On Faith I: Faith & Reason

TNB_OpeningIn July 1940, an engineering marvel was completed: the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge. One of the longest suspension bridges in the world at the time, it exemplified the light, graceful architectural trend of suspension bridges built in this era. Called the crowning achievement of his career, designer Leon Moisseiff — the architect of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges in San Francisco — later declared “our plans seemed 100% perfect.”
 
 
Yet 4 months later, on November 7 1940, the Narrows Bridge catastrophically collapsed in a windstorm into Puget Sound.

1940: Gertie CollapsesLeon Moisseiff had unshakable faith in the reliability of his newly-completed masterpiece. He would have had no qualms whatsoever trusting its dependability in any weather conditions. Yet had he stood upon his own creation on November 7th, 1940, his faith would have been fatal. The object of his faith was unreliable, and the strength of his faith irrelevant.
 
 

Faith has become the diametric of reason … practiced only by deluded fools who reject the graceful catenary and steel-plate certainty of scientific rationalism.

Faith is an idea frequently voiced, but little understood. It is commonly mentioned in the pejorative sense in today’s secular society, where it has become a proxy for belief in the unbelievable, the unprovable, the superstitious and the mythical. Faith has become the diametric of reason — unreasonably so, as we shall see — practiced only by deluded fools who reject the graceful catenary and steel-plate certainty of scientific rationalism.

Yet faith–not love–makes the world go ’round. You exercise faith when you place the key in the ignition and start your car. You have faith when you flip a switch, expecting light to rush forth from a fixture, or music from stereo speakers. You have faith that your coat will keep you warm and dry; your plane will stay aloft; your surgeon will bring you through a heart bypass. The atheist has utter faith in his reason, that belief in God is beyond logic and therefore must be rejected. Such faith is nothing more than trust: a confidence that the object is reliable, the tool is trustworthy, its behavior predictable, its nature dependable. In the physical realm, such trust may be based in part on knowledge — one can study the flow of electrons and principles of resistance which make a light bulb glow — but such erudition is entirely optional, and rarely grasped by those who rely on its behavior. The object of faith may be entirely reliable yet utterly beyond our comprehension — or, as Leon Moisseiff discovered to his great dismay, deeply understood yet profoundly unreliable.
 
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The Temperature of Hell

This is the second of two posts, much delayed, on the subject of Hell.

The first may be found here:
 
 ♦ The Death of Hell
 

 

On an earlier post about grace and Karma, a commenter posed this question:

I \'d like to ask you a question because you strike me as an intelligent man of faith. I was taught that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment, a nice euphemism for a torture chamber. Do you believe that those of us who fail to accept grace will be tortured? If not, why not? Augustine and Calvin seemed to believe it.

I began to answer this question in my prior post on the subject, tackling it from a mostly metaphysical perspective, basing a belief in Hell on four principal pillars: that man is a moral being, comprised of an innate sense of right and wrong, good and evil; that man is a transcendent being, with a nature which seeks out and relates to the immaterial, to the eternal, to the divine; that man has a sense of justice, with a desire for reward for good and punishment for evil; and that man is incapable of functioning without reference to absolutes — in practice, always, even when denying them intellectually — which infers a standard against which we are measured, and consequently implies a sentient and just deity — indeed a personal deity — as the source for such absolute standards.

Such premises cannot be “proved” — at least from the viewpoint of the two-dimensional determinism so prevalent in contemporary materialist scientism. The arrogated assumptions of the materialist preclude a priori anything of transcendent or immaterial nature as inherently beyond scientific proof, no more than mere whimsical fantasy or superstitious drivel, and consequently false (an interesting conclusion, this: as that which cannot be proved is not by necessity false, but rather, unprovable, is it not?). Yet these very presumptions are reasonable reflections of the observed nature of man, and the materialist’s moral judgment on transcendent beliefs as foolish, or even evil, belies his own deterministic worldview, which permits no transcendent absolute against which to judge such convictions as right or wrong.

So it is reasonable to believe (if not “provable”), that as transcendent, moral beings, something of our immaterial and conscious nature survives our physical demise, given that we relate to a Being unbound by time, physical existence, or mortality. It is therefore also reasonable that the nature of such existence after death itself has a moral and just dimension. Though we might ponder or dispute the moral criteria about which such a final determination of justice might be made, if there is justice at all, then there must be justice in the existence (in whatever form it may take) after death.

But what might such a state of retributive justice for evil be like? Is it, as our commenter suggest, a place where God “tortures” those with the audacity to disobey his dictates? Is it hot, cold, dark, or colorless? Are there levels of torture, as envisioned by Dante, or flaming lakes and fire and brimstone, as some Biblical passages suggest? What, indeed, is the temperature of Hell?

Such speculations, whether arising from literature, popular culture, or the inferences and metaphors of Scripture, are by necessity insufficient to grasp the nature of Hell, for we mortals are incapable of fully apprehending the nature of an eternal afterlife, inherent in its nature far beyond the capacity of mortal man to comprehend. Rather than fret over the fires or torments of Hell, or whether Hell abounds in pitchfork-wielding demons or endless Bacchanalian debauchery, it is perhaps a more fruitful source of insight regarding eternal punishment to focus instead on the nature of God and the nature of man, to understand the nature of Hell.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is understood to have certain innate and unalterable characteristics, the most important of which are His holiness and His love. Holiness refers to his purity of motive and perfect goodness of character, manifested in His grace, His justice, His mercy, His patience, and a host of other virtues embodying perfect goodness. The love of God, which is the very essence of His nature, is not the superficial sentimentality nor maudlin physicality of our current culture, but rather the completely selfless devotion to the well-being, happiness, and success of those He loves, His creation. It is selfless to the point of self-sacrifice: unlike, say, the god of Islam, who commands the death or enslavement of unbelievers, the Christian God dies for unbelievers, that they may live in freedom.

Just as God is selflessly devoted to man, created in His image with the capacity to love — and therefore possessed of free will, without which love is impossible — man is designed to selflessly love God and serve Him. But sin — the tendency both innate and intentional to serve self rather than God — intervenes, and breaks the relationship. Man, now functioning autonomously on self-will, increasingly bears the fruit of his growing distance from the source of goodness. The natural result of this relational disruption and flight from the ultimate good is everywhere evident in man: hatred, pride, arrogance, decadence, evil behavior, fear, pain, suffering, purposelessness, despondency. Such is the natural gravity of rejecting God to serve oneself. The inexorable trajectory of life thus lived is misery, darkness, and hopelessness — though we strive mightily to mitigate the inevitable consequences a life thus lived through denial, blame, addiction, and the distractions of money, power, and materialism.

We are offered, in this life, the opportunity to change; to seek reconciliation, acknowledging our repudiation of God, seeking forgiveness, and the power to turn from our autonomy of the will to a place of submission which will lead us back to the joy and purpose originally intended for us in the plan of a loving, relational God. Yet free will being what it is, not all will make this choice; blinded by the deception that we may be happy only by being masters of our own life and destiny, we endlessly pursue this illusory and unobtainable goal down a path which only leads us away from the only source of true happiness. It is a path many pursue to the gates of death.

And thus, having squandered our many chances to turn back to God during our life, we arrive at the threshold of death, our wills fully steeled in determination to have our own will and our own way. And so our wish will be granted, for all eternity. Whatever the form or essence of that which we call Hell, it will be nothing more than the fullness of what we ourselves have chosen, with all the illusions and deceptions of this life stripped away. We will bear the full weight of our pride, our hatred, our fear, our rage, our selfishness and discontent, our profound loneliness, in an eternity of hopelessness and regret over what we have lost, irretrievably, in casting away the goodness and mercy of God in what was naught but a pure triumph of the will.

C.S. Lewis, in the The Great Divorce, wrote about the intransigence of spirit which is the essence of Hell:

For a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see.

In our therapeutic culture, where all is tolerated but the good, the assertion that there are consequences for our behavior, either temporal, or especially eternal, is a truly noxious notion. The idea of Hell is perceived as an anachronistic anathema, promoted cynically by clergy controlling the poor, ignorant fools who follow them. Even those with a nominal belief in a deity will attest, with a pretense more wishful than wise, that a God of love would never condemn those who reject Him to Hell. In some sense–surely not that which the proponents of such pop theology intend–this may well be true. It will be, for those who enter that dark, hopeless, and agonizing eternity, not something dictated from on high by a vengeful God gleeful at our torture. It will be our own choice, fully, to reject the mercy and grace which has been offered to us without cost by Him who gave everything to draw us toward an eternal relationship, filled with unspeakable joy and peace, with Him.

Truth & Consequences


In the trial of Jesus, ancient texts have recorded this exchange:

Pilate replied, “You are a king then?” “You say that I am a king, and you are right,” Jesus said. “I was born for that purpose. And I came to bring truth to the world. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.”
 
“What is truth?” Pilate asked.

Some questions are truly timeless.

We live in an age where the notion of truth, of absolutes which transcend the individual and society, is increasingly under assault. Ours is an age of radical individualism, wherein man alone becomes the sole arbiter of what is right or wrong, where moral relativism reigns, where postmodernism trades absolute truth for “narratives”, which vary from individual to individual, culture to culture, and age to age.

It is no small irony that ours is an age of science and technology — disciplines which depend by their very nature on the absolute, unchanging, and permanent laws of nature. Yet this same age rejects or disdains the concept of absolutes and transcendent truth. No one questions the speed of light, or the Pythagorean theorem, or the laws of gravity, or the quirky and counter-intuitive physics of subatomic particles. The postmodernist whose narrative does not accept the law of gravity will still need a sidewalk cleanup crew when he flings himself from a tall building, believing he can fly.

The difference, of course, is that the absolutes of physics and science apply to the physical world, quantifiable and tangible in greater or lesser measure, while the absolutes of ethics, morality, and religion touch on the metaphysical, the invisible, the theological. The materialist rejects such notions outright, as superstition, “values” (i.e., individual beliefs or preferences based on nothing more than feelings or bias), as mindless evolutionary survival skills, or the dying remnants of an age of ignorance. Absolutes are rejected because of the presuppositions of constricted materialism, the arrogance and conceits of intellectualism, the notion that if it cannot be weighed or measured it does not exist. But the deeper and more fundamental reason for the rejection of transcendent absolutes is simply this: such absolutes make moral claims upon us.

In truth, man cannot exist without transcendent absolutes, even though he denies their existence. Our language and thought are steeped in such concepts, in notions of good and evil, love and hate, free will and coercion, purpose and intentionality. We cannot think, or communicate, or be in any way relational without using the intangible, the metaphysical, the conventions, the traditions. We are by our very nature creatures who compare: we judge, and accept or reject; we prefer or disapprove; we love or hate, criticize or applaud. All such choices involve the will as a free agent — and free will is meaningless if it is not used in the context of an ethereal yet unchanging standard against which a choice is measured. We say a rose smells beautiful and a rotten egg rotten, because we judge those smells against an invisible standard which determines one to be pleasant and the other offensive. We cannot measure the love of a child, or or weigh the sorrow of a death, or calculate the anger at an injustice or the beauty of a Bach concerto; yet such reactions, and the standards by which we recognize and judge such intangibles, are every bit as real as the photons and protons, the law of gravity or the principles of physics. Even the most hardened Darwinist, atheistic to the core, by necessity must speak the language of purpose and transcendence and choice, as Mother Nature “selects”, and “chooses”, and “intends”, and “prefers” this genetic trait or that survival skill. We are incapable of describing even the purported randomness, mindlessness, and purposelessness of evolutionary biology without concepts and language of intentionality, preference, good and evil.

No, the rejection of absolutes is the rejection of their claim upon our wills. To reject that absolute truth exists, to deny that standards and principles stand apart from mere constructs of human imagination, is to affirm the absolute that we are absolutely autonomous, answerable to nothing and no one, masters and gods accountable only to ourselves. To deny absolutes is to deny free will — and to deny the consequences of choices which violate the very principles we dismiss as foolish, ignorant, prejudiced, and superstitious. To deny dogma is to be dogmatic; to reject absolutes absolutely is to affirm absolutes, even if unknowingly. Transcendent absolutes define our very humanity; dogs do not have dogmas, nor are cats categorical.

G.K. Chesterton, prescient and insightful as ever in his vision of the foolishness of man in his intellectual hubris, said:

Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense . . . becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding to no form of creed and contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

Ideas have consequences, philosophies have predicates, and the rejection of absolutes absolutely dehumanizes us, for we devolve from a species of high principles and moral light to denizens of a depravity far lower than the animals. For animals have rational restraints on behavior, brutish though it may be, while there is no end to evil for the human mind unleashed from absolutes.

Speaking of the fall of Carthage, with its materialism, wealth, and power, steeped in a religion whose worship sacrificed infants in the fires of Moloch, Chesterton says thus:

This sort of commercial mind has its own cosmic vision, and it is the vision of Carthage. It has in it the brutal blunder that was the ruin of Carthage. The Punic power fell, because there is in this materialism a mad indifference to real thought. By disbelieving in the soul, it comes to disbelieving in the mind … Carthage fell because she was faithful to her own philosophy and had followed out to its logical conclusion her own vision of the universe. Moloch had eaten her own children.

The rejection of absolutes, with the resulting moral relativism and narcissistic nihilism, is no mere intellectual folly nor faddish foolishness. It is instead a corrosive toxin, appealing in its seeming rationality and reasonableness, but pervasive and deadly for both person and polity.

If the Truth will set you free — and it most surely will — its rejection will surely enslave you.

Gnostic Fascism

Courtesy of the always-excellent blog What’s Wrong With The World, we read this gem about the philosophy and worldview of our current educational system:

It seems to me that the regulative idea that we — we…liberals, we heirs of the Enlightenment, we Socratists — most frequently use to criticize the conduct of various conversational partners is that of “needing education in order to outgrow their primitive fear, hatreds, and superstitions. This is the concept the victorious Allied armies used when they set about re-educating the citizens of occupied Germany and Japan. It is also the one which was used by American schoolteachers who had read Dewey and were concerned to get students to think ‘scientifically’ and ‘rationally’ about such matters as the origin of the species and sexual behavior (that is, to get them to read Darwin and Freud without disgust and incredulity). It is a concept which I, like most Americans who teach humanities or social science in colleges and universities, invoke when we try to arrange things so that students who enter as bigoted, homophobic, religious fundamentalists will leave college with views more like our own.

What is the relation of this idea to the regulative idea of ‘reason’ which Putnam believes to be transcendent and which Habermas believes to be discoverable within the grammar of concepts ineliminable from our description of the making of assertions? The answer to that question depends upon how much the re-education of Nazis and fundamentalists has to do with merging interpretive horizons and how much with replacing such horizons. The fundamentalist parents of our fundamentalist students think that the entire “American liberal establishment” is engaged in a conspiracy. Had they read Habermas, these people would say that the typical communication situation in American college classrooms is no more herrschaftsfrei [domination free] than that in the Hitler Youth camps.

These parents have a point. Their point is that we liberal teachers no more feel in a symmetrical communication situation when we talk with bigots than do kindergarten teachers talking with their students….When we American college teachers encounter religious fundamentalists, we do not consider the possibility of reformulating our own practices of justification so as to give more weight to the authority of the Christian scriptures. Instead, we do our best to convince these students of the benefits of secularization. We assign first-person accounts of growing up homosexual to our homophobic students for the same reasons that German schoolteachers in the postwar period assigned The Diary of Anne Frank.

Putnam and Habermas can rejoin that we teachers do our best to be Socratic, to get our job of re-education, secularization, and liberalization done by conversational exchange. That is true up to a point, but what about assigning books like Black Boy, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Becoming a Man? The Racist or fundamentalist parents of our students say that in a truly democratic society the students should not be forced to read books by such people --black people, Jewish people, homosexual people. They will protest that these books are being jammed down their children \'s throats. I cannot see how to reply to this charge without saying something like “There are credentials for admission to our democratic society, credentials which we liberals have been making more stringent by doing our best to excommunicate racists, male chauvinists, homophobes, and the like. You have to be educated in order to be a citizen of our society, a participant in our conversation, someone with whom we can envisage merging our horizons. So we are going to go right on trying to discredit you in the eyes of your children, trying to strip your fundamentalist religious community of dignity, trying to make your views seem silly rather than discussable. We are not so inclusivist as to tolerate intolerance such as yours.”

I have no trouble offering this reply, since I do not claim to make the distinction between education and conversation on the basis of anything except my loyalty to a particular community, a community whose interests required re-educating the Hitler Youth in 1945 and required re-educating the bigoted students of Virginia in 1993. I don \'t see anything herrschaftsfrei about my handling of my fundamentalist students. Rather, I think those students are lucky to find themselves under the benevolent Herrschaft of people like me, and to have escaped the grip of their frightening, vicious, dangerous parents. It seems to me that I am just as provincial and contextualist as the Nazi teachers who made their students read Der Stürmer; the only difference is that I serve a better cause. I come from a better province.

Rarely do we get such a clear window into the thinking and motives of those who rule our educational institutions, to whom we have entrusted our children, that they may transform a society through their indoctrination into the secular, Utopian vision of their dreams. Richard Rorty, the late philosopher and postmodernist who died in 2007 (and simultaneously discovered the Truth he so long ridiculed and denied, much to his eternal detriment), epitomizes the mindset of our secular culture, which insinuates itself at every opportunity through our media, our institutions of “higher learning”, our popular culture and the entertainment industry.

This is the soul of our now-thoroughly post-Christian, postmodern culture.

This is the soul of our now-thoroughly post-Christian, postmodern culture.

Keep in mind that the “fundamentalists” whom Rorty sought to discredit, ridicule, and reeducate are not simply knuckle-dragging, illiterate, six-day-creationist bumpkins, the straw men they create to dismiss and destroy with presumptuous arrogance — but rather every Christian who believes in absolute truth, who places themself under the authority of Christ, the Church, and the Scriptures. Our enlightened masters have their secret knowledge — and the sworn duty — to coerce all “unbelievers” into discarding their “primitive fear, hatreds, and superstitions.” This is Gnosticism with a fascist bent — the arrogance of superior knowledge, forcefully applied to all who resist.

This philosophy, now thoroughly inculcated in generations of students, and echoed incessantly in media, entertainment, the arts, and popular culture, have engendered a societal world view which can no longer be redeemed with reason, or persuasion, or by the religious engagement in the low compromise of “cultural relevancy.” The culture of materialism and the ideology of atheism have merged, and are now entrenched, dominant, and empowered. The church has fiddled as Rome burned — and now finds itself engulfed in the fiery holocaust it did little to avert. It is long past time for the church to stand proudly apart, to state the truth without fear or compromise, to serve as light and salt to a very dark and increasingly dangerous and toxic society. We will be hated for it — but we are already hated: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”

The challenge of the church today is to stand apart, to be the prophet, to be, if necessary, the martyr. It is time to abandon congregations and churches which have been compromised and co-opted by this corpse of a culture — let the dead bury their dead. It is time to call church leaders and pastors to account, and rebuke or even reject them if they refuse to stand for and teach the truth of the Gospel. It is time to train our children — after we ourselves have been trained — in the core beliefs of our faith, its historical veracity and integrity, in the defense of that which is true, and unchanging, and eternal. It is time to set aside the petty differences of denominationalism and sectarianism, join hands in submission to Christ, and recognize the true enemy we face. Your enemy is not the Baptist, or Catholic, or Pentecostal church down the street; however large your differences may seem. It is not the man who makes you uncomfortable by raising his hands in church; not the woman who loves the Mass and respects the saints; not the Biblical literalist nor the contemplative mystic who sees visions and dreams dreams. They are your brothers and sisters in Christ. Get to know them, discerning their spirits and the passion of their hearts. Learn to love them, learn from them, serve them, respect them. Pray, worship, and study together. The faith which you proclaim is broad and deep, rich in gifts and heritage, a spectacular jewel with countless facets reflecting the unlimited brilliance of a gracious God.

The night grows darker; it is well past time to fill your lamps with oil, and light them.

Absolute Fools

A recent post on the worldview of contemporary postmodern liberalism was kindly linked by Gerard Vanderleun over at American Digest. In his link post, a commenter left the following missive:

The essay would have value if there were absolutes. Never have been, never shall be. Our standards of behavior are devised by us, and used or misused by us. We decide which is good and which is evil, and in every case we are right and wrong at one and the same time.

Each of our rules and regulations is enforced through agreement, and through coercion. The wise among us agree to follow the laws because it makes for a calmer, safer life. The fools among us must be made to follow those same laws because they haven’t the wisdom to see the necessity. And this speaks of those ordinances that do make sense.

Those that do not have to be enforced through coercion more often than not because they really don’t make any sense. And there are times when our rules make more or less sense than other times because circumstances differ.

We are responsible for our laws, and for our adherence to them. Our legislation being wise is to our credit. Our legislation being cruel is to our shame. Nobody else can remove that charge from our shoulders.

Now, I take no issue with this gentleman personally; he is doubtless a bright fellow, well-educated in our institutions of higher learning, where professors emeritus emote their postmodern erudition in the lofty ephemeral ethers, far removed from the dross of desperately-ignorant humanity. He is more to be pitied than censured; he has, after all, been taught not to think. But he serves herein a useful purpose, insofar as his comment exemplifies the mindset of those who eschew the idea of absolutes — which assertion is the very metaphysical mortar of secular postmodernism.

I find it interesting that most every argument rejecting absolutes contains within its very language and structure, not to mention its premises, a framework of absolute assertions. And our subject does not disappoint: tossing around terms like “wise” and “fools” and “shame” and “credit”, qualitative words without meaning when there is no transcendent standard against which to measure them. What is shame if not the humiliation of rejecting an absolute good? Who is wise, and who a fool, if there is no standard of enduring and unchangeable wisdom by which to categorize one thusly? The lines of their straightedge are random and irregularly spaced — if there are measuring lines at all — yet they carefully measure and mark off “progress”, confident they have measured accurately. There is, of course, the inevitable rejoinder to all such foolishness which asks, “Are you absolutely sure there are no absolutes?” But beyond this childish rebuttal — childish, not in the sense of silliness or immaturity, but rather of unvarnished simplicity — there lies an even more evident and profound incoherence which can be discerned — from which a not-so-evident proposition emerges from the heart of anti-absolutism.

It is impossible to function as a human being in society without the concept of transcendent absolutes, even if this foundational principle is unrecognized or denied. We as humans do not simply move as pack animals, driven by instinct and primal drives, but are by our very nature creatures of judgment. We are constantly comparing, evaluating, appreciating or depreciating everyone and everything around us. The food is either tasty or awful; the woman is attractive or homely; the music is beautiful or grating; the weather is warm and pleasant or cold, wet, and miserable. Of course, some of these judgments are self-referential: the food tastes good to us, or bad to us; we prefer rock music to Rachmaninoff, while others may differ. Thus to some degree, we individually determine the standard against which we measure objects apart from ourselves. Yet even there it is possible to compare our preferences to a fixed standard: is slasher rock not discernibly different in quality from a Bach fugue?

But within the realm of human interactions, writ large as communities, societies, nations, and cultures, judgments about the outside world become collective, embodied in law and cultural and social strictures. Behavior which is objectionable to some is desirable to others; that which some find beneficial others find harmful. It is at this level of community and human interactions where some overarching determination or standard against which interpersonal behavior is measured becomes utterly necessary if we are to avoid a society capricious in its justice or cruel in its enforcement.

The anti-absolutist posits this standard in the consensus of the group, be it tribal, community, or society. The society at large, whatever its dimensions, determines that certain behavior is acceptable or unacceptable, and enforces the standard through collective coercion or force. While this seems plausible at first glance, it almost immediately runs into problems with the de facto use of absolutes. What standard will the collective mind of a society choose? Is it simply the standard of survival? Is it a collective self-gratification? Self-interest alone? And how can it be a standard at all without becoming, to greater or lesser degree, a transcendent absolute?

If, as our commenter suggests, we decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, are these standards not infinitely malleable by their very nature? Such a philosophy of law is nothing more than the tyranny of the masses, the rule of the mob. For a society may agree by consensus that certain members of the society are inferior by nature, or should be exterminated, or have their possessions confiscated, their daughters raped, their members sold into slavery. Such societies are not mere abstract entities, but stark historical realities, evident in gulags, ethnic cleansings, and rape rooms to which even our most recent decades testify. Such a philosophy in its purest form is the will to power; those who gain dominance, either in number or by force, determine the standard against which all will be judged.

The notion that such a standard is invariably beneficial to a society or culture is ludicrous in the light of history. One need look no further than the 20th century, where the social consensus arising out of pathologies such as Nazism, Marxism, and the emperor worship and militarism of Japan, wrought horrors upon not only the world, but especially on the societies which themselves embraced these pathologic standards. That German militarism and anti-Semitism was profoundly destructive to the very society which engendered these ideas and standards is self-evident; ask the citizens of Hiroshima how Japan’s imperialistic and fanatical militarism panned out.

Yet the world of the anti-absolutist one cannot form a judgment about any such self-evident evils. It cannot say that Nazism and the Holocaust were evil — they can only say that by their own standards, self-engendered and not universal, that such abominations are different. The inevitable moral indifference arising from such a philosophy runs counter to every fiber of the human spirit. We cannot say such things are evil if we cannot reference them against an absolute standard arising above, and transcending, any consensus formed only by a society.

Our very language is steeped in the vocabulary of absolutes — it is impossible to communicate without them. Good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, wisdom and foolishness: these concepts are universal, ubiquitous, and unresectable from language and thought, across all cultures and civilizations.

The consequences of the rejection of absolutes, fully embraced, are nothing short of anarchy — or in its stead, tyranny. There can be no true justice, for justice appeals to a standard above the law, and thus judges not only behavior contrary to law, but the law itself. Absent a transcendent moral absolute, there is no limit to the granularity at which arbitrary determinations of good and evil, right and wrong, may occur. it is a recipe for tribalism at best, as competing groups determine their own rules, rejecting those of other groups, large or small, which run contrary to their perceived needs or desires. The inevitable conflict between tribal standards can bring nothing but perpetual conflict or isolation.

Those who claim to reject absolutes do not in reality reject all absolutes. There is never a quibble about the law of gravity, or the laws of nature, or those of nuclear physics or astronomy. Were they consistent in their philosophy, they would reject the term “law” (which implies an underlying transcendent; there is, after all, no laws without law-givers), and instead describe what their metaphysics mandates: that seemingly predictable behavior is no more than random coincidence; the electron may fall into the nucleus at any time, ending this existence as dramatically and as randomly as it came into being. As Chesterton said, “They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing.”

At the very heart of a philosophy of deterministic, self-engendered moral standards stands the individual. The rejection of moral absolutes is nothing more than radical individualism broadcast across society — the notion that we are the sole arbiters of our behavior and morality, the we alone determine what is right and what is wrong. As a corollary, there is another assumption underlying this one: that others should bear the consequences, especially adverse consequences of our actions. Those who reject moral absolutes gravitate to a nihilistic narcissism, where there are rights but no responsibilities, demanding freedom to act as they please without thought for anyone else, all the while demanding that others rescue them from wreckage their behavior has wrought.

This battle of worldviews lies at the very heart of our culture wars, of the endless societal conflicts engendered over abortion, or religion in the public square, or the status of heterosexual marriage, or unrestricted sexual license, or any one a host of other seemingly irreconcilable culture clashes which saturate and sour our daily lives. It is a take-no-prisoners battle, for there is no middle ground, no comfortable compromise which will bring peace and harmony. It is a battle to the death, a battle not only of the mind but of the heart.

It is, above all, about bending the knee, a battle for the soul: we will submit to the absolute, or destroy ourselves in dark delusion denying it.

It’s long past time we choose which it will be.

The Problem of Miracles

A commenter in a previous post on the subject of faith and reason made the following observation:

The most Christian apologetics can accomplish is to show faith in Divine revelation to be a reasonable proposition. I would say the challenges presented by various content in the Holy Scriptures are significant. As you pointed out, “…we evaluate scriptures claiming to be revelation with the tools of archeology, linguistics, textual analysis for internal consistency and external verification, to validate, in some measure, the veracity of such claims.” This is all very good, but what of the more difficult propositions hidden in the texts: creation stories, Noah \'s Ark, the parting of the Red Sea, a talking ass, sword wielding angelic messengers, chariots of fire swooping in to carry men to heaven, floating ax heads, the regeneration of limbs, a virgin birth, [or] Lazarus raised from the dead …

The subject raised here is a challenging one, and a common point put forward in any discussion about faith and reason: what about the miracles spoken about in Scripture? The events such as those mentioned above lie entirely outside the realm of our experience, and it appears utterly reasonable and rational to dismiss them as fabrications, myth, or at best allegorical tales intended for moral teaching. The belief in miracles by people of religious faith is perhaps the area most incomprehensible to the skeptic. Such events are logically and physically impossible, reside outside the laws of nature and science, and therefore no rational, intelligent person could or should believe such unadulterated nonsense. Even those of religious conviction often struggle with this aspect of their faith. Some will simply dodge the issue: “The Bible says it, I believe it.” End of discussion — and not terribly satisfying for those seeking more rational evidence for faith than mere assent to the truth of revelation alone.

For most who reject the possibility of miracles, their impossibility arises less from evidence found lacking — for they rarely objectively evaluate the evidence — than from the presuppositions fundamental to their view of the world. If the universe is purely material, randomly engendered and devoid of any possibility of divine existence, then miracles must, by necessity, be either mythical in origin or have other, naturalistic explanations. For those who believe in some sort of divine entity or power — especially one which is impersonal or abstract — the intimate intervention of a personal, supernatural Being into the natural world in any demonstrable way is inconceivable. Even for those who may believe in a personal God, the idea that the divine would intervene demonstrably in ways contravening the laws of nature and their daily experience of the world seems highly implausible and impossibly remote.

Yet the problem of miracles is central to the integrity of faith. If in fact miracles cannot occur, if in fact they are naught but myths and morality tales, then faith itself must be without substance or certainty, and becomes nothing more than a comfortable belief system without basis in reality, history, or objective truth. The problem of miracles must be met head-on if we are to have a faith grounded in reason rather than diaphanous desire.

It is not imperative that every miracle held by faith be provable — indeed, were such a thing possible, it would destroy the very essence of faith, for we do not believe in what we see, but rather in that which is unseen. Once the premise that the divine can intervene, and indeed has intervened in tangible ways superseding the dictates of logic and the constraints of the material universe, however, the largest hurdle to accepting their possibility has been bridged. Reason demands that faith be reasonable: that the injection of the divine and transcendent into the temporal and material ought not lie purely within the realm of the easily-deceptive determinations born of mere thought or mental theorems. If God has stepped into history, we should expect to see His footprints.

Christianity at its very heart is about just such an injection of the timeless into time, of the transcendent into the material. The ripples of this event radiate throughout history, with implications unspeakably vast and ever-widening. At the vortex of this widening gyre lies a miracle: the God-man come to earth, unjustly executed, and subsequently raised from the dead. That a man should claim to be God is hardly unique; that a man be unjustly tortured and killed, and esteemed thereafter as a martyr, is no rare event. That a man should make such claims, and meet such an end, and rise thenceforth from the grave, recasts preposterous claims as profound certainty and transforms his death into something transcendent and immensely powerful. If this event is but myth, Christianity becomes nothing more than platitudes and powerless moralizing; if true, no event in time is more significant, no aspect of life untouched by its enormity and seriousness.

If belief in this miracle be reasonable, if we may trace these long-traveled waves of faith back to their source, and in the inspection of their origins find evidence substantial and compelling, then the world becomes a vastly different place from that seen through a myopic focus on superficial pseudo-reality and all-too-comfortable denial of the divine.

By their very nature as supernatural phenomena, one cannot “prove” a miracle as one might prove a math theorem. Nor will mere facts or historical evidence of themselves be sufficient to document with unquestioned certainty those things upon which so much rests — for the human mind often proves stubbornly intransigent when new conclusions run counter to cherished beliefs or worldview conviction. Were such a point-by-point approach fail-safe, there would be no Holocaust deniers nor 9/11 conspiracists.

If God exists, if He intrudes in human history in ways unexplainable by mere reason and material experience, then such a manifestation has profound implications for all who encounter it. For a God who intervenes thus in time stands face-to-face thereby with each of us, wherever we may stand. We may thereby hate Him or bow down to Him, but we can no longer live comfortably in delusional denial about such a reality.

It is my hope over the following posts to lay out such evidence in some detail. I break no new ground here; this evidence has been garnered and sifted many times over, by many other far more qualified to present it than I. But it seems apropos to present it again in some measure at this time, in an age increasingly skeptical and cynical, in a culture dismissive of truth and obsessed with the glorious glitter of vacuous beauty, of knowledge without wisdom, at the pinnacle of civilization yet ignorant of its stories and the substance of its soul.

Reason & Revelation

We’ve been mud-wrestling about scientific materialism vs. faith recently — especially with that peculiar disdain and condescension secular scientists often exude toward those foolish enough to believe in a divine Creator. One commenter named Mark, of the latter persuasion, started off reasonably enough but in short order fell off the cliff, ranting about my weaving a conspiracy worthy of Karl Rove. While I’m flattered to be compared to a master mind manipulator such as Mr. Rove (who controls the thoughts of countless wingnut drones, doubtless including mine), rational discussion is invariably fruitless with those of such a mindset, and he was, sadly, cast into the outer darkness.

Another commenter, the elegantly-named Chieftain of Seir, posed this comment to a subsequent post answering my friend Mark:

… I think you are expressing your frustrations at the wrong target. After all, the good book does say that judgment begins with the house of God, right?

I say that partially in jest. After all, you have to deal with the argument that is on your doorstep. But if you look around, I think you will find that most Christians use the same kind of reasoning as Mark. So why not direct your ire at your fellow Christians as well?

Mark \'s fundamental problem is that he thinks that anyone who does not accept his a priori beliefs is unreasonable. Most Christians think the same way. They typically argue that if anyone operated on pure reason without any biases then they would be forced to agree with the Christian position.

This is the same faulty logic that is used by Mark. People like to think that their a priori beliefs are required by reason. But reason does not require any particular a priori and it can never prove that any a priori is true. To think that reason will provide proof for your beliefs is a fool \'s hope for both the Christian and the Atheist.

… But what it all boils down to is that reason depends on revelation. It does not matter weather the revelation is what you see with your eyes or what you feel in your heart. It is all the same as far as reason goes. And the choice of what revelation you chose to accept as a guide to truth is made by the desires of your heart, not reason.

The Chieftain is beginning to tiptoe around some core issues here, although he does seem to have his wires crossed a bit, seemingly confused about both Christian belief and the relationship between revelation and reason — more on this in a moment. Let me say at the outset that I have no quarrel with the scientist who, be he atheist or agnostic, pursues science to its logical end, seeking deeper understanding of the mysteries of the universe, large and small. It is that peculiar arrogance of the secular fundamentalist — be he in science, or education, or politics, or most any field — which abrogates, in my opinion, all intellectual integrity, moving from objective pursuit of truth to subjectivism, disdain for differing opinions, and emotionalism, resulting in the intellectual suicide, as Herbert Spencer described it, of “contempt prior to investigation.”

Sweeping generalizations about what “most Christians think” seem common among those who understand little of what any Christian thinks, and miss the mark anyway: the standard is not what “most Christians” believe, but what Christianity as a faith has taught and maintained throughout its two-thousand year history. And while Christianity maintains that aspects of its core beliefs may be reached through reason alone — such as the existence of God, the nature of the soul, and the existence of a natural moral law — Christianity is above all a faith based on revelation. It maintains that God exists, that He is personal, and that He has intervened in human history, making Himself known both by written revelation and through the person of Jesus Christ. While the secular materialist views such a position as irrational — contrary to reason — Christianity maintains instead that it is supra-rational: not contrary to reason, but above reason by the very nature of God. It stands to reason that man — confined by his very nature to space and time — cannot through reason alone understand a Being who transcends space and time — eternal and self-existent in nature, unlimited in intellect and power, unchanged and unbound by time, having existed both before time and throughout eternity.

Yet Christianity also maintains that this God, who has revealed Himself to man, is the embodiment of pure reason, of absolute truth — hence His self-description as Logos, the pure Reason sought — and apprehended, albeit incompletely — by the high science of Greek philosophy.

The tension between science and faith is often thought of as beginning with Galileo, the Italian mathematician and astronomer who ran afoul of the Church for his theories in the early 17th century. But the conflict between reason and revelation is far more ancient, starting with the Greek philosophers who struggled to rationalize their crude pagan mythologies, and early Greek converts to Christianity, such as Justin Martyr, Tatian, and Origen. Augustine was the first to systematically address the relationship between faith and reason, finding faith preeminent while having great respect for Platonism and its logical constructs. The struggle continued with surprising intensity throughout the Middle Ages, finding its highest and most sophisticated resolution in the work of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. To a lesser extent, similar struggles between philosophy and theology were taking place not only in Christianity, but in Judaism and even Islam during this time.

While disputes about philosophy and theology may seem irrelevant to the struggle between 21st century science and religious belief, they are in fact highly pertinent to today’s polemics, for the core issues — the veracity of knowledge obtained by reason and investigation, versus knowledge derived from divine revelation — are identical. Aquinas distilled these differences with extraordinary clarity: I know by reason (or science, or mathematics) that a thing is true because I see that it is true. But I believe that something is true because God has said it — because its source is the embodiment of absolute truth. In the former, knowledge is affirmed because of sight; in the latter, because of source.

The scientific materialist stops at the first: nothing exists which cannot be verified by proof. Knowledge obtained by faith and revelation cannot be seen or proven, and is therefore invalid. The materialist cannot evaluate the immaterial, and thus must remain a rigid reductionist: all aspects of the universe, and in particular the peculiar aspects of our human nature — purpose, free will, love, sacrifice, spontaneity, creativity — must ultimately be attributed to deterministic sources: neurochemistry, genetics, survival instinct, random chance. Their philosophical handcuffs are constricting in the extreme — though few seem to understand the constraints and inconsistencies inherent in their own philosophy. They live, as all humans must, in utter disregard for their core conviction: they love and hate; make free choices; are spontaneous and unpredictable; act contrary to the prime directive of survival of the fittest through sacrifice and altruism; pursue life goals in accordance with principles which are both immaterial and unprovable.

By contrast, those who assent to knowledge by faith and revelation need not reject science, or knowledge, or reason — in fact, these remain critical tools by which to assess, and in some regard verify, their faith. Since we cannot see what we are called to believe, investigation using material knowledge, science, and history nonetheless may serve to verify or refute the proposition that revelation indeed has its source in a Being embodying absolute truth and trustworthiness. Thus, we evaluate scriptures claiming to be revelation with the tools of archeology, linguistics, textual analysis for internal consistency and external verification, to validate, in some measure, the veracity of such claims. When we find, as in the case of the Christian scriptures, extraordinary evidence of accuracy to ancient manuscripts sustained over many centuries, abundant internal and external evidence for origins nearly coincident with New Testament events, and abundant archaeological support for many of its events and personalities, we do not thereby prove that they represent divine revelation. But such evidence is consistent with what we would expect were they in fact revelation.

Thus logic and science do not prove faith — they cannot by their very nature — but lend credence and reasonableness to its veracity. Conversely, lack of such objective, measurable evidence — the lack of archaeological and historical evidence for the events of the Book of Mormon comes to mind — does not disprove its divine origins, but certainly suggests serious inconsistencies in its claim to be revelation.

And thus, by a long and rather circuitous route, we return to the Chieftain’s assertions: that reason depends on revelation, and that the veracity of revelation is purely subjective. Neither is true: one may have reason independent of revelation, and have revelation which is above reason, yet inferentially supported by the tools which reason provides. To maintain that any claim to revelation is valid, if we only believe it to be so, substitutes self-direction based on emotion (invariably self-serving) for revelation from the source of absolute truth.

And that supposition is, in my view, unreasonable.

A Fascinating Futility

I love this article, from the Seattle PI, in July 1940, on some “unusual” behavior on the just-completed Tacoma Narrows bridge — the same bridge which collapsed spectacularly 4 months later. I especially love this part:

Although the bridge is said to be utterly safe from an engineering standpoint, vertical movements along the center suspension span are proving “psychologically disturbing” to some users, the engineers admitted.

Of course the engineers and scientists were wrong — catastrophically wrong — and assurances based on the absolute certainty of their science and dismissal of terrified drivers as psychologically disturbed proved wildly and humorously foolish in retrospect.

Some things, it seems, never change: scientists never have doubts — and those who doubt their infallible wisdom must be psychologically disturbed.

In a recent post, I took to task an astronomer who, while presenting a most interesting but somewhat far-fetched explanation of the origin of the universe, also took that opportunity to ridicule those foolish enough to believe in the possibility of a divine creation. In the comments, a skeptic by the name of Mark took me to task for needing to rely on “religious stories” to make myself feel better. A short but interesting interchange took place thereafter, including this, his most recent comment:

“I have instead been transformed by a personal encounter and relationship with a Being far vaster than our paltry imagination and feeble intellects can begin to grasp.”

There \'s no evidence for this encounter at all.

Also, to consider the imagination paltry is to have little understanding of how YOUR imagined “relationship”, unproven as it is, is different from a perceived real. This difference, if not fully considered, may well be so imperceptible to the believer, that a psychologist may consider this experience a form of psychosis.

To say that my one who does not believe as you do has a heart filled with emptiness and futility merely offers the reader your experience of what it is like for you to live a life without these. You should have written “my human heart”, not “the human heart.” I think you have little understanding of individuals who are curious, who love, who contribute, without the need for the great lost and found department.

Your understanding of transcendent apart from your “spiritual and supernatural” is an uneducated one apart from your own experience as indicated in your declaration that this is a “futile feeling” and I think you need to spend time with real scientists who gaze at wondrous things every day.

I had planned to respond with another comment, but as my thoughts evolved, decided the topic would be better served by another post.

In response to my personal transformative experience of faith, which I have discussed frequently on this blog (see here and here), Mark responded as follows:

There \'s no evidence for this encounter at all.

This is an an extraordinary statement, yet not a terribly surprising one. Mark knows nothing of my genetics; nothing of the blessings and banes of my family of origin; nothing of my life experiences in childhood or adulthood. He knows nothing of my thoughts, my experiences, my successes or failures, nor the irrefutable, transformative effect of the power of spiritual relationship in my life. Yet he, presumably a secular scientist steeped in evidence-based knowledge, blithely dismisses all such experiences and evidence, and without even a hint of irony, assures me that there is “no evidence for this encounter at all.”

What is evident, however, is that evidence has nothing whatsoever to do with his statement: it is, pure and simple, a declaration of worldview.

In Mark’s world, there is no God, nor any possibility of God. This is his a priori position, and any and all evidence or suggestion to the contrary, must simply be dismissed, ridiculed, or ignored. The scientific method has nothing to do with this conclusion; there is no postulate to test, no experiments to evaluate, no revision of theory based on experimental outcome, no possibility of an answer other than that already predetermined. This is not science — it is religion — and religion in its worst form: blind faith untouched by reason, unshaken by evidence. The very thing he has accused me of — addiction to absolute certainty — is in fact his own largest blind spot: he is absolutely certain that there is no God, and all other facts, experiences, and contrary evidence in my life, or anyone else’s with similar experience, must be bent, folded, and mutilated into this materialistic worldview. As Chesterton once observed, “Only madmen and materialists have no doubts.”

“Also, to consider the imagination paltry is to have little understanding of how YOUR imagined “relationship”, unproven as it is, is different from a perceived real. This difference, if not fully considered, may well be so imperceptible to the believer , that a psychologist may consider this experience a form of psychosis.

Aaah, psychosis — that’s the answer. I’m nuts! Well, I can assure you I am quite sane — even my psychiatrist friends agree. And as a physician, I know something of psychosis: its clinical manifestation and symptoms are well-understood, having seen many patients suffering with this mental health disorder. But for the secular materialist, such standards of diagnosis are moot; psychology and psychiatry are for them both savior and sword. When your secular scientific theories fail to explain human behavior, or evil, or religious experience, it’s time to send in the clowns, wrapping your befuddlement and disdain in psychological terms like “psychosis.” That which scientists are unable to explain in human behavior, they delegate to the psychologists. But psychology and psychiatry have another significant benefit for the atheist: as a weapon to attack and neutralize those who reject their orthodoxy. It is no accident that psychiatry became a potent weapon in the hands of secular totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union. If you are not loyal and enthusiastic about the state and the party, you may well find yourself in a mental hospital, where you will be “treated” until you see the light. A similar fate awaits you for religious impulses as well. What you cannot explain, you must explain away; what you cannot explain away, you must persecute. Mental health services in the gulags were freely available, for all who disagreed.

I have great respect for mental health professionals. But they make far better physicians than metaphysicians. When they are ordained to postmodern priesthood, tasked with diagnosing and healing the soul and spirit of man while denying the existence of both, they begin looking quite as foolish as engineers dismissing bridge ripples.

Your understanding of transcendent apart from your “spiritual and supernatural” is an uneducated one apart from your own experience as indicated in your declaration that this is a “futile feeling” and I think you need to spend time with real scientists who gaze at wondrous things every day.

Our modern Gnostics do love to “educate” us until we see things their way, don’t they? I don’t recall saying anything about “futile feelings” — but I do plead guilty to the charge of ignorance: there are vast swaths of knowledge which I do not possess, vast expanses of information and experience of which I know little. I have far more questions than answers about this life, its origins and its meaning. And I find myself entirely comfortable — excited even — in this very uncertainty.

But as far as “gazing at wondrous things,” well, let’s see: in the past few weeks alone, I have viewed images generated by flipping nuclear protons in high-power magnetic fields, revealing extraordinary detail of human anatomy and pathology. I have marveled at the complex interaction of pharmacological chemicals with cellular physiology, as medications interact with human illness to provide relief and cure. I have sat and listened to the agony of a wife whose husband has Alzheimer’s, who has shared her agony of losing her partner of 60 years, her exhaustion at his care, her frustration with his bizarre behavior, yet heard her irrational but inspirational love and devotion to the man whose life she has shared. I have restored a man’s lost fertility, whose youngest child died at 3 months of age from SIDS — one month after his vasectomy — operating on structures the size of the human hair, using sutures invisible to the eye. I have sat in utter frustration, as every treatment and medication, the very best science has to offer, has failed to stem the progression of an aggressive bladder cancer, as I watch, helplessly, the agonizing hourglass of imminent cancer spread and ultimate death. I have marveled at the irreducible complexity of the human cell; at the infinite number of variables which influence medical treatment, response to surgery or therapy, and clinical outcomes; I have carefully dissected, removed, and cured an aggressive cancer of the prostate, while watching another whose treatment failed die slowly and painfully from the same disease. I have seen men die both with and without God — seen the peace and serenity in the eyes of one, despite almost unbearable agony, and the hopelessness and terror in the eyes of others with no such hope. I get to watch and participate daily in the complexity of life and death, health and disease, the richness of human experience, and the miracles of science applied to making lives better. I live daily with body, with soul, and with spirit — and engage each in its place. I happen to find all these things rather wondrous, and humbling, and yes, transcendent — silly me.

But perhaps Mark is right: maybe I should hang out with a “real scientists” who look through telescopes, and with their tunnel vision, star-gaze their way to meaning and purpose in cosmic clouds and compact dimensions, caressing their theoretical physics in orgasmic intellectual onanism. Perhaps then I will learn the real meaning of life, discovering thereby their secret to transcendence without God, with mysteries hidden deep within their superstrings or dark matter or tachyons. That such things are fascinating is doubtless true; that they may be true is doubtless fascinating; that they seek to explain why we love, or are curious, or contribute — or to what purpose we exist in space and time — is fascinatingly futile.

Or perhaps instead I will remain at the vortex of a unified field of truth, with God both sovereign and merciful at its center, immense as the universe and intimate as the heart. For from where I stand, the universe really does look quite wondrous indeed.