Friday Fun-ness

November 30, 2012

I always like to do Christmas related items this time of year, because quite frankly I am a sap for Christmas and because Christmas has great meaning for anyone who believes it marks the birth of Jesus Christ, an event central to every Christian’s faith.

This is a a ‘Flash Mob’ that occurred in 2010 at the South Bay Galleria in Redondo Beach, California performed by singers from the Journey of Faith church there. It strikes me how these songs immediately change the atmosphere of the place. It is a small picture of how the spiritual transforms the secular, bringing peace and joy to the harassed and harried crowds in a way no secular performance ever could. It is a small picture of how the birth of Christ was a transformative spiritual event, and not just a historical one.  Enjoy.

 

 

 

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Is the Bible Stupid?

November 27, 2012

I have been quite busy lately managing a household of three teens with my wife, working full weeks and spending many extra hours in my work as a school board chair. As a result I haven’t been doing the reading, writing and discussing that I do in less busy times. So I have been doing a bit of catch up recently and something that caught my eye was a series over at Mike’s The A-Unicornist’ blog. Mike occasionally comments here so I stop by there when time permits and see what he is on about. Recently he did a short series called “Why Christianity is b***s***”. Obviously the title was meant to evoke the civil dialogue Mike always strives for.

Nonetheless, the series itself is the usual collection of Sunday school level objections that ancient people could never suggest anything of value to us obviously superior modern people. Most of it is just a vague re-hash of the New Atheist claptrap that every single New Atheist regurgitates to other audiences of New Atheists. It amazes me how constantly amused they are with such obviously limited material. Wouldn’t it be easier just to type ‘Ditto’ in the comments section of better known blogs like Jerry Coyne’s or PZ Myer’s?

Nonetheless Mike does say something at the end of his first installment (another intelligently named piece called The Bible is stupid – one can almost hear the third grader in him yuck-yucking at having thought up this title – “Hey, guys, I called the Bible stupid! Funny, huh?!”) which caught my eye. At the end he makes what I think is a somewhat intriguing point:

Think of all the things the Bible could be if it were really divinely inspired. Think of all the knowledge and insight such a holy book could contain that simply could never have been made up — profound scientific insights, timeless moral instruction, and revelation clear enough to prevent the innumerable schisms in Christian theology over fundamental issues, like how to attain salvation. Any sane, rational view of the Bible shows it to be little more than the confused scribblings of Bronze Age tribes.

I like this because it is one of the rare times when a skeptic actually puts on the table what they expect the Bible should say rather than merely criticizing what it does say. It’s allows us to explore the assumptions that go into rejecting Christianity.

Mike gives three things that he thinks would distinguish the Bible and give us warrant to accept it as revelation.

The first is “profound scientific insights”. This one comes as no surprise because if one has read Mike’s posts (or any New Atheist’s posts for that matter) one knows that scientific knowledge is his gold standard for knowledge. Ironically atheists most appreciate science because they think it allows them to explain the universe apart from God, so why profound scientific insight would lead us to believe in the Bible isn’t clear. However, atheists also tend to believe science has been the greatest boon to mankind, so if He truly existed, presumably God’s first order of business would be to fill our heads with scientific knowledge. But would this actually be so wise? As Mike himself points out, the Bible contains many insights into healthy living – disease controls like cleanliness and quarantine. It also talks about caring for the environment and how we might best use the resources we are given. Those are fairly profound insights which despite our own knowledge, we often fail to employ today. But knowledge isn’t merely a benefit; knowledge is power. The same knowledge which allows one to understand microbes and prevent disease can also be used to turn those those microbes into weapons. We expend a significant amount of effort trying to keep some societies – like Iran and North Korea – from gaining certain scientific knowledge about nuclear engineering because we understand they could use it for great evil. The same engineering principles that allow us to transport ourselves quickly across distances creates other societal problems like pollution and the breakdown of communities. So raw scientific insight isn’t all that helpful unless it occurs within a cultural context already tempered by moral considerations.

And to his credit Mike does mention “timeless moral instruction” as one aspect of revelation. Why he doesn’t find a set of instructions like the Ten Commandments to be ‘timeless’ isn’t clear. Quite obviously if we lived in a society where everyone was honest, avoided taking what wasn’t theirs, unselfish and respectful of others property as well as making truth the highest priority and occasionally resting from our labors, the world would be a deeply and profoundly better place. Imagine no third world corruption, no wars driven by greed, no murders over petty disputes, no fathers prioritizing work over time spent with family and friends and people respecting each other’s lives and property. No one can argue this wouldn’t transform human experience in the most amazing ways – humanity would have the ability to achieve in ways it never has before.

Jesus distills it down even further for those who can’t handle ten laws – He reduces all human morality to two simple rules – love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. A world that could follow the simple rule of loving others as we loved ourselves would be as close to heaven on earth as we could possible imagine – in practice it would eliminate greed, most poverty, the suffering we intentionally cause one another and a significant portion of suffering caused by neglect. It is nothing if not timeless and profound.

So in this respect the moral instruction Scripture gives certainly meets the criteria Mike proposes for a revelation from God. Like most atheists, Mike might point out that others have come up with similar rules, and so why should we consider the Bible to be special in this regard? But the fact that the rules are simple doesn’t make them any less timeless or profound. In fact if the precepts Jesus taught were actually the way humans were intended to live, then we would expect that we would have some inherent inclination to come up with such rules. The Bible makes it clear that all humans have consciences that instruct them in what is moral – so it doesn’t surprise me when others come to the same conclusions about the best ways for humans to live together.

So given the obvious benefits of the Bible’s teachings and its pervasiveness at least in the Western world, why don’t all men act morally? If mere knowledge were sufficient then we would expect the knowledge of the Ten Commandments and Christ’s teachings to be sufficient to modify human behavior. And yet every single human continues to act selfishly and greedily in some form or another despite their moral and scientific knowledge. Knowledge is plainly not enough because what is wrong with humanity is not what we know, but our refusal to do what is right even when we know what is right. This is why the primary purpose of the Bible isn’t merely to convey knowledge, but to transmit the truths about our broken relationship with God and how it might be restored – because it is only through a restored relationship to God that we experience transformation and transformation is necessary to experience actual moral renewal for individuals, and for societies. This in turns leads to the stability and prosperity that allows us to enjoy the fruits of scientific knowledge and material wealth.

This leads to Mike’s third contention that a revelation from God would be “clear enough to prevent the innumerable schisms in Christian theology over fundamental issues”. Understanding mankind’s corruption and corruptibility explains why even though the Bible’s message of salvation is so simple a young child or mentally handicapped person can comprehend it that  people still fight over theology and traditions inside and outside the church. No one is above above this aspect of human nature – Mike wants atheists to have power and influence, and I want believers to have power and influence on our society, yet both groups can succumb to the corrupting influence such power brings.  No one is innocent in this regard. Such disputes aren’t evidence against the Bible but a primary evidence for it’s fundamental contention that human beings are sinners – that is they are corrupted in such a way that they don’t do what they ought. 

The Bible claims there is an escape from this downward cycle through spiritual transformation. Now the Bible may be wrong in this regard, but  if it is wrong nothing Mike suggests here will make a difference because humans already reject the knowledge they have. All civilizations fall and human endeavors grow corrupt and if and if there is no God, there is no escape from this. We are what we are and our fate is what it is.

Like most New Atheists Mike speaks as a beneficiary of the millennia long effort in Western Civilization to incorporate Christian values. He assumes because he inherited and internalized these values that they must be inherent to humanity and no outside agency is necessary to preserve these qualities – but this belies a profound ignorance of history, which has demonstrated again and again humans are always a generation away from barbarity. What is stupid isn’t the Bible, but the notion that knowledge is alone sufficient to transform human lives.


Observations

November 26, 2012

“MODERN masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin — a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or not man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing.” ~ GK Chesterton:  ‘Orthodoxy.’


No Thanksgiving without God

November 22, 2012

With the possible exception of Christmas, Thanksgiving is perhaps our most overtly religious holiday. It began with an official imprimatur to undertake a religious act, by our first President George Washington:

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us. And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best. Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789. – George Washington Thanksgiving Proclamation, New York, 3 October 1789

It is a tradition which continues with us to this day with little change to its religious character in description if not in practice. Considering the movement to secularize our society, it causes me to wonder if Thanksgiving could exist apart a belief in the existence of God?

At first blush it would seem obvious that such an event wouldn’t exist apart from a belief in God because the act of thanksgiving implies that there is someone to whom one can give thanks. From a purely materialistic and naturalistic vantage point such a notion is nonsense. If naturalism is true we are at best the result of the incidental processes of a mindless universe. That we ended up where we are is merely the outcome of a series of events set in motion from the beginning of time; it would no more make sense to give thanks for this than it would to curse the universe for not giving us wings. It simply is as it is no matter what condition one might find oneself in. Even if we are grateful for the place we ended up due to a lack of pain or suffering or because we have material wealth, such gratefulness is limited to a small fortunate portion of humanity – it certainly isn’t something a nation could celebrate together. One might suggest we be thankful for to those who made the choices they did to allow us to experience whatever fortune we have – our parents, our forefathers, those who serve in the military, etc. However, from the materialistic mindset giving thanks for the acts of others is nonsensical as well; those persons were merely acting in accordance with the same mindless process that produced them and their circumstances. They could no more choose to bless us with good fortune than they could choose that we might have pleasant weather.

It is quite different for the believer. With God in the picture our thankfulness doesn’t have to be a matter of pretense or good fortune. All people have first and foremost the greatest gift of all – life, and with it the opportunity to experience the purposes for which we created. We have creation itself, in all its vastness and glory – a place where we are the crowning jewel of God’s achievement, the only part that is self-aware and able to have a relationship with both our Creator and our fellow creatures. And though our present condition is corrupted by human choices and shortcomings, we can have the hope of eternity, a conscious experience where we have direct knowledge and the optimal experience of the love and purpose that comes from knowing God. As a Christian I am confident this comes through Christ alone.

So I am thankful then most of all that I can give thanks, and that I know the only One who that it makes sense to give thanks to. Happy Thanksgiving.


The Death of Recent Myths

November 21, 2012

There was an illusion, oh sometime around 14 years ago during the reign of Bill Clinton that certain behaviors by leaders no longer mattered, that we could parse one’s ‘private life’ (usually meaning one’s sexual proclivities) from one’s public performance. Of course, that was in the midst of the last economic boom, and many were willing to trade integrity in their leaders for some cash in their pockets.

But the times change, particularly when so many pockets are empty. The recent spate of high level adulterous affairs hasn’t been met with the same yawning indifference that Clinton’s was. Jonathan Edwards, Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer and now of course General Petraeus and General George Allen have all garnered resignations and reprobation. This is particularly the case in the latter two, given these men fell not only under the ethical considerations of political leaders (presuming some exist) but the auspices of military regulations as well. Perhaps the thought of our Generals engaging in sexual dalliances while boys die on battlefields is too much even for our promiscuous culture.

This is one of the great divides when Christians and secularists speak about ‘morality’. Atheists are fond of saying that Christians have no corner on morality, that one doesn’t need to believe in God to be good. More recently they seek to demonstrate this by highly publicized works of charity in order to demonstrate they can ‘be good without God’. When saying that, they are defining the ‘good’ to be those behaviors that have outward effects, not necessarily those behaviors traditionally understood to be good in Western society and by Christians. Adultery is one such behavior that seems to fall outside of the atheist prevue of morality.

New Atheist Richard Dawkins made this exceedingly clear in his essay on the subject, Banishing the Green-Eyed Monster . As he boldly asks:

Why are we so obsessed with monogamous fidelity in the first place? Agony Aunt columns ring with the cries of those who have detected — or fear — that their man/woman (who may or may not be married to them) is “cheating on them”. “Cheating” really is the word that occurs most readily to these people. The underlying presumption — that a human being has some kind of property rights over another human being’s body — is unspoken because it is assumed to be obvious. But with what justification?

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Assuming that such practical matters as sexually transmitted diseases and the paternity of children can be sorted out (and nowadays DNA testing will clinch that for you if you are sufficiently suspicious, which I am not), what, actually, is wrong with loving more than one person? Why should you deny your loved one the pleasure of sexual encounters with others, if he or she is that way inclined?

Given his casual indifference to marital vows I guess we shouldn’t be surprised there have been three Mrs. Dawkins – he appears to be, to paraphrase the character Ian Malcom from Jurassic Park, “always on the lookout for a future ex-Mrs. Dawkins”.

Dawkins’ assurances aside, adultery obviously has many victims. There are the bereaved spouses, the loss of trust in a community, and not least of all the pain of any children that might be involved. In the case of General Petreaus there was the opening of himself to blackmail and the communication of sensitive information, not to mention the damage to the trust the public had invested in him as the head of one of the most important national security agencies. If not in reality, people in powerful positions convey the perception of coercing those with less power into relationships with them.

For the Christian of course there is no distinction between public and private morality. Morality for the Christian is primarily an offense against God and His intended purposes for human life. In fact being moral for public purposes is considered hypocrisy, as Jesus plainly teaches concerning the Pharisees of His day:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. – Matthew 23:27-28

For a Christian being moral isn’t merely about what one does in public, but what one is when the public isn’t watching. At least for now our society, if not secularists, appears to agree with this standard.


A Prediction

November 6, 2012

I am always reluctant to put such things in writing because I am certainly no prognosticator, but Romney will win this decisively.


Friday Fun-ness

November 2, 2012

I’m going to miss him when he is gone: