Archive for October 2005
In early 2005, a group of MIT graduate students submitted a paper entitled, ‘Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy,’ for peer review at a conference dealing with computer science. After its acceptance, the students gleefully announced the absurdity of the paper’s recognition as it had been randomly generated by a computer program designed to arrange ‘scholarly-sounding’ content in proper structure but without regard to actually making sense (you can generate one of your own at http://pdos.csail.mit.edu/scigen/). While this has been used to ridicule both the evaluation process of such scholarly work as well as to point out the robotic quality and low standards of much scholarly writing, it provides an excellent analogy to deriving meaning from life itself: Meaning on the ‘micro’ scale rationally implies meaning on the ‘macro’ scale. Clearly, something went wrong in the evaluation process, most likely due to the lack of integrity on the part of the evaluators themselves. But the point lies more in the shock we might feel upon hearing about this ‘prank.’ While the source of this paper merely arranged words, implicit in our outrage is the assumption that a paper receiving peer review aught to be meaningful, and its meaning should be tied to its source.Is this not very much like the outrage many feel in regards to the evolutionary conclusion that we are the meaningless product of time, chance and random processes? In one of his many defenses of evolution, Stephen Jay Gould stated, ‘The human species has inhabited this planet for only 250,000 years or so- roughly .0015 percent of the history of life, the last inch of the cosmic mile. The world fared perfectly well without us for all but the last moment of earthly time- and this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the culmination of a prefigured plan…We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves- from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way. (as quoted by Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God)’ Ironically, Gould made the case for the meaninglessness of human existence relative to the massively meaningful (at least to him, anyway) existence of life in general, yet claims that it must be we in our ‘wisdom’ that assign meaning to existence. What is the purpose of meaning if it is created by that which is meaningless? What can be value of meaning as Gould understands it if it is rooted in a temporal ‘blip’ on the evolutionary timeline? I use these two examples to show the illogical way in which meaning is discarded from answering questions of ultimate origins, but clung to when validating the purpose of individuals and ideas, or in other words, how many are willing to accept meaning on the ‘micro’ scale while jettisoning reason on the ‘macro’ scale.
I would argue that our notions of truth, thought, the mind, laws of logic, and meaning make no sense without the presupposition of the existence of God. If this is true, then, as Christian apologist and philosopher Greg Bahnsen was fond of saying, evolutionists and atheists are ‘borrowing from my worldview’ in their efforts to debunk it. For the moment, let’s go back to the evolutionary model as suggested by Gould. If we are materially reliant upon our observations in order to develop arguments for any worldview, atheism/evolutionary included, then we must adhere to the logical implications of our arguments. How do we argue for the meaningless of humanity using minds that were the process of random evolutionary processes? Philosopher William Lane Craig explains, ‘according to naturalism, our cognitive faculties are aimed at survival, not truth. Thus, we can have no confidence in the truth of their deliverances- including the conclusion that naturalism is true! (William Lane Craig, Response to Presuppositional Apologetics, Five Views on Apologetics)’ If we have no meaning due to the randomness from which we ‘evolved,’ then how can we be sure of our capabilities? How do we know that we are not operating with dysfunctional minds? After all, as frequently as a theist points to design in his teleological (Webster: exhibiting or relating to design or purpose especially in nature) argument for God, the atheist is quick to point out the so-called flawed elements or imperfections of our biology. Many a theist has pointed to the complexity of the human eye as an example of design in the universe- that intelligence must be the source of this design. Yet, here’s how evolutionist Kenneth Miller describes the eye: ‘An intelligent designer working with the components of this wiring would choose the orientation that produces the highest degree of visual quality. No one, for example, would suggest that the neural connectors should be placed in front of the photoreceptor cells- thus blocking the light from reaching them- rather than behind the retina. Incredibly, this is how the human retina is constructed. Visual quality is degraded because light scatters as it passes through several layers of cellular wiring before reaching the retina. Granted, this scattering has been minimized because of the design flaw. (Kenneth Miller, Life’s Grand Design)’ Clearly, Miller is missing the point of the teleological argument, which, by the way, does not argue for the perfection of biological design. There is not much question as to the imperfection of our physical bodies. Were they perfect, mortality, pain, growth, intake, output, and reproduction would all be meaningless, or at least experienced and discussed in a very different manner. Even the Biblical narrative assumes the imperfection of the body when it is declared by the Apostle Paul that those who believe in Christ will be resurrected to glory (Romans, ch8).
The purpose of the argument is to show that at the root of our construction is information- information that must have a source. In addition, and more importantly, Miller assumes that the flawed design of the eye is due to the physiological and structural inadequacies of our biology in general. How, then, does he avoid making the same conclusions about the brain, and the biological processes of it that aided in the formulation of his conclusion? If we affirm that our existence is merely the product of chance and random biological processes, and that our sense of unity and morality is merely a preferential attitude developed out of necessity for survival, then we have no means of defending our expressions as in any way meaningful. In this sense, an evolutionary scheme for our existence is much closer to the MIT students’ paper-generator than any teleological scheme (yet, ironically, the analogy won’t completely sustain as the creation of the random paper-generator was from the intelligence of the students, with a clear teleological base for debunking the scholarly standards in their field)! No matter how we come at it, intelligence and purpose are inescapable.
My wife and I are currently spending some time living abroad in Penang, Malaysia, where she teaches in the art department at an international school. After volunteering to chaperone a group of thirty high school seniors on their annual trip, she and I found ourselves desperately trying to get some sleep on the overnight bus ride that would take us across the entire Malaysian peninsula to where we would connect with a boat to the island of Redang. We were not quite prepared for the nature of that struggle, as many of the students were engaged in an impromptu karaoke session to some of the latest pop songs, singing at the top of their lungs. They began to sing a song by John Bon Jovi, which, as we began to decipher the lyrics, we joked must have been the postmodern ‘theme song.’ The chorus sings, ‘Oh baby it’s now or never. I’m not gonna live forever. I just wanna live while I’m alive.’ Needless to say, we had a little fun with the triteness of this sentiment. After all, what exactly does the singer mean by living while he is alive? As we listened, the philosophical conflict which we had assumed would go unrecognized was completely expressed when I heard a student sitting behind me say under his breath, ‘I am gonna live forever.’ He had bypassed much of what our culture struggles with epistemologically by asserting the most absolute and finite truth he knew- the redemption and resurrection through the saving grace of Christ- and thereby revealing the clash of worldviews happening right there on the bus.It is not necessary to dwell much on the explanation of the epistemological climate in which we currently live. The influence of relativism is strongly felt in almost every conceivable level; it skews the trajectory of social thinking and programs, establishes a historical myopia, and subjects almost all philosophical and theological conclusions to the utmost intellectual scrutiny while excluding itself from that same scrutiny. When truth in essence is unreachable, as we are told today, then we must settle for truths in plurality, which in itself is not wrong, but as an end, provides few answers. Yet many are content with truths, not necessarily because of what they individually may provide, but I suggest for the gaps between them, which allow ideas to go unchallenged no matter what they may advocate. Taken to the next level, which I believe we see today, truth as an objective reality has been rejected, leaving the individual no more latitude than the limits of himself in his search. Ravi Zacharias has said that no matter what the abuse, some professor from somewhere could be flown in to validate it. Thus the gaps are filled with even more particular and derivative ‘truths’ prescribed by intellectual authority.
Going back to the Bon Jovi song, which expresses the fatalism so typical of our relativistic society: If there is no epistemological base, then there is no means of certainty for the future. For if truth is limited to us, in all of our non-eternal finiteness, we have no point of reference for a transcendent future. If there is no certainty for the future, then living for the now becomes very attractive, if not necessary. But the Christian worldview is determined by both a present understanding of God-given morality and an eschatological scenario based on the promise of salvation in Christ specifically because of its grounding in a transcendent source of truth. If we can trust the future, then there is no reason left to live for the now at all costs. If we know that our souls are secure in Christ, then we don’t have to subscribe to the ‘now or never’ mentality. If it is ‘now or never,’ then at what cost? At what cost to others or to even ourselves? Carl F. H. Henry wrote what I think is an astute refutation to the ‘now or never’ thinker:
“Biblical truth, tran-scultural as it is, has an indispensable message for contemporary culture. It addresses modern learning, modern ethics, modern political and economic concerns and all the idolatries of our polytheistic society. It proclaims the Gospel to a generation that is intellectually uncapped, morally un-zippered and volitionally uncurbed. Those who consider the latest fads permanently in will of course dismiss the Christian message as the last hurrah of an antiquated outlook. They reveal their sickness of soul by derogating terms like morality, piety, family, work, patriotism, born-again, evangelical, theology; Christianity they dismiss as a kind of middle-class hedonism, declaring it intellectually inadmissible they meanwhile espouse a life that neither reason nor conscience nor spirit can support or condone. Repression of sensuality and of self-gratification they call psychotically abnormal. Subordination of the flesh they leave to Medieval monks or consign to the future resurrection. Affirming sexual pleasure to be the supreme good of a life of unending revelry, they waste away into ethical ghosts and skeletons.”
Webster defines transcendence as ‘surpassing; excelling; extraordinary,’ as well as ‘beyond the limits of possible experience; existing apart from the material universe.’ (It should be added that when the word ‘apart,’ is used, it aught to refer to the state of being reserved in purpose and separate in essence, rather than simply by external factors of space and time.) God, regardless of the theological or philosophical perspective from which one approaches Him, is understood to be implicitly transcendent, as from a philosophical level we approach him as embodying that which we cannot be- supernatural, immortal, worthy of worship, etc. Anyone seeking to know Him does so out of the innate desire to transcend our physical existence. Our conscious minds force us to consider the nature of our existence on a metaphysical level, rather than simply a matter of chance and time, while our hearts yearn for eternity in a way that is unquenchable by worldly means.One way to begin exploring the concept of God is by considering objective morality, and how it seems to be in the nature of mankind to be governed by it. For the purposes of this article, I will bypass the systematic setup for establishing the relevancy of objective morality, and assume that it is recognized and accepted (for more information see Yearning for Eternal Purpose or perhaps a future post in which I will address a specific defense of objective morality). This objective morality by nature points us to God, as a law that is such and specifically developed for humanity must come from an intelligent source. However, the laws which constitute our objective morality are given for man, not for God. God, being all that we philosophically classify him to be (eternal, transcendent, omnipotent, omnipresent, etc.), would have no need of governing Himself- in fact the suggestion of a self-governing god is somewhat ridiculous. Laws are given in relation to a defined standard; in this case, the law relates to the standard of God’s very existence- his Holiness. If God is holy, or set apart from all that is not God, then only He may set the parameters for how one may be reconciled to Him. When He commands that we shall worship no other gods except Him (Ex 34:14, De 4:19, De 8:19, De 11:16, De 30:17, etc.), it is implicit in this law that He would not be bound by it- not that God would have the freedom to worship other gods while we do not, but that it would be impossible for God to worship any other gods, as there are none. Worship is reserved for that which transcends its creation; God is the apex of transcendence.
In comparison, the 'god' of pantheistic thought is considered to be in and of 'all,' therefore that god is bound in essence by that which he creates. If that is true, then the pantheistic god cannot be fully transcendent. If he is not fully transcendent, then what does it profit anyone to worship him? By the ‘transcendence test,’ pantheism fails. It cannot adequately explain a source of objective morality, though many followers of pantheism affirm the existence of such a law. In another comparison, the gods of polytheistic thought are all bound to particular dominions. One can be worshipped apart from another; one has power in areas that another does not. If there are many gods, then they must each be ultimately finite. If each was not bound to dominion, then there would be one god, rather than many. What would it profit anyone to prefer one of these gods over another, as it would ultimately boil down to a case of cosmic side-choosing? This would certainly be a decision that a mortal could not adequately make. Furthermore, it is ironic that the gods of the pantheon are depicted as squabbling amongst each other in an almost sibling-like rivalry. They are often described as fighting for dominion, even bickering over the favor of mortals! A transcendent God would have no need of gaining the favor of His people- it certainly aught to be the other way around: that man would strive to meet and be reconciled to God. In fact, the Bible reads that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23),' a statement which clearly affirms man's separateness from God.
With monotheism clearly passing the test of transcendence, the next logical question is this: Of what nature is man’s reconciliation to God in regards to transcendence? It would seem that a fully transcendent God would require a transcendent means by which His people would know Him. This immediately presents a problem, even for the Christian, for, in our understanding of the scriptures, we recognize the passage of means from the carnally sacrificial to the spiritually sacrificial. God’s initial covenant with Israel involved a system of law and atonement through which man could be reconciled to Him, though at a distance. If this were simply the case, though it may have been changed by His fiat at a later point, one might question His methods. However, God spoke time and again through the prophets of a means that He would provide that would accomplish the reconciliation that even the law could not. When Abraham obeys God and prepares his own son for a sacrifice, God halts the offering and confirms what Abraham had said, ‘God will provide for Himself the lamb (Gen 22:8).’ A lamb is found caught in a thicket and presented to God, but the provision spoken of by God is one that is transcendent, not simply another of the same kind. Isaiah speaks of this: 'But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment, And who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; For the transgressions of My people He was stricken (Isa 53:5-8).' This lamb of God, the transcendent sacrifice, is spoken of by the prophets as being the only sacrifice by which man can truly be saved, and promised by God for His people. Thus, when Jesus presents himself to John the Baptist, called by God to prepare the way for Him, John instantly recognizes this truly spectacular event and exclaims, ‘behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29)!’ The means of the hope of transcendence for man is in itself (an necessarily so) transcendent!
So what if we apply this ‘transcendence test’ to other religions? Judaism fails as it remains promising eternal salvation by man's effort through carnal sacrifice. Pantheism fails as it endeavors to make man himself his own sacrifice through a recurring process of paying back. Polytheism fails as it seduces man into quasi-transcendent experiences in worship of quasi-transcendent deities. But Christ Himself is the transcendent one, by whom man is reconciled to a transcendent God, in whom man has hope of transcending death, and from whom all transcendence emerges.
In the early years of the 20th century, modernist philosophy began to erode the orthodoxy of the Christian church at large. Though this was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that social theory and philosophy would challenge the essentials of Christian doctrine, it was one of the most significantly yet subtly pervasive threats the Church had experienced. J. Gresham Machen was a strong voice in response and opposition to the Modernist threat to orthodoxy by rooting the entirety of Christian life in doctrine and not accepting the reduction of the Christian faith to malleable and ambiguous values. ‘I tried to show that the issue in the Church of the present day is not between two varieties of the same religion, but, at bottom, between two essentially different types of thought and life. There is much interlocking of the branches, but the two tendencies, Modernism and supernaturalism, or (otherwise designated) non-doctrinal religion and historic Christianity, spring from different roots.In particular, I tried to show that Christianity is not a "life," as distinguished from a doctrine, and not a life that has doctrine as its changing symbolic expression, but that–exactly the other way around–it is a life founded on a doctrine (J. Gresham Machen on his own book, Christianity and Liberalism, 1923).’ Machen spoke of a controversy which not only compelled him in his initial grappling of spiritual identity but also had an emphatic and determining effect upon his life’s work and ministry. Though he spoke directly to a philosophical climate that has since dissipated, his words remain applicable to today’s climate of postmodernism. He indicted the encroaching influence of philosophical Modernism upon the theological grounding of the Christian faith, and admonished his brethren to retain their reliance upon Christ as the giver of life, rather than let the achievements of man erode the integrity of their own words, let alone the Word of God.To briefly summarize the context of his writing, Machen had himself witnessed the unprecedented changes brought about by the industrial revolution, and had been present among the philosophers whose thinking had begun to pull the rug out from under the conservative churches of America. He acknowledged the sweeping changes in capacity of our country and the elevation of utility above meaning; this made possible by the fact that an attitude of self-reliance had retracted the feasibility of the supernatural. Ultimately, this attitude gave birth to a general suspicion of the institutions of the past, and to be fair, one cannot help but sympathize with such thinking: After all, looking back over millennia of what was perceived as stagnancy, why would anyone desire to maintain any of the ideas, beliefs and institutions which must have stifled the progress and has finally broken through to improve society from bottom up? Machen’s thinking exposes, however, the fickleness of such an attitude.
In expounding upon his train of thought, it can also be shown that it retains its application toward the Church amidst the contemporary challenge of the postmodern mind. Just as Machen did in the early 20th century, so also do we today feel the pressure of claims that our expanding capability and practical understanding of the world has exposed not just the impotence of scripture, but the impotence of Christ! As we collect and arrange data from various sources with which to piece together even a meager narrative of origins, we assume that a document meticulously preserved for thousands of years by a culture known for its dedication in this area, and done so for the purpose of preserving a history and worldview, must be more myth than fact, more propagation than sincerity, more naïve wishful thinking than sophisticated skepticism. Yet improved means cannot simply invalidate that from which it came. Was it not the obsession of those who dwelled in Shinar with their own means that trampled upon modesty, stewardship and thanksgiving? Did it not ultimately result in their incapacitation (Gen 11, 1-9)? Was it not the worship of might which destroyed the foundation upon which it was built and rendered the people weak? Yes it was, but the effort, capacity and result are in themselves untarnished until they are motivated by a heart disconnected with God.
Machen was not advocating for a rejection of industry, nor of technology, nor even of improvement or a desire for improvement. He points out, and rightly so, that the means had illegitimately claimed sovereignty over all that had preceded them, rendering history suspect, faith futile, and the supernatural impossible. In fact, what truly incensed him was the compulsion many Christians felt to accommodate their faith for the revelation of means- many who were willing to reduce Christianity to an ethic under the pressure of scientific methods, historical scrutiny and a change in philosophical climate. Christianity is essentially tied to history; this is an undeniable fact. If history should prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that a man named Jesus had never lived, then Christianity would be in totality made irrelevant. Paul affirms this as he calibrates the whole of Christianity upon one fact: ‘But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty (1 Cor 15-16).’ Machen stridently called out those who would reduce their witness to the cajoling of an ethic. He refused to support those who ministered in the name of Christ while at the same time denying the truth of His existence. He refused to submit orthodoxy, which Webster defines as ‘the conforming to established doctrine,’ to the erosion of a type of thinking which overstepped its own bounds and attempted to usurp truth for its own purpose, not considering that as it built its kingdom it had not only destroyed its own foundation but had eradicated any hope for a resilient and philosophically consistent one to support it.
In today’s terms, as truth itself has been reduced beyond even utility, orthodoxy is still relevant. Improved means, though they may reverberate now more in our thinking than in our doing, cannot justify the arrogance with which faith is continually debunked. We may have the luxury of indulging in such thinking now because of the exorbitance of our capacity, but that will surely not last forever and if we have, in the meantime, set adrift from truth and a reverence for truth, we are not just then, but already, lost.