Observations

April 30, 2011

It is sad irony that mankind in its corruption ignores the simple and absolute commands of God to create a moral morass of wars, deceit, promiscuousness, greed, poverty and pain. Man then turns and claims the human condition is much too complex to be aided by such simplistic moral rules and our only help can be through standards derived by the efforts and reasoning of the same creatures  who created the mess to begin with.

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Friday Fun-ness

April 29, 2011

Best. Conspiracy. Ever.

And who knew? The Lutherans have a sense of humor.


Is New Atheism Soft on Repression?

April 27, 2011

I was struck recently by an article in Christianity Today chronicling the recent crackdown of house churches in China. In particular they detail the treatment of the Shouwang church in Beijing at a public square at Zhongguancun, dubbed “China’s Silicon Valley“.   

The church of some 1000 congregants is worshipping outdoors because of government pressure against property owners renting to the church. It is one more episode in an ongoing attempt by the Chinese government to control and eradicate attempts to freely worship in China.

A couple of things about these events strike me. The first is that it is notable that the Christian church endures and is growing in an officially atheistic state. New Atheists have often expressed the desire to completely rid the world of religious belief, but in places where such things are actually attempted it would seem to fail miserably. Also notable I think is how the desire to worship, to express one’s faith is the spear tip of all commonly recognized freedoms – the freedom to speak, write, associate, etc. Once eradicated (if New Atheists have their way) one wonders what motivation is left to advance these freedoms at all – the religion-less world these atheists imagine is not a foundation for freedom and prosperity, but more likely the final repression of human conscience.

 Indeed one wonders on what grounds the New Atheists would protest the current repression going on in China. Given that they see religion as both ‘delusional’ and ‘dangerous’ and the eradication of religion as a benefit to society as a whole, it would seem their views of religion aligns completely with those of the Chinese government, with perhaps the exception of the methodology. And yet the methodology is only problematic if one sees religious belief and worship as worth preserving – after all, who would protest if Beijing were cracking down on child molesters?

 Though the West’s reaction has been anemic, we still at least have a segment of our population for whom religious liberty remains a critical concern. One cannot help but think that if the New Atheist view of religious belief were more widespread that the totalitarian actions of the Chinese government would be met with complete indifference, if not outright enthusiasm.


Happy Birthday Audubon

April 26, 2011

A little late in the day, but it’s still good to remember an incredible artist, naturalist, and man who saw God in His creation:

Caracaras by John James Audubon


“I pointed out to him that nature is the great study for the artist, and assured him that the reason why my works pleased him was because they are all exact copies of the works of God, who is the great Architect and perfect Artist; and impressed on his mind this fact, that nature in-differently copied is far superior to the best idealities.”

John James Audubon, born this day 226 years ago.


A Dialogue with Judge – 2

April 25, 2011

This is the second and last in a series responding to some questions a semi-regular poster on the site, ‘Judge’ had about some of my recent articles and claims. Judge first asks a number of addition questions, starting with these three:

1. What does it mean for something to be the ‘basis’ of a culture/society? How does it inform that society in practice? If we’re talking about cultural, aesthetic, artistic influence, why is Christianity privileged over something like, say, the Greco-Roman world, which is just as preponderantly present everywhere in our culture?

I think this is fairly straight forward, and I have mentioned it briefly before. I think when I say ‘basis’ of our culture/society I am talking about the origin and development of those aspects that make up a society – the arts, music, literature, philosophies, politics, economics, etc. Even more particularly I am talking about the operating principles of a society.

In American society for example there are a number of defining principles, like human equality, inherent and definitive rights and the respect for conscience that can be specifically traced to our Christian worldview. Also critical is our understanding of human nature and how it informs our political philosophies and economics. Take for example one simple one – the view of human nature as corruptible. That is a distinctly Christian view derived from what Christians refer to as the ‘sin nature’, the view that we have a tendency follow our own selfish desires and are tempted by various enticements. The very structure of our government reflects that in its checks and balances system – a system meant to prevent selfish human ambition from becoming tyrannical.

2. Do you reckon that Hinduism, Buddhism and the like form the ‘basis’ of the Indian, Chinese, Japanese, etc. societies? If that is so, then do you think it is possible for the basis of a society to be something other than religious? If so, can you provide an example? If not, then isn’t your point tautological – aren’t you just using the word ‘basis’ as just a synonim for ‘religion’?

No – if I say ‘flour is the basic and essential ingredient of bread’ it does not then follow that flour is synonymous with bread. However it might be essential to making bread. I think that invariably a society requires some sort of over-arching view about the nature of humanity and their relationship to each other, and principles by which to operate. I think the few times we have those principles have been derived from purely material or atheistic philosophies, the societies they have produced have been dismal failures – examples of that would be Revolutionary France, the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, N. Korea, to name a few.

3. Are bases of societies necessarily monological – that is to say, is it possible to conceive of a society split in two or more different, competing cultural forces for its basis? Is it possible that the political division of right and left reflects the fact that society doesn’t have a single ‘base’, but more than one force acting in competition with each other, and that these forces put together form the real ‘basis’ of the society within which they work?

Sure, I don’t see Western society as only being the product of Christianity, and I have never made this claim. We have a long and varied influence with many influences. And there have been many failures along the way, as I said before stops and starts, steps forward and back. The same is true for most human societies. But I don’t think this prevents us from clearly seeing how the operating principles of Western society have largely been influenced by Christianity. At some level I think the politics of right and left, at leastin the extreme, reflect radically different views of human nature and the operating principles of government.

As it were, Christianity led to an equally complex set of superstitions and mythologies on the architecture of heaven, the number of angels and archangels, not to mention saints, as well as demons, witches, exorcisms, vampires and spirits, the structure of heaven and hell (which is completely fictitious, as the details barely appear in Scripture), and cloudy theological mysteries like the Trinity. I’m assuming you’ve read the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost? They’re every bit as colourful as the Odyssey or the Metamorphoses. Again, I have the impression that you’re assigning to Christianity a ‘special status’ of some kind. Much like you burden science with things which Christianity is no less vulnerable to, so you accuse pagan religions of issues which are also present in Christianity.

I think you are confusing ‘Christianity’ (that is a scripturally based belief system derived from the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles) with the history of Christian Europe. There is no doubt that over the millennia a number of ideas have been introduced either as a derivative of or emanation of Christianity. In fact you acknowledge above that many of these ideas are completely fictitious and have no basis in Scripture. The writing of Milton and Dante were impactful and certainly influenced by certain ideas in Scripture, but they were never themselves considered doctrinal or traditional beliefs of Scripture – they were taken for what they were, powerful poetic ruminations on the implications of certain Biblical ideals – and they were notably allegorical with respect to the events at the time they were written.

In fact I would say this has been the great battle of Christianity over the years, the fight against maintain a pure doctrine derived from foundational orthodox beliefs and keep it from being tainted by human superstition and speculation. The Reformation was critical in this regard as it elevated Scripture into its proper centrality in the church, and made it available to believers for review and comprehension. From this we see Christian thinkers like Francis Bacon developing the scientific methodology as a bulwark not against Christianity, but against the ‘idols of men’s minds’ – superstitions and biases.

Also, the cosmology that you advocate is a bit of a free interpretation. The Gospel certainly doesn’t encourage scientific enquiry to understand God’s laws. I wouldn’t say that Acts 19:19 encourages open research, for example: Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men. The Old Testament does include more cosmological statements, though I’d like to see the specific passages by which you sustain an interpretation which seems to me rooted outside of Scripture (where do you get this idea that since the universe is made for us, it follows that we’re equipped to understand it?).

I find it curious that you see the passage in Acts 19:19 as anti-science. The word ‘curious arts’ is from the Greek periergos or in this context ‘magic arts’. The Christians were destroying their own books on magic – that isn’t a superstitious act, in fact in the full reading it’s the opposite! They were ridding themselves of superstitious items.

Also, the God in the OT is not too different from Zeus/Jupiter. A quick comparison of Yhwh in the Bible with Zeus/Jupiter in Homer and Virgil reveals the same fundamental function – an anthropomorphised fulcrum of physical, legal, moral, cosmic authority. The details are different, of course, and Zeus is anthropomorphised more explicitly, but their literary role is the same. In this sense the pagan minor gods have an almost subsidiary role, like the angels (consider the scene in the Iliad where Zeus tells Hera, ‘even if every other god in the world pulled a rope in one direction and I in another, it would still go where I’m pulling it.’).

I disagree strongly with this – Zeus was a child of Cronus, part of a genealogy of Gods – Jehovah is the ‘I am’, ever existing and transcendent. Zeus rules men according to his own whims and desires – Jehovah rules men according to well defined and unchangeable laws. In Greek mythology the troubles of men are a punishment for transgression of gods – in the Old Testament men suffer because of choices they made to transgress the eternal will of the only Jehovah. Jehovah inhabits no earthly place, and the universe is His creation, subject to his laws. The Greek god’s demi-gods inhabit earthly places and phenomena in nature are the result of their activities. Jehovah makes covenants with men that are eternal and binding – Zeus is fickle and deceptive and acts according to his own selfish purposes. I could go on, but I think the differences are clear.

If Christianity ‘cleared the way’ for scientific thinking, why is it that the period immediately following its consolidation in Europe was the most stagnant in scientific progress (or any progress) in European history – namely, the Dark Ages? Why didn’t science just immediately follow, instead of having to wait almost one thousand years to flourish again? Doesn’t this suggest that the direct connection you propound is in fact a fiction?

First off, ‘science’, that is the methodology developed by Francis Bacon didn’t ‘flourish’ previous to Christianity. In fact one of the most important steps Bacon and other thinkers of his time did was to free themselves from the hindrances of Greek and Roman thinking vis-à-vis natural phenomena – namely the use of deductive syllogisms to interpret nature as opposed to the inductive reasoning employed by Bacon’s methodology. And I am not sure what your view is of history, but Christianity didn’t become ‘immediately’ become consolidated in Europe – Rome stopped persecuting Christians around 300AD. After that it began to spread over Europe over the course of hundreds of years while facing growing challenges from Islam in the South, Huns from the East, Mongols from the Far East, plagues, and the incorporation and corrupting influences of Rome itself.

I think it would be simplistic to expect the immediate development of science, which depends not only certain principles, but also on the establishment of universities, the ability to publish and disseminate books and the freedom to exchange ideas. This doesn’t negate the fact that the scientific method sprung out of the thinking and writing of Reformation era Christian thinkers, who had those advantages – in large part because of the Reformation itself.

Furthermore, it is also ‘disproved as humanly possible’ that the earth and man weren’t created in seven days, that a man cannot be resurrected from death or water be turned into wine just by sheer will, nor can blindness be cured by touching a forehead, and that man evolved from the apes. You could claim that some or all of these things are metaphorical, but then, why isn’t Apollo’s chariot metaphorical as well?

I think you have conflated a few things here and missed the point in the process. The claim that Apollo’s chariot pulled the sun across the sky was an attempt to specifically explain directly observable phenomena in nature; i.e. that the sun moves across the sky. As we have disproved this religious idea it has been demonstrated that we can in fact disprove religious ideas, contra the claim that, “that no scientific theory can “disprove” any unfalsifiable assertion, whether religious or otherwise.” I think both by observation and scientifically derived explanation we have in fact disproved the idea that a chariot is pulling the sun across the sky.

With regard to the aforementioned miracles (water to wine, the resurrection, and blindness cured) these aren’t attempts to explain natural phenomena, but chronicles of unique events understood to have happened in the past. Though I think they can be discussed and debated reasonably and believed for perfectly rationale reasons, I don’t think they can be (nor have they been) disproved scientifically because they aren’t subject to current observation or experimentation. And as they aren’t offered as explanations for certain observable phenomena (as Apollo’s chariot was) then we wouldn’t expect science to contradict them in the same way.

And concerning the origin of the universe, earth, and mankind, I don’t think it is required that one has to see the description in Genesis as either an attempted scientific explanation or a metaphorical description – I have written elsewhere about how they should be viewed, which doesn’t contradict our current scientific understanding at all.

So I guess the short answer here is no, science has not disproved these things in the same way it has disproved other religious ideas, though I think it could render them untenable.

Jack says: Even in the OT you have Jewish laws which advocated practices like sterilization, quarantine, ritual cleansing, avoiding potential disease bearing vectors, not to mention the fact that certain living practices like those that forbade sexual promiscuity which would have avoided a host of diseases (like AIDs, which now plagues Africa).

I understand what you’re saying, but do bear in mind that a correct application of guided scientific methods – like contraception – would have been as effective as a correct application of religious ones in preventing the spread of Aids. Once again, you’re giving the lip to Christianity – there’s many more systems which would have been great for humanity if everybody had agreed to apply them, the problem is that people don’t. A doctrine that fails to account for human fallibility is responsible for the evil that is perpetrated as a result of this failure. Marxism, for example.

I find this somewhat contradictory and convoluted claim here. On one hand you admit the strictures given in the OT would have been effective in preventing a number of human ills, but then go on to claim that certain scientifically derived solutions would have been ‘as effective’ as the Scriptural solutions. But then you criticize Scripture for failing to ‘account for human fallibility’. Obviously the existence of contraceptives and prophylactics and medicines haven’t succeeded in eradicating the same problems for the very same reasons – so we are only left with the conclusion that our primary problem as a species is our fallibility! Or as the Bible puts it, it is the fact that we are corrupted but our sin nature. We have an inherent tendency to act according to self-destructive desires and so undermine potential solutions. And that is why science alone is not sufficient to deal with these problems – because it doesn’t solve for the problem (nor recognize it). But the whole point of the Bible is to point out that this problem exists, that it is the primary cause for human suffering, and that there exists a means to address the human condition. Science will never solve this for us, which is why the Bible is essential in this regard.

I fully agree with the last sentence, but yet again, what’s with the special status of Christianity? It never succeeded in changing human nature and our tendency to live immorally. We’ve had two-thousand years of it and it doesn’t seem to me like human nature has changed or wars have stopped. Yeah, of course if everybody followed the tenets Christianity, it would all work well, but that point is moot. Even fascism would ensure stability and peace if everybody were to follow the principles of Obey, Believe, Work. Or Communism, for that matter.

Well again, I think we in the Christian West live in one of the freest, healthiest, most prosperous places and times in human history. I think this is true in large part because Christian principles have been incorporated into our lives and society in a way they never have before. Not perfectly, but widely and uniquely from a historical perspective.

And beyond that Christianity is personally transformative, so that whether or not society at large accepts Christianity as true, an individual can experience the freedom and joy of faith in Christ. This is quite different than systemic solutions like Communism which depend on forcing individuals to comply with impositions by the state or society. Christianity is ‘bottom-up’, which is why it is organic and progressive unlike human systems which are ‘top-down’ and require certain entities to compel others to act a certain way. This is the inherent danger of atheism – it has no power to transform, and yet seeks to bend others to its will – which is why atheistic systems invariably become totalitarian.

Judge, I hope this addresses some if not most of you points. Thanks for taking the time to have this dialogue.


A Dialogue with Judge – 1

April 23, 2011

A while back a poster on this site, Judge asked a number of questions about points I was making, which later culminated in a lengthy post on his own blog. I have wanted to respond to a number of points in part because they are interesting questions, and also because I enjoy dialoguing with Judge.

I personally don’t consider this a ‘debate’ because I don’t think that is his intention to merely contect my points. The response has been somewhat delayed because I have been busier than usual lately, and it is spring in Minnesota when a young man’s fancy turns to cleaning his garage and fertilizing his lawn. 🙂

This is the first of what will be a two, possibly 3 part post.

Jack says: I wasn’t referencing Harris, but if this is his point, then he is plainly wrong – science as a methodology is largely the result of Christian thinkers (like Newton, Pascal, and Bacon) who readily intertwined their scientific thought, philosophy and theology. But science and Christianity are different in their effects on the acquisition of knowledge in this respect – Christianity forms the basis of societies, cultures, and institutions in which human thought can operate in such a way as to allow human flourishing. Science has no creative power in this regard. While science is the product of such societies and can be used as a tool within such societies for much good it is not itself useful as a foundation for human culture; and the outcomes of trying to use it that way can be horrendous.

A few things to say here. Firstly, I find the statement on the origins of science a bit too convenient, as it wittingly forgets to mention fathers of the scientific method who were famously at odds with Christian institutions or their predominant doctrines (Copernico, Galileo, even Leonardo, all of whom precede your thinkers, incidentally). Far more importantly, though, you try to sketch a difference between Christianity and science without bothering to substantiate your points. Yes, if scientific discourse is selectively adopted as the spine of an ethical system, the results can be disastrous (but bear in mind that Nazism wasn’t exclusively the product of eugenetics, perhaps not even primarily – its roots were cultural and historical as well, harkening back to Germanic mythology, romanticised knight-hood militarism, Nietzschean philosophy, among others. The swastika, an ancient mythological symbol, should be an illuminating example, and remember that Hitler was an artist).

A few thoughts; I don’t know that one would rightly put Copernicus, Galileo and Leonardo ‘at odds’ with Christianity per se. Copernicus and Galileo certainly challenged the notion of geocentricism, a stance adopted by the Roman Catholic church via the Scholasticism of the medieval period that brought Aristotelian paradigms into Church tradition. None of the three men ever rejected Catholicism, indeed Copernicus was a Catholic cleric, and some of Leonardo’s most notable works were religious in nature. Galileo had issues with the Church, but he can’t in the least be described as an atheist. And Galileo was a contemporary with Bacon, not a predecessor. Interestingly Galileo suffered from the Counter-Reformation, while Bacon seems to have benefited from the Reformation. None of this seems to contradict the notion that modern science came to fruition as the result of Christian thinkers.

And my point about the difference between Christianity and science was in terms of the ability (and a history) of each in producing cultures. There is no doubt that the Roman Catholic traditions, or the Reformation based European societies, or the Puritan foundations of America were broad and culturally creative in any number of areas – art, music, literature, philosophy,political theory, economics, and the substance of human communities. There is no such correspondence with mere scientific thought. I will touch on eugenics after your next point.

I just to bring even more clarity, I don’t think the scientific method was a direct and immediate emanation of Christian thought, nor do I think no scientific discoveries could be made apart from Christianity – obviously there were many. What I contend is that the methodology upon which modern science is based is the product of Christian minds acting in a Christian culture according to Christian pre-suppositions.

What you fail to mention is that Christianity too has led to some horrendous results in societies were it was adopted as the basis. The Inquisition produced a holocaust comparable for scope and atrocities to the Nazi persecution of the Jews. And you know as well as I do that there are many more examples. Yes, you can argue that these societies were based on distortions or misinterpretations of Christianity. But your own sentence on Darwinism applies just as well to Christianity: And it’s not a matter of whether evolution leads to eugenics – evolution did lead to eugenics – this is undisputable history, not conjecture. Whether it should have is another question. If you don’t know this, then you are either ignorant of history or intentionally being deceptive.

Try swapping the words evolution/eugenics with Christianity/Inquisition, and tell me that the paragraph doesn’t hold up just as well.

Well the difference between the cases is historically apparent. Eugenics was a movement that started within the life of Darwin. It was developed by his cousin Galton who considered it a natural derivative of evolutionary thinking. The first International Eugenics Conference was chaired by Darwin’s son. Eugenics was considered by a worldwide consensus of scientists as the “self-direction of human evolution” and policies implementing it were adopted not only by the Nazi’s but by governments throughout Europe, Canada, the US and Australia. Nazism may have had many influences (including insanity itself) but eugenics gave their policies the sheen of scientific acceptability which resulted in the deaths of millions.

By contrast, the Spanish Inquisition was fundamentally contradictory to the central teachings of Christ (love your neighbor, forgive one another, etc.). It happened a thousand years after the founding of the Church, and resulted in deaths numbering at the most in the thousands, nothing like the millions in Nazi Germany. I don’t hold Christianity innocent in regards to the existence of the Inquisition or the deaths it produced, but the cases are quite different. In addition Christianity has a means of correcting itself morally; the Reformation, which represented a return to a personal familiarity with Christian principles, had a tremendous effect on alleviating the ills perpetuated during medieval times by Church institutions. Eugenics on the other hand was only rejected when the cost in human lives was so overwhelmingly horrible that it couldn’t be sustained.

This isn’t to say ‘science’ is necessarily responsible for eugenics, but I do think it highlights the dangers of scientism, and the belief that science alone can provide a foundation for human societies.

Okay, time to discuss one more point:

I like your interpretation of the social role of Christianity (though it has, ironically, a faintly Marxist backtaste). But it seems to me that you need to address your bias. Christianity too, like science, is liable to misinterpretations and to our “natural tendency to live immorally.” It too can (and has been) readily exploited in the context of power-struggles. In this sense, my question to you is this: why is Christianity exempt from the corrupting influence of power and immorality which plagues all other systems and cultures? Why does Christianity have this ‘special status,’ when it led to just as much suffering and injustice as, say, Marxism or the French Revolution?

Well, Christians certainly are not exempt from the corrupting influence of power and immorality. Neither are Christian institutions. Much of the history of Christianity is in fact a history of stops and starts, moving forward three steps and back two. I believe it is a progressive belief system in that while there are many faults along the way in terms of its perfect implementation (which were anticipated by Christ from the start, by the way) the set of principles we have had from the start lead us constantly forward greater human flourishing. I don’t think it is any accident that the greatest health, freedom prosperity, human education and charity lie mainly in the West; it is where Christianity has its deepest and longest roots.

And I would disagree that there has been ‘just as much’ suffering and injustice as Marxism or the French Revolution. The French Revolution led to the immediate deaths of tens of thousands of people, chaos, and the eventual installment of a dictator who brought even more pain to the whole of Europe.

Marxism, at least in terms of its manifestation in Russia, Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam and various African nations led to the deaths of tens of millions of person, not to mention untold poverty, starvation, and severe limitations on freedom. The suffering it brought in the 20th century was unrivaled in human history.
That’s it for now – I will try to touch on other points at a later time.


Happy Good Friday

April 22, 2011

 

Instead of the usual ‘Friday Fun-ness’ a reminder of what makes this Friday good was in order: