Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Is Faith Obsolete?

I teach the Hermeneutics course at Bethany. It's always gratifying to see the students deepen their understanding, not only of the Word but of how to more effectively study the Word. Hermeneutics are the methods and principles of properly interpreting the meaning of a text. It is not a strictly theological discipline, all literature must be interpreted, and thus rules of intepretation (hermeneutics) are required. When I was a freshman at the University of Colorado I quickly figured out who the English majors were, they all carried around copies of E.D. Hirsch, The Validity of Interpretation, probably the most important hermeneutics text written in the last 100 years.

I'm going on about hermeneutics because literary analysis lies at the heart of the philosophical revolution we call postmodernism. The battle for truth in the Western world is centered in the interpretation of the major documents that have shaped our civilization. The leaders of the postmodern movement took an entirely relativistic approach to our most important writings. And based on their postmodern beliefs, "deconstructed" them. That is they interpreted them as tools for the oppression of women and minorities. In addition, they based their conclusions on two principles. First, the winners get to write the history books, and second, the powerful use their "history" for suppression of minorities and for personal gain. Because postmodernists are deeply relativistic, they deny the very idea of truth, and are left with the cynical view that everything boils down to propaganda.

Postmodernism is nothing less than radical skepticism. And while this is bad enough, it seeks to justify a "might makes right" approach to politics and governance. If the winners get to write the history books, then it is legitimate to pursue positions of power to enable the advancement of one's agenda. After all, our society was constructed to maintain the authority and privilege of white European males. This distorted and deeply cynical understanding of "power" is the reason our major universities have all the studies programs (Gender Studies, LGBT Studies, Native American Studies, etc.). This distortion in the concept of truth (and of political power) does not bode well for the future of American education and thus for American society.

We are already seeing the effect of postmodern thought on law and politics. On law, it is the sense that the law should change with changing social and cultural conditions, thus the acceptance of abortion as a constitutionally protected right and the growing number of judicial decisions favoring gay marriage. In politics it is the emphasis on creating the "narrative" that will enable the party to maintain its hold on power. Because postmodernism denies the concept of absolute truth, it views words not as conveyors of truth but as tools of manipulation and power. In one sense, Barak Obama is the first truly postmodern president. He, and those who support him, believe that if they craft the right message with the most compelling words they can gain and maintain their power. Thus, when the President spoke of "hope," "change," "fairness," and "American values," those words were just expressions of postmodern constructivism (the capacity to construct the meaning of "truth"), and the desire to use words, not to speak truth but to gain and keep power.

I have felt for some time that while existentialism took its cue from the French philosophers, Camus and Sartre, postmodernism is an expression of Nietzsche's will to power. Gene Edward Veith, Jr. in his book, Postmodern Times, describes the difference.

Whereas modern existentialism teaches that meaning is created by the individual, postmodern existentialism teaches that meaning is created by a social group and its language. ..The old existentialists stressed the alienated individual, dignified in lonliness and nonconformity; postmodern existentialism stresses social identity, group-think, and fashion sense. Postmodern existentialism goes back to Nietzsche to emphasize not only will, but power.

The frightening thing about postmodernism is its social dimension; its emphasis on speech codes and politically correct behavior which is unashamedly imposed on the faculty and students of an entire American university. Gene Veith explains, Those who do not believe in truth are more likely, I believe, to lie. Those who believe that moral values are nothing more than the imposition of power may be more likely to use power to suppress thier opposition, whether in politically correct academia or, when they have political power, in acts of tyrrany.

We must be ever vigilant in the defense of truth, God's truth. The great power of the Bible and the reason so many millions have built their lives upon its teachings is that it corresponds to the realities of life and the human condition. The Bible lays out the path to a full and fulfilling life, and protects from destructive behaviors and attitudes. A significant reason that our society has become increasingly dysfunctional is that we have moved so far away from the influence of biblical teaching.

We must regain confidence in truth, and the best definition of truth describes it as that which corresponds with reality. The Bible points us to God and His life changing grace, and every day millions of Christians around the world demonstrate the absolute validity of its teachings. As we walk in faith and obedience we find the truth of the Bible confirmed in our personal experience. As Paul writes, we then become "a letter from Christ"," written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of the human heart." (2 Cor. 3:3) The time in which we live demands that we not only declare the truth but that we live the truth.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Is Income Inequality the Problem?

This will probably get me into trouble but it's just too funny to pass up. In the comments to an article on President Obama's speech in Kansas was this terse statement: "Under Teddy Roosevelt we got the Square Deal, while Franklin Roosevelt gave us the New Deal, and now, with Barak Obama we're getting the Raw Deal."

On a more serious note, it is important that we take a look at what the President was saying to us in his speech in Osawatomie, Kansas last week. First he was attempting to make income inequality and the lack of income growth among the middle class, "the central issue of our time." Realizing that we are borrowing 40 cents of every dollar our government spends and that we are facing a 15 trillion dollar deficit, I'm not convinced that income inequality is our most pressing problem.

So, what difference does it make if we say income inequality is our biggest challenge? The simple answer is to look at what is happening in Europe. European societies have for many decades pursued egalitarian policies that are today bringing them to the brink of bankruptcy. If we ignore our deficits in the pursuit of a more "just" society we will end up in the same sorry state. In addition, when we examine the actual income levels of the middle class in Europe, we find that their median family income is much lower than ours. Median income in America is $31,000, in France it is $21,000 and in Greece it is $16,000 (Just google, "median family income in the world"). Thus, while Europe has less income disparity, it also has just plain less income. I would submit that there is a direct connection in these statistics, the pursuit of income equality by government policy results in reduced growth and economic vitality and thus lower family incomes. To be honest, I don't think the American people really want to go there.

For the sake for fairness, we need to dig down into the specifics of what the President was proposing to fix the economic problems we face. In his own words, "The future will be bleaker unless we raise taxes on the wealthy and invest in education, science, and infrastructure." His solution begins with collecting more revenue from a tax increase on the top 1%. But notice, the money will not be used to directly reduce the deficit. It will be used to "invest" in three things that he believes will expand the income opportunities of the middle class.

As we can see from these three "investments," the president certainly has a long term view of things, because the first two elements will take a decade before they make an appreciable difference. In the President's scheme of things, this means an increased emphasis on math, science, and training in green technology within our educational system. If this were the 1960's with a much smaller educational burearacracy and a basic curriculum focused on the three "R's" then maybe we could make these changes, today not so much. Notice, in fact, that the President humself understands this because his vehicle for training in green technology are local community colleges, the least politicized of any of our educational institutions. The very idea of giving more money to the financial black hole that is our educational system makes no sense. We spend too much already with no positive results.

His second investment is in science. With Solyndra, Light-Squared, and Solazyne we are seeing this administration's approach to technological and scientific investment. This kind of crony capitalism is a far cry from the traditional use of government funding for basic research. Research which gave us solid state electronics, the laser, and computer chips by the way. This attempt to fund specific projects and companies has simply not worked, from wind farms in Hawaii and California in the 70's to the latest attempts to fund electric car companies. My fear is that the President has many more Solyndras in store for us, and that they will do very little to acheive the desired goal of job creation and a growing economy.

Finally, he wants to invest in infrastructure. Of the three parts this has the most realistic chance of increasing jobs and even median incomes. Like everything else in our culture, it requires specialized labor. The days of handing an out of work retail clerk a shovel as part of a WPA construction project are long gone. Construction work today is contracted and reqires particular skills and training. Take the Keystone pipeline as an example, it will provide great jobs for experienced pipefitters and welders. I heard recently that the average job will pay $70,000. I don't deny that there will be opportunities for welder's helpers and apprentice pipefitters to get a start in the field, but most of the jobs will be for those with the training and experience required to do the work.

In the end, the President's plan won't do much to grow the middle class or reduce the gap between rich and poor. His approach is part of the progressive nostalgia for the New Deal and the space race of the 60's. We face very different challenges today. We must find a solution for the massive unfunded pension and Medicare liabilities we face at the state and federal level. The President, as our leader, is attempting to change the subject and act as if there is no long term deficit problem and we can operate as if government must plan, tax, and "invest" to solve social problems. Well, we can't.

The recession of 2007 and the subsequent slow recovery we are still experiencing four years later, is part of an economic wake-up call that we really can't afford to ignore. Robert Samuelson wrote an important article today in the Washington Post on the dangers of a bond crisis in the face of our massive deficit spending. Remember, we are in a debt crisis. So the only way to end the crisis is to start getting out of debt. We must not allow the President and his party to change the subject and pursue "business as usual" tax and spend policies, particularly for the sake of an invented problem called "income inequality." I'm really not trying to be partisan in saying this. We are facing the gravest economic downturn of our lifetimes, and we need real solutions not populist hyperbole. There is some real hope for answers, just look at what Canada has done in the last 10 years, Sweden as well. We don't have to just take the word of our favorite pundit, countries of the world have actually cut spending, reduced their debt, and restored their economies, and we can too.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Being an Overcomer

I am currently reading Walter Wink's book, The Powers That Be, and it has me thinking about how we live in this world while not being ruled by it. Wink's main point is that the structures and institutions of any and all societies are part of a system of domination, what the Bible calls, "The world." And of course, the apostle John commands us to, "love not the world (cosmos), neither the things of the world..." (I John 2:15)

The first question is what does the Bible mean by the "world?" After all, our homes, our communities, and even our families are part of the world in which we live. How do we not love many of the things that are precious to us? Of course, we are assured by pastors and teachers, that those are not the things referred to by the term the "world." John was referring to the world system with its temptations and sins; what would be the equivalent to Christ's warning about "Mammon." The picture they bring to mind is the glitz of Hollywood or the wealth of Wall Street. But is this really what the word means?

Anyone who has read Wink is aware of his political orientation; he is deeply left wing. Despite his politics, his basic point is extremely important. There lies a "power" behind the institutions and structures of society that stands in opposition to God and which seeks to keep us all under its control. And yes, a large part of the world's "control" are the powerful rewards it offers to those who submit to its power. That the Powers have contolled men is undeniable, the only variable is the means they use.

And this brings me to an important related principle. The reason the world has such power over us is related to our nature. We are deeply needy. Years ago, Winkie Pratney gave a wonderful message on the four basic human needs: the need for love, the need for wisdom, the need for significance, and the need to belong. Ultimately those needs can only be fully met by God in our lives. Yet, because of sin we are alienated from God we "look for love (wisdom, etc.) in all the wrong places." The tragic stories of so many people is the result of their seeking to fulfill the deepest needs of their lives by illegitimate means.

The world stands ready to meet and even create needs. In our modern age, such a strategy is seen as the pathway to success. We, thus, "need" the latest product or service that is flashed before our eyes on a daily basis. And we are fed a set of values that justifies the consumer oriented, materistic culture in which we live. It is all, ultimately, a set-up, and that which parades as the source of happiness is really the house of pain and disappointment if we make those things the center of our lives.

To Wink's point, this domination of values and culture is the way the "Powers" rule over the peoples of the earth. It is why we must guard our hearts and keep our minds instructed by the teachings of the word of God. Proverbs 2 speaks of the pursuit of wisdom and understanding that enables discernment. Discernment is the capacity to see beyond the surface of things to be aware of the hidden dangers, both in seeing where it leads and in seeing its true colors. When it comes to the claims of the world upon our lives, all of us desperately need greater discernment.

There is a very real sense in which the world is not a nice place. It is filled with "idols," things that substitute for God and which ultimately lead us far from Him. In Deuteronomy, Moses commanded Israel to "choose life" (Deut. 30:19) and if you read the entire passage, the way they were to choose life is by choosing God, "For the Lord is your life." (Deut. 30:20) To seek life in the things the world promises is to miss life for as Jesus said, "your life does not consist in your possessions."

So how do we choose God rather than "choosing" the world? The Apostle Paul tells us that God ordained the place and habitation of men, "that they might seek for him, though He is not far from any of us." (Acts 17) In other words, we choose God by seeking him, with this caveat, diligently and persistently. With this in mind, I would encourage us all, this Christmas season, to get alone somewhere and think about the meaning and message of Christmas. Considering that God loved you so much that He gave the ultimate Christmas present: His Son, so that you would be rescued from sin and given the gift of eternal life. I can just about guarantee that in that process it will be very clear to you that God really is near. And as the song says, "The things of earth will go strangely dim..." as you commune with God. Doing this on a regular basis is one of the means by which we put the world in its place and keep our focus on God.

It would seem to me that we must keep our needs and the rewards of the world in their proper perspective. Looking at what Jesus said in Matthew 7, "For your Father knows that you need all these things..." Our first priority must be to pursue God, and allow Him to add all the other things.

Have a wonderful Christmas and a blessed New Year.