The Plea of a Stubborn “Confessional” Lutheran: Yes, My “Missional” Friend, Please DO Condemn My Lack of Love for the Lost

The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost (Jesus' words to Zacchaeus)

The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost (Jesus’ words to Zacchaeus)

Note: what follows deals with the “worship wars” in my denomination, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (see the second paragraph here for more resources about that). I think that it might have much wider applicability as well though!

In John 6:66 we are told that many of his own disciples went away from Jesus after he explained to a crowd that without eating His body and drinking His blood persons cannot have eternal life: “As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.”

I have always appreciated how Jesus does not say something like: “Wait!  Please come back!  Let me explain it better to you!”

After all, does this mean that He did not love these persons? Of course not. It just meant that His message and mission was clear and that He was not going to compromise.

Lutherans – particularly those who are keen to add the adjective “confessional” – typically have a tendency of being stubborn when it comes to our message and mission. I actually don’t think that’s a bad thing – particularly in a culture that is, morally speaking, screaming “change already!” at us. And yet, eager to be like our Lord, there are undoubtedly times we are not so eager to recognize that we ourselves – as opposed to our message – are becoming a stumbling block.

I want to concede that this is a problem. Snark and sarcasm, for example, may have their place, but one must be wise (see Titus 3:1-2, for example). Lutherans who believe the Scriptures are the word of God – and who might choose to emphasize the adjective “missional” – would not be wrong in pointing this out.

And here is where I want to say the following:

“Yes, please do condemn my lack of love for the lost. Fire away. For my heart is indeed to be as my Lord’s and I need to hear this word of Law. To be holy means, in part, to seek the lost as did our Shepherd. Nail me to the wall (not without absolution though!).”

Indeed. The words of an Eastern Orthodox prayer: “Lord, do not let them perish through me, a sinner” – these words should indeed give me pause (also think of Paul’s terrifying words in Romans: “the word of God is blasphemed because of you….”). For I need to hear about how I have squandered my time, how I have elevated frivolous concerns to the fore, how I have failed to really listen and show concern for those around me. I need to hear hard words about my tendency to see persons as interruptions instead of blessings. I need to hear how I, unlike the Good Samaritan, have not met the physical and spiritual needs of those God has thrown in my path. Even starting with those who I love the most (and should love the most!), not the least!

Perhaps you can identify with me.

And I also hope that any Lutherans – whatever their preferred adjective – can also say “Amen” to what Dr. Luther says here:

The Word of God is not yet as powerfully at work as it should be and as we wish it to be. We have no one else to blame for this than ourselves: We are too lazy to ask God for sharp arrows and burning coals. He commanded us to ask for his kingdom to come and his name to be hallowed, that is, we should ask for his Word and Christendom to increase and grow strong. However, because we leave things the way they are and do not ask earnestly, people are so lazy and the arrows are dull and tired; the coals cold and raw; and the devil does not fear us yet. Therefore, let us wake up and be eager. The time is now. The devil plays his dirty tricks on us everywhere. Let’s prove something to him for a change and rain on his parade. Let’s get our revenge, that is, let us ask God without ceasing until he sends us enough ready soldiers with sharp arrows and burning coals. (Vol. VI, Wittenberg ed., p. 372) Luther’s Bible Treasures, Lutheran Press, Minneapolis, 2015

But when I say all of this am I also saying that the church should change its traditional practices – in particular as regards its worship practices? Is this necessary to our Christian mission?

I am not. Even as I urge you to lovingly point out my lack of love for the lost, please do not condemn me for not falling over myself to produce Gospel-enveloping “culturally savvy tortillas” – that I think often actually work to mitigate the simple and humble forms of the Gospel (see 2.2 and 2.3 here) – in the hope that this or that “target [market]” will pick it up….

Our Lord certainly does deeply enter into our worlds that He might speak truth to us. That does not mean, however, that what we do in His house – that house which we treasure and long for – should necessarily be modified to accommodate what others do in theirs. Especially when it can, rightly or wrongly, give the impression of desperation! (insofar as we are saints, we have a real and godly love for the lost and a desire for proper “cultural accommodation” and insofar as we are sinners, we are desperate “pleasers of men” and their passions).

For to be holy especially means to love one’s brothers and sisters in Christ, and to value that which has been passed on from generation to generation.

I recently read an article from Pastor Jordan McKinely in which he said the following:

Dr. Naomichi Masaki of the [LCMS’s] Fort Wayne seminary asked the question in one of my classes, “Whose liturgy is it?” If it’s about preference, it’s yours and mine to do as we see fit. If it’s the church’s liturgy as it has developed from the time of the Apostles (Acts 2:42)–and even from the time of the Old Testament prophets (Psalmody, anyone?), we really should show greater restraint in changing what is done. After all, don’t we say in the creed, “I believe in one, holy, Christian [catholic] and apostolic church?” The liturgy is the possession of the whole church. Who am I to exercise my preference in the matter? Yes, it has room to shrink, grow, or change, but it shouldn’t be based on preference. I suppose I don’t get much of a voice because I’m white and married to a German (being of Scottish heritage doesn’t gain me any points, does it?), it’s going to sound like I’m advocating an emotionless, Germanic traditionalism. You don’t have to listen to me, but you should listen to Dr. Masaki, who isn’t German, nor is he emotionless. (see here)

Can this not certainly communicate to the lost love as well?: in that they can clearly see that we value these salutary convictions of all our brothers and sisters have gone before us? (not to mention the sometimes-hard-to-love among us now!)  Namely the convictions about an “order of service” that, in form, humbly and simply proclaims the humble and simple Gospel of our Lord?

I think that is most certainly true! And, hence, we ask them to join our happy throng – the household of God! Come and share the treasures that we have in the Lord’s house!


P.S. – I am eager to talk about this in a patient and civil way, per this great new article in the LC-MS’s official magazine, the Lutheran Witness. Maybe you think what I have posted here is limited in its view or needs to address this or that “bigger picture”. I would like to hear what you have to say – please talk with me.



Posted by on April 14, 2015 in Uncategorized


“Reading the Bible With Martin Luther”? Or With His Modern Existentialist Interpreters?

Dr. Wengert, does Martin Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” Mean That We Should Not Call Sin What the Bible Calls Sin?

Dear Dr. Wengert:  Does Martin Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” really mean that we should not call “sin” what the Bible calls sin?

“But because we have for so long been persuaded of the opposite by that pestilential saying of the Sophists that the Scriptures are obscure and ambiguous, we are obliged to begin by proving even that first principle of ours by which everything else has to be proved—a procedure that among the philosophers would be regarded as absurd and impossible.” — Martin Luther, AE 33:91

Recently, at the recommendation of a Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LC-MS) pastor I had come to respect, I checked out Timothy Wengert’s relatively new book (fall of 2013) “Reading the Bible With Martin Luther”. The book is published by Baker Academic – which to my knowledge has an excellent reputation for conservative Biblical scholarship – and also featured a wholly positive endorsement from one highly respected LC-MS theologian (even as we note such a “blurb” can mean “this is a book to read, not one to agree with completely”).

On the one hand, I can see why a person might want to endorse the book: it does seek to introduce Martin Luther’s Law-Gospel distinction to a wider audience, presenting some excellent quotations from the Reformer and some thought-provoking analysis and insights from its author. On the other hand, it is also plagued by “Law-Gospel reductionism”, a teaching that was actually formally defended by LC-MS professor Ed Schroeder back in 1972 (for a short piece by Pastor Cooper talking about both the importance of the Law-Gospel distinction and the dangers of Law-Gospel reductionism, see here). In this short reflection on the book, I will briefly discuss three of the core problems that attend this kind of reductionism.

First, while Wengert rightly upholds the importance of faith for the interpretation of Scripture, he goes too far. Telling us that the Bible must “drive us away from itself and toward faith in Christ under the cross” (p. 21), Wengert sets up a conflict where Luther saw none. First of all, while it true that the good news is indeed not so much that God has given us His written word, but that He has given us the incarnate Word, Wengert forgets to mention not only that the Scripture does in fact point to itself (Isaiah 8:20, Acts 17:11), but that it also points to the incarnate Word who points us back to the written word – particularly as it regards His fulfillment of its Divine prophecies (see Luke 7:18-23 and Luke 24). Contra Wengert’s attempt to drive a wedge between Christ and the written word here, it is the Scriptures that testify about the incarnate Word (Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39; Acts 26:22-23; Rom. 1:1-6: 3:21-22). And second, while we should not think that a sincere agnostic, truly seeking to understand the Bible as a complete work, would come up with the Nicene Creed, what Mark Twain said about the Scriptures is certainly relevant here: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Certainly, as we all know, there are some interpretations that certain words, whatever their context may be, will simply eliminate from the get go.

Second, in a related point, Wengert tells us that God’s word will not “succumb to our categories, principles, or proof texting” (p. 21), and that “if people only read Scripture to find out what it meant or what it means, it will always and only be the dead, killing letter” (p. 32). He further explains: “Luther distinguished theologically between a noun (Heisselwort; literally, a word that labels) and a verb (Thettlewort; literally, an action word). All that human words can do is label something. But God never simply labels things with God’s Word; God does something to us by killing and making alive….” (p. 32). In speaking thusly, Wengert essentially assumes that the person reading or listening to Scripture to learn what it means – what God means – has got the wrong idea. On the contrary, there is no justification for pitting God’s teaching through the word against His transforming through the word (I Thes. 2:13). Further, in discussing Luther’s view on the “too [law-]strong” book of James, Wengert, in contradistinction to what Jesus says about the Holy Spirit’s mission in John 16:8, sees its law-words not as related to God’s power or goals, but to Satan’s, who, in general, “gets believers to turn [the Bible] into power and wisdom – the more infallible and inerrant the better”. Wengert says God overturns such pretentions: “the [weak, despised, and neglected book… written by losers for losers….] itself opposes them with a God who… raises the Crucified from the dead” (p. 53). So again, this is a false dichotomy that Wengert introduces, which has the potential to open up the door to all manner of serious error.

Third, Wengert connects the judgmental behavior of the Pharisees with those who believe Christians need to uphold the moral norms reaffirmed by Jesus Christ in the New Testament.  Citing the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8, Wengert brazenly writes “When one insists on using the phrase ‘Go, and sin no more” against those in same-gendered, committed relationships as another stone to throw, permission is granted to throw – if we have no sin.” (p. 25)  Evidently if one is not perfect, one should never attempt to guide others in accordance with God’s law.  In truth, this comment from Wengert is as incoherent as it is offensive (see also his remarks on the paragraph found on pp. 42-43 for more about “throwing stones”). First, with this view of the text, Wengert himself could never “invite” (see p. 24) those with whom he disagrees to leave behind their life of hypocrisy and intolerance. Second, using this passage gives the distinct impression that conservative Christians inevitably are – like the Pharisees were – not only eager to not forgive the fallen but eager to self-righteously and hypocritcally enact final judgment over fellow sinners’ souls. The fact that all of us have Pharisaical impulses notwithstanding, this kind of overblown rhetoric and argument lending comfort and aid to the “Spirit of this Age” (i.e.the gay rights movement) is, as they say, “over the top”. Wengert’s efforts to seemingly soften his stance – through his doubt-inducing and convoluted talk of the “bound conscience” (pp. 78-82 ; this concept from Wengert was the ELCA’s justification for accepting same-sex marriage) – should hardly comfort us. In sum, he presents himself here as no friend to the historical biblical forms of Christianity.*

An endorsement on the back of Wengert’s book says that he “challenges students of the Bible to find its authority and message by letting the text master them rather than through their own attempt to master God’s Word”. That, in itself, is a noble goal, but unfortunately, this book gives evidence of an author who has himself been mastered by a 20th century existentialist interpretation of the great reformer that leaves no room for any clear, or perspicuous, language (particularly surprising because this is the basis of Philip Melanchton’s “loci method”, and the author is known for his expertise on Melanchton). This, in turn leaves no room for a biblically accurate Jesus Christ.

If Lutheran churches in America – and pastors from any other church bodies reading this book – truly desire to be increasingly mastered by the Author of the biblical text – instead of a “different Jesus” (see 2 Cor. 11) – they best avoid being mastered by the faulty view of biblical hermeneutics promoted in this book. If they don’t, their namesake’s words to Erasmus will make less and less sense to them, as the years roll on: “a man must delight in assertions or he will be no Christian.”


UPDATE/P.S.: For some great thoughts about a healthy approach towards existentialism, reason, philosophy, etc, see this great new post from Trent Demarest.



*Note that liberal biblical scholars consistently misportray what it means that Jesus “ate with sinners”, something that I address in part in this recent post.

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Posted by on April 7, 2015 in Uncategorized


Why Businesses Run by Christians Should, in General, Eagerly Serve All Comers

All marriages are a sign of The One True Marriage.

All marriages are a sign of The One True Marriage.

UPDATE: Re: Memories Pizza, see this new post from Rod Dreher. What David Brooks said a couple days ago is appropriate, but thoughtfulness and reasonableness seems in short supply these days. My argument below should not be taken to mean that this kind of outlook should be coerced on all religious persons. 

Earlier this week, I re-published an old post on the patheos site, retitled “How Should We Show Christian Love in Indiana and Beyond?

Things are definitely heating up there.  This is a follow-up to that one.

In the book of Matthew, we are reminded about how God sends the rain on both the just and the unjust. And there is a wonderful passage in the book of Acts that talks about how God even fills the hearts of unbelievers with joy. This is the way our God is, wanting persons to receive His love in all its forms – in spite of the evil in the world that cries out for His judgment.

In addition, there is this very interesting passage in I Corinthians 5 where Paul writes the following about a church that is proud of one of its members sleeping with his father’s wife – something even pagans do not tolerate.

He says this to them:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”

This passage runs roughshod over all our normal sensibilities – why is the Apostle Paul asking believers in a Christian congregation to judge one another in this way? (that’s another post) But notice what I have bolded: we are called to associate with the world, and I think it is reasonable to suggest that Christian business owners, for example, need not be concerned whether the pizza (this is the newest twist) they make is going to be used for a gay wedding. No – in general, Christians are simply not called to police the world and its doings, and we will never extricate ourselves from sin (we have plenty of that in ourselves to).

So, do I then agree with Rebecca Florence Miller, who said on her patheos blog the following?:

“I challenge you, Christian bakers, photographers, and whoever else out there: are you so concerned with keeping yourself “spiritually pure” (as were the Pharisees in Jesus’s time) that you fail to reach in love to those who have been wounded?’

I don’t (and she appreciated my point). Here is how I parse the issue:

“I would say that you misunderstand the reasons many of us think that these persons have a case – not just from a legal point of view but from a Christian point of view. Clearly, we need Christ’s justifying grace as much as the next person. The issue is giving a clear confession. Even for a regular believer, by participating in something like a wedding ceremony (for example by standing up or perhaps even by attending) I might say that I do not think it is right to really celebrate such an event, even if I desperately want to show support to my gay friend. The issue is that I am certainly going to give the impression – at least to most ordinary observers – that I think such an event should be celebrated by my participating in the wedding. For someone who is providing a paid service by contributing an artistic component the same thing is occurring (for is not, arguably, a key purpose of art celebration?)

In other words, one can really make the case that a confession of Christ is actually at stake here. According to the Christian, all marriages in the world are in fact to be an icon of the greatest spiritual reality there is: the Marriage of The Husband, Christ, and His Bride, the Church. This is ultimately why we live and why we celebrate! This is why all are called to live and celebrate!

One commentator though, saw my post and said:

“If that is how you feel, then you should be required to indicate that on your store windows. Gay people should not be subjected to the embarrassment and humiliation of trying to purchase a service from you if you know in your heart that it is something that you do not want to do. We should be able to easily avoid people whose beliefs are like yours and a ‘gays-are-sinners’ sticker would help us both avoid awkward situations.”

I replied as follows:


I agree that it would be a good thing to spare those couples embarrassment and humiliation as much as possible. I don’t think any Christian I know would want to do that. Perhaps some other solution than the one you mention could be found. You make me think more about the issue and I thank you for that – I am thinking now that perhaps, if I were such a business owner I might want to do more than offer a polite and perhaps apologetic rejection and referral to someone else.

Thinking about this more: I am sure there are no small number of wedding photographers, for example, that would be eager to make it known very publicly that they are happy to lend their art to celebrate all weddings without discrimination. You think?

This all goes deep for me: in the example I gave above I simply mentioned the Christian who wants to support and show love to their gay friend but also cannot in good conscience participate in their wedding. I’m afraid situations like that will not go away, and that that kind of hurt is unavoidable. That is, so long as gay persons and Christians can manage to continue to have relationships that contain kindness, affection, and care.

Again, this is not about purity: “you’re a sinner and I am not”. I am very much a sinner and I am deeply aware of how much I deserve God’s righteous condemnation. It is about God’s gift of marriage for all persons which is meant to be for us an icon of the True Marriage: Christ and the Church.

Thanks again for your comment…. God’s blessings to you.


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Posted by on April 1, 2015 in Uncategorized


“Cultured Despisers Gonna Despise”: the Nature of Liberal “Evangelical” Theology Versus a Truly Biblical Theology

A recent careful evaluation of the roots of liberal theology - by a liberal theologian.

A recent and careful re-evaluation of the roots of liberal theology – by a highly regarded liberal theologian.

“The Holy Spirit is no skeptic…. a man must delight in assertions or he will be no Christian.” — Martin Luther to Erasmus

Recently, in an interesting First Thoughts piece on the current debates about Karl Barth, the name of Immanuel Kant was invoked.

The author of the article, Philip Carey, stated that for Kant: “The intelligibility of the world lies not in the substance of things [i.e. “their formal being or essence”] but in the a priori categories imposed on it by our active, ­conceptualizing minds.”  As Carey states, Kant came up with this idea because “we have no intellectual faculty for knowing the essence of things in themselves.” (to have Kant’s view explained in some detail in layman’s terms, give this fine podcast a listen)*

On one level, I submit that Immanuel Kant’s fight was real: for him, he was fighting to preserve the reality of free will for humans vs what he saw as the reductionism and determinism of the natural sciences (a focus of mine to), whose clout was increasing due to piling up success after unending experimental (and practical!) success. And yet, whether he intended to do so or not, Kant created a system of thought where there was no need for Divine revelation – where Divine revelation was something that could just be “tacked on”, but didn’t really fit into the overall picture. In this sense, he was not all that different than any other philosopher who has come to capture the hearts and minds of elite men and women (I also find it fascinating that he was evidently sufficiently vague [British: “shifty”] that scholars today actually argue over whether he was atheistic, theistic, panentheistic, or pantheistic, but I’ll leave that important observation alone for now). And to say this, of course, is not to insist that he may not have had some good ideas, (“denying knowledge to make room for faith”, and saying that the “world of appearances”, or “phenomena”, counted as knowledge were not these…) gotten some things right, etc. – only that his focus was not where it should have been (see Acts 17 to get some focus).

Carey’s piece put me in mind of something I had read recently in liberal theologian Gary Dorrein’s recent and ambitious revisionist work Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: the Idealistic Logic of Modern Theology.

Dorrein begins by speaking about classical political liberalism (all bold are mine):

Historically and theoretically, the cornerstone of liberalism is the assertion of the supreme value and universal rights of the individual. The liberal tradition of Benedict de Spinoza, John Locke, Charles Louis de Sceondat Motesquieu, Immanuel Kant and Thomas Jefferson taught that the universal goal of human beings is to realize their freedom and that state power is justified only to the extent that it enables and protects individual liberty….

No longer saying: "when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me" and "this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent..."

Kant et al losing this plot..: “when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me” and “this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent…”

…and then goes on to say about liberal theology:

The founding of modern theology is an aspect of this story.  Liberal theology, in my definition, was and is a three-layered phenomenon: Firstly it is the idea that all claims to truth, in theology and other disciplines, must be made on the basis of reason and experience, not by appeal to external authority.  From a liberal standpoint, Christian scripture or ecclesiastical doctrine may still be authoritative for theology and faith, but its authority operates within Christian experience, not as an outside word that establishes or compels truth claims about particular matters of fact.

Secondly, liberal theology argues for the viability and necessity of an alternative to orthodox over-belief and secular disbelief.  In Germany, the liberal movement called itself “mediating theology” because it took so seriously the challenge of a rising culture of aggressive deism and atheism.  Liberal religious thinkers, unavoidably, had to battle with conservatives for the right to liberalize Christian doctrine.  But usually they worried more about the critical challenges to belief from outsiders.  The agenda of modern theology was to develop a credible form of Christianity before the “cultured despisers of religion” routed Christian faith from intellectual and cultural respectability.  This agenda was expressed in the title of the founding work of modern theology, Schleiermacher’s Uber die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verachtern (On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers).  Here, Britain was ahead of the curve, as there was an ample tradition of aggressive British deism and skepticism by the time that Schleiermacher wrote.  British critics ransacked the Bible for unbelievable things: in Germany, a deceased anonymous deist (Hermann Samuel Reimarus) caused a stir in the mid-1770s by portraying Jesus as a misguided political messiah lacking any idea of being divine; Schleiermacher, surrounded by cultured scoffers in Berlin, contended that true religion and the divinity of Jesus were fully credible on modern terms.

The third layer consists of specific things that go with overthrowing the principle of external authority and adopting a mediating perspective between authority religion and disbelief. The liberal tradition reconceptualizes the meaning of Christianity in the light of modern knowledge and values.  It is reformist in spirit and substance, not revolutionary.  It is open to the verdicts of modern intellectual inquiry, especially historical criticism and the natural sciences. It conceives Christianity as an ethical way of life, it advocates moral concepts of atonement and reconciliation, and it is committed to making progressive religion credible and socially relevant.

This definition is calibrated to describe the entire tradition of liberal theology from Kant and Schleiermacher to the present day….. The key to the ascendency of liberal theology in the nineteenth century is that it outgrew its origins as an ideology of freethinking criticism to become a theology in, and at home with, the Christian church. (pp. 4-5, 6).

Bayer ("Christian theology is therefore regarded as the interpretation of this speech act between the justifying God and the justified sinner") vs. Vilmar ("“The knowledge of God which calls itself theology is at the same time a speaking from God.  And speaking from God goes forth into the world, into human life.”)

Bayer (“Christian theology is… regarded as the interpretation of this speech act between the justifying God and the justified sinner”) vs. Vilmar (“The knowledge of God which calls itself theology is at the same time a speaking from God.”)

Of course, this is where traditional orthodox theologians must disagree with Dorrien, however right his diagnosis to this point. This goes back to the main argument of J. Gresham Machen, who asserted – rightly, I think – that liberal Christianity and biblical Christianity were two different religions. Theologically freethinking criticism and the Household of God don’t really go together (I think the late confessional Lutheran theologian Kurt Marquart had a deep grasp of the issues, and made this argument quite effectively – see here).

The difference, of course, is that the biblical theologian stands with the earliest theologians of the Christian church: he states that the very Word of God, as put forth in the written Scriptures, is true, and that it speaks of purposeful, discernible realities that exist outside of us.  This makes it relevant and incapable of becoming irrelevant – whatever the “Spirit of the Age” may think – and all else follows from this simple point.

And not only this, but 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 (which should not be surprising, since the latest and greatest theories of smarter skeptics are moving in this direction anyways, as I pointed out in my last post here).

After all, as the Psalms say repeatedly: “the fool says in his heart: ‘there is no God'”.  And as Paul writes “[the] divine nature… [has] been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”  Even if one thinks that Paul is only talking about conclusions made from the deductions of our sensory experience or that he only says this by virtue of our having innate knowledge due to our “intellectual apparatus” (in Kantian terms, “synthetic apriori” stuff, the “metaphysic of experience”), Kant (we can have “strong convictions” about but not knowledge of free will, morals, rational agency, good and evil, the soul, God, etc.) gets decidedly left behind by these revealed assertions of God through His apostle – and some classical philosophers, on the other hand,**** perhaps get our grudging respect…




* More from that quote:

“It is not the mark of a Christian mind to take no delight in assertions. On the contrary, a man must delight in assertions or he will be no Christian.

And by assertion– in order that we may not be misled by words– I mean a constant adhering, affirming, confessing, maintaining, and an invincible persevering. Nor, I think, does the word mean anything else either as used by the Latins or by us in our time.

I am speaking, moreover, about the assertion of those things which have been divinely transmitted to us in the sacred writings… Nothing is better known or more common among Christians than assertion. Take away assertions and you take away Christianity.”

–Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, Eds. E. Gordon Rupp and Philip Watson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), 105-106.

** Carey goes on: “*But we can make scientific sense of the world because its conceptual structure and intelligibility come from us, from the activity of our minds as we conceptualize the data of our sense ex­perience”

*** While most all of modern academia shuns notions of essence/substance, a notable exception is this quote from Hans Ulrich Bumbrecht, professor of Romance languages at Stanford University, from his 2004 book “Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey”:

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 (bold mine, quoted in Armin Wenz, Biblical Hermeneutics in a Postmodern World: Sacramental Hermeneutics versus Spiritualistic Constructivism, LOGIA, 2013)

As I noted in the past: “In other words, almost no one today in the academic world is a “substantialist”, or we might say “essentialist” –  to suggest that there are things in the cosmos that have firm categories of being, or essence, or substance, is anathema, for the universe is in flux.  To suggest that some of these things have an objective meaning or purpose we can discern takes even greater hutzpa.  Now, it is likely that some in the fields of the humanities see what has become their arch-nemesis, science, as being “essentialist”, however one notes the primacy (and difficulty) of interpretation in the modern sciences as well: to speak of essences is to speak of atomic particles, and not things we regularly see and experience in the cosmos, like males and females, and marriages and children, for example.  More importantly, the particles and assemblies of particles might “mean something” in a purely material sense – showing themselves to have a certain order and predictability – but a greater purpose in those things that contain them can only be a total mystery (I talked about the despair this creates here).”

**** Very interesting and helpful listening on Aristotle’s notion of the four causes:

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Posted by on March 26, 2015 in Uncategorized


The Gods of our Brahmins: Thomas Nagel’s and Rebecca Goldstein’s Intelligent Designers


Goldstein gets praised, Nagel gets burned.

In my last post, I talked about how Rebecca Goldstein has given the atheists (and agnostics to be sure) an intelligent design that even they can love. Of course this begs the question: Why specifically, has Goldstein, unlike Thomas Nagel a couple years earlier, seemed to have gotten nothing but love from the “freethinking” community?

As I said in the previous post, I don’t think that there really is a good rational answer – looking at the big picture both thinkers are essentially dealing with a Logos, or Reason, that has teleological designs (however much Goldstein may want to deny this – please read on). That said, a difference seems to be that Nagel’s teleological “bias towards the marvelous” means that the laws of nature are somehow disposed to create conscious rational beings where Goldstein’s teleological bias towards “the-best-which-just-had-to-happen” just means that while the particular laws of nature are not somehow disposed to create conscious rational beings, nature as a whole somehow is. No, the real reason Nagel is despised and not Goldstein likely has to do with whom he gives props to. From John G. West, author of Darwin Day in America:

Nagel attracted special displeasure for praising Darwin skeptics like mathematician David Berlinski and intelligent-design proponents like biochemist Michael Behe and philosopher of science Stephen Meyer. As the New York Times explained, many of Nagel’s fellow academics view him unfavorably “not just for the specifics of his arguments but also for what they see as a dangerous sympathy for intelligent design.” Now there is a revealing comment: academics, typically blasé about everything from justifications of infanticide to the pooh-poohing of pedophilia, have concluded that it is “dangerous” to give a hearing to scholars who think nature displays evidence of intelligent design.

Unfortunately for Nagel, he is a serial offender when it comes to listening to the purveyors of such disreputable ideas. In 2009 he selected Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design as a book of the year for the Times Literary Supplement. Written by my Discovery Institute colleague Stephen Meyer (whose ideas are discussed in the original conclusion to this book), Signature in the Cell made the case for purpose in nature from the existence of the digital information embedded in DNA. After being denounced by one scientist for praising Meyer’s book, Nagel dryly recommended that the scientist should “hold his nose and have a look at the book” before dismissing it.

Apparently unconcerned about being accused of consorting with the enemy, Nagel insisted in Mind and Cosmos that “the defenders of intelligent design deserve our gratitude for challenging a scientific world view that owes some of the passion displayed by its adherents precisely to the fact that it is thought to liberate us from religion.” Nagel added that he thinks this antireligious materialist worldview “is ripe for displacement”—an intriguing comment considering that he himself remains an unrepentant atheist.

Nagel ultimately offered a simple but profound objection to Darwinism: “Evolutionary naturalism provides an account of our capacities that undermines their reliability, and in doing so undermines itself….” (quote from article here)

So, the reason people don’t like Nagel has a lot to do with social and political considerations. Again, as I said above, when it comes to the big philosophical picture, I think we are talking about distinctions with little difference. I don’t understand how one can’t conclude that Goldstein is just as teleological as Nagel is, albeit with universal mathematically-infused nature (or maybe nature-infused mathematics) instead of particular physical laws. The only practical difference is, it seems to me, is that Goldstein’s view is not able (yet at least) be empirically tested in any way, particularly in the fact that it seems to require a multiverse, but perhaps in other aspects as well.

with Goldstein things are very different: in her view, the result we are looking at – life, particularly conscious rational life – should not be seen as being improbable

With “Atheist with Soul” Goldstein, life – particularly conscious rational life – should not be seen as being improbable…

To explain what I mean a bit more: presumably, for Goldstein, the neo-Darwinian synthesis can somehow survive in her holistic view, as the efficient cause of beneficial mutations still occur accidentally, improbably, through non-teleological natural laws. Dovetailing along with this view of neo-Darwinism’s supposed viability, Elliott Sober, in response to Thomas Nagel’s book, said “I don’t think that life, intelligence, and consciousness had to be in the cards from the universe’s beginning”. But it seems clear that with Goldstein things are very different: in her view, the result we are looking at – life, particularly conscious rational life – should not be seen as being improbable. I can only assume this is because she thinks mathematics somehow strongly implies that there must be a multiverse as well (a popular ideas among cosmologists which she discusses favorably in her book), and so, despite the astronomical odds against life, etc. occurring, the “best” is nevertheless bound to happen (here, the idea of seemingly infinite places where evolution could occur serves the function that “eternal time” served in past, purely materialistic, accounts).

This raises a number of questions, not least of which is this: when the importance of empirical verification is abandoned (where math, not evidence, is sufficient to prove the multiverse idea), is science still being practiced? In any case, with Goldstein’s view one is still hard pressed to wonder why the universe had to be what it is, namely infinitely large, in order that the odds might somehow work out… so that the non-teleological laws could give us conscious and rational life that gives the impression of having been carefully designed…. Again, it is clear that with Goldstein’s view, consciousness, for example, comes to be something that we can expect – and not because of contemporary neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, which says nothing it to be expected. What is the answer?

The answer is not scientific at all, but is basically philosophical/religious: Mathematics. Beautiful mathematics. This is in charge of not only of the multiverse-shape of the cosmos, but the fact that the laws of nature are fine-tuned for life, and also the fact that our epistemic equipment is capable of discerning this wondrous order!  But here, it is mathematics itself that seems to be operating teleologically (consciously, “reasonably” intentionally?), setting things up just as they need to be in order for the “beautiful best” to happen. Teleology needs to be attributed to something. The notion simply cannot be escaped from – even if by taking this route it might initially seem that scientific explanations still do not need to invoke goals along with mechanistic causes (that is clearly an illusion though – it’s just that the goals are invoked elsewhere, in the whole of nature and its mathematical structure…. of course, it makes no sense to think that what is true for the whole will not have implications for the parts). And this, of course, is just what the philosophy/religion of philosophical naturalism needs, seeing as how, in practice (as is evidenced by its rhetoric) it is always trying to slip teleology in the back door anyway….

Nagel "thinks this antireligious materialist worldview “is ripe for displacement”" No kidding, but...

Nagel “thinks this antireligious materialist worldview “is ripe for displacement”” No kidding, but…

And this means that God – and some kind of personal God mind you (only this really should make sense to us, given that we know no other kind of reasoning besides personal reasoning) – needs to be acknowledged. That, of course, does not mean that such a personal God will be seen or understood to be the Christian God. One might believe in Allah, for example, or some other God entirely: one that is somehow the same as the universe, for example, and has perhaps “evolved” with it….

Should any of this make a difference to Christian – those concerned with historic biblical orthodoxy? I think we should steer far clear from these ideas, and start to think more like simple children when it comes to believing what the Scriptures tell us is true about the universe. After all, as I alluded to in my previous post, it seems clear to me that in both Nagel’s and Goldstein’s systems a strictly theistic view of God is unnecessary (i.e. no transcendence, historical “interventionism”, divine revelation, etc), and both systems could also theoretically allow for all manner of [relatively slow and relatively “ordered”] moral evolution as well – even if Goldstein’s would be more “Platonic” and Nagel’s would be more “Aristotelian”.

And of course this eliminates the need for the eternal law of God and the eternal Gospel (Rev. 14). In other words, this eliminates the Christ, the true Logos. 


Goldstein and Nagel pics from Wikipedia

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Posted by on March 24, 2015 in Uncategorized


Intelligent Design Even an Atheist Can Love: a Not-So-New “Logos” Reasserted

Sounds teleological, huh?:  “The sublimity that had to burst into existence is not one that particularly concerns itself with us. Such a human-constrained goodness would not pack the ontological wallop required to bring forth existence.” (p. 389)

Sounds teleological, huh?: “The sublimity that had to burst into existence is not one that particularly concerns itself with us. Such a human-constrained goodness would not pack the ontological wallop required to bring forth existence.” (p. 389)

I’ll admit that I like to read stuff by brainy pagans. Not because I think they are right mind you, but because I want to better understand “their world” and talk intelligently with them about the things of God they are attracted to.

Over the past few weeks, I have been reading Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, the latest offering from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Goldstein is the wife of the renowned Harvard scientist Stephen Pinker – intellectually, there is arguably no more influential and formidable pair. Both Pinker and Goldstein are known for their irenicism, and Goldstein, for her part, has even been called the “atheist with soul”.

You might be wondering whether you should bother reading what follows. Well, maybe if you aren’t a Christian you don’t really want to (is my reverse psychology working?). After all, I will admit that I believe that anyone who – after hearing about the light of Jesus Christ – continues to hold onto certain religions or all-encompassing philosophies does so because they do not want to answer to Him. Of course, this does not mean that I think that everyone who finds philosophical naturalism / materialism attractive, for example, wants to pitch the moral and spiritual life altogether and, as they say, “live like the devil”. Rather, I suggest that the key goal (albeit sub-conscious) of the non-Christian is to have a system whereby some order – and hence control – can be asserted, while not having to pay close attention to those things surrounding the historical person of Jesus Christ, particularly the things that God calls proof (see Acts 17:31).

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)

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)

I think that this is particularly true of the book that Goldstein has written. Let’s take a closer look.

Though heady, Plato at the Googleplex is well-written and has received numerous accolades, including high praise from the prominent agnostic philosopher A.C. Grayling. It seeks to bring the questions of Plato into the modern world and does so in a big way, featuring dialogues with a scientifically-updated Plato and 21st century interlocutors in very interesting contexts (the Googleplex, talk shows, advice columns, and brain-scanning laboratories). These chapters are interspersed between other chapters which better explain Plato’s ideas and the origin and historical context of those ideas.

I would recommend this book for any Christian who wants to know where the secular world is going as regards sophisticated belief systems. Some of our elites, in seeking to address the problems of our age, have advocated a return to more polytheistic ideas (see All Things Shining below).  I am guessing many with more poetic tastes will veer in this direction. Others, like Goldstein, are looking to promote ideas that have a lot in common with Benedictus Spinoza, who, I would say, basically put the elite philosophies of the Eastern world into a more Western frame (that is, a frame influenced heavily by Greek and Judeo-Christian ideas, though Goldstein, to say the least, downplays the latter).

I see the greatest challenge to Christian thought not in the likes of an atheism that a Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins or a Dennett might espouse. Rather, I think it is persons like Goldstein who presents us with the most formidable challenge. If I recall, Richard Dawkins himself has admitted that he does not see anything objectionable to this kind of Spinozan theologizing/philosophizing. This kind of system poses an appealing alternative to a pure philosophical naturalism, which has attempted to strip reality of all that is spiritual, or at least seems to point us in that direction.

Forging a “new” religious direction more appealing to sophisticated poet-types.  See my critique here.

Forging a “new” religious direction more appealing to sophisticated poet-types. See my critique here.

For me, one of the most important statements in the whole book occurs on p. 309, where Goldstein discusses what it means to escape Plato’s cave:

“One must integrate the beautiful proportionality of the character of the physical universe into one’s own moral character, and then, and only then, will one see oneself in relation to all else – and all others – in the right perspective, the distortions of the cave corrected. This is not a dispassionate process. Plato always stressed how much love is involved in the process…”

Sounds a bit like a form of natural law that exists intrinsically outside of ourselves, right? But she says next:

“….But it’s love of an impersonal kind, not love for persons, that reforms one’s moral being. Plato would have approved this paragraph from Spinoza’s Ethics: “Therefore, without intelligence, there is not rational life: and things are only good, in so far as they aid man in his enjoyment of the intellectual life, which is defined by intelligence. Contrariwise, whatsoever things hinder man’s perfecting of his reason, and capability to enjoy the rational life, are alone called evil” (Appendix, Part IV, v).

Quite the logos Goldstein has there.*

And let me share a lengthier quote that exhibits Goldstein’s argumentation, where she speaks of an impersonal best reason, or logos, “out there”, which conforms with the reason we have inside ourselves as subjects. From pp. 52-53:

“…what does Plato mean by goodness, and how does he entwine it with truth and beauty?

Plato’s truth-entwined goodness can best be gotten to by way of “the best reason” that he sees lurking inside truth. The truth is as it is because “the best reason” is determining it to be so. His language is, at first blush, suspiciously teleological, even suggestive of intentionality. Did someone – Some One – implement this best reason, designing the world accordingly? Or is it rather that the best reason works all on its own, a self-starter, with nothing external to it required to put it into action? It was the latter possibility that Plato had in mind. If there is “mind” determining the truth, an idea put forth in the Phaedo and explored in greater depth in the Timaeus, the existence of this mind amounts to nothing over and above the assertion that the truth is determined by “the best reason.” In other words, the best and final scientific theory would work all on its own to create the world in accordance with itself. In the Timaeus he presents a creation myth, in which a demiurge, or divine Craftsman, is implementing “the best reason,” but his using a myth to dramatize the point is in itself an indication that it’s a more abstract metaphysical principle he has in mind: the best reason, is, in itself, a self-starter, and explanation that explains itself a causa sui, as Spinzoza – who picked up this Platonic intuition and ran all the way with it – was to put it.

The determining role of “the best reason” in making the world what it is is what the goodness in Truth-Beauty-Goodness consists in. Goodness is interwoven with truth because the best explanation for the truth is that truth is determined by the best reason, and the best reason works all on its own – which is as good as it gets. The truth, being determined by the best reason, is ultimately capable of explaining itself. This makes reality as intelligible as it could possibly be. It’s its very intelligibility that provides the reasons for its existence. For intelligibility-craving minds, what could possibly be more sublime?

And once again, as it was with beauty so it is with goodness: it is mathematics that largely foots the bill. The best reason is the reason that is thoroughly intelligible, that presents its own justification transparently to the mind, which is what mathematics does (Republic 511d, Timaeus passim). In the creation myth of the Timaeus, the divine Craftsman imposes as much mathematics on the material world as it can possibly hold, because mathematics is the most perfect expression of the good intentions – the best reasons – by which the mythical Craftsman works (29d-e). The mythical Craftsman doesn’t make the forms he imposes on the world the best by virtue of choosing them; rather he chooses them because they are, independent of him, the best of forms, and their being the best of forms in itself explains why this must be realized.

The talk of “the best reason,” which sounds deceptively teleological, is not teleological at all. The causality is fueled by the mathematics. The causality is at one with the intelligibility. In fact, it was the return to this version of Platonism that managed to get the teleology out of physics, by displacing Aristotle’s final causes with Plato’s mathematical conception of causality. Spinoza, who, like other seminal thinkers of the seventeenth century, was rebelling against the Aristotelian-scholastic teleology that held sway, put the point this way: “Such a doctrine (teleology) might well have sufficed to conceal the truth from the human face for all eternity, if mathematics had not furnished another standard of truth…. Without regard to…. final causes.” (Ethics I, Appendix. Trans. R.H.M. Elwes, 1883. Revised ed. [London: George Bell and Sons, 1901]) (unitalicized words italicized in the original)

On pages 384 and 385:

….The form of the good, of agathon, is the place where all explanations stop. It is the level of the self-explanatory. There must be such a level of self-explanatory, if reality, is, as Plato assumed it to be, thoroughly intelligible. There are no brute contingencies, facts which are facts for no other reason that they are facts. Explanations must penetrate the whole of what is. It’s not turtles all the way down, but rather reasons, logoi, all the way down. This is the fundamental intuition of the rationalist: it was picked up again in the seventeenth century by such hard-core rationalists as Spinoza and Leibniz. Leibniz named it the Principle of Sufficient Reason.

Like them, Plato had demanded that reality thoroughly account for itself, every step of the way, and this entails that there must be a level of the self-explanatory. The way we ascended to each next level was to judge (as best we could) the best explanation. We’ve been led, every step of the way, by the intuition that the best explanation – the most beautiful, the most elegant – is the right explanation. The good is simply that intuition is affirmed. Reality it what it is because it realizes the best of all possible explanations. This is the Sublime Braid – the True-the Beautiful-the Good. The structure of the world is shot through with a sublimity so sublime that it had to exist. Reality exists because it, too, [like the Greeks in Athens,] is striving to achieve an existence worth the existing. The cosmos itself is a high achiever, and existence is the prize.

Benedictus Spinoza - patron saint of freethinkers, more and more so.

Benedictus Spinoza – patron saint of freethinkers, more and more so.

How can existence be the prize of a cosmos,since it, being a cosmos, already exists, you ask? Remember, its “logoi all the way down” (embracing the infinite regress), therefore no need for an uncaused Cause either. Goldstein goes on:

Plato has, in his explanatory ascent, implicitly posed the fundamental question of metaphysics: Why is there something rather than nothing? Leibniz is customarily credited with first explicitly formulating the question, and in those very terms, but once again, Plato implicitly posed the question by explicitly proposing his answer. The good is what bestows existence, he tells us in the Republic. Agathon binds the structure of reality – whatever that reality might turn out ultimately to be. (In the Timaeus, he voices skepticism that we can ever know it entirely. Reality’s being intelligible doesn’t entail it being intelligible to us.) Plato is open to reality’s turning out to be quite different than the way we conceive it at any point in our joint adventure to figure it out. The self-questioning is the essence of the rational process. But what he holds firm to is that whatever reality turns out to be like, it is like that because the best of reasons makes it so, and we are led to those best of reasons by our own sense of intelligibility-maximizing beauty: “Both knowledge and truth are beautiful things, but the good is other and more beautiful than they” (508e).

….“The word “best” is overtly evaluative. There is no escaping evaluation, no more in deciding what is rational to believe than in deciding what is ethical to do. The fact that evaluation is involved – different people may disagree on what constitutes the best of the available explanations – makes it all the more imperative to expose one’s reasoning to a multiplicity of perspectives…..But what criteria are to be used in evaluating which are the best explanations? Here to disagreements erupt. We might ask: Is an explanation that increases the sense of mystery in the world to be valued over one that decreases the mysterious, or is it the other way round? There are excellent reasons, well argued and generally accepted, for embracing the latter alternative. In fact, precisely because the explanation that decreases mystery is judged the better explanation, Plato’s own explanation of universals in terms of the abstract forms has been dropped in favor of other explanations. His so-called Theory of Forms created more mysteries than it solved. There’s evidence that he himself drew the same conclusion as a result of the battery of criticisms he lodged at the theory in the Parmenides.   In the Timaeus and the Laws, the most intelligible – and therefore beautiful – of the forms are conceived in terms of mathematical structures, other forms dropping away….” (p. 386)

“….it is Plato, particularly the Plato of the Timaeus, who is made to carry the spirit of rebellion that rose up in the sixteenth and seventeenth century against the dogmatized Aristotelian teleology. Finding their way back to Plato, the new physicists seize on mathematics as the very soul of explanation – and the more beautiful the mathematics the more explanatory value it is judged to have.” (p. 388, unitalicized words originally italicized)

Even if Plato would have perhaps been cautious in going in such a non-teleological direction (“don’t go there”, we say today), the important point, it seems to me, is that his ideas and system allow for it in the first place. In other words, the loose system we seem to be able to determine that he upheld – bolstered by some flimsy myths not seriously rooted in history (see, in contrast, the book of Acts, particularly chapter 17, particularly the end of that chapter) – can be readily hijacked and colonized by those eager to see not only theological assertions but specific teleological assertions as well (where particular things are created for a particular purposes) bite the dust.

Goldstein pictured in the middle, to the right of Dawkins.

Goldstein pictured in the middle, to the right of Dawkins.

But wait a minute!  On second thought, how is Goldstein’s position really that different then what Thomas Nagel wrote about a couple years ago – in the book Mind and Cosmos*** – only to be savagely attacked?  While Goldstein even has some serious words of critique for the philosophically naturalistic physicist Laurence Krauss, she, unlike Nagel, somehow manages to avoid the wrath of the freethinking community.  Why?

It is a bit puzzling.  While in his book Mind and Cosmos, Nagel speaks of the possibility of a kind of “teleology”, saying that we could discover principles which may be goal-oriented or teleological (instead of materialist or mechanistic), he, like Goldstein, does not thereby have in mind the idea of an external Person with intention (“even if teleology is separated from intention, and the result is not the goal of an agent who aims at it”). He is rather proposing something we might call an “immanent teleology” (“order that governs the natural world from within”), where human beings, for example, arise because of a “a bias towards the marvelous” (92, Mind and Cosmos, quoted here).  Other than de-emphasizing the importance of human beings, is this not basically what Goldstein is doing? Even if she is loath to use the word teleology, because of its current associations with Aristotle (and with him Aquinas) and the Intelligent Design movement (see more on Nagel’s book here and here)?

I think it is (and I will defend this assertion in a later post). Further, I would suggest that she is at some level doing this intentionally, because she understands the absolute bankruptcy of clinging to philosophical materialism.

Steven Pinker, tweeting about Thomas Nagel's "Mind and Cosmos": "The shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker"

Steven Pinker, tweeting about Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”: “The shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker”

Before moving on there is another important point to emphasize here. The popular conservative writer Rod Dreher recently tweeted: “the philosopher Josef Pieper, in his great little book Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation] confronts [the] core civilizational question today: Is truth, is reality, something we invent, or discover? Much rides on the answer.”

But as Goldstein shows us, even if someone says that the truth is something that we discover “out there” (“Plato… is firmly on the side of the Reasonables. Everything we need to know – intellectually and morally – is out there”** – p. 384), that certainly does not mean that they will necessarily embrace traditional Judeo-Christian understandings of natural law.

On the contrary, her viewpoint allows for a person to embrace the idea that there is some kind of unchanging, eternal, and external reality while also allowing for all manner of change and flux in the material cosmos we inhabit. Some instability – progress! – in our understandings of the natures of things and morality can be permitted****, so long as wisdom and balance can be found by recognizing the harmony present in the stable and permanent forms – basically meaning the beautiful and impersonal mathematics underlying all things.

What to say to all of this? How about this?:

“How is it responsible to think about impersonal intelligence, mind, or consciousness (these are completely oxymoronic concepts) – especially when thinking of the cosmos’ origins?” Simply put, if reality is fundamentally impersonal, than we are impersonal. And if the cosmos itself can’t be said to be caused, than it makes little sense to think personal responsibility and consequences for actions are anything other than a purely pragmatic matter.

It seems to me that all of this is pointing in a certain direction which is this: when it comes to Reason’s march in the battle of ideas, those ideas that are true will work and those that work will be true. While it may take time to play out in history, the Reasonable persons know that the best will rise to the top – leaving those who refuse to be enlightened and progress in the dustbin of history. For those who have inherited Christianity’s moral capital, they now think they can be most “Christian” by leaving Christianity behind.

Citing modern Calvinist philosophers like Alvin Plantiga to illustrate her point, Goldstein would make a sharp distinction between the religious impulse (belonging to the intuitive realm) and the realm of the rational, which deals with things “out there” that we can discuss and hold one another accountable over*****. This might be a sensible critique for other faiths, not grounded in history, but not Christianity. I would suggest that she has either paid insufficient attention to, or has conveniently ignored passages like Acts 17:31 (and the whole book of Acts for that matter, steeped in history******), with what we might call its “evidentially-based considerations”.

For in the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and was God…. I encourage you to check out the real Logos…  One that doesn’t cut the person and “contingent” history (and along with this divine revelation and miracles) out of the picture. Come and see, perhaps with the Apostle John as your first guide….




*She goes on to write: “Morality necessarily crosses, for these philosophers, thorough the headiest of intellectual terrain, and that is a path that – I don’t think they’re particularly happy about this – few can follow.” I immediately though about Charles Murray’s book “Coming Apart” and the new book by Robert Putnam: “Our kids: the American Dream in Crises”. I note that the kind of statement made by Goldstein could be taken to rationalize away the culpability of the elites for not upholding moral norms as something that all should strive to attain.

**She goes on to say:

“….and the way we come to see what is out there is no more private and unshareable than the reality itself is. One proceeds by way of reason, by offering the best explanations for the questions that each level [attained after leaving the cave] presents. An anonymous, allegorical knower stands in for any of us, so allow me to change the gender of the pronoun. The knower doesn’t come with any special cognitive equipment of a kind to make her privy to special messages from outside the cave. It’s on the power of her own reason that she achieves the vision of the sun. Not only is this a path that is, in principle, open to anyone, but it is a path that requires collaborators, since judging what is the best explanation is an activity best done with others, as the man who founded the Academy, gathering the best thinkers of the day there to join him, must have believed. The prisoner was herself first freed and dragged forward on the first leg of her trip by someone else, and once she sees the sun she remembers the prisoners still fettered in the cave and pities them, returning to help them make the ascent that she has achieved. (It doesn’t necessarily end well. Prisoners of ideology don’t necessarily welcome liberation.)

***Nagel, in an article in the N.Y. Times, summing up the main point of his book:

“I believe [the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature] is ruled out by the conditions that have defined the physical sciences from the beginning. The physical sciences can describe organisms like ourselves as parts of the objective spatio-temporal order – our structure and behavior in space and time – but they cannot describe the subjective experiences of such organisms or how the world appears to their different particular points of view. There can be a purely physical description of the neurophysiological processes that give rise to an experience, and also of the physical behavior that is typically associated with it, but such a description, however complete, will leave out the subjective essence of the experience – how it is from the point of view of its subject — without which it would not be a conscious experience at all…biological evolution must be more than just a physical process, and the theory of evolution, if it is to explain the existence of conscious life, must become more than just a physical theory….a scientific understanding of nature need not be limited to a physical theory of the objective spatio-temporal order. It makes sense to seek an expanded form of understanding that includes the mental but that is still scientific — i.e. still a theory of the immanent order of nature.” (non-italicized words highlighted by me).

I translate this to meant that no theism, transcendence, interventionism, or divine revelation is necessary to how we view the world (even if Nagel, as well as others, certainly would insist that it could be added). Here, it seems to me that Reason, though perhaps not conceptions that have been fully imagined yet, trumps the real Logos and His work in history. Plato (perhaps), Spinoza, Hume (likely), Kant, and Goldstein, it seems, would all be quite happy to have a system of Reason that purports to explain all without the biblical Creator.

Nagel ends his article:

“Mind, I suspect, is not an inexplicable accident or a divine and anomalous gift but a basic aspect of nature that we will not understand until we transcend the built-in limits of contemporary scientific orthodoxy. I would add that even some theists might find this acceptable; since they could maintain that God is ultimately responsible for such an expanded natural order, as they believe he is for the laws of physics.”

It seems clear to me that this would be a fatal compromise. Does either deism or such pantheism have room for the furious God of the Bible who is called Jesus, the Christ? Looking at this realistically (not so much cynically) it simply seems to me that Nagel was simply taking the lead among the most intelligent agnostics and atheists who are in the business of creating systems that by definition exclude the possibility of transcendence and divine revelation.

****Interesting from the WSJ review of Goldstein’s book (about a year ago):

“It is no accident that Socrates propounds what has come to be called the “Euthyphro argument” on the way to his trial. The pompous Euthyphro confidently tells Socrates that the holy is to be defined as “what the gods love.” Socrates points out that this gets things backward: The gods love the holy because it is already holy, not because they regard it so. In other words, things are not good because a supposed God approves of them; rather, God approves of what is good in itself, quite independently of his will. This Socratic argument undermines the entire idea that theology can provide a basis for morality and opens up a quite secular way of thinking about the nature of virtue. As Ms. Goldstein remarks, this was a seminal moment in the history of moral philosophy and indeed in the development of human civilization; it showed the power of pure rational thought.”

*****Interestingly, assuming that Plato is speaking for her, she is fine giving up all notions of free-will, so long as there is “accountability” through reason.

****** One need not believe the book of Acts is infallible to have confidence that the Apostle Paul said this or that what he said might be worth listening to or asking serious questions about [note also Luke’s reputation for being a good historian here as well – i.e. being verifiable in many respects. Also, it is true that while this is certainly an invitation into what all would call “evidentially-based considerations”, this statement is nevertheless more of an assertion about how God has made Himself known in history – and what He calls proof and defines as proof.




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Posted by on March 18, 2015 in Uncategorized


Fatal Words Christians Should Not Utter: John Updike and Christian Life & Witness

John Updike.

John Updike.

In the days of Martin Luther, many persons thought that God was harsh, unforgiving, and cruel.  I think it is safe to say that in our day many think that God is indulgent, conviction-less, and, as a result, boring.

I could not help thinking that after I had read Gerald R. McDermott’s new piece on the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse site “A Rather Antinomian Christianity”: John Updike’s Religion.

I will admit to not being all that familiar with John Updike’s work, but Mr. McDermott certainly gives the impression that he is.  And his article, as can be seen by the title, expresses some real concerns about the kind of faith Mr. Updike expressed.

He sums this up by saying:

“It was a strange sort of Christianity that rejected the strictures of traditional faith, choosing divine comfort while rejecting divine commands. In other words, it was gospel without law, grace without repentance, the love of God without the holiness of God.”

It is true that as Christians we ought to always be eager to proclaim, highlight, and get to the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  And as I noted in my last post here, the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation in the person of Jesus Christ is perpetually for Christians – all of who fail – and not just unbelievers.

And yet, as a Lutheran who wants to be all about God’s radical grace, I must say that I share McDermott’s concerns.  He brings important matters to our attention.  For example, McDermott states that Updike’s God helped him, as [his recent biographer] Begley puts it, to “cherish whatever happened to him”, and “His beautifully precise descriptions of desire—and the vague implication that its fulfillment could be religiously justified—reassured readers who feared they might not be justified.”

And then there is this:

In Updike’s religion, then, there are no commandments we are meant to keep except the obligation to accept what is: “Religion includes, as its enemies say, fatalism, an acceptance and consecration of what is.” Our only responsibility is to “appreciate” the great gift that life represents. He learned from Barth that the next life is simply this life in review, and from his Lutheranism, he wrote, “a rather antinomian Christianity”—the idea that there are no laws we should fear or live by—which he was “too timid to discard.” There is no hint of final judgment. Nor is there any imperative to repent or improve ourselves: in Begley’s words, “Original sin may be inescapable, but any concerted effort to improve one’s game resembles a righteous struggle for salvation.” And if there was anything he learned from Barth, it was that all human efforts to save ourselves are wrongheaded and futile. As one critic summed it up, Updike “radically divorced” Christian theology from Christian ethics.

A Google search on some of those passages satisfied my question of whether McDermott has been responsible in how he has quoted Updike – even if a phrase of his own describing Updike, like “so enthusiastic for infidelity” for example, begs to be unpacked and explored.

A few key comments about all of this.  First, and most importantly, it seems that Updike was not careful to make clear that while God may indeed use evil for good, we should be careful never to think God planned and meant for us to do such evil – believing such a thing can be fatal to Christian faith.  Second, it seems to me that John Updike clearly did have much important truth to share – G.K. Chesterton to, for example, said “every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.”  Third, as a confessional Lutheran who is troubled by Updike’s own understanding of the Lutheran faith, I nevertheless firmly believe that it is never given to us to pronounce on the final condition of a man’s soul (something McDermott is not doing either, I hasten to add).

Which brings me to a final point, which I take to dovetail with McDermott’s concerns: we need men from the established institution of the church who will challenge our sovereignty of self – whereby we would presume to be our own judge, and administer forgiveness to ourselves.  In Holy Confession and Absolution our pastors (please note I am not one of these), as partakers of the Apostolic Ministry, are called to administer in Christ’s name the forgiveness of sins – or not (John 20:23)  This is alternatively called binding and loosing (Matthew 16:19).

This requires a judgment on their part of what a person – any person they speak to but particularly to Christians – needs to hear: law or gospel.   Perhaps an extended conversation with Mr. Updike – with a humble, strong and wise Christian pastor, for example – may have been necessary to make a good judgment of where he stood… what he believed about the nature of his actions.

Or perhaps not.  Perhaps other writings from Updike give us a very good idea of just what he needed to hear.  Either something simply like “Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God”, fullstop (I Cor. 6:9-10), or, on the other hand, something like the rest of that passage: “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (I Cor. 6:11)

In either case though, it is clear to me that Mr. Updike certainly could have used some good advice – not necessarily literary – on how to proceed in his vocation as a writer who claimed Christ. As a friend wrote in a related context: “The teacher should not try to astound the young with the gravity of his past sins; it will often have the opposite effect than was intended.”  I’d say that that should inform how one speaks about one’s own life, and all aspects of one’s vocation in the world as well.  


Updike pic:

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Posted by on March 13, 2015 in Uncategorized


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