Friday, May 18, 2018

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Briefing

May 18, 2018

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, May 18, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing: a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Questions of morality, truth, and spycraft raised as Haspel is confirmed as CIA director

After senate confirmation yesterday, Gina Haspel will serve as the first woman director of the Central Intelligence Agency. That’s been noted by just about everyone in the international press. What has been less noted is the fact that she also becomes only the second director of the CIA to have served for decades in the agency’s clandestine service. That is to say, she will be in charge of the spy agency and she served for decades as a spy.

Not only as a spy but increasingly as a top rank spy and one who was in charge of many of the clandestine operations of the Central Intelligence Agency. Even as we’re looking at this headline, it reveals an entire conversation having to do with morality and truth and spycraft, having to do with what nations do with what nations admitted they do and the morality of what nations do.

Nicholas Fandos reporting the story yesterday for The New York Times reports, “The Senate confirmed Gina Haspel on Thursday to be the first woman to lead the Central Intelligence Agency elevating a career clandestine officer to its directorship despite by partisan misgivings about her role in the agency’s brutal detention and interrogation programs in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.”

Now, as we’re looking at the story, we need to look at several different dimensions, all of them absolutely fascinating from the perspective of a Christian world view. All of them compelling as I think about our retention. We have to look at the headlines even as the secular world is looking at the same headlines but we also need to look beneath those headlines and understand some deeper and ongoing issues that are of interest to Christians perhaps in a way that they are not of similar interests to anyone else.

A lot of issues have been debated in the public square once some of the activities of the CIA and related agencies after 9/11 became widely known. This led to scandals and to controversies to investigations and to reports all throughout the American government with international ramifications. But as we remember that history, it means that we also know that that history now comes with the current director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

By confirming Gina Haspel, the United States Senate affirmed a nomination made by President Trump of an inside clandestine service officer of the CIA to be the director of Central Intelligence. Before going even further with this story, we need to understand that by its own admission, the Central Intelligence Agency was engaged in activities, some of which were questionable, some of which were just wrong, some of which were to use the CIA’s own analysis, immoral.

When an issue of this kind of moral urgency comes before a secular tribunal such as the Intelligence Committee of the United States Senate, all kinds of revealing issues are likely to be raised. For example, in the confirmation hearings for Gina Haspel, she was asked whether or not what the CIA had done during those years was wrong, whether or not the actions of the CIA summarized in The New York Times article is brutal techniques, whether or not such actions were immoral.

Gina Haspel refused to answer whether or not they were immoral. She simply affirmed as she said in her words, “We all believed in our work. We were all committed.” She went on to say that under her directorship, the CIA would not be involved in similar kinds of techniques. About that, she was abundantly clear.

So, Gina Haspel, during her open confirmation hearings, all made accessible to the public, she said that what the CIA did then is not what the CIA does now and not what the CIA will do under her directorship. She indicated that she believes the CIA should not do now what the CIA did then but she also didn’t say that the CIA was wrong then to do what it will not do now.

Now, before turning again to the confirmation process and now to the Central Intelligence Agency, Christians need to know that what was being undertaken by the CIA was immoral not only by the judgment of congress and the CIA but by Christian judgment. There were techniques and actions taken by the CIA that throughout the history of the Christian church would have been condemned as immoral.

But then the situation just gets more morally complicated and interestingly so. For example, during the confirmation hearings, Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich in New Mexico asked Haspel, “Where was that moral compass at that time?” Other senators indicated that they had found the actions of the CIA to be immoral and unacceptable but that’s what Haspel and others pointed out that some of those same senators were members of the same committee when that committee approved those very actions that they now condemned.

When Haspel told the Senate Intelligence Committee, “We were all committed,” that referred not only to the Central Intelligence Agency but to some of the very senators who were criticizing her and interrogating her about those brutal interrogation methods of the CIA. That then led to some fascinating lines of question with some senators asking if this reflected a change in morality. Did the CIA then do something right that was later understood to be wrong, that was right when done then but will be wrong when done now? Does morality change over time?

Well, this is where Christians have to understand that of course, morality as an objective statement of what is right and wrong cannot and does not change over time and place. But we also understand the human understandings of morality, morality as a cultural consensus, it does change. It changes right before our eyes. It does change relative to time and to space.

It was both interesting and deeply troubling to hear some members of the United States Senate seemed to ask openly if morality is changed not only over time, you might think that means a long amount of time but relatively short amount of time, short enough to include their own service in the United States Senate and Gina Haspel’s own personal service in the Central Intelligence Agency.

So, how do we think as Christians armed with a biblical world view about whether or not morality changes if we mean by morality what is right and what is wrong. That leads me to a book recently published by Hector McDonald entitled Truth, the subtitle How the Many Sides of Every Story Shape our Reality. One clue to the world view behind this book is the table of contents. The book is divided into different parts.

Part 1, partial truths. Part 2, subjective truths. Part 3, artificial truths and part 4, unknown truths. Those are four different kinds of truths supposedly partial, subjective, artificial and unknown. But what’s really interesting is that Hector McDonald puts morality as his first chapter under the heading of Subjective Truths. What does he mean by that?

He means that morality is inherently subjective. It does change relative to space and time. It is the product of subjective analysis not a reflection of objective reality. Let me just quote him from the book. He says, “One person’s moral truth may be another’s cultural aberration.” He continues and I quote, “We see this most starkly today in the different moral values held by different cultures. Societies around the world,” he writes, “takes strongly opposed views on issues like assisted suicide, sex and abortion, what women should wear, what we can eat, how resources should be distributed and how criminals can be treated.”

And he says, “Moral truths change over time. In recent decades,” he says, “we’ve seen a huge shift in opinion on homosexuality and atheism, good and bad,” he says, “are not set in stone.” Well, of course, Christians considering that quote have to think that it’s the almost perfect setup to observe that when we’re talking about the Ten Commandments, truth was indeed as good and bad set in stone.

But Hector McDonald’s argument about morality as a subjective truth is actually pretty much a reflection of the world view of millions and millions of persons around us especially in advanced economies. When you’re looking at societies like Europe and North America, you’re looking at societies that it simply imbibed a moral relativism over time so much so that it’s the air that millions of people breathe especially many of those who are in positions of greatest cultural influence.

What’s interesting is that when you think about the hearings of Gina Haspel before the Senate Intelligence Committee, open questions were asked about whether or not morality changes over time. But we understand as Christians, of course, operating from a biblical world view that good and bad, right and wrong, good and evil do not change over time in so far as they are established in objective truth. And that objective truth is accessible to us because God has implanted it in creation, we are told.

And furthermore, because of our own sinfulness, God has revealed it to us in his word. Again, we go back to the Ten Commandments, Ten Commandments written in stone. But we also understand that one of the evidence of the fall is that human moral judgment does change and then of course, the basic question is this, is it changing toward greater moral accuracy or lesser moral accuracy?

The world view reflected by Hector McDonald’s book doesn’t allow for the very notion of moral accuracy. Again, he writes moral truths changed over time in recent decades as the illustration to which he points. He says, I quote again, “We’ve seen a huge shift in opinion on homosexuality and atheism. Good and bad are not set in stone.” End quote.

Well, you’ll  notice this illustration. He turns to the sexual revolution and he says, “Look, what society once said was wrong, society now says is right.” And of course, we’ve been tracking this throughout every conversation of The Briefing in one way or another. We are standing in a midst of a massive process of moral redefinition. But here’s where Christians need to understand and remind ourselves clearly right and wrong are not changing. Rather a societal consensus about right and wrong is changing.

Societal judgment or individual judgment is changing on these issues, changing fast, incredibly fast before our eyes but the crucial question for Christians is whether or not that change or that moral judgment is based in truth. But here we have to underline very clearly that if moral truths do not exist or if we cannot know moral truths, then we are lost at sea morally speaking.

Morality is nothing more than whatever the consensus of a specific people at a specific time maybe. But then we have to understand if we hold to a materialist and naturalistic world view, if we hold to the world view that is represented by the evolutionary understanding of the cosmos, then there is nothing left but morality as a matter of shifting and always changing cultural and social consensus. That’s all it possibly could be.

But here’s where we need to understand that evolutionists make two different arguments about morality both of which demand our attention. The first is the human beings are moral creatures insofar and only insofar as that moral sense is an adaptive development of human beings that has aided our survival and reproduction. That’s all it is.

But the second argument that comes from evolutionist is that moral judgments if they are lasting are the moral judgments not so much that comport to right and wrong but they are the moral judgments that lead to increased reproduction and the greater long-term survival of the human species. That’s all it is.

The human being as a moral being is only moral insofar as it’s an evolutionary strategy and the moral judgments made by human beings are only to be measured as to whether or not over time, they lead to a continuation of that survival and reproduction. That’s all it is. There is no right. There is no wrong. There is no truth. There is no false. It’s just a matter of whatever consensus works.

Before we even turn to the morality of spycraft, we’ve got to understand that the big argument presented us in this case is the reality of morality at all, whether or not there is such a reality as a moral truth or a moral fact, objective right or objective wrong. If we look at the senate confirmation hearings, we understand that a part of it is just the way human beings talk, but as we look at that talk seriously, it reflects bigger issues and huge unavoidable questions.

If something was wrong at one point, can it be right now? If something is right now, could it be wrong at some other time? Just consider some of the biggest issues of our day. Would someone argue seriously the human chattel slavery was right at any time and it’s wrong now simply because society has decided that it’s wrong?

Would abortion be right in one place or at one time and wrong at another time? The murder of the unborn, completely legitimate in this context to this time according to this social consensus, but wrong only according to some other moral consensus? Does that mean that the pro-abortionist now would admit that at some point it was morally wrong to kill that unborn child? You see the incoherence of this kind of argument. If morality changes, the only question truly is whether morality is changing in the way you want it to change.

But here Christians understand that if we are simply left with that understanding of morality, we don’t know what is right and wrong, and we do not know ourselves. This is where we understand once again our absolute dependence upon the inerrant and infallible word of God, a divine revelation, a written revelation that tells us what is right and what is wrong, not only in some places at sometimes but for all human beings at all times.

Part II

The reality of morality: Is there such a thing as absolute right or wrong?

But then moving from that massive dimension of the story of the confirmation of Gina Haspel, we have to turn to the other issue that is largely neglected in the cultural conversation. That’s a serious consideration of the morality of spycraft.

In an opinion piece published yesterday at The Wall Street Journal, Fay Vincent wrote a column entitled At the CIA, Immorality Is Part of the Job. He began the article by writing, “The confirmation hearings for Gina Haspel to head the Central Intelligence Agency became a theater of the absurd, as senators pressed her for an assurance that she would apply moral standards to intelligence-gathering, including interrogation of terrorists.”

Later in the column, he writes, “Senators today seem to assume there is agreement on what constitutes moral conduct in spycraft. But,” he says, “recruiting spies is not the work of moralists. The CIA’s mission involves persuading others to disregard their deepest moral and legal obligations. It is a dirty yet necessary business, not best examined in open hearings.”

Even later in the column, he writes, “Intelligence work can involve complex judgments about morality and even legality. The law must remain our bulwark, morality a sweet frosting. To serve as head of the CIA is to be in charge of a vital operation that must be subject to the rule of law, not the moral sensitivities of any one person.”

That opinion column appeared on page A17 of yesterday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal at the very bottom of the page, but the issues raised in this article belong on the front page at the top of the page. But these are the kinds of issues that even our society doesn’t really want to address. These are the kind of deep moral issues that even members of the United States Senate didn’t want to touch.

What you saw on those confirmation hearings was the kind of public event in which senators ask the kinds of questions they wanted to be seen asking on national television. They didn’t dare ask the kinds of questions that they ask behind closed doors when the intelligence committees receive reports that are classified and are not open to public scrutiny.

If you’re wondering where I’m going with this argument, I’ll state it right out loud. Many of our elective representatives in the congress and leaders elsewhere in our government want to be seen asking questions in public about activities they have actually allowed in private. But the argument by Fay Vincent is, “Look, we are living in a dangerous world and in a dangerous world, a government like the United States of America has to be involved with very immoral people. And thus, it has to engage in activities that would be considered in the other sphere of human activity, immoral.”

Fay Vincent actually goes even further than that. He argues that it is the job of the CIA and thus, of the director of the Central Intelligence Agency to be involved in inherently immoral work. But this raises some of the oldest questions about spycraft because indeed, one of the main functions of espionage is to get other people in other nations to betray their own nation in order to protect ours, to get people to abandon their most basic commitments, their most basic loyalties in order to serve our national interests. In a fallen world, in an immoral world, in a violent and threatening world, nations have been engaged in this kind of activity for as long as nations have existed.

But in thinking about these issues and our current cultural conversation, I thought back to a book published in 2006 by James M. Olson who was himself a former chief of CIA Counterintelligence. The title of the book is Fair Play, the subtitle, The Moral Dilemmas of Spying. It was a straightforward moral consideration of espionage and spycraft written by a man who was the chief of CIA Counterintelligence.

On page 43 of the book, he says this, “I will concede that spying is a dirty business.” He has spent a good many pages proving that very point. He continued, “But my question is this, what’s the alternative? No intelligence? Should we abstain from lying, cheating, deceiving, and manipulating and do without the intelligence they produce? Should we unilaterally discontinue espionage and covert action operations overseas? Should we put all our trust in overt sources of information, diplomacy, and the peaceful arts and hope our enemies will not take advantage of us? Is that the real world? Would that be safe?”

In the very next paragraph, Olson gets to what we might consider to be the crux of his argument when he says, “I think most of the debate today centers on when, not if,” those are his words, “certain activities would be right, justifiable, moral or immoral.” In thinking about this headline news, we come to a rather unsatisfying conclusion.

The conclusion from a Christian perspective has to be this, “Morality as a matter of right and wrong and objective truth does not change. It is not relative. It is not merely subjective.” We also have to understand that human moral judgment is often subjective but the question is, is it right or is it wrong?

We understand that moral change does happen, but the question is, is that change in a right direction towards truth or the wrong direction towards the lie? And we have to understand that in a violent, dangerous world, a government like the United States of America, regardless of what you hear in senate hearings, is going to be involved in some activities that later generations will consider to be immoral. But not just later generations, the government is involved in activities that people at the very time understand are immoral.

But what’s also clear are two other insights. We do not as a public have access to adequate information to know that we even know what we think we know about what really goes on through the Central Intelligence Agency. But we also have to understand that we cannot abandon moral responsibility even in a fallen world, perhaps we should say especially in a fallen world. And when it comes to the deepest moral dilemmas in the entire business of spycraft, what’s clear is that this society has a very short attention span. It wants to think about these issues only for a few seconds and then to move on as quickly as possible.

Part III

What do spiralizers, kale leaf strippers, and avocado slicers tell us about the world in which we live?

But finally, as we get ready to go into the weekend with a royal wedding and many other things to consider and later to talk about, we should consider the fact that we are looking at a major moral dilemma in the issue of spycraft. But actually getting even more attention in some newspapers is the huge question and this appeared in the food section of The New York Times on Thursday.

Here’s the headline, “A World of Gadgets for the Home Cook: Kale Leaf Stripper? Avocado Slicer? A Sharp Knife May Work Just as Well.” Penelope Green writes an article even more than a full page article in The New York Times about the pressing question of our age as to whether or not the cook needs a kale leaf stripper or an avocado slicer.

Meanwhile in Europe this past week, there has been a raging debate about the legal labeling of cheese and of course, you won’t be surprised to know the ground zero for that debate has been the nation of France. That reminds me of a statement made decades ago by the then French president, Charles De Gaulle when he complained that France was ungovernable. He asked the question, “How can anyone govern the nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?” Now, the really interesting part of that quote is not that France has so many different kinds of cheese but that the president of France had to know that France has exactly 246 different kinds of cheese.

One of the most interesting aspects of the big important article on kitchen gadgets for The New York Times has to do with the fact that evidently a good sharp knife would easily replace an entire army of new kitchen gadgets that are being sold evidently by the thousands and more. One man who runs the store entirely dedicated to kitchen gadgets, a store that has existed we are told since 1929, told The New York Times, “Between you and me, most of these things you can do with a knife.”

Bee Wilson, a British author who wrote the book entitled Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, said and I quote, “The birth of a new gadget often gives rise to zealous overuse until the novelty wears off. She said to the woman who has just acquired an electric blender, ‘The whole world looks like soup.'” The article also points out that the sale of kitchen gadgets also refers to larger cultural trends and fascinations. Wilson, the author of the book also said that a decade ago, “Half the items for sale in cookware shops seemed to be cupcake related.”

The same author pointed out that with the decline of the cupcake has come increased interest in veganism and the great tool of veganism we are told is represented by “the incredible success of the spiralizer”. She said, “When they started appearing a couple of years ago, I felt that spiralizers were destined for immediate obsolescence but I was completely wrong.” She continues, “Maybe it’s because of low carb diets or maybe it’s the rise of plant-based on Instagram, but it turns out that the ability to turn a beet or zucchini into something resembling telephone wire speaks to more people than I ever knew.”

It turns out that there are dozens and dozens of different kinds of apparatus designed to cook an egg but one of the experts quoted in the article said, “At the end of the day, it actually isn’t that hard to cook an egg.” But the most important moral dilemma of this article was identified by Amanda Hesser, identified as a food writer. She said, “Once you go down the road of having a kale leaf stripper, where do you draw the line? This is something we talk about a lot in our reviews,” she said, “with kitchen manufacturers, there is this tendency to get so detailed and so tailored with their products everyone would need a 5,000 square-foot kitchen, not to mention you’re missing out on the pleasure of ripping kale off its stem. You’re letting the tools,” she said, “have all the fun.”

What does all of these mean thinking in world view analysis at the end of the day and the end of the week? It means that we are a society that has to grapple with massive moral issues including some massive moral issues we really don’t want to deal with at all. Meanwhile, we are also a society of such plenty and abundance that we are a society of seemingly endless kitchen gadgets and the fascination with those gadgets.

We are a society that will debate the morality of spycraft for just a few minutes but then get involved in a long discussion about whether or not every kitchen needs a kale leaf stripper. We are the society tellingly enough of that first conversation but we’re also the society of the second conversation as well.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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