America, Behold Your God [of “Civil Religion”]: the Underlying Meaning of Gay Marriage and Other Incoming Issues

gaywhitehouse[note: I believe this is the longest post I have ever done on this blog. Its a magazine-length article featuring stuff I have been thinking about for a long time]

“Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?” — Psalm 2:1


Before diving into this post, let me say this: I largely agree with Peter Leithart when he says “attending to our own house is now our best strategy for evangelization and prophetic witness.”

Actually, I’d say that’s always been the case.

That said, that does not mean that I am unwilling to encourage the wider [and increasingly] secular world to think very hard about what our current cultural moment means – and to try to persuade using their primary tool: reason (while also bringing attention to the biblical witness and its meaning).

Not all traditional Lutherans think this is the best use of our time. For example, one pastor responding to Friday’s ruling noted that we should just go on doing what we do and not act like the sky is falling. I certainly understand that impulse and it resonates with me (going along with the Leithart quote) – the sky has been falling since the Fall in the Garden of Eden! On the other hand, I think it’s also good to make clear how reason might be able to help explain what the Bible asserts, namely that fallen humanity can become even worse that it already is: flattering ourselves too much to detect or hate our sin, calling good “evil” and evil “good”, and even having the nerve to assert that there is no God.[i]

Part I – Gay Marriage: And God “Gave Them Over”… to a Pseudo-Social Justice?

A few days ago in America, gay marriage became the law of the land, following much of Europe (but not all – if it does get voted down it doesn’t really get reported). You may find it surprising to hear that as a Christian it is my personal conviction that the wide acceptance of gay marriage could have only happened in a Christian context – that is, in a society where a very strong measure of true love and tolerance is practiced.

I know people will laugh at that, and say, “No, it is the Enlightenment that is doing that work”. Well sure, to some degree… you see, in my view the “Enlightenment” is simply the most sophisticated and deadly of Christian heresies yet developed.

undertheinfluenceMorally, it hijacks Christianity’s emphasis on the dignity of the individual person and it praise of sacrificial service, particularly to the oppressed. Taking cues from Christian notions of love and freedom, it elevates the importance of the notion of “consent” (if you love something you, like the “prodigal father” in Luke 15, “let it be free” – this is the reason why free consent is considered to be at the heart of marriage in the West[ii]). And, at least until the “Enlightened” gain enough power, the Enlightenment mimics the Christian God’s impartiality and forebearance with its notions of “equality” and “tolerance”. In addition, taking its cue from the incarnation of God’s Son in history, it accentuates our sense of, and respect for, the empirical. It also assumes that the world is ordered and that our sensory equipment is likewise ordered, and reliable. In like fashion, the new life and transformation the love of Christ brings becomes progress and evolution.

In sum, there is a reason that notions of social justice find a home among those who identify with the person of Jesus Christ. Social justice came from Christianity. There is also, of course, a “Christless social justice” which largely conforms to God’s law and can do some real good in the world. That said, there is also a ”social justice” that certainly does more harm.

So how does this apply to last Friday’s decision? In short, when many in the West hear about the rather small minority of a small minority who want to get married (well mostly, because of the irresponsibility of the mainstream media, most falsely think there are a) lots of gay persons, and b) lots of gay persons who want to be involved in a committed, monogamous union – read Jonathan Last’s excellent piece here) they do, because they are moved by feelings of compassion, really want them to have that opportunity to know love (of course, how long this idea of gay marriage will last is anyone’s guess).

As Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court wrote yesterday’s decision:

“Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right…. Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there.”

As a Christian, I am a bit moved by that – even as all of us should know that love is about a whole lot more than the feeling of being [sexually] desired that overrides the feeling of loneliness. After all, most Americans claim the name of Christ, and who among us doesn’t want other human beings – those made in the image of God and bought with the blood of the Son of God Himself – to know some real measure of genuine love and affection in the world (and if you don’t feel that way, the “social justice” machine reasons, maybe you will feel the need to be “liked” by the world – see here from David French)?

But please don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that Christian teaching ever really supported gay marriage in particular or homosexual activity in general. I am saying that this current “justice” is a social justice mimic – this kind of sentimentality is a genuinely internal but nevertheless anemic, faulty, and imperfect imitation of what is in fact true love, compassion, and affection.[iii]

“What is more harmful than any vice? — Active sympathy for the ill–constituted and weak — Christianity … .” — Nietzsche, The Antichrist

From my viewpoint, even the most “Christian” nations in world history have never been that convincingly Christian. As Chesterton said,Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has not been tried.” Still, in nations where it has held some sway, I would argue that such heart-felt sentiments found in the general populace – mirroring the ones of those actually devoted to Christian teachings – have served us well. For example, we might be surprised to hear that world history, until re-oriented by Christian conviction, actually revealed a general lack of concern regarding children, women, and the practice of slavery.

So, for the first time in world history, things actually changed in the West (and no Ms. Goldstein, it was not primarily because of philosophy) – and this was indeed true progress!  But now, the train is coming off the rails… To borrow an illustration from Douglas Wilson, secularists have gotten into the car that is Christian morality and sentiment and – many not knowing what they do – are doing their best to crash it. Often unaware of the Christian cultural capital with which they progress…. they naively operate with the assumption that “man is the measure of all things” – even when they are increasingly losing the basis for any coherent idea of what constitutes “man” in the first place.

So, a short review of this first section’s argument: even though Christianity is opposed to gay marriage, Christians still have a genuine compassion for all persons – even enemies – and want them to know true love and care. But this true empathy, affection, etc. gets perverted by those under the influence of Christianity into a false social justice – and true Christianity is loathe to fight back with the weapons of the world. There is a very good reason why, when it comes to Christianity’s moral sense, philosophers like Nietzsche and co-religionists like Muslims have considered Christianity to be weak because of its compassionate tendencies.[iv]

As things stand now, it seems to me that there is no longer any real basis for thinking that America will continue to be a vehicle for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of [true] happiness”. Rather, because of our false God, we are increasingly embracing “death, slavery, and the pursuit of misery” – even if many have little or no awareness of this fact, due to an exceptionally wicked case of suppressing the truth.

But who is this God whom our nation serves?

Part II – America’s Self-Made Trinity Clearly Identified

So now, my question: Who is the true God in whom America – and perhaps most quarters of the Western world – trusts?

I submit that they are the Self-made Holy Trinity of Freedom, Progress, and Pragmatism – and somehow, we are gods with them. Such is the shape of our contemporary hubris. Or perhaps – as these gods Christianity made thinkable and possible give way as its influence dissipates – the gods of the West will really end up being like the gods those like Homer and Sapphos, or Epicurus and the Stoics, may have thought about. Ultimately perhaps, those are the gods we are veering towards… That said, there is, I think, good reason to doubt that this will happen (more later).

Let’s take a closer look at our current Trinity.

“[Liberalism] it preaches an individualism in which many bonds and rules and constraints are thinned to filaments, and waiting for the knife.” (quoted here)

In a recent article discussing a piece about Bruce Jenner that brought up Alan Bloom’s 1992 book The American religion: the emergence of the post-Christian nation, Ross Douthat insightfully commented:

Bloom’s language definitely delivers something, and that something helps to illumine the strong religious element (however unstated or subconscious) in what we generally describe as social liberalism today. Since the 1960s that element has been addressed repeatedly by minds more brilliant than mine (from Philip Rieff to Robert Bellah), but it tends to slip out of view in public debates because the liberal vanguard, from its legal enablers to its journalistic cheering section, is so avowedly secular. And that slippage, in turn, limits our understanding of what’s really happening in our society…

But as Wilkinson and Bloom and Jenner him/herself would all remind us, in America a rights-based morality wins converts in part because the rights it champions are still ordered in some sense toward a (very American) sort of end. Freedom is good in and of itself, to a point, but it’s ultimately good because it enables us to pursue God/the divine spark/the True Self/the Original Adam, and in finding it, fulfill our true destiny and reach our perfect end. Natural law or biblical morality aren’t being rejected in favor of a purposeless freedom, in other words, but rather in favor of a higher law that fulfills a higher purpose, bringing salvation neither through faith nor works but through a gnostic revelation about Who We Really Are.

Here is the god Freedom. Redemption is not found in Christ who forgives our sin and in the perfect law of God that brings freedom (Gal. 5:1, 2 Cor. 3:17, James 1:25), but rather in the authenticity of our choices that make us who we are. Thank you Mr Douthat, for that insightful piece of cultural and religious commentary.

“The black-robed priesthood has spoken. Will the church bow before their new masters?” — David French

And before the Roman Catholic columnist Douthat, there was of course the Roman Catholic columnist G.K. Chesterton, already mentioned above. He was a masterful writer who had his finger on the pulse of the modern world – the words he wrote about a century ago seem ever more relevant today. Gene Veith, on his Cranach blog here at Patheos, recently shared the following quote about the god Progress:

“A generation is now growing old, which never had anything to say for itself except that it was young. It was the first progressive generation – the first generation that believed in progress and nothing else…. [They believed] simply that the new thing is always better than the old thing; that the young man is always right and the old wrong. And now that they are old men themselves, they have naturally nothing whatever to say or do. Their only business in life was to be the rising generation knocking at the door. Now that they have got into the house, and have been accorded the seat of honour by the hearth, they have completely forgotten why they wanted to come in. The aged younger generation never knew why it knocked at the door; and the truth is that it only knocked at the door because it was shut. It had nothing to say; it had no message; it had no convictions to impart to anybody…. The old generation of rebels was purely negative in its rebellion, and cannot give the new generation of rebels anything positive against which it should not rebel. It is not that the old man cannot convince young people that he is right; it is that he cannot even convince them that he is convinced. And he is not convinced; for he never had any conviction except that he was young, and that is not a conviction that strengthens with years.” (G.K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News of July 9, 1921)

But here is where I must say “Mr. Chesterton – of course they had convictions!” For example, these Victorian Britons you wrote of were convicted, along the lines of American pragmatism, that “it works”. This is the god Pragmatism. Peirce, James, Dewey (and then Rorty) did not come out of nowhere after all – but the Western world was quite ready for their ideas! And not only that, but as outlined by this liberal college professor, many today are evidently convinced – frighteningly! – that purely identity politics will “work” (so much for the careful and nuanced “social imaginary” Charles Taylor talks about?). Whether avowedly secular, socially liberal or religious, or even claiming the Christian faith, many are confident that – they feel “it works” or at least “it is going to work”. As regards what truth is, that’s all one needs to know.

Part III – The Impact of Secular Humanist Currents

I’ll come back to some more of G.K.’s pithy wisdom later on in this rambling essay. But first, let’s lay some groundwork for that wisdom, so that we can all start “connecting the dots”, as they say. Recently, on the blog of a prominent Darwinist philosopher, a commenter said in part:

“…it is in fact easier to be moral in a secular context than in a religious context because you can recognize clearly the returns from being rationally altruistic, how it affects society and benefits your self interest.”

“Part of a philosophy of taking control of one’s own existence and improving the objective conditions for happiness. There is an arrow of evolution that goes toward ever more reducing of suffering and  maximizing of enjoyment.” – Belgian humanist and euthanasia doctor Jan Berheim (see here)

“Part of a philosophy of taking control of one’s own existence and improving the objective conditions for happiness. There is an arrow of evolution that goes toward ever more reducing of suffering and maximizing of enjoyment.” – Belgian humanist and euthanasia doctor Jan Berheim (see here)

The late Christopher Hitchens said much the same thing in his debate with Al Sharpton (more on Hitchen’s views below). And here, in the midst of our gods Freedom, Progress, and Pragmatism, we have a common explanation of what it means to be moral from within a purely secular worldview. Many of our secular elites would no doubt resonate with this quote above to one degree or another – even as they, like Hitchens*, would want to clarify (understandably) that they nevertheless do not really view morality as functionalist, pragmatic or calculating (see his comments in a debate here), but as a matter that, because of “human solidarity”, really does bind their healthy consciences (because we know we can’t “get along” without the innate morality healthy human beings possess in themselves, and we can’t live with ourselves if we violate this morality – even if we can’t explain why our morality is as it is). They also might want to assert, like he did, that they get a reward simply in doing good actions themselves – perhaps feeling good about the future results of a blood donation, for example.

All of this said, this kind of “practical reason” (yes, for you philosophers – I did use those words intentionally) nevertheless tells us that, if one does “good” things (again, often thought to be synonymous with “pleasurable”) in the world, one will receive “good” things in turn. And even after the idea of a personal God has been banished or downplayed, perhaps it is hard to totally escape the sense that something like the Eastern idea of Karma does indeed exist (as our conscience, whatever its state, still manages to tell us that something is wrong with us and the world – see here). Even secular Karma-rejecters might still posit that rationally doing “good” to the right people (Hitchens: “compulsory love is another sickly element of Christianity”) will generally result in one eventually receiving “good” back – albeit with some “luck” (chance) certainly involved in the process.

So I think that the quote that I stated above about “returns for rational altruism” – the hope and confidence that, taken as a whole, one’s “good” will be reciprocated in more than merely getting good feelings about being good – can be refined and nuanced a bit, but basically comes out unscathed. And with that said, here is the real key thing I’d like to share: upon reflection, the quote reminded me of Hitchen’s critique of Mother Theresa: namely that she did the things she did only because she knew that she would somehow and someway be rewarded by God – in this life and the next.

Hitchen's take-down of Mother Theresa's moral view.

Hitchen’s take-down of Mother Theresa’s moral view.

Regarding Hitchen’s view of Theresa vis a vis his own view, it seems to me that while he believes that doing “good” (understood as that which brings pleasure to one’s self or others – which in turn is pleasurable – as this clip of him talking about the purpose of life makes clear) is generally rewarded in the world, Mother Theresa believes that doing good will be rewarded in this life or the life to come by God. This does not mean that either would deny that doing good merely out of fear of punishment and hope of reward is highly unsatisfactory – in fact, as both have said, we should simply feel the need to and want to do what is right apart from such carrots and sticks.[v]

Another big difference, of course – made very obvious by the emergence of same-sex marriage and its full acceptance – is that for all of Hitchen’s talk about “innate morality”, his “good” can evolve and Mother Theresa’s cannot.

So, in short, when it comes to Hitchen’s view of Mother Theresa’s morality my hypothesis is that he: a) said out loud what many secular elites think is true, and b) did not see the similarities between his own viewpoint and hers, and c) as regards the differences, he did not discern that he was actually projecting his own exceptionally common but anemic moral viewpoint – namely, that if one gives the “pleasure” to others that they want, one will tend to be rewarded with “pleasure” in return (however much he might try to nuance and make more sophisticated and “human” the essential features of this position). On the contrary though, what is good is more than what is pleasurable and what is evil is about more than what is painful (and we’ll assume that most folks are not as willing as Richard Dawkins is, for example, about saying that he does not believe that good and evil really exist).

So what am I getting at? I would suggest that among our elites the moral philosophy of choice – if only by their practice and not in their theory – basically reduces to shear Epicureanism (Stoicism, with its empirical emphases, would be similar in many ways but would not be as eager to expel or downplay the idea of some kind of mind responsible for the cosmos, and hence is not amenable to acting as a counter to Christianity). I realize that many would want to claim Enlightenment folks like Kant or Hegel for their side but I say “no” – you’re actually a flat-out Epicurean”, and as we progress in this essay I will try to unpack why this is necessarily the case.

Part IV – All Philosophers – Even Epicureus – Have Teleology

The philosopher Epicurus explicitly said that his philosophy was designed to eliminate

The philosopher Epicurus explicitly said that his philosophy was designed to eliminate “physical pain and mental disturbance” (particularly the fear of the gods and death), resulting in personal happiness.

And all persons are philosophers as well, to this or that extent. Now, one must not think that I am being overly insulting here by calling people Epicureans in the last section (well… I will admit that “bad body” Hitchen’s own rather pathetic – and deplorable – take on the matter of purpose in one’s life does seem to earn more negative connotations of this word – see here). As any good philosopher will tell you, “Epicurean”, contrary to its popular notions, does not signal unbridled hedonism – it simply means the responsible pursuit of good things in life – the pleasures of this world. I mean really – who today is arguing with that? (the Christian can say that these are God’s gifts and we may even seek them here or there, but they are to be accorded a second place when it comes to our devotion[vi]).

Of course there are a variety of philosophies in the world, and all have something to say about how one should live. In fact, I recently claimed that “all philosophy is morality and teleology”, and I will now develop that point a bit here. This, I admit, is something I think many if not most professional philosophers might take umbrage with – in spite of someone like Socrates’ emphases… Stated a bit more carefully, perhaps we could say that all significant questions and problems philosophers attempt to seriously address and make conclusions about emerge in part because of specifically moral – and teleological (with happiness or contentment being the end) – considerations.[vii]

Of course, the teleological assumptions of Christians and other theists run contrary to those of the Epicurean. In a recent post I said the following:

“…Christians are those who make assertions not only about what is true about God and man, but the rest of His creation and the personal intentions discerned within. This means, among other things, that ancient metaphysical ideas of “substance”, for example, align more closely with the teachings of the Bible than does the Kantian alternative, still in vogue today in a myriad of different forms (underlying a whole spectrum of “mediating theologies”). To say this does not mean that man can, with or without the Scriptures, accurately discern and assert the intrinsic purposes of all the things in the cosmos.  It does mean however, that even without taking the Scriptures to be God’s word, man is able to accurately discern and assert some of the intrinsic purposes of some of the things within it.”

As I look at what I wrote above I don’t really disagree – but I am seeing it as a bit anemic itself – in that the statement seems to focus on the parts at the expense of the whole. In any case, I will explore the idea of discernible purposes more in a moment – looking more closely at “conservative Enlightenment” folks like Kant. But only after a few caveats expounding on my statement above.

First, as I have argued before, in part because the above is true I do not think that a highly secular worldview – particularly an atheistic one – is “intellectually viable” – and I think the most observant of the “nones” realize this (and have begun to gradually acknowledge this, as I argued here). In short, the idea that one need not posit a personal Mind/God or gods at all is not going to cut it and I would be surprised if – in search for “ordering principles” to counter out-of-control individualism and identity politics – we do not see secular persons embracing explicitly religious and philosophical ideas more and more.

Hearts fit, parts fit:  No, because our bodies have intrinsic moral meaning…

No, because our bodies have intrinsic moral meaning… (see here)

Second, when I speak of this design in the universe, I think of it not primarily in terms of science, math and engineering but rather of art and choreography[viii], with all the things therein having roles to play in a dance that brings gladness to men’s hearts (see Acts 14, where Paul talks about the joy God gives to all people). Therefore, while we certainly do not ignore, for example, the significance of the “mechanical engineering” of the “parts” of male and female that “produce” children (see this article), the understanding of reality that I am speaking of here encompasses this organic family into a complete picture that is more mature, and characterized primarily by the beauty and joy that emerge from the natural roles at play.

Third, as I noted in a previous post, Christians assert that believing in some kind of design in the world (often called “natural law” or the “law of nature”) does not mean that even everything that appears natural in humans is “good”. For example, as I noted above, racism, slavery, and the oppression of women, children, and the poor have at times throughout history – even to the greatest and most noble of thinkers – seemed to be “natural” to man (and these can only be countered with deliberate human intention, for whatever motivations), but in truth are corruptions of purpose and “not the way it is supposed to be”.[ix]

At what point do we have a

At what point do we have a “pile”? A “human being”?

In any case, I argue because of these things above, we human beings we cannot but address the role-playing entities in our world merely with what philosophers call a “relational ontology”. We must take time and care to directly and lovingly address the “things” of this world – in spite of concerns about reducing them to their qualities, “objectifying”, “fetishization”, etc, etc. This means that we must address “human beings” as things as well then (or seemingly even more radical: human being as a thing) – for any argument about the purpose of human beings – even if this reduces to radical individuality – must necessarily rest on an account of who “man” is.

And how to discern this? The modern day philosopher Wendell Berry has asked the question – even in the title of one of his books – “what are people for?” The Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant – bolstered, in truth, by a uniquely biblical vision of man in which God is “no respecter of persons” – had provided the answer in part that barely continues to hold on – barely – today: because of their inherent dignity, human beings were never to be treated as means to an end. Christopher Hitchens liked to claim that the idea that we are persons created in the image of God “gets you nowhere”.[x] But what he completely misses is that, when we might not feel like loving our neighbor, this is just the reason why we want to overcome those feelings and treat persons the way that we do – even to feel real affection for them. Because they are objectively valuable and possess dignity in the eyes of God. Humanity is good – period.

Part V – Observing Kant Being Dissolved in Epicurean Acid

Kant: intelligible at all without a biblical frame?

Kant: intelligible at all without a biblical frame?

So Immanuel Kant, unlike Christopher Hitchens, believed that human morality was rooted not just in “human solidarity” but in each individual person being created with unique dignity and worth. That said, Kant’s moral philosophy also highly elevated the notion of the “categorical imperative”, which also is, according to Kant, justified as an end in itself. In short, it says “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” This, of course, is a variation of the positive formulation of the Golden Rule, stated positively by Jesus: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Jesus’ “Golden Rule”, while resembling those that came before it (they said: “don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you…”) was unique in that Christ also assumed the “brotherhood” of man. In other words, all persons were neighbors, being the offspring of God. As an online acquaintance of mine recently put it, “the Golden Rule… is not hospitably grounded in all [worldview] alternatives…”.

So what is the problem with Kant’s view of this? Didn’t he basically believe the same thing? No. For Kant, things like morality, the reality of personhood, and belief in God all reside in the realm of what he calls “practical reason” (as opposed to “pure reason”). While the biblical teaching would treat all of these things as knowledge all men have or should have (the truth can be greatly suppressed in conjunction with the searing of one’s conscience), for Kant it is only things like geometry, mathematics, and nature’s laws that can count as such. Things like personhood, God, and ethics are real, says Kant, but we certainly can’t say that we have anything like knowledge about such things – only strong convictions. This further means that in Kant’s view the dignity of personhood and morality are intrinsic, but this has no connection with how things appear in the sensible world. The given empirical properties of all the things in the world simply cannot be associated with any corresponding purposes that we can know. Again, in truth, when it comes to the world we can literally know no such things because only the transcendent and intelligible world – similar to Plato’s forms – matters.

This being said, it is still certainly true that for Kant, the thing of “humanity” and “personhood” can be said to be a transcendent inner kernel within us – i.e. something that cannot be increased or diminished or destroyed and that we have an absolute duty to respect (see here). But all this said, here is the key: with Kant, there is no reason to think that what it means to be a human person cannot evolve and be changed – which of course means morality can change with it.

““the Renaissance ideal of classical languages, classical literature, and classical arts would be replaced by classical mechanics, which have no place for meaning, ethics, or Bildung [that is, the “tradition of self-cultivation, wherein philosophy and education are linked in a manner that refers to a process of both personal and cultural maturation”– Wikipedia] In science and technology, every tool would be used to maximize the power of human being.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (summed up by Martin Noland)

Part of this change – started by others, but set into more furious motion by Kant – is that we become Enlightenment men who never depend on external authorities and tradition. This, literally, changes everything. Here, the autonomous individual comes to reign over all, and the effect on morality is subtle, but powerful. For example, in Jesus’ day, it would make sense to think of the Golden Rule from a more communal perspective: “I will not commit adultery with another man’s daughter because I would not want him to do so with mine – even if she might want to do that”.

Nowadays however – and this would have horrified Kant as well – the rule can be, and often is, turned on its head by the increasingly autonomous pleasure-seeking individual, cut off from really trusting others to give them truth or live in truth: “If I would like others to offer consequences-free sex to me, it is only right that I would offer it to them”. Really, freed from the natural “consequences” of sexual activity – and with new technologies assisting us every day – who is really going to insist that this could not become a universal law? That Kant’s “categorical imperative” can’t evolve as well? You and what army, er, knowledge? It seems to me that Epicurus and Lucretius, newly empowered by Darwin, were right: what is ultimately good is what brings me pleasure. Literally, “all things in moderation”, or in proportions that I judge to be proper (soon to be “proportional” and “proper” once again?)

And now of course, the kinds of morality put forth by Enlightenment figures have now metasticized further due to more existentialistist currents, where the authenticity of our moral choices – driven by instinctual desire – has become the primary consideration.  We note the 1992 Planned Parenhood vs. Casey decision of the Supreme Court: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

And here our new modern, now breathing in this existentialist atmosphere, quickly chymes in:

“Of course it’s not just about me! Just because I want to be authentic, and believe “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”, doesn’t mean I don’t want to love everybody – or love everyone that loves me that is! What that Kant fellow says about that “not treating persons as means to ends” stuff sounds like a good idea. We should definitely do that as much as possible and seek that great “common good” idea… Why can’t some “hedonism” (as you call it) go hand in hand with “human flourishing” or even “world flourishing?”

Freud, summing up many an intellectual: “Will man ever be willing to let science alone explain the universe and reconcile him to its ruthlessness?”

Freud, summing up many an intellectual: “Will man ever be willing to let science alone explain the universe and reconcile him to its ruthlessness?”

Of course notions of the “common good” have now been subtlely re-defined – perhaps formulated as something like “the aggregate sum and fulfillment of as many individual’s desires as possible”.

And here, at this point, G.K. Chesteron’s critique of “progress” comes to mind, essentially pointing out how when man is the measure of all things, the goalposts are always changing.

Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit our vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision. It should mean that we are slow and sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy…. We are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is much easier.”

If progress without a fixed ideal is absurd than the modern notion of progress cannot help but be absurd – only “known” (trust me!) to the ones who have the power to enact their vision of progress with the ones they desire to be associated with (and this, after the fact [ad hoc], can then be “justified independently” – in other words, said to be based in something very real and permanent yet distinct from evolving empirical realities – by some appeal to Platonic notions of proportionality, mathematics, etc). More from Chesterton:

As long as the vision of heaven is always changing, the vision of earth will be exactly the same. No ideal will remain long enough to be realized, or even partly realized. The modern young man will never change his environment; for he will always change his mind.” (Othodoxy, 105-108, Image books, 1959)

Chesterton would have us think more critically about what is real and imaginary progress. It seems to me that with the popular notion of progress, the hope of holding on to Kant’s assertion of persons not being reduced to means to ends is a pipe dream. And really, that train left the station even years before Kant tried to salvage it – hundreds of years ago. Though perhaps Francis Bacon did not really want it to come to this, what happened was that power became knowledge and knowledge became power, i.e. knowledge became basically reducible to technical knowledge or technique. That kind of thing is all a “person” needs to “know” (person in quotes since technique and method ultimately has in mind what “works”, i.e. “how to”/”know how”, not what is, or “know that”).

We are all “useful fictions” now.

Part VI – Will There Be a De-Secularization of the Self-Made American Trinity?

Nov. 10, 1793: a statue of the goddess reason is installed on the high altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris

Nov. 10, 1793: a statue of the goddess reason is installed on the high altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris

I have no idea. Will the West continue to become more secular, with nary a mention of a divine mind of one sort or another behind it all (I really doubt this)? Will the goddess reason maker her return – and perhaps find common cause with the Gaia hypothesis? (allowing for a “personal” if not so compassionate god that is at least – thank god – not “Abrahamic”) Will it adopt more Eastern forms of faith? Will Islam gain more influence and adherents longing for more moral stability? Will Christianity arise again?

I don’t know if any of us can know the answers to these questions.

For now, our “reasonable” (idolatrous) trinity of Freedom, Progress, and Pragmatism seems to be going quite strong. As R.R. Reno recently put it in his new thought-piece “Empire of Desire”:

The richest and most powerful countries in the world are dominated by an intellectual class that, however individually self-disciplined and well intentioned and personally influenced by inherited moral traditions, give metaphysical priority to desire. They train us to live as docile, dutiful citizens in the Empire of Desire, asking never what is right and true but instead what is “healthy” and “empowering…. Thus runs a world that has lost its capacity to dream of something higher than desire—something to desire.

In R.R. Reno’s Empire of Desire our desires – I would say for Freedom, Progress, and Pragmatism – overcome the kingdom of God and the joy, peace and harmony it brings (with the focus on the good of one’s neighbor for Christ’s sake).

Ideas have consequences.

Ideas have consequences.

So, let’s assume that our secularism will continue to go strong, as it certainly is in places like Western Europe for example (see here for a vivid example)

In which case, hear atheist John Gray:

In 1929, the Thinker’s Library, a series established by the Rationalist Press Association to advance secular thinking and counter the influence of religion in Britain, published an English translation of the German biologist Ernst Haeckel’s 1899 book The Riddle of the Universe. Celebrated as “the German Darwin”, Haeckel was one of the most influential public intellectuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; The Riddle of the Universe sold half a million copies in Germany alone, and was translated into dozens of other languages. Hostile to Jewish and Christian traditions, Haeckel devised his own “religion of science” called Monism, which incorporated an anthropology that divided the human species into a hierarchy of racial groups. Though he died in 1919, before the Nazi Party had been founded, his ideas, and widespread influence in Germany, unquestionably helped to create an intellectual climate in which policies of racial slavery and genocide were able to claim a basis in science.”

Not only this, but one should check out the recent piece about the ideas of sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari in “Death is Optional”.[xi]  Summing up the article, Ross Douthat said:

Soon, if not tomorrow, the rich may be able to re-engineer bodies and minds, making human equality seem like a quaint conceit. Meanwhile, the masses will lose their jobs to machines and find themselves choosing between bread and circuses (or drugs and video games) and the pull of revolutionary violence — with the Islamic State’s appeal to bored youths possibly a foretaste of the future.”

Douthat’s summary is quite low-key and mild given the article, which is an excessively jarring introduction to the incoming world of transhumanism.[xii] But then there is a recent article from Anthony Sacramone, discussing the movie Kingsman: the Secret Service. In it, he talks about what Maggie Gallagher – famous for her stand against gay marriage – said about the movie, which features an execution of a[n ugly] Christian congregation:

Hitchens, vs. loving one’s enemies (like Mother Theresa, in his case): “…it’s a shame there is no hell for your bitch to go to.”

Hitchens, vs. loving one’s enemies (like Mother Theresa, in his case): “…it’s a shame there is no hell for your bitch to go to.” (see here)

Gallagher goes on to describe how a work of sociology she had just finished reading, So Many Christians, So Few Lions: Is There Christianophobia in the United States? by George Yancey and David A. Williamson, recorded in chilling detail how some well-educated progressives indulge a sick preoccupation with inflicting pain on Christians, a blood lust resembling that of the Jihadis:

I want them all to die in a fire,” said one man with a doctorate. “I would be in favor of establishing a state for them. . . . If not then sterilize them so they can’t breed more,” said a middle aged man with a master’s degree. “The only good Christian is a dead Christian,” said another under-45-year-old man with a doctorate. “I abhor them and I wish we could do away with them,” said a middle-aged woman with a master’s degree. “A tortuous death would be too good for them,” said a college-educated man between the ages of 36 and 45. “They should be eradicated without hesitation or remorse,” said an elderly woman with a master’s degree.

Who was Hollywood entertaining with Kingsman’s groundbreaking displays of orgiastic pleasure in witnessing a Christian massacre? All the good people above, who would never, I am sure, commit violence against Christians, but for whom the idea of doing so gives a guilty pleasure.[xiii]

As regards how long Christianity moral capital will – including the idea of love for enemies – will continue to be of use to discourage and fight such things, take into consideration the words of Curtis White, who writing against the “New Atheists” scientistic tendencies also says the following:

“Like Hitchens, I am an atheist, if to be an atheist means not believing in a CEO God who sits outside his creation, proclaiming edicts, punishing hapless sinners, seeking vengeance on his enemies, and picking sides in times of war. This God and his hypocrite followers have been easy targets for enlightened wit since Rabelais, Moliere, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and our own Mark Twain.” (p. 28, The Science Delusion)

conceptions of nature determine in advance what sort of God is allowed to appear to thought and consequently, the range of meanings that can intelligibly attached to 'creation'…

“conceptions of nature determine in advance what sort of God is allowed to appear to thought and consequently, the range of meanings that can intelligibly attached to ‘creation’…”

At this point, let’s now go back to the claim I made at one point above … namely, that the problem is that all of our thinking about reality today operates under the spectre of Epicurus and Lucretius, empowered by Darwin.  This is particularly true of our elites, many of whom have, to some degree, thought about how all of this works out intellectually. I now further assert: this is the framework that our elites work within, and one need not delve into the reasons this view of the world would be popular (it is the perfect frame to accomodate the desires which flow from original sin – see here for more).

Again, if they do not want to embrace the more extreme hedonistic implications some have seen in Epircurus’ thinking, they nevertheless must work within this frame to effect the change they desire and think should happen. Epicurus is “harnessed” and his “swerve” (the idea that nature works by set laws, but there is occasionally the “swerve” of the atom that introduces opportunities for chance, contingency, ideas of freedom, etc.) is utilized then as we attempt to “control” our evolution, pushing things in the direction they think best, and using either soft or hard power to marginalize the viewpoints that conflict most seriously with their vision.

In sum, when it comes the Christian God, our elites, whether they be philosophical naturalists or Romantics like White, know which side they are on. It doesn’t matter if you are a driven materialist, praising science and how practical truth is, or one more given to the literary world, exalting poetry and the unity of man. Or if you are a Christopher Hitchens, trying to straddle the middle. What the elites of the Western World have in common is that the ends they choose are fused with the secular gods of Freedom, Progress, and Pragmatism…. Yes, as I said in my review of Dreyfus’s and Kelley’s All Things Shining, even grace-drive pagan elites are ridden by the devil.

Law of Merited Impossibility to characterize the doublespeak many LGBT activists and their allies have used to advance the cause. Here’s the Law: It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it.

“[the] Law of Merited Impossibility… characterize[s] the doublespeak many LGBT activists and their allies have used to advance the cause. Here’s the Law: It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it.”

All of this does not surprise the Christian.  As fallen creatures, humans are constantly trying to justify ourselves before others – this is an aspect of how we try to gain “salvation”. This is true of all of us regardless of what one thinks about whether or not there are absolute moral truths that do not change. The Lutheran theologian Oswald Bayer offers this helpful perspective:

As it is in my own life history, so it is in world history, is a part. We should speak more cautiously and soberly in the plural, of world histories: namely, the histories of great social groups or movements; the histories of alliances, nations, and blocs; histories which stand apart and never merge into a world history in the singular. These world histories are nothing but the histories of the seeking, enforcing, denying, or lacking of mutual recognition. They are the histories of vindications and the assigning of guilt. They are one long story of the battle for mutual recognition, a life and death battle. In this regard, then, we can indeed speak of a world history in the singular (Bayer, Justification and Sanctification, p. 4)[xiv]

God made us moral creatures, and so it should not surprise us that we keep or discard our views of the world first and foremost on these considerations.  Even if statistics showed that black children raised in white homes tend to be more successful in society than those raised in black homes, we rightly wouldn’t care. It simply would not matter because our convictions about what is right and wrong will always trump even good and responsible efforts at social science. All of us, whatever our background and worldview, cannot help but be most concerned about the truth we feel about how we should act – how we relate to and think we should relate to others takes center stage.  Again, this – and not something like rationality or empirical evidences pointing to this or that trend, for example – will be our primary consideration when it comes to whether or not we continue in or discard the views of the world we receive and form earlier on in life.

The Christian will be concerned about this because he knows himself to be justified and will obey revelation which conforms to the intentions also clearly seen in nature – these are things we can know.  The Epicurean will seek to justify and save himself and those he chooses to associate with through his deeds, as he intelligently works with the ordered but ultimately mindless and purposeless objects and laws of nature, seeking to attain whatever pleasures he realistically and sensibly can along the way (the more extreme ones, basically in line with Epicurus’ epistemology though not his morality, consciously seek, through science, complete knowledge of the laws of nature, and unending presence and power [to be god][xv]).

I'm with Mr. Warren here:  “I fear the disapproval of God more than I fear your disapproval or the disapproval of society.”

I’m with Mr. Warren here: “I fear the disapproval of God more than I fear your disapproval or the disapproval of society.”

This view basically being the default view of the modern intellectual mileue, it seems obvious to some of us why many ideas are popular among them: increasingly unbounded sexual identity and autonomy, survival-oriented evolution, seeing the cosmos as being machine-like, the abandonment of the natural or “organic” family, etc (here one thinks of the Pope’s new encyclical, where he is constantly pointing out how “everything is connected”)  Since Kant ended up saying that we can only have knowledge about mathematical and scientific truths and not morality (which yes, he again did think was true and real, just not able to be known like math and the phenomena), for example, he ends up supporting Epicurus, even if he did not intend to.

For all the modern cold and calculating “scientific objectivity” that we tend to think is out there, each one of us is really reaching for our own version of the “good life”, and apart from Christ, this can only mean comparing ourselves with other human beings and justifying our own behavior while condemning that of others.  “My truth, your truth” is nonsense.  We are all aiming for something as concerns right behavior, even if that something is not clear to us.  And we all would like to have others join us, and will use all our power of persuasion – or perhaps more than this – when we think the time is right.

Why? Because as human beings we are all teleologically-oriented, even if we refuse to see the same in all of the things that God has created in His world.


Check your Jesus:

Check your Jesus: “…I am afraid… your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ… if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed…you put up with it readily enough.” — 2 Cor. 11

In the midst of this, I am reminded of the movie Collision, featuring the debates of Christopher Hitchens and Douglass Wilson. Someone like Hitchens, for his part, says “Love your own enemies. My enemies are the theocratic fascists. I don’t love them – I want to destroy them.” (see here). On the other hand, Wilson points out that for the Christian: “Loving your enemies is not inconsistent with fighting them.”

But here we hasten to add that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12) and “the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Timothy 2: 24-26).

The God of the Old and New Testaments is indeed coming to judge. But His ultimate goal is to save and not condemn. I note how Martin Luther, the 16th c. Church reformer described the attitude of a good hangman/executioner in talking about the death penalty: “When dealing with a wicked person, his thoughts are to be: “Oh, my God, how gladly I would die for this man, if it could be done!” (see more here)

For that is just what the Lord, who desires all persons to be saved, has done. And the Christian, above all, imitates this mercy (see Rom. 9:1-5).


Non-book Images: All from Wikipedia except gay white house (White House Twitter feed) and Rod Dreher (Twitter account pic)


[i] In another example, one pastor has said our principle should be “You may use your conscience to guide your behavior. You may not use your conscience to guide my behavior.” This kind of saying might have some relevance when we talk about “disputable matters” or “adiaphora”, found for example in Romans 14 and 15. Further, the point is taken if the pastor means that we should not force another human being (who is not our child, for example) to behave in a certain way. All of this said, the problem with the statement is that all of us will inevitably use our conscience to not only determine how we should act, but how we should help others to act as well. Every human being has a certain range of acceptable behavior that they will accept and those who say otherwise are deluding themselves. We all have something to say, in one form or another, about how we think others should live.

Another example is that I resonate with this quote from a Lutheran pastor:

And yet, I also suspect that there is much truth to this as well:

I am glad that my pastor did not mention it in the sermon but did talk about it for a while in Bible class.

[ii] Regarding the nature of love, C.S. Lewis said:

“In order for love to be genuine, the agent has to have the ability to choose not to love. Unless there is freedom of one’s will to either love someone or hate them, it isn’t really love.”

It seems strange to say about one as great as Lewis, but Pastor John Fraiser points out some very real problems with this argument.  That is why I propose the following instead:

“Only freely given love is genuine love. Love that is forced is not free, and therefore not genuine love. In that case, we might as well be robots.”

Luke 15 (“the prodigal son”) shows us how God is with us.  This not only has theological but political implications.

[iii] Christianity is utterly unnatural – producing unique moral affections like nothing else (who else says “love your enemy” and really tries to mean it?). Again, because the West has been under its influence, it has formed the sentiments of even non-Christians such that a real kind of empathy – resonating with the strong affections and genuine feelings of devotion and commitment even some same-sex persons have for one another – can actually make some sense to us. So much sense in fact that we would be willing to think about – and then even legally recognize “gay marriages”!

After all, until recently in world history, gay marriage – the idea of two persons of the same sex being committed was never enshrined in any government’s law as a thing to be upheld, encouraged, or especially celebrated.

[iv] Who else care about oppressed, slaves, women? Who would care to identity with and find solidarity with each human person – even enemies? Who else would care to forego one’s right to unlimited sexual expression by unreasonably limiting one’s self within marriage? Those weak Christians. And yet….

In the past, I wrote this: “the level of personal freedom persons in the West have experienced is immense, and unarguably, unprecedented in human history. And I note that you will not find the nuanced and expansive view of rights that allows for this, which in Western societies (especially America) is part and parcel with respect for the freedom of the individual conscience – in any other society, where non-biblical religious ideas (polytheistic [hoi polloi], pantheistic [elites], etc.) are much more closely intertwined with the political. Hence, you will, for example, find that the politically active classes in no other society – not even pagan Greece and Rome – ever officially sanctioned and actively promoted things like gay marriage – hoping to elevate same-sex relationships to the same status as heterosexual ones – although throughout history there have been “variations on a common theme” (namely man-woman themes) when it comes to marriage. Quite frankly, only in a society buffered by so much biblical tolerance and patience (where the “habits of the heart” formed by the non-Christian’s imitation of the Christian [Christians could never “tolerate” *sanctioned* gay marriage] is what I am speaking of) could a thing like “gay marriage” occur (go read Luke 15 to see the attitude of the waiting, prodigal Father Jesus speaks of).”

[v] In a debate with Mr. Hitchens, when Dinesh D’Souza suggested that Mother Theresa did what she did for others out of love for God, Hitchens was disgusted by this. As one commenter online put it: “My favorite part was Hitchens standing the[re] with his drink in his hand snorting dismissive[ely] into the microphone while D’Souza was talking about Mother Theresa’s “love of Christ” for the suffering.” (comment here).

[vi] An interesting note on pursuing happiness: while behavior leading to children – and children who are nurtured well – is essential to humanity continuing and flourishing, social historian Peter N. Stearns, in his insightful book on happiness, “Satisfaction not Guaranteed”, points out that in late 20th century polls and surveys couples who decide to remain childless report having the highest levels of personal happiness. Also note that even if the “pursuit of happiness” is seen to be problematic from a Christian perspective (necessarily or potentially), simply desiring satisfaction and contentment for one’s self, one’s family, and one’s neighbor is unobjectionable. 

[vii] As I said before here, “At the very least we can say this: in short, we should all be asking to what extent the sense of morality that we feel convictions about (often based on our personal experiences with others and our evaluations of the shorter or longer term consequences of our actions) drives or at least influences our consideration and evaluation of various kinds of evidence and their significance (correspondence theory of truth considerations) as well as various kinds of worldviews and their significance (coherence theory of truth considerations).”

[viii] As I begin this article: The creation we know is not God’s machine or technology, but His living art, the distinct, unequal and beautiful but diseased partner with whom He dances.”

[ix] Note that this explains in part the enthusiasm that many practicing Christians had for the program of Francis Bacon – who as part of his critique of Aristotle criticized his “knowledge” about the discernible purposes of this or that thing – as well as for the program of the Enlightenment (are not even liberty, equality, and fraternity in fact biblical concepts? And where in the history of philosophy, has philosophical faith in “the force of the best reason”, for example, shown that “all humans are created equal and are entitled to equal rights”? Really, which non-Christians philosopher ever said this and what were his/her reasons? Yes, the silence is deafening….)

[x] Asserted, for example, in this debate.

[xi] Also see this short essay, where I discuss the implication of Harari’s ideas (which I think sum up most forcefully the thoughts of many elites), jumping off of a Washington post piece by Michael Gerson.

[xii] And hear Wesley Smith talk about transhumanism in his piece “Even Materialists Crave Religion”:

Transhumanist eschatology contains the Christian element of hope, but its believers expect that man—assisted by artificial intelligent machines, no God needed—will invent the means of attaining an immortal new age. In the transhuman New Jerusalem, we would live for thousands of years, perhaps by sharing uploaded consciousnesses in computer software programs or, if we remain physical, by self-designing our capabilities to resemble the characters in the X-Men comic books. Eventually, according to Princeton biologist Lee Silver in his transhumanist manifesto Remaking Eden (get the title?), humans will become immortal “mental beings”:

It is difficult to find words to describe the enhanced attributes of these special people. “Intelligence” does not do justice to their cognitive abilities. “Knowledge” does not explain the depth of their understanding of both the universe and their own consciousnesses. “Power” is not strong enough to describe the control they have over technologies that can be used to shape the universe in which they live.

Smith knows of what he writes. As Max Anderson, from Forbes magazine recently reports:

“Google has committed an investment up to $600 million into Calico (short for the California Life Company) to do anti-aging research and, as Time magazine puts it, to “solve death.” Meanwhile, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Ma and Sergey Brin (among others) have funded “Breakthrough Prizes for scientists who make discoveries that extend human life. Its $3 million payouts — given to six scientists each year — dwarf similar awards, including the Nobel Prizes, currently about $925,000.” [Peter] Thiel…. has invested in 25 biotech companies and has funded gerontologist Aubrey de Grey with $6 million, partly for the work of the Methuselah Foundation, whose near-term goal is to make “90-year-olds as healthy as 50-year-olds — by 2030.”

Who could argue with conquering death? Do not Christians say that death is evil? Yes, God forbid the tree of life and there is that Babel thing… and who is to say that the boats of the weak, poor and oppressed would not be lifted in this rising tide of death-defying mastery? Well, no… it is Jesus Himself who truly conquers death…. And not through us by means of our intelligence and technological mastery….

An interesting note: it seems someone like Hitchens would probably have found the transhumanist dream to be absurd…. (see here).

[xiii] More from Sacramone:

“If these living guardrails of History’s direction cannot realize their dream of seeing Christians die in large quantities, at the very least:

“Restrict their ability to become judges, senators, representatives, member of Cabinet, military chief of staff and other powerful members of government,” said a man over 75 with a bachelor’s degree. “Should not be able to make decisions regarding the law, they should somehow have to be supervised if they are working with other people (drastic, I know),” said a woman under 45 with a master’s degree. “We should put in place mandatory extreme prison sentences for anyone or any group that attempts to take away civil liberties guaranteed by our constitution,” said a middle-aged man with a master’s degree. “Churches should not be allowed to provide orphanages and adoption programs,” said one elderly man with a doctorate. “I think we should restrict the indoctrination of children in religious dogma and ritual” said a middle-aged man with a master’s degree. Conservative Christians should “not be allowed to hold political office, be police etc., serve in the armed forces,” said another middle aged man with a doctorate.

Can anyone dismiss such scenarios as far-fetched anymore?”

[xiv] On page 40 Bayer says: “The faith that works and shows its energy by love does not separate itself from the context of the dispute of “justifications” but moves in a certain way within it. The forensic structure of reality – being as judgment, being in mutual recognition – is not abolished but, as we have described it, fulfilled. In this sense the tradition of Old Testament and Near Eastern wisdom – the world order as communal faithfulness and justice – is caught up under the concept of love and thus brought to fulfillment. This many-sided and even, in itself, dissonant process of tradition has to be seen in its entire context. Luther does not restrict himself to an insular exposition of Paul. That is a common misunderstanding of his theology and of Article IV of the Augsburg Confession. The fact that the law finds fulfillment in love, and righteousness in mercy, leads into the broadest of social and cosmic relationships.”

On page 80: “Those who live in the dispute of “justifications,” asking about the ground of their own lives within this world, are told that everything is groundless and gratuitous, and they need not ground or justify themselves; it is grounded and justified only by God’s free and ungrounded Word of love. Under no obligation and without any condition, God promises communion, communion through and beyond death. The justification of the ungodly, the resurrection of the dead, and creation out of nothing all happen through this promise and pledge alone. The promise of God lets us live by faith.)”

[xv] In this day, such power is sought with the help of science and technology, and goes hand in hand with the way of thinking I describe as the modern scientific and technological mindset (or MSTM). I would characterize the MSTM as being set on overcoming everything seen to be a limit, and being reductionistic and pragmatic in practice. I do not mean to imply that the MSTM was the dominant or most important mode of thinking for most of the early modern scientists (most early scientists were more tempered by competing systems of understanding – particularly religious ones – that would compete against drives such as these) or that it was fully developed in those for whom it was the dominant or most important mode of thinking. More specifically, we can look at the MSTM in this way. It begin with an approach to the world called “methodological (not necessarily philosophical) naturalism” in the 17th century, was upgraded to include “pragmatic utilitarianism” in the 19th century, and has in recent years been upgraded to “systematic iconoclastic world-repurposing” towards man’s desires (late 20th and early 21st century). In some cases of course there were those who were “early adopters” of the upgrades. Again, what this all comes down to (endgame) is that we have behavior that can be described as being reductionistic and iconoclastic (limit and barrier breaking). This may leave us with some “laws of nature”, but also leaves us with moral lawlessness, where the ethical façade of the 19th c. “pragmatic utilitarianism” upgrade collapses altogether. At this point, we can say that there is nothing intrinsic about beauty, justice, and meaning, for example – i.e. beauty, justice, and meaning are only something that I/we (and those we choose to associate with) create / make / determine.

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Posted by on June 29, 2015 in Uncategorized


Martin Luther: Christ Means to Draw the World’s Wrath and to Pick a Fight Sermons from Luther on John 16 that are must reading for today. Click on image for more.

A sermon from Luther on John 16:8-13 that is must reading for today. Click here for more.

And as my pastor puts it, summing up Martin Luther’s interpretation of John 16:8-13, “The Holy Spirit wants to subjugate the entire world to Christ.”

Please note, when it comes to picking this fight, this means striving to make Him, not yourself, the stumbling block.

The pictured book is a fresh translation into English of a sermon on John 16:8-13 that originally appeared in 1544, two years before Luther’s death. As Paul Strawn, the co-editor of the book writes, “It has long been understood that…the text used in this volume, is not pure Luther, but Luther distilled and refined by [Caspar] Cruciger. Even though this is the case, the content, the theology, remain that of Luther.”*

Well, if its not pure Luther why pay attention?  Actually, Luther was quite happy with the editing work that Mr. Cruciger had done in putting his sermons into a more compact form.  Regarding the sermonic commentary on John 14-16 that Cruciger had put together just six years earlier, in 1538, Luther had said: “I am still studying Christ’s sermon. This is the best book I have written. Of course, I did not write it; Cruciger did. The sermon on the Mount is good, but this one is the best.”**

What follows is chapter 2 from Convicted by the Spirit, which again, is a translation of the 1544 sermonic commentary of John 16:8-13. Its powerful stuff (the bold below features passages that the editors of the book draw attention to):

What kind of kingdom is Christ’s kingdom? How is it governed? Christ explains this in the text when he says: “The Holy Spirit will convict the world.”

The kingdom of Christ is not to be a government established and organized in a worldly way. It is not to be run by human wisdom, power, might, law and order. Rather, the kingdom of Christ is to be a government of the Holy Spirit. It is to be a spiritual kingdom, in which Christ rules invisibly. Christ is not to rule externally, by physical force, but internally, by the word that the Holy Spirit is to preach. By the preached word the Holy Spirit will work in the heart of man.

“The Holy Spirit,” Christ says, “is to convict the world.” This does not mean that the Holy Spirit will conquer the world by armor and weapons and earthly power. Rather, the Holy Spirit will carry out an oral word or preaching office which is called God’s word, or the word of the Holy Spirit, sent by Christ. That is what is going to invade the world and attack it.

This is what it means to convict the entire world, not just a few people, not just one or two nations or countries. This is what it means to convict both Jews and Gentiles, scholars, wise men, and saints, who all excel in their respective kingdoms. By the term ‘world’ Christ does not mean the masses or the rabble. Rather, he means the very essence of the world, that which is most praiseworthy, that which cannot be convicted of anything at all in external earthly kingdoms.

In particular, Christ is thinking of those who wanted to be holier than everyone else, namely, the Jews. They after all had been given the Law of Moses and were called ‘The people of God.’ Christ earlier had said that they hated him and his disciples without cause, just as was written in their law. In this way Christ gave his apostles power and might. Indeed, he gave them authority over all the world, which was to hear them and be subject to their preaching.

Christ strengthens and comforts the disciples. Because they were simple common people, the preaching of the disciples would be despised by the world and would not have any prestige. In fact, wherever they would challenge the world with their convicting preaching, the disciples would be hated, suppressed, and suffer.

Nonetheless, their preaching would have power, strength, and force. Even though the world would thunder and rage against it with persecution, punishment, and killing—not only with all its own power and might, but also that of the entire kingdom of hell—the world would have to hear it and would not be able to overturn and resist it. “This is why,” Christ says, “you should not be terrified and saddened by the fact that I leave you bodily. For I wish to give you something in leaving which is far better than what you have had so far while you were with me.”

“I also wish to accomplish far greater and more glorious things than what could take place so far. The Holy Spirit will accomplish through you things which pertain to my kingdom far more glorious and powerful than you now imagine. He will do this so that you will not, as you do now, plan and scheme how to become rulers on earth and conquer great kingdoms” (which is all perishing stuff, about which God does not care, and where there has been always more fools than pious men).

“Rather, the Holy Spirit will place you in a government by which you will judge the consciences of all men. That which is greatest in the world—that is, all its wisdom and holiness—will be subject to you. You will judge, convict, and condemn it. Furthermore, no one shall, nor can, escape sin, death, and hell, or get to heaven, who does not hear your word and desire to obey the same.”

“The Holy Spirit will also give you such comfort and courage that you will not be terrified as you now are. You also will not be deathly afraid of the world’s intimidation, anger, and rage against your preaching. Rather, you will confidently continue to convict, regardless of what both world and devil can do, and does do against it, with persecution, murder, and the power of all hell.”

This is the promise concerning the work that the Holy Spirit is to begin in the kingdom of Christ, which is the teaching office of the apostles. This is to be carried out by convicting the world as it finds it, and that is, outside of Christ. It does not exclude anyone great or small, learned, wise or holy, rich or poor.

In short, this is what it means to draw the world’s wrath upon oneself and to pick a fight. This is why one must be struck in the mouth. For the world, which rules here on earth, neither wants, nor can put up with, someone who does not want the world to be right. This is why persecutions must begin because of this. This is why one party must yield to the other, the weaker one to the stronger one.

Since, however, the office of the apostles is to be nothing but a teaching office, it cannot be carried out with worldly might and force. This is why the world keeps hold of its external rule and power against the apostles.

A popularized summation of Martin Luther's Antinomian Theses, also from Lutheran Press

A popularized summation of Martin Luther’s Antinomian Theses, also from Lutheran Press

At the same time, because it is the office and work of the Holy Spirit, the apostles’ office of convicting, which This confronts the world, is not to be hindered. It is to overcome and permeate everything, as Christ promised the apostles: “I will give you the mouth and wisdom which your opponents will not be able to resist.”

To be sure, the Holy Spirit has also previously convicted the world of the same thing. Just as Christ rules at all times, and the same Christ is “yesterday, today, and forever,” (Hebr. 13:8), the Holy Spirit has preached from the beginning of the world through the holy fathers Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and John the Baptist. Such convicting has been preserved by divine power.

Yet now it is to begin in earnest. Christ wishes to establish a public convicting that is to take place not only among the Jewish people but throughout the entire world until the Last Day.

This public convicting is to be much more powerful and penetrating so that hearts are struck and wounded. This is what was said in Acts 2:37 about the first sermon of St. Peter on the day of Pentecost. The apostle’s sermon cut to their heart. That is how they were enlightened and converted from their blindness.

Yet, on the other hand, whenever people do not want to accept such convicting, it is to effect their condemnation. They are to take offense, stumble and fall into eternal damnation. In this way, this convicting is to be a power unto life and salvation for the believers, but for the others it is to be a preaching and power unto death, as St. Paul says in 2 Cor. 2:16.

Finally, I would be remiss to not mention that while my pastor operates Lutheran Press with pastor Holger Sonntag (whose work has been showcased here). Also, Pastor Jordan Cooper and his wife Lisa operate Just and Sinner Publications. Be sure to check out both publishing houses for excellent Lutheran materials.



* Strawn continues: “Those aspects of the Cruciger edition translated here which speak in its favor of its use include clarity of language, the incorporation of material from other sources, and the fact that it was printed, with Luther’s approval, shortly before the Reformer’s death. In other words, the Cruciger text provides a mature Luther’s precise treatment of a text through which he had worked many times.”

** AE 24, x. Strawn writes in the Afterword of “Convicted by the Spirit”: “Luther treated John 16:8-13 as well within a series of sermons delivered in the summer of 1537 on John 14-16. The material on John 16 was printed in 1538 under the title The Sixteenth Chapter of St. John Preached and Interpreted. An English translation of these sermons was printed in 1961 by Concordia Publishing House in St. Louis as volume 24 of the American edition of Luther’s Works.”

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Posted by on June 24, 2015 in Uncategorized


Thesis: Only Theists Can Rationally Believe in American Values

Am_I_not_a_manI know that title is audacious. I’m like a moth who can’t stay away from flames.

I am ready to be challenged on this, and quite honestly, I don’t feel terribly strongly about the statement. But I suspect that it is true.

Let’s see how I do in defending this. First of all, I take the following to be an American value:

“We should work hard to make sure that each person, without exception, is treated with the inherent human dignity and honor that they deserve.”

Maybe I lost some folks there, but probably not too many.  Speaking for myself, I, as a Christian, really do believe this is true. I would even say that this is what I know is true and required of me. Now, I know that many non-believers in the Enlightenment tradition might also say that they believe this is true – even if, technically speaking, it is not something they have knowledge about, but simply strong convictions (that’s because of Kant’s distinctions about these things, which many elites still look to today).

Why not knowledge? That is more for the realm of things like pure mathematics and perhaps some of the basic laws of nature.

And even here, we see the cracks in the convictions surrounding American values like “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”, which the Declaration of Independence says are, or perhaps should be (?), self-evident.

Enter Michael Gerson’s new editorial on Yuval Noah Harari’s book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.” Gerson’s own column is titled “Myths, Meaning, and Homo Sapiens”, and Albert Mohler discussed it on his program this morning.

Gerson starts his column with his own account of the emergence of human beings, saying of Homo sapiens:

“About 10,000 years ago, they invaded the Western Hemisphere, killing most of the large animals there as well (including woolly mammoths). Sapiens arrived, with blood on their hands, at the top of the food chain.

Then, to cut a long story short, came coinage, empires, monotheism, cathedrals, global capitalism, Newton’s “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica,” the moon landing and Taylor Swift.”

He discusses and praises – “one of the best accounts by a Homo sapiens of the unlikely story of our violent, accomplished species” – Harai’s book, sharing such “insights” as the following:

“Ten thousand chimpanzees in St. Peter’s Square would be utter chaos. Ten thousand sapiens is an outdoor Mass. The ability to create unifying myths (used here as powerful, defining stories, not fictions) is our most powerful, distinguishing characteristic as a species.

Harari consigns all those myths to the realm of fiction — not only religions but the whole enterprise of humanistic, rights-based liberalism: “There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings…”

Gerson then ends his column by saying, in part:

“…With a kind of courageous consistency, he argues that the life sciences reveal sapiens as nothing more than a bundle of neurons, blood and bile. And that, he concedes, destroys the whole basis for ethics, law and democracy.

Harari shrugs where he should shudder. It is not a minor thing to assert that the main evolutionary advantage of sapiens — their capacity to produce meaning — is a cruel and pointless joke. There is at least one other alternative: that the best of our stories are not frauds but hints, and that the whole unlikely story has led sapiens to a justified belief in their own dignity and purpose.

In this case, the myths produced by Homo sapiens would be not the lies we tell ourselves but the truths we dimly perceive.”

Not so "self-evident" stuff these days...

Not so “self-evident” stuff these days…

Dimly perceived indeed. As in approaching, it seems, not being perceived at all.  As I recently heard from another who seems to think like Gerson, “I want to believe there is an innate, universal morality. But if there is such a thing, we’ll never be able to know it perfectly.” The question though, is whether or not we can even begin to know it perfectly.  Mohler points out, I believe rightly, that Gerson undermines his entire argument because of the story that he begins his column with. Many believe that one must be a Bible-believing fundamentalist to make this argument, but I want to argue below that this does not necessarily need to be the case.

There is no doubt that humanists can have ethical systems outside of a religious framework, but the issue is that such systems will always be evolving – and not just at the surface but at the core. Those who call themselves theistic evolutionists are confident that they can embrace “methodological naturalism” without embracing “philosophical naturalism”. The problem is that when it comes to evolution, the whole system is based on the fact that “human beings” are because they are “designed” to pass on their genes.  As it has often been said, here “God” is in danger of being subsumed by the system as a belief that at one time was useful for us, evolutionarily speaking. That said, what is often missed here is the question of what becomes of human beings – and hence morality – in this system.

Theistic evolutionists will downplay the idea that evolution is all about passing on one’s genes. To be sure, that is what is happening in the natural world, they say, but this is not necessarily something “moral” that we should let control our morality and values. Besides, look at all the devout evangelicals who believe in evolution and the Bible: their morality does not seem to be tied to evolutionary ideas in the slightest. This may be true enough, but it is hardly the main issue. 

Here is the issue:

At what point do we have a "pile"?

At what point do we have a “pile”?

When it comes to evolution, scientists practicing methodological naturalism cannot help but focus on how key – and controlling – this factor of passing on one’s genes is. If we “observe” that the laws of nature demand the successful passing on of genetic material, this has implications for how we view – or can now conceivably be tempted to view – all living things, particularly human beings.

Certain temptations that might otherwise have been unimaginable now are imaginable.

And here is the crown of the examples: the idea of human being can now rationally be reduced to a “useful fiction”.  It is now “human being”.  Just like the Stoics puzzled over when a bunch of sand grains became a pile, doubt can now introduced about when we are dealing with another “human being”, which undermines any talk about morality being rooted in human solidarity. It gives persons an out for treating the other as less than human – or fully human – or not a sufficiently evolving human (i.e. less able or willing to adapt to changing circumstances such that they will remain socially viable so that their genes will be passed on) – when times get rough. After all, who decides what genome is human and what one isn’t?  Based on what criteria?

Do you see what has happened?  We are necessarily making value judgments here. And we are doing so according to a modern scientific and technological mindset (i.e. essences as classically understood must bow to useful fictions).

Am I correct?  If we are, for example, primarily deciding who is a human being on the basis of the genome – and not by ordinary sensory experience available to all human beings – is this not really making a complex value judgment on the basis of what really does come down to numerical considerations (whether things like brain size, IQ or the % of genes that overlap with what we take to be the ideal standard)? And can’t this lack of belief in a stable human essence that all of us can immediately recognize through regular concrete means necessarily undermine a strong sense of the value of human beings – opening up the door for us to judge others as being less fit than us?  I mean, it does not seem like much of a stretch for me to understand why so many elites 100-150 years ago drew racist conclusions from the theory.

July 4th inconceivable today....

July 4th inconceivable today….

So when someone says to me that “the problem of nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw is a moral consideration for all of us whether we choose to accept evolutionary theory or not”, I need to say: “Well, it is your problem – it isn’t mine.”  

Humanists are increasingly talking about the “irrationality” of religion, and how religious persons even make “uncivil conflict resolution strategies” necessary (see here). But where, one wonders, has “the force of the best reason” ever shown that “all humans are created equal and are entitled to equal rights”? Which non-theist philosopher – or philosophers not influenced by theists – has ever been noted to say something remotely like this?  The Indian Chrsitian philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi raises key issues here. And Thomas Kidd’s post this morning about “Benjamin Franklin, Skepticism, and The Enlightenment” at his blog the Anxious Bench also drives this home in a nice package.

But there are even more questions that need to be asked here: just how can Harari be absolutely convinced that his account is nothing other than a story? As Thomas Nagel has pointed out, “Evolutionary naturalism provides an account of our capacities that undermines their reliability, and in doing so undermines itself….” Here, one might say while it is only theists that can consistently believe in human rights, it is also only theists – or perhaps convinced Platonists, Aristotelians, or Stoics – that can believe in evolution (read my posts here and here for a more detailed unwrapping of why this needs to be the case).

In other words, evolution needs philosophy. That said, the remaining problem, then as now, is that when it comes to securing consistent human dignity and consistent human values, none of those classical philosophies – now infused with an Epicurean / evolutionary foundation – can even begin to argue that we can have any stable knowledge about these things.

I suggest that it is time for Christians to realize again the treasure that they have in the Word of God and the history of the world that it tells. There are our reasons for knowing meaning in life – and how we should live. As Gene Veith noted this morning in one of his posts at his Cranach blog, “the Early Church affirmed the Bible as its sole authority; later, it developed the concept of “tradition,” while insisting that the tradition is consistent with and normed by the Bible.”

It is in Jesus Christ’s love for sinners created in the image of God that we – and all persons – can find true hope. America is/was just a bonus.




My last two posts dealt with related issues: one on science, morals, and philosophy and one on why I do not believe in evolutionary science.

All images from Wikipedia commons.

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Posted by on June 16, 2015 in Uncategorized


“What About the Dinosaurs Dad?” Where Jurassic Park and the Creation Museum Meet

jparkAs a very young child, one of the main things I wanted to know about was how science and the Bible fit together. “What about the dinosaurs, dad?” (an elephant?) We’ve taken our kids to natural history museums and even the Creation Museum when we were down in Kentucky, and there is nothing like dinosaurs that gets the imagination – and questions – going.

Like a Velociraptor, the new Jurassic World movie totally snuck up on me. I had no idea it was coming. In any case, I really enjoyed the original film. This weekend I watched it again with the boys (with lots of warnings about the scarier scenes).

One thing I find fascinating to think about is how in the first movie there is this idea that 65 million year old dinosaur blood and DNA could potentially be preserved. What this made me think about is the [rather under-reported] news over the past ten years about the fresh (and smelly!) dinosaur tissue discovered by Dr. Mary Schweitzer (see this article for amazing color pictures of this).

What could all of this mean? I think it’s a good question for people to keep asking and thinking about (see the brief conversation I initiated in the comments of this article). What is really interesting is that young earth creationist scientists have evidently been talking about discoveries like this for quite a long time and consider finds like these to be highly significant to their case (see the links to all the articles at the bottom of this and this article). Things like formaldehyde and iron atoms can act as preservatives under certain conditions – that said, it seems amazing to me that tissue could remain fresh for thousands of years much less millions (all the fresh tissue found would have to have been preserved for 13,000 – 40,000 times longer than 5,000 years).

What to think of evolution as a whole? I will admit that I am no expert on the topic but it hasn’t prevented me from writing on the topic from time to time. The following is a revised compilation of a couple posts I’ve done on the topic from the past couple years (originally here and here – see my take on the Ham-Nye debate here).

Yes, I will admit hard to imagine in a pre-fall, "very good", state.

Yes, I will admit hard to imagine in a pre-fall, “very good”, state.

“Dad, why did God make sharks so that they eat other animals?”

So my four year old asked me this question out of the blue two nights ago (as of this writing) – well, right after asking me if sharks, crocodiles and sea monsters were real.

What would you say?



I said:

Some people just think that this shows God has a hard edge – sure He is loving, but still… in some ways, He is very hard”.

Others say that animals eat other animals because of the curse, and I think they are right.

When Adam and Eve sinned, the creation fell with them. God had given Adam and Eve great power and when they disobeyed Him and ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they threw the whole creation into chaos.* They started getting old, and would die. Things started to decay and disintegrate. Animals started to eat one another…

Not long ago on a blog, a man known as the GeoChristian linked me to his blog post about animal death before the fall.

Being firmly unconvinced by his post, here is how I replied to him:

Much better... (see here)

Ahh…. Much better… (see here)

I guess I, sensitive guy that I am, am just fundamentally incapable of interpreting God’s evaluation of “very good” in a way that permits carnivorous activity. God said the world, not the garden, was “very good”. You say: “A related passage is Romans 8:20-22, which states that the whole creation groans. Just like in Genesis 3, the passage does not state the nature of that groaning, and it doesn’t necessarily include death” and it is pretty much impossible for me to think that groaning and death do not go hand in hand. Looking at it briefly, Psalm 124:1 “The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God” is not glorifying God because of predation per se, but is glorifying God because all creation seeks their sustenance from him. I Tim 4:4 is simply saying that “everything created by God is good”, which is certainly true – but he does not create that which infects his good creation by the curse of original sin. As for teeth indicating predation, we know that doesn’t work. Kevin, I’m guessing I won’t convince you and you won’t convince me. I don’t consider myself a hard core YEC – I just like to listen widely to the various views.”

In short, I find the idea that God built suffering, death and decay into the original creation – as if this is “very good” – even more disturbing than the idea of eternal punishment. Why?  Death, decay and destruction are not very good and I see no reason, biblically or otherwise, to think they are (am I simply irrationally sensitive, being repulsed and wanting to turn away, for example, from carnivorous assaults as I do?).  On the other hand, it is clear that eternal punishment is not the way it is supposed to be – nor is it supposed to be for men, but for angels.

That’s where I think the accent needs to go. You see, I think God hates eternal punishment more than I do. Of course, I still believe in it because I think the words of Jesus – kind Jesus – point to this reality.**

This is one of the reasons I think the young earth creationist position can’t be readily dismissed.***  In any case, even theistic evolutionists who would say that there was a literal Adam and Eve are now being told that this is not even a scientifically viable position to hold (for why, see the answers to my comment here)


The powers that be inform us that anyone who believes in something like young earth creationism is a complete and total moron (evidently people like Leonard Brand, Ben Carson, Terry Hamblin [Wikipedia article here], Andrew McIntosh, John C. Sanford, Raymond Damadian, Stephen Lloyd and Todd Wood for instance).  These days, saying you believe this a good way to socially assassinate yourself when it comes to intellectual respectability.

It seems another way to do this – not as much of course – is simply to question evolution period, as Ben Steyn argued in the 2008 movie Expelled.  Besides the revealing Dawkins-aliens moment, the highlight of the movie had to be the agnostic and secular Jew David Berlinski, the mathematician-physicist turned harsh Darwin-critic.  His effortless takedown of neo-Darwinian thought was compelling and his brash confidence admittedly entertaining (see the You Tube clip below for Berlinski on Darwinian evolution).  Berlinski has nothing but contempt for what he sees as the intellectually facile system that is called the neo-Darwinian synthesis – a “Scientific Scandal” if there ever was one, he says.

I would say that Berlinski is well worth reading (if not for the sheer entertainment).  And not long ago, our library ordered a book of his essays The Deniable Darwin.

As one can see by looking at Berlinski’s various books as held by OCLC WorldCat libraries, many of his peers in academia evidently did not judge this book to be one of his better moments.


One might be forgiven for thinking the articulate anti-Darwinian thoughts of a highly educated, scientific mind the stature of Berlinskis’ might actually be of interest to people.

Certainly, there is an interest in semi-popularized books about evolution.


All this said, as one can see from the first chart above his 2008 book lampooning atheism did a bit better.  In it, he said of Darwinism:

We have no idea how life emerged, and cannot with assurance say that it did.  We cannot reconcile our understanding of the human mind with any trivial theory about the manner in which the brain functions.  Beyond the trivial, we have no other theories. (bold mine, p. xiii, see also 156-165).

And in this excellent interview on Issues ETC., Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute talks about Berlinski as well as four other prominent, non-religious scientists scientists who have dared to question the Darwinian orthodoxy*: Jerry Fodor, Lynn Margulis (both opponents of intelligent design), Thomas Nagel (in his book pictured below: “the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude”), and Steve Fuller (an agnostic who defends intelligent design).  He also mentioned the late Philip Skell.


Luskin reinforces what should be the obvious notion that science is not the impartial search for truth, but is also governed by important sociological and political factors (and spiritual of course) as well.

It also seems to me that Luskin has been very careful with his examples.  I noted a couple years ago his Discovery Institute colleague Paul Neslon was rightfully skewered (it seemed to me) by a couple prominent atheist-Darwinists, Jerry Coyne and P.Z. Myers, for being careless about representing people’s views.

This topic is always interesting to me – particularly when thinking about how Christ asks us to have faith like a child in His simple and humble words. I wish I had more time to read these books!





*So get what this kid – 4.5 years old – asks me last night….  [note: this was from last year] As I laid down with him in bed to tuck him in, he peppered me with theological questions and commentary for what must have been a good thirty minutes or so. I don’t recall the exact words that he used, but at one point I am pretty sure that he basically asked me whether or not the curse was enacted by a direct act of God in response to Adam and Eve’s unbelief or whether it came about by a release of some kind of power from the tree itself, as its true use had been violated. I told him I wasn’t sure, as I said to myself “Why had I never thought about it that way?”

This kind of thing happens more often than one might think (post from 3 years ago on kids asking very hard theological questions)… I feel blessed to know that I have a son who is proud about how he believes in God and wants to share that with me.

** Others these days are calling this into question left and right – it is certainly something that needs to be addressed and dealt with more. The very gifted and popular Eastern Orthodox blogger Al Kimel has been doing a lot of stuff arguing against the traditional view of hell, and linking to others doing the same, for instance:

*** Old earth creationists will often say that they do not believe that there was any human death before the fall either. Here is a link to a relatively recent debate between two prominent young earth creationists (YEC) and two old earth creationists (OEC).

****The article the interview is based on is found in this issue (Issue 2, 2013) of the Christian Research Journal: Are There Nonreligious Skeptics of Darwinian Evolution and Proponents of Intelligent Design?

Images: JPark: ; animal pics: Wikipedia

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Posted by on June 15, 2015 in Uncategorized


All Philosophy is Morality and Teleology – and Other Tacitly Known Truths?

The philosopher Epicurus explicitly said that his philosophy was designed to eliminate "physical pain and mental disturbance" (particularly the fear of the gods and death), resulting in personal happiness.

The philosopher Epicurus explicitly said his philosophy was designed to eliminate “physical pain and mental disturbance” (particularly the fear of the gods and death), with the aim of personal happiness.

“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (I John 4:10)

“If religions can be defined as ‘doctrines of salvation’, the great philosophies can also be defined as doctrines of salvation (but without the help of God).” — Luc Ferry

“[philosophy is like a religious conversion]… It involves “a total transformation of one’s vision, life-style, and behavior.”– Pierre Hadot

“Evolution is promulgated as an ideology, a secular religion — a full-fledged alternative to Christianity, with meaning and morality.” — Michael Ruse (see here for source of last 3 quotes)

“There is simply no such thing as a methodological naturalism that is not also an ontological naturalism. And ontological naturalism is, at bottom, a bad theology that does not know itself.”– Michael Hanby

“Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” — Chesterton, Orthodoxy, chap. 2


Karl Giberson, writing at Peter Enns’ blog today, is playing with fire – particularly in our current cultural context – by undercutting the biblical doctrine of original sin.  Meanwhile, Pastor Jordan Cooper (whose book Christifcation actually contains a ready reply to Giberson and Enns on this issue) is hitting the ball out of the park with the podcast he posted on this blog yesterday – giving an excellent Christian response to transgenderism. This post attempts to deal deeply with pertinent issues present in both of these topics.

Several years ago, when I was thinking about what all human beings could reasonably agree on (as I was discussing cataloging library books with Library of Congress Subject Headings of all things), I came up with the following minimal list…

Getting PERSONal: MyAssumptions. YourAssumptions?

-We exist! (or: “I exist. You exist” [kind of like “I’m OK. You’re OK”])

-We share a world out there

-Despite all the messiness, there is some order out there to be discovered (particularly in the minds of other persons).

-It makes sense (is worthwhile) to try to learn about this world

-Our “epistemological equipment” (senses and reason) also “makes sense”, so we can rely on it to learn about the world out there.

-Our experiences of reality are analogous to other healthy persons (i.e. those who have received appropriate socialization – love)

-People are universally endowed with at least some shared concepts: e.g. “thirsty”, “clouds”, “tears”, “sad”, “food”, “mother”, “father”, etc.

Goldstein on Plato’s mathematically-inspired virtue, basically an amputated natural law: “The beauty of proportionality that has led one on, because one loves it, would cause one to abhor a situation that would bring one into disproportion with everyone else… the impersonally sublime is internalized into personal virtue” (p. 392, 393, see Gorgias 507e-508a, Philebus 64e, and Timaeus 47b-c)

Rebecca Goldstein on Plato’s mathematically-inspired virtue, basically an amputated natural law: “The beauty of proportionality that has led one on, because one loves it, would cause one to abhor a situation that would bring one into disproportion with everyone else… the impersonally sublime is internalized into personal virtue” (Plato at the Googleplex, p. 392, 393, see Gorgias 507e-508a, Philebus 64e, and Timaeus 47b-c)

Looking at this now, as I was trying to find common ground and justification for the same, I certainly was trying to start small

Bigger fish to fry now.  Trying to drastically simplify and make plain the life of the mind. Real philosophers out there – what do you think?:

We know more than we can tell. (Polanyi) More or less so.

Thought experiments can help us see what we tacitly know – and challenge us regarding our claimed beliefs compared to our actual behaviors.

If God does not exist, then there may be subjective “meaning” but no ultimate meaning.

Rather, we make up all as we go, and everything must be about power and practicality. Words, for example, get reduced to manipulation…they are “power tools”.

Therefore, “we” “humans” have no real essence (this is a “useful fiction”) and further, “if God does not exist, the person does not exist”. (Zizioulas)

If God does not exist we must embrace the meaninglessness of all things – except, or course, our own opinions of all things!

So in like fashion, if God does not exist, science does not exist* – at least as many today understand the term science.

For what has become of truth here? Here “truth” and utility are one – with all recognized ethical norms emerging and being created within relevant community(ies).

In sum, what works is true and what is true is what works.**

Furthermore, since all empirical observation is “philosophically mediated”, all of this “science” is really philosophy.***

All philosophy is about how we are to live.

All believe not any way or “form of life” will do – some must be discouraged or even actively suppressed.

Therefore all philosophy is teleology (see more here).

More: all philosophy is morality (see more here).

Akin to an acceptable monastic rule.

Truth, of course, must to some degree be tied up with this.

For if we grow disposed to ignore truth, our neighbor will not let us do so entirely.

Therefore, we speak of “righteous” persons.

These understand they must live in accordance with what is.

The true person lives well, we say, recognizing natural limits and their own limitations.

And yet, for the unbelieving philosopher, what is, physically and morally and spiritually, is even less important than what he wants to do.

Therefore, ultimately curiosity about what is, not conviction, describes him.

For the heart wants what it wants.

And being “true to himself” is the apex.

“His truth” is that creation is god.

All suppress the truth in unrighteousness, but some more so.

He may nevertheless begin to live according to what he knows on earth, but not from heaven.

…”If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”

As C.S Lewis said, Christianity is the Truth Myth.

Therefore: no Christ, no true philosophy also.****

The Christian, as opposed to the unbelieving philosopher, is first and foremost true to Christ.

For he knows the truth is that the Creator, Jesus Christ, is God.*****

And that words – particularly God’s words – are first and foremost, gifts of love.

And that he has been buried and raised with Him in baptism (in the death and resurrection of Christ)!

Peace, joy, and eternal life (beginning now – see John 17:3) with God – the true consolation indeed!

Here we see the real intended end of man.

While a tree or animal cannot deliberate over whether or not to rightly grow and reach their intended end, a man can – a Christian can…

Therefore: Not my will, but yours be done!

Here he finds himself, as he loses himself – along with the whole of Christ’s bride, the church.

He thanks God for what has been, what is, and what will be coming.

And that it is in Him that we live and move and have our being – unto the fullness of life eternal.

He is good! Thank God Jesus is God!




* “No God, no science”, says Michael Hanby, although his approach varies from mine. More interesting things from him: “Current scientific practice is upheld by a political, economic, educational and cultural citadel that is virtually impregnable and that bears only an incidental relation to the search for truth.” To Hanby, Darwinism is a “living affront to the conviction that the desire for truth lies deep within us and plays an active role in extinguishing it….if it is impossible to live as if your theory were true, it probably is not.”

** “…the Baconian equation of knowing and making is…knowing not for the sake of control but by means of control, knowing by controlling which accords epistemic and ontological priority to parts separated through analysis.” (Hanby, p. 34, No God, No Science?)

*** Note that I am not saying here, for example, that all facts are contested due to different worldviews, or something like that. Rather, I would say that we all have much philosophy in common – and it is more our practice than our stated beliefs which demonstrates this (hence the possibility of the MyAssumptions list resonating with others)

Hanby provides excellent fodder for thought here. Again, note that his overall views are quite different from mine:

“….science is constitutively and therefore inexorably related to metaphysics and theology. To say that this science is intrinsically constituted in relation to metaphysics and theology is to say that science is not simply distinguished from metaphysics and theology merely by a difference of method (experimental, empirical, or mathematical) that would demarcate them externally, though this is not to deny that there is a methodological difference. Nor are they simply distinguished in virtue of their end or of the fact that science typically trades in what can be observed, or measured, or predicted, or manipulated. The question of precisely what the empirical sciences observe is a complicated matter, since empirical experience is already a highly “stylized” experience. And it is not always the case, in astronomy, for example, or in certain branches of physics, or even in reconstructing certain features of a hypothetical evolutionary past, that the objects of science can be observed or manipulated. Where it is the case, the very fact that empirical experience is “stylized” is an indication that there is no such thing as empirical observation that is not philosophically mediated. To say, then, that science is intrinsically constituted in relation to metaphysics and theology is to say, first, that it remain dependent upon a tacit metaphysics and theology in the very act by which it distinguishes itself from them, and second, that science is constituted as such in distinction from philosophy can theology by the manner in which it relates itself to them (precisely by distinguishing itself from them), as a way of attending to “the whole” through its perspectival attention toward a part. To say that this relation is inexorable is to say that it cannot be willed away. It can be forgotten, neglected, suppressed, or materially distorted, but never escaped. The more vehemently a Dawkins or a Dennett asserts this atheism, for example, the more definite and grotesque his theology becomes….. conceptions of nature determine in advance what sort of God is allowed to appear to thought and consequently, the range of meanings that can intelligibly attached to “creation”… [this is] an alternative theology that determines in advance both what sort of God can appear to thought and what sort of “nature” may manifest iself…” (pp. 17-18, 19, 35, No God, No Science?)

… If then the assumption that science is extrinsic to metaphysics and theology betrays itself and expresses a distinct metaphysics and theology, what is the distinct ontological and theological content that lies within this extrinsicism and its notions of a metaphysically neutral method and limit?…” (33, No God, No Science?)

**** The man who is religious but not Christians, on the contrary, really does seek the Divine, but does so wrongly – both externally and internally. And until turned by God, he cannot do otherwise.

***** Does the cross of Christ always equal foolishness? We are not saved by reason, but with Christ, grace, and faith, we are certainly saved with, in, and through our reason. This does not mean that we achieve this through reason’s powers – it only means that we begin to understand who we are, our sin, who God is, and His work for us in history. Reason that is truly reasonable cannot be autonomous from sensory experience or history. Divine revelation, which we are told is “at work in you believers” (I Thes. 2) is in part history told by God.

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Posted by on June 10, 2015 in Uncategorized


A Plea to Reformation Christians: Don’t Let Your “Simul” Become the One Ring to Rule Them All

ringofpower“Sins were sweeter to me than honey and honeycomb. That they are now pungent and bitter, I owe to You who gave me spiritual taste…” – John Gerhard

“I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.” – Psalm 119:176 (last verse)

I recently took the time to listen to a podcast which featured four converts to Lutheranism talking about how historic Lutheran theology had literally become their salvation. Each of these men had come from non-Lutheran backgrounds, but found a spiritual home there after experiencing great doubts over whether or not they truly were Christians.

Lutherans and others assert that Romans 7 describes Paul after he became a  Christian.

Lutherans and others assert that Romans 7 describes Paul after he became a Christian. See here for book.

One man, around the 27 minute mark, talked about working as a youth minister and knowing full well that he wasn’t “pulling it off” – the Christian life, that is. “I may have been fooling everyone else around me”, he recalled, “but I knew the joke was on me”. He talked about being curled up on the floor at one point in his life – crying – because he was convinced that he was going to hell. He, like the rest of these men, had only found peace and comfort in the church’s teachings highlighted during the Lutheran Reformation.

As I listened to these men, I rejoiced – here is Christ finding lost sheep and bringing them into the fold! Here is Christ finding them and carrying them home on His shoulders – literally doing all the work (see John 6:28) – all the while talking about the joy in heaven over one who repents! And listening to these men reinforced what I had often thought: namely, that it is not only the doctrine of justification that is a critical component of Christian proclamation, but the doctrine of man – our anthropology.

Make no mistake: these are core issues. There certainly is a sense in which this idea of “simul iustus et peccator” can be said to reflect biblical teaching and help Christians understand who we are – even if it seems this phrase was not used much by early Lutherans themselves. The “simul” can help explain the desires, thoughts, words, and deeds that we have – and even, in a very real sense, be said to be a “cause” of these things.

What does this mean? Hat tip: Christopher Jackson.

Google n-gram. What does this mean? Hat tip: Christopher Jackson.

I submit that this is why this idea is so important for Christians to hear – and why, incidently, confessional Lutherans also take so seriously the tyranny of fruit-checking. That said, I think there are also things that came up in the discussion mentioned above that have the potential to confuse.

For example, one guest said the following:

“[The danger has always been to say] in my flesh I’m sinful but because of the Holy Spirit, who is in me, therefore I am righteous in myself also… The church becomes a whole bunch of individuals who are struggling to be holy. Or struggling to be more Christ-like and less sinful. And if you put a whole bunch of people together who are kind of turned in on their own holiness or their own pursuit of being more one thing and less the other thing, well you can imagine the kind of violence that erupts in a congregation or in a church when you have a whole bunch of individuals who are just there for themselves because they’re thinking “well, I’ve got to go to church, I’ve got to hear the word, I’ve got to go to the baptismal font, I’ve got to go to the communion rail, I’ve got to go to Bible study because Christ is alive in me and I’ve got to show the fruits of Christ in me so that again, I’m working out my salvation in fear and trembling” – and a lot of people interpret that text to mean “I’ve got to do something” vs. what we’re really teaching which is that ‘over there on the cross is your righteousness, over there at the font is your righteousness, over there being spoken to you – that word from God – is your righteousness, and that’s all outside of you…

… You literally have to trust that God who says you’re holy on account of Christ means it, because in yourself there’s nothing there’s no evidence whatsoever or in other people that you’re actually holy.”

There is no doubt that this is a difficult and complicated topic – and so the desire to simplify it and make it easily graspable is, I think, at once a commendable thing as well as a temptation… In the process, we might truly want to uphold the Word of God and yet unintentionally end up discounting it. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of the ideas expressed here.

On the one hand, should we really be under the impression that we whom “he has made perfect forever” and yet “are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14) do not need to actively struggle in faith? (see Rom. 8:5 and 8:13) On the other hand, I’d have to agree in part: not only can persons feel like they should go to church even if they aren’t Christians, but Christians certainly can be obsessed with themselves and do all kinds of things for the wrong reasons. Why would we assume, for example, that we do not gather for worship primarily for the benefit of our neighbors? (see Hebrews 10:25 and the surrounding context) – even as God graciously, tenderly, and personally feeds and preserves each one of us as we gather around His word and sacraments? In fact, because on this side of the grave we are always saints and sinners the motivations underlying our actions are inevitably going to feature a mix of good and evil. And it is really because of this that sometimes it may look and feel like there is literally nothing good that is happening in us – again, even causing us to doubt whether we are truly Christians. In times like this the doctrine of justification is needed so that Christ might come to our rescue even for our good works which are always tainted by sin! As Luther reminds us:

Tullian T. basically says that people say he doesn’t believe in the third use of the law, but he does – he just doesn’t want to have to qualify everything (from sermon on “Discipline, Demagogery, and Jesus”, by his fellow Coral Ridge pastor Steve Brown).

Amen indeed. The doctrine of justification for the ungodly! The reason for the Reformation! All is well…

And it truly, truly is. Period. We are justified. Saved. In Christ alone our sure hope is found.

That said, there are still questions the Christian will surely have that that deal with the “now what” – and this also means questions I do not see many modern articulations of the “simul” seriously addressing.

For example:

  • If I want to be better than what I am – to hurt those around me less and actually love them more and more – is that only my old man craving love and acceptance – and trying to earn my salvation before God?
  • If I desire strongly for my “kids to turn out OK” does that mean I should necessarily conclude that I am only focused on myself (my own need for validation) rather than their good (as well as their neighbors whom they will affect?)
  • Even as our repentance surely occurs imperfectly, am I wrong to desire that my repentance would be more deeply sincere and true? Or is that kind of activity fundamentally unable to be focused on Christ, but rather only on one’s self?[i]
  • Is it really always the old man and only the old man who wants to strive for holiness (yes, we know the Pharisees “strove for holiness” to, but is there any distinction to be made here at all?) attempting to “bring God down to earth”, to our level, ultimately insisting He submit to us and our self-righteousness? (i.e. we do not necessarily believe in justification by works theologically, but we, seemingly without any new man to speak of, must do so functionally)
  • Is the Christian life more than feeling guilty about not feeling guilty enough so that one can really appreciate the Gospel and be transformed as one ought to be? In other words, if I cannot seem to feel guilty the way that I should, does that mean that I am cursed to never really begin to know the Gospel that compels true love?
  • As I mature in Christ, does this mean that my realization of myself and individual identity is in some sense completely lost?
  • Again, is it only our old man, always seeking to justify himself, who wants to be urged on to do good works?[ii]

In addition to this, I also see some dangers that accompany modern articulations of the “simul” – and the “Law-Gospel” reductionism that seems to go hand in hand with it. What kinds of dangers? Here are a few that come to mind:

  • In efforts to emphasize how we are all equally sinners before God, does not the world get the impression that we do not acknowledge that the effects of some sins are more serious – and yes, therefore invite more serious earthly consequences – than others? (see here ; and might I John 5’s distinctions between sins, traditionally called mortal and venial, have any connection with this?)
  • If we, for example, think that “we are all the Duggars”, are we as able or willing to recognize and appreciate the persons among us who not only say what we think is good but who truly are exemplary in the faith? And are we as able to defer to them or obey them if we are called to do so? Or does a toxic doubt come to rule us – “they are too good to be true…” (especially because they talk about sanctification too much!)?
  • Unlike the Apostle Paul, do we no longer believe that persons can disqualify themselves from, for example, the office of pastor?
  • While we may continue to acknowledge that even one sin certainly disqualifies us from communion with God, might we nevertheless become blind to the reality that all sins are not necessarily equal in their spiritual effects: when it comes to sin’s ability to war against faith, wicked deeds can indeed bind us more than words and words can do so more than thoughts? (see this long excerpt from the Lutheran theologian Adolf Köberle, for example)
  • Might we begin to think that our old Adam is only interested in legalistically justifying himself before the God he knows exists – by the works of the divine law, or good works derived in accordance with it, or any standard he sets for himself? (Pastor Tullian Tchividjian is right that this legalism is always primarily a human, not a cultural problem)
  • Might we fail to remember that old Adam is also interested in simultaneously living as he deems fit without any accusation that reminds him of God (if this can also responsibly be called legalistic self-salvation, as Tchvidian posits, it is nevertheless also still “antinomian” or “lawless” in that it is against the divine law).[iii] I think that this is, for example, the double reason old Adam would like to see someone like Tim Tebow fall.[iv]
  • If we fully embrace some of the things we like from what had been called “Radical Lutheranism” (see Elert, Forde, Bayer, Paulson), will we necessarily end up embracing any number of theological errors? (I’d say “yes” – if you disagree, please listen to this thoughtful and penetrating critique of Steven Paulson’s popular book Lutheran Theology and see my critical review of Timothy Wengert’s book Reading the Bible with Martin Luther)
"Simul" compatible?: “But those who walk according to the flesh retain neither faith nor righteousness.”—Melanchton, Article III, Apology of the Augsburg Confession

“Simul” compatible?: “But those who walk according to the flesh retain neither faith nor righteousness.”—Melanchton, Article III, Apology of the Augsburg Confession

It is absolutely true that insofar as old Adam remains he will want to save himself – with or without the God he knows is there. As one recently said, “By our own nature we are constantly looking for that one thing, no matter how small or insignificant, to contribute to our salvation.” That said, as the “simul” would seem to indicate, Christians do not only have an old Adam, but a new man – and while the believer does not cooperate in justification, he certainly does in sanctification. Therefore, if the idea of the “simul” resonates does that mean one can be absolutely sure that the answer to the question “Why do you want to do the right thing?” always and only must be that we desire to be our own god and to have ultimate control?

If so, the simul becomes the one ring to rule them all. But this simply can’t be right, because the Scriptures say that Christians are those who are increasingly transformed into His image (see 2 Cor. 3:18) – which in part means that they want to do the right thing for the right reasons – and also are fighting so that they actually do it.[v] If one insists otherwise, in effect asserting an “imputation-only world”, just how can we say that Christians are really being transformed in any substantial way?

I suggest that a statement made by one of the men in the discussion points us towards a way forward. This gentlemen spoke of how early on in his Christian life he wanted to do the right things – and not just in an “ought-to” kind of way, but having a genuine desire to do what was right – even if he came to realize that he could not, like Paul in Romans 7, carry it out….

Luther: "Make duty a pleasure."

Luther: “Make duty a pleasure.”

The “simul” has to do with the doctrine of justification. According to this teaching, we are sinners in ourselves and righteous not in ourselves, but in Jesus Christ[vi] – and this saving declaration is something we passively receive by faith. But in the above paragraph, we are talking about the Christian’s genuine and active desire to be sanctified by and for His Good Shepherd – something that occurs precisely because He knows himself to have true peace with God (even as doubt always comes).  This aspect of faith does not belong to justification then, but rather to sanctification, as the new man looks to Christ for his neighbor’s sake. I’ll close with a quote from Pastor Holger Sonntag, as he sums up Luther’s take on the situation in his Antinomian Disputations:

“Therefore, while the triumphant Christian is indeed the one who is completely righteous in God’s judgment by faith, the militant Christian is the Christian as he concretely exists in his person and as he is both incipiently, but inadequately righteous in himself and still filled with ‘much wretchedness’ that just waits for an opportunity to come to the fore unless vigorously combated by the new man in the Christian.

In other words, the concrete person of the Christian is here not described as totally sinful man before God, an expression which Luther can also use in the Antinomian disputations, but as a Christian, that is, as a believer who, while already justified and triumphant over all sin and condemnation before God for Christ’s sake, still battles his way forward on the path of progressive sanctification.

“This means that Luther here conflates, without any confusion of faith and works in the article on justification, two related ways of describing the Christian as, on the one hand, totally righteous and totally sinful (totus iustus, totus peccator) and as, on the other hand, partly righteous and partly sinful (partim iustus, partim peccator). He does so in order to be able to express anthropologically what happens in the battle in us that is progressive sanctification.[vii]

Rev. Dr. Holger Sonntag, “God’s Last Word”: (see a summary of the paper here).

Evidently, Martin Luther used the words simul justus et peccator just two times in his life.[viii] In any case, Luther’s understanding of “the simul” clearly had room for this “partim” (in this post, called “Habitual sin and perpetual pardon, power, and progress”, I tried to account for both in a very Gospel-centered way). Can today’s Lutherans keen to emphasize “the simul” say the same?[ix]

I hope I’ve been convincing in showing why that question matters – but if you doubt, please feel to engage and push back below. May Christ guide and lead His church!




[i] “[W]e certainly require good works, since we teach that this faith arises in repentance, and in repentance ought continually to increase; and in these matters we place Christian and spiritual perfection, if repentance and faith grow together in repentance.” – Apology to the Augsburg Confession.

[ii] I provided most of this list in this post: “Does God have a concrete plan for your life?: Goals of the Gospel”.

[iii] See here for a clear example of this antinomianism in the work of respected ELCA theologian and philosopher Tom Christenson.

[iv] From the end of the article (bold mine):

“We’re not afraid of a hypocrite; in fact, hypocrisy relieves us. We’re hypocrites. That, we get. We fear the thing that judges us. True righteousness throws our sinfulness into sharp relief. Clearly, Tebow (and he would, no doubt, be the first to admit that he isn’t) is not truly righteous. Nonetheless, his apparent righteousness inspires hate, because it reminds us all of our shortcomings. We don’t spend every summer overseas teaching poor children about Jesus. We don’t reject endorsement deals on moral grounds. We didn’t save ourselves for marriage. We aren’t as conscientious or hard-working. And if we did or were, we’d certainly brag about it. Compared to Tim Tebow, we are all sinners.

We rebel against God for the same reason. We must run from righteousness because it will destroy us, so far from its perfection are we. In the same way that standing in a room with Brad Pitt only serves to remind us how unattractive we are, being in a relationship with God serves to remind us how unholy we are. We need Tim Tebow to fail, and so we root for it, so that he can be shown to be imperfect, just like us.

[v] Like Luther did in his sermons, I am simply assuming that those who have true faith are concerned to demonstrate their faith by works – they realize faith and works go hand and hand and make their confession believable. And ideally, this attempt to “let their light shine” is really not for their own sake – that others would recognize them as real Chrisitians – but for the Gospel that they proclaim – they desire to bring no shame on their Lord but rather to lift up His Name! Those who don’t have true faith don’t have this concern, even if they were at one point baptized. (note: edited this footnote since publishing of original post)

[vi] An excellent quote from one of the participants in the discussion: “We believe that justification is the foundation of the Christian faith… The foundation of the Christian life. We understand ourselves as being 100% fully sinful and at the same time 100% fully righteous in Christ outside of ourselves.” As this is speaking about the justification of the sinner before God, this is an excellent statement. The only question I have is what the phrase “outside of ourselves” should be taken to mean. Simply that, when it comes to being justified before God, we do not claim any of our own righteousness – even that which we might have in, with and through Christ and His Spirit? And perhaps also simply that, before God, it is not even the righteousness of Christ that we have in us that justifies us before God? Or is this phrase meant to imply something even more than this? Here, I think Pastor Jordan Cooper’s recently given talk on justification at the Imago Dei conference might be of particular help.

[vii] More Luther on “the partim”:

“And when I exhort you to walk in the Spirit, that you obey not the flesh and fulfill not its concupiscence, I do not require that you should utterly put off the flesh or kill it, but that you should bridle and subdue it. For God will have mankind endure even to the Last Day. And this cannot be done without parents, which do beget and bring up children.

These means continuing, it must be that flesh also must continue, and consequently sin, for flesh is not without sin.Therefore in respect of the flesh we are sinners; but in respect of the Spirit, we are righteous: and so we are partly sinners and partly righteous. Notwithstanding our righteousness is much more plentiful than our sin, because the holiness and righteousness of Christ our mediator far exceeds the sin of the whole world, and the forgiveness of sins which we have through Him is so great, so large, and so infinite, that it easily swallows up all sins, if we walk according to the Spirit, etc. (Great Galatians Commentary, Ch. 5)

In the Large Catechism:

57] Meanwhile, however, while sanctification has begun and is growing daily, we expect that our flesh will be destroyed and buried with all its uncleanness, and will come forth gloriously, and arise to entire and perfect holiness in a new eternal life.

58] For now we are only half pure and holy, so that the Holy Ghost has ever [some reason why] to continue His work in us through the Word, and daily to dispense forgiveness, until we attain to that life where there will be no more forgiveness, but only perfectly pure and holy people, full of godliness and righteousness, removed and free from sin, death, and all evil, in a new, immortal, and glorified body.

59] Behold, all this is to be the office and work of the Holy Ghost, that He begin and daily increase holiness upon earth by means of these two things, the Christian Church and the forgiveness of sin. But in our dissolution He will accomplish it altogether in an instant, and will forever preserve us therein by the last two parts. (LC, The Creed, Art. III, 56-59)

[viii] According to a paper by Dr. Thomas Winger in Lutheran Theologian Review (1999).

[ix] Of course all of this is related to what is called “the third use of the law”. In this post, I point out the different ways that the Apostle uses the law of God in Romans 3 and 12ff respectively. I think this particular post is valuable in part because of the conversation that took place after the post – it addressed these issues in a significant amount of depth.

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Posted by on June 3, 2015 in Uncategorized


Artificial Intelligence: Hype, Reality, and Real Dangers? (part II of II)

Part I, from yesterday.

Before jumping into part II, I note that Gene Veith has a piece up this morning about baptizing robots!

Here is part II then, taken from my library technology presentation from last year.

Lanier's wager, merely a "privatized humanism": “we are better off believing we are special and not just machines”

Lanier’s wager, merely a “privatized humanism”: “we are better off believing we are special and not just machines”

I think Therefore You Aren’t?: Philosophical issues

“The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them”.

— Antoine de Saint-Exupery[i]

I suggest we are slowly becoming one with the Mechanical Muse – surprisingly alluring – that like a physical automaton can serve as a symbol – a microcosm – of what the MSTM sees (at the very least as in practice)[ii] – as the cosmic machine, our “final frontier”. But we may question: is this really a bad thing? For example, Sherry Turkle may be warning us about the ways that machines can seduce us, but in a panel at a recent QUT Robotronica Event Dr Christy Dena spoke excitedly about such a phenomenon, stating: “All you have to do is put two eyes on a robot and people will treat it in a certain way”.[iii]

What is she really getting at here? Let me suggest this: when it comes to determining what is alive, what is a “person”, or what is at the very least equivalent to human being, all that is felt and thought to matter is what we notice with our senses. As one of the other distinguished panelists[iv] at this conference suggested, we as human beings will discern a robot to be an intelligent and self-aware entity when we say “I would have done that” (“What else do we have?”, even the sophisticated person today asks)[v]

Assuming this is true, what are the practical implications of this? I see two fundamental and related issues here: first, robots and how they “know” us. Second, and following from the first, how human beings are increasingly coming to “know” other human beings through technology.

How do robots really “know” us? Up to this point, I think it is easy to see how.   Recently, in an interview with the New York Public library Jaron Lanier, when asked to share seven words that might define him, answered in a joking but semi-serious way, “our times demand rejection of seven word bios.”[vi] Doing that, Lanier explained, is a form of disempowerment because “you are creating database entries for yourself [i.e. “putting yourself in standardized forms”] that will put you into somebody’s mechanized categorization system.”[vii] As stated in Don DeLillo’s award-winning 1985 fictional novel “White Noise”: “…you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that.”[viii]

bigdataNever before has the phrase “nothing personal – just business” been truer.

This is how robots “know” us. The “useful fiction” for the robot – or, more accurately, for the one programming the robot – is that through a combination of some information about yourself – culled from structured and unstructured data sources – and some workable mathematical models and algorithms, you can be understood insofar as necessary – for the goals they think best (and how can you doubt that they care?[ix]). Yes of course, maybe the maker can’t really understand you on a deep level, but the maker, through the robot, can see evidence of what you do – perhaps even noticing things about your behavior that neither you nor anyone else has.[x] And that is all he needs: taking account of this “works” for him regarding the things he wants to do: sell things to you, prevent terrorism, perhaps even genuinely help you, etc.

I simply note what happens to the maker – and the users – as this kind of technology is embraced more and more – we choose to understand others through the limitations of the robot. Anyone who knows something about the origin of computers should not find it surprising that some who use powerful computers are tempted to reduce what is complex into a false simplicity. Alan Turing invented the computer based on his own idea – his own model – of how the brain operated and how human beings communicated. After the computer begin to dominate our lives, it became more and more common to think about the brain – and our own communication as human beings – in terms of the computer itself and computer networks. As far as it pertains to academia, this happened in the sciences as well as the humanities. Jaron Lanier even talks about how words like “consciousness” and “sharing” have been “colonized” by Silicon Valley nerd culture.[xi]

froginkettleIs this a cause for concern? Is this perhaps a major frog in the kettle situation? Can we say that as we increasingly give ourselves to the technology, we see that it is not so much that the robots resemble us, but we that resemble the robots?[xii] Why am I wrong to suggest that technology – perhaps particularly computer technology – offers us powers that appear to enable us – like never before – to not have to really know and love persons and things – or at least to not know them very well?[xiii] Rather, with other human beings, we are ever more tempted to operate by force – applied more lightly or heavily as the case may be, aiming to attain what we want now in a “good enough” fashion – and supposedly with few or no consequences.[xiv]

To many, this evidently does not seem to be something to be overly concerned about. After all, perhaps it is only fair – at the very least it makes sense that robots might be people to (another “useful fiction” for now?)! And even though you don’t necessarily understand them, you do, after all, use their services which “work” for you.[xv] Do onto others as they do onto you, you know.

But if “good enough” increasingly becomes the one ring to rule them all, how will our human relationships be affected – and will we be able to keep going on like this? Perhaps that is the question for us. As technology becomes more and more ubiquitous, we see more and more “smart technology” leading up to more and more things automatic and robotic. What does this mean for each one of us? “Thank you for becoming a part of the machine?” The evisceration of our souls?

Is it not clear that those who give themselves over to the lure of these kinds of “power tools” – seeking the powers afforded by the technology apart from technology’s rightful purposes – in fact yield to the same pragmatism and reductionism those wielding them are captive to? In other words, are they not ultimately nullifying themselves philosophically, politically, and economically – their value increasingly being only the data concerning their persons… and its perceived usefulness?

The MSTM seems to increasingly be the water in which we swim – are we concerned?

Lanier’s wager and privatized humanism

Jaron Lanier is concerned and here is where his ideas again come into play. I see his book You are Not a Gadget, for example, as very much going against the flow – even the flow of what is generally thought to be knowledge.[xvi] In a recent interview with KCRW’s Matt Miller, Lanier stated that “we are better off believing we are special and not just machines”.[xvii] I see this point as critical in addressing another point he has made: “Clout must underlie rights, if rights are to persist”.[xviii]

Harry Bates’ “Pandora”.

Harry Bates’ “Pandora”.

And I will call this “Lanier’s wager”, drawing the analogy from Pascal’s more famous one. For me, hearing such words from Lanier resonate with my soul, but are, in the end, only slightly encouraging to me. It seems to me that he is fighting a losing battle with weak weapons.[xix] For these are not the days where most persons know of any real grounding for “the inalienable rights of man” or even the days of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thorough when transcendentalism held some sway in the land. After all, even Lanier says, “we are the only measure that we have of the world”.[xx] These are the days where it is at least somewhat reasonable to talk about rights for animals[xxi] (is Lanier a “speciest”[xxii]?), plants, and yes, even robots.[xxiii]   These are the days when there are movements headed by serious intellectuals among the elite of the elites that go by the name of “posthumanism” and “transhumanism”[xxiv].

For in the end, it comes down to this: Jaron Lanier’s humanism, as better as it might be compared to the views of many, is only a “privatized humanism”.

I submit that the fight cannot be won with a “privatized humanism” but can only be won when hearts and the habits of the heart are fundamentally changed.[xxv] Certainly, there are many who still believe that there is something more foundational about life’s essence than the simplest particles of physics and nature’s laws.[xxvi] That said, even here, the temptation is great even for those who try to hold onto traditional views. For example, in his review of the new book The Second Machine Age, David Brooks says “essentialists will probably be rewarded” in the machine-dominated economy. But whatever Brooks might mean by “essence”, it does not seem to be connected with any classical notion of permanence – i.e. something that is intrinsic, real, and lasting: “creativity can be described as the ability to grasp the essence of one thing, and then the essence of some very different thing, and smash them together to create some entirely new thing.”[xxvii] Sounds rather violent and un-conservative to me![xxviii]

The firm conviction that there really are essences in the world that ought not or cannot be changed – i.e. that there are some boundary lines that should and in some cases cannot be crossed (at the very least in the long run) – may certainly be seen as confining and suffocating.[xxix] But on the other hand, it can be comforting as well to know that that there really are some things we all have in common – and that we can count on.[xxx]

Along these same lines, reading about the all-important topic of education, I recently came across these wise words from one Robin Lewis: “Appreciating some artifacts are good in themselves, and not merely because of what they do for us, is the first step towards a proper appropriation of the liberal arts”[xxxi]

Indeed. And if that goes for things in general, it really does double in importance for other human beings in particular. Big data[xxxii] and information technology must bow to higher principles – held by human beings who sincerely believe in them. “Good enough” is not good enough for the library’s soul.

So let’s talk now about libraries, technology and the classical liberal arts…




[i] Brynjolfsson, Erik. 2014. Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in the Time of Brilliant Technologies. [S.l.]: W W Norton, p. 249.

[ii] Again, historically it has not been uncommon to see the universe, or cosmos, as a machine – early on in the days leading up to modern science as a clock and later on as an automaton. See Cohen, John. 1967. Human Robots in Myth and Science. South Brunswick [N.J.]: A.S. Barnes, pp. 76-78. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to hear serious physicists talking about the possibility of the universe being a computer, or a quantum computer, or a computer program. The trasnhumanist (note that Nick Bostrom is a professor of philosophy at Oxford University and is the chairman of the World Transhumanist Association) Hans Moravec believes that the whole of our reality is a simulation created by machine intelligences from the future. In the introduction to the book Is God a Mathematician? by Larion Lavio he talks about how the fastest way to get rid of most pesky persons who want to share their theory of the universe with him is to tell them that they need to be able to express it mathematically, because no theory of the universe is worth anything unless this can be done. It is said in jest, but there is much more to that I think. The mechanical and mathematical seem to go hand in hand to me.

[iii] Barclay, Paul. 2013. Morals and the Machine. Big Ideas. podcast radio program. Sydney: ABC Radio National, October 3.

[iv] Professor Gordon Wyeth, Head of School Science and Engineering, Queensland University of Technology.

[v] Barclay, Paul. 2013. Morals and the Machine. Big Ideas. podcast radio program. Sydney: ABC Radio National, October 3.

Hence the famous Turing test, a test in which those who participate discern whether or not they are dealing with a robot or another human being by taking part in a simple conversation by exchanging messages back and forth.

[vi] This can simply be summed up as imperfect models not representing the world well – or as well as the context demands that you should know it – but forced on it nonetheless. Google made some big claims not long ago saying that it could trace flu outbreaks with the big data that it had, but was humbled later on when they weren’t able to do it in real-time. A man named Dr. Hansen said the problem was “data without context” and summed the situation up with a quote from the playwright Eugène Ionesco: “Of course, not everything is unsayable in words, only the living truth.”

I understand the power behind Ionesco’s critique and yet, as a Christian, my view of words is that they are meant to be living and active, life-giving and life-forming. Even when put on paper for safeguarding – perhaps then especially so. For I believe there is nothing less than human about the “technology” of writing. After all, one might memorize the love poems of the beloved, or even better, the Beloved. Yes, [living] context is key.

[vii] The New York Public Library. 2013. “Jaron Lanier | LIVE from the NYPL.” YouTube video, October 10.

[viii] “What is most unfortunate about this development is that the data body not only claims to have ontological privilege, but actually has it. What your data body says about you is more real than what you say about yourself. The data body is the body by which you are judged in society, and the body which dictates your status in the world. What we are witnessing at this point in time is the triumph of representation.” (Critical Art Ensemble, The Electronic Disturbance, 1993 ; quoted in Gitelman, Lisa. 2013. “Raw data” is an oxymoron. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, p. 121.

[ix]Are computers just not able to love perhaps because they do not have bodies – i.e. that they do not have an “embodied mind” – or is there something else that separates us from them? See

[x] If this sounds cryptic, read this short blog post by Phil Simon about “Big Data Lessons From Netflix”: In short, Netflix knows what kinds of colors are likely to get your attention in the movie and TV series posters they show you.

[xi] We can add the word “ontology” as well.

[xii] One might hope that when it comes to any technological development we would first focus on coming to deeply know and love the world – and to find the best ways to work with it to the mutual benefit of all. In other words, that we would exist in an environment where any technological development is slow, flexible, and constrained. “Permaculture” is a good metaphor here. More often than not however, it seems that we must operate in an environment where technological development cannot be slow. It cannot be flexible. It cannot be constrained.

[xiii] In an email message to the author from November 2013 from now retired University of Chicago librarian David Bade he commented: “If we reorient our understanding of knowledge to be what the lover alone knows of the beloved, and that precisely because that knowledge is freely and joyfully shared, knowledge as power is seen to be the lie that it is.” Compare this to Lord Kelvin: “When you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.” (quoted on p. 57 Brynjolfsson, Erik. 2014. Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in the Time of Brilliant Technologies. [S.l.]: W W Norton) Also note that if such scientism is a god of this age, it is eros, not phileo or agape (that is, that love which Bade spoke of above), that is another. See the highly insightly essay by philosopher Simon May “The irresistible appeal of the romantic ideal”, in this Financial Times article: ; also this fascinating piece featuring a letter from J.R.R. Tolkien to his 21 year old son:

[xiv] Even seemingly more humanistic endeavors might seem to occasionally fall prey to language that, in effect, makes human beings and data about human beings equals : “Ribes and Jackson [chapter 8] show the surprising complexities in something as apparently simple as collecting water samples from streams, while they challenge readers to think of scientists and their data as evolved and evolving symbionts, mutually dependent species adapted amid systems ecological and epistemic”. Gitelman, Lisa. 2013. “Raw data” is an Oxymoron. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, p. 11 (introduction).

In a world where big data increasingly seems to rule I wonder if this kind of language helps…

[xv] It seems to me that many of us are like fish in the fish tank where all we know is “what works” and “useful fictions”.

[xvi] In other words, to say that the pragmatic approaches that we are discussing here are shortsighted is the least of our problems. Fundamentally, it seems to me that there is a crisis here in belief regarding any true knowledge.

Any real ontology (what is, period) and teleology are gone and even epistemology (the mind’s apprehension of reality… an analysis of the contents of consciousness… not what is but what is known and how), perhaps kept alive in a post-Christian age by movements like romanticism and historicism, has been eclipsed by a more or less pure and perpetually skeptical naturalism – which means we are left only with the pragmatism that must accompany this naturalism en route to our increasingly unreflective pursuits of happiness (and a little bit of social justice to of course).

[xvii] Miller, Matt. 2013. Will Google and Facebook Destroy the Middle Class? This…Is Interesting. podcast radio program. Santa Monica: KCRW News, Jun 5.

Lanier makes a similar, but not identical statement in p. 196 of his new book. There he states that while he can’t prove that people are special, “I can argue that it’s a better bet to presume we are special, for little might be lost and much more might be gained by doing so”. Lanier, Jaron. 2013. Who owns the future? New York: Simon & Schuster.

Here is where I must ask “how can this be enough”?   It seems what is being said here is that we simply need “useful fictions” in order to survive and thrive as human beings. Lanier’s wager seems to me a house of cards – not having the requisite foundation.   In other words, it seems to me that Lanier has some very good and true insights, but the intellectual superstructure that can actually buttress them at a deep and satisfying level has been removed. Lanier’s account – while perhaps being more compelling, personal, holistic, and “everyone has a voice”-ish than most – still seems to leave human beings in their position of being just another “a cog in the machine”.

I particularly find Lanier’s wager to be severely undercut by this statement from his book: “You are the reverse image of inconceivable epochs of heartbreak and cruelty. Your would-be ancestors in their many species, reaching back into the phylogenetic tree, were eaten, often by disease, or sexually rejected before they could contribute genes to your legacy. The genetic, natural part of you is the sum of the leftovers of extreme violence and poverty. Modernity is precisely the way individuals arose out of the ravages of evolutionary selection.” (p. 131)

Later on, he also makes this statement: “Belief in the specialness of people is a minority position in the tech world, and I would like that to change. The way we experience life – call it ‘consciousness’ – doesn’t fit in a materialistic or informational worldview. Lately I prefer to call it ‘experience,’ since the opposing philosophical team has colonized the term consciousness. That term might be used these days to refer to the self-models that can be implemented inside a robot.” (p. 195)

Lanier talks about predominant Silicon Valley forms of faith on pp. 193-195 of his book.

So some hard questions to think about: Other than getting some basic facts on the ground right to ensure survival, what is the non-transcendence-minded person’s strongest incentives (I would say Lanier seems to be a transcendence-minded person) to be as accurate as possible regarding all questions of significance persons have or care to have about what is true?

[xviii] Ibid, p. 205, This is the title of chapter 17 of his book.

[xix] Note that “the German philosopher Martin Heidegger developed the theory that technology, as it gradually comes to dominate our world, forces us to see the world in a defined way; a world view in which everything must necessarily be seen as a means to an end and where it is not possible to see anything as valuable in itself… This is in line with the German sociologist Max Weber’s view of development during industrialization. Here he speaks about more and more areas, beginning with working life, but with increasing ripples out to the ‘social’ work’, being dominated by a rational logic that stems from technology.” Danish Council of Ethics, “Technology in Human Development,” The Danish Council of Ethics, last date of modification not listed,, accessed Mar. 13, 2014. I have heard about and listened to lectures on both of these men, but have not read any of their works. I am not aware of whether or not they used the same arguments that I have used to arrive at their conclusions. In any case, I note that in spite of the power of Heidegger’s critique, there really is nothing positive – not to mention firm and confidence-inducing – that he has to put in its place. One wonders whether or not that could explain why a man like Heidegger – widely recognized as one of the most influential and brilliant philosophers of the 20th c. – ended up throwing in his lot with the Nazis, a fact that has only come to light in recent years.

[xx] Miller, Matt. 2013. Will Google and Facebook Destroy the Middle Class? This…Is Interesting. podcast radio program. Santa Monica: KCRW News, Jun 5. (with guest Jaron Lanier)

[xxi] To consider human beings no differently than animals seems to me an extreme position to take. Even radical environmentalists in effect treat human beings as special because they believe we are uniquely responsible to for being responsible stewards of the world. In any case, perhaps one looks closely at the practices of various kinds of factory farming, such an extreme position becomes, at the very least, more understandable.

[xxii] See the works of the highly regarded and respected Princeton ethicist Peter Singer.

[xxiii] Serious technologists talk about robots having rights. In the Robotronica conference mentioned above, most all of the panelists talked about how we must be forward thinking about his from a legal point of view. Yes, there were those who simply talked about this from a legal perspective: one noted that for liability reasons ships and companies are defined as legal persons and another pointed out that we have laws that protect companion animals for sake of owners (because they are attached to them) and therefore should also have that for companion robots. And yet another panelists argued that insofar as robots have the potential to be like human beings, they should be afforded that kind of status. We should think about them as a new kind of species. Barclay, Paul. 2013. Morals and the Machine. Big Ideas. podcast radio program. Sydney: ABC Radio National, October 3.

[xxiv] “In posthumanism, the association of humanity with a “natural” (unenhanced) mind and body is reduced to an ‘accidental’ ‘biological substrate.’ Elsewhere, Hayles argues that be viewing the human as an existence without essence, ‘as a pattern rather than a presence,’ the body can be disposed of, and the mind uploaded to a database; the body, replaced with a cybernetic prosthesis; the mind, enhanced and ‘improved’ using computer software. The line that separates humans and machine, mind and computer is dissolved, and can become anything the designer wishes it to be.” Justin Everet, “The Borg as Vampire in Star Trek”, in Browning, John Edgar, and Caroline Joan Picart. 2009. Draculas, vampires, and other undead forms: essays on gender, race, and culture. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press, 79. For more on transhumanism, see this excellent web article from the Danish Council of Ethics:

[xxv] Here is where I can only point to something outside of ourselves: transcendence, and particularly the Christian faith centered on the grace of God (I suggest a good study bible, and you can read my blog, theology like a child, for more from me – or feel free contact me using the “about” page there). At the very least, I am sure that many would agree that we should be curious about the nature of being and consciousness!

Here’s a start in that direction:

In the dawn of life we sense with a perfect immediacy, which we have no capacity or inclination to translate into any objective concept, how miraculous it is that—as Angelius Silesius (1624-1677) says—”Die Rose ist ohne warum, sie blühet, weil sie blühet”: “The rose is without ‘why’; it blooms because it blooms.” As we age, however, we lose our sense of the intimate otherness of things; we allow habit to displace awe, inevitability to banish delight; we grow into adulthood and put away childish things. Thereafter, there are only fleeting instants scattered throughout our lives when all at once, our defense momentarily relaxed, we find ourselves brought to a pause by a sudden unanticipated sense of the utter uncanniness of the reality we inhabit, the startling fortuity and strangeness of everything familiar: how odd it is, and how unfathomable, that anything at all exists; how disconcerting that the world and one’s consciousness of it are simply there, joined in a single ineffable event. … One realizes that everything about the world that seems so unexceptional and drearily predictable is in fact charged with an immense and imponderable mystery. In that instant one is aware, even if the precise formulation eludes one, that everything one knows exists in an irreducibly gratuitous way: “what it is” has no logical connection with the reality “that it is”; nothing within experience has any “right” to be, any power to give itself existence, any apparent “why.” The world is unable to provide any account of its own actuality, and yet there it is all the same. In that instant one recalls that one’s every encounter with the world has always been an encounter with an enigma that no merely physical explanation can resolve. Hart, David Bentley. 2013. The experience of God: being, consciousness, bliss. New Haven, Yale University Press, pp. 88-89.

This sounds rather intelligent, reasonable and erudite, does it not? And yet, nowadays it seems to me that it is becoming ever more fashionable to speak as Charles Blow does in this New York Times op-ed:

“I don’t personally have a problem with religious faith, even in the extreme, as long as it doesn’t supersede science and it’s not used to impose outdated mores on others.”

He goes on: “But some people see our extreme religiosity itself as a form of dysfunction.  In a 2009 paper in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, Gregory Paul, an independent researcher, put it this way: “The level of relative and absolute societal pathology in the United States is often so severe that it is repeatedly an outlier that strongly reinforces the correlation between high levels of poor societal conditions and popular religiosity.” Charles M. Blow, “Indoctrinating Religious Warriors,” The New York Times, January 3, 2014, accessed Mar. 14, 2014,

[xxvi] There are many who hold to sincere materialist / reductionist positions, and even for many who don’t believe this – or perhaps hold to these beliefs lightly (keeping it as one of their spheres of knowledge that may or may not overlap that much with the others) – it is easy to act like a “functional” reductionist. What I mean is that we start functioning largely with a view to assert ourselves over and against all those we must deal with because we feel we can’t trust them to be all that concerned about us – even if we don’t believe that life’s fundamental essence can be reduced to the smallest individual particles physics is able to discern.

FDR said, “No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order”, quoted in Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Andrew McAfee. 2012. Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Lexington, Mass: Digital Frontier Press, p. 65. I would say that there is an even greater menace that but a few realize and take seriously – even as all manner of social science can be drawn upon to support this assertion. That is that having strong natural families – nuclear or extended – is absolutely critical to having a healthy society. Christianity has bequeathed to us an understanding of the individual as having an infinite value, and yet the Enlightenment, stealing from Christianity, made the individual important in its own way, and it seems clear to me the natural family has been dissolved largely in the light of this Enlightenment acid. The individual replaces the family as the fundamental unit of social organization, and society cannot ultimately bear such atomization.

[xxvii] Brooks, David. “What Machines can’t do.” New York Times, Feb 04, 2014, Late Edition (East Coast). The full quote about essentialists is this: “essentialists will probably be rewarded. Any child can say, “I’m a dog” and pretend to be a dog. Computers struggle to come up with the essence of “I” and the essence of “dog,” and they really struggle with coming up with what parts of “I-ness” and “dog-ness” should be usefully blended if you want to pretend to be a dog.”

I note that Nicholas Carr talks about essence (actually substance) in his review of Andrew Keen’s book, Digital Vertigo, cleverly noting that “substance is more important than being transparent”. And yet here to, in this context, substance, or essence, does not necessarily talk about stable things that last, but rather the matter of personal integrity.

This quote from a Stanford humanist is telling: What I want to say….is that there is probably no way to end the exclusive dominance of interpretation, to abandon hermeneutics… in the humanities without using concepts that potential intellectual opponents may polemically characterize as “substantialist,” that is concepts such as “substance” itself, “presence,” and perhaps even “reality” and “Being”.  To use such concepts, however, has long been a symptom of despicably bad intellectual taste in the humanities; indeed, to believe in the possibility of referring to the world other than by meaning has become anonymous with the utmost degree of philosophical naivete – and until recently, few humanists have been courageous enough to deliberately draw such potentially devastating and embarrassing criticism upon themselves.  We all know only too well that saying whatever it takes to confute the charge of being “substantialist” is the humanities on autopilot (Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. 2004. Production of presence: what meaning cannot convey. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, quoted in Armin Wenz. 2013. “Biblical Hermeneutics in a Postmodern World: Sacramental Hermeneutics versus Spiritualistic Constructivism.” Logia 22, no. 3: pp.?

This is someone who is in the belly of the beast so to speak, and these seem to be his conclusions about what is necessary to counter the more pernicious and reductive aspects of what has been called the “technological imperative” (if it can be done, it will be done, should be done).

[xxviii] “In his essay ‘Farewell to the Information Age,’ linguist Geoffrey Nunberg notes the shift in the nineteenth century from understanding information as the productive result of the process of being informed to a substance that could be morselized and extracted in isolated bits.” Nunberg, Geoffrey, in The Future of the Book, ed. Geoffrey Nunberg, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, 103-138, quoted in Garvey, Ellen Gruber, “Facts and FACTS : abolitionists’ database innovations”, in Gitelman, Lisa. 2013. “Raw data” is an Oxymoron. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, p. 91

[xxix] Can we at least agree that all people everywhere are universally endowed with at least some shared concepts: e.g. “thirsty”, “clouds”, “tears”, “sad”, “food”, “mother”, “father”, etc. – and that this has great significance for us as human beings?

[xxx] This is similar to the dilemma faced by the secular Jew, Andrew Leff, who said the following:

“I want to believe – and so do you – in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoratively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe – and so do you – in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species, what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.” Leff, Arthur Allen. “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law”. Duke Law Journal. 1979 (6): 1229-1249, p. 1229.

And Nicholas Carr talks more about matters of essence, or nature, in a different, but perhaps related, context: “One of the advantages of embedding culture in nature, of requiring that works of reason and imagination be given physical shape, is that it imposes on artists and thinkers the rigor of form, particularly the iron constraints of a beginning and an ending, and it gives to the rest of us the aesthetic, intellectual, and psychological satisfactions of having a rounded experience, of seeing the finish line in the distance, approaching it, arriving at it. When we’re in the midst of the experience, we may not want it to end, we may dream of being launched into the deep blue air of endlessness, but the dream of endlessness is only possible, only has meaning, because of our knowledge that there is an end, even it is an arbitrary end, the film burning in the project…

The inventors and promoters of hypertext and hypermedia systems have always celebrated the way they seem to free us from the constraints of form, the way they seem to reflect the open-endedness of thought itself and of knowledge itself. Said Ted Nelson: ‘Hierarchical and sequential structures, especially popular since Gutenberg, are usually forced and artificial.’ He did not mean that as a compliment.

But even though we read ‘forced’ and ‘artificial’ as negative terms, there’s much that’s praiseworthy about the forced and the artificial. Civilization is forced and artificial. Culture is forced and artificial. Art is forced and artificial. These things don’t spring from the ground like dandelions. And isn’t one of the distinctive glories of the human mind its ability to impose beginnings and endings on its workings, to carve stories and arguments out of the endless branching flow of thought and impression? Not all containers are jails. Imposing form on the formless may be artificial, but it’s also liberating (not least for giving us walls to batter).”

Nicholas Carr, “No Exit,” Rough Type (blog), October 29, 2012, 10:28 AM,

[xxxi] Phillips, Robin. 2014. “More Than Schooling: the Perils of Pragmatism in Christian Attitudes Toward the Liberal Arts”. Touchstone, Sep, Oct 2013, accessed Mar. 2014,

[xxxii] When it comes to big data, Lanier sees the fundamental issue as one of honesty: we can’t really be honest about what all the big data out there means when the powerful Siren servers that control that data have a vested interest in using that data for their own purposes. Barclay, Paul. 2013. Jaron Lanier: Reconstructing the Digital Economy. Big Ideas. podcast radio program. Sydney: ABC Radio National, July 10. I think that is a noteworthy point, but also think that there is something even deeper going on here as I have argued – something to be aware of, and honest about.

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