Tuesday, July 23, 2013

On Existence

"He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together." – Colossians 1:17

There is nothing more fundamental or more perplexing than the question of existence. Pondering it can be so overwhelming that many have never given it serious thought. Even in the current information age, with more knowledge available than ever before, many people simply refuse to look for an answer to the origin of their own consciousness and instead bury themselves in endless diversion.

If one does search for an answer to why he is here, he will discover that the possibilities are very basic. What follows is unoriginal. It is actually a terse summary of all the contributions that every culture in the history of mankind has offered to this most fundamental question. Study every philosopher, poet, and priest in the whole of recorded history and you will discover that there are only three possible answers to the mystery of existence: something came from nothing, the universe has always existed, or a deity created everything.

Now, beyond mere words the notion that something came from nothing is inconceivable to the human mind. We can think as hard and as long as we like about nothing but grasping the concept is simply not possible. Scientists talk about anti-matter and black holes but that is about as far as they can go. When we remove everything that we can, as has been tried with vacuum experiments for thousands of years, something always remains. Using the big bang theory, some cosmologists now believe that the universe was at one time composed of merely the laws of physics. But they are at a loss to explain the origin of the laws of physics.

Even if nothingness could be imagined, we would be left with an equally vexing problem: explaining the process in reverse. Nothingness has no sentience or agency. It is not a state. It is less than dead. As such, it is nonsensical to think that it could ever produce any form of energy or a single particle. Such a belief defies all understanding of reality. While the current consensus is that the universe had a beginning, and many scientists who hold this view deny the existence of anything outside of the material world, they do not assert that the universe came from actual nothingness. Their only answer is to place their hope in future research. If this seems contradictory, it at least gets us to the next assertion on existence.

The belief that the universe has always existed is a form of pantheism, the ancient religion that deifies the material world itself. It is the basis for certain Eastern and indigenous philosophies and is defined by the mindless and eternal cycles of nature. In this view, everything that exists is interconnected. There is no right or wrong, just being. The universe is an abstract force in which one can find harmony if he is able to empty his mind. But one can never understand the universe because it has no sentience, it does not say anything. Rather than trying to comprehend why things happen, the optimal state is a tranquility that is achieved by shutting off rational inquiry. There are no universal explanations for reality. This worldview best describes the modern secularist, who has stopped trying to make sense of the world.

While the notion of an eternal universe is at odds with current scientific understanding, many scientists now hold a view that is practically indistinguishable from pantheism. Both believe that life came from nothing more than a random and undirected physical process. Cosmologists and evolutionary biologists have cleverly devised theories to explain the emergence of complexity from nothing more than time plus matter plus chance. They are not dissuaded by the astounding intricacies of life.

We now know, for example, that there is more activity in a single human cell at any given moment than in a city the size of New York, and that the human body is believed to contain about 100 trillion cells, all working in elaborate coordination. And this is only what we now know. Researchers acknowledge that there is no known limit to what can be discovered at the molecular level. The smaller they go, the more they find. The same is true at the other end of the spectrum. It is not feasible to grasp the enormity of the universe although researchers do believe it has an end. But the possibility of other universes, or even an infinite number of universes, has not been dismissed. Of course, such speculation is mere imagination at this point in time. But what scientists do know, and will readily acknowledge, is that the chance for life to develop this way defies mathematical probability. And interwoven throughout this improbable existence is the unmistakable element of exquisite and unsearchable design.

But materialists, those who believe there is nothing more than a physical universe, have an even bigger problem than improbability: their belief defies their own nature. Anthropologists know that man has always possessed a self-awareness that alienates him from all else in the material world. He desperately seeks meaning beyond his finite existence. This yearning manifests itself in art and religion, the faintest trace of which has never developed in the most advanced primates. Man is qualitatively different, uniquely endowed with an understanding of truth, justice, and beauty that transcends, and is often at odds, with his biological desires. Man seeks answers, to which the materialist responds that there are none. Man is in constant conflict to do what is right, to which the materialist responds that there is no right. They maintain that personal man, who is driven and plagued by conscience, is the product of an impersonal universe that has no conscience. Rather than try to understand his defining characteristic, they reduce him to a chemical process. Love, they insist, is an illusion.

Nobody, of course, can maintain this worldview. Those that claim to hold it intellectually violate it in every aspect of their personal lives. And the reality is that it cannot even be held intellectually because if man is just a random chemical process than none of his theories have any validity. Analysis of the process cannot itself be the process. Materialism is a closed system that leaves no place for reason. But this realization at least gets us to the third assertion on existence: that a deity created everything.

Belief in various deities defines the human experience. No culture has existed without embracing some aspect of it. This, of course, is a statement that encompasses a wide range of beliefs, most of which have come and gone because they were unsatisfactory for one reason or another. Deities proved too weak or abstract to explain existence. There were good and terrible deities that reflected different aspects of human nature but they were too simple. Man desperately tried to appease his innate desire to venerate his creator through all sorts of ritual and sacrifice, some of which was unspeakably wicked and violent.

In stark contrast to this futility and heartache is Judaic revelation, which understands God as the eternal creator who is sovereign, being both omniscient and omnipotent. God is righteous and his attributes never change. He despises wickedness but shows abundant mercy and grace to His fallen creation. He does not demonstrate love but is love, a triune God who made man in His own image. This understanding provides man with a coherent answer to his own existence. It explains his personal character, including his ability to reason, and gives him intrinsic worth. This conception of God brought great spiritual and temporal advances. Simply put, it is the foundation of the West and science and democracy could not exist without it.

But how can one prove that Jewish monotheism is not mere human invention? To outside observers it may appear as subjective as the claims made by other religions. The existence of an all-powerful and loving God may seem fanciful in a world of pervasive suffering and death, which Jewish law teaches is the result of man’s willful separation from God. These objections were answered by Jesus Christ, who was God incarnate and whose unspeakable sacrifice and resurrection rectified man’s separation. The historical record of Christ removed the subjective nature of revelation.

These are the three possibilities for existence: something came from nothing, the universe has always existed, or a deity created everything. Only the third option proves intellectually coherent and only the Judeo-Christian version is rooted in historical reality. Secularists need to understand this. There is no other alternative. No one even pretends to have one. By rejecting Christ, they are embracing a worldview that, by definition, is devoid of meaning. They can still love their neighbor but must realize that their love has no basis. Without Christianity, there is no charity. Without Christianity, there is no epistemological foundation for knowing anything. Without Christianity, there is no hope.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Feeding the Idols

“You shall have no other gods before me.” – Exodus 20:3

Liberation is the central conceit of the materialist. Ironically, he makes an exclusive claim on freedom and enlightenment by denying the existence of anything outside of the natural world. He maintains that the physical universe is all there is, it came from nothing or has always existed, and there are no limits to understanding or manipulating it. In this worldview man is a paradox. He is the accidental result of a random and undirected physical process over which he has no control but he is also the intellectual center of the universe. His authority supplants all other even though it is no more than the fleeting whirl of atoms.

Built on a contradiction, materialism is nonetheless a brashly confident philosophy that has become dominant among the chattering class and in the academy. While it concludes that life is meaningless, this hopelessness is veiled in fearless optimism. Man is the ostensible measure of all things and his purview extends in all directions. This grants him the capacity for great discovery and conquest. In a free society, where he is not busy subjugating his fellow man as he is apt to do, his energies may be devoted to the continuous pursuit of knowledge or pleasure. Unencumbered by a higher authority, this pursuit is only limited by the rules that he imposes on himself.

Or perhaps it is more accurate to say he is only limited by the rules imposed by the evolutionary process. These are the strictures presumed to have been adopted over billions of years that ensure propagation of species. Most of us follow them instinctively. Those who do not have a difficult time reproducing and their risky choices are eventually phased out over generations.

Individuals who have good health and maintain it are likely to beget healthy offspring. This is intuitive. Although materialists have a difficult time explaining deviant behaviors that persist, such as homosexuality. Choosing not to reproduce does not ensure genetic continuity. Therefore you would expect this trait to become extinct. When pressed, materialists concede that this is indeed what they expect but that it could take eons to come to pass. Time, in almost incomprehensible quantities, is one of their favorite explanations.

Putting aside the problem of deviant traits that persist, there is a far more vexing issue for the materialist: the universal desire to worship. Man has always been eager to sacrifice his autonomy to venerate something that he perceives as greater than himself. This desire transcends every race and culture. It is the basis of every civilization. It has survived war, pestilence, prosperity, and modernization. It is even surviving materialism, with its unique insistence that there are no gods.

This innate need makes man qualitatively different from the animals. As Chesterton observes, the most advanced primates did not draw pictures of other primates or build temples to deities. But the most primitive men did. The development of art and religion is not traced gradually down through the ages. They appeared suddenly and cannot be explained by anything that came beforehand.

Materialists attempt to explain religion with various theories. Some say it is merely our tribal instinct. We invent supernatural lawgivers to better govern our earthly affairs. Abiding by these proven rules ensures a more peaceful environment. Some say it is superstition arising from our survival mechanism. We subconsciously invent causes for why things happen to better adapt to our environment. Many of these causes are irrational. Some materialists are simply dismissive, predicting that religion will cease to exist once it is eliminated by natural selection.

Amidst all of these theories, one thing is certain: religion has always been and remains the center of man’s existence. As Western elites embrace secularism, Christianity is rapidly spreading in the developing world, even (or perhaps especially) in places where the Church faces deadly persecution. Billions profess faith in Christ. In addition, Islam boasts of more than a billion followers while vast numbers of others practice a variety of faiths. Atheism has always been exceedingly rare or, as a scientist would say, statistically insignificant. It has a disproportionate influence today only because it is fashionable with the elite. Despite their protests, however, materialists themselves have proven incapable of sustaining their non-belief.

For centuries, preachers have warned their parishioners about the dangers of placing objects or ambitions ahead of Christ. Material things can easily become the focus of one’s life and enslave the beholder. In the modern West, these dangers are not wooden idols but expensive amusements or achievement itself. The importance of putting these things in their proper context has been vindicated time and again. The tragedies of the rich and famous, who destroy themselves on indulgence, dramatically illustrate the point.

But the love of mammon should not be confused with the darker practices that ensnare the secular world. Yearning for meaning, materialists have sought solace in all sorts of cults. Sociologists have found that self-professed non-believers are actually the most likely to embrace superstition and the occult.

For much of the twentieth century, communism and fascism were the two dominant ideologies that attempted to fill the void of secularism. Both sought to perfect man by remaking humanity and both became political movements led by cult figures who demanded total obedience. Their attempts to transcend our fallen world and establish perfection led to an incomprehensible and unprecedented genocide. More than 100 million people were sacrificed to obtain a utopia that did not exist.

The whitewashing of these atrocities by academia is itself an atrocity. But despite relentless efforts to suppress the memory of what occurred, enough of the carnage is remembered to discourage the promotion of these ideologies, at least in the West. Many former communists and fascists have turned to other devotions. In their search for meaning, environmentalism has emerged as a popular dogma. Described as mere stewardship of natural resources, environmentalism is actually a form of pantheism, the ancient heresy that puts the created in the place of the creator. The earth is seen as a deity that demands our adoration and sacrifice.

Environmentalists lament modernization and the exponential increase in population that has accompanied it. There were roughly one billion people in the world in 1800. Today there are almost seven billion. They see this development through a Malthusian lens, fretting over whether such growth can be sustained. For generations they have warned of imminent catastrophe resulting in overpopulation: there will not be enough food to eat and water to drink and few will have a decent quality of life.

In his celebrated polemic, “The Population Bomb,” Paul Ehrlich famously predicted that “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. Population control is the only answer.” His dire prediction and dozens of others have been proven false, time and again. Yet environmentalists continue to seek dramatic reductions in the population.

This is because their desire to shrink the population is motivated by more than sustainability. It is driven by a belief that the very existence of humanity spoils nature. A belief that is forcefully and repeatedly articulated by those in the environmental movement:

Dave Forman, founder of Earth First!, declares that “Phasing out the human race will solve every problem on earth, social and environmental.” David Graber, an ecologist for the U.S. National Park Service, contends, “Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, is not as important as a wild and healthy planet . . . human beings are a plague . . . some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along.” Dr. Reed Noss of the Conservation Planning Institute asserts, “The collective needs of non-human species must take precedence over the needs and desires of humans.” And Yale professor Lamont Cole teaches, “To feed a starving child is to exacerbate the world population problem.”

A prominent environmentalist once told me that his parents made a foolish mistake by having two children. He and his colleagues view children as a selfish indulgence and lead an effort to increase sterilizations and abortions, particularly in the developing world where there are fewer restrictions on such practices. Another environmentalist I knew killed himself, concluding that he should not be taking resources from the earth. These people are not just a handful of lunatics. They represent environmentalism’s intellectual foundation, which rejects the notion that man has preeminence over nature.

Environmentalists relentlessly seek to limit the human footprint through propaganda and coercion. Their campaign against global warming has persuaded governments and institutions worldwide even though it is based on a relatively tiny amount of unreliable and inconclusive data. Scores of independent scientists have shown the error in extrapolating such dire scenarios from the scant evidence that exists. Even those within the movement have acknowledged that the case for man-made climate change is tenuous. But that has not stopped them from using it to advance their goals.

They have persuaded national and supranational entities, who instinctively crave power, to enact policies designed to curtail industrialization. A United Nations document would confer special rights on “mother earth” that could be defended in courts of law. To the extent that their efforts have had an effect, they have brought tragedy, particularly for people in the developing world who would benefit most from advances in agriculture, medicine, and sanitation. They have resulted in the spread of preventable diseases, brought untimely deaths, and reduced the quality of life of millions of people.

Like the useful idiots who sympathized with communism, millions support environmentalism. A majority simply sees it as being responsible, the wise and prudent stewardship of nature. Like previous generations, they have been deceived by the fashionable dictates of the age.

Materialists, the self-proclaimed defenders of freedom and enlightenment, have been most susceptible to the tyranny of environmentalism. This is because they reject the intrinsic worth of the individual. They insist that man is the measure of all things but their worldview holds that he is the result of chance, a finite being with no more value than a tree or a rock. In their desperation for meaning they have latched on to the worship of nature, which has shocking similarities to the child-sacrificing idol worship practiced by ancient Semitic peoples. The commandments given to the Israelites stood in stark and refreshing contrast to this barbarism and laid the groundwork for the one who came so that all may have life, and have it more abundantly.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Stepping Outside

In an ongoing debate on the validity of a materialist worldview—one that denies the existence of a creator or anything outside of the natural world—my friend shared with me an article detailing research on viruses. Recent discoveries have broken new ground on how viruses influence our behavior. It is thought they affect us in a variety of unconscious ways; such as making us more aggressive, lecherous, friendly, or apprehensive. Some believe they entangled with our genes early in the evolutionary process and therefore explain a great deal of our actions. What we see as virtuous could be the mere result of viruses.

This understanding bolsters the claims of materialists, who have always struggled to explain free will. Freedom cannot exist if we are derived and bound by a random and undirected physical process. Materialism maintains that we are the result of natural selection. Our existence is due to successful adaptations occurring over millions of years that were favorable to perpetuation. This progression, by definition, is devoid of right and wrong. It makes no moral judgments, operating on instinct alone. Our actions are determined by our biological makeup, which runs on automatic pilot. Man’s consciousness, though largely a mystery, is a relatively recent byproduct of this evolution and is therefore subject to it.

Our ability to choose between two instincts, and to sometimes pick the less attractive and more altruistic one, seems to validate the presence of right and wrong and our sense of self-determination. But materialists deny that this is anything more than biological hard wiring. And many will say that the recent research on viruses further dispels this illusion of choice. But does it?

The ability to think is affected by physiological needs and also by most outside influences. It is usually the case that our thoughts are altered by these internal and external pressures. Viruses are one of these pressures. If the latest theories are correct, we cannot change or easily comprehend their impact on our cognitive process. They are a part of us.

But here is the point: scientists are beginning to comprehend their complexities. And to do so they must use reason that is independent of these pressures. To objectively understand viruses and make accurate determinations about them this must be so. The only alternative is to concede that their analysis is also subject to the influences of these viruses, which would render it invalid.

Ironically, all of science fits into this category. To objectively observe and theorize about the physical world one must step outside of it, so to speak. To ponder evolutionary theory one must be mentally set apart from it. Analysis of the process cannot itself be the process. Reason must subjugate all physical influences in order for a claim to be valid. Man’s awareness of his own existence and his ability to employ reason in attempts to understand the physical world gives him freedom from its constraints.

Science is the greatest tool the materialist has but it is not even material. Dependent on objectivity, it is proof that another realm lies outside nature. When confronted with this reality some choose to deny that truth exists. They become postmodernists, contending that everything is subjective. But by doing this they inadvertently destroy science.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Origin of Science

“Because I believe in science,” is a common retort of those who deny the supernatural. What is meant by this is that science has an exclusive claim on reason therefore anything outside of its domain is irrational. Religion is a superstitious vestige of a bygone era.

To a certain extent these skeptics are right. The religions of the world, for various reasons, have proven incompatible with science and most of their assumptions about the universe are at odds with what has been discovered. But there is one glaring exception: Christianity. Not only compatible with science, it was the Christian faith alone that provided its essential foundations.

That this is not common knowledge today is due to the predominant historical perspective that emphasizes the achievements of a later more secularized West while romanticizing its pre-Christian Greek and Roman heritage. The Church is portrayed as a repressive institution that actively stifled intellectual pursuits. By crafting this distorted narrative, contemporary academics fail to understand the circumstances in which science arose.

Historian and sociologist Rodney Stark helps clarify these circumstances. What follows is largely taken from his book, “The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Let to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.”

Stark explains that science is theory and practice. It is an assumption about an aspect of nature coupled with supporting observations from the physical world. Both components are necessary. Theorizing without empirical evidence is mere speculation. Empiricism without theory is only exploitation. In all of human history, almost every effort to explain and control the material world has lacked one or the other.

The technological advances that occurred in China, Greece, and the Islamic world were significant. But they were not linked to testable theories. Therefore these achievements remained only useful observations and inventions. Alchemy did not develop into chemistry and astrology never became astronomy.

Stark quotes Charles Darwin to highlight the distinction between simple empiricism and science, “About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at that rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.”

Conversely, the celebrated theorizing of the Greek and Eastern philosophers that is held in such high regard was non-empirical. They never tested their postulations. For example, Stark cites Aristotle’s belief that the speed at which objects fall to earth is proportionate to their weight. This could have been disproved by “a trip to any of the nearby cliffs.” But this did not occur to any of his fellow Greeks.

Why did intelligent peoples, gathering knowledge and experience for thousands of years, fail to wed theory and practice? The answer is because their belief systems prevented them from doing so. Their gods were either too inconsequential or too abstract. Most believed that the universe always existed and moved in never-ending cycles. Having no creator, it was “a supreme mystery, inconsistent, unpredictable, and arbitrary.” This was no worldview on which to base rational inquiry.

Various notions of a guiding force were vague and incomprehensible. Stark cites Taoism as a key example. According to its founder Lao-tzu, “the Tao is ‘always nonexistent’ yet ‘always existent,’ ‘unnamable’ and the ‘name that can be named.’ Both ‘soundless and formless,’ it is ‘always without desires.’” Such mysticism defined the Eastern religions. The Greeks “conceived of the universe as not only eternal and uncreated but as locked into endless cycles of progress and decay.” This view was paired with a belief that attributed agency to inanimate objects. If objects have their own motives, it does not follow that their behavior can be explained by physical laws.

Islam, which developed centuries after Judaism, sees Allah as the sovereign creator of the universe. This suggests a conception of nature that can be understood. But Allah is believed to be “an extremely active God who intrudes on the world as he deems it appropriate. This prompted the formation of a major theological bloc within Islam that condemns all efforts to formulate natural laws as blasphemy in that they deny Allah’s freedom to act.” At one point, Islamic scholars made significant progress in astrology and medicine but their advances had no theoretical basis. Further hampering their efforts was Muhammad’s alleged claim that his generation was the greatest and subsequent ones were steadily deteriorating.

The God that was revealed to the Jewish people changed everything. Astute historians have pointed out that the Scriptures are the only thing new under the sun. For the first time an entire culture recognized the omniscient creator of all things. The universe was not eternal and did not run in endless mysterious cycles. It was ordered by immutable principles that were bestowed by the perfect lawgiver. Time had a beginning and it moved in a progression. Individuals—a radically new concept—were fearfully and wonderfully made and, as a consequence, had inestimable worth. There was a purpose to everything and for the first time the idea of progress was embraced.

Historians remain puzzled as to why the Jews completely divorced themselves from the existing conventional wisdom and how they came up with such views. There is no earthly explanation. But as Thomas Cahill explains, the revelation that came to the Jews gave us everything including the very notion of history itself.

Although the Jews possessed the foundation for the development of science, their scholars did not immediately combine theory to practice. Stark attributes this to the difference between orthopraxy and orthodoxy. Judaism is best described by the former. It places a “fundamental emphasis on law and regulation of community life.” Christianity, however, is defined by the latter. It places a “greater emphasis on belief and its intellectual structuring of creeds, catechisms, and theologies.”

The reason for the distinction is that Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection fulfilled the Law. He frees all those who are willing from its impossible demands. This allowed theologians to focus on interpreting Scripture and using their ability to reason to understand God rather than dwell on legalistic codes of conduct. While they knew their comprehension was limited by their own human frailty, they believed it could be enhanced by intensive scholarship. This applied not only to things unseen but to the physical realm as well. Nature was God’s intricately designed handiwork. It had a logical structure that could be understood.

And so science was born as theology’s handmaiden. There is no need even attempting to list all the temporal advantages this understanding gave Europe. The average Westerner today is ignorant of science’s origin but he does not doubt its utility. He is more likely to deify it. Along with freedom and capitalism, it has given the West a standard of living so superior to other regions of the world that for many the excess has become embarrassing or even shameful.

But as we move farther away from science’s foundation can science be sustained? Of course this sounds absurd. Just because science required a Christian worldview and its progenitors confessed an “absolute faith in a creator God” does not preclude modern secularists, and others, from building on that legacy. For generations they have done so. But the pertinent question is how will a post-Christian worldview change their methods?

Fashionable postmodern theory sees logic as an oppressive tool employed by Western imperialists. It rejects truth and views reality through the cloudy lenses of race, gender, and class. Its relativism far better resembles Eastern mysticism than Christianity. And this gets to the crux of the matter. Stark quotes respected anthropologist Graeme Lang who dismissed the notion that Confucianism and Taoism were the reason science failed to develop in China. Lang believes that if Chinese scholars had wanted to do science, philosophy would not have been a serious impediment. Stark explains that Lang misses the point. Chinese scholars, immersed in their philosophies, did not want to.

I am reminded of an admonishment given by Christ, “For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Confounding the Wise

“Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.” -- I Corinthians 8:2

Every age interprets reality with a set of presuppositions. These assumptions are developed by respected thinkers and then promulgated, mostly by those who crave status. Once they become entrenched they are difficult to challenge and nobody is immune from them entirely. They shape our philosophy, art, culture, even our theology. And as a consequence they mold the subconscious. Many people never question them at all.

The present zeitgeist has taken a rather curious and unfortunate turn. Our intellectuals have thought themselves into a conundrum. They have lost their self confidence and the honest ones have been rendered silent. While this may sound like a welcomed reprieve, it is not. It is far worse than if they sat pontificating all day long, assured in the righteousness of their convictions. They have become indifferent and, as a consequence, they have created a vacuum that has been filled with all sorts of nonsense. How did we get here?

Like most things, our current predicament did not happen overnight. It has been a long descent that began as far back as the Enlightenment when men started to liberate themselves en masse from tradition—namely Christianity. The most virulent manifestations of this tantrum resulted in widespread carnage, famously displayed during the French Revolution. Those who survived the upheaval found themselves in a changed world. Society now saw man as the ultimate arbiter of reason. Human discernment had replaced the wisdom of the divine.

This seductive dogma, timeless in its allure, was the serpent’s temptation in the garden, “You shall be as gods.” The offer was too intoxicating to resist and the intellectuals reveled in their elevated status, establishing new rights for mankind while seeking to conquer the material world. Every scientific advance emboldened their cause. All was being revealed. Or so it seemed.

A worldview that places man as sovereign confines the kingdom to his purview. The limits of this domain soon became apparent. A fundamental problem was the mystery of man’s beginning. Evolutionary theory may explain a lot about how he developed, but it is silent on his origin. The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo expounded by the repudiated Church fathers seemed far more rational than its big bang counterpart. The other alternative was to accept the pantheistic belief that the universe always existed, an ancient heresy at odds with science itself.

But there was another aspect to their existential dilemma: from where did morality come? Science told them that the natural world runs by random physical processes. These processes produce outcomes that are either favorable or unfavorable to perpetuation. A creature learns by instinct what he must do to survive and beget healthy offspring. But these impulses are not normative determinations, which are universally made and are often in conflict with the impulses necessary for preservation. Success or failure is not the same as right or wrong. A process devoid of sentience cannot impart ethics.

Once they came to this realization, intellectuals were left with a choice: acknowledge that the normative is imparted from a source outside of nature or simply deny that it exists. They chose the latter, maintaining that all was the result of random physical processes. This created bigger problems. For if everything and everyone is bound by these processes than man has no freedom. Free will is an illusion (though a hauntingly inexplicable one, for how does an imaginary thing keep entering man’s consciousness demanding consideration?). The exhilaration that accompanied their short-lived liberation from tradition turned into despair, humanism became nihilism.

And here we are. Our present intelligentsia religiously clings to these presuppositions and, as a consequence, they have no ability to pass judgment without self-contradiction. Some may be persuaded by honor, justice, or love but their worldview teaches that these are mere deceptions. Silence seems the only consistent approach. But silence often requires capitulation and even that quiet surrender violates their assumptions. The most ardent futilely try to maintain logical coherence (Martin Heidegger’s affiliation with the Nazis comes to mind). They embrace relativism—ironically itself a judgment—and try to accept all actions. When two actions are mutually exclusive and they are forced to choose, pretense is cast aside and preference is usually given to the more self-indulgent one.

It seems inconceivable that such nonsense can proliferate among the educated. But the ancient prophet Jeremiah declares, “The wise will be put to shame; they will be dismayed and trapped. Since they have rejected the word of the LORD, what kind of wisdom do they have?” And the Psalmist warns, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads in death.”

The way of man has sent reverberations throughout our culture. Colloquialisms like “it's all good” and “everyone has his own truth” are uttered by those who do not understand what they say. Societal norms are eroding because individuals are taught that there is no foundation on which to condone or condemn behaviors. All practices, no matter how barbaric and injurious, are increasingly seen as equally valid. The practical result of this is a might makes right mentality where the weak are victimized and cynicism reigns.

The good news is that there is an answer to this madness. Voltaire sought to “écrasez l'infâme, écrasez le consubstantiel,” which is translated “crush the infamous, crush the God-man Christ.” But most men did not join in the rebellion. For it does not require an extensive education to reject such wickedness. As the apostle Paul explains, “. . . since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

Monday, November 8, 2010

Grievous Surrender

Part Six: The Problem of Pain
Our stubborn will often blinds us to the harm we inflict on others. It is only when such deeds are reciprocated that we fully appreciate the damage they cause. Then we are aware of the injustice committed and it is then that we expect contrition from our tormentor before the relationship can be reconciled.

Trace pain back to its source and you will almost always end up at free will. It is the indignity felt on the receiving end of this pain that often keeps us from destroying each other. The hurt makes us aware of the offense and why it must not be tolerated. We then have a choice to either respond in kind or try to restore the severed relationship.

It is perhaps easier to accomplish the latter when in a position of authority. When a son acts out in defiance of a good father, that father will chastise him in hopes of preventing further disobedience and alienation. While this is a very difficult and painful thing to do, doing nothing is far worse. If the son grows comfortable in his rebellion and is not compelled to change, the father will lose his son and the son will be ruined by his own foolish decisions.

The father and son dynamic is a representation, albeit flawed, of the relationship between God and man. It is therefore reasonable to surmise that God uses pain to awaken us from our malignant condition since pain is the one thing that cannot be ignored. Lewis notes, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain.” Only in discomfort do we recognize how dependent we actually are. Pain forces us to see though the illusion of self-sufficiency.

It is only when we acknowledge this dependency and surrender to it that we find liberation. Otherwise we cut ourselves free from our only lifeline. This is perhaps the greatest irony. Christ declares, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” Lewis notes that this act of martyrdom, as radical as it may seem, has been intrinsically understood by every culture. He cites for example the veneration of the buried seed and re-arising corn by the ancient agrarians, the Indian ascetic who mortifies his body on a bed of spikes, and the Greek philosopher who preached that the practice of wisdom is a practice of death.

But it is the historical crucifixion and resurrection that makes this universal truth palatable. Christ has given us the supreme example. Blameless, He made the ultimate sacrifice. We need only weakly imitate it by surrendering our will.

Given our current condition we know suffering is inevitable. As the ancient prophet Isaiah makes clear, all flesh is grass and will wither away. And like Job we cannot fully understand our travails because we are severely limited by our human perspective. But God uses the suffering of this world for good. The realization of this gives one the confidence and strength needed to face affliction.

Previous: A Broken World

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Broken World

Part Five: The Problem of Pain
Nothing defines our condition with more clarity than the doctrine of the Fall. Although too profound to be fully grasped by human understanding, St. Augustine simply describes it as the sin of pride whereby a dependent creature whose principle of existence lies in another tries to exist for itself.

The first act of rebellion dramatically altered man’s condition. It broke his relationship with God thus subjecting him to the laws of nature. As Lewis explains, this introduced pain, senility, and death into an existence that Hobbes would later describe as nasty, brutish, and short. As the account in Genesis makes clear, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Man became captive to his own frailty. “Rational consciousness became what it now is—a fitful spotlight resting on a small part of the cerebral motions,” Lewis explains. But far worse was the change to the spirit, which became its own idol. While it is impossible for the created to become the creator, man tried to imitate God. This resulted in powerful desires rooted in the gratification of the self.

Original sin and our own sin are often confused. Lewis attempts to clarify this with an analogy of a child who was raised badly but is taken in by a good family. The boy’s actions are said to be ‘not his fault’ but his character is still detestable. His misfortune and character are inseparable. We act like vermin because we are vermin.

We relive the fall every day in practically every instance of our lives. It is a rare and fleeting moment when we are not slaves to our own desires. Lewis likens this constant struggle to being on an inclined plane. God sits at the top and we are sliding away. The natural pull carries us in the opposite direction and the most pious among us cannot overcome the force.

To the secular mind this may all sound like nonsense. But ignoring the doctrine does not make it any less true. Its implications dictate our relationship to God and, as a consequence, our relationships with everyone else. The crude way in which we treat others is evidence of our condition. Sacrificial feelings toward a lover degenerate into a calculating lust that objectifies. Earnestness for a new job is replaced with schemes to maximize one’s own advantage. Using others is the logical approach to a life predicated on the self but the result is enmity and inevitable conflict.

Rather than fully embrace our narcissism we cannot help but be repulsed by it. There is an understanding, even among secularists, that the world does not work the way it ought. Our choice to live as gods has upended the natural order. Lewis quotes Montaigne, “To obey is the proper office of a rational soul.” Yet this is exceedingly difficult to do. Instead, man has turned to ideology in vain attempts to recreate utopia. The result of all these “smelly little orthodoxies,” as Orwell would say, has been widespread devastation. The communist and the fascist seek to remake human nature but their ways end in death.

Man has spoiled himself so all his endeavors are spoiled. Therefore good, in our present state, must primarily be remedial or corrective good. Our stubborn will makes this a painful process with seemingly no end. But our condition does not have to be terminal, as the apostle Paul declares, “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

Next: Grievous Surrender
Previous: Disregarding Wickedness