Friday, July 31, 2009

All Religions are Basically the Same!

“All religions are basically the same. So I don’t see why you’re trying to say that yours is the best,” he proclaimed with a note of finality! However, my friend seemed to be saying that his own not-so-obvious religion of “religious pluralism” is the best!

“You’re right,” I responded, “They are all basically the same. They all recognize that, because of our sins and failures, we owe a debt and must, somehow, make payment on it. Therefore, they have all been engaged in some form of animal sacrifice. And, when they’ve realized that this lacked the necessary punch, they often graduated to human sacrifice. We moderns are little different. We accomplish this same thing through denial that there is any problem, masochism (self-punishment or deprivation) to convince ourselves that we’re worthy and righteous, and achievements (self-righteousness) to compensate for the indwelling-guilt. After we’ve inflicted enough pain or have experienced enough deprivation, we then assure ourselves that we are now worthy to enjoy ourselves for a bit. However, whatever pain we inflict or successes we achieve are only temporary.”

Guilt and shame are life-controlling forces. In “Healing the Shame that Binds,” John Bradshaw perceptively wrote,

“When shame has been completely internalized, nothing about you is okay. You feel flawed and inferior; you have the sense of being a failure. There is no way you can share your inner self because you are an object of contempt to yourself…To feel shame is to feel seen in an exposed and diminished way. When you’re an object to yourself, you turn your eyes inward, watching and scrutinizing every minute detail of behavior…This paralyzing internal monitoring causes withdrawal, passivity and inaction.” (13)

I continued, “Religion is merely an attempt to cover up the shame problem. It grants us a way to convince ourselves that we are truly deserving, at least more than the other guy, because of our good deeds. Some religions set the bar at the attainment of secret knowledge, which only the truly spiritual are capable of obtaining, while others try to distance themselves from their inner, shame-ridden reality through meditation and the hope of reaching true enlightenment. Nietzsche called it ‘the will to power,’ observing that everything we do is about self-promotion and self-protection.”

“So what’s your answer?” he challenged with a note of frustration. Although we don’t like to acknowledge these ugly truths about ourselves, it’s hard to keep reality at bay!

“The Bible’s answer is radically different,” I responded. “It exposes the ugly truth about ourselves, clearly demonstrating the impossibility of earning anything from God, let alone salvation. It also shows us that, instead of ascending to God through our “good” deeds, God had to descend to meet us in our utter destitution and self-deception and take the rap for us, paying off our debt in full. Only His dying for us would have the power to convince our shamed consciences to lay aside all of our feverish maneuvers to prove ourselves through masochism or self-promotion.”

“Well, if that nonsense works for you, fine!”

“It’s more than worked,” I continued. “He’s not only freed me from my sin but also the need to continually justify myself and to please others. This is because He’s taught me that it’s no longer about me and my righteousness but about Him and His forever-gift of righteousness and forgiveness. As a result of this, I am increasingly freed-up to take my obsessive eyes off myself and to look beyond my own needs.”

“I’m glad you’ve found something that works for you,” he uttered sheepishly. Whenever we’re faced with something we don’t want to accept, it’s very easy to hide behind the “insights” of post-modernism -- everyone has his own truth and road to finding peace, so we can’t say that we have the truth. However, it’s hard to deny the universality of the shame-guilt problem and the perfect logic of the solution. When we retreat to the hiding place of our own subjective “reality,” we are denying that great reality through which we must all navigate. It’s also a denial that we can learn anything about this reality from others. When we say that “All religions are basically the same,” we are not only contradicting ourselves—making a statement about our common reality, but in the same breath denying a common reality—but we are also refusing to recognize the distinctions among the religions. I’d rather hand a bomb to an Amish in his horse-drawn carriage than to a Jihadist. When we navigate with our eyes closed, we’re bound to crash.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Inadequacies of Atheism

The following is a letter I wrote to an atheist blog. I had been challenged with Euthyphro’s Dilemma: If God created morality, it would be arbitrary and despotic; if He discovered it, He wouldn’t truly be God since there would have existed a reality beyond Himself. I answered that God Himself is the source of morality, and instead, this dilemma hurts atheism:

I think that Euthyphro's Dilemma brings atheism to its knees. He offers only two possibilities—morality is either DISCOVERED or CREATED—and atheism is unable to receive either. (If the atheist creates morality, then morality is arbitrary and meaningless; if he discovers it, then this implies that it is transcendent and has moral Giver!) However, atheism’s problems don’t stop there.

Atheism demonstrates itself to be an inadequate paradigm in many other ways. It fails to be able to account for the facts. Although it may be able to deny the existence of transcendent moral absolutes, it certainly can’t deny the use and existence of reason, logic and math. However, the atheistic paradigm can’t account for them. It can only account for molecules-in-motion, not necessary and unchanging verities, which are able to not only “map” the world but also predict future discoveries. Take math, for instance, and the formulas and regularities that it has been able to DISCOVER.

I was particularly fascinated to learn that the musical harmonies that we recognize and enjoy are supported by precise mathematical relationships. Where do these come from? From an explosion or from Design?

Where do the laws of nature come from? An explosion (Big Bang) or Design? As far as we can tell, they work precisely and uniformly throughout the universe. Where does gravity reside? What maintains and stabilizes its attraction? How can it work uniformly and unchangingly throughout, especially in the midst of change and expansion? What accounts for the existence of both change and non-change?

How did everything spring into existence without cause? What accounts for our informational systems (DNA), life, consciousness, or freewill? How do you carve meaning out of a meaningless world? Evidently, you must CREATE it, but then it is arbitrary and essentially meaningless. How does the atheist cope psychologically with the flatness and emptiness of life? Rationality should teach that the atheistic paradigm is not adequate to embrace the verities of life.

ANSWER: DISCOVER a new paradigm!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Free Speech vs. Politcal Correctness

The Los Angeles Community College District had a warning on their website:

"If [you are] unsure if certain comments or behavior are offensive do not do it, do not say it. ... Ask if something you do or say is being perceived as offensive or unwelcome."

This warning might seem quite harmless, but fortunately, Judge King didn’t think so. According to (July 16, 2009): “Judge King agreed that the policy violated First Amendment protections of free speech by silencing viewpoints that others would find offensive.”

As it turned out, this wasn’t an unfounded concern. U.S. District Judge George H. King ruled that “the District's policy as written had created the environment that emboldened his speech professor to call [his student Jonathan] Lopez a ‘fascist ba***rd’ for explaining his Christian beliefs and how they related to his views against same-sex marriage” [during his assigned oral speech assignment]. Wisely, King concluded:

"Thus, the Policy reaches constitutionally protected speech that is merely offensive to some listeners, such as discussions of religion, homosexual relations and marriage, sexual morality and freedom, polygamy, or even gender politics and policies. While it may be desirable to promote harmony and civility, these values cannot be enforced at the expense of protected speech under the First Amendment."

We’re left to wonder how many other schools have such policies that would serve to intimidate and suppress free speech. We also have to be astounded by the irony of prohibiting “offensive” but responsible and necessary speech by persecuting the innocent with all manner of offensive tactics. Lopez’s professor had even tried to have him expelled. Who’s the fascist here?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Pragmatism Points to God

God’s wisdom is always crying out for any takers (Proverbs 1:20-32). One evidence of this is the preaching that arises from within our own heart regarding moral absolutes, like “genocide is wrong!” The atheist denies that there is any such thing as moral absolutes, knowing that such a concession leads to the unavoidable conclusion that there is a Giver of moral absolutes!

Nevertheless, the atheist insists that he is just as moral as anyone else. But on what does his moral rationale rest if not moral truths? Pragmatism—results, benefits! Atheist and author of the Humanist Manifesto II, Paul Kurtz affirms that pragmatism is the “only” possible justification for morality:

"How are these principles [of equality, freedom, etc.] to be justified? They are not derived from a divine or natural law nor do they have a special metaphysical [beyond the material world] status. They are rules offered to govern how we shall behave. They can be justified only by reference to their results." (David Baron, Understanding the Times, 237)

Indeed, moral behavior does yield favorable results. It gives rest from our noisy conscience, but so does faith in God! The famed business consultant, Peter Drucker, was asked why he had become a Christian. He answered, “Because there’s no better deal!” He’s right, and there’s a ton of evidence to back him up. In God: The Evidence, former atheist Patrick Glynn cites many studies showing that Church-goers have lower incidences of mental, physical, and substance abuse problems.

This leaves the atheist with a huge problem. If he denies that moral truths (absolutes) exist independent of our own wills and nevertheless chooses to live morally merely because it brings benefits, he no longer has any basis to reject faith in God, which demonstrably also brings benefits. God has covered all the bases: Moral absolutes point to God; the denial of moral absolutes in favor of pragmatism also points God!

Seen from another perspective, the Darwinist acknowledges that faith in God is part of our evolutionary endowment, a product of natural selection. However, natural selection selects those things that confer an adaptive advantage. Therefore, faith in God confers this advantage! However, the atheist hypocritically ridicules this advantage as foolishness. How can it be foolishness, if, according to the Darwinist, it has promoted survival and possibly other benefits?

To reject God bears its own consequences as Proverbs asserts:

"Since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the LORD, since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes." (Proverbs 1:29-31)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Atheism Can’t Escape God, Not Completely

The world-renowned atheistic ethicist, Peter Singer, sometimes sounds like a Christian:

"If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it. An application of this principle would be as follows: if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing." (Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life, Christina and Fred Sommers, 836)

This bit of Scriptural wisdom (James 4:17) shouldn’t surprise us. We are made in the image of God, and He has written His law upon our hearts (Romans 2:15). However, we are left to wonder how an atheist makes this leap from moral impulses to something we all “ought” to do for ethical reasons. An impulse is just an impulse. We don’t follow all our impulses. Most of us don’t murder and steal. Why does Singer obey certain impulses and not others? Why are certain impulses more morally binding than others? This question is highlighted by the fact that elsewhere Singer writes,

"When we reject belief in a god we must give up the idea that life on this planet has some preordained meaning. Life as a whole has no meaning. Life began, as the best available theories tell us, in a chance combination of gases; it then evolved through random mutations and natural selection." (500)

If life came about by chance, without any intention or purpose, then it can’t contain meaning or values, and Singer is correct. How can an explosion in a godless universe have meaning and value if there is no one to value it? How can music be pleasurable if there is no one to listen to it?

How then can Singer conclude that there are certain acts that we “ought” to do when there is no intrinsic meaning or standard to determine what should and shouldn’t be? In Singer’s world, we’re no more than specks on the broad expanse of existence, left to ourselves to create our own meaning and moral truth. A speck can no more guilty than can a tree for falling on someone’s head.

Why then the necessity to act morally? Specks and other products of chance aren’t moral agents. We can’t expect a moral response “from a chance combination of gases” anymore than we can from the dust on my bookshelf. Where then does Singer find justification for his moral “ought?”

"I begin with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad. I think most people will agree about this." (836)

What is the basis for his “assumption that suffering and death…are bad” if “life has no meaning”? What authority or standard can determine that these things are bad? Indeed, our feelings tell us that they’re bad, but why should we regard our feelings as instruments that apprehend moral truths if none exist? Some people even feel that suffering and death are worth pursuing, at least in respect to others. If there is no higher, objective standard of moral truth, how can we discredit psychopathy? Singer seems to base his assumption on the fact that “most people will agree about this.”

Although he is correct that most people do agree, does majority opinion establish truth and moral obligation? For the Christian, the sentiments of the majority do carry some weight. This is because Scripture declares that God infused us all with a common and uncompromising truth so that we can agree about right and wrong. It is because we all do have access to a transcendent truth that we can find wisdom in the perspectives of others. But is majority agreement, by itself, a sufficient basis for moral absolutes and judgments? Even if every Nazi agreed that it’s right to murder Jews, this wouldn’t make it right. Likewise, if every scientist deemed that leeches cured cancer, this wouldn’t make it true. Truth isn’t established by the majority; the majority can only bear witness to it.

Majority opinion doesn’t establish reality, or even moral obligation. It’s like saying that the earth revolves around the sun because most scientists agree that it does. Indeed, if most scientists agree, wisdom requires us to pay some attention to their claims. However, the fact that they agree cannot be the basis or reason why the earth revolves. Their opinions do not effect the earth’s rotation, however prestigious they might be.

Likewise, popular agreement may be a good indicator about what is ethical, but it fails to provide a basis or rationale for what is ethical. Even if every ethicist agreed that torturing babies was right, this wouldn’t make it so. (Interestingly, when we make such judgments, we consult our moral feelings, as if these revealed an authoritative judgment—and they do!)

Also, Science can’t establish moral “oughts”. Although science can help us determine how to deal with parasites, it can’t tell us why we should! The philosopher David Hume famously asserted that there is no way that we can get from an “is” to an “ought.” Science can tell us about what a parasite is and does, but it can’t tell us what we “ought” to do about it.

Transcendent values and morals do that job! These can only come from above. If there is moral truth, it must transcend us. Without a transcendent and independent truth, which stands in judgment of us, Bob’s feelings and inclinations are no less valid than Betty’s, even if Bob is a serial killer. We may feel that Bob is acting inappropriately, but Bob feels he’s not! What makes our feelings any more authoritative than Bob’s? There has to be a higher court of last resort where this type of thing can be conclusively adjudicated.

The atheist has to get off the philosophical fence. Either there is a moral truth above what we feel, will or think and to which we must conform, or there isn’t. In this last case, our conscience is no more than a mad clatter of changing chemical-electrical impulses. The atheist can’t have it both ways.

Elsewhere, Singer attempts to base morality on what works for us individually (pragmatism):

"Most of us would not be able to find happiness by deliberately setting out to enjoy ourselves without caring about anyone or anything else…Our own happiness, therefore, is a by-product of aiming at something else, and not to be obtained by setting our sights on happiness alone…normal lives have meaning because they are lived to some larger purpose." (500-501)

It is quite true that fulfillment is often a by-product of ethical, self-sacrificial living, and it should be this way. God commands what He blesses. Consequently, it’s a joy to serve Him, as Psalm 1 affirms:

“But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” (Verses 2-3; also John 4:34)

We perceive that there is a divine harmony between moral truth, following this truth, and the blessings we derive. But the atheist can provide no explanation for this glorious harmony, but can only acknowledge “Most of us would not be able to find happiness by deliberately setting out to enjoy ourselves.” Although this is true, it doesn’t explain anything.

As a painting says a lot about the painter, life preaches a continuous sermon about its author. We continually marvel at the design and harmony surrounding us, whether physical or moral, and its glorious Designer. Consistent with this, C.S. Lewis pitied the poor atheist in his desperate attempt dodge God: "A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere -- 'Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,' as Herbert says, 'fine nets and stratagems.' God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous." We can close our eyes to His things, but eventually, we’ll stumble.

There’s an additional problem with pragmatism or, as some call it, “enlightened selfishness.” There is something grotesque about it. It declares, “The only reason I’m doing good to you is because I’m profiting from it.” It also acknowledges, “As soon as I don’t profit from loving you or helping you, I no longer have any reason to do so.” So much for marriage!

Similarly, Singer acknowledges that his moral system based upon “enlightened selfishness” has its limitations. It is sometimes “prudent” and “rational” to not act in highly ethical ways:

“'Why act morally?' cannot be given an answer that will provide everyone with overwhelming reasons for acting morally. Ethically indefensible behavior is not always irrational. We will probably always need the sanctions of the law and social pressure to provide additional reasons against serious violations of ethical standards." (503)

Singer admits something we already understand — if all we have is this life, it’s not always rational to act morally. Hiding Jews from the Nazis put one’s entire family in jeopardy of a bullet to the head. Self-interest is sometimes ill-served by moral behavior, unless envision an eternal afterlife, where God will right all wrongs and comfort all hurts.

Singer would therefore legislate against what, in his opinion, is rational, thereby admitting that rational self-interest doesn’t always equate with morality, and that pragmatism sometimes produces selfishness. Well, what’s the matter with selfishness? Wasn’t it selfishness that empowered the survival of the fittest? Why then would Singer disdain selfishness in favor of something higher? This suggests that he recognizes that there is higher ideal than his this-worldly rational constructs. But what is the source of such an ideal?

"To find an enduring meaning in our lives it is not enough to go beyond [the behavior] of psychopaths who have no long-term commitments or life-plans; we must also go beyond prudent egoists who have long-term plans concerned only with their own interests. The prudent egoists may find meaning in their lives for a time, for they have the purpose of furthering their own interests; but what, in the end, does that amount to." (501)

I think it’s impossible for an atheist to live in a consistent manner. Not only does Singer admit that he cannot formulate a coherent and comprehensive ethical system, he also admits that having a meaningful life requires that we go beyond a strictly materialistic worldview and adopt transcendent values.

Even Singer’s language is God-breathed. He writes about finding “enduring meaning,” not creating it! How can he find something that, according to him, doesn’t exist? He also rhetorically asks what it is all worth “in the end.” A consistent atheist shouldn’t be unduly concerned about the end as long as the ride was fun. However, Singer seems to recognize that life is more than just the ride. Clearly, Singer needs a broader worldview, one that can only come from God!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Buddhism, Humility, and Freedom

For the most part, secular therapists have little use for humility. Therapy is very market-driven and therefore oriented to the quick-fix to address the symptomology (anxiety, depression, OCD…) through building self-esteem, etc. Humility, however, comes at the painful price of truly facing ourselves. This means challenging our many forms of denial and self-justifications, and that’s not anyone's idea of a good time! Few short-term benefits here!

In contrast, the major world religions tend to be more far-sighted. They’ve accumulated some wisdom along the way and therefore value humility. The late Swami Amar Jyoti, founder of Light of Consciousness, a “Journal of Spiritual Awakening,” writes,

"In most cases, unless you are very humble, insight will tend to make you more egotistical because you feel you know more and understand more and are higher than the average person…We get tempted in the power of maya—darkness and unconsciousness. We are tempted to have more gratification, more privileges or mental powers. Few will not succumb to this temptation…Humility will give you greater insight." ("The Peaceful Path to Enlightenment," Vol 21, #2, Summer 2009, 4)

It’s so obvious that any type of success has a tendency to harden us with arrogance and pride. We develop an entitlement mentality, which makes it easier for us to take what we want and to abuse others in order to get it. After all, we’re spiritually “entitled!” Consequently, far more people have been killed by “superior” and “entitled” people than by all the common criminals, perhaps by a hundredfold!

Jyoti couldn’t be more correct! And humility does impart insight. It represents a willingness to accept ourselves, warts and all, and to not turn away from our defensive tactics at self-justification. It is a brave and calm inner resignation, a trust that enables us to look at the disorienting truths we have so long suppressed and denied. Once we can come to peace within ourselves, without the inner tug-of-war, we have the calm to perceive the reality around us. But from where does this resignation and courage arise? Jyoti continues,

"Avoid arrogance, haughtiness, personal vendettas, jealousy and making impersonal issues into personal ones."

This is the practice of dharma or cosmic law. It has been characterized as a theology of legalism -- "Do better, try harder." At this point, I was getting ready to jump all over Jyoti. Although the practice of God’s righteousness is a great blessing, following God’s laws does not make us righteous but highlights our failures and need for righteousness -- something that can only come as a gift from God (Romans 3:19-20).

However, as I reread his words, I found that Jyoti was giving the credit to “God” for protecting him from the temptations of jealousy and arrogance. Now I was confused like a hunter taking aim at his prey only to find that it had disappeared. How could a karma-based religion, a reap-what-you-sow religion, a what-goes-around-comes-around religion focus on grace and the providence of God? Of course, it has to be as Jyoti says. How can we not become proud over our humility unless we do believe that it’s fully a gift!

I was left wondering, “Can such a theology and practice produce humility and self-knowledge as Christ can?” For myself, I knew that only the love of Christ had been able to penetrate deeply enough into the hidden recesses of my manipulations, selfishness and self-centeredness to empower me to face and confess my utter unworthiness. Only the certainty that Christ had died for my most ugly parts gave me the assurance to face myself. Only when we know that we’re totally loved and protected do we have the courage to confront our concealed horror show. Sometimes, this only happens on our deathbed; more often though, it never happens. It is only in the context of the full assurance that we are forgiven that we can face our sins (and continue to face them), throw our heads back and laugh heartily. This assurance is only possible through the light of the Cross:

"How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!" (Hebrews 9:14)

His cleansing sacrifice penetrates to the core. Only when our consciences are cleansed can we have assurance that our sins have been completely set aside, and only with this confidence can we face the truth, and only in truth can we “serve the living God.” He doesn’t tolerate duplicity, hypocrisy and denial! Nevertheless, Jyoti has come to an understanding that transcends his religion. He knows that humility is only possible as a divine gift. And perhaps also Jyoti's understanding of this? Paul acknowledged to the Athenians that some of their poets had an understanding that comes from above:

"God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'" Acts 17:27-28

Clearly, some are closer than others and the light we have may be an indicator of this. After one man wisely answered Jesus, He responded: "You are not far from the kingdom of God" (Mark 12:34). Let’s encourage those who are close to take the decisive step.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Tolstoy, Russell, Camus, and the Pursuit of Ultimate Meaning

To what must our lives be anchored to find meaning and purpose? In My Confession, the great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, described the emptiness of his life, even though he possessed everything. At first, he had been satisfied with the arts, his writing and the esteem he had obtained. Gradually, however, as he found that he couldn’t answer the most basic questions about life, he began to seek its ultimate meaning:

"So long as I believed that life had some sense, although I was not able to express it—the reflections of life of every description in poetry and in the arts afforded me pleasure, and I was delighted to look at life through this little mirror of art; but when I began to look for the meaning of life…[it was] painful to me. It was all right for me to rejoice so long as I believed in the depth of my soul that life had some sense. But when I knew that life was meaningless and terrible, the play…could no longer amuse me. No sweetness of honey could be sweet to me.

No matter how much one should say to me, 'You cannot understand the meaning of life, do not think, live!' I am unable to do so…Now I cannot help seeing day and night, which run and lead me up to death. I see that alone, because that alone is the truth. Everything else is a lie."

A profound sense of meaninglessness replaced whatever joy he had had. But was this just a matter of Tolstoy’s personal and pathological need? In contrast, Bertrand Russell, the late British mathematician and atheistic philosopher, confronted the same meaningless reality, but insisted that he was able to create his own meaning despite the powerful, impersonal, and meaningless forces that surrounded him. In A Free Man’s Worship, Russell describes how he was able to carve out a refuge of meaning and civility in the face of meaninglessness:

"In action, in desire, we must submit perpetually to the tyranny of outside forces; but in thought, in aspiration, we are free, free from our fellow men, free from the petty planet on which our bodies impotently crawl, free even, while we live, from the tyranny of death. Let us learn, then, that energy of faith … which enables us to live constantly in the vision of the good; and let us descend, in action, into the world of fact, with that vision always before us."

Evidently, it was enough for Russell to simply be connected to himself. He was able to found meaning in the richness of his experiences and feelings:

"I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy—ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy…This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered to me."

Tolstoy was unable to find this oasis of contentment. However, he observed that his own emptiness was reflected in the rest of the privileged class:

"In contradistinction to what I saw in our circle, where all life passed in idleness, amusements, and tedium of life, I saw that the whole life of these [peasant] people was passed in hard work, and that they were satisfied with life. In contradistinction to the people of our circle, who struggled and murmured against fate because of their privations and their suffering, these people [of faith] accepted diseases and sorrows without any perplexity or opposition, but with calm and firm conviction that it was all for good…the more intelligent we are, the less do we understand the meaning of life and the more do we see a kind of bad joke in our suffering and death, these people live, suffer, and approach death, and suffer in peace and more often in joy…A calm death, a death without terror or despair is the greatest exception in our circle…{while a] joyless death is one of the greatest exceptions among the masses...people who…had understood the meaning of life."

For Tolstoy, the contrast between his own circle and the believing masses was so sharp that it was easy for him to see that it was their faith—the very thing he lacked—that made all the difference. He concluded,

"[Faith] gives the finite existence of man the sense of the infinite—a sense which is not destroyed by suffering, privation, and death. Consequently in faith alone could we find the meaning and possibility of life."

Ironically, it was the peasant masses who possessed the mental glue necessary to connect the discordant dots of life by attaching them to something higher. It reminded me of something I had read in a biology text. Heart cells would beat independently and discordantly until the heart imposed its reign over the individual cells, bringing harmony. But why are the privileged classes sometimes content? Tolstoy understood that this “contentment” was only temporary:

"A person could live only so long as he was drunk; but the moment he sobered up, he could not help seeing that all that was only a deception, and a stupid deception at that."

Russell’s inebriation had lasted longer than Tolstoy’s. However, he too would have to encounter sobriety. Some years later, Russell conceded,

"I wrote with passion and force because I really thought I had a gospel. Now I am cynical about the gospel because it won’t stand the test of life." (Os Guinness, The Journey, 106)

It reminded me of an atheist’s testimony. He claimed that coming to atheism gave him freedom. He was now the captain of his own ship. If there wasn’t any standard to judge him, no one could any longer point an accusing finger at him. He was free to create his own reality. But in a world without rules, one choice is no better than the next. It’s like playing chess without rules. Every move becomes meaningless. Tolstoy came to the only choice left open to him:

"I saw that all that was mere pampering of the appetites, and that no meaning could be found in it; but the life of all the working masses…presented itself to me in its real significance. I saw that that was life itself and that the meaning given to this life was truth, and I accepted it."

The French novelist and essayist, Albert Camus, was also stalked by the meaninglessness of life. In his essay, Myth of Sisyphus, he detailed the philosophical struggle that this created:

"Does its [life’s] absurdity require one to escape it through hope or suicide—this is what must be clarified, hunted down, and elucidated, while brushing aside all the rest. Does the Absurd dictate death? This problem must be given priority over others."

While the apparent absurdity of life turned Tolstoy into a seeker and Russell into a “creator” of his own meaning, it turned Camus into a defiant rebel:

"That revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life."

Camus decided that confronting the absurdity of life was his most honorable response. He would stare it down and shake his fist in defiance:

"Suicide is a [cowardly] repudiation…The absurd is his extreme tension [or trial], which he maintains constantly [in mind] by solitary effort, for he knows that in that consciousness and in that day-to-day revolt he gives proof of his only truth, which is defiance."

Courage to face the meaninglessness for what it is gave Camus’ life “majesty,” but did it? If life is completely devoid of meaning, how could his defiance have meaning? How could it be any more than merely an expression of his anger and pride that he alone had the courage to confront the absurd? Camus was connecting to nothing higher than himself. Denying any higher meaning, he tried to give life meaning by rebelling against it.

On the other hand, Tolstoy understood that if his life was no more than a chance conglomeration of particles which was doomed to be blown asunder, life could have no meaning, no matter how hard he struggled to invent that meaning. He confessed,

"I want to know the meaning of my life, but the fact that it is a particle of the infinite not only gives it no meaning, but even destroys every possible meaning."

If a million dollars doesn't add anything to the meaning of our lives, then an infinite number of dollars will not add anything. Although it’s been reported that, towards the end of his life, Camus would sit anonymously in the back of a church service, we don’t know if he ever stopped shaking his fist. In 1960, at the age of 47, Camus died in a car accident. Some speculate that this had been his act of resignation to the suicide he had so vigorously rejected.

We were not placed here to create our own meaning in isolation from the rest of reality. This is no more reasonable than trying to satisfy our need for friendship through an imaginary friend. We were designed to search for meaning, without which alcohol becomes our best friend.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Christians Can’t do Science

Many atheists charge, “Christians can’t truly be scientists, or even scholars. This is because a Christian’s mind is already closed and committed to certain conclusions. Therefore, a Christian can’t truly be open and responsive to the world of facts and scientific findings.”

There is definitely a danger in this, but all of us have our conditioned biases, paradigms, worldviews, philosophies, presuppositions, and theories through which we filter the data. This is patently obvious. After Erasmus read his brother Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, he boasted:

"In fact, the a priori reasoning [for evolution] is so entirely satisfactory to me that if the facts won’t fit in, why so much worse for the facts. [This} is my feeling." (The Journey, Os Guinness, 154)

Many are so attached to a theory, they feel no problem disregarding with the facts. Nevertheless, theories can either help or impede us in our search for truth. The astronomer Ptolemy promoted geocentricity (earth in the center of the solar system). Consequently, whenever there was new data, it was erroneously interpreted according to his incorrect paradigm. In his case, his theory distorted his vision, bending the facts into conformity with his theory.

However, theories or worldviews can also promote inquiry and the growth of knowledge. In his debate with the ardent atheist Richard Dawkins, John Lennox stated that if the scientific community had taken the Bible’s assertion of a universe-beginning more seriously, it would probably have found evidence to reject the widely accepted Aristotelian idea of an eternal universe much sooner.

Whenever I ride my bicycle, I wear my eyeglasses. Even though they are artificial and come between me and the data of pedestrians crossing the street and taxi doors swinging open in my path, my eyeglasses enable me to see and interpret the data more accurately. A sound worldview can do the same thing. I used to break up the world into “quality people” and “losers.” Although I wanted to belong to the first category, in my heart I knew I was a “loser.” Subsequently, the Bible helped me to understand that we are all losers who need a Redeemer. This shift in worldview helped me to better understand others and, consequently, to predict their actions.

The important question is not whether or not to set a pair of glasses or theories between ourselves and the data, but whether our lens allows us to see reality more accurately. Many Christians testify that the truth of the Bible and God working within them has given them the freedom (John 8:31-32) to truly understand their lives and those of others.

Biographer Jana Tull Steele reports of Duke Ellington:

"He used to say that he had three educations: one from school, one at the pool hall, and one from the Bible. Without the latter, he said, you can’t understand what you learned from the other two places." (Duke Ellington)

Similarly, C.S. Lewis wrote:

"I believe in Christianity as I believe in the sun—not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." (Guinness, 27)

This is the essential question: “Does the Biblical lens promote sight or blindness?” Does Christ enable us to do science or does this faith impede science?

The historical testimony in favor of the Christian role in the development of science is overwhelming. British scientist Robert Clark sums it up this way:

"However we may interpret the fact, scientific development has only occurred in Christian culture. The ancients had brains as good as ours. In all civilizations—Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, India, Rome, Persia, China and so on—science developed to a certain point and then stopped. It is easy to argue speculatively that, perhaps, science might have been able to develop in the absence of Christianity, but in fact, it never did. And no wonder. For the non-Christian world believed that there was something ethically wrong about science. In Greece, this conviction was enshrined in the legend of Prometheus, the fire-bearer and prototype scientist who stole fire from heaven, thus incurring the wrath of the gods." (Christian Belief and Science, quoted by Henry F. Schaefer, 14)

Even Richard Dawkins has acknowledged that “science grew out of a religious tradition.” All cultures have their beliefs, but consistently, it is Christianity that has opened closed eyes and liberated captive minds (Isaiah 35:5-6; 61:1).