Welcome Back, Sin

The age of modernity is ending. For all its trademark confidence, even its name suggesting an endless run, the modern age falters now. Soon it will stagger into the grey mist of history.

What comes next for us? Modernity overreached, and we inherit not confidence, but suspicion. Postmodern is a worthless label, signifying only hiatus and transition.

Can we hope to see a renaissance of human will? If we can somehow join in common purpose, then yes. But what would that involve? Continue reading “Welcome Back, Sin”

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Rule #5: Get Back to the Rules

Reality is elusive. Truth hides beyond our reach. Break-these-rules makes it clear that we simply are looking for GSOT, not truth. Let’s not make the mistake of those who tried too hard to grasp reality. Continue reading “Rule #5: Get Back to the Rules”

Everyday Life

In two preceding sets of blogs about positivism and fundamentalism, I have tried to identify a strong element of nihilism built into those two towers of belief in the modern age. The nihilism is selective, despising every kind of knowledge, every interpretation of GSOT, that differs from and offers contrast to the starting point that “our side” assumes.

Nihilism, even when selective, makes for weak construction. The towers are crumbling. At least that’s what I have tried to say.

But it’s hard to make a coherent charge of nihilism. The accusation declares the worthlessness of the thinking and judgment of my opponents. Am I not, then, acting as a selective nihilist myself – a prophet whose message foretells chaotic loss of value for the other camp?

Thinking in this way, we could say that everyone who expresses their viewpoint with strength and conviction necessarily negates the opinions of others. Everyone who has something to say must attempt to seize the audio space, the attention of listeners, to the exclusion of competing voices. Space is limited. Attention is finite. In a very natural way the booming importance of our own message leaves us deaf to all else.

Thus it makes no sense to accuse others of selective nihilism, when the same process of argument exposes our own tendencies to disregard and degrade the position of our opponents. Then we sink back to the same starting point the fundamentalists declared: Everyone has presuppositions. Mine are valid. Yours are not. Isn’t that the way it is?

Is there a way to escape the arbitrariness of point and counterpoint – the meaninglessness of verbal battles where missiles never hit their mark because the foes are not even looking at each other?

There is an answer, I believe. Let’s define nihilism more carefully as a philosophical disposition that negates the value of everyday human life.

Everyday life! What does that mean?

Is it dragging myself out of bed each morning, fixing the same stale breakfast, fighting the traffic, going through the well-worn motions of a thankless job, facing the same misconceptions of irritated people endlessly, and in the evening collapsing on the couch to watch the cops and robbers show with its predictable outcome, and going to bed for the relief of unconsciousness, so that this routine can be repeated joyously tomorrow?

Yes! But let’s include in the concept of everyday life some times of novelty, of growth, and even of graciously accepted decline and decay.

Let’s include the first remembered moments of the discovery of self and others.

When I was 4 or 5 years old, I heard about robots, or perhaps saw robots on television. Some of them looked a lot like real people.

At the same time, the contrast between – how can I put it? – the immanence of my inner life and my position in the world versus my lack of appreciation of what others could see, hear, think, and do was lingering in my consciousness as a kind of echo of the shock when my eyes first opened and Mama spoke to me and the world began.

How is it possible to remember something like that? Because of the robots. At age 4 or 5, I entertained the hypothesis – though I didn’t know to call it a hypothesis then – that everyone other than myself might be a robot. I never really believed it, never acted upon it. It was just an unsettling daydream. Ever since then, once in a while I have felt the need to test the hypothesis, and each time I am grateful for the people around me who disprove it.

Let’s include the first kiss ever, the first with my future wife Susan Storm, the kiss as I leave for work each morning, the kiss on coming home each evening, and also the fulsome kiss.

Let’s include the Aha! moment when a mathematical concept suddenly makes sense, and the mystery lifts and the power of comprehension becomes real. The first paycheck and the most recent one and the next one. The opportunity to hold a baby and feel its gaze upon your face and whisper stories about coming days of childhood, love, and growth.

Let’s think about the courage Eloise shows when the voices scream in her head and she defies them, taking her medicine and living in a group home and going faithfully to work and enjoying a weekly restaurant meal with her parents.

Let’s acclaim the resilience Ruth and Arthur discover in their last years of failing health, finding enough in small projects and pleasures to sustain them, as love surpasses all previous limits in meeting each other’s needs.

We ourselves define or create the meaning of our daily lives, according to Albert Camus and other existentialist philosophers who bucked the trends of positivism and fundamentalism in the 20th century.

The archetypal hero for Camus was Sisyphus, a Greek leader of Corinth who, after defying the gods, died and was condemned in afterlife to roll a large rock toward the top of a mountain, only to have the rock slip from his grasp at the top and fall back to the valley, and to repeat the cycle endlessly. Camus imagined Sisyphus to be happy. “His rock is his thing,” wrote Camus in 1940. We can reasonably suspect that was the origin of the oft-repeated “Do your own thing” of popular culture in the 60s and 70s.

In 1940 Europe had plunged into the madness of World War II. In a preface Camus described the purpose of his Myth of Sisyphus as follows:

Written…amid the French and European disaster, this book declares that even within the limits of nihilism, it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism.[1]

Everyday life may feel like the equivalent of rolling Sisyphus’ rock. That’s okay. Do your own thing, and find happiness in it.

Is it possible that things of everyday life outweigh heaven and hell, outweigh the discovery of nature’s secrets?

No, say the fundamentalists. No, say the positivists.

I would like to go back to the Texas Hill Country and climb Enchanted Rock, maybe try rolling a stone, or just sit up there and not come down until I have a satisfactory answer to that question.

But this blog series must move on. The next blog will present Rule #1 in our search for GSOT.

 

Next post: Rule #1. Every Sentence is First Person

Previous post: Fundamentalism IV. Favor and Doom

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Photo: DVD cover of 1951 film.

[1] Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Transl. by Justin O’Brien. Vintage Books, New York, 1955, from the Preface. Originally published as Le Mythe de Sisyphe, Librairie Gallimard, 1942.

Fundamentalism IV. Favor and Doom

We considered 3 questions at the beginning of the previous blog: (1) Can wisdom go wrong when it is possessed rather than lived? (2) Can love for God, when pursued as a goal to be achieved, become the object of its own desire? (3) Does world empty, does it become depopulated, if God alone chooses?

The first question led to consideration of the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Words contained in it. These objects came to function as idols for the ancient people of Judah. God’s words came to be viewed as a possession and a source of power rather than a guide for practice and obedience.

Let’s consider now the second question:

Can love for God, when pursued as a goal to be achieved, become the object of its own desire?

From what I have witnessed, my evangelical friends find life-changing inspiration in the powerful call to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength.” I find myself in awe and envy of their desire to glorify God.

But how does a person glorify God?

One answer is to say that strength of conviction glorifies God. For what can we possibly bring to the altar to please God except the intensity of our desire to please Him?

A follow-up question becomes how best to express our strength of conviction. Among a multitude of ways to respond are these, which I have arranged in something of an escalating order:

  • We should be clear and certain in our beliefs.
  • We should share our beliefs with others.
  • All should share the same beliefs.
  • We should seek to know God’s truth, which is absolute truth, and not some relativistic kind of human truth.
  • We should be clear and certain in our understanding of God’s truth.
  • Everyone should share the clear and certain understanding of God’s truth.
  • We should despise any human understanding that contradicts God’s truth.
  • We should oppose any human attempt to borrow or steal the glory of God’s truth.
  • We should oppose those who have different beliefs.
  • We must defend God’s truth, thereby glorifying God.
  • Those who contradict the truth of our God must be evil, since God is good.
  • We must separate ourselves from and sometimes fight against those who oppose God.

With how many of these points do you agree?

I might raise a bit of concern with one small word that appears 3 times in the list above. The word is “our” – our beliefs, our understanding, our God. “Our” may signify commitment, but in ordinary terms it signifies possession. The boundary between commitment and possession is perilously narrow. Of course, I’m sure that people like myself who sing praise songs extolling “our God” don’t really claim to own God, but sometimes it sounds that way.

The key problem with the list of imperatives shown above is that they follow from a false initial goal. Loving God is not about focusing on the intensity of our desire to please Him. That puts the focus on us and not on God, no matter how sincerely it springs from a desire to glorify God. That kind of focus, expressed with ever increasing commitment, moves from prideful strength of conviction to certainty in possessing the truth, to the crushing of every form of error, and finally to separation from people who must be evil because they oppose us.

Let me never come to God or to the Bible with a primary goal of expressing my strength of conviction. That makes the story about me instead of God or the Bible.

I want the Bible to speak for itself. I want the Bible to respond to my real questions, born of my doubts and not of presuppositions somebody else tells me I have.

Our third question is, “Does the world empty, does it become depopulated, if God alone chooses?” In terms of logic, or at least human logic, the notion of the absolute sovereignty of God can be interpreted to mean that God alone chooses.

It is a curious fact that every group of people who emphasize the sovereignty of God, expressed in the pages of a sacred text, have found themselves to be favored by God above other people.

That kind of assumed favor seems to apply universally to groups of people, but not necessarily to individual people. In fact, I can think of a few times I have met individual people who thought themselves cursed by God. One was a man who had claimed a miraculous healing from small cell lung cancer, helped a little by a new research treatment. My wife and I were attending a charismatic church at the time. I met the man who claimed the miraculous healing shortly after his cancer returned. He had no doubts about God’s power and grace, he said, but he himself had sinned grievously by falsely claiming a healing. And God cursed him. We told him God still loved him, laid hands on him, and prayed for another healing.

I’ve come across a few other people in various settings who also expressed a feeling of being cursed by God. Sometimes we tried to help, and sometimes we deemed them simply delusional.

My father-in-law Ralph Storm grew up on a citrus and watermelon farm near the south Texas town of Premont. His family’s land bordered the King Ranch, reputed to be the largest and wealthiest ranch in the world, and that was before the oil wells were drilled. On one of my visits to Premont, I learned a tip from my in-laws. Don’t ever shoot across the fence line at a deer on King Ranch property. They shoot back.

Whatever their theology, farmers understand the feeling of being out of favor with God, at least in this life. Ralph described it with this story:

If old man Ezra ever had any luck, it was bad luck. His crop was just about ready for harvest when a turrible storm blew in and ruined it.  It looked like hungry times ahead. Now the farmer went out on his tractor trying to salvage something from the broken, muddy plants. As he rode along the rutted road beside the field, the tractor slipped on that south Texas gumbo soil and fell into a 4 foot ditch, pinning the poor farmer. A black cloud came up in the sky just above him, and he cried out, “Oh God, what have I done to deserve this?” And a voice came from the cloud, saying “I can’t rightly tell you how, Ezra, but there’s just something about you ticks me off.”

It’s just a joke, I know, country humor, but there is usually a bit of truth in anything that makes us smile. If we learn that favor and doom are dispensed arbitrarily, maybe it would be better to believe in nothing.

If God is absolutely sovereign, then whatever God chooses, happens. At least that is the human understanding of it. Some theologians insist that God’s absolute rule over all events and the human ability to choose involve no contradiction. Other theologians seem to have proposed that human decision really amounts to nothing more than a gradual recognition of the fate God chose for each of us, to be blessed or damned.

Our pastor left for Haiti on mission early this Sunday morning. A beloved former associate pastor filled in and preached a short sermon in his familiar style. In the sermon he declared himself a follower of Arminius rather than Calvin, that is, a believer in human free will and not a believer in the doctrine of undiluted election by God. Yet he has also expressed often his belief in the absolute sovereignty of God. It’s a paradox, he says, and not one that needs resolving in this life.

Then where shall we put the emphasis? I’ll side with Arminius. I shall emphasize human free will, although even when considered in itself, apart from the conflict with God’s sovereignty, free will is terribly hard to comprehend.

As for the absolute sovereignty of God, how can I as a human say anything about it? If it involves timelessness and First Cause, how can my human mind grasp those conditions? Sometimes I think it’s better to suspend trying to understand it.

Could one consider freedom a greater gift from God than eternal bliss? Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet of the early 20th century and a God-believer though not a Christian, said, “I am able to love my God because He gives me freedom to deny Him.”[1]

How often it’s hard to justify bad things that happen to us, and even worse when we recognize how we hurt others. We look for clear and certain answers. There are many peddlers of clear answers, and their pitch is often the same, “It makes sense, because nothing else makes sense.” In other words, it’s better than nothing. In the end, that’s how I think about fundamentalism. If I can’t make any sense out of what’s happening in my life and our lives together on this earth, if this halting search for GSOT ultimately fails, then I guess I’ll become a fundamentalist.

These last few blogs have critiqued some Christian evangelical and fundamentalist “presuppositions” in a far more one-sided manner than I have any right to assume. I have neglected the immense value that Christian belief and practice add to my life and others’ lives, which I well recognize. What shall I do? Take it all back?

No. Just let me say with Job, “I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further. I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

 

Next post: Everyday Life

Previous post: Fundamentalism III. God’s Words

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Deer photograph © Bruce Macqueen. From Fotolia.

[1] Tagore, R. Fireflies, 1928.

Fundamentalism III. God’s Words

I have many friends, including Bud Clarkson, who refer to themselves as conservative evangelical Christians. These friends genuinely care about me, and I care about them. They do not see themselves as fundamentalists, and most will tell you they have never heard or read the word “presuppositionalism,” much less the ideas behind it. I respect their faith. Even so, I shall raise questions for them and for myself about how that faith takes the shape it does.

I hesitate, because I am not theologically trained. I am mainly self-taught, having prepared Bible lessons as a Sunday School teacher over the course of almost 40 years. That doesn’t qualify me to teach you anything about religion. But perhaps I can put some ideas before you, and let you judge.

Here are 3 more questions that I hope my conservative evangelical and fundamentalist friends might consider along with me: (1) Can wisdom go wrong when it is possessed rather than lived? (2) Can love for God, when pursued as a goal to be achieved, become the object of its own desire? (3) Does the world empty, does it become depopulated, if God alone chooses?

Here is an old story about a tribe of people in a land far away:

At almost the beginning of this tribe’s history as a people, their God gave them –not an image, not a temple, not a ceremony – but Words. They almost refused them at first, so strange did this gift appear to them. But over time God’s Words along with a wooden box that held them became this tribe’s most precious possessions. The Words in the box marked wisdom and judgment for them. The people of the tribe flourished, multiplied, grew strong. They drew admiration as well as envy from those who surrounded them.

In time the people of the tribe began to give attention not so much to the meaning of God’s Words, but to the Words just as they were in the box that held them. They began to count the Words a source of power. Molding discipline and command around the Words, they conquered lands, captured cities, exacted tribute and labor from those who survived their conquests. God’s Words became their power.

One day the tide of battle turned against the tribe who possessed God’s Words. Some of their mightiest men fell before the enemy. Others ran back to the place where God’s Words stayed. “Bring the Words to the battle” they begged their priests, “so that God will save us from the power of our enemies!”

The priests carried God’s Words in the box to the battle. All the camp rang out with shouting, so that the earth resounded. The enemy cringed at first, some of them saying “A god has come into the camp. Woe to us!” But others said, “Take heart, be men, lest you become slaves. Be men and fight.”

The battle raged. The enemy stood strong, moved forward. The priests who brought God’s Words into the fight were slain. The enemy captured God’s Words.

In their city and in their own temple, the enemy found that God’s Words had power beyond their capacity to withstand. For seven months while the Words stayed in their land, the people of the enemy suffered a plague. Their diviners took counsel and decided to send God’s Words back to the tribe who first possessed them, but not without an additional offering of submission. They added golden images of mice and tumors of their plague as a guilt offering, placing them in a second wooden box beside the one containing the Words.

Among the tribe receiving back God’s Words, seventy men died that day, killed by God because they dared to open the boxes and look at God’s Words which the enemy had returned to them. Later another man died when he simply touched the box containing the Words.

In time the tribe learned to live with God’s Words again and to give them due respect. The tribe began to flourish again. Their golden age dawned. They built a temple to hold God’s Words, which were never carried into battle again.

Centuries passed. The tribe became a nation, strong enough to be reckoned among the powers of the earth. God’s Words remained in the heart of their temple, but eventually not so much in the hearts of the people of the great nation.

Then a new enemy far stronger than any other came down from the north and laid siege to the city where God’s Words resided. God set His face against the people He once had chosen. The new enemy prevailed. The city fell. The temple was burned and thrown down. We do not know what happened to God’s Words. We can guess that the stone tablets bearing the Words were smashed, broken, ground into dust.

Among the greatest of prophets ever called by God to witness to His people was a man who lived through those terrible days. He said this, not about God’s Words, but about the wooden box that held them, “It shall not come to mind, or be remembered, or missed; it shall not be made again.”

I’m sure that it didn’t take you long to recognize that what I have called “God’s Words” were the Ten Commandments that Moses carved on stone tablets. You might not know that the original commandments were very short, as each commandment may have been expressed as the negation of a single Hebrew word. In Hebrew they are called not the Ten Commandments, but instead the Ten Words.

The box of acacia wood holding the Words is better known, of course, as the Ark of the Covenant. You can judge for yourself if I have told the story of the Ark in good faith as it appears mostly in the latter chapters of Exodus, 1st Samuel chapters 4 and 5, and Jeremiah 3:16.

If you are medically minded, you might speculate that the tumors afflicting the Philistines were buboes, which are swollen and bursting lymph nodes typical of bubonic plague. And the mice? Bubonic plague is a bacterial contagion spread by fleas that live on rodents.

Speculation aside, what’s most important is how to grasp the meaning of the prophet Jeremiah’s remarks about the Ark.

The family background of Jeremiah discloses a broken relationship with the Ark of the Covenant. Jeremiah’s family was “of the priests who were in Anathoth.” The priests of Anathoth were descendants of those who had charge of the early Hebrew worship center in Shiloh. Two of the Shiloh priests, Hophni and Phine’has, took the Ark into battle, died in the fight, and lost the Ark to the Philistines. After a plague beset the Philistines, they returned the Ark to their Hebrew enemies.

When King David later established his capital city as Jerusalem, he maintained a strategic relationship with the descendants of the influential Shiloh priesthood, who by this time lived in Anathoth near Jerusalem. But they were not David’s chief priests.

Some 330 years after David’s reign, Jeremiah could have pondered and regretted the false understanding of the Ark’s meaning by his own ancestors, which led to misuse of the Ark as a source of power.

In Jeremiah’s time the Ark of the Covenant and the stone tablets inside it formed no small part of the identity of the nation and religion of Judah. The Ark and its contents were the holiest objects in the Jewish temple at Jerusalem.

After ignorance and rashness in Bethshe’mesh led to 70 fatalities among the men who opened the Ark sent back by the Philistines, we find no mention that the Ark was ever uncovered over hundreds of years to view its contents. In Jerusalem the Ark was visited only once a year by the high priest in the inner sanctum of the temple, the Holiest of Holies.

How can we explain, then, that the Babylonian soldiers who leveled the temple could also smash the Ark and the stone tablets inside? Whoa! The Bible makes no mention of what happened to the Ark! Maybe it was spirited away and kept in a secret place until it was discovered simultaneously by Indiana Jones and archaeologists from Nazi Germany, to the great misfortune of the latter.

Sorry. Entertaining theatre for an action film does not make good theology. If you believe the Bible, Jeremiah’s statement, “It shall not come to mind, or be remembered, or missed; it shall not be made again,” leaves no room for a continuing role of the Ark of the Covenant.[1]

My tentative conclusion is that God abandoned the Ark of the Covenant. By the time the Babylonians burst into the sanctum, the Holy Presence no longer floated above the box of acacia wood. God abandoned it, because of what it had come to signify.

Jeremiah understood that the Ten Words were meant to provide a standard for living a good life. The Judaeans knew this, but they also came to regard the Ten Words as a possession. The holy Ark and its contents signified to them favor bestowed to them by God above the neighboring nations, and they forgot accountability to God. The words that were meant to be lived instead remained hidden in the box, and the box itself became an object of worship, an idol, a focus of nationality rather than faith. It was this idolatrous aspect of the Ark of the Covenant that Jeremiah discounted.

Can wisdom can go wrong if it is possessed rather than lived? The story of the Ten Words and the Ark that held them suggests an answer. Yes, wisdom can go wrong when it is possessed, when it is misused as a means to claim power, distinction, status by those who deem themselves the possessors, guardians, and beneficiaries of that wisdom.

Does the story about “God’s Words” have any relevance to “God’s Word” itself – the Bible?

The Ark of the Covenant and its contents were objects that came to be worshipped as holy possessions. As significant as the stone tablets and the jar of manna and Aaron’s rod were, God had no intention of letting that kind of idolatry endure. Is the Bible today sometimes viewed as an object that merits worship as a holy possession?

Historically the Ten Words were expanded and supplemented by the Torah, which comprises the first 5 books of the Jewish Bible. The Torah was explained and supplemented by the national history of the Israelites and Jews, the wisdom books, and writings of the prophets. These completed the Jewish Bible and the Old Testament. Subsequently the Jews added the Talmud and other writings. Christians added the New Testament.

Jeremiah helps us again. The Ten Words along with the Torah described a covenant, or agreement, between God and the children of Israel. But that covenant was broken. While in exile with his people in Babylon, Jeremiah wrote about a new covenant:

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel     after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” [Jer 31:31-34, NIV]

Let’s not confuse the new covenant described here with the New Testament. The new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah introduces an idea of inner knowledge and not merely a new set of writings. Prophets led by the spirit would be familiar with inner knowledge, but Jeremiah’s new covenant extends it to all the people.

Jesus spoke about “the new covenant in my blood,” validating for Christians the importance of Jeremiah’s concept. The Christian idea of the new covenant extends beyond Jeremiah’s concept, but does not refute the meaning Jeremiah gave to it.

Jeremiah warned against overreliance on physical, tangible symbols of God’s wisdom. He emphasized wisdom “in their minds and…hearts.” I wonder if his warning applies to a person who says of the Bible, “It’s there in black and white. These words will get you to heaven.” I don’t know the answer. But if voicing assent to the written words marks the end of the story, how can the new covenant take on the role that Jeremiah and Jesus seem to give it?

 

Next post: Fundamentalism IV. Favor and Doom

Previous post: Fundamentalism II. What Does the Bible Say?

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Ark of the Covenant image © 3drenderings | Dreamstime.com

[1] Jer 3:16.

Fundamentalism II. What Does the Bible Say?

In a college dorm room, Bud Clarkson said to me, “If we don’t have the Bible, we have nothing.” This simple statement exposes a nihilism that underlies evangelical fundamentalism. Judging that there is really nothing to lose, the fundamentalist mind reaches for the most familiar starting point for belief – the Bible – on the basis of faith. The strongest faith is held to be that which stands as faith alone. Belief springs up from no worldly source. Belief makes itself known in bold contrast to all things of the world, which are to be regarded as nothing in comparison. What makes this style of reasoning work? The answer, it seems, is to do it with immense confidence.

A rule of truth and falsehood shared by positivists and fundamentalists alike that the truth of one set of beliefs is elevated to the degree that alternative beliefs are degraded. On either side of the question, the true disciple will employ a single coherent ideological structure to engage reality, and all others are not merely useless, but contemptible to the extent that they distract one from true belief. Absolute truth will be apprehended mostly by its contrast with and opposition to other, false views of reality.

Of course, the fundamentalist does not say that he has chosen a starting point for belief. Instead he says that God has chosen it for him. One method of the fundamentalist is to elevate God and God’s truth, in part, by despising humans and human knowledge. In this vein the following quote from Bildad the Shuhite in the Book of Job makes perfect sense –

Dominion and awe belong to God;
    he establishes order in the heights of heaven.
Can his forces be numbered?
    On whom does his light not rise?
How then can a mortal be righteous before God?
    How can one born of woman be pure?
If even the moon is not bright
    and the stars are not pure in his eyes,
how much less a mortal, who is but a maggot—
    a human being, who is only a worm!”[1]

Human reason and choice proceed with as much purpose, on this scale, as the blind probing and chewing of grubs on a rotting piece of meat. Comparing humans with worms fits with an oft-cited doctrine of total depravity. But is this account what the Bible really affirms?

In Psalm 8, the Bible proclaims a much different estimate of the human condition. Addressing God, the psalmist writes

When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
    and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
    you put everything under their feet,
all flocks and herds,
    and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
    and the fish in the sea,
    all that swim the paths of the seas.[2]

This reading puts humankind “a little lower than the angels,” but an alternative version would be “a little lower than God.” The Hebrew word translated “angels” is Elohim. The translation is interpretive, because Elohim is translated “God” almost everywhere else in the Old Testament. It is translated “God” despite the fact that Elohim is a plural Hebrew word.

Two lines almost identical with the 8th Psalm, but with a different slant, appear in the words of Job, as he argues with 3 friends about the relationship of humans with God:

What is mankind that you make so much of them,
    that you give them so much attention,
that you examine them every morning
    and test them every moment?
Will you never look away from me,
    or let me alone even for an instant?[3]

Here the New International Version offers a weak substitute for the poetry of Job. The phrase “even for an instant” is literally “until I swallow my spit.” Job recognizes that the psalmist’s exalted position of humankind comes with a heavy burden of responsibility and even hardship. Feeling trapped under God’s watchful eye, he cries out, “Won’t you look away from me long enough to let me spit?!”

Whose estimate of the relation of humans to God does the Bible affirm – that of Bildad, the psalmist, or Job? I hesitate to answer. Here we are in the early stages of a search for GSOT. The Bible is revered scripture, divinely inspired according to venerable tradition which I accept, yet difficult to grasp in several respects. But the answer could help to formulate a starting point for our thinking about GSOT.

There is a philosophical starting point for evangelical fundamentalism, a doctrine called presuppositionalism, which is somewhat simpler than the Biblical account. Let me make an attempt to express, as clearly and briefly as I can, what I understand the logic of presuppositionalism to be. This is my version of it:

Everybody regardless of their religious or philosophical stance begins with presuppositions. I start with these presuppositions: (1) the Bible is authoritative and (2) the Bible is plainly and simply true.

Here is a more complete exposition by G. L. Bahnsen:

…a truly Reformed apologetic must begin from the presupposition that the living and true, triune God speaks to him with absolute authority in infallible Scripture. His reasoning then finds its only legitimate function as a servant or tool of God’s Word, rather than its judge. Following God’s Word, the Christian receptively reconstructs the created facts of the universe about him with a view toward both fulfilling the cultural mandate and being conformed to the image of his Savior by the power of Christ’s Spirit; hereby he glorifies God and enjoys Him forever. Thus, the apologetic task will consist, not of externally verifying the Christian presupposition but, of applying it by (1) bringing God’s truth and commands to bear upon the lives of unbelievers, appealing to the image of God in them (distinguishing between present remnants of man’s original nature and the ever-present nature of fallen man), pointing out that every fact of the world bears witness to God, and (2) doing an internal critique of the non-Christian’s system, calling down its idols, and pointing out the absolute necessity of Christian presuppositions if logic, factuality, history, science, and morality are to have any meaning, validity, and application at all. The Christian apologetic will not concede intellectual ground to Christianity’s cultured despisers…. Thus, part of the Christian’s reasoned defense of the faith will be an aggressive offense.[4]

Notice the second part of Bahnsen’s 2-fold strategy, emphasizing the “necessity of Christian presuppositions if logic, factuality, history, science, and morality are to have any meaning, validity, and application at all.” It fits exactly with my friend Bud’s assessment back in the college dorm room. “If we don’t have the Bible, we have nothing.” Biblical presuppositionalism is to be defended by an aggressive judgment of nihilism pressed upon every nonbiblical area of life.

Bahnsen’s manifesto also reminds us of Bildad’s speech. The intellectual and ethical life of nonchristians cannot be distinguished from the mental effort of worms. Apart from Biblical revelation, Bahnsen actually agrees with Daniel Dennett, who said of worms and frogs and humans, “There is nothing there.”

Let me be careful about presuppositonalism. These blogs, as indicated earlier, aim to pursue the question of validity of human will. What kind of answer shall we give to the person who says, “I choose to believe in the Bible”? Of course, that is her legitimate right. Yet how would a chosen belief, an act of will, look any different from a presupposition? How can these be distinguished?

Belief in the Bible appears to be highly influenced by family and culture. Is free will – if it exists at all – vested also in families, tribes, cultures, and not merely in individual people? I think that free will (we shall attempt to define it in a later blog) operates in groups as well as individuals. My identity is not merely an individual identity. I am bound to and lifted up by my wife, my family, my region and country, my community of faith that crosses borders, as well as other people of passion and will crossing boundaries of faith, and finally humanity and the world to which human eyes open in wonder. The operation of will may occur in all of these, enlarging my own small will immensely.

Again what is the difference between will and presupposition, whether of an individual or family or culture? They look the same from this side of time.

Perhaps the difference is that Bahnsen and many others define Biblical presupposition as an ethical absolute. This ultimately results in only one important choice for humans in their system, either to accept the good, as presupposed, or to turn toward evil.

Some might call this is a narrow view of free will. Could it also be a narrow view of God, who gives us the responsibility of will?

We have jumped well beyond a reasonable limit of discussion; too little preparation has been made to warrant questions like these last ones. Therefore I repent. But I hope to re-introduce some of these ideas later following consideration of the 5 rules for the search for GSOT to be considered in some detail soon (see preview of the rules in an earlier blog).

The Bible passage quoted earlier from Bildad the Shuhite may prove instructive if we consider its context. The background story describes how Job lost his wealth, his very livelihood, and all of his children in a series of disasters allowed by God. Three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, have come to offer condolence and advice to Job in the midst of calamity. Job calls them his “miserable comforters.” Through most of the book Job and these 3 friends debate the relationship of God to humanity. Bildad’s words in particular seem to represent remarkably well a fundamentalist viewpoint stretching across some 2500 years.

As his words quoted above illustrate, Job challenges the traditional answers. Through the course of the book he even challenges God on several points.

After the debate concludes, God appears on the scene and makes a remarkable speech touching on natural phenomena, several animal species, danger, and evil. Surprisingly, at the end God turns to Eliphaz and says, “I am angry with you and your two friends [Bildad and Zophar], because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.  So now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to my servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly. You have not spoken the truth about me.”[5]

From this reading, the Bible itself does not affirm the fundamentalist viewpoint.

 

Next post: Fundamentalism III. God’s Words

Previous post: Fundamentalism I. Better than Nothing

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Photo: Maggots on a pork chop. (c) Ianthraves | Dreamstime.com

[1] Job 25:1-6. The Bible, New International Version.

[2] Psalm 8:3-8. The Bible, New International Version.

[3] Job 7:17-19. The Bible, New International Version.

[4] Bahnsen G. L. Presuppositional Apologetics Stated and Defended. Ed. McDurmon J., American Vision Press, Powder Springs, Georgia, 2008.

[5] Job 42:7b-8. The Bible, New International Version.

Fundamentalism I. Better than Nothing

We make choices in our lives, or at least we think we make choices. But do the choices, real or not, end up making much of a difference for us and for others? Do they end up making any difference for GSOT, for the Grand Scheme Of Things? Is there a place in GSOT for human decision?

I have wondered about GSOT as long as I can remember. Some people look for answers in relationships; others seek meaning in action or in accomplishment. I have shared those paths, but my left brain wants to add something more. On many a Friday night, like a brief personal sabbath before family activities on Saturday and church on Sunday, I’ve found a few hours to think and write.

Time and again I keep tracing my steps back to seek a starting point. The starting point is critical. In a previous blog, taking a cue from Charles Peirce, I proposed that we should start from where we are.

We examined how positivism, the dominant philosophy among leading scientific thinkers during most of the 20th century, starts with the dictum that truth pertains only to that which can be tested scientifically.  Because of the requirement for reproducibility and interchangeability in science, truth so defined must be timeless and anonymous, aiming for universality. Positivism regards everything else as meaningless, thereby expressing a selective nihilism.

Yet most of what seems meaningful in life is personal, less than all, and tied to a moment or to a finite story in time. The starting point of positivism fails, because it puts all of that into an inferior, ephemeral category of reality. Positivism does not start from where we are.

Now I want to turn to the other widely subscribed philosophy in the U.S. over the past century, competing for dominance with positivism. I call it a philosophy, although I guess few others would give evangelical fundamentalism such a name. But it is a chosen path of ultimate truth for many millions, and we can rightly consider it a philosophy and part of GSOT. Evangelical fundamentalism rose to prominence only in the early 20th century, somewhat later than positivism. Today fundamentalism remains strong politically and culturally, as positivism crumbles.

Through childhood and early adolescence I lived with the tension of my mother’s religious belief and my father’s nonbelief. He was regardless an available, loving father and also an inspiring medical scientist. An early aptitude for mathematics and science seemed to mark me to take my father’s path. But my mother was also intellectually engaged, and she strongly encouraged my first attempts at writing outside of schoolwork. Her faith was strong though curiously flexible, owing perhaps to her upbringing in a Christian tradition liberal by early 20th century American standards.

My mother’s father taught and held leadership positions in a divinity school. As a young professor of philosophy at Carleton College, he had published in 1911 a book titled The Pupil and the Teacher.[1] It was a handbook for Sunday School teachers that blended the new science of psychology from William James with traditional Victorian notions of character and will. The book sold over a million copies before it went out of print in the 1940s.

Mama took the young children to Sunday School, but did not insist if any of us decided to stop going around age 12. I continued to go. How did it happen that Christianity began to stick with me? Mama’s example must have been important, but I didn’t give her credit at the time. Instead I looked mostly toward Sunday School teachers and ministers and, especially, friends at church. A Methodist pastor, Eugene Dyess, convinced me that I did not need to leave my intellect behind in considering religious belief. I accepted enough traditional doctrine to keep going to Sunday School beyond that accountable age of 12. When I made a decision for Christ at age 14, the greatest influence for me by far had been the witness of friends at church, who met my dire need for companionship and connection, and whose faith was palpable.

This complex of heritage and experience was my Peircean starting point for thinking about religion. Yet when I went to college, I met new friends, who generally had a different kind of starting point. In a dorm room at Ole Miss, Bud Clarkson expressed what I would later identify as a fundamentalist starting point.

Bud was smart, a prime rush candidate for our fraternity, later to become a university professor. One day when I enthusiastically presented some thoughts about heaven, he responded that I was too speculative, that my ideas drew more from Disneyland than from biblical authority. Retaliating, I expressed some doubts about the Bible – and that hit a nerve with Bud. We must start with the Bible, he insisted. I asked why. “We find truth in the Bible,” he answered. “How do you know that?” I asked.

“I can’t prove that the Bible is true,” he admitted, “but I am certain of this – unless we have the Bible to rely on, we have nothing.” That stopped me in my tracks. We are to believe the Bible, I heard him say, because it is better than nothing.

After college I moved to Boston to go to medical school. At a Christian meeting there I met a quiet fellow student, the son of parents who started a Bible church in Arizona. My new friend seemed by word and action a model for faith.  I subsequently asked him to join me in promoting some activity of the Christian Medical Society, but his reply was long in coming. After 2 weeks, I questioned him directly.

He was not a Christian, he said. He had lost his faith. The very idea of a spiritual life had become meaningless to him. He occasionally went to meetings, where he found familiarity but no renewal. How is it meaningless, I asked? “The deeper I look,” the young man said, “the more convinced I am that there is nothing there.” Nothing there – the same words I would hear from the philosopher Daniel Dennett, discussing the brains of worms, frogs, and humans.

Here were two young adults, both intelligent, both nurtured in religious homes, each contemplating nothingness – nihilism – and moving on toward decision, each to a different conclusion. But their modes of thinking, and especially their starting points, were perhaps not so different.

Somehow the apprehension that “nothing makes sense, nothing matters” has not affected me much. Here I give both my parents credit, my mother for her faith and relentless optimism, my father for his kindness and his joy in work and learning. I am not at home with nihilism, and I don’t live there. Nihilism, I hope, won’t play much of a role in my basic idea of GSOT.

 

Next post: Fundamentalism II. What Does the Bible say?

Previous post: Positivism VI. Less Than All

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[1] The Pupil and the Teacher. Weigle, L.A. Hodder & Stoughton, New York, 1911.