Observations

May 28, 2013

Whatever one’s view of God, faith is at the center of all human knowledge.


The Age of Skepticism

January 21, 2013

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 Necessity of Meaning

January 15, 2013

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.


Motivation to Care

January 7, 2013

There was an interesting piece in the NYT’s in late Dec. concerning the ‘Humanist’ response or in this case, non-response to the Newtown massacre. It appears to confirm what many Christians have often said – there is no substantive comfort in atheism when faced with grief and loss. Interestingly certain secularists acknowledge this shortcoming:

“It is a failure of community, and that’s where the answer for the future has to lie,” said Greg M. Epstein, 35, the humanist chaplain at Harvard and author of the book “Good Without God.” “What religion has to offer to people at moments like this — more than theology, more than divine presence — is community. And we need to provide an alternative form of community if we’re going to matter for the increasing number of people who say they are not believers.”

Darrel W. Ray, a psychologist in the Kansas City area who runs the Web site The Secular Therapist Project, made a similar point in a recent interview. As someone who was raised as a believing Christian and who holds a master’s degree in theology, he was uniquely able to identify what humanism needs to provide in a time of crisis.

“When people are in a terrible kind of pain — a death that is unexpected, the natural order is taken out of order — you would do anything to take away the pain,” Dr. Ray, 62, said. “And I’m not going to deny that religion does help deal with that first week or two of pain.

“The best we can do as humanists,” he continued, “is to talk about that pain in rational terms with the people who are suffering. We have humanist celebrants, as we call them, but they’re focused on doing weddings. It takes a lot more training to learn how to deal with grief and loss. I don’t see celebrants working in hospice or in hospitals, for example. There are secular people who need pastoral care, but we abdicate it to clergy.”

In an attempt to protect atheism from responsibility for any wrongs committed by atheists, secularists are quick to point out that the term atheism is descriptive, not proscriptive. But when it comes to positive actions like caring for those in need atheists are quick to take credit for ‘being good without God’. This might work when it comes to feeding the hungry or raising money for a charity, but when it comes to offering hope to the bereaved or dying, atheism obviously has nothing to offer. Like it or not, when one faces the finality of death, existence apart from God is always nihilistic; and there is certainly no hope or comfort in nihilism. Of course this is quite different for the Christian who is commanded to “mourn with those who mourn” and who have hope to offer beyond the grave.

That fact that Christianity offers hope to those who have suffered tragic losses doesn’t in and of itself prove Christianity true, but it does demonstrate that the lack of faith represents a significant loss. And given the fact that humans have a universal need for such comfort and hope, it demonstrates that there is a deeper aspect to human life that atheists simply don’t comprehend.


Merry Christmas All

December 25, 2012

There is little wonder why this unique event, the incarnation of God in the form of a helpless child remains the central event of history, celebrated some 2000 years later around the earth by people of every culture, race and class.

It is one of those times where I as a Christian enjoy taking a rest from defending the truth of Christ’s coming, and simply revel in it.


The Only True Hope

December 18, 2012

I was thinking about Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy’s request for a moment of silence on Friday to be followed by churches ringing their bells 26 times in honor of the victims of the recent school shooting, and it reminded me of a the poem by Longfellow I heard again recently, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day written at a despairing time when his own son’s life was nearly ended by gunfire:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on the earth, good-will to men.”

We have no greater hope than this, that God’s goodness will prevail, justice will ultimately be had and there will be hope and healing in the next life if not in this one. If death is the end, then there is no final justice, or comfort or peace – only in the eternal hope of the Gospel is there any real hope that what has gone so tragically wrong can be made right.


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.