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Scriptural Skepticism

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It is fairly likely that much of the criticism put forth by skeptics in regard to the scriptures is due not to some evidence which exists that proves the scripture to be false, but actually a misunderstanding of the nature of the scripture itself. Indeed, the Bible is a throroughly unique book, both in subject and authorship, yet if both attributes are not properly understood, skepticism is likely to follow.

In one sense, the Bible is a quite human book. It was written by many authors and recalls many accounts that underscore the humanity of its characters. Nowhere does it claim to have been written by anyone other than a human being. Yet, the combined narrative of the many authors is a remarkably singular and cohesive account. On the other hand, it is also a quite spiritual work. It contains the law delivered to Moses from God. It contains prayers and prophesy; sometimes the very words of God. Its writers also claim such spiritual power on behalf of scripture. Consider the author of Hebrews 4:12, who writes, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” However, it has always been and always will be considered a testament of God. In other words, scripture is an account by many witnesses of the work of God in history. It is not an account written by God’s physical hand and dropped on Earth from Heaven, nor should anyone expect such an account to exist.

This distinction is important to make given much of the nature of skepticism toward scripture. It is often said by skeptics that the Bible is untrustworthy because it was written by men and used to promote their worldly agendas. Or, that God, if He really existed, would make Himself known in some other fashion, preferably one which all people at all times could interact with and would be beyond dispute. Often, I wonder if what skeptics really want is for God to dictate scripture to them personally- only then could they trust its contents! However, one of the key points of scripture is that God acts in history. Unfortunately for us living in the twenty-first century, time progresses and leaves history in the unreachable past and accessible only by that which remains. The Bible, then, is precisely what we would expect to find: a collection of accounts of God working in history intentionally preserved by those who believe in Him for posterity.

Yet, skepticism persists. Incidentally, as I was considering this topic I ran across a quote from Mortimer Adler, in his book “How to Read a Book,” which provide good examples of how skeptics receive the scriptures. He writes:

“Dogmatic theology differs from Philosophy in that its first principles are articles of faith adhered to by the communicants of some religion. A work of dogmatic theology always depends upon dogmas and the authority of a church that proclaims them. If you are not of the faith, if you do not belong to the church, you can nevertheless read such a theological book well by treating its dogmas with the same respect you treat the assumptions of a mathematician. But you must always keep in mind that an article of faith is not something that the faithful ‘assume.’ Faith, for those who have it, is the most certain form of knowledge, not a tentative opinion. Understanding this seems to be difficult for many readers today. Typically, they make either or both of two mistakes in dealing with dogmatic theology. The first mistake is to refuse to accept, even temporarily, the articles of faith that are the first principles of the author. As a result, the reader continues to struggle with these first principles, never really paying attention to the book itself. The second mistake is to assume that because the first principles are dogmatic, the arguments based upon them, the reasoning they support, and the conclusions to which they lead are all dogmatic in the same way. (Adler, Mortimer: How to Read a Book, pg. 292)”

At first glance, Adler seems to offer a sound and logically consistent defense of theology. In fact, he suggests, in a way, that the core theological tenets of a certain religion be thought of much like premises in a logical or mathematic syllogism. Therefore, as he writes, modern readers (or perhaps better said secular readers) err in rejecting such tenets as they read theology. Indeed, theology would be quite useless and irrelevant without at some point acknowledging some core premises or doctrines. In other words, Adler encourages even skeptical readers to patiently allow the theological point to be developed, rather than prematurely rejecting it before it has been fully articulated. While I heartily agree, it should be pointed out that Adler’s advice seems to assume that a theologian can do such a thing with clarity and intellectual honesty. Again, I would concur. However, Adler proceeds to write what can only be received as a blunt contradiction of this point:

“Consider any institution- a church, a political party, a society- that among other things (1) is a teaching institution, (2) has a body of doctrine to teach, and (3) has a faithful and obedient membership. The members of any such organization read reverentially. They do not- even cannot- question the authorized or right reading of the books that to them are canonical. The faithful are debarred by their faith from finding error in the ‘sacred’ text, to say nothing of finding nonsense there. (Adler, Mortimer: How to Read a Book, pg. 293)”

If the faithful are, as Adler argues, intellectually impotent in regard to the study of theology, one must conclude at least two staggering possibilities. The first, though logically tied to both of Adler’s statements, is hardly likely: That the theologians who teach the faithful through preaching, teaching and writing are themselves not among the faithful. In other words, Adler’s first statement assumes that theology is worth studying. Yet, in his second statement, he claims that the faithful are so intellectually “debarred” that they cannot discern truth from “nonsense.” If both ideas are true, then the theologians must themselves not be believers. Frankly, theologians who do not believe what they teach are no more than liars, or at best, concoctors of fairy tales. Perhaps, then, Adler is confused. The second, and possibly more troubling conclusion one could make from Adler’s statements, is that only religious skeptics, or unbelievers, are in the position to accurately develop theology. Clearly, this is absurd. Theology is the study of God. Without an interactive belief in God, theology could not be received by Him and taught. That is, of course, unless the theology amounted to a belief that God does not exist.

To be fair, I think that these thoughts are somewhat misplaced in “How to Read a Book,” if not definitely undeveloped for publication. Indeed, Adler redeemed himself intellectually, specifically in regard to philosophy of religion, since in his book “Truth in Religion,” which he demonstrates that the three religions “of the book” (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are the only world religions which do not dismantle themselves through logical contradictions. However, this type of faulty thinking is quite prevalent among intellectual skeptics, many of whom take the position that the Bible was not simply written by men, but its contents were completely invented by men as well. It is almost as if they believed that if God truly existed, he would appear before them individually, on their terms, explain Himself (and everything else, for that matter) leaving them compelled to belief. Yet, this would mean that God would have to do such a thing to every single person in history, probably simultaneously, however impossible, to satisfy those who do not believe in Him. Otherwise, at some point, one would have to rely upon the testimony of another who was present to witness what God did, which is precisely what we have in the testimony of the Bible.

I don’t expect that my brief treatment here will dismantle every type of skepticism that exists toward the scriptures, so perhaps my title is a bit broad. However, the misunderstandings and illogical claims that I have mentioned are often at the root of most skeptical criticism that I have encountered in my study of the scriptures. When the character of the Bible is properly understood, in terms of its content and also its historical context, it seems to be exactly what one might expect to have at the root of a religion which affirms the existence of God and His activity in history.

Written by Christopher Butler

August 28, 2006 at 5:38 am

Fundamentalism and the ‘Virtue’ of Moderation

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In a recent interview with Tom Ashbrook on NPR’s radio program On Point (listen to the program here), author John Updike discussed his latest novel, Terrorist, which depicts the life of an eighteen year-old American Muslim turned terrorist. Within the discussion, which reflected not only upon the book, but also upon issues related to religious extremism and its effect on our current culture, Updike made several comments specifically in regard to religious fundamentalism. While I have not yet read Terrorist, though this program has certainly encouraged me to do so, I would like to address some of Updike’s comments as I think they are particularly indicative of a modern misunderstanding of fundamentalism in the philosophy of religion.

Updike introduces the novel by reading from its opening passage, which describes his main character, Ahmad’s, point of view toward his American peers and authority, and describes those who claim to be religious as weak and unauthentic. While he describes Ahmad’s attitude toward the insipidness of American religion and culture as being “extremely disgusted,” Updike himself would only claim to be “moderately disgusted.” Incidentally, a caller, who reminded Updike that for the Muslim (and I would argue also for the Christian) there is no and should not be any separation between the sacred and the secular, really propelled the conversation toward religious fundamentalism. Updike attempted to brush off the comment by asking to see an example of a thoroughly religious and morally perfect society- indicating that this should be the result of fundamentalism. Of course, this is obviously not realistic. Later, Updike responds to another caller who indicts fundamentalism as the root of all modern problems by commenting in agreement,

“I am myself a Christian and go to church, but there does seem to be a point at which fundamentalism Christianity becomes a dangerous and really crazy, crazy thing. These mothers who kill their children to send them to heaven…take a shortcut to heaven… are the kind of thing that also motivates suicide bombers. Whatever your religious beliefs, it seems to me, this world is the one that we’re in, this is the one we should deal with, and this is the one in which we should try to be more kind and reasonable and all those other virtues of moderation.”

Not unlike many who comment on religious fundamentalism, often casting it as a direct catalyst of ignorance, hate, violence, and oppression, Updike demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of the meaning of the term. On the one hand, Updike expresses disgust toward fundamentalism, but on the other, disgust for the shallow and vapid confession of many religious followers. It would seem to me that to be fundamentalist in regard to religion would be the antithesis of the shallowness and fickleness that many, like Updike, rightly criticize. However, I think the pejorative connotation, clearly intended within this discussion, of fundamentalism that has lately subsumed the actual meaning of the term, is unjustified. Rather, fundamentalism should be thought of as the comprehensive approach to religious life.

Religious fundamentalism is based upon the belief that certain religions affirm particular core fundamental beliefs. To call oneself a Christian, for example, in the fundamental sense, would mean that one believes certain particular things about Jesus Christ, his divinity, our relationship to Him, and the Bible. To believe otherwise would make the label ‘Christian’ dubious. Likewise, a fundamentalist Muslim would also affirm certain doctrines in regard to God, Muhammed, and the Koran. In neither case is extremist violence or force a part of the fundamentalist identity. While I won’t deny that these things have sometimes resulted from the irrational behavior of self-confessed fundamentalists, it does not follow that all fundamentalists are inherently irrational. In fact, I would argue that fundamentalism is a reasonable approach to the philosophy and practice of religion and reiterate that it would facilitate a comprehensive and thorough religious life.

Actually, Updike’s quote shows that his own view of the relationship between sacred and secular is backward. When he states that “Whatever your religious beliefs, it seems to me, this world is the one that we’re in, this is the one we should deal with, and this is the one in which we should try to be more kind and reasonable and all those other virtues of moderation,” he seems to suggest that religion should take its cue from humanity, rather than humanity from religion. If religious belief is at all authentically theological, then this idea is obviously absurd. Religion is the human practice in response to the nature of God, through which humanity rightly aligns itself to that nature. But what does Updike mean by moderation, anyway? He appears to suggest that certain moral values are the result of a fundamental virtue of moderation. I would ask, moderation in regard to what? Moderation in and of itself is meaningless. If he means moderation in regard to the revelation of God, then he foolishly casts aside the intent of his own maker and arrogantly prioritizes his will over the will of God. If he means moderation in regard to truth in general, and therefore how truth applies to religious dogma regardless of its theistic authenticity, then by what measure are we to affirm moderation as an objective virtue? This moderation appears to be the same type of vapid creed by which Updike is “moderately disgusted.”

The call for religious moderation implicitly denies the possibility that certain religious doctrines could actually be objectively true. Since this assertion is impossible to justify, I would reverse the inertia of this discussion to again suggest that fundamentalism is actually the reasonable approach to religion. In other words, if a particular religion is true, then one aught to believe it and practice it comprehensively, not with some sort of ambiguous and arbitrary moderation. How could one be “moderately Christian,” anyway? Might one say, “I don’t believe that Jesus actually existed, nor do I really think there is a God in the traditional sense, but I am a Christian because the religion has taught me morality?” If so, on what basis does a religion founded upon a lie credibly instruct anyone on morality? Perhaps one could say, “I believe in Jesus, but I also believe that Buddha was right too.” In this case, one must either misunderstand Jesus or Buddha, as the contradictions between the two teachings are irreconcilable. Moderation in regard to religion denies either truth, power, or both.

Now, I certainly don’t take Updike for a fool. After all, he has produced Terrorist in the twilight of a long and critically successful literary career to which any American is culturally endebted. Despite his intellect, it is also true that some of the most brilliant thinkers make some of the most foolish blunders in thinking when it comes to matters of faith. Perhaps this is not the case for Updike. Perhaps it is more a blunder in semantics, and what he really had in mind was a behavioral moderation. If so, this is certainly something I could get behind as it relates to terrorism, which seems to be more of an outworking of emotion and irrationality then a fundamental approach to religion. But again, this is not moderation for moderation’s sake, nor moderation of religion or reason, but moderation in regard to rash human fallibility.

The Truth about Truth, Part 1 (What Truth Isn’t)

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The nature of truth can be discussed on the basis of negative and positive affirmation. In order to specify the nature of truth, it is perhaps most expedient to remove incoherent and inadequate ideas about what truth is first, then proceed to defining it (this is the easy part!). Thus, this article is subtitled, 'What Truth Isn't.'

Some may limit truth to the pragmatic, suggesting that truth is that which ‘works.’ This concept would be tested by the proof of future experience, as something would be confirmed to be true if it correlated with the right results. This view is incoherent because in trying to appeal to the pragmatic, it is actually appealing to truth as it corresponds to reality. To even hold the concept of ‘right results,’ one must have a presuppositional concept of truth as correlating to reality. Thus, a ‘higher’ concept of truth is necessary to support this subservient one. The pragmatic view is also inadequate because it confines truth to those things that are practical, and it excludes theoretical truths (such as mathematical proofs, sets, etc.) and factual truths (such as ‘today is Monday’). Neither of these categories is truthful on the basis of pragmatism; they are true because they correspond to reality. Even a truth that ‘works’ could be in fact incorrect. For instance, apologist Ravi Zacharias often relays a story in which a young boy challenges his father’s faith in the idols in his home, saying ‘Dad, why do you worship these wooden figures? They aren’t real- they were made by people!’ His father replies angrily and almost fearfully, ‘Don’t you ever say that! They are real and they are powerful.’ To prove his point, the child takes a stick and smashes a smaller idol to bits while his father is away. Then he places the stick in the hands of a larger idol standing nearby. When his father returns, he exclaims, ‘What happened? Who did this?’ The child replies, ‘I don’t know, Dad. It wasn’t me, but it looks like the larger god there did it!’ The father quickly answers him, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, you must have done it!’ The child again denies it and his father finally explodes, ‘Stop lying! You must have done this; these statues aren’t alive!’ The point here is that based upon the father’s idea of truth, the child’s ‘alibi’ should have worked, yet the correspondence with reality (even one of which the father lived in denial) was not there.

Another incoherent and inadequate concept of truth is the one which suggests that truth is ‘that which coheres.’ A coherent truth is one which is internally consistent. However, like the pragmatic truth, even the affirmation of what truth is relies upon a correspondence view of truth. The statement in and of itself cannot be verified on the basis of internal consistency. The only means of verifying a statement such as this is by correspondence to reality. Additionally, many statements can be internally consistent but do little to actually be informative in regards to reality. For example, the statement ‘There are no married bachelors’ is internally consistent, and is true regardless of whether any bachelors actually exist, much in the way that the statement ‘1+1=2’ is true regardless if it is referring to the addition of actual objects. While coherence is a legitimate test for falsehood, it is not necessarily an adequate test for truth.

Another concept of truth that is not sustainable is the concept that truth is based upon intentions. Like many of these concepts, this one too is indebted to the correspondence view, as it makes a statement about reality that is, itself, supposedly true. In addition, this view tends to limit truth to what is relayed by statements, however, we must accept that certain things can be true regardless of whether they are ever recognized or spoken of. Another problem with this view is clearly shown by history. Many scientists have sincerely believed in certain things and have written about them being true only to later discover that they were wrong! If truth is expressed in intentions, then truth is certainly an unstable concept.

Lastly, and perhaps the most important idea about truth to be debunked, is the Kierkegaardian concept of truth as that which is ‘existentially relevant.’ Kierkegaard suggested that truth is subjective to experience and is not propositional. The first problem to point out is the inconsistency of the statement itself: If truth is not propositional, then one cannot make propositions about truth. Therefore the propositional statement, ‘Truth is that which is existentially relevant,’ must be rejected. However, to answer the proposition itself, truth cannot be limited to the subjective for a variety of reasons. The first reason is that if truth is that which is existentially relevant, then other physical, mathematical, historical and theoretical truths are meaningless. Yet, it is precisely through these types of truths that we make sense of our experiences! Secondly, those things that are relevant to one particular experience are not always true, and true ideas are not always relevant to every experience. For example, the proposition ‘WordPress is a useful blogging tool’ may be extremely relevant to me (or perhaps another WordPress user) but not to the many who might not even know what ‘blog’ means. However the truthfulness of the proposition has little to do with its comprehensive relevance. Though my statement may be meaningless to someone who does not maintain a blog, it is true nonetheless.

I examine these distinctions in order to show that a view of truth must be comprehensive or 'large' enough to adequately deal with all kinds of truths, yet specific in its exclusivity. In other words, each of the 'truth is that which…' statements above do not adequately deal with truth as we experience it. This means that these theories have not yet reached a full realization of what truth is.

In the next part of this article, I hope to address what truth is, which I concede is a more difficult task than what I have undertaken here.

Written by Christopher Butler

February 28, 2006 at 7:51 am

The Relative Years

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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:

  1. I like discussing morality.
  2. 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!

Written by Christopher Butler

January 5, 2006 at 6:24 am

The Inescapability of Purpose

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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.

Now or Never

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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.”

Written by Christopher Butler

October 22, 2005 at 9:58 am

The Transcendence Test

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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.