest. Segal’s team found that genes explain a third of the differences in participants’ age at first intercourse – which was, on average, a little over 19 years old. By comparison, roughly 80% of variations in height across a population can be explained by genes alone.

The study nicely illustrates a larger point about the relationship between our genetic makeup and our behavior. Contrary to what some Christians have argued (particularly in regards to homosexuality), our genes indisputably shape our personalities and lives in powerful ways. However, this does not mean, as others argue, that we are simply the sum of our genetic predispositions.

Rather, our genetic makeup provides us with traits, tendencies, and predispositions that influence but do not determine our behavior. As Dr. Segal explains in the quote above, personality traits such as impulsivity are genetically-linked, and such traits certainly affect the likelihood that one will lose one’s virginity at an earlier age. If we picture an axis ranging from Strong Self Control on one end to Significant Impulsivity on the other, our genetic makeup contributes to where we fall on that axis; and where we fall on the axis is certainly relevant to the question of how easily sexual temptations will be resisted.

However, genetic predisposition does not equal necessity, a point that the study also makes. “On the other hand, conservative social mores might delay a teen’s first sexual experience… Indeed, Segal’s team noticed a less pronounced genetic effect among twins born before 1948, compared with those who came of age in the 1960s or later.” As FuturePundit’s Randall Parker explains, “This supports an argument I’ve made here previously: the breakdown of old cultural constraints on behavior frees up people to follow genetically driven desires and impulses. We become more genetically driven as external constraints weaken.” Or, looking at the flip side, the stronger our internalized moral code, the more likely it is to overcome genetic predispositions towards illicit behavior.

Our genetic makeup matters. It creates the set of traits, tendencies, and predispositions – the “raw material” – that we have to work with, and different people have different raw material. What we make of what we are, though, is ultimately up to us.

Diligence more important than intelligence

“A focus on effort—not on intelligence or ability—is key to success in school and in life,” according to an article in Scientific American.

Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

The result plays out in children like Jonathan, who coast through the early grades under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.

Praising children’s innate abilities, as Jonathan’s parents did, reinforces this mind-set, which can also prevent young athletes or people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their potential. On the other hand, our studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life. […]

Confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material.

The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.

This discussion of the primacy of effort reminded me of a fascinating anecdote in Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell. (The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study [TIMSS], is used to compare the academic ability of students from different countries.)

When students sit down to take the TIMSS exam, they also have to fill out a questionnaire. It asks them all kinds of things, such as what their parents’ level of education is, and what their views about math are, and what their friends are like. It’s not a trivial exercise. It’s about 120 questions long. In fact, it is so tedious and demanding that many students leave as many as ten or twenty questions blank.

Now, here’s the interesting part. As it turns out, the average number of items answered on that questionnaire varies from country to country. It is possible, in fact, to rank all the participating countries according to how many items their students answer on the questionnaire. Now, what do you think happens if you compare the questionnaire rankings with the math rankings on the TIMSS. They are exactly the same. In other words, countries whose students are willing to concentrate and sit still long enough and focus on answering every single question in an endless questionnaire are the same countries whose students do the best job of solving math problems.

A pill that makes you have a good day

On the radio today, an ad cheerfully inquired, “What if there was a pill that you could take that would make you have a good day?” The pill in question was a dubious homeopathic “positive mood formula,” but it is a precursor to more powerful options. In Our Posthuman Future, Francis Fukuyama writes that advances in neuropharmacology (the use of drugs to affect the nervous system) mean that “we don’t have to await the arrival of human genetic engineering to foresee a time when we will be able to enhance intelligence, memory, emotional sensitivity, and sexuality, as well as reduce aggressiveness and manipulate behavior in a host of other ways.”

As increasingly powerful drugs enable more precisely-targeted behavior modification with fewer side effects, a whole host of new ethical questions will arise. In the not-too-distant future, science may offer a pill that does make every day a good day. Happy. Cooperative. Friendly. Stress-free. Most dystopian prophecies of chemically-controlled personality assume the existence of a malevolent controller, but what if the reality is a future in which individuals freely and gladly use affect-enhancing drugs?

From a Christian perspective, one potential problem with such a “Good-Day Drug” is its impact on character development. Paul writes, “we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4). Character is developed through difficult choices made well. Courage could not exist without fear, nor self-control without temptation, nor patience without trials. In a very real way, our choices make us, for better or worse.

If every choice shapes us to be either more or less like Christ, then drug-induced goodness would be an abdication of choice, leaving the part of us that chooses and wills – that actually matters in a long-term sense – as an undeveloped, infantile nullity. Withhold the daily tablet of virtue, and imagine the effect of a minor misfortune or a passing quarrel on a man whose rose-colored glasses have been suddenly removed, calling for reserves of fortitude or patience that never had a chance to develop. Stripped of artificial virtue, there is little else beneath.

It is this potential for stunting personal character that should make us leary of any pharmaceutical quick-fixes. There is a legitimate and important place for drugs that help correct chemical imbalances or treat genuine pathologies. Such drugs may allow the patient to function normally, breaking through a neurochemical fog that had been preventing right choices, or perhaps any choices at all. However, when pharmacology transitions from offering normalcy to offering morality, from making right choices possible to making right conduct easy, we would do well to remember the danger of an endless succession of Good Days.

I’m not a leader, I just play one on TV

It is strange how much our instructions to those seeking to become a better husband, wife, parent, or leader sound like those which might be given to a spy taking on someone else’s identity. “You’ll need to take a walk every evening at 6:00, because Mr. Johnson did.” “You’ll need to buy her roses, because that’s what a good husband does.” “You’ll need to take up woodcarving, because Mr. Johson enjoyed it.” “You’ll need to praise him when he does chores, because that’s what a good wife does.” “Try not to talk so much, because Mr. Johnson was quiet.” “Be assertive, because leaders are assertive.”

It is as if someone watched a good husband and recorded everything he did, then turned it into a checklist to be handed out to other men. “Do these things and you will be the man you ought to be.” Instead of, “Be the man you ought to be and you will do these things.” One doesn’t catch pneumonia from coughing.

As long as we act as if the key to success in life’s various roles comes from doing certain things rather than becoming a certain kind of person, we will continue to produce tired, frustrated people who wonder why checking all the boxes still isn’t getting any easier or more effective.