Sunday, August 3, 2014

Our Confusing Times

We live in a time of great moral and intellectual confusion. At the risk of being misunderstood, I have come to the conclusion that this confusion results from the inordinate influence of the philosophers and intellectuals of the last two centuries. I say this after spending the last months trying to understand postmodernism and in particular the writings of Jacque Derrida and his opposition to metaphysics. While philosophy means "love of wisdom" (philos + sophia), it has not always produced wisdom. Too often, and in our generation particularly, philosophy and philosophers have contributed to folly and confusion.

One would think that scholars, who build their careers on using the rules of logic would be able to think clearly, but sadly, they do not. Philosophers excel at obfuscation. They use difficult terms (which they often invent) in order to argue for things that if clearly understood would be revealed to be false or contradictory or simply devoid of common sense.

For example Immanuel Kant is considered the most influential philosopher of the last 300 years. In his famous book, The Critique of Pure Reason, he argued that we, human beings, have only a partial and ultimately inadequate knowledge of the world in which we live. He said that we are only capable of perceptions of the objects in the world (phenomena) and have no access to the "thing-in-itself" (noumena). In other words, when we touch an object, the nerves in our fingers activate a region of our brain to give us the sensation of touching the object, but that does not give us direct knowledge of the object, it only gives us the "sensation" of touching it. Kant went further in his writings to claim that our minds are the ordering principle of the world. In other words, we "see" order in the world because that is how our brains are wired. According to Kant, order may or may not actually be there. Thus, our knowledge of the world is indirect and occurs mainly in our heads.

If you think about it (which we often don't do because we're intimidated by the philosophical language), we would see that this is a very cynical and even distorted way of describing how we use our senses to navigate through the world in which we live. Our eyes are like video cameras, they are taking pictures of the objects around us. Their function can be explained using the laws of physics, and we are well within our logical rights to believe that we are obtaining an accurate "picture" of the world we see. While our "knowledge" of the object we are seeing is not absolute, it is adequate. We are able to corroborate what we are seeing by asking the person standing next to us if they see it too. We can even ask them to describe the color, shape, and size. In our everyday lives, we rely on our senses and have nearly complete confidence that they are accurately seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching the real objects that inhabit our world.  We prove their reliability and accuracy every day as we use them to safely cross a street, handle the everyday objects of life, and observe our surroundings. Each of our senses are independent means of detecting the real objects and phenomenon that make up the reality of the world we live in, and we clearly rely on them every moment of our lives. Only a philosopher could question the reliability of our senses and their capacity to give us knowledge of our world.

Kant opened the philosophical door to the profound skepticism of the present postmodern culture. Kevin Vanhoozer in his important book, Is There a Meaning in This Text? points out that several of the most significant postmodern writers, Richard Rorty, Jacque Derrida, and Stanley Fisch, believe that there is no determinate meaning in any written text, and that, in essence, we can interpret any written document according to our personal, ideological, cultural, or political preferences. This means, of course, that nothing is really true, and that everything is relative to our condition, desires, or needs. It is the modern equivalence of "everyone did what was right in their own eyes." But even worse, it is a complete offense to common sense. To claim that a written text doesn't have an inherent meaning is to deny the very act of written communication.

We have to ask why several generations of intellectuals have embraced assumptions about the world and our capacity for knowledge that are so clearly at odds with common sense and practical experience? Some of it is peer pressure and the power of the shared worldview of the academic community. But, as I have argued in my book and elsewhere, there is another force at work in modern culture: the desire to escape the rules and restrictions of traditional Christian values. It is Dostoyevsky's famous quotation, "If God does not exist, then everything is permitted." Whether they are conscious of it or not, these men are anti-authoritarian as much or more than they are intellectually skeptical. But there has been a very dark side to this pursuit of libertarian freedom. It has given rise to the kinds of moral confusion that we see all around us. As was famously said (Chesterton, I think), if we cease believing in God we do not end up believing in nothing, we end up believing in anything. In many ways, postmodernism is a Pandora's box that has unleashed moral and spiritual chaos. Who would have thought that the heirs of Plato and Aristotle, the professional thinkers and logicians, would lead us into such a wasteland? I believe it is because they have ulterior motives (conscious or unconscious) to reject the moral restrictions that accompany Christianity. They are the fulfillment of David's description of the world rulers in Psalm 2: "Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their cords from us!" What are these "fetters," what are these "cords?" Are they not the moral restrictions that we have spent the last several decades "liberating" ourselves from? The problem is that this process has not given us liberty but rather resulted in moral and social dysfunction. One could rightly ask how many lives have been damaged or destroyed by their ideas? This is a truly serious problem and, those of us who follow Jesus must work to counter this terrible assault on reason and truth. We must live out our faith and show by word and deed what is good and right and true. The only way to push back the darkness is to shine the light.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Are We Enlightened Yet?

In this post I want to segue back to our previous topic of defending the faith. In the last two posts I tried to argue for an Islamic enlightenment. The problem for Islam is that such a process will expose some truly serious historical and factual contradictions that have the potential to destroy it as a viable belief system. But many would say in our day that this is exactly what happened with Christianity. They believe that the Enlightenment destroyed Christianity as a valid worldview/philosophy option for any educated person. For example, the famous neo-orthodox theologian Rudolf Bultmann wrote, "It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles." (New Testament and Mythology, 5)

While there is no question that the Enlightenment was the attempt to expose what its leaders believed was a religious myth called Christianity, we must remember that both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the greatest numerical expansion of the global Christian church in human history, and that even in the West, the church has survived and in many places, thrived. Yet, we must ask, who is right? Are the skeptics correct that our scientific age has made religious belief impossible, or are the Christians right in saying that God is not dead? Could it be that the rapid growth of Christianity worldwide is just the death throws of a dying religion as it still holds sway over the superstitious who inhabit the Third World? After all, isn't the church shrinking in the West?

This is a huge question, too large for a single blog post, so I want to pare it down to look in very general terms at how the Christian church responded and continues to respond to the forces of the Enlightenment.

In the early years of the Enlightenment, the age of Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, and Kant, the Evangelical church mostly ignored the world of philosophy and simply went about their business of preaching the Gospel. It is worth noting that the time of the revolutions (America, 1776 & French, 1789) and the heyday of philosophy (Hume & Kant), was also the time of the Great Awakening in both England and America. One of the significant results of these revivals was the birth and expansion of missions. A case can be made that one of the characteristics of all revivals is that they result in an increased involvement in missions both in numbers of missionaries and in support and engagement by the affected churches. For example, pietism (a revival in its own right) resulted in the Danish-Halle mission and the Moravians, and the Great Awakening gave us William Carey and the first American missionaries (sent around 1812) as part of the great wave of evangelical missions that marked the nineteenth century. In other words, while philosophers were attempting to deny the possibility of miracles and to debunk natural theology (nature reveals the existence of God), God was performing miracles in people's lives, calling them to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, and enabling the incredible growth of the global church that continues to this day.

These two dramatic and historic movements almost literally were "like two ships passing in the night." Each one nearly oblivious to the other. At the time, the Great Awakening was more momentous and impacted the general population to a far greater extent that the Enlightenment. The Great Awakening produced dramatic social change in England and America, bringing prison reform, education and social reform, and the abolition of slavery to England, while dramatically shaping American culture and laying the ground work for the civil war and the end of slavery in America. Yet, the Enlightenment, born of philosophers and intellectuals, gained an ever increasing foothold in the academic institutions of the West. And, those who control the educational system, ultimately control the culture. Whether it was intentional or not, the forces of the Enlightenment were playing the long game.

By the middle of the twentieth century, all of the major Protestant denominations (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, & Episcopalian) had been coopted by theological liberalism and the majority of their churches ceased giving a clear and intentional proclamation of the gospel. They instead became centers of the "Social Gospel" as they advocated for an end to the social ills of racism, poverty, and inequality. This move toward liberalism created a strong backlash among the committed Christians within and outside these denominations. Many split off from the parent denominations to create conservative alternatives, such as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Others moved to the remaining conservative denominations such as the Baptists, various evangelical denominations, and the growing numbers of independent/interdenominational churches that were being established at this time. This was also the time of the Bible college movement as an alternative to secular universities and seminaries, along with the development of Christian radio, publishing, and other alternative institutions to serve the conservative Christian community. This was all part of a strategy of separation that has served to disenfranchise biblical Christianity from the larger society. And, whether we realized it or not, left evangelical Christianity an increasingly marginalized counter-culture with little or no voice in the larger American society.

One of the reasons for this strategy of separation was the belief that the solution to the growing secularism in America was revival. This view was actually founded on a good deal of historical evidence. American culture, literally from its founding had been periodically transformed and shaped by a series of significant revivals. As we already mentioned, the Great Awakening had a clear American component beginning with Jonathan Edwards, the preaching of George Whitefield in Boston, and the spread of the Methodist circuit riders across the frontier. A second major revival originated with Charles Finney in New England and the camp meetings in the South. Both of these movements had a visible impact on American culture, and were seen as examples of how important revival was to the spiritual and material well being of the society. It was to encourage, pray for, and work for revival that caused the church of this generation to separate from the larger culture.

There is certainly merit to this approach. In my lifetime, there have been at least two significant identifiable moves of God that impacted thousands of individuals and families. The first was the Jesus Movement of the 60s which profoundly impacted my generation. Many of my classmates at Bethany came to the Lord in this move of God. The second, that greatly impacted my family was the Charismatic movement in the Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopal churches. The movement spread out beyond these denominations to have a significant impact on that generation. By this means, whole churches, families, and even communities were transformed.

But there is a fundamental difference between these recent revivals and those of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the older revivals affected the whole culture, while these later movements only affected some of the people in the culture while leaving the larger culture unchanged. There are several reasons for this reduced impact, but one of root causes was the dominance of secularism in the larger society. As a result, many of the beliefs and values that were held in common by Christians and non-Christians alike in previous generations we no longer held in common, and this disconnect makes it increasingly difficult to share the Gospel with people today. As James Davison Hunter has argued the grass-roots approach to cultural change is very difficult and ineffective, and that recent history shows that the groups that made the effort to dominate the institutions of influence (education, law, media, and politics) have come to hold sway over American society. We already cited the control of American seminaries by liberal theologians. We also see the ways that the leftist student radicals (who were radicalized by the leftist professors of that generation such as Herbert Marcuse) of the 60s earned their Ph.D.s, thus leftist politics came to dominate our colleges and law schools for the past several generations. This is part of the reason there is such a large disconnect between our Christian values and the values of the larger society in our day.

 I wish there was an easy answer to this serious problem. There is not. We certainly need to pray. We also need to recognize that we are a counter-culture, and act accordingly (and unappolgetically) in defending and living out our values. And we need to share our faith whenever and wherever we can, knowing that Jesus' call to be salt and light surely applies to our dark and thirsty time.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Islamic Reformation II

In my last post I examined the development of the current state of affairs in the Muslim world with the intent of asking what might bring about a change for the better, and how they might be willing to lay down their animosity and violence toward the non-Muslim world. Many who have looked at this problem concluded that Islam needs a "Reformation." But those who say this, are thinking of the Protestant Reformation that not only changed the Christian church, it changed Western civilization, and opened the door to many of the blessings of freedom, equality, rule of law, and prosperity that we enjoy today. No less an authority than Max Weber, who coined the phrase "Protestant work-ethic" has described the positive impact that Reformation teaching had upon Northern Europe and the United States. As Ibrahim stated in his article, "How Christianity and Islam can follow similar patterns of reform but with antithetical results rests in the fact that their scriptures are often antithetical to one another." (Front Page Magazine, "Islam's Protestant Reformation") The reason that the Protestant Reformation brought about so many of the blessings of modern culture is that is was based on the principles of scripture: the rule of law, all men equal before God, the importance of personal integrity, the sanctity of marriage, and the sanctity of human life. Not to mention the need for checks and balances on governmental power (because of human sin) and the call to the use of wealth and power for compassionate, charitable purposes. We could also add universal education and the end of feudalism to this list of contributions. Many have assumed that the modern West is the result of the Enlightenment, when, in fact, it was the product of the Reformation. This is not to say the Enlightenment didn't have a role, it did. For instance we got our emphasis on the "consent of the governed" from Rousseau as well as the clause about the necessity of revolution in the affairs of a state. But our emphasis on God given rights (natural rights) and the need for checks and balances in the division of our branches of government, along with our understanding that freedom can only be granted to self-governing men, thus the founders emphasized the freedom of religion. All one need to do to establish that the United States did not originate from the Enlightenment is to compare the American Revolution and its documents with the French Revolution and its documents (and results).

Islam had nothing like this. In going back to its roots, it had to reject what Ibrahim describes as the "medieval synthesis" (developed in an attempt to make Islam compatible with practical society). He writes, "While the medieval synthesis worked over the centuries, it never overcame a fundamental weakness: It was not comprehensively rooted in or derived from the foundational texts of Islam. Based on compromises and half-measures, it always remained vulnerable to challenge by the purists." (Ibrahim is quoting Daniel Pipes here) Islam's original documents take it back to Sharia Law and Jihad.

So what might bring about a transformation of the Islamic world? First, it will not come from outside of Islam. While attempts in significant academic circles to present historical, philosophical, and theological criticism of Islam by Western scholars would be helpful. Its assistance would be to give reason and voice to intellectuals within the Islamic world.

It seems to me that Islam needs to face, not a reformation but an enlightenment. I have often wondered where is the Islamic Voltaire, Hobbes, Spinoza, or Diderot? In the current environment within the Muslim world, they are in hiding. They dare not speak for fear of certain death. There are some voices, we have already mentioned them, Salmon Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Yet even in the West, they must live in seclusion. The world will need many more of these brave souls, and we must support and encourage them as we can.

It is guaranteed that this process will be bloody. It will require exposing the texts and teachings of Islam to the kind of brutal criticism that was directed at the Bible in the late nineteenth century. It will seek to separate fact from fiction, and include something like the search for the historical Jesus only directed at the Prophet. As we might imagine, entire societies would be up in arms at such questioning of their fundamental teachings. Just look at what happened when a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet were published. It will take a monumental shift within Islam for such a process to even be contemplated. But in some ways, the current crisis with its terrible brutality and now the desecration of churches, mosques, and holy sites has the potential of turning many in the general population away from this terrible extremism, and cause some to even question the tenets of their faith.

A natural question that arises from my two posts is where is the Sunni-Shia divide in this description of the Islamic revival. Both of these factions have contributed to the revival, and in many ways, the revival has deepened the animosity between them. One of the notable elements of the recent Iraq war was the amount of Sunni and Shia violence against each other, not to mention the increased persecution of the ancient Christian communities in the region. It is part of what is disconcerting about this so called revival of Islam, it has deepened ancient animosities and produced unprecedented violence.

We must say that our concern is for the Muslim people along with all the peoples living in the Middle East. Our hope must be that the Muslim world itself will rise up and oppose the brutality and evil that is being perpetrated in the name of Islam. We must remember that one of the factors that contributed to the Enlightenment was the deep revulsion among European intellectuals at the terrible bloodshed in the post-Reformation wars that devastated Europe. Our hope must be that the awful violence that we see today will invoke a similar reaction in the Muslim world.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

ISIS and the Islamic Reformation

In this post I want to change the subject a bit. I have been talking about the misuse of science in our political debates, and now I want to talk about what is happening in the Muslim world. The reason for the change of topic is a recent article published on the Front Page website by Raymond Ibrahim (June 30, 2014) entitled, "Islam's 'Protestant Reformation.'" Mr. Ibrahim makes the very important point that contrary to popular opinion, Islam does not need a "reformation" such as that which transformed the Christian church in the 16th century. Islam has, in fact, undergone just this process of reform, of returning to its original documents and taking them literally in theory and in practice. It is just this return to the Koran and the Hadiths that explains the difference between the two "reformations," one was a return to the truths of the Bible and the other to the warrior religion of Islam. It is just this return to its original beliefs and practices that has led to the current crisis we face today.

Mr. Ibrahim is right, of course. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were two competing forces at work in the Islamic world which at the time was dominated by the Ottoman Empire. One impulse was a desire to modernize Islamic societies and take advantage of the tremendous benefits of industrialization, modern education, and representative democratic governance. A significant number of Muslim academics and political leaders held to this point of view in the first half of the twentieth century. But there was also a very powerful reactionary movement that rejected what it considered the anti-Islamic forces of secularism and decadence. At first, the reactionary movement was small but it amassed a deeply loyal following. It produced the salafist movement, Wahhabi Islam (Saudi Arabia), and the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt). These all began as protest movements which opposed the rapprochement with the West expressed by the many governments in the Islamic world who were trying to advance their nations into the developed world.

History as we know it might have been different except for three very important events. First, in the very core of Islam, in the land of Mohammed and of Mecca and Medina, came the discovery of the largest petroleum reserve the world had ever known. Saudi Arabia had already separated itself from both the Ottoman Empire and Western colonial rule, and existed as a tribal monarchy defined in no small part by its embrace of wahhabism. As the protector of the holy sites and the destination for the Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca), which is an obligation for all Muslims, it needed to be the champion of Islamic purity and so the embrace of a return to the Koran and the beliefs and practices of the Prophet clearly fit Saudi Arabia's role in global Islam. But with its vast oil revenues, it possessed wealth and power that enabled it to influence the rest of the Islamic world, to build mosques, and fund wahhabist madrassas around the world.

Even this would not have been enough to produce the global resurgence of Islam that we see today, were it not for two more extremely significant events: the overthrow of the Shah in Iran. The Shah was one of the most prominent examples of an Islamic leader who desired to modernize and industrialize his nation. Like Ataturk in Turkey before him, he was trying to model his vision for Iran after the Western powers. No one should argue that he was an enlightened monarch, he attempted to use repression in imposing his will on the Iranian people, but neither should we lose sight of the fact that he wanted to move ancient Persia into the twentieth century.

The changes that the Shah wanted to make to Iranian society were bitterly opposed by a group of conservative clerics led by the Ayatollah Khomeini who was sent off into exile in France. In exile, he developed his manifesto for an Islamic revolution and an Islamic state. His sermons in exile were smuggled back into Iran, and he became the leader of a large revolutionary movement that ended in the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of an Islamic government ruled by the leading clerics of Iran with Khomeini as the "Grand Ayatollah."

This momentous event had a profound affect on the rest of the Muslim world. It, in effect, demonstrated that "it could be done," that is a nation leaning toward the West could be transformed by a popular uprising and restored to Islamic purity. I remember the rhetoric of the mostly young radicals of the 80s who had been captivated by the "revolution." They clearly saw the possibility of a "pure" Islamic society ruled by Sharia Law, and that became their dream. Even though the revolution had produced the terrible hostage crisis at the American embassy in Tehran, many in the West were, at least, supportive of the goal of the revolution: the overthrow of Western influence in the Islamic world. They saw this influence as a form of colonialism, and while they didn't necessarily support (or even understand) the underlying ideology/theology, they supported the ends. This is why you see so many Western academics (Orientalists, anti-colonialists, etc.) who either openly support or are silent about groups like Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, or Hamas. They see them through revolutionary eyes, and for many of them, the end justifies the means, just as they tacitly supported the Viet Cong and the PLO in the sixties.

The other event that shaped today's movement was the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. It marked the restoration of the "mujahedeen," the holy warriors and became a modern example of Jihad, and a successful Jihad at that. It also contributed to the sense that the restoration of the glory of Islam was possible. It further enabled all of the skills necessary for global recruitment, training, equipping, and funding of Holy War. It was in Afghanistan that Bin Laden learned what was needed to create Al Qaeda and to attack the United States. These skills have produced all the vast terror networks that we confront across the world today.

If we add all these things together, we see that what has produced all of the "movements" that we see today, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, and now ISIS, are a product of a deeply reactionary desire to return to the purity of Islam as it was originally practiced, and with the vast amount of wealth and influence that has arisen at the very core of the Islamic world, they have the resources to do it. This turn of events is the Islamic version of the Reformation. Muslims, however, do not call it that, to them this is nothing less than an Islamic revival and many of them see it as a great re-awakening of Islam. This is why so many of the people on the so-called "Arab street" considered Osama Ben Laden a hero. His vision of Islam on the rise has captured the imagination of many in the Muslim world, and while many don't support the means, most agree with the ends.

This raises two related questions: where do "moderate" Muslims fit into this equation and if this is "reformed" Islam, how can we hope to see an end to the radicalism and violence that predominates in the Muslim world? In other words, if a reformation hasn't been able to bring the Islamic world into the larger family of nations, what will?

The Islamic revival of the past forty years has overwhelmed all or most of the moderate voices within the Muslim world. Only in the West do you see Muslims or former Muslims willing and able to criticize  the current drive toward Islamic purity. There have been some statements opposing some aspects of Islamic terrorism by journalists and clerics in the Muslim world, but they are relatively mild and ineffective. In the instances where politicians have taken steps toward social and educational reform, they have often paid with their lives (as in Pakistan in the past few years). Even for those living in the West, it is dangerous to criticize Islam. The first, and most famous, example was Salman Rushdie whose heretical writings put a literal price on his head. Recently we have seen the forced exile of Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her cooperation on the film critical of Islam that resulted in the assassination of Theodore Van Gough in Holland. After Van Gough's death, she was forced to flee to the United States in order to escape the same fate. If these critics of Islam don't feel safe in Western nations, imagine how difficult it must be to criticize Islam in Africa or the Middle East. But, and this is what I want to discuss in my next post (next week), how, apart from this type of criticism from within, will Islam be able to change, develop pluralistic and tolerant societies, or just even co-exist with the modern world?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Political Science

Anthropological Global Warming (AGW) is the current cause celeb of the environmental movement. It is the new acid rain or urban smog, something that must be remedied no matter what the cost. As a result, the rhetoric and tactics used to defend the anti-carbon agenda betray a definite "the-end-justifies-the-means" agenda. We live in an era when science has been politicized and made to support a specific ideological agenda. Whatever one's view about global warming or climate change, the way the issue has been "debated" in the various public forums should be of great concern. When supporters of active intervention to reduce carbon emissions call their opponents "climate deniers," or accuse them of being "anti-science," we recognize that we are not watching a reasoned discussion. Rather, we are watching a political brawl and a fight for power and control.

Steven Hayward's recent article in the Weekly Standard gives an example of this politicized "debate." He tells of the trials of a Swedish climate scientist who had the temerity to join the board of an organization that was willing to question the science behind AGW. Once his decision became public, he was inundated with denunciations which included threats to his career. Hayward quotes Lin-Art Bergtsson as he reflected on this experience. "In response to a query about the pressure campaign, Bengtsson declined to offer more detail, emailing only that 'the field of climate change has been politically distorted to a degree that I was not aware of. I very much regret this, as I am afraid that this is harming the scientific independence of climate research and perhaps for science in general.'"

Bergtsson's statement expresses the current state of the argument over AGW, it is without question "politically distorted" and stands as a powerful example of the ways that "science" can be used to further a political agenda. But global warming is not the first time that science has been enlisted in a political and ideological cause. Science was marshaled to support eugenics, racial superiority (Nazis), and dialectical materialism (Marxism). While the proper use of science and technology has been of great benefit to mankind, the political use of science has been, at best, counter productive. This is the reason that I am, in the main, suspicious of the alarmism associated with global warming (a.k.a. "Climate Change"), it is attempting to use "science" in order to silence its critics and achieve its political agenda.

The "great grand-daddy" of politicized science is the theory of evolution. It may not have been the first instance, but it certainly has been one of the most pronounced and prolonged efforts to silent opponents and sustain the political influence necessary to maintain its centrality to the modern secular worldview. As a I said in my last post, evolution is essential to the secular-naturalistic explanation of the universe and life. If evolution were ever seriously questioned and abandoned, we would be required by sheer logic to return to the argument from design. The great appeal of evolution to its proponents has always been that it explains the appearance of design in the world without having to say that this design requires a supernatural designer. If we take away evolution, we are left with the necessity of a supernatural designer. This is the reason the theory is so tenaciously defended, and the reason its counterpart, creationism and intelligent design, are not allowed to be taught in our public schools. It also explains why important critics and their books are denigrated as being "anti-science" or "religious" (meaning anti-intellectual and anti-modern).

This all appears to be the result of the influence of postmodern thought among our academics. Evolution precedes postmodernism by at least a century, yet it anticipated many of the uses of propaganda and the manipulation of evidence that we see in the global warming debate today. I would like to say more about postmodernism in the future, but for now I will just cite a statement given by Roger Kimball in the New Criterion (The essay is entitled "The Contemporary Sophist.") He writes, the postmodern project is, "a deliberate attempt to supplant reason by rhetoric, truth by persuasion. This would be bad enough if it were confined to literary texts; extended to legal texts and basic political concepts like justice, it is nothing short of disastrous." In making "truth" political (the postmodern project), it becomes a tool of manipulation for the maintenance of power and influence. The problem is that there is such a thing as truth without quotation marks, and if the "truth" is not actually true, then we can expect the disastrous results that Mr. Kimball speaks of. In the very long run of things, the folly of these ideologies are ultimately exposed, but in the mean time they are capable of terrible amounts of damage. We must, those of us who know the truth, expose the fallacies and deceptive arguments that are used to foist these beliefs and the political agenda that goes with them upon our society. We live in a dangerous age, when one of the most respected sources for the advancement of knowledge; science, has been co-opted and misused for political and ideological purposes. We must recognize this for what it is, an attempt to intimidate and to impose a set of ideological agendas upon us, and we must not stand for it. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Root of Our Secular Tree

In spite of the recent Supreme Court ruling allowing the use of sectarian prayer at the opening of public meetings, we clearly remain a secular society. In many ways the case accentuates how deeply secularism rules our culture. First, it expresses the extent to which the opponents of any public religious activity hold sway over even minor, largely token events such as prayers in local council meetings. Remember, this ruling was to overturn a ruling in a lower court that outlawed the prayers. Second, this was a split decision with 5 justices for and 4 justices opposed. This fact, coupled with the large number of lower court rulings that have so deeply entrenched secularism into our legal understanding, is an expression of how many of the best and the brightest of our lawyers, judges, and legal scholars view secularism as the default position of our constitutional republic. Even those who were part of the majority in this decision, hold to the validity of the current Supreme Court precedent that restricts public religious displays, the so-called, "Lemmon Test." To the secularists, this was just a small bump on the road to the elimination of all public expressions of religion.

In my book, I give s short summary of how secularism has come to dominate the academic and intellectual fields in the West. We are a secular nation, because the colleges and universities that teach each generation of teachers, lawyers, scholars, engineers, and scientists promote an entirely naturalistic worldview. One of the central motivations for writing my book was the need to give a reasonable answer to the two most influential philosophers of the Enlightenment; David Hume (miracles are impossible) and Immanuel Kant (human reason can't be used to answer the ultimate questions of life). And yes, these two are often sited by current intellectuals as the final authorities in regard to the existence of God and whether there are absolute moral values.

While these two thinkers have been very influential, there is another who has been even more significant to the cause of secularism. In fact, without his central idea, secularism could never have become the dominant worldview in Western society. I am referring, of course, to Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution. As I wrote in my book, "It would be Darwin's books that finally made the difference in the battle of ideologies. His theory on the origin of species seemed to provide a natural explanation for the biological world's complexity and order. He gave a purely cause-and-effect explanation for the appearance of design and he implied that design does not necessitate a designer." (Shetler, 46) By this means he provided a non-supernatural explanation for what could previously only be explained by divine creation. It is no wonder, then, that his theory is the linchpin to a secular worldview. And because of its importance to secularism, it is tenaciously defended from any and all challenges.

In 1966 at the Wistar Institute at the University of Pennsylvania a group of mathematicians, engineers, and a computer scientist debated some of the leading biologists of the day concerning the mathematical and scientific problems with the theory of evolution. One of the truly remarkable aspects of the debate was the level to which the biologists ignored or denied the data and questions raised by the mathematicians and engineers. They were philosophically and even ideologically dedicated to the theory of evolution, and were not even open to the questions being raised by the mathematicians and engineers. For example, when one of the engineers pointed out the extremely low probability, and therefore, the unlikely prospect for the chance development of some of the complex systems seen in many organisms such as eyesight, one of the biologists said, "The problem is that you have left out evolution." For this scientist, evolution was not a theory to tested and examined to see if it is true or not. It is, rather, a dogma to be believed, because really, there is no naturalistic alternative to this theory. It is evolution or nothing, or rather something even more unthinkable, creation.

It is very important that we recognize the place that the theory of evolution holds in our society. It is the central myth of secularism. It is why nothing that contradicts it can be taught in our public schools. It is why even degreed scientists who hold to intelligent design are called "pseudo-scientists" or "creationists" and their writings are ignored or denigrated. Evolution must be protected from all opponents and opposition. It must prevail lest we open the door to faith.

In the next few posts I plan to "take on" the theory of evolution and to deal not just with the arguments for and against, but to look at methods that evolutionists going back to Darwin himself have used to defend the theory. I think that we will see that for all the claims of being based on science, evolution has a number of serious fallacies that are either denied or ignored. They are denied or ignored because evolution is the only way to explain the world and life without having to say that God made it.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

So How Do We Take A Stand?

As I said in my last post, we Christians must defend our faith in this deeply secular age, not just for the sake of the church but for the sake of the society. As an example, Charles Murray has a wonderful article in the Wall Street Journal today (3/30/2014) in which he gives young people some practical advice for living a happy life. Murray is well aware of the widespread unbelief that infects the millennial generation.  His advice to this group includes getting married and staying married because you found your soul mate. In other words, the road to a happy life follows the ancient path of love and marriage, not the modern path of the "hook-up" culture. Even more radical than his advice about love is his advice to this generation to consider the religious path. In this regard, he advises young men and women who have been socialized into a secular worldview to give religion a serious look, implying that there is something legitimate and beneficial to be found there. He is actually in the process of taking his own advice. His wife began attending Quaker meetings a few years ago and he, a skeptic, has joined her. He's right, of course, faith is one of the unheralded secrets to a happy life and he is beginning the process of considering the claims of Christ himself. In giving this advice, he is not engaging in theology or apologetics, he is merely appealing to common sense.

Murray is a good example of how we, as Christians, can stand up for our faith in Christ in this postmodern age. First, we can and should appeal to traditional wisdom; it is not as out of favor as we think. Even if common sense isn't politically correct, it still has the power of human reason and experience behind it. There is also an intuitive element involved in this process. We "know" these things are true even if we cannot always rationally explain why they are true.

Francis Schaeffer often pointed out the contradiction between the beliefs of many of the leaders of modern thought and the choices they made in their lives and relationships. For instance, they may believe there are no moral absolutes or that mankind is just a species of animal, but they love and care for their children, teaching them to be polite, honest, and caring, and would never think of equating those children with their household pets. In other words, there is a part of our lives where the so called traditional values are assumed to be true. They are, in fact, a profound part of our humanity. It is the reason that secularists deeply oppose racism or child abuse without so much as a thought that this might contradict their philosophy. Their anger at injustice is not an expression of their philosophy, it is an expression of their humanity.

Second, we do not always need to engage in a deep and formal argument with those who deny the faith. In part, because those who reject Christian beliefs often don't base their rejection on those philosophical arguments. Those arguments primarily serve as rationalizations or excuses for their unbelief. Their "beef" with Christianity is usually more personal than philosophical.

 An example of a good "answer" to skeptics is Jesus response to the cynicism of the Saducees in Mark 12. The Sadducees were the "skeptics" of that era, they denied a resurrection on philosophical grounds, thus their mockery of the teaching of the resurrection in their question about the widow of seven brothers. What is interesting is that Jesus didn't indulge their skepticism and engage their specific question, at least as his first response. He simply asked a rhetorical question, "Is this not the reason you are mistaken..." There is a sense that even they knew that they were wrong. Jesus was not being dismissive or engaging in ad hominem, he was appealing to common sense and common wisdom. God exists and there is life after death. I remember reading a written debate on the existence of God in which Kai Nielsen argued the atheist position. Nielsen attempted to say that the burden of proof was on the Theistic side because empiricism made atheism the default conclusion of human experience. It was a novel approach considering that the complexity of human experience has led a majority of the human race to the opposite conclusion. And this is spite of the fact that God can't be seen, felt, or heard with the physical senses. The wonder of creation and the complexity of the human soul have, throughout history, placed the burden of proof on atheism. As Mircea Eliade, the famous scholar of world religions said, "Mankind is incurably religious."

Jesus went on to explain why the Sadducees were mistaken, "You do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God." As our culture demonstrates, with its dismissal of the Bible, it is possible to profoundly underestimate the wisdom found in the Word of God. In the case of the Sadducees, it was a superficial view of the resurrection, while in our era it is a loss of the awareness of moral responsibility (sin) and the holiness of God. In other words, it is not that the skeptics of the past and of today criticize Scripture from an intimate knowledge of its content, but rather from a shallow and often distorted understanding of its teachings. One of the points that Murray makes in his appeal to the youth of today is that they must give religion a serious examination. He encourages them to read Aquinas, Augustine, or C.S. Lewis. I would add that they should read the Gospel of John and continue on into the rest of the New Testament. We can be assured, the word of God contains the wisdom of God.

As skeptics, the Sadducees lacked faith. For them, and the same could be said of skeptics today, God was an abstraction. They had no sense of His personal involvement in the world and much less in their lives. Dr. Craig Keener has written an incredible two-volume study of the evidence for miracles. The book is a powerful description of the very real power of God to heal and to save. One of the stated intentions of the book is to contradict the anti-supernatural bias that we see in many Western intellectuals. And while he presents many of the logical fallacies that underlie the argument against miracles, the strength of the book is the vast number of documented miracles substantiated by eyewitness testimony and actual medical evidence. His book stands as a modern testimony to the power of God.

So, what is my point? It seems to me that we don't always have to go into a detailed explanation of what we believe and why we believe it. I sometimes wonder if that is not the reason that for all of the many books on apologetics and theology, we appear to have so little impact on our culture. There are times when we should not be afraid to simply state the obvious and call men to simple faith. In the same way, it is appropriate for us to appeal to the better impulses in people, as well as their innate and often unconscious longing for God, as Charles Murray did. This does not mean that there is no need for apologetics or theology, they are very important for the process of deepening our understanding after we've made our first steps toward God. In other words, we must appeal to a man's heart before we will have the opportunity to reach his head. Often, a few simple truths spoken with conviction can be the means by which we let our light shine in this dark world.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Are We Becoming Nihilists?

In my first years of teaching at BCOM I wrote a letter to the Minneapolis Star and Tribune (which they did not publish) expressing a concern that has only increased over the years and has, in many ways, become a life cause. It certainly stands as one of the central motivations for the writing of my book. The concern is that we in the West, whether we know it or not, are rejecting God and embracing nihilism. The consequences will be disastrous for our culture.

At the time I wrote the letter (1992) I chose the word "nihilism" for its shock value, and to confront my generation with the ultimate consequences of the secularism that had come to dominate our society. In thinking of the present state of our culture one is reminded of Nietzsche's "Parable of the Madman" (quoted on page 55 of my book) in which the madman attempts to warn his audience of the perils of their unspeakable crime: they have murdered God. As the madman sees that his warnings are falling on deaf ears, he laments that he has come too early, before the consequences of the loss of God are evident to all. We are just like Nietzsche's fictitious audience. We have tossed God off the stage of our culture and have no idea of the terrible price we will have to pay for this crime. We consider ourselves "educated" and "scientific," and all the while we are planting the seeds of our own destruction. What we fail to see are the damages directly tied to our rejection of religious influence. We fail to see that we are undermining our values and culture, and that we are planting the seeds of the destruction of Western civilization. Contrary to our perceptions, we are not embracing a scientific and humane worldview, but rather a deeply nihilistic philosophy that has the power to take us into an age of darkness.

Historically the word "nihilism" arose with the agnosticism that marked the later phases of the enlightenment. It is often associated with the German philosopher Fredrick Nietzsche because of his reference to the death of God in Western thought and his emphasis on the will to power. He actually recognized the nihilistic problem and sought to solve it by creating a powerful philosopher king, the superman, who would give stability and order to the world. As a philosophy, nihilism is the belief in nothing; no God and no purpose, value, or significance of anyone or anything. In nihilism, life is a meaningless absurdity. Albert Camus was a French existentialist (existentialism was also an attempt to escape the nihilist dilemma) but he described nihilism perfectly, "If we believe in nothing, if nothing has any meaning and if we can affirm no values whatsoever, then everything is possible and nothing has any importance. There is not pro or con: the murderer is neither right nor wrong.  We are free to stoke the crematory fires or to devote ourselves to the care of lepers. Evil and virtue are mere chance or caprice" (see page 60 of my book).

When we look at this definition, we can understand why most observers of our culture would disagree with calling Western culture nihilistic. We, after all, believe in values and meaning.  Our politicians repeatedly speak of right and wrong, of our moral obligation to the poor, and our responsibility to future generations. But as I said in my letter to the editor over twenty years ago, there is another definition of nihilism. It was stated by Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamozov, "If God does not exist, then everything is permitted." It is this definition of nihilism that describes our culture, and stands as the means by which we are undermining the foundations upon which it stands.

The goal of our culture, founded on our official creed of secularism, is to allow everything to be permitted. We consider this approach "tolerant" and modern without ever asking what will be the long term effects of the "hook-up" culture and the continuing degradation of our public and private moral standards. We are already seeing the devastation caused by the rise in single parent families which is the single greatest determinant for lack of achievement in school, drug use, gang membership, criminal behavior, and inter-generational poverty for the children born in those households. This problem is already at crisis levels, and yet we see our culture becoming more and more coarse. One need only look at the tragic saga of Mylie Cyrus to see how we are progressively pushing the envelope of decency and decorum. And, we must ask, to what end? Are we not moving ever closer to the day when "everything is permitted?

Here's the great irony in all of this. America is still one of most religious nations in the world. The vast majority of Americans tell survey takers that they believe in God, yet our society grows ever more decadent. One can only assume that our faith has been separated from our actions, and while we profess belief in God, many people live as if He does not exist. It is important, therefore, for those of us who do take our faith seriously to take a stand, not just for moral values, but for the God who gave us those values. As I wrote in my letter long ago, "Belief in God - the personal, redemptive God of Christianity- formed the foundation of our civilization. Our belief in God is directly related to our fundamental belief in goodness. We simply cannot have the good without God." Christians, therefore, must defend their faith in this secular age not just for the sake of the church but even more for the sake of our nation.