Archive for the ‘Morality’ Category
Beneath the popular current of The DaVinci Code controversy (which I have addressed in several articles) is another attack on the Christian faith, this one more of a grassroots effort, not sheltered by the guise of fiction, but overtly labeling itself as a factual documentary which exposes the “truth” about the Christian faith. This “documentary” is called The God Who Wasn’t There, and was produced by Brian Flemming and distributed through a network of “guerilla-style” operatives who attempt to plant the DVD and other literature on church grounds and other Christian gathering places (I mentioned this project briefly in an earlier post called ‘The War on Easter’).
The basic premise of The God Who Wasn’t There is that Jesus never existed, and that fact, among many others pertaining to the traditional Christian faith, is a fabrication without any historical basis. Now, I must initially state that such a claim is so fantastic and on the extreme fringe of scholarship in theology, religion, history, and other fields as to be simply incredible and not worthy of discussion. However, and as I think the DaVinci phenomenon illustrates, we seem to be at a point at which we are more likely to extract truth from incredible sources, especially fictional ones, rather than those which exist to provide it. In other words, entertainment seems to have a more authoritative voice in our society such that outrageous claims and simply erroneous statements slip by and are taken as reliable while they cleverly hide within a seductive narrative context. To be fair, this is not exactly the sort of context in which The God Who Wasn’t There is presented; as I said before, it clearly intends to be a documentary. However, it is one with a particular agenda which provides a substantially skewed portrayal of just about every known fact pertaining to Christianity, yet its growing popularity suggests that many are convinced by its claims. In my next few posts, I will be examining some of the major issues related to this documentary and its distorted portrayal of the Christian faith.
The first portion of The God Who Wasn’t There is essentially a barrage of ad hominem (or "against the man") attacks against the Christian faith, mentioning the Galileo controversy (which I addressed in an earlier post called Valid and Invalid Conclusions from the Galileo Controversy), and several notorious individuals who have associated themselves with Christianity. In particular, Flemming mentions Charles Manson, Pat Robertson, Dena Schlosser, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, David Koresh, and then concludes, "So, I guess it’s kind of a mixed bag." I assume that at this point, the intention is for the viewer to have developed a distaste for Christianity based upon the provided roster of Christian “spokespersons” known for being insane, homicidal, publicly outrageous, and controversial. Yet, attacking individuals for various reasons says nothing about the veracity or the value of the Christian faith.
Augustine of Hippo is known to have said ‘One must not judge a philosophy by its abuse.’ Flemming’s use of Charles Manson as an example of Christianity is an obvious distortion of what Christianity actually is. It would be obviously ridiculous to say that, regardless of whether it is true, Christianity teaches white supremacy and homicide. Additionally, it would be incorrect to conclude that if Charles Manson, an admitted killer, claims to be a Christian, Christianity must be a lie or a failure. What Augustine means to show is that a proposition, or in this case a systematic faith, can be true regardless of how people respond to it or whether people even believe it. Needless to say, we cannot know how sincere any of these people are in their claim to be Christians. What Flemming is doing is establishing a distorted version of Christianity by intentionally selecting a list of notorious figures to represent it, likely hoping to build a strong foundation of resentment and anger upon which to build his weak historical case.
Ironically, while Christianity does not logically establish a basis upon which to behave as someone like Charles Manson has, Atheism cannot logically support the derivation of objective morality and thus can lead to such behavior. In fact, the most notorious crimes against humanity in the 20th century have been committed under the auspices of atheistic regimes like those of Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mau and Pol Pot. I am not saying, of course, that an atheist cannot live a moral life. Many atheists do live a moral life, yet they do so by adopting a system of morality from some external source which does not fit within the scheme of atheism. Thus, what I am saying is that atheism as a philosophy cannot account for a moral law and thus opens the door to such atrocities. If there is no God, then there is no moral law objective enough to which we must be accountable. If there is no objective moral law, then there is no logical reason why Stalin, Hitler, et al should have acted differently. On the other hand, Manson, though he may claim to be a Christian, committed acts which represent a clear rejection or diversion from the teachings of Christ, and thus cannot be a credible representative of the teachings of Christ.
The first portion of The God Who Wasn’t There, while trying to establish an atmosphere conducive to belittling and debunking Christianity actually backfires and reveals the subjectivity and personal angst of the filmmaker himself. Sadly, this is very common in the church and should serve as a convicting reminder that our works should be indicative of our faith, and will be how the faith is represented to those who are on the outside looking in. While this issue is obviously a logically flawed and illegitimate means of building an argument against the Christian faith, it does show the profound cost of poor stewardship of the church throughout history. We must be compelled to look to the example of Christ and act accordingly!
In my last post, I mentioned some specific scientific advances in an effort to illustrate the limits of the conclusions that can be made through scientific inquiry. The idea of the limits of science is one that merits a bit more discussion.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that macroevolution is somehow verified empirically. One could then safely conclude that man is the result of genetic change over the span of millions of years. However, many of the descriptive terms often used to describe the process of evolution would still not necessarily apply. The key issue is that of purpose. One often hears the mechanism of evolution described as ‘blind chance,’ or ‘random processes,’ yet we have no basis upon which to assume that it is, in fact, a purposeless phenomenon. It is in this case that the non-teleological assumption is imported, rather than legitimately inferred by the evidence. In other words, even the unlikely confirmation of evolution would not legitimately lead to the conclusion of atheism.
A simple example might help to illustrate this point: Suppose that you walked into your kitchen to find a kettle of water coming to a boil on the stove. You could rightly conclude that the water was boiling because it had been placed in a vessel which had been heated to the point that the water molecules are activated. However, without speaking to the person responsible, you would have no means of determining why the kettle had been placed on the stove in the first place. Yet it would be ridiculous to conclude that the kettle had been filled and heated by random and purposeless chance. (While I am not trying to make a strict analogy between the kettle scenario and evolution, as the properties of the kettle scenario are within the context of human decision making, I am suggesting that the conclusion regarding purpose is equally unmerited in both.)
Neither can the notion of the value of human life (not to mention the value of all life) be discussed in scientific terms. Value is a moral assessment that has little to do with empirical facts. Take, for example, the process of adoption. For any family considering or going through this process, the issue of cost will inevitably factor into the decision. Often, the process can cost well over $20,000. Yet, many would agree that suggesting that this new member of the family’s value could be accurately assessed in terms of a dollar amount is not only in poor taste, but quite incorrect. This is because value is not an empirical measurement, but a moral one. I would even dare to suggest that the entire concept of adoption is an adequate proof of the general agreement on the part of humanity that life is of high moral value. Otherwise, why would anyone desire to extend the family non-biologically, either for his or her own benefit or for the benefit of the parentless child?
Evolutionary scientists might argue that value should be a factor of cognitive function. Perhaps this is what causes scientists like Richard Dawkins, among others, to advocate for the extension of human rights upon primates. However, this seems wholly capricious for several reasons. First, on what basis is cognition evaluated? Though primate behavior appears quite similar (though primitively) to human behavior in many ways, many behaviors also indicative to high cognitive ability are found in other animals as well. For example, some species of birds exhibit sophisticated vocal ability (though I do concede that there may be more mimicry in this case than linguistic ability). Other animals, such as dolphins and pigs, are often extolled for their intelligence. But in all cases, the level of intelligence is often explained in terms of instinct and stimulus response, which provides the key to discerning between human and animal behavior.
For example, ant communities are quite complex and use communicative behavior far different from our own. A ‘scout’ will venture out for food, and will send a ‘radio’ signal out when it is found. The others will follow that signal (and the exact path of the ‘scout’) to retrieve the food. We humans require roads with rules, large colored signs, and even maps and directions to navigate. Yet, human behavior far surpasses the stimulus response of ants. Education is a prime example, as the educated become educators. One might spend years endeavoring to teach sophisticated behavior to a primate, yet I strongly suspect that expecting that primate to, in turn, teach others would be futile.
These issues do not lead to the scientific conclusion that humans have inherently more value than animals. However, they do confirm that pioneering for primate rights is scientifically arbitrary. Value is a non-scientific factor that can inform scientific investigation but cannot be determined by it.
Finally, if value and purpose cannot be scientifically determined, neither can behavior. To clarify, behavior can be observed scientifically, but to suggest how one aught to behave is another matter. Like it or not, mankind expects a certain kind of behavior of itself. I need only to point to the local courthouse or penitentiary to prove this point. Consider this: If a bird sets up shop and builds a nest in your garage, it would be absurd to haul the creature into court and charge it with trespassing. Clearly, the bird has no idea about such concepts and is merely following its instinct toward survival. However, if a human did the same thing (minus, perhaps, the nest), it would be another matter! This is because we believe in the rights and responsibilities of mankind. We may have the ‘golden rule,’ however I would challenge any scientist to produce convincing empirical data explaining the origin of it.
I actually believe that by delineating the limits of science, science is now free to proceed undeterred by extraneous considerations and will be more effective. Philosophy is suited to governing science such that it is calibrated to gather information successfully and without harm to society. Yet, clearly science has no ability to govern philosophy in the same way.
If you have been at all aware of the recent surge of controversy surrounding the concept of intelligent design in science, you've probably encountered the argument that such a concept should not be considered science at all, on the basis that it is itself unprovable by science. What that really means is that using the operative standard of the scientific method, the claim that the universe is far too complex to have formed from chance and random processes cannot be verified emprically.
The scientific method outlines what Isaac Newton believed to be the proper way to go about scientific research and investigation, and can be simplified in this way:
- Hypothesis, or developing a possible explanation of observations
- Prediction, or reasoning the effect of the hypothesis
- Experimentation, or testing the observation, hypothesis, and predictions.
While many would affirm that this is the only valid method of scientific inquiry, the truth is that some of the core scientific ideas that serve as the foundation of much current science cannot be verified by the scientific method! For example, the Big Bang theory attempts to answer questions of the origin of the universe and suggests that the universe itself expanded from an initial singularity and infinitely dense state, before which was nothing. Yet, such a theory cannot be demonstrated by recreating the process in a laboratory; it is inferred on the basis of compelling observed evidence. I am not trying to imply here that the scientific method is not valid. Clearly it is a fair and logical process by which to operate, and should be used. What I would suggest is that it is not a primary means of establishing truth. In other words, truth is a concept too large and diverse to be limited by the scientific method. In fact, there are many truths that are not scientific in nature but are accepted and even serve as the basis of scientific investigation, yet cannot be proven empirically. Such truths range from the laws of logic to metaphysics.
Ethics are a particulary good example of this idea. Scientific empiricism is quite useful in determining the how things are, but is irrelevant to determining how things aught to be. Yet, at the core of scientific inquiry is the understanding that it aught to be carried out honestly. Recently, Dr. Woo Suk Hwang of Korea has been publicly lambasted for fabricating research in the area of stem cell research and cloning. He publicly admitted to this, stating in his apology that his actions were a 'blemish on the whole scientific community as well as our country,' and a 'criminal act in academia.' Clearly, honesty is a crucial element to scientific research, and without it the entire field would descend into meaninglessness. However, science cannot provide any data to lend credence to what is ethically appropriate in experimentation. This is a question of what is morally proper conduct for those involved in scientific inquiry and practice. If one were to deny that ethical truth even exists, then there cannot really be any problem with what Dr. Hwang has done.
The area of aesthetics provides another source of non-scientific truth. Our civilization has been overwhelmingly occupied with expressions of aesthetic value, with painting, sculpting, music, poetry, film, architecture, etc. Yet, without the notion of aesthetic truth, the entire field of art criticism would collapse. A skeptic might respond by saying, 'There is no aesthetic truth. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder!' But disagreement does not invalidate the idea that there is aesthetic truth. In fact, that critics might disagree on the value of a particular painting requires that they have a standard of aesthetic value in mind. Even scientists invoke aesthetics when the describe equations as 'elegant' or 'beautiful,' some even suggesting that beauty is implicit in a good equation (see It Must Be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science, by Graham Farmelo)!
Even our understanding of reality itself cannot be empirically proven. For example, how can I be certain that my entire perspective on what is real is true? How do I know that I am not just a brain being stimulated to make me think that I am writing this blog entry? I can't prove this empirically, yet I am not advocating that anyone take up this philosophy. What I am trying to point out is that there are truths that are properly basic, beliefs that cannot be proven on the basis of another belief but are rationally accepted.
Science itself cannot be verified or justified by the scientific method. Science operates on many assumptions, including the Copernican principle, which states that our place in the universe is not special or unique, or the uniformity of nature, which presumes that present conditions echo past conditions. These ideas cannot be empirically verified, but are assumed to be true and are the root of astronomical and geological study.
I am certainly not trying to reject any of these scientific ideas. Rather, I am trying to show that empiricism as the only method of deducing truth is unnecessarily restrictive, and philosophically incorrect. I often laugh when I hear of efforts to produce a 'theory of everthing,' yet even if we do someday have a comprehensive scientific understanding of things, that would be only one portion of how we understand reality. We would still need our moral, aesthetic, and metaphysical knowledge (among others) to complete the picture.
It will not be a large surprise if our current era is one day referred to as ‘The Relative Years.’ It seems like just about every cultural issue can ultimately be reduced to a matter of morality, a matter that many firmly believe is relative. The past election, inundated with the usual political rhetoric, almost completely discarded other issues and thrust the issue of morality on to center stage. What became clear very quickly was that each party was more interested in making a proprietary claim to the entire concept of morality rather than actually taking a meaningful position on any number of the moral issues at hand.
Take, for example, the issue of abortion. Many who defend a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion propose that those who do not support that right simply not have one, but stay out of the way of those that do. They often say things along the lines of ‘if you don’t like it, don’t do it.’ Yet, this does not adequately deal with the disagreement from either side of the opinion; it merely diverts the discussion to a matter of preference. This ‘answer’ fails to deal with the inherent ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of abortion, thus the objection to abortion, that it amounts to the murder of an unborn life, has not really been addressed, nor truly refuted. This is what is often at the heart of the problem, that claims of preferences are confused with claims on behalf of morality.
The difference can be made plain by addressing two statements:
- I like discussing morality.
- It is wrong to deliberately deceive someone.
The first statement is certainly a statement of preference, since it describes a particular person’s (my) subjective point of view. This is not a normatively applied statement. In other words, the statement should not be construed to suggest that all people should enjoy discussing morality. However, the second statement is a moral claim. It tells us nothing about individual behavior, but addresses only the concept of deceit and whether or not it is appropriate. Even a statement such as ‘I like to deliberately deceive people’ would not be making a moral claim. It only describes the behavior of an individual rather than addressing the moral value of that behavior. In fact, the mere existence of preference claims implies an objective standard to which they preferences would relate. The right to prefer one thing over another is certainly an objectively understood right in and of itself. What then, are some objections to the view advocating objective morality?
One common objection is that moral variance from one culture to another proves that morality is relative. However, both logic and history can quickly show otherwise. Were it not for the general consensus among the allied forces that Hitler was doing something morally wrong, the United States, among others, may not have gotten involved in the second World War and put an end to the Holocaust. If this seems like less of a cultural issue and more of an abuse of one man with too much power, consider then the issue of female genital mutilation, an issue which the United Nations, among others, has clearly voiced opposition to and enacted programs to change policies concerning its practice. Even our own country has confronted its own culture and put an end to practices that are in opposition to moral standards (e.g. slavery, racial segregation). Disagreement over morality does not imply the absence of truth. Nor does a disagreement over a moral issue lead to the conclusion that the issue does not exist. If, however, disagreement were enough to support the relativism of morality, then we would not have had reason to end slavery or stop the Holocaust, nor would we have reason to bring murderers, rapists, pedophiles, or thieves to justice.
Additionally, on an individual level, the proposition that disagreement shows the non-existence of objective truth is self-defeating. I certainly do not agree with such a claim, so by its own standard, it cannot be true, nor should I be required to affirm it. One way to test a proposition like this one is to address its logical consequences. If it is true that morality is relative to people, places and times, then it would be incorrect to say that things like rape, incest, abuse and torture are always morally wrong. Yet, such a conclusion is absurd! If moral relativism is true, then the many historical heroes of our own culture, such as the likes of Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., who fought for sweeping moral changes in society, would have to be judged as immoral. J. P. Moreland has said, ‘If relativism is true, an act is right if and only if it is in the society’s code; so the reformer is by definition immoral (since he adopts a set of values outside the society’s code and attempts to change that code in keeping with these values).’
Another common objection to the proposition that morality is objective rather than relative emerges out of the misunderstanding of tolerance. The proposition that objective morality does not exist, therefore all views should be tolerated is self-contradictory. If everyone should be tolerant, then tolerance is an objective standard. Yet, tolerance is being invoked on the basis of relativism. Tolerance does not mean the general acceptance of all views, but to endure error. The definition itself presupposes an objective rather than a relative standard. What relativism truly does is bind the relativist to other moral positions, rather than freeing him from any. To refer back to the issue of abortion, many a political candidate has stated, ‘I support the right to abortion though I don’t personally agree with it.’ The problem here is that the reason for the moral value of abortion has been discarded. If life begins at conception, then abortion does amount to murder- so the appropriate political stance should be toward life, rather than abortion procedure. If life does begin at conception, abortion should not be tolerated. If life does not begin until birth, then no one should have any greater problem with abortion than with contraception. The candidate that affirms the right to abortion while disagreeing with it personally has simply blown a smokescreen over his agnosticism and submitted to the moral judgment of someone else. In other words, those that choose to ‘tolerate’ another conflicting moral issue are actually agreeing with the apposing position!
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.