This category contains most of the information pages for Thinking Matters, such as contributor profiles, the about page, and so on.

Book Summary: A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World

Children from families who have immigrated are often said to be caught between two cultures. They belong to their parents’ culture but grow up within another. It can be a tricky tension for them to navigate as they often wish to be faithful to their ‘home culture’ as well as fit in with their adopted culture at school and with their friends.

Children from Christian families growing up in New Zealand could likewise be called “two culture” kids, because they face a similar tension. In one way or another, they ‘belong’ to the Christian faith as a culture inherited from their family. But they are also members of their wider societal culture which at points pressures them to compromise their inherited Christian culture. While not all children from Christian families maintain their family’s faith, the need to navigate the tensions between their two cultures remains.

John Stonestreet and Brett Kunkle’s A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World is exactly what it says on the cover (even if it explicitly identifies neither the “next generation” or “today’s world”). It is not so much a book for young Christians themselves to read, although it would certainly be helpful for them. Rather, it is for parents, caregivers, mentors, and youth workers who wish to see the young people under their charge make their way through a changing society with their increasingly alien faith intact. Most encouragingly, it is, as the title states, practical. It is no book of intellectual theorisation. Stonestreet and Kunkle write for people at the coalface of raising and guiding youngsters – but leave ample sources for further reading to those who want it. It is written within and for North American culture, but it serves well enough for other western cultures too.

The book achieves its purpose via four parts.

The first part of the book is the most theoretical. It gives its readers the reference points for what follows by describing what culture is and what it is not. The authors suggest we must consider culture within the context of the Christian faith, and not vice-versa, as well as clarify what success in Christian living will look like in our particular time and place. To do this, we must also understand Christian faith well. For this reason the authors take the time to lay out the main contours of the grand narrative of the Bible, as well as raise the question of what is our place and purpose within it. It is not enough to know what isn’t right with our culture – to be helpful guides we do need to understand not only where we are, but also where we have come from, where we are going, and how we will get there. That is the purpose of part one.

This first section is worth taking some time to read as it will help to understand the theory that lies beneath the practical stuff. It is important for understanding what is driving cultural issues at a deep level – perhaps akin to diagnosing the cause of an illness rather than merely band-aiding the symptoms. One thing that is useful is the breakdown of a culture into its constituent parts and functions: ideas, consequences, champions, artefacts, and institutions. These are helpful to remember as specific issues are raised later in the book.

Part two identifies four elements of our culture that shape it at a deep level. These are things that tend not to be noticed and tend to be causes rather than symptoms. These are not the only four drivers operating beneath the surface level, but they have been selected as they have a higher relevance for young people. These are: 1) the torrent of information presented to people daily, 2) the lack of societal agreement over what it means to be human and what life and community is for, 3) the impact of social media upon community and relationships, and 4) the problems caused by prolonged adolescence and the reluctance or inability to transition properly into adulthood.

The third part of the book is titled “Pounding Cultural Waves”. Announcing that it is now “time to get really practical”, the authors “tackle eight contemporary cultural challenges that are pounding away at our young people” (p. 153). The eight challenges are as follows: pornography, casual physical intimacy, sexual orientation, gender identity, affluence and consumerism, addiction, entertainment, and racial tension.

Each chapter within this section follows a set pattern. First, an overview of the issue and some relevant statistics are given. Following this is a section titled “Don’t Buy the Cultural Lies”, where false ideas are uncovered – for example, the idea that pornography is a harmless expression of sexuality, or that what we own defines who we are. The third sections are titled “Recapture the wonder of God’s story”, which aim to provide a positive affirmation of biblical truth – for example the peace and satisfaction in God that should allay our desire to own more and more stuff; or the depiction of what it means to be human according to God’s design, together with the solution when things when human existence fails to live up to how God first made it. After this some “Action Steps” are provided which give some practical and concrete suggestions for parents and mentors. The fourth major subsection to each of these chapters is called “Hopecasting”, where the authors point to signs for hope in the present which demonstrates instances of real turnarounds where we can see that God is at work and things are changing for the better. One example I particularly liked was about a group of university students who organised a ‘Real Sex Week’ event at their campus as an alternative to the ‘Sex Week’ organised by another student group. Rather than focussing on crude and casual sex, they provided talks on beneficial sex education. Each of these chapters concludes with a very short list of resources for further exploration and suggested questions to facilitate discussion.

The four short chapters of the fourth and final section is called “Christian Worldview Essentials.” These are a selection of topics that cap off the book by addressing some Christian formation issues the authors felt needed special treatment. These are: 1. Understanding God and reading the Bible well; 2. Why to trust the Bible; 3. Living and proclaiming Christ in a religiously plural culture; and 4. Engaging positively with our culture. Each of these presents the topic in an accessible way that assists parents and mentors to help young people live faithful Christian lives in our present context.

The fourth of these chapters (on positively engaging our culture) explores four questions worth recounting here: What good can we celebrate, protect, promote, and preserve? What is missing that we can contribute? What evil can we stop? What brokenness can we restore? The ideal the authors strive for – and which Christian parents ought share – is for young people not simply to survive adolescence with their faith intact, but to make a difference with it.

 

Thumbing through this book as I write this, I feel that what I have written doesn’t really do justice to the helpfulness of this book. It is simple to read (as its authors intended it) but carries a lot more deep insights than could appropriately be crammed into a post like this. There were many quotes and thoughts I had marked that would have been great to have shared, but these I will have to invite the reader to find for themselves. This book deserves more than a swift read through. Although it is an easy read that could be completed quite quickly, the real payoff will come with thoughtful reading, discussion, and follow-up of the sources for further reading (some of which are available online). I leave the reader with my commendation of A Practical Guide to Culture and invite them to see for themselves its usefulness for Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World.

This books is available in our store: A Practical Guide to Culture: Helping the Next Generation Navigate Today’s World 

 

The Power of Genesis One – Part Two: Humanity

Part one explained that the message of the first chapter of the Bible is possibly the most influential text the world has known –  it introduces a worldview that has significantly shaped the modern world we know.  It explained how Genesis 1 is all about a radically new idea, God and His acts of creation.  It is about the creator, not the details of his creation.  It is not about the physical process but about the processor, God Himself.  It is about how He did it, about His creative word.  It is about why things are, His purposes, not the details of what is. And we showed how that without it there would be no modern science and technology.

Part two goes on to explain that without an understanding of the message of Genesis 1 there would be little if any understanding of the prior value of human life, no consciousness of environmental and social responsibility, and no international cooperation for the common good. Human life would be much like living in a hostile jungle.

Continuing from part one’s unpacking of the key ideas in Genesis 1 about the creation of the cosmos, we now begin to see where humanity fits into this story.

A repeated phrase in the text is

And God saw that it was good

This was saying that the various parts of creation had value.  This value was not because of their use to us humans who were yet to be mentioned in the story.  This value was intrinsic value.  God values His creation.

After the story of creating everything including humans, it reads:

God saw everything He had made and indeed it was very good

This implied that the whole of creation, including humans, working together in the harmony of its designed order is extremely valuable. Herein lies the ‘why’ underpinning ecology and environmental science.  People who believe Genesis 1 have good reason to be environmentalists.

Introducing humans into the story it reads:

Let Us make man in Our Image

Prior to this God said, “let there be”, but in making humans He said, “let Us make man in Our image”.  The plurality of His being, as expressed in the name Elohim, is highlighted.  The ultimate unity in diversity was to be reflected in humanity.  Herein lies the ‘why’ underpinning the value of human diversity.  People who believe Genesis 1 have good reason to relish in and enjoy the flourishing of cultural diversity.

The “image and likeness” of God has multiple layers of meaning.  Amongst these are the characteristics of God He has already revealed in the previous verses of the story, such as:

God is eternal, so we are created to live eternally.

God is a fellowship, so humans are to live in fellowship.

God is a creator-worker so we are created to creatively work like Him.

God speaks His Word so humans are able to communicate information and ideas – with words. And, as God’s words were the means of His creativity, human’s expressed ideas are the foundation of our creativity.

God is intelligent so we are able to “think God’s thoughts after Him”.

God is the law-giver (see part 1) and so controls the whole of creation, so we are created to rule over or manage the earth with Him.

God values all that He created.  He cares for it all. And so we are to value as He values, to love as He loves.  

The text continues:

And God blessed them

God has a purpose for humanity. He extended the grace of life and the ability to reproduce to them. 

God said.. .fill the earth and subdue it..…have dominion over .. living things.

God had this purpose for humanity.  It was to manage the earth.  This included the development of the resources of the earth.  God had a planned relationship of humans to living things, to value and care for His creation.  It was not to exploit and destroy but to manage the living world.

It is currently popular in some circles to accuse the Bible of inspiring the exploitation of the environment, referring to this verse.  The issue is not the taking dominion of the living things, but how that is done.  Do we ‘do our own thing’ or first listen to the voice of God in creation – listen to and obey the science?  In our time, modern environmental scientists have embraced this charge to manage the welfare of living things, not to exploit and destroy but, as good stewards, to be responsible for their flourishing.  Many don’t appreciate that this moral obligation, this burden of responsibility, comes from God’s Word.

It was this impulse in humanity to understand and manage which led to the necessary scientific investigation which is discussed in Part 1.

Imago Dei

The implications of our creation in the ‘image and likeness’ of God can be summarized in three groups of responsibilities:

Relational likeness: We are created with the purpose and ability to relate to God and to love what God loves – to love others in a meaningful way.

Character likeness: We are created with the purpose of reflecting the holiness of God.  We have moral responsibility. 

Functional likeness: We are created with the responsibility to represent God in our work of earth-management.

How this aspect of Genesis 1 works out in human society and activity:

The Value of human life

Because Christians believe we are specially made in the image of God, societies with a Biblical Christian tradition put the highest value on human life.  The original humanism in the western world arose at the time of the reformation.  It was Christian humanism, Christians valuing of human life and having the flourishing of all humans as a priority.

As a result, Christians are at the forefront of protecting human life – of all human life – the poor and vulnerable, the members of minority groups, the unborn and the old and infirm.

The Value of Human Community

It flows automatically that if we are created to relate to God and to each other we will value human communities.  Out of reverence to God we will, in turn, honour one another and work together to achieve our God-given purposes.

The Value of human diversity

Because Christians believe we are made in the image of God, who is the ultimate diversity in perfect unity, we have an understanding that humans are diverse for a purpose – to express the amazing diverse glory of God.  The move to eliminate the tribalism and racism that has plagued humanity for all of known history began with Christians who were convinced that all humans were equally made in the image of God.  It was Christians believing Genesis 1 who defied the prevailing mindset of tribal (and international) warfare and developed the idea of international cooperation for the flourishing of all humanity.

The Value of the will of others

Because others are made in the image of God with moral responsibility, with the God-given will to choose to fulfil God’s plan for them, Christians will respect the will of others.  Leaders will value the ideas of their team members and give them the freedom to outwork their calling with God given imagination, intelligence and creativity.  This is the value underpinning the practice of ‘democracy’, shifting the power from the king/leader to the people. Teachers and mentors will give the students under their guidance the freedom to make choices in the light of the wisdom they are imparting to them, and thus practice moral responsibility.  

The Value of non-human life

Genesis 1 declares that God highly values His creation working together in harmony.  This in particular involves humans who have, according to Genesis 1, a responsibility to care for the living things on Earth.  The ‘soul’ of the environmental movement arose from Genesis 1.

In summary

Genesis 1 is all about a radically new idea, God and His acts of creation.  It is about the creator, not the details of his creation.  It is not about the physical process but about the processor, God Himself.  It is about how He did it, about His creative word.  It is about why things are, His purposes, not the details of what is.  It is about His purpose and His highly valuing and blessing His creation.  It is about His love for us.  It is about God commissioning us humans to fulfill His purpose for us.

The ideas of Genesis 1 are the foundational ideas which spawned modern science and technology, that gave rise to the values which undergird democracy, drive international cooperation, humanitarianism and endeavours to increase human flourishing.

This is why Genesis 1 is one of the most powerful writings in the whole history of humanity.

 

 

The Power of Genesis One – Part One: The Cosmos

The message of the first chapter of the Bible is arguably the most influential text the world has known.  It introduces a worldview that has shaped the modern world we know.  Without it there would be no modern science and technology, no consciousness of environmental and social responsibility, and no international cooperation for the common good. Human life would possibly be like living in a hostile jungle.

What is the message of Genesis 1?

Background:

Its writer and the initial readers, lived in a world uninformed by subsequent history, the Bible and especially modern science.  To understand it, we need to step into their world and their thinking.  To ancients the existence and function of the world was all a mystery.  They called it the heavens and earth. To help make sense of it they told stories of ‘gods’ or powers that influenced and shaped natural phenomena.  They believed a range of ideas along the lines that it is a result of random events involving the interaction of these personal powers.  There was little idea of ultimate origins.

The book of Genesis is historical narrative.  This means it is the story of events reported by those who witnessed them.  Research such as archaeology confirms it is consistent with the evidence and there is no reason to doubt it is accurate history.  The very beginning of the book, the story of creation is an introduction to this history and by nature does not fit neatly into the genre of reported history. It could be described as ‘pre-historical’ truth.

Clearly the story is told in a patterned form.  The repetition in the pattern is there to emphasize the truth being conveyed.  We should give attention to the repeated expressions to see the main meaning.  

It is worth reading Genesis 1 in conjunction with this.

The Main Message

At the risk of oversimplifying it, or reading too much into the text, here is what I see are the main points of what it says.

In the beginning

Immediately the readers were confronted by a new idea.  The world had a beginning.  It has not always been there as they had assumed.

God created the heavens and the earth

God, Elohim is a plural yet singular word. It has the sense of the most holy ‘other’.

God exists and is a fellowship, the ultimate diversity in unity. Unlike their ‘gods’ Elohim is not part of the universe but pre-exists it. He is eternal. He made it all.

All that exists did not just happen.  This answers the question, “Why is there something, rather than nothing?” It was purposefully made!  It has meaning! It is not a product of chance processes. It is not just a cosmic accident!

The earth was without form and void

The word “was” has the sense of “becoming” and so could be rendered, “in the process of becoming it was”.   If it was shapeless, “the earth” may well mean, at this stage, “the matter that makes up the earth”, a legitimate use of the word “earth”. 

Highlighting formlessness and emptiness is a hint that what is to come is describing two things, the shaping and the filling of the world. There were three phases of shaping called days 1-3, and three of filling called days 4-6.

And darkness was over the face of the deep ……

There was nothing to see yet.  There was the absence of light.  There was no input of what we call energy yet.  This was to come from the “Spirit of God” moving.  Until this comes nothing can change and hence time is meaningless.

Then God said

This is the first repeated phrase. It is the introduction to each day.  It is the chief clue to the point of each day.   We need to delve deeper.

Words were considered more than mere emissions of sound.  They were powerful extensions of one’s being, communicating information and ideas.  This concept of God’s words, or Word is subsequently developed through the Bible.  For example, Psalm 19 is about God speaking.  The second section of verses (9-11) uses five words to describe God’s word or speech; the law, the statutes, the precepts, the commands and the fear of the Lord. “God said” thus gives the idea that He was putting into place laws or principles which shaped and governed what He created, and that these laws need to be respected and obeyed.  The initial readers would have sensed something of this.

This expression, “then God said” is repeated eight times: eight times of information input into creation, of special creating power as distinct from sustaining power.

Let there be light

Light, piercing the darkness and formlessness, needs to be the first aspect of creation.

When God said “Let there be Light” He was putting into place the principles that hold the universe together, that determine the relationship between what we call matter and energy.

God called ..

In a similar way to “God said”, the expression “God called” has implications of more than just name-giving.  It implies some power or purpose.  It reflects the idea of organizing and classifying His creation.  Day and night, the arrangement of the sun and stars and the seasons have specific purposes.  They have a reason, God’s reason.

The evening and the morning were the … day

Why ‘evening and morning’ rather than ‘morning and evening’?  The word ‘evening’ has the sense of ‘making obscure’, the onset of darkness, the lack of revelation.  The word ‘morning’ has the sense of unfolding, dawning or revealing.   Thus this expression conveyed a sense of bringing into the light, moving from nothing to something, of lifelessness to being fully alive. It is a wonderful expression of each phase or aspect of God’s creation, bringing ‘cosmos’ out of ‘chaos’.

The first day,  the second day…the sequence of days

God did not create it all at once. God had a plan, a strategy.  It was an organized process. He created the necessary environmental structures before creating the creatures to go in them.

This was not a random spontaneous series of acts.  This was in stark contrast to the spontaneous acts of the capricious gods the first readers or hearers were prone to believe in.  Typical so called “creation stories” of the time were really stories of the conflicts of various gods and princes.  Creation myths from around the world typically involve the conflict of beings such as gods or princes and the subsequent fanciful (from our scientific point of view) creation of some part of the world.  Thus the acts of “creation” were unintended bi-products of the interaction of spiritual beings.

But this story relates an orderly planned sequential speaking into existence of creation

And on the seventh day God ended His work …  and He rested …”

God ceased from His creating.  This suggests that there is a distinction between His supernatural information adding and creative activity, which was the subject of His work in the 6 ‘days’, and His ongoing sustaining activity that continues throughout and into the ‘day of rest’.  It is the investigation of this sustaining power that constitutes science.

In summary

Genesis 1 is all about a radically new idea, God and His acts of creation.  It is about the creator, not the details of his creation.  It is not about the physical process but about the processor, God Himself.  It is about how He did it, about His creative word.  Rather than the details of what is, it is about why things are, His purposes. It is introducing the idea that God is the creator and sustainer of everything.

Its power

500 years ago, through the invention of the printing press and the subsequent reformation, the Bible became available in common languages to the people of Europe.  Before this the Bible was in limited supply and could be read only by the church hierarchy who could read Latin.  Now literate people could read it in their own language and with an open mind to discover what it really said.  Genesis was rediscovered, read and believed.  People rediscovered that this world was made by God and continues to exist by the power of His word.  They read in the Bible that all things hold together by His power. They realized it runs on God’s orderly principles, and that God invites us to listen to His voice in creation.  So Christians began the quest of discovering these principles.   God’s sustaining work as revealed in Genesis 1 became the subject of what became known as scientific investigation.  

Pioneers of this scientific thought realized that a pantheistic world view inhibited further discovery.  Men like Johannes Kepler, the father of astronomy surmised that we could think God’s thoughts about the cosmos too.  The majority of the many ‘fathers’ of modern science (e.g. Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday) were theologians, pastors, church leaders, Christian philanthropists and the like, who wanted to ‘think God’s thoughts after Him’, studying God’s book of works (nature) along side of God’s book of words (the Bible).  They saw their scientific discoveries confirming Genesis 1.  Science is listening intently to the voice of God in creation.  Thus, Genesis 1 and the Bible became ‘the mother’ of modern science and technology. 

The world will never be the same again – because people seriously believed Genesis1.

For further easy reading:

Norsworthy J, Why Science Matters, What does the Bible say about things scientific, (2018), ConsultEd , Tauranga, NZ.

Graves D, Scientists of Faith, Forty-eight biographies of historic scientists and their Christian faith, (1996), Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI

 

 

How Evolutionary Naturalism Undermines Environmentalism

It was morning, and a silver fog was melting away on the bay below. A fresh, brisk Wellington wind galloped over the mountainside. I was crouched down on the soil with my cohort of volunteers. As we continued planting seedlings, our hearts filled with hope for the degraded forest around us. I paused often to drink in the lovely New Zealand landscape. My teammate noticed and struck up a conversation.

            “It’s amazing,” he said, “isn’t it?”

            I smiled. “It really is. I’ll never get tired of this.”

            “And isn’t it amazing to think this is all here by accident?” he continued.

We went on working in silence, but that short exchange struck a chord deep in my mind. The conversation we had that morning was a seed, and only now has a fuller understanding germinated. Only after years of pondering the philosophical implications of environmentalism am I now able to share some preliminary thoughts about why his question bothered me so deeply…

          Isn’t it amazing to think this is all here by accident?

…Yes, it is amazing to think this is all here by accident, amazing and terrible, because it removes the very reasons we have for protecting a forest in the first place. Evolutionary naturalism challenges humanity’s role as environmental steward by removing our responsibility in three key ways. First, evolutionary naturalism evokes ‘survival of the fittest’ whereby the strong persist and the weak die off. Yet environmental stewardship seeks to protect and value the weak. Second, evolutionary naturalism operates through natural selection whereby random changes shape the world. Yet environmental stewardship necessitates deliberate management. Third, evolutionary naturalism presents the human race as merely one of many animal species. Yet, for environmental stewardship to be logical, we must concede that humans are distinct from other organisms. This article seeks to demonstrate how the Christian worldview presents a coherent case for environmental stewardship whereas evolutionary naturalism undermines it.

In the ensuing discussion, ‘naturalism’ refers to the philosophical view that reality is exhausted by nature and contains nothing supernatural; therefore, this view assumes scientism meaning the scientific method should be employed to examine all facets of reality.[1] ‘Evolution’ refers to the process by which all existing life has been developed from earlier forms through the unguided process of natural selection.[2] Thus it should be noted for the sake of this paper that naturalism is a philosophical view of reality while evolution refers to the physical process producing that reality.

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST           

‘Survival of the fittest’ refers to the survival of organisms best adapted to their environment.[3] In this view, the strong persist while the weak perish. Michael Soulé, one of the forefathers of conservation biology, explains why extinction is considered good through the lens of survival of the fittest; Soulé writes, “Extinction is…good because it is part of the process of replacing less well-adapted gene pools with better adapted ones.”[4] As a conservation biologist I am forced to ask: Why does my entire field go directly against the principle of extinction? In the natural order, the weak die off while the strong survive. Yet in conservation biology, the weak are targeted for protection and assisted at great lengths. In fact, New Zealand’s department of conservation spends millions of dollars each year on conservation projects to protect vulnerable species. The money spent on conservation initiatives increase each year, with the 2018 budget providing a $182 million increase.[5] In many countries, millions of government dollars are mingling with the blood sweat and tears of conservationists, all poured out in an effort to counteract extinction. If survival of the fittest is the natural order of things, why are we working against it by protecting the vulnerable?

In many countries, millions of government dollars are mingling with the blood sweat and tears of conservationists, all poured out in an effort to counteract extinction. If survival of the fittest is the natural order of things, why are we working against it by protecting the vulnerable?

According to the Christian understanding, all of creation, even the weak, has intrinsic value because all of it is valued by God. For instance, God calls His creation ‘good’ before humans are ever on the scene. He makes His value judgment about the natural world before we do (Genesis 1v31). This means that God is the source of creation’s value; each element of God’s creation gets its objective value from Him and not from humanity. Many passages describe the intrinsic value of creation outside the context of human life (Psalm 104). This Christian view of nature’s intrinsic value stands in stark contrast to naturalistic thinkers like Soulé who writes, “The mechanisms by which such value judgments arise in consciousness are unknown…We could speculate about the subconscious roots of the norm, ‘diversity is good.’ In general, humans enjoy variety. We can never know with certainty whether this is based on avoiding tedium and boredom or something else, but it may be as close to a universal norm as we can come…Perhaps there is a genetic basis in humans for the appeal of biotic diversity.”[6] From a naturalistic perspective, there is simply no basis for protecting the weak. In fact, we can’t even be sure where any of our value judgments come from; they are entirely arbitrary. Yet in the Christian view, our desires and perspectives are gradually conformed to see the world in the way God sees it. Thus, our value judgments become His value judgments as we grow in spiritual maturity. We are made in the image of a God who protects and defends the weak, epitomized by Christ Himself becoming the weakest of all in order to rescue humanity from spiritual extinction.[7]

…in the Christian view, our desires and perspectives are gradually conformed to see the world in the way God sees it.

NATURAL SELECTION

If survival of the fittest is the outcome, natural selection is the process leading to that outcome. Natural selection is the process by which certain genetic types are preserved within populations, subspecies, or species.[8] This process is the hand that picks a card at random from the fanned deck of gene pools spread out before it. Natural selection is understood to be the deterministic force while random genetic drift is the stochastic element.[9]

It is interesting, then, that those who love nature do not ‘let nature take its course’. Rather, hundreds of organizations have taken ownership of lands in order to manage them. This deliberate gaining of control can sometimes be unsettling to environmentalists, but it is regarded as necessary, if not a bit unnatural. Higgs puts it bluntly in his work Nature by Design: “As restorationists we are involved in the design of ecosystems and places whether we like it or not”[10]. Similarly, ecologist Bill Jordan writes: “Restoration is shameful because it involves…a measure of hegemony over the land; because it dramatizes not only our troubling dependence on the natural landscape, butequally troubling—its dependence on us.”[11]

From a naturalistic point of view, environmentalism can certainly be seen as ‘hegemony’. Yet naturalism cannot answer the question of whether or not nature belongs to us. If it does, where did we get the authority to manage it? Again, the Christian perspective offers clarity where evolutionary naturalism offers only confusion and contradiction.

In the Christian paradigm, creation belongs to God and is His property. Psalm 24v1 states that the earth and everything in it is God’s possession. Similarly, Deuteronomy 10v14 explains that the whole universe is owned by God, not by us. He is the supreme landlord, we are the tenants. Yet our Creator did not hoard His treasures for Himself, but made us keepers of His world. This theme is repeated many times throughout the Old Testament. Genesis 2v15 reads: “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (emphasis mine) In his seminal work Reconciliation Ecology, Michael Rosenzweig comments, “God said ‘Of all that lives, of all flesh, take two of each to keep alive with you.’ This is the commandment of reconciliation… ‘Keep alive’ is a perfect translation of the original Hebrew. The Hebrew uses a Semitic construction called causative. Hence, ‘keep alive’ means that we are required to actively cause all those species to stay alive.”[12]   Humans have an innate desire to actively manage nature. We come by that desire honestly, though many of us have forgotten it, or we’ve burned it from our psyche by the blue light of technology and sparkling flame of industry.

Yet our Creator did not hoard His treasures for Himself, but made us keepers of His world.

To fully understand our capacity for environmentalism, we must understand our role as keepers of nature. Picturing humanity in this way has huge ethical implications because it means we are accountable to God for how we treat His possession—His natural world. The Cape Town Commitment describes proper management of the natural world as “the logical outworking of our love for God by caring for what belongs to Him.”[13] Active management is essential to environmentalism, yet from the viewpoint of evolutionary naturalism it can be nothing more than a form of hegemony which counteracts a naturally stochastic process.

HUMANITY AS ONTOLOGICALLY ANIMALISTIC

According to evolutionary naturalism, humans are an advanced species of primate and nothing more. If we apply the precepts of natural selection, we may deduce that our species has been naturally selected for. We are what Darwin would have called the “favourable variation” that is preserved.[14]  If we then apply an understanding of survival of the fittest, we will see that our species is naturally pushing other species out of the biosphere due to its own success. From a purely naturalistic evolutionary perspective, there is nothing lamentable about this. If the rise and fall of species is a game of Go, the highly adapted Homo sapiens sapiens is winning due to our naturally acquired propensity to drive other species to extinction. If this ‘favourable trait’ has been naturally selected for, there is no rational reason to stop driving other species to extinction. Similarly, if we are nothing more than a product of genetics, behaviors such as polluting ecosystems, overuse of resources, and animal abuse can all be seen as naturally derived. Should we, for instance, feel guilty about making landfills that are visible from space?[15] Should we feel culpable for introducing invasive species into other areas of the earth? Or were these behavioral traits genetically selected for through evolutionary naturalism? Emma Marris investigates this question in her book Rambunctious Garden. Marris asks, “What happens to the concept of ‘invasive species’ if you fold humanity back into nature and consider us just another way species move around, along with migration and ocean currents?  Presto change-o, it disappears.”[16] To ask a more pointed question: are humans or are humans not part of nature?

“What happens to the concept of ‘invasive species’ if you fold humanity back into nature and consider us just another way species move around, along with migration and ocean currents?  Presto change-o, it disappears.” – Emma Harris

Theologian Christopher Wright argues that we fit both categories. Christianity paints humanity as above nature since God’s creation was given to us in a different way than the other animals. We were crowned with glory and honor, and all things were put under our feet.[17] Yet we are, in a sense, creatures among the creatures. We were told to be blessed and multiply, but so were the animals, and long before humanity entered the picture.[18] Additionally, humans were created on the sixth day, but we didn’t get that whole day to ourselves. We were created “along with and after the creepy crawlies” as Wright says.[19] We were created from the dust of the ground, given breath of life, provided with food, as were the animals. This hardly marks us out as superior. Nor is it demeaning to our ontology. Rather, our paradoxical part-of-yet-other celebrates the capacity of God who brought the whole biosphere into creation.

To retain humanity’s role of responsible stewardship, humankind must be more than a random selection of traits that includes the propensity to drive other species to extinction. Evolutionary naturalism undermines humankind’s responsibility by presenting a paradigm where humans and their behaviors are merely a product of genetic drift, natural selection, mutation, recombination, and migration.[20]

To retain humanity’s role of responsible stewardship, humankind must be more than a random selection of traits that includes the propensity to drive other species to extinction.

CONCLUSION

Environmental stewardship is essential to protecting and restoring the natural world. Humanity’s innate desire to protect the vulnerable and manage environments, as well as our sense of culpability when we fail to do so, must not be diminished. Yet evolutionary naturalism, if followed to its logical conclusion, undermines environmental stewardship. Survival of the fittest removes humanity’s reason for protecting the vulnerable. The stochastic outworking of natural selection contradicts deliberate ecosystem management. The argument that we and our behaviors are simply a product of evolutionary forces removes our culpability for mistreatment of the earth. As Ken Boa puts it, “Pure naturalism corrodes by the acids of its own assumptions.”[21] As a philosophy, naturalism simply doesn’t work because it destroys its own modus operandi, making the very practice of naturalism unnatural. When applied to environmentalism, evolutionary naturalism undermines it completely.

For environmental stewardship to be logically coherent, we must have a basis for our duty. Where does our sense of obligation come from? To truly be culpable, our responsibility must have been granted to us from an external source, from an entity superior to ourselves. No one receives their duty from a subordinate. Nor does one receive duty at random. It is delegated by a higher person. Philosopher Richard Taylor explains, “A duty is something that is owed…But something can be owed only to some person or persons.  There can be no such thing as duty in isolation…Duties and obligations always arise from relationships between persons.”[22] The practice of environmental stewardship stems from the duty we were charged with. Yet evolutionary naturalism removes not only our basis for that obligation, but also the Person who has given us that duty.

Today as I stand on the mountainside and survey a forest taking root, I am still overwhelmed by beauty. But I’m also overwhelmed by the voices of conflict, and by the questions this conflict raises to the surface. Why are Christians forsaking their solemn duty to protect the earth? Why are so many in Christendom trying to drown out the voices of environmentalists? Why do so many conservationists still claim that evolutionary naturalism is the only option, especially when the Christian worldview is the strongest basis for environmental stewardship? There is an empty chair at the table of environmentalism. Christianity has much to bring to the dialogue, and it is to everyone’s loss that it has not yet taken its seat.

 

Footnotes

[1] Zalta, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[2] Hammond, Dictionary of Science page 206

[3] Ibid page 643

[4] Soule, What is Conservation Biology? page 730

[5] https://www.doc.govt.nz/news/budget-2018/docs-budget-2018-explained/

[6] Soule page 730

[7] 2 Corinthians 5v21

[8] Hammond page 427

[9] Sober, The Nature of Selection

[10] Higgs, Nature by design: people, natural process, and ecological restoration

[11] Jordan, The sunflower forest: Ecological restoration and the new communion with nature, page 50

[12] Rosenzweig, Win-win ecology: How the earth’s species can survive in the midst of human enterprise, page 41

[13] Dowsett, The Cape Town Commitment, page 28

[14] “This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection” Darwin, Origin of Species

[15] Humes, Garbology: Our dirty love affair with trash, page 288

[16] Marris, Rambunctious Garden: Saving nature in a post-wild world, pages 107-108

[17] Psalm 8

[18] Genesis 1v28

[19] Wright, Goodness, Glory, and Goal of Creation)

[20] Walsh, The Trials of Life: Natural Selection and Random Drift, page 453

[21] Boa, Conformed to His Image page 3

[22] Taylor, Virtue Ethics: An introduction page 75

Works Cited

Barnhart, H., & Barnhart, H. (1986). Dictionary of Science / Hammond Barnhart. New Jersey:

Hammond.

Boa, K. (2020). Conformed to His image: Biblical, practical approaches to spiritual formation.

Darwin, C. (2019). On the origin of species by means of natural selection.

Dowsett, R. (2012). The Cape Town commitment. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers.

Higgs, E. (2003). Nature by design: People, natural process, and ecological restoration.

Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Humes, E. (2013). Garbology: Our dirty love affair with trash. New York, NY: Avery.

Jordan, W. R. (2012). The sunflower forest: Ecological restoration and the new communion with

nature. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press.

Marris, E. (2013). Rambunctious garden: Saving nature in a post-wild world.

Rosenzweig, M. L. (2003). Win-win ecology: How the earth’s species can survive in the midst of

human enterprise. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sober, Elliott (1984), The Nature of Selection. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Soule, M. E. (January 01, 1985). What is conservation biology?. In, Bioscience. — Vol. 35, No. 11

(dec. 1985).

Taylor, R. (2002). Virtue ethics: An introduction. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Walsh, D. M., Lewens, T., & Ariew, A. (September 01, 2002). The Trials of Life: Natural Selection

and Random Drift*. Philosophy of Science, 69, 3, 429-446.

Wright, C. (October 2020) Goodness, Glory, and Goal of Creation, presented at the Carl F.H.

Henry Center

Zalta, E. N. (2004). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Examining Nature

Is Scientism Fundamentally Flawed? Part 2

Introduction

In the first part of this three-part article series we looked at ‘Scientism’ as a worldview. Scientism claims that all of reality is physical or material. Nothing exists other than matter and energy in space and time. Scientism then goes on to say that the only way we can know that reality is through science. There is no other knowledge than scientific knowledge.

In this second part of the series we will look at the first two types of refutation of Scientism. First, we will examine the assumptions Scientism makes. As we will see, these assumptions cannot be proven by science, and therefore refute Scientism’s claim that the only source of knowledge is science.Second, we will show that the best explanation for many phenomena in this universe is an agent designing cause, not a natural cause. According to Scientism, all causes of any phenomena must be natural, physical, or material causes. If we can identify any other cause, then Scientism is refuted.  

In the third and final article, we will identify non-physical/ immaterial realities that we know exist, but which are unknowable  through science. If we can identify just one such entity thing, just one entity, then Scientism is refuted. Just one will do, but in fact there are many.      

Refuting Scientism: Assumptions Scientism Makes, But Cannot Prove

Circular & Self-Refuting Reasoning: Scientism lacks the evidence to support its most basic claim: all that exists is matter and energy in space and time. Instead, it makes this assumption, and then attempts to explain everything on that basis. It assumes what it claims to prove, it is a circular argument and as such is fundamentally flawed. The logic of Scientism can be presented as follows;

P1.The only realities that exist in the universe are physical.

P2.Science is used to explain the universe and everything in it.

P3.Since the universe is physical, science can only provide physical explanations.

C.Therefore, science proves that the only realities that exist in the universe are physical.

Anyone applying the most basic level of critical thinking can see this fundamental flaw in Scientism, if only they step back and actually think! Further, the knowledge claims of Scientism are not just circular, they are self-refuting. For example, the claim that “only what is testable by Science can be true” is a “philosophical statement about science that cannot itself be tested by Science”, therefore it refutes itself![5]

Laws of Logic/Numbers/Mathematics: Science simply assumes that the laws of logic, numbers and mathematics are real, but it cannot prove they are. These laws are clearly non-physical realities. At this most basic level Scientism is proven false! Just think about it. The scientific method can’t be used to prove the reality of logic, numbers and mathematics, it a priori assumes the existence of these immaterial, non-physical realities. This proves that Scientism is wrong! In contrast, the Christian worldview holds that non-physical realities such as numbers can be understood as grounded in God. Our ability to recognise them comes from the image of God, the imago Dei, in us.

The Existence of a theory independent external world, that is orderly, uniform and knowable: Similarly, Science simply assumes the existence of a theory independent external world that is orderly, uniform and knowable. It can’t operate without this assumption. Christianity on the other hand knows there is a theory independent external world, that is orderly, uniform, and knowable, since it was created by God. This is revealed in God’s Word, Scripture, and in nature itself, with the presence of orderly, uniform, and knowable specified complex information pointing to a designing mind. This will be discussed further later.

The Reliability of our Cognitive and Sensory Faculties: Since scientism cannot allow a designing cause and creator to the universe and human life, it leaves us with the explanation that humanity is totally the result of physical evolutionary processes. In such an all-encompassing macro-evolutionary narrative, all that matters is the survival of the fittest, which is produced by random physical cause and effect over time. But if this is the case, why should we trust our cognitive and sensory faculties as a means of discerning truth? Survivability is all that counts, not truth, yet scientism simply assumes that we can trust our cognitive and sensory faculties. This cannot be proven, it is simply assumed, and if the evolutionary narrative is true, why should we trust our faculties? The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has written extensively on this issue. Christianity on the other hand infers that our cognitive and sensory faculties can be reliable as they are created in the image of God. We also recognise that they are not one hundred percent reliable. There is a humility that comes from knowing this world is fallen and corrupted, which is entirely absent in scientism.

Refuting Scientism: Agent Causes

Another important assumption of scientism is that there can only be physical/material causes. Which is to say that there can only be natural causes. Everything must be reduced to a natural cause. This is why science is often described as reductionist, reducing all explanations to the physical or material.

In this view human beings are merely a collection of physical/material entities, atoms, that have been in cause and effect action throughout time. As discussed above, this results in scientism, in which our sense of consciousness, mind, and freewill are merely illusions. There is just physical cause and effect. This however conflicts with our most basic intuitive understanding of causes in the world.

 In the real world we accept that humans have free will, and by their volitional choice as acting agents, they can cause things to happen in the physical world. Thus, we understand there are agent causes, as well as natural causes. Additionally, we recognise that agents may have goals, future purposes and motives which they act to achieve, otherwise known as end causes. As a simple example, imagine a boiling jug of water. If we asked what caused the water to boil, we could give the natural cause, by explaining how heat energy is transferred to H2O molecules causing them to change from water to gas. However, we could also rightly say that the agent cause was that Mark turned the jug on, and further the end cause was that Mark wanted a cup of tea! But in the worldview of scientism, such agent causes and end causes are simply not allowable, since all is physical! We may think that Mark chose to turn the jug on for the purpose of having a cup of tea, but in reality it is all physical cause and effect, Mark’s choice and purpose are simply an illusion. There is no real mind, there is just matter! Atoms bouncing into each other, natural cause and effect. 

Hence, when Christians infer from the evidence of fine tuning in the universe, or the specified complex information in DNA, that there is a designing mind as an agent cause, this is simply dismissed by scientism (and unfortunately by many implicitly influenced by scientism). This is in spite of the evidence, i.e. that the only known cause we know in the universe for such specified complex information is a designing mind, and that the probability of that happening through natural causes by chance is literally impossible! Such an agent cause explanation is simply not allowed with scientism. Any natural hypothesis, no matter how implausible and no matter whether it can be tested, verified or falsified, is preferable. This quote by Lewontin sums this view up well:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine foot in the door. [6]     

 

Bibliography: 

Austin L. Hughes, ‘The Folly of Scientism’, The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society, 2012.

John C. Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything? London: The Good Book Company, 2019. 

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, New York: Macmillan, 1955S.

McDowell & J. Morrow. Is God Just a Human Invention – And Seventeen Other Questions Raised by the New Atheists. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2010.

  1. J.P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology. Wheaton, Illinois, Crossway, 2018.

Seven Questions that Define Your World, Part 3: Deism

The first step away from Christian theism was the belief system we call Deism. This was motivated largely by the change in authority for knowledge about the divine from Scripture to reason and intuition. Platonic theories of knowledge that had held sway during the middle ages argued that a person becomes what they study. Because God is good and holy and the material world was considered irrational and less than good, scholars rejected the study of the natural world in favor of God. However, biblically minded scholars started to recognize that everything is part of God’s creation and though corrupted, is of value. They also recognized that because God is a rational being his creation must be orderly. Armed with these assumptions, scientists subsequently found that the world operated like a giant machine where all the parts work together. Scholars, however, began believing that God’s nature could be discovered through studying nature. They rejected the notion that God could reveal himself through Divine Revelation and special acts in history. God could only be known through Nature which, because it functioned as a giant clock, made God the clockmaker. This also elevated the place of reason from a necessary condition to a sufficient condition for knowing God. As we begin to answer the worldview questions, we will also see how Deism served as a natural transition to naturalism, and learn some helpful approaches to those who might not realize they are Deists.

 

1. What is prime reality – the really real?

God, under Deism, is reduced to an impersonal, distant, uninvolved creator who created the universe and then left it to run on its own. He does not care for what he made and does not involve himself in any way in the affairs of humanity. He is simply reduced to being the first cause, the explanation for why things exist and work the way they do. Mankind is left floating through an indifferent universe. A God who is distant and uncaring is practically the same as one who is not there at all! Not only is God distant, but according to Deism is ultimately unknowable. Because the Deists denied God could reveal himself through divine revelation, the only information they could gather about him was from creation. This meant that they were unable to form prior expectations about what he was like or what he would do. Not knowing what he would do, however, makes it impossible to draw conclusions from what he actually did. God could have created the universe because he was lonely, or because he enjoys seeing people suffer. Either way, it is impossible to decide what is true.

 

2. What is the nature of external reality?

The cosmos is a closed system where everything is determined and no miracles are possible. God is not interested in what happens to his creation and even if he was would never interfere with it. If he did, it would suggest he had not set up the clockwork-like universe correctly in the first place. If the universe is like a determined clock, events within it are a part of a network of causes and effects. To introduce real change one would have to transcend this network, an act which is impossible for finite humans. Is it still possible to have freedom if everything around us is determined?

 

3. What is a human being? What does it mean to be human?

Humans are personal beings locked into the clockwork of the universe. They do not have any special relationship with God and are not made in his image. Hence, humans have no free will. If God had created mankind with the capacity for meaningful self-determination then they would also be able to choose to sin and deviate from the perfect plan. Humans, under Deism, are puppets, dancing to their DNA and environment, incapable of making meaningful choices and lacking anything that can be meaningfully called personality.

 

4. What happens to a person at death?

Deism, by denying the possibility of Divine revelation, precludes the knowledge of anything that happens after death since the supernatural by definition is beyond the natural. Besides, why would a God who does not care at all about what happens inside his universe concern himself with the eternal destiny of those living in it? Humans have no special relationship to God but are merely parts of a giant mechanical system ticking away. The logical conclusion of this is despair; if I am going to die and have no reason to believe in an afterlife, then anything I do now does not matter. The result is the same.

 

5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?

Because the universe operates according to how it was designed, we can learn what God is like by studying it. However, as mentioned previously, any other source of knowledge that is not based on our study of the external world is rejected. Here we see beginning hints of the “scientism” of our modern era. So many people today, especially those who study empirical subjects, believe that unless something can be demonstrated by science or logic, it cannot exist. Take the Deist David Hume’s famous quote:

    If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Unfortunately for Hume, this statement is not based on conclusions made using logic or experience and thus, by its own definition, ought to be committed unto the flames. According to their reasoning, the Deists ought to have rejected the notion that only knowledge obtained through the natural world is legitimate. However, to do so would have been to destroy the very foundation upon which their entire system was based.

 

6. How do we know what is right and wrong?

Not only does the Deistic worldview pose problems for the idea of knowledge, but also morality. If God as the creator is revealed through the external world, then his creation must reflect what he is like. This leads to the destruction of ethics since the universe itself says nothing about what is right and wrong. Whatever exists is right and there is no difference between good and evil. Though one may make subjective distinctions between good and bad, there is no real difference. Because deism denies that man was special (neither created in the image of God nor loved by him) the original deists had no reason to trust any of their moral beliefs. In spite of this, many of them still affirmed Judeo-Christian values, directly contradicting their belief in a distant indifferent God. Their failure to live consistently with what they espoused also demonstrates the difficulty of living out a belief system that directly contradicts reality.

 

7. What is the meaning of history?

The course of the universe was set at creation and follows a linear path implying that all events occurring after the beginning are determined. For this reason, history, to the Deist, is not important since God is discovered through nature, not revelation or divine intervention. The Deist God acts using general rules and the universe is closed to external interference.

Deism as the dominant worldview was short-lived but briefly powerful, dominating the intellectual world of France and England from the late seventeenth through to the mid-eighteenth centuries and serving as the transition between Theism and Naturalism. We have already seen some of the naturally arising objections above like the inability to affirm human value and freedom or to ground morality in objective reality. Even so, many people today present themselves as Deists unknowingly. When asked about the nature of God they will describe him as an energy or force, who explains the existence of the universe but who is also distant and not involved. How many people do you know who believe in a God like this? Useful approaches to “modern-day Deists” could be to touch on some of the points above by asking questions like: “Does God love you? Where do right and wrong come from?” You may find they have never really thought it through. Ask questions, and be curious. Don’t be too aggressive. If you ask these sorts of questions long enough, you may just find an opening to be able to share with them why they ought to consider Christianity.

While Deism as a worldview is no longer very popular, it helps us to understand the roots of Naturalism, the worldview which argues all that exists is matter and energy. A universe with a God who created it and then disappeared is no different, practically, from one where there is no God at all. If God could be replaced by some natural phenomena that did not require an explanation, then he would no longer be necessary and could be dispensed with. Naturalism, as we shall see, was the natural next step for all those who became unsatisfied with Deism.

 

Photo Caption

The 1755 Lisbon earthquake killed between 10 and 30 thousand people and significantly damaged the Portuguese economy. The French enlightenment philosopher and deist Voltaire used it as evidence that there could not exist a deity who cared about and intervened in the affairs of mankind. The painting is Allegory of the 1755 Earthquake, by João Glama Strobërle.

Is Scientism Fundamentally Flawed? Part 1

 Introduction

You may not have heard of the word ‘scientism’ and even if you have, you may not know what it means, but I can guarantee that you will have been exposed to strong views and opinions that have the worldview of scientism at their core. Statements such as “the only truth we can know is discovered through science” or that “science has proven God doesn’t exist” have scientism at their heart. This three-part article series will explain what scientism is and how it is all prevailing in much of what we see and read. Its influence is everywhere in our media and culture, usually implicitly and not explicitly, it is just assumed. This article series will also show just how deeply flawed scientism is as a worldview.       

The nature of reality and how we know it

Scientism says that the hard sciences alone have the intellectual authority to give us knowledge of reality. Everything else – especially ethics, theology, and philosophy – is, at least according to scientism, based on private emotions, blind faith, or cultural upbringing…[they] offer no truth at all.[1]    

Apologetics is essentially defending the Christian view of the nature of reality and how we know it, past, present and future. Scientism is also a view on the nature of reality and how we know it. Scientism claims that all that exists is matter/energy in space and time, there is nothing more than the natural/physical/material, hence Scientism is essentially the same as naturalism, physicalism and materialism as a view of reality. Scientism also claims that the only way we can know anything about that natural/physical/material reality is through science. This usually assumes the application of the scientific method of empirical observation, measurement, hypothesis formation and then testing, to see whether the hypothesis was correct. This is called inductive reasoning.  In that process it also assumes and applies logic and reason, i.e. deductive reasoning. This is what usually comes to mind when people think of ‘science’. Often, they will unthinkingly say that an untestable belief is untrustworthy.

However, science doesn’t just apply the classic laboratory-style inductive reasoning method. It also often applies what is called abductive reasoning (also known as inference to the best explanation). In this method, a person would take all the evidence and attempt to infer the best explanation. The best explanation is the most plausible, and has the most explanatory power and scope for all the evidence. Abductive inferences are often not as testable, verifiable or falsifiable as inductive hypotheses. Historical sciences, such as geology or forensic science, look at evidence from the past,  and often employ abductive reasoning, producing hypotheses that are not observable or reproducible in a laboratory, but which still infer the best explanation for the evidence. Much evolutionary science is conducted in this manner, inferring explanations that simply cannot be tested in the more classic inductive manner.

This application of abductive reasoning is often conveniently forgotten by strident supporters of scientism when they are speaking against the Christian worldview, such as arguments for the historicity of the resurrection, which infers the truth of the resurrection as the best explanation for all the historical evidence. This opinion is summed up by John Lennox:

I know now that the only sort of knowledge of reality is that which can be and has been quantified and tested in the laboratory. If you can measure and test it scientifically, you can know it. If not, the topic is nothing but private opinion and idle speculation.[2] 

The issue here isn’t the abductive method, since science legitimately employs it all the time in the historical sciences, it’s that scientism simply will not allow any explanations that are not natural/physical/ material. If abductive reasoning was unscientific per se, an invalid method of seeking truth, then for example, all non-repeatable knowledge from the past would be deemed “nothing but private opinion and idle speculation,” since you can’t put the past non repeatable events in a laboratory, ruling out among many things, the whole criminal justice system (and forensic science), as well as any historical investigation as legitimate pursuits of truth, including much evolutionary and geological science.

For scientism all that is in existence, has ever been in existence, or ever will be in existence, is natural/physical/material and the only explanations for anything observed in the universe must be natural/physical/material. The only causes and effects allowed in this view of reality are natural/physical/material. But is this true? That’s the key question addressed here.

Science vs Scientism – The Difference

However, before we look at whether scientism is true, we first need to clarify the difference between scientism and science. This is not a Christianity versus science debate, it is a Christianity versus scientism one. So, what’s the difference? Science is the application of a scientific methodology to understand the natural world. Science is a wonderful source of knowledge about the natural world. There is no Christianity versus science war, since Christians believe that God created the universe! In understanding how it works we are discovering how God has worked. Many of the greatest scientists in history were strong Christians; Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, Faraday and Clerk-Maxwell, motivated in their scientific work by the knowledge that in nature they were discovering how God has worked.[3]

The difference between the Christian worldview and Scientism is that Christianity believes that there are also non-physical, non-material realities and that we can know them in other ways than just the classic scientific method. Scientism is limited in that it assumes there can only be a natural world with natural explanations, and as such, all evidence must be fitted to that conclusion. This is anything but open-minded curiosity, this is narrow mindedness! Christianity accepts that we can also know non-physical realities; truths that traditional science will not be able to reveal. To assume science can tell us anything about non-physical realities is like standing on a weighing machine and expecting it to tell you how tall you are. The methods of science will not tell us much about the truths revealed by philosophy, theology, ethics, the arts, history, direct human perception and Divine revelation. Scientism is science without humility. It lacks the ability to see that there is more to reality than the material world and that we can know this through methods other than science. As J. P. Moreland says “I love science. My issues are with scientism.” [4]

Refuting Scientism

To refute Scientism and to show its fundamental flaws as a worldview is easier than you may think! There are three main types of refutation available. First, there are the assumptions made by Scientism that cannot be proven by science, refuting their own claim that the only source of knowledge is science. Second, since according to Scientism all causes of any phenomena must be natural, physical, or material causes, if we can identify any other cause—such as an agent cause—then Scientism is refuted. Third, if we can identify one thing, just one entity, one reality, that is immaterial and is not able to be known through science, then Scientism is refuted. Just one will do, but in fact there are many. 

The next two parts of this three-part article series will look at these refutations of Scientism. You may not find all these refutations equally convincing and Scientism may try and posit natural explanations, but the question must be asked; are the explanations of scientism the most plausible? What is the best explanation, with the most explanatory power and scope? A possibility does not equal a probability, just because it is labelled ‘scientific’.

Either Scientism is true or it isn’t, either everything is physical/material, or it isn’t, and if it isn’t, we must be open to asking just what these non-physical realities are. Can we know them through science alone? If not, how we can know them?

 

Bibliography: 

Austin L. Hughes, ‘The Folly of Scientism’, The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society, 2012.

John C. Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything? London: The Good Book Company, 2019. 

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, New York: Macmillan, 1955S.

McDowell & J. Morrow. Is God Just a Human Invention – And Seventeen Other Questions Raised by the New Atheists. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2010.

J. P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology. Wheaton, Illinois, Crossway, 2018.

A Christian Response to Eco-anxiety

When I started my Master’s degree in Conservation biology at Victoria University of Wellington, I had nothing but hope.  When I finished it I felt weighed down by the many in my community who seemed to be politely reversing my efforts.  In time I began experiencing an ongoing sense of debilitating grief at our environmental crisis.        

The sensation described above is termed ‘Eco-anxiety’.  Eco-anxiety is defined as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.”[2]  This type of anxiety can lead to insomnia, exhaustion, and depression.[3]  In extreme cases it has been cited as the reason for substance abuse and suicide.  Indeed, on a recent visit to British Columbia, a student approached me after my talk on ‘Going Green’ and told me he wasn’t sure he wanted to live anymore because of the oppressive eco-anxiety that had become a daily part of his human experience.  This student’s story sounded like so many others I have heard on university campuses across the globe.  A recent study revealed that, of the 26 countries surveyed, half of the population on average considered climate change as a “major threat to their nation” with some countries labeling it as the top threat.[4]

The Bible teaches us that God commanded humanity to multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 1:28).  Similarly, Isaiah 45:18 says, “God did not create the Earth empty, He formed it to be inhabited!”  Yet God also clearly charged us with the care and stewardship of the earth.  Thus, how should Christians respond to our ecological crisis, and the eco-anxiety it often causes?  We will have to make an analysis of the eco-crisis phenomenon, which I like to picture as a mixed bag of lollies containing bad things, good things, and that one rolling around at the bottom, cemented to the wrapper, that you might be better off not even identifying.

THE CONS

On one hand, discussions about ecological crises often sift down into catastrophising rhetoric and misinformation.  Climate scientists are pulling their hair out as false facts continue pervading the media sphere.[5]   These falsities do anything but help their cause and research.  Eco-anxiety is a valid phenomenon that affects people all over the globe, and while putting words to our feelings is important, catastrophising language is never helpful.  A study in Great Britain shows that this rhetoric is having a particularly damaging effect on children.[6]  One adage to remember: Facts first, feelings second.  Many ideas are floating around the sea of media, some of these ideas are fact-based and some are plastic nets of emotionalism ready to entangle any passer-by.  For instance, I recently read that koalas are now functionally extinct due to the fires in Australia caused by climate change.[7]  Claiming that koalas are functionally extinct is simply false.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List labels the koala as vulnerable, three levels less threatened than extinct in the wild.  Many species are presently on the verge of extinction, and almost all of them due to two immediately ameliorable factors: habitat loss and pollution.  Furthermore, apocalyptic statements such as “The world is going to end in 12 years”[9] are not only inaccurate but they cause a lot of anxiety. We have yet to see any credible scientific research showing that humanity is on the verge of extinction due to environmental destruction.[10]

THE PROS

On the other side of the eco-crisis coin we find many beneficial points.  For one thing, societies are bravely looking into the haggard face of environmental damage.  People are finding creative ways to cut down on waste and reuse materials.  For example, Mexican company Biofase has created single-use cutlery from avocado seeds.  Volunteers have removed a reported 5.3 million kilograms of rubbish from beaches in Mumbai.  People all over the planet are taking action.  It is good that we are grieved!  

God himself is grieved at abuse and corruption of the natural world, often correlated with human wickedness.  For instance, in Joel 1 we read a call to repentance: “All the trees of the field are dried up and gladness dries up from the children of man…Even the beasts of the field pant for You because the water has dried up.”  We also see this connection between humanity and nature in the positive vein.  Psalm 104:30 reads, “When you send forth your Spirit…you renew the face of the ground.”  Biblically speaking, rebellion and wickedness led to a corruption of the natural world (Genesis 3:17) and repentance or ‘turning back’ to God leads to a restoration that also affects the natural sphere (Romans 8:19-23).

While it is good to be grieved at the destruction of our natural world, it is never good to be anxious.  The Scriptures are replete with passages exhorting us to stand firm and not succumb to fear.  Eco-anxiety may be a term coined in 2017, but anxiety is nothing new.  The wrapper is different but it’s the same bitter lolly.  In my childhood we were afraid of school shootings.  In my mother’s childhood it was fear that an atomic bomb would fall out of the sky at any moment.  In my grandmother’s childhood it was fear of want due to the Great Depression.  There will always be troubles in this world that need fixing.  But we are not meant to operate out of a spirit of fear.  2 Timothy 1:7 reminds us: “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”  Christians are equipped with a top-of-the-line spiritual panoply.  The peace of God protects our minds and our hearts in Christ Jesus and allows us to transcend our limited understanding (Philippians 4:7).  We have access to Jesus Himself, on whom we cast our anxieties, because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).  These facts do not provide us with the means of ignoring a crisis.  We are not burying our head in the sand.  On the contrary, it allows us to march with confidence into any storm.  When we cast our fear on Jesus we are dressing ourselves in His perfect love.  Thus we are equipped to face any problem with confidence and faith instead of debilitating fear and timidity.

Our concerns about ecological destruction are valid.  Perhaps some of the fear we feel around a broken landscape stems from anxiety about our own impermanence and brokenness.  Even if the natural world was perfect, it could never be a source of our ultimate security.  Only the person of Jesus offers us that foundation.  Therefore, let us face our ecological crisis head-on, knowing how deeply loved we are by the Creator of all.  His heart is surely grieved by the destruction of our natural world, and it grieves us also because we share His heart.  Praise God that we can face this crisis without the anxiety that catastrophises, and without the ignorance that perpetuates the problem.  We can march into our generation’s hardships with truth, love, and confidence in Christ.

?

[1] Larger animals such as deer, elk, and coyotes; or if you happen to be in Africa perhaps an elephant or ostrich

[2] The American Psychological Association first defined this term in 2017

[3] Doherty, T. J., & Clayton, S. (May 01, 2011). The Psychological Impacts of Global Climate Change

[4] Fagan, M., Huang, C. A look at how people around the world view climate change

[5] Shellenberger, M. Why Apocalyptic Claims about Climate Change are Wrong

[6] Burke, S. E. L., Sanson, A. V., & Van, H. J. The Psychological Effects of Climate Change on Children. 

[7] As suggested by activist Bill McKibben

[8] International Union for the Conservation of Nature

[9] As stated by representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

[10] Shellenberger

 

Works Cited

Burke, S. E. L., Sanson, A. V., & Van, H. J. (May 01, 2018). The Psychological Effects of Climate Change on Children. Current Psychiatry Reports, 20, 5, 1-8.

Cummings, W. (22 January 2019) ‘The world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change,’ Ocasio-Cortez says.  USA Today.  Retrieved from: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2019/01/22/ocasio-cortez-climate-change-alarm/2642481002/

Doherty, T. J., & Clayton, S. (May 01, 2011). The Psychological Impacts of Global Climate Change. American Psychologist, 66, 4, 265-276.

Fagan, M., Huang, C.  (18 April 2019) A look at how people around the world view climate change. Fact Tank. 2018 Pew Research Center.  Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/18/a-look-at-how-people-around-the-world-view-climate-change/

McKibben, B. “A thousand koalas were killed in Australia’s bushfires, and 80% of their habitat is gone. One expert says they are ‘functionally extinct.’ And yet big banks lend big money to big oil–more every year” 23 November 2019. Tweet.

Shellenberger, M. (25 November 2019) Why Apocalyptic Claims about Climate Change are Wrong.  Forbes Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2019/11/25/why-everything-they-say-about-climate-change-is-wrong/#5d9bfa4312d6

Seven Questions that Define Your World, Part 2

Imagine arriving in a foreign city without knowing anyone, speaking the language, or even having a map. You would be lost, forced to ask for help by waving your hands and wander around hoping to gain a sense of direction. The same is true of this life. To be able to navigate life one needs a guide or map which explains where you are, why you are here and where you need to get to. This is a worldview, the set of answers to the big questions of life like ‘why we are here’, ‘what is real’, ‘what happens after death’. Everyone, whether or not they have given much thought to the topic, has a worldview through which they see the world and form their opinions. In addition, it is not possible to jettison one’s framework of beliefs in order to become objective. Rather, the goal is to make sure that the assumed worldview corresponds with reality since the closer a worldview is to reality, the more it enhances one’s ability to find the truth.

In my first article, I introduced seven questions that help us to identify and define a worldview. By defining the Christian worldview in this article using these questions, my hope is that before progressing further, we will understand what we believe. Before we can make a defense of Christianity, we must first know it. Using these seven questions, let’s have a deeper look at the Christian faith.

1. What is prime reality?

God, the only being that exists by the necessity of its own nature, is prime reality. He is an infinite, personal (triune), transcendent yet immanent, omniscient being who is sovereign over all and perfectly good. God is infinite and beyond all measure in His qualities and attributes. He is the only self-existent being (Exodus 3:14, Psalm 90:2). God is also a personal being capable of both self-reflection and self-determination, able both to think and know Himself and take action. 

The key to understanding the personal nature of God is the fact that He is tri-personal, one being who exists in three persons. This means that each member of the Trinity stands in an eternal relationship with the other members. Furthermore, because human beings are personal like God, we are also able to have a relationship with Him (as first demonstrated by Adam and Eve in the garden). As a personal being, God is also capable of choice; He chose to create the universe and to send Christ to this earth to die for our sins. 

God as the Creator of the cosmos is both beyond and set apart from it. This is known as the transcendence of God. Yet at the same time, He is present and causally active at all places within it. These are the attributes of immanence and omnipresence. It is possible for God to be immanent and omnipresent in the universe because He is Spirit. This is not possible for us because we are physical beings, confined to finite points in time and space.

In addition to being omnipresent, God is also omniscient. He knows everything, the beginning from the end (Revelation 22:13), and is wise above all things (Job 38:1-18, Psalm 139). Because God is the creator of the universe, He is fully sovereign over all that happens within His creation. Nothing exists outside of His interest or beyond His control and authority. Finally, God is not an evil creator who made His creation to torture for His own pleasure. He is good, and His goodness is expressed through his holiness and love. He is holy since there is no evil in Him and loving because He seeks the good of His people.

2. What is the nature of external reality?

God created the universe from nothing (Genesis 1) to operate as a finite open system with uniformity of cause and effect. The universe is finite since it has a beginning and is made up of a limited number of atoms, and open in that it is possible for God to reach in and change things. A closed system cannot be externally changed or re-ordered. The universe is not an illusion but is real and operates in a structured orderly way (Isaiah 45:18-19). This regular operation makes it possible to discover laws that describe how many things work and which allow us to predict what will generally happen. Every time you put a mug on your desk you do not expect it to float up to the ceiling! Finally, because the universe is an open system it is not determined. Both God and people (to a lesser extent of course) can interact with and re-order it. 

3. What is a human being? What does it mean to be human?

Humans are beings created in the image of God (Genesis 1) and inherit from Him personality, self-transcendence, intelligence, morality, gregariousness, and creativity. Humans are personal because God is personal, and thus we are able to know ourselves (self-consciousness) and are able to make decisions without coercion (also known as self-determination). In a limited way, we can transcend the world around us. We are aware of our own existence and are able to shape our environment to a degree that other animals in the world cannot. The difference between our transcendence and God’s is that God is transcendent to the ultimate degree. In addition, we are able to reason and possess knowledge, distinguish between good and evil, form social connections and networks, and act in creative and novel ways. God also created the capacity in humans to know both Himself and the world around them.

Humans were created good but when they rejected God, fell into corruption. They became limited in freedom and ability and were alienated from themselves, each other, and God. However, through Christ, God made a free offer of redemption. Because people were created with self-determination, they were able to reject God at the beginning by choosing to live separately from Him. The offer of redemption Christ makes to each human today is also something we can either receive or reject. See Romans chapters 1-6 for more.

4. What happens to a person at death?

Death is either the way to eternal life with God (John 3:15-16) or eternal separation from Him (Matthew 25:31-46). Heaven is the fulfillment of the desire of those who wish to be with God, while hell is God respecting the decision of those who do not wish to be with Him. God will not force those who reject Him to spend the rest of eternity with Him.

5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?

As we saw previously, God created man with the ability to transcend their surroundings and with the ability to reason. Because man possesses the capacity for self-determination, it is possible for him to gain real knowledge. Man is not a biological machine that is pre-programmed to arrive at a given conclusion. In addition, it is possible to gain an actual understanding of how things work using the five senses (sight, touch, taste, sound, smell) because the external world is real and follows laws.

6. How do we know what is right and wrong?

Right and wrong are absolute and transcendent values, based on the character of God. We are made in God’s image and have no choice but to live under moral categories of good and bad, right and wrong (Romans 1-2). Any time we get angry at injustice or praise kindness, we show that by our actions we affirm their existence (see the moral argument for God’s existence here). Moreover, we just know some things are “right” and others are “wrong”. One challenge to the existence of objective moral standards could be that what we think we “know” to be right is just what our culture believes—what was considered moral a century ago may no longer be. For example, slavery was legal until as recently as 1833 in the United Kingdom, yet today purchasing and owning slaves is not only illegal but also universally condemned. This cultural shift, however, does not show that there is no right and wrong, but that cultural perception of right and wrong changes.

However, because morality is grounded in the being of God who is eternal, morality is absolute. God has revealed the moral law not only through the conscience but also through His revealed word.

7. What is the meaning of history?

History is a linear, meaningful sequence of events that leads to the fulfillment of God’s purposes for humanity and through which He has revealed Himself. God does so most obviously by acting directly on our world. For example, He stepped into history in the person of Jesus Christ by taking on human nature, and by performing miracles when he judged the Egyptians and parted the Red Sea (see Exodus 14). God does not only act through direct interventions however but also on a larger scale. He chooses from the almost infinite collection of possible events the set that will bring about his purposes. Right from when Adam and Eve fell, God set a chain of events in motion that would culminate in the birth of Jesus Christ. From the call of Abraham to the exile of the nation of Israel and even the Roman domination of Palestine, everything was preparing the way for Christ. From this, we can also see the past has meaning because it is a record of how God works to accomplish his purposes. God reminded the Israelites never to forget what he had done for them so that they would never turn away. By remembering what God has done, we affirm what he has done and are filled with confidence about what He will do.

There is much more that can be said here, but this article should serve as a brief overview. By answering these questions according to the Christian worldview, I hope to have shown that Christian beliefs not only fit together as a logical and coherent system but also correspond with how the world actually is. If a belief system is internally consistent and empirically accurate, there are strong reasons to believe that it is actually true. 

In my next article, I will be taking a look at a Non-Christian worldview which I hope will give you a chance to gain a deeper understanding of these seven questions as well as practice at identifying worldviews that are not true.

coronavirus_world_map

Coronavirus, Show-Stopper or Conversation Starter?

It turns out plenty of things get cancelled in a pandemic. Fortunately, my flights home were not among them. Anyway, flights are a small issue in the big picture. Much graver is the cancellation that brings our term on earth to a halt: death. Mortality will be in many people’s thoughts and feelings due to COVID-19. While death is universal, the way different people think of it is worldviews apart.

God’s revelation in the Bible does not address every curious question, but it accurately covers what is important for us about death, and how death is related to other matters. Death is an enemy and a consequence of sin: ‘sin … gives birth to death.’ (James 1:15) This is a truly integrated worldview, because it connects morality with death—and thus affirms the importance and reality of morality. Christ defeated death (Hebrews 2:14), rising so that we might rise, too. Knowing that Christ came to solve our sin problem (and our related death problem) is the ultimate reassurance that God cares about us: ‘[God] who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’ (Romans 8:32). Christ’s resurrection is his major confirmation of his authority and deity. So many aspects of the Christian hope—goodness (morality), God’s love, Christ’s identity, and salvation—are linked to a Christian understanding of what death is and means.

As always, doctrine has applications. To briefly cover one application: a Christian view of death, and a Christian hope, grounds an attitude of holding ambitions loosely and putting treasure in heaven. The daily life of faith and obedience can content us—in fact, it is hugely important in God’s sight. When fear distracts us, God lovingly reminds us that he is in control. C. S. Lewis put it well: ‘All schemes of happiness that are centered in this world were always doomed to a final frustration… If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered.’ On the other hand, there is great value in the simple daily walk of a life ‘humbly offered to God.’

This is from Lewis’ sermon “Learning in War-Time”. In it, he talks about the fear of death and sense of crisis arising from the onset of World War II. He emphasised that the crisis did not change the fundamental realities of death (or of resurrection either). If this wisdom holds for Lewis’ World War II environment, then it holds for other widely-experienced crises, especially a comparatively smaller one like COVID-19. But how is this wisdom, or its Christian foundation, to come out in our speech? (Within the restrictions of whatever alert level is current, of course).

When it comes to speaking about crises, Jesus’ example in Luke 13 sheds some light on the subject. In verses 1 to 5, Jesus spoke of some bone-chilling recent events (“Pilate’s Gruesome Executions in Galilee”, “Tower of Siloam Disaster”). It is worth noting that Jesus had already earned a reputation for compassion. That gave him the mana to make a point about the events without seeming to do so gleefully or sensationally.

The point Jesus made was, ‘Unless you repent, you will perish, too.’ (just like the victims of Pilate etc.) (Luke 13:5). He did not make this point out of the blue, but led up to it:

  1. First was a grounding in the here-and-now: people were presenting him with a recent event. Jesus often based his teaching in concrete experiences to make them memorable.
  2. Jesus identified the issue that this event raised: Were these victims ‘worse sinners than all [their neighbours] because they suffered this way?’
  3. Jesus addressed the issue with the truth and a call to action: ‘Unless you repent, you will perish, too.’ That is to say, the victims are not necessarily extra bad sinners, and we should remember our own vulnerability and state in front of God.

The audience’s attention to the victims in Galilee and Siloam made them more ready to think about the issue in (2). It brought up their current way of understanding the issue. More than that, it put their understanding to the test. Here were disasters—raw, recent, and vivid. Would it be satisfactory to trot out a current view—say, that God must have singled out these people as extra bad, and one should pat oneself on the back for being safe? Or would that fall flat? The time was ripe for Jesus to present the wisdom that ‘you will perish, too.’ It was—and is—a truth that is more comfortable to ignore. And yet, if the topic of death is raised, so can the other parts of the Christian story mentioned above: goodness, God’s love, Christ, resurrection, and salvation. Apologetics comes in along with that. Once we are talking about the Christian hope, we can ‘give a reason’ for it (1 Peter 3:15) when that is helpful.

What does it look like to have a conversation involving the coronavirus, death, and the gospel? It depends on who is having the conversation. God provides us with a range of friendships and opportunities with people at various points on their journeys. However, Jesus’ comments on the Galilee and Siloam disasters can illustrate some general principles, illustrated in the below stages.

1. Be Grounded in the Here and Now

It is fascinating and comforting to swap stories about a massive shared experience like a lock down. You have opinions that you itch to share, and feelings which require comfort. Give others the kindness of being a good listener. My conversations about the virus in Thailand recently covered points like, ‘My son’s school closed!,’ ‘In my home area they’re still more worried about malaria,’ ‘I wonder if my Mum in China will get the virus?’ In New Zealand, there will also be other angles; for example, ‘masks feel like a sinister sign that the public square has turned into a hospital’.

2. Identify Relevant Issues

This article has focused on mortality. The sense of crisis will make people more open to talk about it, or even bring it up themselves. (That is merely a general observation—still try to speak with sensitivity, as always). Here are three possible routes from the topic of COVID-19 to the topic of mortality:

  1. The elderly are vulnerable, and that is relevant to everyone, whether it means us or our parents/grandparents. What is the hope of an elderly believer?
  2. No age group is invincible, and ‘Death as an equaliser’ is another classic theme. Kiwis might take to it, since equality in general is a Kiwi value!
  3. Coping mechanisms, or what you do to help you get through, are the stuff of many conversations (‘I like to do x’ … ‘you should reward yourself with some x’). Cultivate Christ-based ways to cope with things, and then they can come up in conversation.

3. Address the Issues

Hope, for the elderly and for all, is based on God’s promises. The foundation that helps a Christian to cope with life relates to the above-mentioned attitudes like placing a high value on simple daily faith and obedience and recognising God’s control. Those, in turn, are founded on the incarnate Son of God’s victory over sin and death.

Remember that everyone’s current understandings of the issue of mortality could come up in stage two ‘Identify relevant issues’. Worldviews surface … and so do the unsatisfactory points of a worldview that does not fit God’s world. Consider Biblical truth on mortality (or whatever the issue is), and that will give clues for Addressing the Issue (stage 3).

There are many shapes and sizes of crises in the headlines or in our lives, whether in Galilee, Siloam, the UK, or NZ. The God who is able to ultimately heal this world is also able to bring truth to our lives. This truth is meaningful both here and now and also forever. We can learn from Jesus’ example of engaging with a current crisis and pointing to deeper things.

 

Know Doubt

Why don’t we hear more about doubt? Could it be that we don’t talk about our doubts because some well-meaning people we looked up to told us that doubt was the opposite of faith and should be avoided? Maybe we believe that if we have enough faith, we will no longer struggle with doubt.

I don’t see evidence for that in the Bible. Doubt seems to be a common occurrence, even among those closest to Jesus.

John the Baptist is the prophet who boldly proclaimed upon seeing Jesus “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  He is the one I was talking about when I said, ‘A man is coming after me who is far greater than I am, for he existed long before me’”[i]. However, in the seventh chapter of Luke, while John the Baptist was in prison, he began to doubt. He sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he was really the Messiah they had been waiting for. How does Jesus respond? Does he condemn him for doubting? He certainly could have.

No! Instead of condemning John, Jesus reminds him of the evidence: “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.[ii]” Jesus offers two lines of evidence. Firstly, that these demonstrations of power are proof that Jesus speaks with God’s authority, and secondly that they are consistent with what Isaiah the prophet said about the future Messiah. After John’s disciples left, he speaks of John to those around him, “I tell you, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John.”[iii] Jesus affirms that John is even now a great man.

Doubting Thomas is another well-known instance of doubt in Jesus’s inner circle. Have you considered how Jesus responded when Thomas said he would not believe that Jesus was alive unless certain conditions were met? “A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” [iv] Jesus shows us that the response to doubt is to examine the evidence and determine for yourself what it means. Thomas responds with one of the powerful statements recorded about  Jesus’s identity. 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” [v] Doubt is not a sign of weak faith. Doubt is part of the normal experience of being human.

As humans we experience two kinds of doubt: emotional doubt and intellectual doubt. We pride ourselves on being Enlightenment driven “rational thinkers” and believe that the majority of our doubt is intellectual, but the scientific literature paints a far different story. The reality is that about 80% of our doubts are emotionally driven.

Emotional doubt occurs when we experience painful feelings of loss, or confusion. Maybe we don’t feel close to God, or we don’t feel loved by Him. Maybe we feel like our prayers are unheard because they aren’t answered in the timing and the manner that we want. As people well aware of some of the arguments for our faith, we can often respond to someone who is experiencing emotional doubt with intellectual arguments. As Mary Jo Sharp shared with us two years ago, we would be better off asking “Do you need answers right now, or do you just need a hug?”. When we don’t feel comfortable expressing our inner emotions, it can present as an intellectual argument. Are we willing to take the time to discover what’s really going on beneath the surface?

I remember having many vigorous debates with an atheist friend of mine around the Problem of Evil and Suffering. It felt like we never got anywhere because we both returned to the same arguments and at times, we both grew frustrated. Then one evening, an infrequent attendee of our meetings asked him why he had left the Christian faith.

He shared how his grandfather had suffered with a terrible cancer before he finally died. He admitted that he couldn’t believe in a God who allowed that kind of suffering.  All of my arguments had missed the mark because I hadn’t taken the time to learn his story and find the root cause of his pain.

When you doubt, don’t be afraid to explore the doubt more deeply, and to be honest with yourself about the kind of doubt you are experiencing. Find trustworthy people to talk to. Ask thoughtful questions. Engage with the evidence and see where it leads. A warning: if you only seek support for what you are feeling, you will find it and it might lead you away from faith if you don’t hear both sides. However, I am confident that if we genuinely seek answers, if we listen humbly to those who have gone before, God will lead us to a stronger, more vibrant life of trust in Him and His goodness.

If I hadn’t doubted the existence of God or my reason for believing, I wouldn’t have discovered the vast world of historical, philosophical and scientific evidence for the Christian worldview. My faith would have remained superficial, if it survived at all. Instead, I have faith that withstands the staunchest skeptical arguments because I made many of the same questions and then looked for answers. This enables me to also walk alongside others who are working through their own doubt. This doesn’t mean I no longer struggle with these questions. Sometimes they come back in new forms. But I have learned that although I have doubts about my faith, I have greater doubts about all of the alternatives.

Sean McDowell in his recent trip to New Zealand with his father Josh told a story that when he began to experience doubt, he was concerned about his father’s reaction. When he finally told his father, Josh responded with “Great! Now you can discover for yourself what you believe and why you believe it”. (I’m paraphrasing). Josh demonstrated a great way to engage with the doubts of his children. If we follow his example, perhaps the next generation will grow up with a robust faith that can last a lifetime.

Bruce Fraser is a Software Architect, lay Pastor, husband, father. He spent several years learning apologetics from good friends Mike Licona, Nabeel Qureshi, David Wood and Mary Jo Sharp, while living in the U. S. There he learned much about the arguments and demeanour that best communicate the Great News of Jesus to those hostile to Christianity, presenting the truth of Jesus in a way that is gentle and respects their intellect.


[i] Tyndale House Publishers. (2015). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Jn 1:29–30). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

[ii] Tyndale House Publishers. (2015). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Lk 7:22). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

[iii] Tyndale House Publishers. (2015). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Lk 7:28). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

[iv] The New International Version. (2011). (Jn 20:26–27). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[v] The New International Version. (2011). (Jn 20:28). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Money

A Spiritual View of Wealth and Poverty

A recent fluff piece in my local paper carried the headline: Newest Millionaires Say 16 Million Dollar Win Has Changed Their Lives. No one, I think, will find this very astonishing. But reading the article that followed I realised something important. I realised that I no longer envy winners of lotteries. On the contrary, they fill me with a sort of spiritual unease.

Analysing that unease, I find myself thinking of Leo Tolstoy. In 1901, the first Nobel Prize for Literature went to the French poet Sully Prudhomme. History seems to have forgotten Prudhomme and the “lofty idealism” which the Nobel committee declared itself to be recognising in awarding him the prize. Tolstoy was also nominated for the award but was passed over because of his radical religious and political views. That did not sit well with everyone. Following the decision, Tolstoy received a letter from a group of Swedish artists and critics who were scandalised that he had not won. But critical opinion had no discernible influence on the committee. The very next year, 1902, Tolstoy was passed over again.

Tolstoy’s feelings about all this are well-known: He was relieved not to have received the award because of the hundred thousand dollars that came with it. “It has saved me the predicament of managing so much money,” he wrote of the second snub. “Such money, in my opinion, only brings evil.” [1] In fact, the prospect of winning troubled Tolstoy so much that upon his third nomination—and aware that this time he was favoured to win—he wrote a letter to his friend Arvid Jarnefelt, a Finnish writer, entreating him to do everything in his power to ensure that he did not win.

Why did Tolstoy think money might bring evil? I think he was afraid that by gaining money he would risk losing something of immeasurably greater value than money—aware, as I think he no doubt was, of the complicated relationship between material and spiritual goods.

Few people today will immediately appreciate the point. There is a widespread assumption that material goods are always good and the lack of them is always bad. Surveying the distribution of wealth in our world, for instance, we observe what appears to be a notorious injustice. There are good people who are poor and bad people who are rich. And what is more: The bad people are often rich because they are bad—having gained wealth through greed, dishonesty and exploitation. For theists this seems to pose a riddle. If an all-powerful and all-good God superintends the universe, why does he permit this obvious injustice?

Aquinas, who considers the question, cautions us to identify and avoid the operating assumption. Neither poverty nor wealth are good or bad in themselves. Everything depends on the associated circumstances. God, suggests Aquinas, can punish with poverty and reward with wealth as is commonly supposed. But Aquinas suggests that God can also punish us with wealth and reward us with poverty. And the idea, while counterintuitive, is easily reasoned out.

Consider two parallel cases,

A. John is greedy by nature and succeeds in amassing enormous wealth. Thereafter, all his energy goes into guarding and increasing that wealth. Perhaps he also finds himself surrounded by flatterers and gold-diggers. He accordingly becomes suspicious of everyone and trusts no one and does not have any true friends. Plausibly, too, all manner of hedonistic indulgences tempt him—drugs and alcohol, promiscuous sex and prostitutes, extravagant but vacuous parties. It does not occur to him to give to the poor, or else it does occur to him and by consistently ignoring the deliverances of his conscience he grows morally callous. His wealth, moreover, blinds him to spiritual truths—to the good of humility, virtue, compassion, chastity, prayer. He develops an exaggerated notion of his own importance and agency. He does not have occasion to reflect on his finitude and mortality but it remains a fundamental truth about him that he is finite and mortal. He dies and, like everyone else, stands empty-handed before God to face judgment.

B. David is greedy by nature but fails to amass any wealth; he lives, in fact, a life of poverty. Flatterers and gold-diggers see right away that they have nothing to gain from him and so have nothing to do with him. Anyone who does continue to associate with him perceives some intrinsic good in him and the association brings this good to his attention and provides him with an opportunity to cultivate it. If there is pleasure in his life it is of a simple sort and obtained through having a grateful, frugal heart—a tasty walnut, a visit to the sea, a beautiful bird on his lawn. His plight, moreover, primes him to develop compassion for his fellow human beings and fosters in him a spirit of stoicism, forbearance and patience. He does not develop an exaggerated notion of his own importance and agency. On the contrary, he is acutely conscious of his finitude and mortality. At some point his suffering may even goad him into wondering at the ultimate purpose of his existence—which in turn may lead him to God. He dies and, like everyone else, stands empty-handed before God to face judgment. 

There may be a third scenario in which poverty is either man’s downfall because it leads him into a life of crime. And there may be a forth in which wealth is either man’s salvation because he eventually discovers the good of philanthropic generosity. But recall: Aquinas is not arguing that wealth and poverty are good or bad ipso facto. That is precisely the point he is arguing against. Everything depends on the associated circumstances.

Why, if that is so, did Tolstoy abhor the prospect of sudden wealth? I think it is because when we think carefully about poverty and wealth it is clear that wealth entails a more serious moral and spiritual risk than poverty. If we are wealthy we have a moral obligation to be generous. “If you have two coats in your wardrobe,” Saint Ambrose of Milan admonished his Christian reader, “one belongs to you and one belongs to the man with no coat.” [2] But human nature is corruptible and there is every chance that we will ignore the plight of the poor and grow morally callous as a result. We will also need to resist the indulgences and distractions which wealth brings in order to obtain spiritual goods. And again, there is every chance that we will fail. The point was made by Jesus himself. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” he said, “than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” [3]

And there can be no doubt that Tolstoy had already reached the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy [4] and discovered a truth about spiritual goods that the modern world seems to have forgotten. God does not enjoin us to seek them because he is a puritanical miser who begrudges us worldly pleasure. He enjoins us to seek spiritual goods out of generosity: Because they are intrinsically and infinitely better than worldly goods. And God, being perfectly good, wants to give us the very best things he has to give. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus said. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” [5]

Ben Mines is a Christian Apologist and author based in Auckland, New Zealand.

—————————————————————————

[1] Quoted here on the website for the Intercultural Institute of Languages.

[2] Quoted in The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path by Robert E. Barron.

[3] See Matthew 19:24.

[4] See here. Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist, organized human needs into a now-famous hierarchy where basic bodily needs sit at the bottom, social and intellectual needs sit in the middle, and spiritual needs—self-actualization, transcendence—sit at the top. Each need is built on the one below but true human fulfillment is realized only when one reaches the top of the hierarchy where spiritual goods are obtained. Interestingly, near the end of his life, Tolstoy went far beyond refusing literary prizes. He sought to renounce his own wealth, both inherited and earned, as well as the copyrights to his own works.

[5] See John 10:10