Whatever one’s view of God, faith is at the center of all human knowledge.
“I have never believed in God. Yet, I have to admit that if He does not actually exist, then we can be little more than feverish, selfish little clods of ailments and grievances. And that is hardly enough reason to go on living. Only the existence of God can make anything at all have any meaning at all.”
George Bernard Shaw
I was recently watching an interview with theoretical physicist Alexander Vilenkin that was conducted as part of the Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s PBS series, Closer to Truth. A couple of things struck me about the interview. The first is Vilenkin’s humility. While he is certainly no believer and at most holds a Spinoza-esque view of an impersonal God, Vilenkin is certainly humble with regard to the idea of God. This is refreshing in light of the arrogance one typically sees amongst those scientists who are advocates of New Atheism. As a Christian I am never offended that someone doesn’t share my belief in God – in fact in a world where God allows men to choose their responses to Him, I would expect a certain number of people not to believe in God. But there is no reason for epistemic arrogance displayed by New Atheists, who have no warrant for the certainty they invest in scientism, materialism, and naturalism. So to see measured responses of the sort Vilenkin gives is refreshing.
But the other thing that strikes me about the interview is Vilenkin’s references to the underlying laws of physics which exist independent of the universe itself, as he calls it, a Platonic existence. For those who aren’t familiar with Plato, he imagined our universe was a reflection of a deeper reality, an ideal reality. To that end Vilenkin expresses the notion that mathematics itself isn’t merely a human a construct, but an underlying reality waiting to be discovered by us.
Vilenkin’s view here comport on some levels with those of another thinker, philosopher Thomas Nagel who recently wrote the book, Mind and Cosmos, which is a critique of the reductionist view of the universe suggested by Neo-Darwinism. Lest you take Nagel to be a creationist, he is in fact an atheist, though again a thinker of the sort Vilenkin is – thoughtful, epistemically humble and willing to be skeptical of things other atheists seem certain of. He suggests in his book that the universe has an inherent ‘mindfulness’, a tendency that inclines it to follow a path that eventually leads to us. In this he channels another Greek philosopher, Aristotle, who believed the ends to which nature tends were inherent in nature itself.
Where both men seem to be arriving, albeit through different means, is at teleological view of the universe. For those not familiar with the term, generally speaking it means that processes bear attributes indicating they are being shaped toward an end – or that those processes have a purpose.
For most of human history humans have understood nature to be essentially teleological. Only in the 20th century did the reductionist notions of materialism and naturalism really begin to predominate in the sciences. But as Nagel points out, such reductionism essentially fails to explain certain aspects of nature – particularly the minds ability to explore the universe. More generally materialism fails to explain many aspects of the universe – it’s fine-tuning, the origin of the information driven machinery of life as well as human consciousness – or consciousness generally.
Of course Christianity has and continues to offer an inherently consistent answer to the question of the teleology we see in the universe. When Genesis describes God speaking the universe into existence it provides the bridge between the underlying principles, the forms that exist in the eternal mind of God and the reality that we experience as the universe. We see not only the receptacle of the natural laws that govern nature, a place both outside the universe and consistent with it, but we see how such laws could be invested in the fabric of the universe itself. A Christian view of the universe encompasses both Plato and Aristotle.
It also aids us in understanding why our minds comprehend the universe at all. If it is true that we are ‘created in the image of God’ then we derive from God the ability to conceptualize the principles that underlay the structure of nature – we are both the product of the mind of God, and we share with it the ability to comprehend its works.
That modern thinkers are beginning to see the underlying purpose of the universe is no surprise. If men are honest observers, whatever winding roads they might follow they arrive back at the same place despite their desires to end up somewhere else.
As a Christian I believe the universe was structured so that, as Romans says, “what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” If that is true, then the simplest man or the most sophisticated thinker should be able to observe nature and have some notion that it exists for a purpose – and that certainly appears to be the case.
If I found myself doing as much work to disprove the existence of the Tooth Fairy as atheists do trying to disprove the existence of God, I think I would start robbing dental labs and piling teeth beneath my pillow.
Often when I argue that cells are infused with information driven molecular machinery and that this observation constitutes the basis for a readily falsifiable theory on why the cell is the product of the effort of a mind, opponents will accuse me of over-extending the use of the word ‘machine’. That is why I appreciate animations like the one below – it clearly depicts a molecular motor, that has been an integral part of cells since the beginning of life. It is clearly a mechanism composed of multiple integrated and highly interdependent parts that both convert energy into work, and provide the fuel on which the rest of the cell subsists.
The ATP synthase is definitely an information driven molecular machine, and the best explanation of its existence is that it was designed by a mind.
In a recent blog post on the New Atheist site A-Unicornist Mike shares his view of heaven by invoking Captain Kirk of the original Star Trek series. In the particular episode This Side of Paradise Kirk dismisses an offer to join an alien spore induced paradise with a typical Kirkian aplomb:
ELIAS: Captain, why don’t you join us?
KIRK: In your own private paradise.
ELIAS: The spores have made it that.
KIRK: Where did they originate?
SPOCK: It’s impossible to say. They drifted through space until they finally landed here. You see, they actually thrive on Berthold rays. The plants act as a repository for thousands of microscopic spores until they find a human body to inhabit.
ELIAS: In return, they give you complete health and peace of mind.
KIRK: That’s paradise?
ELIAS: We have no need or want, Captain.
SPOCK: It’s a true Eden, Jim. There’s belonging and love.
KIRK: No wants. No needs. We weren’t meant for that. None of us. Man stagnates if he has no ambition, no desire to be more than he is.
ELIAS: We have what we need.
KIRK: Except a challenge.
And later, with a reference to the Fall…
MCCOY: Well, that’s the second time man’s been thrown out of paradise.
KIRK: No, no, Bones. This time we walked out on our own. Maybe we weren’t meant for paradise. Maybe we were meant to fight our way through. Struggle, claw our way up, scratch for every inch of the way. Maybe we can’t stroll to the music of the lute. We must march to the sound of drums.
Mike’s point in employing this bit of dialogue is the same one skeptic’s have been using ever since – well at least since I was a skeptic myself, namely that heaven is boring, so who would want to go there anyway? It is an adolescent argument, the sort one would employ if one had a teenage view of the matter – which incidentally is around the time many men choose to become atheists. But it fails for two reasons, at least as far as Christianity is concerned; and one of the reason it fails is because Captain Kirk is a hypocrite.
How is he a hypocrite you ask? Well if you have a geek’s knowledge of the Star Trek universe like myself, then you know that by 21st century standards, the world Kirk and his crew inhabit is a paradise. Think about it – the Federation has long done away with money. The crew of the Enterprise never worries about running out of power, having an ample supply supplied by dilithium crystals. They jet about the galaxy, free to explore the mysteries of the universe having all their physical needs supplied at the push of a button on a replicator. They can move about at will over distance materializing in buildings on a planet’s surface in seconds (hey, where have I seen that before?!) War has ceased on earth and diseases are cured at the wave of glowing medical device.
As a matter of fact, Kirk often lectures warring alien about their primitive ways and absurd prejudices. Why? Because in order to have the freedom to really explore and gain more knowledge (which is after all the mission of the Enterprise) a high level of peace, prosperity and knowledge must be attained first. And as it turns out, this is pretty much true – historically, the cultures that have greatest advances are those who have managed to carve out for themselves a space where they can prosper in relative peace, away from the primitive human urges that constantly tear down civilizations. Man doesn’t stagnate when he is given room and means to rest and reflect, man prospers. In short, we advance by way of the heavenly, not by the way of the brutish struggle, something Kirk apparently forgot. But he is not known for his logic.
But the other reason this fails as a critique of the Christian view of heaven is that it is not an accurate view of the Christian view of heaven, at least as Scripture explains it. The proper Christian view of heaven is not one of mindless people floating about clouds, playing harps without a care or concern. That is a cartoon view of Christianity, which is where New Atheists seem to get most of their information. In Scripture our earthly lives are just a shadow of what our eternal experiences will be. This is how the Apostle Paul puts it:
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. – 1 Corinthian 13:9-12
Paul is contrasting our current experience which is limited by time, our limited knowledge and experience with an eternal existence which has no such limitations. Knowing what’s true won’t be limited by our senses. In another passage, Paul attempts to explain how different this life is from the life to come:
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another.
There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. – 1 Corinthians 15:35 -39
In other words, one can’t measure our eternal experience by our temporal, earthly experience. It would be like trying to study a forest by looking at an acorn. Saying that ‘heaven is boring’ is akin to a bird in a cage saying the sky looks boring. It’s absurd, especially if you have a tiny taste of what flight is like.
It’s always interesting for me to think about how awed atheists are by the universe; and one can see why – it’s vast, it is continually revealing new secrets and the more we know about it the more we know about ourselves. If it were feasible one could spend a lifetime exploring it and never scratch the surface of all its mysteries. Now think for a moment about what keeps us from exploring this immense creation. Our lives and resources are limited. For most of human history they have been severely limited. At this point in human history we barely have the capability to send machines to the nearest planets. Even if we manage to reach them ourselves, there is no indication we could ever send a person to the nearest star. Certainly in my lifetime it will not happen and if it ever does happen no one alive today will know it. And to be even more frank, the power and resources available to us is dwindling – and the will to use it for long term speculative ventures is waning as well, because people sacrifice long term understanding for short terms pleasure. Our ambition is stalled by our selfish natures not by a desire for heaven.
What is exciting about the thought of heaven is no such barriers exist. Time and resources are available for the ultimate exploration of the vastness of creation. Of course, beyond this lies the vastness the Creator Himself – to which there is no end of knowledge, understanding, and immeasurable motivation to go as C.S. Lewis put it, “further up, and further in”.
Of course in our hearts we know this – that’s why we strive for it on earth, even though it will never exist on earth. We strive to know more, we strive to live longer, to be healthier, and to be more at peace. We strive for these things because we realize that desperate lives of limitation are not how human lives ought to be.
Of course this is nonsense to Mike because he does not believe heaven exists to begin with, which rather makes his critique of heaven odd.
But if one is going to criticize something, one should at least understand what one is criticizing and his cartoonish cliché ridden view of the Christian notion of heaven shows he is not only ignorant of heaven, but of human nature altogether.
In light of certain events, I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes by the scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal. In it he describes the inevitable end of extreme skepticism:
What, then, shall man do in this state? Shall he doubt everything? Shall he doubt whether he is awake, whether he is being pinched, or whether he is being burned? Shall he doubt whether he doubts? Shall he doubt whether he exists? We cannot go so far as that; and I lay it down as a fact that there never has been a real complete sceptic. Nature sustains our feeble reason and prevents it raving to this extent.
Pensées, SECTION VII, 434
I thought of this warning about skepticism after reading Salon magazine’s article on the latest conspiracy theories about the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary. While the existence of those who doubt that the events in Newtown, Connecticut occurred is shocking, it isn’t surprising. After all we live in an age where conspiracies abound – the official and well documented descriptions of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the 9/11 attacks, even the moon landings have all been questioned by a segment of the population. The foundation of such conspiracies rests on a pernicious distrust of authorities and the media as well an overblown sense of skepticism that proffers if one wasn’t present for the events themselves one can’t trust the accounts of others.
I have found that in many ways skeptics of Christianity are similar. Their arguments against the New Testament accounts sound very similar to the claims of the Sandy Hook truthers – that the accounts are inconsistent, that those giving the accounts aren’t reliable, that there are unreported facts which undermine the ‘official’ story or show that the story we are getting isn’t complete. The fact that people can question the reality of widely witnessed events days after they occurred show our inherent tendency to doubt; and the tendency of some to doubt no matter what facts are presented.
Now this isn’t to say skepticism isn’t useful as a part of a complete intellectual toolkit. Gullibility can be just as dangerous as skepticism. But skepticism alone isn’t sufficient to weigh the truth of a matter. Complete understanding includes a range of processes, from considering evidence, to personal experience, to knowing history and having some understanding of human nature. It also includes common sense, humility and yes, faith, which is the acknowledgement that even though we can never know all there is to know about certain events, we still must decide what we will accept as true. All these are employed by Christians in their decision to believe in Christ. Just as any rational person has sufficient evidence to accept that Kennedy was killed by a single madman, and that a group of fanatics flew planes into the World Trade Center buildings, that men walked on the moon and that a young disturbed man killed twenty children at Sandy Hook elementary, one also has sufficient evidence to believe confidently that a man walked the earth 2000 years ago, healed the sick, was crucified, died and rose again.
Of course the skeptic will find room to doubt – especially in this age where skeptics reign. But the existence of numerous skeptics doesn’t change the reality of any of these events.
And while some healthy skepticism might help us avoid untruths, in the end skepticism alone doesn’t enable the intellect but untether it from any certain foundation.
The Atlantic recently featured an article called the There’s More to Life Than Being Happy which considers the difference between mere happiness and having purpose. The piece outlines the difference between the fleeting and selfish desire to be happy versus the lasting value of outward focused meaning which can endure even the greatest suffering. The article highlights the life of Viktor Frankl, a prominent 20th century Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist who wrote a seminal book on meaning inspired by his time spent in a Nazi concentration camp called, Man’s Search for Meaning. The article explains the essence of the Frankl’s understanding of what lay at the core of those who survived the horrors of the concentration camps:
In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, “Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?”
In reading this I couldn’t help but be reminded of the many conversations I have had with atheists, particularly those of the New Atheist variety concerning the importance of meaning. Whenever I point out (as I often have) that the materialism and naturalism upon which New Atheism is derived essentially renders human life without purpose, atheists begin by pooh-poohing the importance of meaning and then blithely claim that meaning can be created for oneself. Frankl’s witness seems to undermine that proposition; it’s not so easy to lie to oneself when circumstances dictate otherwise. In a concentration camp either one has intrinsic purpose beyond the experience or one succumbs to the suffering.
But the absence of meaning doesn’t just weaken our ability to face suffering; it also corrupts us and increases our tendency to cause others to suffer. In his examination of the motivations of the Nazi regime, Frankl came to this conclusion:
If we present man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present him as an automation of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instincts, heredity, and environment, we feed the despair to which man is, in any case, already prone.
I became acquainted with the last stages of corruption in my second concentration camp in Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment—or, as the Nazis liked to say, of ‘Blood and Soil.’ I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.
Viktor E. Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul: Introduction to Logotherapy, 1982, p. xxi)
This captures as much as anything why as a Christian I see it as critically important to argue against the materialism and naturalism of New Atheism; it is damaging to the well-being of individuals and it is ultimately damaging to society as a whole. Apart from seeing in men the image of God and believing that He has a plan and purpose for our lives we have no substantive basis for hope and meaning.
To the degree someone claims the universe can come into existence uncaused, to that degree they reject science as a means of understanding the origin of the universe.
And to that degree one can reject anything they say as unworthy of serious consideration.
I was thinking recently about two articles in the New York Times about two very different approaches to the reality of human suffering. In each case individuals viewed the suffering of others and made a choice about what it says about the existence of God and the nature of human experience.
For atheist journalist and author Susan Jacoby, suffering is an essential motivation for unbelief. Like many (if not all) atheists, In her op-ed The Blessings of Atheism, Jacoby sees suffering as coup de grâce of belief in a beneficent, all-powerful God. She shares with students how observing the suffering of a friend as a child caused her to question the existence of God, and the relief she finds as an atheist in not having to square the pain in the world with the goodness of God:
The first time I told this story to a class, I was deeply gratified when one student confided that his religious doubts arose from the struggles of a severely disabled sibling, and that he had never been able to discuss the subject candidly with his fundamentalist parents. One of the most positive things any atheist can do is provide a willing ear for a doubter — even if the doubter remains a religious believer.
IT is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.
The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.
As I noted in a recent post, atheists do not have much to offer by way of comfort to those who face the bleak realities of human existence. The unavoidable experience of pain and disease, finality of death, and the fact of unchangeable circumstances are not relieved by the atheist’s insistence that they are purposeless, inevitable consequences of an incidental universe grinding along according events set in motion long before humans happened to make an appearance. As critical as atheists are of the supposed contradiction between the goodness of God and the fact of suffering, they seem blind to the fact that atheism can offer no hope whatsoever in the face of greatest pain there is – the death of a loved one.
Atheism may even be more useless when dealing with the case of an incurable condition. While atheism may vaunt its inclination toward pragmatic scientific solutions, it is certain there will always be diseases and disabilities that resist treatments. At that point atheism can only pity the poor sufferer, or in the case of the most pernicious secular solution, suggest the elimination of undesirables as was the case in the early 20th century’s prevalence of eugenics solutions. It is still the case today with selective abortion which has been responsible for the near elimination of some conditions by eliminating in the womb persons who have those conditions.
Thankfully Jacoby’s atheism isn’t the only view we might consider. Another New York Times article, Laws of Physics Can’t Trump the Bonds of Love considers a different approach to humans suffering, one that was highlighted in the award winning documentary short Wright’s Law:
The documentary and the article introduce us to the life of Jeffery Wright, an inspiring high school physics teacher and the father of a child with rare disorder called Joubert syndrome. Unlike the atheist Jacoby, Wright discovered in his son’s suffering a power greater than that of the inevitability of physics:
Mr. Wright starts his lecture by talking about the hopes and dreams he had for Adam and his daughter, Abbie, now 15. He recalls the day Adam was born, and the sadness he felt when he learned of his condition.
“All those dreams about ever watching my son knock a home run over the fence went away,” he tells the class. “The whole thing about where the universe came from? I didn’t care. … I started asking myself, what was the point of it?”
All that changed one day when Mr. Wright saw Abbie, about 4 at the time, playing with dolls on the floor next to Adam. At that moment he realized that his son could see and play — that the little boy had an inner life. He and his wife, Nancy, began teaching Adam simple sign language. One day, his son signed “I love you.”
In the lecture, Mr. Wright signs it for the class: “Daddy, I love you.” “There is nothing more incredible than the day you see this,” he says, and continues: “There is something a lot greater than energy. There’s something a lot greater than entropy. What’s the greatest thing?”
“Love,” his students whisper.
“That’s what makes the ‘why’ we exist,” Mr. Wright tells the spellbound students. “In this great big universe, we have all those stars. Who cares? Well, somebody cares. Somebody cares about you a lot. As long as we care about each other, that’s where we go from here.”
For the strident atheist of course such professions are sentimental claptrap. For Jeffery Wright and his son Adam it is a divine credo, the stuff of life.
Viewing suffering through the lens of God’s love turns the sufferer from an object of pity and tragic circumstance to a human being, with inherent value and dignity. And it transforms the observer who is willing to embrace the purpose in the suffering to a different kind of human being, one love knows no bounds and who has the ability to partake in transforming the lives of others. Jeffery Wright is a great teacher because he values the lives of his students – and he values them because he has learned to love what Scripture calls, “the least of these” – those who suffer the most.
In the book of Matthew Jesus taught his disciples a parable meant to help them understand how closely God was associated with the lives of those who suffer:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Many Christians see this as a parable about the future rewards believers will receive in heaven, but it is so much more than that. Only in Christ is the suffering person so completely associated with the person of God Himself. Only in this understanding of not only the goodness of God, but the compassion and humility of God is suffering shown not only to be meaningful but essential to our own ability to be good. We see the good through suffering not because it works out well in the end, but because seeing the good through the suffering transforms us into different people, a people we could never be otherwise.
In the light of suffering atheism can only ever offer us a resigned acceptance of unintentional circumstances out of our control in a cold meaningless universe. The knowledge of God can give us the power to see the lives of others, whatever their life experience, as eternally valuable gifts by which we can be transformed and transform others.