On Miracles: The Historical Jesus

I have begun, in a previous post, to lay out a framework for reasonable faith in the proposition of miracles, with particular focus on the Resurrection. By serendipity or grace, the following address by Rev. Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Denver, showed up recently in First Things:

I \'d like to start with a proposition. Here it is: To be a Christian is to believe in history.

All the great world religions have sacred books: the Qur \'an, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Analects of Confucius. What those sacred texts have in common is that they \'re essentially wisdom literature. They \'re collections of noble teachings aimed at helping believers live ethically and find the right path to peace or happiness or enlightenment.

The Bible also aims to make people wise. But it does much more. It seeks to lead them to salvation, which is much more than enlightenment. The Bible \'s starting point is totally different from any other sacred book. The first words are: “In the beginning . . .” The Bible begins with a step-by-step report of the first day in the history of the world. …

Christianity, thus, means believing definite things about history and about our own respective places in history. We don \'t just profess belief in the Incarnation. We say we believe that God took flesh at a precise moment in time and in a definite place. Pontius Pilate and Mary are mentioned by name in the creed — and the reference to Mary, his mother, guarantees Christ \'s humanity, while the reference to Pilate, who condemned him to death, guarantees his historicity.

All this ensures that we can never reduce the Incarnation to an abstract concept, a metaphor, or a pretty idea. It ensures that we can never regard Jesus Christ as some kind of ideal archetype or mythical figure. He was truly a man and truly God. And once he had a place he called home on this earth. There \'s something else, too. We believe that this historical event, which happened more than 2,000 years ago, represents a personal intervention by God “for us men and for our salvation.” God entered history for you and me, for all humanity.

These are extraordinary claims. To be a Christian means believing that you are part of a vast historical project.

The Archbishop’s speech is extraordinary, and I encourage you to read it. It cuts straight to the heart of the Christian faith: the assertion and conviction that it is not merely a belief system, nor simply a framework for morality and wise living, but rather a radical, and historical, event in time. Christianity claims, outrageously, that the eternal God of the universe stepped into time — and the events resulting from this intervention are verifiable in history, not merely believed in the intellect.

The Archbishop stresses, appropriately, this history as detailed in Scripture, and the subject of the historical veracity of Scripture I shall cover at some length in due time. But it may be argued — and has been — that the Scriptures are a hopelessly biased and distorted record, if indeed they are a record at all, of the events detailed in its its pages. Filled with fantastic myths and implausible events, written by zealots, they portray not history but fantasy. If indeed a man named Jesus even existed — and some doubt even this simple premise — we surely know little or nothing of him. Hence the distinction has grown between the “Jesus of history”, of whom we know precious little, and the “Christ of faith” — the spiritual apparition created by zealous followers and true believers, perhaps morally and ethically useful, but surely not based in history and fact.
Continue reading “On Miracles: The Historical Jesus”

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.

The Endless Mandala

nebulaCourtesy of PajamasMedia, I was drawn to a rather interesting site, Bad Astronomy, run by Phil Plait, an astronomer and self-described skeptic. He writes of a new interpretation of a theory called Loop Quantum Gravity, which he believes explains the behavior of the universe at its figurative Ground Zero: the instant of the Big Bang, where T=0.

Now our astronomer seems to be quite a nice fellow, very bright and a talented writer, skilled at explaining complex scientific problems in layman’s terms. He expounds on this new and most interesting mathematical theory, which concludes, if I understand him correctly, that the zero point of the universe, where its volume in current Big Bang models is theoretically zero and its density infinite, there may actually have been instead the extreme collapse of a preexisting universe — one quite different from the universe we now observe.

Toward the end of this fascinating essay, a few paragraphs caught my eye:

Also, and what \'s perhaps most exciting about these theories, is that they make predictions, predictions which can be verified or falsified based on observations. These are delicate experiments to be sure, but some will be possible to perform in just the next few years …

These theories may seem like mumbo-jumbo or magic, but they have that very basic property of science: they \'re testable.

And of course, I have to use this to stick it to the creationists once again. One thing they love to talk about is “fine tuning”, how so many physical constants (like the charge on an electron, and the strength of gravity and the nuclear forces) appear to be incredibly well-adjusted to produce not just our Universe, but intelligent life in it: us.

Well, some of us.

The creationists claim that the only way this could possibly happen is if some sort of Intelligent Designer — and let \'s not be coy, they mean God — set these values to be precisely what they are…

But now we see another answer to the creationists: maybe this isn \'t the only Universe. There might have been a string of them, reaching back in time, in meta-time beyond time. In those other Universes, maybe the electron had more charge, and stars couldn \'t form. Or maybe it had less, and every star collapsed into a black hole. But if you get enough Universes, and the constants change in each one, then eventually one will get the mix right. Stars will last for billions of years, planets can form, life can evolve, and on one blue green ball of dust, chemicals can get complicated enough that they could look inside themselves, understand what they see, and marvel at the very fact of their own existence.

And maybe, just maybe, they can also figure out how it all came to be. This isn \'t fantasy, folks, it \'s science. It \'s how things work.

Far be it for me to challenge this new mathematical theory of the origins of the universe. I dreamed of being an astronomer in my youth, actually — until I realized it involved more than just looking through telescopes. I had just enough of the wretched discipline of physics to satisfy my requirements as a chemistry major — and when chemistry began to look more and more like physics at its higher levels, I suffered my own Big Bang and ditched it all for medicine.

Now I’ll forbear, as a gentleman, our cheerful astronomer’s gratuitous slap at the intelligence of any and all yahoos who are stupid enough to believe there might be a God, Who in infinite goodness, wisdom, and extraordinary graciousness, created — for His pleasure and ours — this almost unfathomably-complex universe which we struggle to understand. And I’ll ignore — for the moment — the metaphysical Deus Ex Machina our astronomer friend employs, positing an endless recession of universes, an eternal quantum Cuisinart which finally hits the cosmic Lotto big-time, producing, in its billion-to-the-billionth-power iteration, the ultimate jackpot: a scientist who understands exactly what just happened — or thinks he does. (So much effort for so little return, no?). And as for the creationist straw man who understands God merely as a mighty supercomputer fine-tuning variables at T+n, well, … some things are best left to wallow in their own watery stew.

Now, it’s not my style to beat up on scientists — even on astronomers who paddle in the shallows of life’s meaning using self-inflated metaphysical water wings. I am, after all, a man of science, and some of my best friends are scientists (which makes for rather dull dinner parties, I’m told). But I am also something of a big-picture guy, and from my quantum-physics-challenged perch, looking upward with unbridled admiration at our supremely confident scientist-priests, this all looks, well, kinda silly to this simple fool.

My first observation is one of puzzled bemusement, wondering why our good astronomer, and so many of his friends, seem compelled to bother with those crazy creationists. After all, their own superior scientific knowledge of How Things Came To Be is a mere cosmic accident; the inferior knowledge, ye ignorance, of those who assert divine origins is itself simply another random facet of this grand cosmic crap shoot. Since we are all freakish accidents of a billion big bang beginnings, why all the condescension?

Yet there is implicit in such superciliousness a notion of better and worse, of good, and evil. Such moral judgment is inherent in the contempt for those espousing divine origins whenever they are ridiculed or castigated by scientific materialists.

The logic runs something like this:

  1. Science finds truth in fact, i.e. measurable physical properties or events;
  2. Creationists find truth (so-called) in the physically immeasurable, spiritual (i.e., imaginary or fantasy) realm;
  3. Science is based therefore on knowledge, and faith and religion, on fantasy and ignorance.
  4. Knowledge (science), therefore is good, ignorance (faith & religion) bad.

Yet against what objective standard is such value-assignment established? For implicit in judging something good, or better than something else, is the imperative that it stands closer to some objective ideal than that which is inferior. Why is knowledge better than ignorance in a universe engendered by random chance? What is good or evil in a system dictated by mechanistic, mathematically-determined natural selection? One may say that knowledge improves the chances of species survival — but this is simply untrue. The industrial age in the 18th and 19th century, with its rapid and extraordinary advances in science, engineering, industrial production and metallurgy, culminated in utilizing this knowledge to create the carnage of World War I, with 20 million of the species destroyed, and many millions more injured and crippled. Knowledge, after all, is agnostic: it can create antibiotics to save lives, or virulent bacteria to kill thousands by intent. It can target gamma rays to cure brain tumors — or target nuclear weapons to destroy mankind.

Knowledge, if it is to benefit rather than destroy the species, must be subservient to some absolute good which stands above and apart from the species itself — i.e., it must be transcendent. It is not sufficient that the species of man merely establish such absolutes by self-preserving convention from within; the Germans established just such a “good” — Aryan racial superiority — which led directly to the slaughter of 6 million Jews and between 50 and 70 million civilian and military casualties in WWII.

And if knowledge — accurate knowledge of the science of the universe, factually verified in all its intricacies — is the crowning accomplishment of countless eons of cosmic regeneration, then why does it matter? What is its purpose, after all? Does purpose, meaning, accomplishment, achievement make any sense whatsoever in such a world? In the endless mandala of creation and destruction of universes, what does it matter that some intelligent chemical concoction understands what has happened, and some others do not, in our instantaneous slice of time we call Today?

Purpose, aahh purpose: a funny notion this, is it not? Our astronomer finds purpose in understanding the universe, explaining it to others, and poking some fun at those whose insights do not align with his. So this is intelligent life, the culmination of endless ages: to be born, acquire some trivial portion of total knowledge through education and study, write a book, author a blog, get old, and die. To think we waited trillions of years to be but a pitiful ember from a party sparkler, ridiculing our intellectually-inferior time-travelers as we arc downward, our light quickly extinguished to insignificant ash. Pathetic and pointless, if true — perhaps the Epicureans were right: eat, drink, and study astronomy, for tomorrow we die.

Now, I detect a hint of hubris in our astronomer’s assertion that we can test, yes even prove such a theory of our origins. Not being versed in quantum mechanics or the nuances of nuclear physics, I must defer to others far brighter than I to assess this claim. But I must admit to a healthy skepticism about the likelihood of reproducing in the laboratory the tumultuous raging chaos of a universe imploding and instantly exploding outwardly again. Even our astronomer speaks of “bizarre quantum laws” taking effect, making it “impossible … to know everything about the universe at that moment.” Let’s just say my own Uncertainty Principle is hard at work here.

But perhaps this hubris is a window into our astronomer’s disdain, and that of others like him. Theirs is a curious condescension toward any who look beyond the intellect of man for answers our feeble minds get wrong in ways far more important than some immeasurable instant when the universe took shape. For our brilliant minds have failed spectacularly at grasping the far simpler issues of surviving in time. Why do we hate? Why does a man strap explosives to his body, immolating himself to kill those he does not know? Why do we crave ever more power and wealth, in a lunatic larceny which destroys others while culminating in an empty death devoid of meaning? Why do we fight with our wives, rape our women, abuse our children, deaden our mind and spirit with drugs and alcohol, or sexual profligacy, or garish gluttony, or ostentatious materialism?

Perhaps the key lies in this very hubris, this ascendancy of the self at the expense of others. At its heart, the rejection of an intelligent Creator is not about fact or fantasy, math or magic. It is about power and pride. Man must reign at the intellectual apex of the universe, with none higher. If his mind cannot understand it, it cannot be understood; if he does understand it, he can thereby control it. He who is brightest stands tall at the top of the heap, having scrambled over his intellectual inferiors in his climb to the top.

But God forbid our Gnostic priests should accept any such higher power or any intellect superior to their own. For if such a Being exists — One Who in unlimited knowledge, and foresight, and wisdom, created a universe of unspeakable beauty and immeasurable complexity — including the extraordinary mind and spirit of man — such a Being by all rights must be honored, worshiped, sought out and served. But to bend the knee breaks the will — and thus we see instead the extraordinary contortions. To deny a Creator we blithely play statistical roulette, whose odds are light-years long. We invent reincarnated universes whose physical laws are infinitely malleable, whose constants are variable, whose god is Chronos, whose existence we can barely imagine much less prove — and then call foolish those who find in a personal, wise, intelligent, beneficent Being, answers not only to our origins but to the deepest need and emptiness of our very souls.

So let the search continue for the mathematical answer to the meaning of life. Spare no efforts, leave no theory unturned. We fools at peace with our Creator and His glorious creation will watch in quiet bemusement as you spin your endless circles in the feverish pursuit of your tails.

What’s Wrong is Wright

Courtesy of the Drudge Report, I was drawn to read a New York Times article (login required) on Barack Obama,, his faith and conversion, and his pastor, Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.

The article presented some interesting background on Mr. Obama and his church — a topic with which I had been previously unfamiliar. But what I found of greater interest was the broader perspective highlighted by the Times article regarding the role of religious beliefs in public figures, particularly politicians, and how secular political movements in the postmodern age use religion.

Not surprisingly, the New York Times — along with virtually all major media outlets — come across as pleasantly confused about the nature of religious conversion, particularly as it applies to Christianity. The focus of this article is on the theology and controversial teachings of his spiritual mentor Reverend Wright, who pastors Trinity United Church of Christ, and addresses its potential impact on Mr. Obama’s presidential candidacy.

My eye was drawn to the description of Reverend Wright, who is identified as:

… a dynamic pastor who preached Afrocentric theology, dabbled the radical politics and delivered music and profanity-spiked sermons.

Antennas pop up when someone alludes to Christian pastors with “Afrocentric” (or any other “-centric”) theology. Additional research quickly disclosed that Reverend Wright is indeed, shall we say, “controversial.” It appears that the good Reverend espouses a form of Christianity, so-called, which depicts America as deeply — and intractably — racist; which believes America to be a far greater threat to the world than murderous tyrants who slaughter millions; who believes there are two types of white Christians — those “who lynch people in the name of Jesus”
and those “who ain’t got time to lynch people”; who, rather famously, after a fiery sermon about all the injustices which white America has promulgated on blacks, the poor, third world countries, women and children, and the usual litany of complaints about lack of healthcare, the homeless, etc. is quoted as saying, “God is tired of this shit!”

One wonders if God is also tired of ministers with potty mouths. Or tired of pastors who view their white Christian “brothers” as lynchers-in-waiting.

In short, Reverend Wright and his theology fall squarely on the radical left, racial-hating-and-baiting side of the political and religious spectrum.

As Seinfeld might say, “… not that there’s anything wrong with that!”

Oh, wait — maybe there is something wrong with that.
Continue reading “What’s Wrong is Wright”

Moses & Multiculturalism


If you are not a regular reader of First Things — well, you owe it to yourself to make it a regular watering hole on you daily reading journey. Excellent writing, in-depth posts on the intersection of faith and the public square, the culture wars, and topical posts on Christianity in contemporary Western culture, from both Catholic and evangelical perspectives.

Today’s post is Moses & Multiculturalism by RR Reno, and it is excellent and thought-provoking — and provides a nice segue into a new essay I’m working on, coming to a web browser near you, Real Soon Now™.

Moving the Ancient Boundaries – IV


This is a series on the erosion of moral, cultural, and ethical boundaries in modern society:
 
 ♦ Part 1 — Moving the Ancient Boundaries

 
 ♦ Part 2 — The Rebel & the Victim
 
 ♦ Part 3 — Undermining Civil Authority

 
stone walls

Do not move the ancient boundary stone
   set up by your forefathers.

        — Proverbs 22:28 —

 

 ♦ The Assault on Religious Authority

Undermining the legitimacy of civil authority and mutating the role of government into an instrument for protecting personal licentiousness — while endlessly chasing solutions to the incorrigible problems thus generated — is a key element in the secular postmodern pursuit of a utopian dream of unbridled freedom without consequences. But it is not sufficient; other centers of authority must likewise be transformed to serve the individual over the common good, or neutralized to overcome their resistance to such trends.

Religion, which promotes transcendent values, and strives to restrain destructive individualism and promote the common good through the development of character strengths such as service, charity, self-restraint, and accountability, is a prime alternative source of authority to government — and serves to restrain its excesses and aberrant tendencies as well. As such it is a prime target for the individualist committed to promoting an unrestrained and unaccountable utopia, enforced by the levers of government power.
Continue reading “Moving the Ancient Boundaries – IV”