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 so they claim. Try as they might, the materialist is vexed with a desire he cannot shake: 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 away 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 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 merely being responsible, being a good steward of natural resources, philosophical 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.

Many 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 that such growth cannot 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 a responsible desire for sustainability. It is driven by a belief that the very existence of humanity spoils nature. A belief that is forcefully and repeatedly articulated by radicals in the 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.

Driven by this belief, 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 some 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.

Through national and supranational entities, which instinctively crave power, they work to enact policies designed to curtail industrialization. A recent United Nations document would confer special rights on “mother earth” that could be defended in courts of law. To the extent that such efforts have had an effect, they have brought tragedy, particularly for people in the developing world who 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 management 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 this latest heresy. 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 the 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.”

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Painful Delusion

The pervasive nature of pain is perhaps the most compelling argument atheists possess. It certainly gives agnostics, as well as many believers, pause. Dostoevsky, the great Christian apologist and prolific Russian novelist, claimed that the suffering of children is the greatest proof against the existence of God. Many have accepted this proof thus rejecting belief in a creator.

In “The Problem of Pain,” C.S. Lewis refutes this argument. What follows is a terse summary, oftentimes in his own words, of Lewis’ reasoning. Let me be clear, these are not my own reflections but the observations of a scholar who has much to impart. But before I delve into his refutation, one caveat: Lewis provides a sterile, syllogistic explanation of why the existence of God is perfectly compatible with a material world where pain proliferates. Reconciling this seeming contradiction does not make experiencing pain palatable, just comprehensible.

So why is pain a predicament at all? It is solely because of Christianity.

Humans, you see, have always had a sense of the supernatural. All cultures have created myths and legends of entities outside the scope of nature. These have not ceased with modernization. The dread associated with dead bodies is a fear derived from something other than the material world since a dead body is incapable of causing harm. The sense of something beyond the scope of nature is referred to by theologian Rudolf Otto as the “numinous.”

While the numinous is a vague notion of something outside of nature, morality is a clearer one. Values differ from culture to culture but all peoples share a common conception of morality. And this common conception is at odds with our desires, creating a frustrating irony: universal acceptance of a morality that is universally violated. Instead of just giving up we continue to try to meet this standard, which seems so alien and largely unobtainable. Materialists, who reject the existence of anything outside of the natural world, claim this standard is a product of evolution. But the material world can only produce reactions as “I better” not “I ought.” And it is these normative prescriptions that give us civilization.

Now, the first people in history to collectively wed the numinous to morality were the Jews. Prior to their understanding, the supernatural was an amoral thing to be feared. They, however, began to believe in a single God who was just. This God would not commit random acts of cruelty without regard for the individual. The historical event, the incarnation of this God, was the Christ.

And so, Christianity creates the problem of pain. If there was no belief that God is good and loving than there would be no reason to question pain. But the philosophical and historical reality of Christianity cause both believer and unbeliever to struggle with calamity. Self-described atheists should be stoic, indifferent to heartache. But try as they might, they cannot escape the dilemma resulting from pervasive injustice and the intrinsic notion that everything happens for a reason and there is justice in the world.

The Ultimate Compliment

Bewildered by the problem of pain, many reflexively question the Christian understanding of divine omnipotence and goodness. For if these were God’s attributes, the argument goes, He would ensure our happiness.

As it turns out, our happiness is rather complex. The ability to be happy first requires an individual self, a consciousness that is autonomous from all other. The mysterious and magisterial nature of autonomy, taken entirely for granted in our Western context, defines who one is. Created in God’s image we are free to think, act, and create. We, as individuals, are inviolable and as a consequence have rights that are inalienable. We are the beneficiaries of the greatest esteem. Recognition of this truth is the basis of all advances in human interaction.

But with freedom comes immense and inescapable responsibility. We have the ability to do great good or great harm. And once freedom is imparted it cannot be simultaneously taken away, such an action is self-contradictory or nonsensical. This impossibility poses no challenge to divine omnipotence. All things are possible with God. Logical fallacies, however, are not things but nonentities.

Understanding what is intrinsically impossible beyond the theoretical stretches one’s imagination to its limits. But Lewis offers a speculative assertion: free will could not exist without a relatively independent and inexorable nature. Self-recognition requires a physical world since it is unlikely disembodied spirits could distinguish each others thought. The physical world must have fixed laws for individuals to have the ability to communicate in an objective way. And this gets us to the crux of the matter—a constant world necessitates that not all states will be equally agreeable. Fire can comfort or destroy. Pain helps distinguish which is which.

The fixed nature of our universe provides the opportunity for courtesy or hostility. Far too often we choose the latter. Such pain accounts for a very large portion of all human suffering. Or as Lewis says, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”

Understanding Goodness

It is often said, usually in the context of celebration, that God is good. And so He is. God is the ultimate good. But the meaning of this is easily confused. Made in His image, we have an innate conception of what goodness is. But our conception is distorted by our autonomy.

An analogy cannot capture the extent of this distortion but one that comes to mind is the near perfect form of a professional athlete compared to the attempts of a beginner. When placed side-by-side the latter displays a crudity that is obvious to the most casual observer. No one doubts the superior skill of the professional. But remove the professional from view and the differences become less noticeable. Isolated, the beginner may begin to resemble the professional over time. And if he does improve his technique he may actually be confused for the real thing.

So it is with us. The farther removed we get from Goodness, the more convincing our distorted attempts become. Inching closer to the real thing improves our understanding of it but ultimately our efforts remain an imitation.

Our imitations form common understandings. These understandings have differed from era to era, as various peoples have emphasized certain aspects of virtue. Contemporary notions appear superior but we are often blinded of our own vice. As Lewis points out, it is easy to criticize the cruelty exhibited by the ancients but it is harder to admire them for being more chaste or courageous since these qualities have fallen out of fashion.

The contemporary notion of goodness is defined almost exclusively by kindness. “All you need is love” has become the defining philosophy and is asserted with moral authority, or even righteous indignation. But all good things taken in excess contaminate. Our fixation on love has devolved into a non-judgmental position that is seen as kindness. Ironically, this postmodern sensibility has rendered us incapable of kindness. It only allows us to be indifferent. This can be seen in a father’s complete permissiveness towards his child, who eventually recognizes such behavior for what it is: callous disinterest.

An even more virulent manifestation of this disinterest is contempt. At its best, contempt may evoke pity toward an object, wishing to remove it from any hardship or suffering. Rationalizations for abortion or euthanasia are derived from this heresy.

Real love is far different. But like our perverse postmodern conception, it is not without irony. Lewis notes Dante’s observation that love is “a lord of terrible aspect.” A romantic couple knows this. Passion demands exacting precision that is painful to achieve but far more rewarding than the alternative.

Given God’s perfection, His love is infinitely more demanding. As Lewis notes, Scripture continuously uses the analogy of the relationship man has with animals to help us conceptualize this. A man trains a dog so he may love it and it may serve him. But in this seeming act of selfishness, the dog’s interests are not sacrificed. Domestication is a painful and contested process but one that results in a healthier creature that gains the ability to enjoy “a whole world of affections, loyalties, interests, and comforts entirely beyond its animal destiny.”

Another analogy is the relationship between a father and son. This is defined perfectly by the authoritative love demonstrated by God and the obedient love demonstrated by Christ. Golgotha was the place of supreme surrender.

Despite protestations dating back to the Greek sophists, man is not the measure of all things. Living as such makes you less human, not more. Suffering, as untenable as it may seem, can help reconcile us with God, making us more fulfilled. Although proclaiming that God is good in times of tribulation is far more difficult than in times of happiness, it is just as accurate.

Disregarding Wickedness
Call somebody wicked today and it may be taken as a compliment, if the person even takes you seriously. Good and evil are archaic and worthless notions, at least to the modern philosopher who has supplanted such simple-mindedness for the raw authenticity of human desire. Reverence for one’s right to choose has inhibited one’s right to discern, which is seen as unenlightened. The result is indulgence without shame, destruction without remorse.

Violating one’s conscience is as old as humanity itself. What is distinctive today is the push to normalize this violation. Psychologists insist that shame is a repressive and dangerous impulse that prevents fulfillment. Purging it is a moral imperative not only for individuals but for society.

Psychologists can no more eradicate shame than a Marxist can remake man. But their attempts are not entirely futile. The seductive dogma has trickled into mainstream culture, affecting the behavior of many who are assured their personal happiness trumps all. The result is a worldview that sees selfishness as a virtue.

Past cultures may not have been more moral, perhaps they were even less. But with few exceptions, they recognized that ignoring shame was ignoring truth. Despite their inevitable transgressions, they never failed to recognize those transgressions for what they were: sin. As Lewis explains, even the ancient pagans attempted to allay eternal damnation.

Such recognition can no longer be taken for granted. As a consequence the wrath of God appears cruel. How could a loving God allow suffering? The question is unanswerable if we define love by its modern conception: unconditional acceptance. This corrupts all those involved and could never be consistent with divine love, which by definition is perfect and therefore must also be just.

To avoid disillusionment we must recognize our own depravity. Here is another cheerful irony: understanding how contemptible our nature is to God allows us to understand reality. The alternative is to place our faith in humanity, which can only lead to bitterness and cynicism.

A Broken World
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.”

Grievous Surrender
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. Like Job we cannot fully understand our travails because we are so limited by our human perspective. But God uses the suffering of this world for good. He promises to take the wreckage of this world and make all things new. The realization of this gives one strength needed to face affliction.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Inaugural Post

In his Epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul writes, “And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”

For the Christian, rousing oneself into a diligent embrace of the faith is critical to realizing the incomparable richness and promise it holds. And given the finite character of our temporal existence, a sense of urgency is imperative.

Of course, this sense of urgency pertains to all human endeavors. There is limited time for whatever we wish to accomplish. Apathy poses a serious impediment while passion is a great asset.

My passion is to understand why things are so. I recognize that tackling issues that have confounded peoples over the centuries requires a certain conceit. But like Pascal, I believe willfully ignoring them is far worse, it is a form of insanity. Whether a theologian, philosopher, scientist, or laymen; man has a vested interest in who he is, why he is here, and what lies beyond. The trappings of modernity can provide satisfying, at times intoxicating, diversions from these questions but such diversions are illusive and temporary.

On such issues there seems increasing segregation into two camps: esoteric academics and disinterested bystanders. Ironically, we seem to have become less curious for knowledge in the information age while academics have cornered themselves in highly-specialized circles where conventions predominate. Patterns of thought have become increasingly myopic and those with diverging points of view are ignored.

This phenomenon, which is indelible to human nature, is not limited to the most important questions. Pick a discipline and you will find an established view that most people are reluctant to challenge. But as C.S. Lewis and many others have noted, practically all advances in history were made by those who defied conventions.

The prevailing view, therefore, can be a slumber of sorts. Awaking from this slumber creates cognitive dissonance but is ultimately liberating. Our ability to learn and to reason, as limited as it is, gives us an ability to discern truth. The alternative is reversion. Cicero wrote, “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.” And it was George Herbert, the Welsh poet and Anglican priest, who explained, “He who knows nothing, doubts nothing.”

I wish to know. And when I have stumbled upon an insight and time permits, I will write. My posts will be sporadic and largely if not entirely unoriginal, relaying tiny kernels of wisdom discovered by those who saw beyond their age. Many will be necessarily provocative and they will cover an array of issues. But hopefully they will coalesce around enduring themes that, regardless of convention, are intrinsic to our human condition. The faintest notion of these themes can begin to rouse the heaviest sleeper into unimagined joy.