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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.

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.

Seven Questions that Define Your World, Part 1

 

My dear reader, I have a confession to make…

I am addicted to consuming information. There, I said it. Podcasts. Audiobooks. The weekly newspaper. YouTube. RSS Feeds. I just can’t stop. Something about me wants to try to get it all! But that’s not the end of it. I have hundreds of hours of podcasts just waiting for me. The list never seems to get smaller. As soon as I have caught up on one podcast, I add two more. And what’s worse, I would have many more hours to listen to, but I’m already listening at high speed.

Okay, I get that what I do might be a bit strange. It’s not really normal to consume vast quantities of information. You are more likely to find someone binge-watching the latest show on Netflix than ‘binge-learning’! However, for someone like me, today is the best time to be alive. There are more opportunities to learn than ever before. You can learn almost anything however and whenever you want, and therein lies the danger. As the volume of consumable information has grown, the amount of effort we must expend to sort the true from the false, and the helpful from the unhelpful, has also increased. If we exclude nothing and consume everything, then we risk polluting ourselves and we destroy the chance to think creatively. If on the other hand we exclude too much, then we miss out on learning. All truth is God’s truth, no matter where it comes from.

In addition, it is important to be aware that not everything we consume, we consume willingly or consciously. What does society define as ‘the good life’? Do we all have to live in the perfect house, have our next exciting trip planned, and be physically fit or is it actually all about living an environmentally sustainable life? Not only that, but we are the most entertained people that have ever existed. When we entertain ourselves with the latest movie or video, we often switch off the thinking part of our brain. Without even a thought, we open ourselves up to ideas and beliefs which are untrue and contradict our beliefs. My goal for this first article is to provide a set of tools, which we can use to discover truth and uncover the unspoken assumptions in the world around us. In further articles, I hope to use these questions to explore trends and perspectives that are relevant to us today.

To live in this world as Christians, we must be able to identify and understand the ideas we encounter daily. The ideas that are embedded in so much of what we consume are usually part of a worldview, a perspective on how to answer the big questions of life. Similar to a map which helps the navigator chart a course through an otherwise stormy sea, a worldview helps one to navigate life and make sense of what is happening. If we do not identify the assumptions and ideas which underpin so many of the messages we receive in our media-saturated culture, we risk being taken captive by them. The Apostle Paul explicitly warned us against this in his letter to the Colossians:

 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. Col 2:8.

We can only defend ourselves against worldly wisdom and deceptive philosophy, if we can detect it. James W. Sire in his excellent book The Universe Next Door outlined seven such questions which are especially well suited to this purpose. In this article, I aim to introduce these probing questions with short examples to illustrate, I will go into more detail in my next articles.

1. What is prime reality – What is really real?

Is there an aspect of reality, the beginning point for all existence, that does not depend on anything else for its existence? If you follow the chain of causation backwards, will you at some point find something that just exists and has no cause? Does only the universe exist? Is our entire experience of reality just an illusion? Consider the Matrix. In this movie, the main character Neo transcends reality and can control the world around him when he realizes that it does not exist. This teaches the idea that all of reality is an illusion. In contrast, Christianity affirms that God has created a real and discoverable world which exists separately from our perception of it.

2. What is the nature of external reality?

This question is related to the first, but tries to draw in ideas related to our perception by questioning if anything is real outside of ourselves. Is the world around us created or independent (un-created or self-created), chaotic or orderly, physically real or just made up out of spirit? Is our own subjective experience of reality the only important thing or is there an actual real world out there? The movie Inception suggests that reality can be subjective, a world you create for yourself and which only exists in your dreams can be just as good as the real one. Christianity argues that God is the source of all reality. Everything comes from him and because he is the creator, he can define what is real or not

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

In essence, this question is about identity. Possible answers might be: a complex biological machine, a god, an illusion, a person in the image of God, a blank slate. For example, the idea that an individual is a blank slate is related to the philosophical debate of being and becoming eloquently explained in the movie Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne (as Batman) explains to his friend, “It’s not what I am underneath but what I do that defines me”. Bruce is defining himself by being the Batman, a hero who defeats evil and saves the helpless. This expresses the culturally relevant idea that we create our own meaning and that each person must decide this for themselves. On the other hand, Christianity holds that each person is created by God in his image with the purpose to love and serve God and man. We do not choose our purpose, it is given to us.

4. What happens to a person at death?

When we die, are we annihilated or reincarnated? Does the person who dies transcend reality or just go to be on the “other side”? This is an important question because it has a large role to play in answering what the purpose of life is. Logically, if we all end up in the same place (non-existence), it does not matter how we live. Without lasting consequences, our choices in life are meaningless because everyone dies no matter if they were a good or bad person. Greta Thunberg and extinction rebellion accept that life ends in death, but reject the logical conclusion of this fact. They argue that because all we have is this life, no measure is too great if it stops our extinction. If Christianity is true however and there is life after death, then how we live now may have lasting consequences beyond death. Maybe saving the environment is not the only thing to be worried about.

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

Are we able to know things because we are made in the image of God and endowed with rationality? Or rather, are our rational faculties the result of the long and gradual process of evolution? Though obscure, this question is critical.  Before we can start making conclusions from what we know, we must first answer why it is possible to know anything at all. One contemporary school of thought argues that your destiny in life and worldview are primarily determined by how you were brought up. A logical consequence of this view is that objective reality is impossible to grasp, you can only see it through the lense with which you were raised. This stands in contradiction to Christianity, which holds that knowing Christ is to know the truth and to be set free from the corruption of this world.

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

Every worldview has a perspective on whether right and wrong is grounded in reality or illusion. No one can deny the existence of right and wrong; the mere fact of living forces us to make moral choices every day. How you live shows what you think is good or bad, right or wrong. But how do we distinguish right from wrong? Right and wrong could simply be determined by human choice or by whatever produces cultural or physical survival. In the Star Wars movies, there is no good or bad, only balance. The light and dark sides of the Force must remain in balance, it is bad for either side to gain dominance. Christianity, however, teaches that we are created in the image of a good God with a conscience that helps us to tell right from wrong.

7. What is the meaning of history?

Christianity would argue that history is a linear series of meaningful events that shows God’s redemptive work of reconciling man to himself. This is the purpose or meaning of history. However, others might argue that history is a meaningless collection of events or an eternal cycle of rebirths, where in each life you are living out the karmic consequences of the previous. A modified version of the last option is expressed in the movie Groundhog day. Phil Connors is not able to escape the same day until he becomes a better person. The meaning of history according to this film is to escape the endless cycle by improving yourself.

These seven questions are by no means exhaustive, but, when applied, provide insights into the many different worldviews we encounter and open up further avenues of inquiry. Further, it is not possible to stand neutral on any of these questions. If we refuse to pick a worldview, then we have unknowingly already assumed a worldview. Moreover, living in the world forces us to act, and how we act shows what our worldview actually is. We cannot escape answering these questions, the only decision we have is whether or not we will try to answer them. To not do so means that we are living with blinders on. Life is important. Living it in an ignorant manner is surely more dangerous and risky than not.

So when you find yourself surrounded by a cacophony of news and entertainment, don’t forget to ask a few questions of what you are learning. No message stands on its own, it is always connected to a series of deeper beliefs which we need to expose if we are to sort the truth from the lies. As Paul said:

But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; 1 Thess 5:21

May this be true of us in our daily lives.

Dragon Speak (Or, What is Theology?)

You have nice manners for a liar and a thief  (Smaug in the Hobbit)

A few weeks ago I went to a lecture at Otago University. The lecture commemorated five hundred years since Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation. Written on the desk that I sat at where the words, ‘there is no god.’ Yet here I was listening to a lecture about Luther and his god, and believing in that same god. Clearly there was a vast gulf between the theology of the scribe and my own.  

The serpent said to Eve, ‘did God really say, “you must not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ And so begins one of the most famous (or infamous) dialogues in all of human history. Whether you identify as a Christian or not does not take away from the power of this story. It is a universal story: a utopian existence lost through folly. Everybody – Christian, Buddhist, and Jedi alike – has lost someone’s trust through failure or deceit. Humans fail. And their failure hurts them. And it hurts those around them. ‘O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendents’ (2 Esdras 7.11). Some call it sin, others, evil. C. K. Chesterton commented that sin ‘is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proven,’ and is also a ‘fact as practical as potatoes’ (Orthodoxy).   

The third chapter of Genesis is a strange story. The main actors in the previous two chapters – God and Adam – are in the back-ground: God is passive and Adam pretty much invisible. Instead, two new actors – Eve (then unnamed) and the (until then unmentioned) serpent – are introduced as principal characters. Theirs is a fleeting scene: between them they only say a handful of words and some of those are quoting God. Yet the echos of this event thunder down through the ages, obscuring the First Story: we can now barely imagine life in Eden, walking and communing with our creator, without thinking of Eve and Adam’s folly. Ours is a view of a high mountain peak from deep in a shadowed valley.

When we thought and talked about God we did so from the shadows. Long ago we lost our footing and fell off the precipice. David wrote of the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ (Psalm 23.4). We could only look up, and when we did so we saw the silhouette of a dragon circling far above, casting its shadow over us and obscuring our view of the sky. Between us and God was a dragon, ‘that serpent of old’ (Rev 12.9, 20.2).

So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings (Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit)

This changed after the first Easter. Through his life, death, and resurrection Jesus overcame the separation, the expanse between humanity and God. After Easter humans could both know God and know about God in a way that they could not before. Theology as we know it was born. We can know God because he has revealed himself to us through Jesus (Hebrews 1.3a). The historical reality of Jesus, then, makes theology possible. But what  if you don’t believe in Jesus?

Theologians refer to the noetic effect of sin on the human intellect (from the Greek noe?tikos, relating to mental activity or the intellect). The human intellect is affected by sin. This effect is overcome by the work of Jesus in the life of the believer, but not the non-believer. Abraham Kuyper wrote that ‘regeneration [salvation] breaks humanity into two’ – the regenerated mind and the non-regenerated mind (Moroney, 1999:434). While Emil Brunner added that, ‘the more we are dealing with the inner nature of man, with his attitude to God, and the way in which he is determined by God, it is evident that this sinful illusion becomes increasingly dominant’ (439). That is, Christians can both know God and about God because God, through Jesus, has regenerated their minds, while non-believers cannot because their minds remain un-regenerated.

He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself, and if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you (Friedrich Nietzsche).

Consider the following words from some secular thinkers. Protagoras, an epistemological agnostic,  wrote that, ‘concerning the gods….many things prevent knowledge including the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life’ (On the Gods). Thomas Paine, the American revolutionary, charged that ‘the study of theology…is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it provides no authorities…it admits of no conclusion’ (The Age of Reason). Ludwig Feuerbach, the atheist philosopher, suggested that Christianity was a ‘web of contradictions and delusions’ (The Essence of Christianity). While the logical-positivist A. J. Ayer wrote that ‘all utterances about the nature of God are nonsensical’ (Critique of Ethics and Theology).

Meanwhile author and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who clearly hasn’t read much good theology, accuses theology of never being of the ‘smallest use to anybody’ and only talking about ‘pestilence as the wages of sin.’ In his opinion theology is an empty ideology: ‘The achievements of theologians don’t do anything, don’t affect anything, don’t achieve anything, don’t even mean anything. What makes you think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?’ (Scientific Versus Theological Knowledge). (Perhaps Dawkins should check the history of both his profession and institution.)

But does this mean that the non-believer can have no theological insight? No. It is probably better to understand it in general terms rather than an precise statement true in every situation. There has been some very flawed theology from redeemed minds (by ‘redeemed’ I do not mean ‘perfect’) just as there has been some good theological insight from unredeemed minds.

The Dutch Reformed Church’s (DRC) support of apartheid in South Africa is an example of believers getting theology very wrong. Founded in 1652, it was the theological teaching of the DRC that some races were superior to others that helped pave the way for racial segregation in South Africa. It needs to be noted that while the DRC was expelled from the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in the 1980s (an action that showed that other churches believed the theology, on this point, to be wrong), it was re-admitted in 1986 for welcoming black members and preaching that all members of all racial groups should meet and pray together.

St. Augustine wrote that ‘the Platonists realized that God is the creator from whom all other beings derive’ (City of God, VIII, 6). This is a theological insight. The Platonists were not  Christians, though Augustine seemed to have suggested as much, yet they came to a conclusion compatible with a simple reading of Genesis. Paul wrote in Romans 1.19, which Augustine quoted regarding the Platonists, that, ‘what can be known about God is plain…because God has made it plain…’ Perhaps the Platonists were such ardent searches for the truth that God made plain that which they sought? Either way these non-Christians came to the same conclusion as Christians regarding Creation: that one god did it – though they didn’t know which one.    

It might be deemed by some as offensive to hold that non-believers have un-regenerated minds, and it may be so, but some of those un-regenerated minds have no problem accusing believers of stupidity – surely a more offensive claim.

Different conclusions are reached about God because different people are coming from diametrically opposed positions – a point that needs to be remembered. One position says that there is a god, and that that god has revealed himself through Jesus two thousand years ago. Another position sees the notion of a god as foolish from the beginning, and comes to very different conclusions: Richard Dawkins even suggests that Jesus would have been an atheist had he lived today. One mind sees the son of God, the other sees merely another muggle.    

References:

Moroney, S. K. (1999). How Sin Affects Scholarship: A New Model. Christian Scholar’s Review , XXVIII(3), 432-451.     

Faith and Doubt

“A faith without some doubts is like a human body without any antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenceless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart sceptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.

Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts – not only their own but their friends’ and neighbours’. It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them. Only if you struggle long and hard with objections to your faith will you be able to provide grounds for your beliefs to sceptics, including yourself, that are plausible rather than ridiculous or offensive. And, just as important for our current situation, such a process will lead you, even after you come to a position of strong faith, to respect and understand those who doubt.”

Tim Keller, The Reason for God (Hodder 2008), pages xvi-xvii.

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Dr Matthew Flannagan

Dr Matthew Flannagan

Matthew Flannagan

Dr Matthew Flannagan

Dr Matthew Flannagan is a theologian with proficiency in contemporary analytic philosophy. He holds a PhD in Theology from the University of Otago, a Masters (with First Class Honours) and a Bachelors in Philosophy from the University of Waikato and a post-graduate diploma in secondary teaching from Bethlehem Tertiary Institute.

Matthew blogs on MandM – a Kiwi blog that addresses philosophy of religion, ethics, theology and social commentary.

Topics

Divine Command Meta-Ethics, Applied Ethics, Bio-Ethics, Old Testament Ethics, Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Law, Critical Thinking and Apologetics

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