Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Glen Scrivener on Equality

A Church of England minister and evangelist, author, speaker and filmmaker, Glen Scrivener has an unusual knack for making the things of heaven relatable in today’s culture. I picked up his most recent book The Air We Breathe: How We All Came to Believe in Freedom, Kindness, Progress and Equality after watching a YouTube interview with John Anderson about its thesis. Scrivener contends that a number of core Western values have their basis in the Christian faith of our forefathers. Our societies, he argues, have absorbed these values by osmosis. Most of us don’t know why we believe these things, but we believe them all the same.

In general, I think he has a valid point to make. When you get down to specifics, however, it’s another story.

Core Western Values Assessed

Scrivener attributes seven core western values to the teaching of the Bible: equality, compassion, consent, enlightenment, science, freedom and progress. The objective of The Air We Breathe is to demonstrate the connection between the teaching of scripture and the values he says we have inherited from it.

I was particularly interesting in seeing how Scrivener deals with the issue of equality. As regular readers here may have noticed, equality has become a bit of a hobbyhorse for me. It seems to me that we Christians have uncritically absorbed the spirit of the age with respect to this subject. We are inclined to read equality into the scriptures where they actually say no such thing. I agree with Scrivener that our societies profess to believe in equality; that much is incontestable. I do not believe for a moment, however, that our obsession with equality has any basis at all in the teaching of scripture, as I have attempted to demonstrate here, here and here, and I have yet to find a single author to date who convincingly argues that it has. And no, Glen Scrivener will not be the first, even though he devotes an entire chapter to the subject. (Let’s hope he has better luck with the other six values he has selected. I confess to being a tad doubtful about “progress” as a biblical value as well.)

Scrivener uses the word “equal”, “equality”, “inequality” and other related terms 27 times in his chapter on the subject. Since it is readily demonstrable that human beings are manifestly unequal in terms of strength, intelligence, athleticism, maturity, persuasiveness, attractiveness or any other metric we might think of, any credible discussion of equality needs to specify some limitation to the scope of the term’s use, and Scrivener wisely does this in his introduction:

“We believe in the equal moral status of every member of the human family, no matter their rank, race, religion, gender or sexuality.”

Right then. “Moral status” it is.

Lord Sumption’s Gumption

Scrivener’s chapter on equality then opens with an anecdote about a former UK Supreme Court Justice. Lord Sumption caused a stir during the COVID crisis by stating he does not accept that all lives are of equal value, by which he simply meant that as a grandfather he would be willing to sacrifice himself if necessary to ensure his grandchildren survived. His logic was that where resources are limited, policy-making requires putting differing values on human life. If we can only treat one sick person, Lord Sumption reasoned, it would be preferable to treat a sick nine year old than a sick ninety-nine year old. As he later qualified, he was not commenting on any individual’s intrinsic value or on their value to God.

Nevertheless, Lord Sumption’s statement prompted numerous reactions like this one from the late Deborah James: “Who are you to put a value on life? All life is worth saving regardless of what life it is people are living.” Scrivener believes her reaction is instinctive to all of us in the West, and argues the impulse to value all human life equally comes from scripture.

Is that true?

Women and Children First

In March 2020, 72-year-old priest Don Giuseppe Berardelli showed he understood the concept Lord Sumption was trying in vain to communicate to the English media when he gave up his right to a ventilator to prioritize the treatment of a young Italian boy, and subsequently expired. Was he right or wrong to value the boy’s life over his own?

I would argue the Baby Boomers are probably the first generation to produce large numbers willing go on record demanding society value their continued existence equally to that of their own grandchildren. The venerable adage “women and children first” seems far more “Christian” to me to the extent it prioritizes sacrifice over selfishness. It certainly represents a more chivalric ideal. Its very existence as a well-known saying strongly suggests that not all generations since the writing of the New Testament thought like Deborah James did about equality when confronted with hard decisions.

Certainly Glen Scrivener does nothing more with the Sumption story than use it to affirm that our present age values equality of treatment as an ideal without consideration of factors such as age, and that comments like Lord Sumption’s “trigger an instinctual horror”.

Er, not in everyone they don’t. Even CBS News called Berardelli’s choice a “selfless act”. The people of Caserta, Italy applauded him from their balconies.

Value and Narrative

Scrivener goes on to point out that Plato and other pre-New Testament philosophical giants would not have considered all lives equal in value. He then suggests the change in values over time relates to a particular set of stories with which Western societies were once much more familiar, and from these he singles out the Genesis narrative, specifically the part where God created man and woman in his own image and after his likeness.

Into this familiar formulation Scrivener smuggles the world “equally”, then marvels at what he has discovered: “Male and female equally in God’s image? Equally reigning over God’s world? Unheard of!” Indeed it is, not least because the word “equal” is nowhere to be found in the Genesis account or in any later biblical commentary on it. As he does throughout the chapter, Scrivener leaps from “valuable” to “equal” with no evidence at all.

Now, I agree entirely with Mr. Scrivener that God values all human beings, no argument. That we are all equally valuable simply does not follow. Scrivener is not wrong that the New Testament writers produced a huge change in thinking about the value of human life across first the Eastern then the Western world, but that change had next to nothing in common with the religion of equality trumpeted today, which is founded in the politics of envy. No, the socially transformative aspect of Christianity was its teaching that the eternal God values members of every social demographic, including those formerly regarded as commodities by the movers and shakers of the first century. But this sea change in thought is never once presented in scripture in terms of equality. Equality would be wholly insufficient to describe the level of self-sacrifice Jesus demanded from his followers on behalf of the feeblest and least-regarded members of society. Rather, the early Christian writers teach us to count others better than ourselves and spend ourselves tirelessly on behalf of them.

Dirt-Bags Kissed by Heaven

Equality is something that seems to matter deeply to us. There is zero evidence it matters to God. Fairness, sure, in accordance with God’s own standard of fairness, something human beings occasionally find inexplicable. Precise equality, not so much. Scrivener does a nice job of showing that the Genesis narrative puts great value on humanity. “We are dirt-bags kissed by heaven. Beloved dust.” Very true, but “valued” and “equal” are two different questions. A pair of antiques priced at $15,000 and $100,000 are both valued but manifestly not equal. Two oversized trash bags of rubble from the same basement are more or less equal yet have no value to speak of.

Scrivener is starting to lose the plot when he concludes, “The God story and the equality story stand or fall together.” No, they really don’t. The significance of human life to God is certainly a biblical value, one affirmed repeatedly. We all have some value to our Creator and to those who love him, however miniscule or degraded it might be, because we bear his image. We all have the potential to know our heavenly Father better and grow in worth because of it. But the equality of all humans to one another in value is not a concept the Bible stresses or mentions at all, and Scrivener offers precisely zero evidence that it is.

The Bible is full of men and women who are called “a friend of God”, “a man after God’s own heart”, “a disciple whom Jesus loved” and even “brothers” (or sisters) of Christ. Valued. Definitely valued. It is also full of those God calls his enemies and for whom he expresses hatred. Differently valued, to say the least, despite all bearing the image of God. Even among those called and chosen by God to become not just bearers of God’s image but also bearers of Christ’s image, scripture constantly exhorts us to strive for an eternal reward that may differ radically from individual to individual. There is nothing remotely equal about any of that.

Value vs. Equality

One final problem: It is increasingly difficult to observe any respect for God’s image and likeness in our present Western culture. In fact, if we carefully examine the writings and conduct of those most vocally committed to equality as a transcendent value (feminists, LGBTQ advocates, racial minorities), it is entirely reasonable to conclude their real aspiration is cultural dominance, not genuine equality of any sort. Moreover, the more militant self-professed egalitarians show no respect for human life when it does not share their political aspirations. Little or nothing about the modern “equality” movement is genuinely equal, and it certainly does not originate in the teaching of the Bible.

Value and equality are two different things. I am thrilled to know that I am valued by God, and eager to become more valuable still to him as I grow in grace and the knowledge of his Son. I am thrilled, frankly, that you too are valued by God, and eager to witness your transformation into his likeness, a process that delights his heart.

Why I should ever want to compare those two values at any point in time — why I should even think of such a thing at all — is a mystery to me. Glen Scrivener has not convinced me that I should, let alone that any impulse I might feel to do so comes from a good place.

It certainly doesn’t come out of the scripture.

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