Can America be moral without God?

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Can America be moral without God?

November 21, 2022 -

The Denison Forum Podcast discusses timely news and relevant topics with biblical insight. Hosted by Dr. Mark Turman and featuring Dr. Jim Denison, plus guests on occasion, this weekly, discussion-oriented podcast will help Christians further develop a biblical worldview on current events, equipping them to be salt and light for Christ.

The Denison Forum Podcast discusses timely news and relevant topics with biblical insight. Hosted by Dr. Mark Turman and featuring Dr. Jim Denison, plus guests on occasion, this weekly, discussion-oriented podcast will help Christians further develop a biblical worldview on current events, equipping them to be salt and light for Christ.

The Denison Forum Podcast discusses timely news and relevant topics with biblical insight. Hosted by Dr. Mark Turman and featuring Dr. Jim Denison, plus guests on occasion, this weekly, discussion-oriented podcast will help Christians further develop a biblical worldview on current events, equipping them to be salt and light for Christ.

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Dr. Jim Denison and Dr. Mark Turman discuss the roots of morality, whether America was founded as a Christian nation, how to lovingly disagree with family, and why the Bible is our ultimate source of truth.

Show notes:

Dr. Mark Turman and Dr. Jim Denison discuss how culture flows from a people’s morality, and why morality is like a natural law (1:28). They talk about why everyone can’t escape truth and morality, how our deepest desires always become idols (7:05). They talk about whether a country can be moral without religion, and whether America was founded as a Christian nation (11:31). They turn to talk about discussing morality and politics with family at Thanksgiving, and love family over the long term (24:06). They discuss what Jesus means by loving him more than family (32:53). Dr. Denison leads listeners in how to pray for and talk to lost family members, and how to keep friendships beyond disagreements (45:05). Then, Dr. Denison closes by pointing to the Bible as being capital “T” truth as the foundation for our lives (51:11).

Resources and further reading:

About the hosts

Jim Denison, Ph.D., is an author, speaker, and the CEO of Denison Ministries, which is transforming 6.8 million lives through meaningful digital content.

Mark Turman, DMin, is the executive director of Denison Forum. He received his DMin from Truett at Baylor and previously served as lead pastor of Crosspoint Church.



Transcribed by


Mark Turman  00:10

This is the Denison Forum Podcast. I’m Mark Turman, your host, Executive Director of Denison Forum sitting down today with Dr. Jim Denison, the founder CEO and cultural apologist for Denison ministries and Denison Forum. Jim, how are you?


Jim Denison  00:26

Doing? Well today, my friend, how are you doing? Great.


Mark Turman  00:28

Our audience might be interested to know that we got to spend a little bit of time in Israel recently. So have you recovered from that? All your jet lag is gone?


Jim Denison  00:38

Well, that’s a good question. One hopes and assumes that to be the case, they say it takes a day per hour. So they’re eight hours ahead about trying to get over there and get back, I made a decision. And now here we are, what, eight days on the other side of that, so we’re gonna go with you? Yes. We’re going to say that we’re acclimated that all is good, and that we won’t fall asleep in the middle of this conversation.


Mark Turman  00:59

And and most people are expecting us in any context to be at our best regardless of what we may have suffered in being in Israel, right?


Jim Denison  01:07

It’s a hard job. Such a difficult, difficult job, but somebody had to do it. Right.


Mark Turman  01:11

Yeah. To two preachers, you know, having to suffer by studying what Jesus was all about in the place where Jesus lived and moved and had his experience right for us. My


Jim Denison  01:22

favorite thing to do, yeah, leading people to Israel, I’ve done 35 of these over the years, and it’s just absolutely my favorite thing to do. So


Mark Turman  01:28

yeah, well, I wanted to I wanted to sit down over coffee and just chat with you a little bit about something that you’ve been writing about in recent days. And I want to see if we can kind of unpack it so that me and our audience maybe have a better handle on it. And it really, for me, kind of revolves around a comment that you made in a recent article that you wrote, relating the simple term, the route or routes of morality? Can you kind of unpack that statement or that phrase a little bit? The route? Just simply morality, in my mind is what’s right and wrong, how I understand what is right and wrong? Where do I come to know what is right and wrong? And how do I determine that choose that? Tell us a little bit about the more in depth, philosophical, theological ideas that are attached to the root of morality?


Jim Denison  02:21

Yeah, really comes from two places, Richard John Newhouse, who was a very well known cultural commentator out of a Catholic tradition, brilliant thinker, brilliant theologian, made pretty famous, this idea that it’s in various ways, different ways of saying it, but he would essentially say that morality is at the root of culture, and religion is at the root of morality. And so what he’s trying to say, I think, is another way of kind of saying what George Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796 of all the dispositions essential to political prosperity, religion, and morality are indispensable supports. And then he went on Woodhead to say that we must not think that morality can exist apart from religion, that religion is at the heart of morality, as you understood it, and the morality was essential to the democratic experiment. The self governance requires our ability to govern ourselves, but we can’t govern ourselves because we’re following people. And so we need God’s help to be the people we need to be so that we can then participate in democracy in a way that advances the experiment forward. So that’s kind of the calculus that Washington had in mind that Richard John Newhouse had in mind, a retired congressman from Virginia, Frank Wolf has for years said that politics is downstream from culture and culture is downstream from church. And so that’s another way of kind of saying the same thing. I


Mark Turman  03:42

think. So is it is that to say, when we get in some of these conversations, particularly in the way the culture is, right now, you’ve talked about you’ve written about the reality of living in a post truth culture, and that there is this idea that truth is personal and subjective. And we see that being played out in a number of ways sexuality being obviously one of the more predominant ones. But would it be correct to say that morality and religion are not optional within the reality of being human beings and being in a culture that we might talk about, you know, the attempt to be a moral and you hear phrases tossed around all the time, you can’t legislate morality, those kinds of conversations. But it would seem to be just in conversations that you and I’ve had in the past and other things that I’ve read, that you there’s no such thing as taking morality and taking religion or faith out of the human experience. It’s just not possible, correct?


Jim Denison  04:45

I think that’s exactly right. In fact, to attempt to do so is to do so. To say that there is no such thing as morality is to make a moral claim. To say there is no God is to say something about God and such as one of those categories that you have to be inside To try to get out of it, even not to be having the conversation. It’s a little like a fish that doesn’t realize it’s in water, you know, doesn’t understand the sea in which it’s swimming, all moral claims, even the claim that there is no such thing as objective morality is an objective moral claim. It’s like saying, There’s no such thing as truth. And I’m sure of it. You know, the ancient skeptics tried that three centuries before Christ, they were the first that we know of in Western culture, to deny truth as an objective category. But they’re making an objective claim to say that there is no such thing as objective truth. Same thing with morality. People say they can’t legislate morality, well, if they believe in seatbelt laws, if they believe in speed limits, then they’re legislating morality. And to come along and say we will have no laws whatsoever requires a law that we have no laws. So at the end of the day, it’s just one of those things that everybody is in whether they admit it or not, it’s not Do you believe in it’s how do you believe in it, it’s not doesn’t exist? It’s what will you do with the existence of religion, the existence of morality, you go back to the very beginnings of human history, as far as you can go back on cave art, or as far as you can go back and in recorded history, and you’ve got these categories of religion and morality, that’s the basic essential things people are dealing with. And that’s still the case today.


Mark Turman  06:21

And I’ve heard preachers, even I’ve, I’ve even spoken it this way, when I was preaching at a church, that is not a question of whether or not you or any human being worships, it’s a question of what you worship. That’s right. But but the act of worship, whether you’re intentionally engaged in it, or even consciously aware of it, in some cases, that that reality is playing itself out, in and through your soul, because you don’t get no human being gets to decide whether they have a spirit and a soul is just a question of Do you understand that reality as a human being? And how are you engaged in it? And what are you choosing to worship as an ultimate value? Correct?


Jim Denison  07:05

That’s exactly right. Paul Tillich said, we all have an ultimate concern was the way that he put it now your ultimate concern might be financial, it might be a house, it might be a person, it might be a job, but anything that is your highest priority is that which you are serving, you may not consider yourself to be worshiping that in the sense of a religious experience on a Sunday morning, where you’re singing hymns, or you’re in front of an altar or whatever. But anything that is your highest concern, your ultimate concern, is that what you are in that sense of serving or worshiping Bob Dylan song, you gotta serve somebody is just true to human nature. That’s just the way it is. An atheist made me absolutely claim there is no such thing as God, but they have something that’s functioning in their lives as though that were their God. They have some priority, they have some value, they have some agendas, some ideal, that is the most important thing in their life, that they’re centering their lives around. And that is what we would think of as worship, or we would think of as almost a religious kind of a numinous sort of, as you said, just kind of an impulse that’s inside us. You know, I’ve heard people over the years Mark say that they worship God best in nature. Well, that’s fine to say that they’re in the nature that God created as opposed to a church building or something. But what they’re doing wherever they are, is analogous to what we think of as worship, they’re looking for that ultimate concern, and they’re doing whatever it takes to align with it. And that’s just basically human nature.


Mark Turman  08:32

Right? And oftentimes in nature, it can be something that stirs within the human heart within the human spirit, from a sense of all which, right, right that that thing that we have a very difficult time even really defining around this sense of wonder or this, that sense of it, you feel the first time you walk up to the edge of the Grand Canyon, or the first time you see the Rocky Mountains. That that that sense of wonder and awe that like said we we struggled to explain, but we all sense it, right? I tell you a little story. I was with a friend of mine recently, and he talks about taking his his teenage kids actually, it’s our friend Tyrone. He was sharing the story. The first time he took his children to the Grand Canyon. He made them get up at five in the morning, and they were grumpy about that. But he wanted to get them out there early in the day so that they could experience the Grand Canyon from the earliest light. And his teenage son said to him, Dad, this was worth it. This was this was worth it. And so it’s that sense. Now, I gotta pause right here and say, you know, the Denison Forum Podcast is almost a year old. And we now have a Bob Dylan reference. So we have now become a legitimate podcast in everyone’s


Jim Denison  09:53

trying to get there but we are finally there. Yeah,


Mark Turman  09:56

I was. I was wondering if you were ever going to work it in and you finally got Got it in there. So


Jim Denison  10:01

I’m glad to help. So glad I could be helpful. So, and along with Bob Dylan now let’s talk about Peter Berger. Because of course, if you can’t do that, then you haven’t really done a podcast either. Right? Right. So he’s the sociologist in Boston, who says that there is what he calls a signal of transcendence that all of us are made by God, or what you think of as God have you want to do that in various religious context, I guess, with what could be called a God shaped emptiness as Pascal would have said, our hearts are restless until they rest of him like Augustine said, well, then Peter burgers mind, they’re these things that are human that are part of human nature, the point of something beyond us. And that sense of all that you’re describing that sense for Tyrone son Mark felt when he saw that sunrise over the Grand Canyon, Peter Berger would say is a signal of transcendence is a thing inside us the points beyond us. And I think he’s right about that. I think there just is a basic nature. It’s what it means to be made an image of God, to be made in the likeness of God, and to be made to want that to be drawn to them hard to find anyone in the Bible that genuinely encounters a God that doesn’t respond with a sense of all with a sense of humility, typically, with a sense of, of repentance. I mean, I say, Woe is me, I’m done. I’m a man of unclean lips. On my eyes, I’ve seen the king of Hoshido. Do you think of John in Revelation one saying the risen Christ and falling at his feet as though dead? That sense of all you’re describing as part of what it is to be a human made by God, is a signal of transcendence appointments beyond ourselves?


Mark Turman  11:31

So is it? In what sense? Is it capable or possible for human beings to talk about morality, that doesn’t also become a religious conversation?


Jim Denison  11:44

That’s a very debated issue these days. There’s been thesis back to George Washington, and prior to that in American history, that would say that this democratic experiment was founded on a consensual morality and consensual Judeo Christian morality. And so even for those that were themselves, not what you would think of as God, the of angelical, Baptists or whatnot, they nonetheless agree with that being the case, it’s John Adams statement in 1796. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people that is wholly unsuited to the governance of any other basic idea that we need morality to get along. Since we don’t have a king calling the shots. Now, we’re not going to have some conqueror out there where some emperor or some such as that we’re going to govern ourselves through this process, constitutional process. And so we need a consensual morality to do that. But we’re following people. So we need God’s help to get there. I think it’s pretty well the case that the founders believe that to be true. I really think that cases pretty well been one, that if you could go back and ask even the Thomas Jefferson’s the D is of the day, they would say there’s a consensual, Judeo Christian religious ethos as consensual worldview, that was at the heart of what they understood morality of the day, to be practiced as and as necessary to the democratic experiment. Well, from that time forward, of course, as you can imagine, a whole lot of folks have wanted to take issue with that wanted to make the claim that atheists can be good people to that. agnostics don’t have to have a relationship with God to be moral people. And certainly, if I was in this debate, I would concede that atheists can be good people that agnostics can be good people, that religious people can be very bad people, that we’re not making some kind of argument there that an individual can’t live in a moral way, without a personal religion. What I would come back to suggest, however, is the very standards of morality. They’re doing their best to live up to as an atheist or agnostic, they borrowed from outside themselves. That’s why they might live their lives absolutely believing Thou shalt not kill. They didn’t come up with Thou shalt not killed. They didn’t create the morality they’re seeking to live out by themselves. I didn’t create the laws in which we live. I’m not a lawmaker. I’ve never been elected to office. The laws were created by others, and I’m seeking to live by them. I didn’t have to be a lawyer to live by the law. I didn’t have to be a congressman to live by the law, but somebody had to make the laws living by. And I think it’s pretty strong argument that this, the moral consensus that we’re describing right now has a rootedness in a religious consensus whether I agree with that consensus, personally or not.


Mark Turman  14:29

So when we when we say things like politics is downstream from religion or downstream from the church, in some ways are what we saying is is that what we’re spending so much time as a culture right now energized around which, you know, politics is almost seemingly writ risen to the level of being a religion and in many people’s consciousness and their passion within their engagement. But when we’re when we’re working on it at that level, we’re really working on something that’s almost like a symptom of something that’s much deeper, is where this conversation takes me, right? And we we don’t, we don’t have a framework, perhaps to talk about the conversation at the deeper level of morality and the deeper level of religion, even though it gets back to that. But here’s where one of my questions are in thinking about your comments, which is, when the Founding Fathers had this idea of a consensual morality based in a Judeo Christian ethic, do you think they also envisioned or at least created the structure that would allow for people of other faiths that just say, Hindus, Muslims, Jewish people? Did they envision that there would be enough flexibility that within even various religions, that there that we could still coexist around some, at least core ideas of mutual morality, so as to create a safe and civil society for everyone? Even if there was not agreement on the fundamental tenets of the religion that backed up all of that consensual morality?


Jim Denison  16:23

I think that’s right. Now, again, this is a very big argument. This is something historians have been debating a long time continuing to debate today. There’s a stream of thinking out there that would say the answer to your question would be know that the founders believed that the Christian religion was superior to all others. And there are a lot of folks around that would like that idea. Patrick Henry, other siblings certainly seem to say that’s and that, therefore, whether you were what they would call them a halogen, which would be a Muslim, or you were Hindu, or even Jewish, Buddhist, whatever that might be, that that was an inferior religion to the Christian religion, and would therefore have an inferior morality about it. So and therefore the best expression of morality is Christian and non Christians need to come up to a Christian morality to participate effectively in this governance. That’s an argument that’s out there right now. It’s one of the ways people are arguing that America was intended to be a Christian nation, is to make the argument I just made this to be founded on an explicitly Christian religion. Well, the problem with this conversation is that it doesn’t hold still depends on who you ask or what time you ask them. John Adams, for instance, 1796 as our constitution is made only for moral and religious people wholly unsuited to the governance of any other comes a time later, when they’re negotiating with a Tripoli pirates. This is a massive issue in the early years of the Republic, as we’re trying to deal with piracy on the high seas. And we don’t have much of a navy and we’re struggling with all this. And there’s a letter, I think, from John Adams, to leaders in Tripoli, claiming that America isn’t no sense a Christian nation, I’d have to go look that up. But I’m pretty sure he or somebody wrote a letter in which he’s making the appeal to a Muslim nation, not to see us as opposed to their religion, not to see America as being so Christian, that we’re opposed to Islam, and therefore targets for Muslim pirates on the high seas, kind of a thought, you know, George Washington, very clearly reaching out to Jewish constituents made it clear that he believed that they had as much a right to this American experiment as non Jews. And he makes no biblical reference to the time when every man will sit under his own fig tree. And it says that to a Jewish audience, and so certainly, you would think of a Judeo Christian background, at the very least, if not broadening beyond that to other world religions. Now, I think the reason Mark, this is never going to be something that gets easily decided, is they just didn’t have the world we have. They obviously didn’t have the same availability to them of the kind of technologies we have an understanding of a larger world we have, it’s just debatable how much the founders really had any kind of ongoing relationships with Hindus or with Buddhists or with people that would be genuinely agnostic, agnostic or atheistic as we would think about them today. So it wasn’t a real question. And there were like it would be in our world today. I don’t think I don’t think. And so at the end of the day, you’d almost have to project forward and say whether they saw a world like this or not, what is the case today? Does a Buddhist have to participate in a Christian morality to be a good American? Does the Muslim have to do that, regardless of what would have been the case two centuries ago? Would that be necessary? Today? That’s very much a debated question we could have a long conversation about.


Mark Turman  19:33

So is, is that to say practically speaking, whether it’s in our politics or within other aspects of our society and our culture. are we struggling to get to a place of clarity around what we mean when we say consensual morality? And if that’s what we’re trying to get to, whether it’s, you know, locally in our school commerce patients, you know, I watched the evening news recently. And, you know, it’s almost every night there is some local school district within the Dallas Fort Worth area where I live, that is struggling with some aspect of these kinds of questions at a local school board level, right? And whether we’re struggling at that level or on a national level or regional level, whatever the case might be, it seems like we continue to just struggle with each other to determine what these core conceptual aspects of morality ought to be. Is that Is that where a lot of our daily struggle is coming from and how


Jim Denison  20:42

it really is? No, I think that’s exactly right. We first of all, back in the 50s, and 60s moved into a postmodern relativism that said, we’re not going to privilege the Bible above the Koran to the Bhagavad Gita or the Book of Mormon, we’re not going to privilege the Christian religion above other religions, and understandably so. I mean, absolutely get that if you’re gonna go with the majority, well, then in Hawaii, that would be Buddhist, right? In some school districts that would be Catholic and others that might be Mormon and others that might be Baptist, or whatever. And so we want everybody to have a seat at the table. Well, these various religious traditions don’t all agree on these moral claims. Abortion has been very much in the conversation recently as a religious liberty issue. I myself want the freedom as a pro life, Evan Jellicle, not to be discriminated against with IRS rulings, and with 501 C, three status, things like that, well, there’s some dimensions of Reformed Judaism that very much embrace or endorse elective abortion. And so we’re reformed Jewish follower could come along and say that I’m discriminating against them, by seeking for my Evan Jellicle beliefs to receive the kind of religious liberty protections that I’m that I’m hoping for here, you have other religious traditions, as regards LGBTQ activism, you’ve got the Methodist right now, going through a pretty massive sort of iterative split over LGBTQ clergy, and the degree to which they ought to be clergy. So it’s certainly not the case that there is a single set of religious morals, that everybody ought to salute, and that we can build a democracy on what we want as a democracy that’s pliable enough, let’s tolerant enough that each of us has a seat at the table, that each of us is free to express our own understanding of our own religious, consensual morality and worldview, without being discriminatory toward others. For the most part, we’ve been able to do that through our history, but there have been significant exceptions, civil war coming to mind immediately. Sometimes it’s a binary choice. We’re either going to allow a state to enslave us citizens, or we’re not, as you know, Mark that was tragically horrifically hermetically, a theological argument that slavery was an endorsed biblical construct back in the day. And the white supremacy was a biblical construct. And so white religious liberty lost in the civil war in the context of kk k members and white supremacist claiming religious liberty exemptions for their horrific heretical bigotry. There are going to be times like this even today, where it’s going to be a bit of a binary choice. And we’re going to see how we we’re not there yet. But that day is coming. That day is coming when a ministry like ours, either has the right to so called discriminate against LGBTQ individuals with regard to employment, or we don’t. And if we get to do that with LGBTQ why don’t we get to do that with racial issues? Why don’t we get to do that with gender issues? Why don’t we get to do that with physical challenges? If we don’t get to do that, if the Americans with Disabilities Act is binding on us? Why isn’t the Equality Act binding on us, we’re going to get to some binary choices coming down the way here and it’s going to be really interesting to see how it all sorts out.


Mark Turman  24:06

So in bringing this down even further to a more personal level, we’re soon to be into the holiday season and will be gathered around Thanksgiving tables and then around Christmas gatherings and New Year’s gather all those things that go with the holidays where family and friends get together. So it’s not just within our politics, but it’s within our families, okay. of whether or not we can now even at the family level get to this place of Do we have a consensual morality that we’re willing to sit at the table with each other in? In some people’s mouths we’ve seen it get that cantankerous and that divisive within like said local school boards, but now we’re even talking about families and it’s ended families. Okay. Yeah. In certain cases, and recently you you’ve written about building, I think the church, the term that I caught was a choice architecture. And having the phrase, a default, biblical authority. And I’m wondering I want to get your reaction to something is, is maybe the framework going forward, that the conceptual morality that we ought to try to pursue, in some ways revolves around the last six of the 10 commandments, if we, if we can’t agree on perhaps the first four of the 10 commandments that are vertically related, in terms of how we understand and relate to God, how we see ourselves in relationship to God? Is it more from a civility standpoint, and from how we’re going to mutually respect and function with each other as friends and his family? And then from that out into larger things like communities and states? It is that the area practically for were Christians, who are the primary audience of the Denison foreign podcast? Is that the primary kind of field of understanding Hey, can we get to the point where we all agree that murder is wrong, and that infidelity is wrong within a marriage relationship, and that lying is wrong. I was just a couple of days ago, in my personal Bible reading, I just happened to encounter at this particular day, Psalm 12. And Psalm 12 is all about the psalmist, grieving over how people lie so pervasively to each other. And I’ve heard you and others say, you know, we live in a time right now, where lying is no longer a sin. It’s a strategy. And, and the psalmist, in Psalm 12, is just bemoaning that, and it caused me to go in two directions, it took me back to the 10 commandments, where it says do not bear false witness. And it took me to the teachings of Jesus and to the writings of Paul, where there are various and repetitive commands don’t lie to each other, because you can’t build any kind of reasonable, healthy relationship unless you’re speaking truth to each other and doing it consistently. So now I’ll bring that all around, is from a practical standpoint, is that maybe an operating architecture of morality that we as Christians could work with? And then also gets you to comment on? You did a an article recently about the election in Israel, where part of the now ruling majority is this small narrow group that says no, you have to agree with us 100%? Or you’re out completely. So put all of that together in terms of helping us think about how we have healthy conversations around some kind of reasonable civil morality consensus as we move into these family and friend conversations.


Jim Denison  28:16

Yeah, and you’re right, those are massive issues. I mean, those are more practical maybe now than they’ve been in forever. But a lot of polling around the last six years as regards how divisive support or for President Trump or opposition, President Trump has been within families, for instance, and, you know, generational issues, things inside all that. So until recent years, Mark, at least in my observation, anybody that would claim to be a Christ follower would have agreed with everything we just said. They would agree that Ephesians 415 is clearly speaking the truth in love, right? That we’re to disagree in an agreeable way. I even wrote a book a few years ago, entitled respectfully, I disagree, that it’s a call for civility. In a day such as such as this and would say to families, certainly find ways to disagree, agreeably find ways to still be friends, as well as family when we’re done here. Recognize that family dynamics over the holidays can be challenging, because quite often, you’re around people you may not choose as your friends, but you’ve got to measure family. And so you’re acting like your friends, but you don’t really know each other. You don’t see each other except a few times a year, you disagree about some pretty significant stuff. If you weren’t related each other, you wouldn’t be having this meal together. And so now that because you are you are and so now we’re trying to kind of at least pretend like we have a level of friendship that we don’t really have prior to this meal. And so we’re friends to in sight, all that world. My point would be there was a day when we would all understand going along to get along, you know, for the sake of our families, for the sake of civility is absolutely a vital Christian commitment that we all ought to embrace, whether it’s the last six of the 10 commandments or whatever you want to say about all of that. In recent years, I started to see an opposing narrative to that. An argument that comes along to say, Look These issues are now so big. The future of democracy is so much on in question here, the very future of our nation is now so much in question that we have to win these battles. We have to do whatever it takes to win, and nice guys finish. Last, there’s been an argument on the Republican side that it was the other side that beat up Mitt Romney, and prove that being a gentleman doesn’t win, that you can’t govern unless you win, you have to get elected in order to in order to govern. And so now what we need on both sides are people who don’t take prisoners who aren’t willing to be hampered by civility, that’s been part of, quite frankly, Donald Trump’s appeal to his followers, it’s been a belief that we need a Romans 13 kind of sword bearing sort of strike fear in the heart of our enemies, sort of a leader here. And the lack of civility that goes with that is seen as a necessary part of the personality that’s essential today. And so if I’m with my family over Thanksgiving, look, these issues about which we’re disagreeing are so severe, so significant, I’m not going to pretend civility here, I’m not going to pretend I’m not gonna just get along with you, by letting you get get away with saying things I know we’re catastrophically wrong, the house is on fire. And if you don’t agree with me, I’m going to do whatever it takes to get you out of the house, you may not like it, you may not like it, I’m yelling at you, you may not like it that I’m picking you up and carrying you physically out of the roof. But the house is on fire. And someday you’ll thank me. Well, that kind of thinking on both sides of the partisan divide, is I’m sitting awkward if now on a level I have not seen in my life. In my own personal experience, I think you probably do have to go back to the Civil War era, to find a time where civility was so much less important than issues that made it impossible to be civil, you know, Mr. Moto mind. For me, I would myself disagree with everything I’ve just said. I myself would very much say that, in fact, if you want to persuade people, that the severity of these issues is what it is, you’re going to lose the opportunity to do that if you give up civility to attempt to do so. It’s not a zero sum game. We don’t have to have this kind of a fight when you have to lose sort of mentality to accomplish our agendas. And in fact, those that have attempted to do so have proven it doesn’t work. I think the recent midterms prove that it doesn’t work. That being that vitriolic being that angry having that much animosity in the service of the goals you consider to be worth all of that is not persuasive. And in a democracy and in a family, ultimately, you’re going to lose a lot more than you want again. So that’s just a long way of agreeing with you that civility ought to be the critical thing for which we pray, as we get together in families. And to choose not to do that in the service, love larger agendas actually harms the agenda, as well as the family itself, I think,


Mark Turman  32:53

okay, so as I, as I work my way mentally through what you’re saying, this, this is where I go and help me so that neither I nor others may be Miss applying some of the things that I have read in the Scripture and and sometimes struggle to understand which is on a political level on a topic level, I follow you totally where, you know, like you said, in the example of slavery in the Civil War, sometimes it gets down to a binary choice, we’re either going to allow this state to enslave its people or not, and we had the bloodiest war that we’ve known as a nation over that kind of an issue. Right? And I would assume that, you know, who knows, we hope that we would never come to that kind of a of a of an impasse again, but you could see that possibly being the case in something of the magnitude of of abortion, if there was, if there was any issue, perhaps as large as slavery, it might be that right. But here’s, here’s where the question of binary choice even as it comes down to personal relationships, relationships within families, within people who are or who have been close friends, Jesus makes a few statements about if you do not love me more than father and mother more than brother and sister, you are not worthy to be my disciple. Jesus said, on one occasion, I came to set a man against his father and a daughter against her, her mother and a daughter in law against her her mother in law, you know, those passages with somebody listening, listening to us possibly run to those passages, and say, Well, we’re now at a point in our culture, where if, if you don’t agree, that same sex marriage is acceptable, then I simply can’t be at the table with you. I can’t gather with you for a family celebration even though we are blood relatives. We, you know, and you could take a person on either side of that question could make that decision, right? Somebody could take this so far as to say, look, it’s not a matter of is our country in jeopardy This is a matter of am I dishonouring My God by engaging a relationship with you at this level? And it is, tell me how we should apply that passage when it comes down to if you don’t love me more than anybody else, you’re not worthy to be my disciple those, how do those passages apply possibly in this conversation?


Jim Denison  35:38

That’s a great question. It really is Mark. And I could absolutely see how they could be seen as arguing against civility, for the sake of my relationship with the Lord, if I have to choose. It’s what the Apostle said to the Sanhedrin. We must choose God over man. At the end of the day, if we have to choose, you have to obey your highest authority, real question, no doubt whatsoever about that. I do think however, it’s probably important to understand that when Jesus is making those statements, he’s using what’s known as rabbinic hyperbole. It was a very, very typical teaching tool of the day to exaggerate for effect, when Jesus says, Why are you paying attention to the speck in your brother’s eye, and ignoring the law that’s in your eye? Well, that were translated love could be considered a telephone pole, you know, I mean, a massive protrusion that’s sticking out of your eye. He’s exaggerating to make a point, he’s exaggerating for effect. So when he says you have to hate your father, and mother and sister and brother, in order to follow me, he’s making an exaggerated point here, which is that in his day, and this was especially the case, then we can see it to some degree. Now, people are going to have to choose in Jesus today, if you’re going to follow Jesus, you’re going to be doing a pretty radical thing in his culture, you’re going to be following a person who claims to be Messiah, a person who claims to be the actual Son of God, who claims to be God in carnate, a whole lot of your culture is going to reject that a lot of your family’s going to reject that whole lot of your Jewish tradition is going to reject that you’re going to be very much an outcast in your society. If you do this, know that now, and choose accordingly. So in Jesus context, I think he’s thinking more about following Him as Lord and Savior than he is about cultural issues like same sex marriage, or abortion, or any other specific moral issue that we might be talking about. We’re talking about following Jesus Himself. We’re talking about am I a Christian? Am I willing to follow Jesus? Well, if I have to choose between following Jesus, and sitting down with my family over Thanksgiving, I have to follow Jesus is it comes to that, I don’t know how it would come to that. But if it came to that, if my family was going to do some horrific thing I couldn’t even participate in as a Christian. If we’re all going to sit around and watch horrific movies, or if we’re going to see, I don’t know what it would be some cultic thing happening or whatnot, where I couldn’t even be there and be a Christian. That’s why these example would pertain to this conversation,


Mark Turman  38:04

like, Yeah, another example that comes to mind is, I can’t imagine anybody doing this, although in the world that we live in, probably one of everything has happened. But like, if somebody says, Hey, we’re gonna have a party, because so and so on, our family decided to get an abortion, and they finished the procedure, and we’re going to come and have a celebration that they got an abortion. And as a Christian, you’d say, I just I can’t be a part of a celebration like that, even though this is these are family members that are gathering. I, I can’t be a part of that. Because I absolutely abhor and disagree with abortion, there’s no way I could participate in that kind of a celebration. Although I’ve never heard of one having there probably has been at least one or two, right?


Jim Denison  38:51

Yeah, the closest I can think of would be in the same sex context. You know, where this Thanksgiving we’re going to be sitting down with our daughter and her wife, or our son and his husband, for the first time. How do I manage that? As a follower of Jesus who believes that that is not a biblical lifestyle? It’s back to should I attend to same sex wedding? Should I attend to reception? Should the same sex couples be allowed to stay in the same bedroom in my home? Should a heterosexual married couple be allowed to say just living together be allowed to live together in the same bedroom in my home? You know, and mmm, am I following Jesus fully if I allow that, and we’re negotiating the stuff inside that and again, I don’t think it’s so binary as that. I certainly think that if I had a son who was living with his girlfriend, and they wanted to come for Thanksgiving and live and sleep together in the spare bedroom, I can say to them, Look, it’s our house. I just can’t do that. I love you. I want you to be here you are welcome at the table. As as you can be. I don’t think I’m endorsing in biblical sexuality by having a meal together but I am by allowing you to share Are bedroom together. And so I’m just going to draw a line there. But I’m still your family, I love you. I don’t see it as so binary that we can’t be family together. Yeah, they’re probably going to be wasted, negotiate that, in ways that would be a little less binary, as would have been the case in Jesus day, when he’s saying, if you follow me, you’re probably going to have to choose between me and your family here. And we know stories of that I had a student Mark, when I was teaching in southwestern seminary, who came from an Orthodox Jewish family in upstate New York, when he became a Christian, they considered him dead to their family, and they had a burial service. Wow, the student of mine says there’s a plot in the family grave with his name on it. Wow. And in his family, he can be a friend. It’s not like they won’t even talk to him, but they consider him dead to them. One reason people think Paul was probably married because he was a Pharisee. And yet, by the time he writes, First Corinthians, he’s not, is the plausibility that when he became a Christian, his wife divorced him, only in their culture that would have been, he would have been considered dead to her. And when Paul said, I’ve lost all things that may be part of what he’s talking about, because that certainly was, was a common thing in Jesus day. So in Jesus day, it was more binary, then I disagree over abortion, or I disagree over same sex marriage, but I’m going to try to have a meal with you. Good, right. In their day, the culture would literally take you out with literally ostracize you, that’s back to X six, when the widow, remember the problem the widows were having with the daily distribution, while the church was having to pick up what the Jewish culture had done, that it was no longer willing to do, because these were now Christians. They no longer had any place in the Jewish culture in the Jewish community. It was that kind of a me versus them sort of a decision that must be had that had to be made there. You’re seeing in the Muslim world today, when Muslims are becoming Christians, and now they’re considered apostate. And now their lives are in jeopardy in some parts of the Muslim world. Well, that’s more for Jesus statement, I think pertains directly. In this conversation. It’s more the principle of how can I be publicly following Jesus, with people with whom I disagree over aspects of what it means to follow Jesus? And I just think there are ways to negotiate that with civility. I think there are ways of just agreeing to disagree about that, and yet trying to stay together and family at least to help their women.


Mark Turman  42:21

Yeah, it sounds like in the example you had about your student whose, you know, family made a marker in their family burial plot that they weren’t saying that, hey, you no longer exist, they it was a way of saying, we’re redefining the relationship in a very dramatic way, we’re no longer going to relate to you as a son or a child of ours, we’re going to relate to you on another level.


Jim Denison  42:47

That’s right. It’s exactly what they were saying. And he’s allowed to come back to visit on occasion, but he is no longer part of the family. Right? He’s dead, the family literally


Mark Turman  42:54

dead to the family, in the sense of being family in that way. And, and we talked about it, you know, pastors talk about all the time about how relationships get defined and redefined. And we see this in Scripture, we see that, you know, when when two people are passionately following after Christ as fellow believers, that there are bonds and definitions of relationships that are unique to that, that don’t exist when somebody you’re trying to relate to somebody who doesn’t share that faith, right? Several times, the apostle Paul says that we are to be loving and kind and compassionate to everybody. And then he’ll put this tagline on and especially to those who are on the household of faith, he’s he’s acknowledging that there are different kinds of relationships. And there are, for lack of a better term, different levels of relationship based on in some significant ways, what what your relationship with Christ is or what it is not. And so we don’t, we have to recognize, as you said, when we especially when we go into holidays, and and these types of unique gatherings, we’re going to be around a lot of different people that we relate to in a lot of different ways. And we shouldn’t try to assume too much about it. Even if we were raised in the same family as children. We shouldn’t assume too much. But we have to be discerning about okay, where are the relationship lines? And how is it defined? And what’s the most redemptive way that we as believers can engage in any one of these relationships, right? Always, always being aware, as Paul says in Colossians, that the times are short, and that we have the opportunity for conversations that are seasoned with the salt of the gospel, right, and to be flavorful and attractive as we engage in any of these conversations discerning the love over a relationship, the nature of the relationship that we have with this person, right?


Jim Denison  45:05

And discernment is, I think for which we can pray, no, we can absolutely ask the Lord to do that. God is today preparing the hearts of the people. He wants me to reach tomorrow. He’s preparing me he’s preparing them. At the same time, I have a very dear friend who has been engaged in vocational ministry says entire career his whole family has. And he has, in recent years been a part of a really fascinating strategy. He said, we speak at a couple of his events, where they essentially work off of Jesus idea of the leading man of the culture. Jesus told me that when you go to a town, you know, when you go to a place, stay there, and somebody’s home, and if they receive you then receive them. And if they know, well then cast and dust off your feet, he’s making the point that when you go to, let’s say, a village where no one knows the gospel, look for the leading influence for them, build a relationship with that person, and on that platform, and by their credibility, earn the right to share the gospel with the rest of the villages. Well, his argument here is God’s already preparing that person today. If you’ll ask God to lead you, He will lead you to the people he’s already prepared for your witness. We do the same thing with our families. We can right now, be praying, Lord, be preparing me. For my family when I see them over the holidays, be preparing them. For this be opening hearts to your word, be creating a hunger for biblical truth here, give me compassion, I wouldn’t have otherwise Give me understanding of wouldn’t have learned saying things to me. I didn’t intend to say, I love it. When I hear myself say things I didn’t plan to say, you know, Lord, lead me into this moment and into these conversations redeem these conversations. We can be praying for that right now. And know that God intends to do the very thing we’re discussing. We can see breakthroughs. Over the holidays, we can see salvations we can see families come back to the Lord, we can see reconciliations I believe the Lord wants all of that God created the family. God wants the family to be that kind of strong and integrated and loving, sort of thing that we would all pray for and wish for. So let’s be praying for that. Let’s be advocates. To that end. Let’s be agents for that purpose. But let’s start with us. Right, Lord, what do I need to repent of wherever I’ve been on God, wherever I’ve been judgmental, wherever I’ve been unkind. There’s always one thing more we don’t know about people. A counselor told me that years ago, there’s always one thing more that if you knew that, you might understand why they did what they did. You may not agree with it, but at least you understand it. Always one thing more. I remember Mark hearing about a guy that came home from work and it was his birthday, and he wanted to go to Mexican food. It was his favorite thing to do. So he came home and told his wife, hey, I’m so excited. And she insisted on Chinese. He said, When I went to miss my birthday, she said, Okay, we’re going to Chinese pretty frustrated about it. But he finally followed her over to the Chinese place. And that’s where the surprise birthday party jumped out from behind the table. You know, just one thing more, there’s always one thing that we don’t understand. So pray for that. Lord, show me that one thing or give me wisdom and discernment. Give me grace here helped me to plant trees, I may never sit under. Tell me to plant seeds at Thanksgiving, though, to come to harvest at Christmas, or plant seeds of Christmas that might come to harvest on in July. Who knows? Let’s just be means of of change agents toward that. God loves to answer that prayer, If we’re willing to pray.


Mark Turman  48:19

Yeah. And I talked to somebody who was living that out just yesterday, a new friend that I met in a conversation who said, you know, I have a number of gay and lesbian friends that when the Obergefell decision came out, they were so excited. And they were mad at me for not being excited as a Christian who doesn’t believe that’s a good thing. And that they, you know, almost the friendships almost broke at that point. But he said, Look, I don’t agree, but I still care about you, I still love you. And I still want to be in relationship. And they kind of they work through the acute disagreement. And they tried to figure out how to continue to have relationship and he said, You know, sometimes months later, sometimes years later, still living in relationship with with people who didn’t share the same moral conviction. They said, You know, now they come back to me, and they say, Hey, can you pray for me? I don’t agree with you about this. And I haven’t chosen to follow Jesus the way you do partly because of this. But I do respect you. And I do know you care about me. And I do know that you’re a person of prayer. Would you pray with me about my health? Would you pray with me about my job? Would you pray with me about this thing that I’m going through? And he’s like, you know, it’s just fabulous to be able to still have relationship, even when we’re not looking at the world through the same moral prism. Right. And that’s kind of to kind of bring our conversation to closer when I’ve asked you to engage on one more question, which is part of the reason we do this podcast part of the reason we do almost everything we do at doing some forum is to help people have clear already about what they believe as Christians and why they believe it. So, tell us a little bit from a philosophical framework, as people come to ask that question of themselves. Well, why do I believe what I believe whether it’s about abortion, or it’s about marriage or about any other moral question, as people grow in their lives? And they start asking themselves? Well, how did I come to know that? How did I come to find myself in this part of the water of morality? And you know, most of the time, we’re gaining that right from the place where we’re born and the family we’re born in. But as people clump come to question that what are some good ways for them to, to not only ask questions of themselves, but to try to come to a framework where they understand where their own morality is coming from? And how they can evaluate how they will? How do we get to what we would want them to have, which is a default, biblical morality? How do people work with that in their own mind? Well, as a


Jim Denison  51:11

practical question, terrific question. years ago, Paul little had a couple of books, one of them was no but you believe and then the companion was no fine you believe. And the why is as important as the one right? At the end of the day, you do have to know what you believe. But you also have to know why it is that you believe that. So you talked about a default biblical morality. So to me, that’s where my mind goes as well. It is the simple fact that the Bible as a book, intends to be understood, intends to be interpreted, there are principles by which the Bible can be interpreted to get to the objective intended meaning of Scripture. Now, I understand that in a post truth culture, where they would say you have your truth, I have my truth and just what you think the Bible means I can tell you what I think the Bible means you can say that if you want to, but the Bible is not a work of art, where you can look at it and decide what it means to you. And that’s just as good as what I think it means to me. It’s literature that has an intended objective outcome that has been intended meaning behind what it says that’s true of most literature. There’s some poetry for which that wouldn’t be true. Of course, there’s some symbolic literature, I guess. But if you’re reading a car manual, the car repair manual, and it’s telling you how to fix a carburetor, it’s got an intended objective, meaning, you’re not supposed to come along and interpret that as poetry. You’re supposed to understand that cookbook to be telling you how to make a Thanksgiving meal, or this map to teach you how to get to a destination, or that’s the context in which the Bible is to be understood. It actually can be understood, objectively. And so whatever the moral issue might be, whatever the issue that I’m thinking about concern about, let’s take abortion, as an example, let’s go to the Bible and ask what it intends to say, on the subject. Now you say, Well, I didn’t go to seminary. I can’t read Greek and Hebrew, you can ask the internet. i We have papers on our website, on the Listen form. What does the Bible say about abortion? What does the Bible say about racism? What does the Bible say about homosexuality, where we’re interpreting the Bible, as it has historically been understood and intended to be interpreted on that subject. So when you do that, you’re going to come I believe, to the conclusion that the Bible teaches that life begins at conception and a sacred from conception forward. That that’s simply what the Bible says. Now, people who disagree are either disagreeing with the Bible, or they’re deciding that the Bible has no objective answer to the question which is just erroneous, on the theological merits. So what I would urge anybody to do is come to what the Bible intends to say on the issue. Then when you know what that is, stand there. Say that that is truth. Capital T truth, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, That’s truth, that’s true truth. That is as foundationally true as the law of gravity is foundationally. True. I can disagree with the law of gravity if I want to, but I’m not breaking the law of gravity. I’m breaking myself on the law of gravity, as it were, the Bible is like that. Biblical truth is like that. The best way to live my life is by alignment with that which is objectively true. So get to what the Bible objectively says, and choose to live in the light of that, and then third, persuade others to do the same. I do that by living it personally, so that they see in my life, something they want, I can ask you to do what I’m not willing to do. And then praying for the Holy Spirit to give me words, when some words by which to share with them the faith that I have in a way that can make this relevant in their lives as well in the pre modern world, or in the modern world, if it was right and must be relevant in a postmodern world if it’s relevant. Sorry, in a modern world, if it’s right It must be relevant in a postmodern world if it’s relevant and might be right. So let me show you the relevance of biblical truth. And you may accept that relevance for your life. And you’ll discover that is true for you because it’s true. Right? So bottom line, and that’s 16 weeks of hermeneutics or biblical interpretation in five minutes. But I understand what the Bible objectively needs to say, believe it in your own life, put it into practice, and you’ll align your life in a way that God can bless.


Mark Turman  55:27

Yeah. Well, that’s super, super helpful. And thanks, thanks for sharing. I wouldn’t, you know, I wouldn’t go so far we wouldn’t go so far probably is to say that we just we’re just speaking in a utilitarian right, or a practical way, do this because it’s, it works the best, although that is true at a certain level, you know, living, living according to the teachings of Scripture, whether it’s about being a truthful person or living your marriage in a certain way or not harming others. There’s a sense in which it’s true, because it works best. It’s true on other levels, but it’s also practically true in that way, right. And as we met as we manifest that, and express that in our own lives as believers, that’s where we’re becoming that assault in light that Jesus wants us to be in all of our relationships, and in all of our contexts, including the holidays. Okay. So as we wrap up, I want to give you I want to tee you up and give you an opportunity to just offer a blessing to our podcast audience for the holiday season Thanksgiving, so much to be grateful for, even in some of the rigors of what we’ve lived through this past year. But if you have a word of blessing that you’d like to offer for Thanksgiving, Christmas, here’s your shot. Well, thank


Jim Denison  56:45

you glad to do that. Do I need to quote Bob Dylan,


Mark Turman  56:47

if you need to? Or why would that be helpful? You? I’m


Jim Denison  56:50

not sure I could do that. Well, let’s pray. Father, God, so grateful for this conversation. And for all the work you’re at right now. I pray God that they will sense your presence in their lives and minds and hearts. Pray God that you will help them to think biblically and then to live with literally, Father, I pray that this conversation will help them even during these holidays, to have compassion for those who disagreed with your word, Father, that they themselves would live in alignment with it and be lives that other people would want to emulate and that they could speak the truth in boss in a way that could draw others closer to you. So Father, I’m praying for healing. And Father, I’m praying for Your blessing. For Thanksgiving and Christmas across these holidays. May you be honored and glorified in the homes that are represented and may our own lives. Be the stable of the living Lord Jesus every minute of every day, we pray in His name. Amen.


Mark Turman  57:39

Thank you for listening. Thank you for listening to the Denison Forum Podcast. Dr. Jim, thank you for your conversation today. We do hope that you have a happy Thanksgiving and a merry Christmas. And if today’s conversation has been helpful to you, please rate and review the Denison Forum Podcast and share it with others. We appreciate you taking the time to be with us, Jim, God bless you. God bless. Take care


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