Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Missing the Point

This article by an atheist is part of a long critique of the last chapter of a Josh McDowell's book Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Though rather byzantine (and a tad confused), this part's basic point is that the reality of the "transformitive power" of the "Christian experience" ("I was a [insert vice of choice] before I got saved") in no way proves that Christianity is true, mainly because all religious and secular organizations that purport philosophical ideals and ideas about life have their own "experiences" based on some sort of "transformitive power." In short: Christianity's experiences do not prove it is the right way, but only one way in a sea of different ways (and he lists quite a few).
The atheist's point is right, but it is only right because he is missing the real point. I can't speak for Josh McDowell (I have not read his book, so I don't know what he was actually saying), but I can speak as a Christian. The real point is not that Christianity has these experiences, but that these experiences exist at all. Why is it that when people adhere themselves to a certain set of ideals and ideas they suddenly (or gradually) "transform" at all? What is it about these ideals and ideas? Why do they have such power?
One book I have read is Lewis' The Abolition of Man, and in the second chapter, Lewis freely admits that various religions (and secular moralists) across time hold and have held to similar ideals and ideas. His point was not that Christianity had some sort of monopoly on the truth, but that there really does seem to be a "truth" that we really can "know" and that really does "set free" when it is adhered to. Furthermore, although numerous religions, sects, cults, and philosophies hold similar beliefs, they all held similar beliefs (with minor variations). Why is that? What is it about all those different religions, sects, cults, and philosophies (emerging from numerous different cultures, histories, societies, regions, beliefs, and times) that they seem to adhere to the same thing? Is there a unified, objective truth that all know?
This atheist has missed the point and, consequently, the real issue. The point is that there apparently really is a universal, inherent moral code based on the truth and a "compass" within all humanity that seeks for (and even finds) the truth, a truth that really affects for good and that really says something about reality (i.e., we really shouldn't murder, or lie, or dishonor our parents, etc.). That is the point, and it raises the real issue: Where did this code and compass come from? Why is it that reality seems to better itself by conforming to that code?
Christianity's uniqueness (the only "uniqueness" it has ever consistently claimed) is the Incarnation. It's "experiences" prove only that it too adheres to a moral code that tries to ascertain the truth. That is not a vital issue. What is vital is whether or not there is a truth we can know, and from whence did it come.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Winter of the Numinous

"The Numinous, they used to play
They used to sing and dance
They used to love and say,
'The world is full of magic!'

"The Numinous, their playing was heard
In ever tale and laugh
In every poem of man and earth.
The heavens declared their play.

"The Numinous, their song was sung
By every rock and rill and stream and sea.
There was no language
where their voice was not heard.

"The Numinous, their dance was seen
Across the sky and in the stars
Skimming the surface of dawn and dusk, saying,
'The world is full of magic!'

"The Numinous, their love was felt
In every touch and every kiss,
In every heart and every soul.
All communion was filled with their presence.

"The Numinous, their words were echoed
On every lip and instrument and pen.
The whole earth in chorus sang,
'The world is full of magic!'

"The Numinous
are gone.
Their play
is gone.
Their song
is gone.
Their dance
is gone.
Their love
is gone.
Their word
is gone, is gone, is gone, is gone.
We have killed them.
We wash our hands of their blood.

The world was full of magic."

-Jon Vowell (c) 2008

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Enough Foolishness

I would like to make a statement.
There is much frustrating and foolish drivel that passes for wisdom these days, and I would like to address one of them. What I wish to address is the commonly hailed pseudo-axiom: "Christianity (sometimes religion in general) is for the weak." By "weak," proponents of this foolishness do not mean what our Lord said: "For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost." (Luke 19:10) In other words, by "weak" they do not mean that Christianity leads to the one who takes the broken and heals them. If that was the case, then there is no harm or foul. However, this is not what that statement (or its proponents) means by "weak." What it means is more in keeping with Marx's "opiate of the masses," i.e., a mellowing agent meant to suppress people's fears and allow them to get on with life. People who need Christianity are like crackheads--they need it because they do not want to deal with reality. Therefore, "weak" means those who are self-delusional about life because they just can't or won't face real life, with all its trials and trifles.
The bite of this critique of Christianity (and religion) is that, like most exaggerations, it is not completely unfounded. There are, sad to say, naive, well-meaning idiots out there whose idea of religion is to cloister themselves away from all the evil and sufferings of life, acting like everything is absolutely dandy when everything is absolutely not. We all know such people, and feel a strange mixture of pity and abhorrence in their presence.
However, the fact that such people exist does not actually prove anything about Christianity itself. In fact, it actually proves something about those kinds of people, namely that they are well-meaning, naive, and idiots. Their abuse of Christianity and its doctrines says more about their character than that of Christianity's. Shouldn't that be obvious, though? The abuse of a thing does not prove that the thing itself is evil. Fire has been used for both warming and war, for comfort and cruelty, but only a fool would say that fire is evil and not the people who abuse it. So too, with Christendom. Crusades, Inquisitions, miscellaneous wars and power struggles prove that it can be abused, but it has not proven that it itself is evil (or false, or anything else) but only that people are evil. Thus, the exaggerated pseudo-axiom proves nothing except that there really are weaklings in the world, and sometimes they are religious weaklings.
Christianity itself (weaklings aside) flies right in the face of such nonsensical blather, and this part I want to say very deliberately: Any weak-minded jellyfish of a fool can look at the world and depressingly note (with nauseating obviousness) that evil is real, and that we should just live with it. Only the truly brave and strong, those burning with the fiery Spirit of God Almighty, dare have the audacity to stare plain-faced and open-eyed into that sprawling abyss that is the presence of evil and suffering, and defiantly proclaim, "Yes, you are real; but you are not the end."
That, of course, is the essence of what Christendom has called faith. It is not a trusting while being in ignorance of the facts; it is a trusting in spite of the facts. Better yet, it is trusting in a Fact that transcends all facts, and that Fact is God and His good will. Christians (if they are real) are not willfully ignorant of reality, but willfully spiteful of reality in favor of Reality. Alone among all men, they have found the courage and strength to laugh in evil's face and find joy in the midst of tribulation, almost as though they were in revolt against all of reality as it is given, a rebellious crew who will not bow or surrender like a coward beneath the crushing weight of darkness. That is what Christianity has always taught.
Chesterton (in Orthodoxy) put it this way:
"The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial...Joy ought to be expansive; but for the agnostic it must be contracted, it must cling to one corner of the world. Grief ought to be a concentration; but for the agnostic its desolation is spread through an unthinkable eternity...Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man's ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this way: that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small...Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian."
Christians are not joyful out of ignorance, but out of a completer knowledge of reality. They know more about the nature of things than the lost man, know that which gives unconquerable strength (Romans 8:37). The foolishness of this world would have you believe that the joyful man is a blind man. The inverse is the truth: the man of sorrow is the blind man, unable to see and escape to the unbreakable, never ending joy of the Lord and make its strength his own.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The End of Everything

In this article by an atheist (let's call him Joe), I find a rather disturbing quip: "The evidence Christians use to support their case is historical evidence, but as I’ve argued [before], history is a poor medium to reveal anything of importance." [emphasis mine] Then Atheist Joe cites several of his own articles where he "defended the notion that history is a poor medium for God to reveal himself to humanity."
How, exactly, is history an unreliable medium? He answers (or begins to answer) thus: "Anyone who studies the philosophy of history knows that history (and historical writings) should be interpreted in light of the historian's present perspective. Why? Because that's all we can do...we cannot do otherwise." Translation: History (including our own) is a slave to context and biases. Hence, history's function is utilitarian. It's only function is to press our own beliefs and ideas. He list an example here.
Where did Joe get such an idea? He doesn't say exactly, but I'll hazard it has something to do with 18th-19th century Liberal Humanism/20th century Deconstructive nonsense, a deluded hangover of New Historicism, which basically says that History is about nothing because everything it reports are facts that have been affected by the contexts and biases of the one(s) writing the facts, contexts and biases that we (who have our own contexts and biases) know nothing about. Therefore, we really do not know what happened. Therefore, history is about nothing.
In addition, because history is contextual and biased, and therefore about nothing, we cannot trust it as a reliable source for truth. Only logic and reason is the reliable source for truth. Joe seems to agree: "[We must] distinguished between the contingent truths of history and the necessary truths of reason." [emphasis mine] Translation: History is biased, reason is not, and therefore reason can be used to debunk history. Not just specific elements (for there I would agree with him), but on the whole: "Practically any event in history can be rationally denied, even if that event actually occurred!" Joe's resulting response to Christianity's "historical evidence" is that in order to debunk it, all you need to do is let reason debunk history in its entirety.
First, I'd like to say that I wish I could (at the drop of a hat) use reason to just discount an entire field of study (and reality) that inconvenienced me (Oh, wait. As a Christian I do that already in regards to reason, because reason has nothing to do with religion, right? How silly of me to forget).
Second, Mr. Joe is on shaky ground if he thinks making the whole of history questionable somehow solves his problems. Here's a quick example: In this entry, Joe uses the historical statements of a Mr. Gotthold Lessing as an example of how history is unreliable to ascertain truth. So, he used history to debunk (or make debunkable) history. If that's not a Schafferian point-of-tension, then I don't know what is.
That quick example, however, leads to my main point: Mr. Joe's statements about history's unreliability can be just as catastrophic for his beliefs as well as mine. I find interesting the seemingly shaky (or perhaps non-existent) relationship between Mr. Joe's atheism and his atheism's own appeal to historical evidence.
You see, a lot of what I have read by atheist shows a heavy (almost mythological) reliance on and faith in the claims, assertions, and impacts made by the Enlightenment (I am speaking generally). The Enlightenment, however, is a historical event, and its claims, assertions, and impacts are all historical claims, assertions, and impacts. They all are as much a part of history as the Gospels and its claims, assertions, and impacts are.
Now, given Joe's own logic about history (i.e., its contexts ad biases make it an unreliable source for truth), the Enlightenment, as a historical event, is based upon historical contexts and biases that we know nothing about but affected the event profoundly. Therefore, because the Enlightenment is based on contextual biases that we know nothing of, we can know nothing for certain about it, and it is, therefore, unreliable as a source of truth, because its statements, claims, founders, proponents, and even its very existence are founded on those unknown biases and contexts that shaped it. Therefore, the Enlightenment is just as unreliable as the Gospels or the Resurrection are in ascertaining truth about anything.
Oh, but hang it all! History is now as much as it is the past. We exist in history in this moment, which means that this whole "debunk history" thing can be pretty scary when you apply it to its logical conclusion. It is scary because, in reality, everything we do is a historical event. In a few moments, this blog entry will be a historical event, my using my computer will be a historical event, my heading to the kitchen to make and drink raspberry hot chocolate will be an historical event, and so on. All those events, however (if we follow Mr. Joe's logic), are based upon biases and contexts that neither you (nor even I) know fully of that shaped and affected those events. Because of those biases, you have (in effect) no way of knowing whether or not this blog actually happened, or that I ended it, or that I made and drank anything, or that I am even here at all, or that anything anywhere is really happening or here! When history is no longer fixed, when it becomes fluent, then we can know nothing historical, not even the here and now, or yesterday, or tomorrow when it comes and goes.
History cannot be fixed for Mr. Joe. What is fixed for him is logic. He makes that pretty clear in this entry:
"What I argue for is that logic is of a much greater value than historical evidence when it comes to testing the foundational miracle and doctrinal claims of Christianity. The role of logic is to test these resultant doctrinal claims for consistency. That’s what logic is supposed to do, test beliefs for their internal consistency...I think historical evidence is important, and I think I can know what happened in the past, in varying degrees of assurance, but never with certainty. However, given the fact that the evidence of history won’t convince the believer to think otherwise, I use logic to debunk what historical evidence doesn’t do." [emphasis mine]
Mr. Joe is right on one point: if reason and logic truly discover something contrary to a historical element thought to be accurate, then that historical element should be immediately discarded as false. However, reason and logic are dependent on history too, at least for an atheist. And that creates a problem.
In this previous post of mine, I observed how atheists, since they cannot allow transcendent grounds for logic or reason (they are naturalist after all), claim that we must simple trust that it works because we have seen it work in physical space and time. Mr. Joe believes as much, as a quote of him in the comment section of this entry reveals: "Maybe reason has merely shown itself trustworthy by pragmatic verification based in the anthropic principle evidenced in the universe--it just works." In other words, we know logic and reason exist because it has been used before and it has worked before, so therefore it must be real.
Perhaps you see the problem now: for an atheist, the veracity of logic and reason is based upon historical verification, i.e., because we have seen it work, then it must be there. That means, therefore, that all the evidence an atheist can produce for logic and reason is historical evidence.
Therefore (given Joe's logic about history), all those evidences for logic and reason are just as questionable as the Gospels, or the Resurrection, or the Enlightenment, or Gotthold Lessing, or anything, for the same exact reasons: they all are historical events that have been shaped by contexts and biases that we know nothing of, and therefore we don't really know what happened, and therefore none of logic or reason's historical veracity is reliable in ascertaining the truth about logic or reason.
In short, the end of history, its outright debunking or being made easily debunkable, is not (as Mr. Joe would like to assume) the end of Christianity; it is the end of everything: religion, atheism, logic, reason, science, art, politics, etc., etc. If everything historical, if everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen is in doubt, then we can know nothing about anything. All questions become asinine, and all answers more so. It seems that, in the effort to "debunk" Christianity, atheists (or at least brave Mr. Joe) are willing to debunk everything else, including themselves.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

On the Freedom of Choice, and On Suffering

In this article, an atheist (we'll call him Bob) vehemently calls foul over Christians' use of the "Parental Analogy" when answer the Problem of Evil. That analogy basically runs like this: God allows evil and suffering in people's lives to serve as a punitive learning experience for our own good, just like any good parent who allows their child to suffer the consequence of their error in order to learn from their mistakes.
Atheist Bob calls this analogy "asinine" for the following reasons:
  1. "If God created us and gave us freedom, then as a loving parent his moral concern should be that we that we don’t abuse the freedom he gave us in the ways we do. The giver of a gift is blameworthy if he gives gifts to those whom he knows will terribly abuse those gifts." Pretty self explanatory: God should not have given the ability (or full ability) to choose right or wrong until we were capable of handling that responsibility.
  2. "Why should we as human beings have to learn the consequences of our actions by such draconian kinds of sufferings when we err? When my children misbehaved or didn’t understand the consequences of their actions, I didn’t send a proverbial hurricane their way...No caring father would let [their children] suffer the full brunt of their mistakes--no father." Translation: God is too harsh.
  3. "Not communicating to children who seek to understand is being an unresponsive parent...Reflective and responsible children, if they are to be treated as the adults they are about to become, require answers, reasons, and evidence. This is not what I see from the God who supposedly is a good parent." Translation: Why is God so cotton-pickin' mysterious?
Why didn't God wait until we were responsible enough to handle the freedom of choice? Answer: He did. Adam and Eve were innocent (neither inherently inclined to good or evil) and rational (able to think within the bounds of reason). How much more capable does one have to be in order to keep four simple commands: (1) Rule the earth, (2) Enjoy the earth, (3) Fill the earth, and (4) do not touch the forbidden tree? Get it through your heads: the Fall is our fault, not God's. Quite frankly, shifting the blame on Him is one of the most childish things ever.
After the Fall, why didn't God simply limit mankind's freedom of choice until we became more responsible and mature enough to handle it? Because: we would never become more responsible and mature. The Fall was not simply the first mistake in a long line of mistakes. The Fall was the mistake that caused all the other mistakes. The Fall caused a change to occur in humanity: where once we were innocent (neither inherently inclined to good or evil), now we are fallen (inherently inclined to evil). We chose to disobey God; we chose the evil. Now we are bound to it. No amount of time will ever change that, will ever allow us to learn our way out of it. It is a part of our inner human disposition that we cannot get to. Only God can "get" at it, and that is exactly what He did in Christ. Quite simply, God did not have the option to limit our freedom of choice when we fell. He only had two options: destroy us, or save us. We Christians worship Him primarily because He chose the latter.
Why is God so harsh? Frankly, I don't know much about hurricanes, but I do think Christian "wrath-casting" is presumptuous and (like real weather forecasting) unreliable. God sends the rain on the just and unjust alike (Matthew 5:45). "No caring father would let [their children] suffer the full brunt of their mistakes--no father." Right; and neither does God. The "full brunt" of our mistakes is not hurricanes, but Hell. Christ came and took the "full brunt" of our mistakes on the cross. If you refuse that gift, you will suffer the "full brunt," and it will be your own fault. God is harsh on Sin because He is righteous and holy. Sin has to be dealt with, not overlooked.
Why is God so mysterious? Because we are fallen. The Sun is forever a mystery to a blind man. C.S. Lewis dealt with this same problem in his novel Till We Have Faces. The main character asked the same question: "Why are holy places always dark places?" Why doesn't God just make Himself plain? The question is answered later on by the same character: "How can we meet the gods face to face till we have faces?" Translation: How can we know God when our present fallen state means that we are not even in the proper standing by which we can begin to know God?
You want God to stop being mysterious? Impossible. His ways are "past finding out," beyond full comprehension. Christian doctrine has always taught that. In addition, it also has taught that the joy of Heaven is knowing God for all eternity, and because His ways are beyond full comprehension, throughout all eternity there will always be another mystery, another surprise, another adventure. We cannot, however, even begin this process of knowing until our eyes are opened by the gospel of Christ and we accept what He has done on the cross as our means of salvation. If God is just completely in darkness to you, it is simply because you never have been regenerated into the life of God by the redemption of Christ. Period.

In conclusion, God does not let us suffer consequences so that we will learn from our mistakes. He lets us suffer the consequences so that we will know (1) there is something wrong with us, and (2) there is something wrong with the world. That is not Him being a "good parent." That is Him being a holy and loving God. The analogy is asinine, not because it is wrong, but because it is incomplete. As fallen creatures, we can never learn from our mistakes; we can only learn that there are mistakes. We cannot fix ourselves or the world. Only God can, and Christ is His "fix" so to speak. In Christ, God became one with our sufferings and bore them in Himself. That sacrifice provided the way to escape suffering, not immediately, but eventually. For now, we are to spread the good news that although suffering and evil is real, they are not the end. There is a hope beyond all of it. There is a way out.