11/17/17

Evolutionary Wars

credit: Steve Cardino, from “The Lie: Evolution”

The cartoon image here portrays a war between Humanism and Christianity, where Humanism is founded on evolution and Satan, while Christianity is founded on creation and Christ. The castle of Christianity is starting to collapse as the castle of Humanism systematically attacks the rock of its foundation in the cartoon, creation. The Christian guns are ineffectively aimed either nowhere or at the balloons (issues) of humanism instead of it evolutionary foundation. The message it sends is clear: Christianity is in danger of losing the cultural war with Humanism because it isn’t attacking the Satanic foundation it’s based on, evolution.

The cartoon originally appeared in a 1987 book by Ken Ham titled: The Lie: Evolution. In “Creationism and Culture Wars,” Ted Davis said it has been the “signature icon” for Answers in Genesis (AiG), an organization founded by Ken Ham. Over time the image has been modified, as it reflected the ‘evolution’ of Ham’s and AiG’s thought. “Over time, I began to emphasize that believing in the creation account in Genesis means accepting God’s Word as the ultimate authority, and believing in the secular idea of evolution is to accept man’s word as the ultimate authority.”

In a 2002 version of the cartoon, the castle of Christianity was represented as being founded on six literal creation days equaling God’s authority, versus the millions of years equally man’s authority for the foundation of the humanism castle. In 2010, the foundations were “no longer creation vs. evolution or six days vs. millions of years, but ‘autonomous human reasoning”’ vs. ‘revelation/God’s word.’” See “Creationism and Culture Wars” for the images.

Although Ham’s signature icon is still very much alive, it has evolved into a more sophisticated new species that is better adapted to twenty-first century culture wars, in which biblical faith is increasingly seen as contrary to science and reason. Ironically, Ham’s ministry itself is a primary cause of that perception.

Ted Davis noted how Ken Ham echoes the belief of William Jennings Bryan in the early twentieth century, that evolution inevitably undermines Christian faith. Like Ham, Bryan represented his thought in a cartoon. He saw evolution as causing modernism and leading to “the progressive elimination of the vital truths of the bible.” Bryan’s cartoon has three modernists, a student, a minister and a scientist descending a staircase that represents a slippery slope stemming from “the progressive elimination of the vital truths of the bible.” The descent starts with evolution and ends with the scientist stepping from Agnosticism to Atheism.

credit: original cartoon by Ernest James Pace; photograph by Ted Davis

The “Descent of the Modernists” cartoon appeared originally in Bryan’s 1924 book, Seven Questions in Dispute, published the year before his death, which took place days after his participation in the infamous Scope Trial. See “’Conflict Between Science and Religion’” and “No Contest; No Victory” for more on Bryan.

Despite the parallels in their thinking about creationism and the culture, Davis noted that Henry Morris, not Bryan, had the greater influence on Ham’s thought. AiG refers to the late Henry Morris as ‘the father’ of the modern creationist movement. His book, The Genesis Flood (1961), was the beginning of the revival of creationist thought that faded from the church with the passing of Bryan and the retreat of fundamentalism from cultural engagement after the Scopes Trial. Davis noted that in another book by Morris, The Troubled Waters of Evolution (1974), he argued evolutionary thought could be traced back beyond the “evolutionary pantheists” of the ancient Greco-Roman world. True as far as that statement goes, Davis noted where “Darwin’s theory was immensely more sophisticated and far more plausible than any ancient theory—but Morris goes much further.”

Morris traced the origins of evolutionary thought back through all the religions of the world other than Christianity, Judaism and Islam. These are excluded because they are based on Genesis. All other religions are “evolutionary” religions, including: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Confucianism, Atheism and ‘liberal Christianity.’ He said that evolution itself is a religion. He does not mean Darwinian evolution, but belief in the idea that all things have arisen by innate processes in the universe: the belief that the universe had no beginning; that it is eternal. You can watch a YouTube video series of a talk Morris gave titled “The Troubled Waters of Evolution.” It is in five parts. If you watch Part 1, notice the parallels between the metaphor Morris uses of the “fruit tree” of evolution producing harmful philosophies and evil practices the humanistic “balloons” in Ken Ham’s cartoon.

But Morris goes back even further in his book, The Troubled Waters of Evolution, according to Davis. He attributes the origins of evolution with Nimrod and the Tower of Babel in Genesis 10:8-10. According to Morris, it was part of the pantheistic polytheism of Babel Connected with astrology, idolatry, and the worship of fallen angels. “It is therefore a reasonable deduction, even though hardly capable of proof, that the entire monstrous complex [of evolution] was revealed to Nimrod at Babel by demonic influences, perhaps by Satan himself.” Therefore, evolution is “the world-view with which the whole world has been deceived.”

That’s why the foundation of Ham’s humanism castle connects evolution with Satan—and why evolution gets blamed for social ills that plagued us long before Darwin was born and would still be prevalent today even if Darwin had never existed. Evolution becomes the scapegoat for many sinful behaviors, to such an extent that it is virtually equated with sin itself, or even seen as inherently Satanic. This is a profoundly unhelpful way of approaching historical and cultural aspects of evolution, and it fails entirely to explain why many people who utterly reject evolution commit the very sins that Ham connects with belief in evolution.

Despite the revisions over time to the AiG “signature icon,” its foundations have actually changed very little. For AiG, Christianity sits on the foundation of “Creation;” which means “6  (24 hour) Days” for creation is equivalent to God’s authority; and only this interpretation is true “Revelation in God’s Word.” On the other hand, Humanism sits on the foundation of “Evolution;” which wrongly believes in “millions of years” for creation according to human authority; making “human reason autonomous” from the revelation of God’s Word. In other words, respect for the authority of God’s Word requires an agreement with the AiG view of creation in six 24 hour days—and its companion doctrines of 6,000 years since the creation and a global Noachian Flood (See the AiG Statement of Faith). In contrast, Humanism and its issues rest on autonomous reason, manifested in allowing millions of years for creation and allowing evolution rather than creation to explain how the universe and humanity came into being.

Lastly, the warfare metaphor in the AiG “signature icon” was actually first used by John William Draper and Andrew Dickinson White in their books on the perceived conflict or “war” between science and religion at the end of the 19th century. Draper wrote History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science (1874) and White wrote History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). In the Preface of his book, Draper seemed to set conflict between religion and science on a foundation that was eerily similar to the 2010 AiG cartoon. “The history of Science is … a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other.”

Warfare or conflict rhetoric tempts us to see dichotomy where there may not be one. And when Christians use it to compare their understanding of a Biblical passage like Genesis 1 to alternative interpretations by other Christians (who also affirm the authority of Scripture), they need to be aware of the danger of imputing the rightful authority of Scripture onto their interpretation of the Biblical passage in question. It seems to me that is what has happened with Henry Morris and AiG.

11/7/17

Swallowing a Camel

© Oleg Lopatkin

The Babylon Bee reported that NYPD detectives are investigating an attack on a group of teen-aged youths who were mauled by two female grizzly bears in Central Park. According to witnesses, when pastor and author Tim Keller was on his morning run through Central Park he passed a group of young men. One of them shouted, “Hey baldy! Run, baldy, run!” Another youth echoed the sentiment before the two high-fived each other. Onlookers reported that Keller stopped jogging, closed his eyes and prayed. Immediately two massive grizzlies charged out of a nearby wood and mauled the group of boys.

The event, of course is not true. And if you are not familiar with the Babylon Bee, you would have missed the clue it gave that you were about to read a satirical piece of “news.” The back-story to the above is in 2 Kings 2:23-25, when the newly anointed prophet Elisha was traveling from Jericho to Bethel after his predecessor, Elijah, was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. A group of forty-two young boys (The Hebrew phrase can refer to youths between the ages of twelve and thirty) came out of Bethel and jeered at him, saying, “Go on up you bald head!” In his commentary on 2 Kings, Paul House suggested their jeering seems to be a contemptuous reference to Elijah’s being taken up to heaven, with the sense of “Go away like Elijah.” Elisha cursed them in the name of the Lord, as their behavior was an insult directed at him as a prophet, and therefore the Lord who he represented. “And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys.”

What happened in the 2 Kings passage was not an example of biblical satire, but Leland Ryken commented in How to Read the Bible as Literature, that there is more satire in the Bible than you might think. Much of the Bible’s truth and wisdom has been shaped as satire. “By framing truth as an attack on vice or folly, biblical satire drives its point home with an electric charge.” Despite the negative approach of the satirist, a positive norm emerges from biblical satire because it includes a foil to the evil it attacks. “That foil is usually the character or law of God.”

Satire, Ryken said, is “the exposure, ridicule or rebuke, of human vice or folly.” It can “appear in any literary genre (such as narrative, lyric or parable), and it may be either a minor part of a work or the main content of an entire work.” The reader’s task with satire is fourfold: to identify the object(s) of attack, the satirical vehicle that embodies the attack, the tone (either biting or laughing), and the norm or standard by which the criticism is made.

Satire usually has one main object of attack, but it could also have a number of jabs in various directions, called “satiric ripples.” When satire “is an attack on historical particulars it means that the reader of satire usually needs help in reconstructing the assumed social context—the economic, political, religious, or social conditions that the satirist attacks.”

The object of attack could be a single thing, as in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), which attacks the love of money and the callous unconcern it encourages. Or it could be a series of objects as with Jesus’ discourse against the Pharisees in Matthew 23. There Jesus rapidly ridiculed the scribes and Pharisees, saying they tithe mint, dill and cumin, but neglect the weighty matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness. They are like whitewashed tombs that outwardly appear beautiful, but are full of dead bones and uncleanness. “So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

The object could be a historical particular, like the attack on the self-righteousness of the Pharisees in parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14); or it could be about a universal vice like greed, as in the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), planning to build larger barns to store all his grains and goods.

The most common satiric vehicle is story, as with Jonah or the satiric parables of Jesus. There may also be brief snatches of action, as when Isaiah 46:5-7 briefly narrates how idol worshipers first have to have a goldsmith make an image in order for them to fall down before it and worship! Or there could be a portrait or character sketch as in Isaiah 3:16: “The Lord said: Because the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing along as they go, tinkling with their feet.” Narratives and portraits are among the most artistic and sophisticated types of satiric vehicle. At the more informal end are cruder statements, as when Amos calls the wealthy women of Israel “cows of Bashan” (Amos 4:1); or the “woe formula” used by Jesus in Matthew 23 cited above.

Biblical satire always has one of two prevailing tones. One is gentle, smiling and subtle. “It aims to correct folly or vice by gentle laughter, on the premise that it can be laughed out of existence.” Examples of such a “soft sell” would include the story of Jonah as a whiny, pouting prophet. Or Isaiah 44:9-17, where those who fashion idols are described as taking part of a tree to build a fire in order to warm himself or bake bread, while with the rest he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down and worships it.

The second tone is biting, bitter and sharp. “It points with contempt and moral indignation at the corruptness and evil of people and institutions.” Most biblical satire is of this type, and includes a good bit of scorn, as opposed to humorous laughter.

The fourth and final aspect of satire to look for is the satiric norm; the standard by which the object of attack is being criticized. “The satiric norm is the positive model that is offered to the reader as an alternative to the negative picture that always dominates a satiric work.” In Jonah, the universal mercy of God is extended to the repentant city of Nineveh as a positive foil to Jonah’s misguided patriotism. “In the Sermon on the Mount, each of Jesus’ satiric charges against the Pharisees is accompanied by a positive command (Matt. 6:1-14).”

Satire is found throughout the Bible. The books of Jonah and Amos are entirely satirical. The orthodox comforters in Job are the ones who are rebuked. “The book of Ecclesiastes is a prolonged satiric attack against a society that is much like our own—acquisitive, materialistic, hedonistic, secular.” Many of Jesus’ parables, like the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) or the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14) are satiric. Whenever a biblical narrative prominently displays a character’s flaws, as with Jacob’s greed or Haman’s pride, there is a thread of satire.

Given this discussion of satire, I’ll offer the following suggestion of why the Babylon Bee story about Tim Keller is satirical. Remember that satire is “the exposure, ridicule or rebuke, of human vice and folly.”

The object of attack is against the infighting that occurs among evangelicals when ministers are perceived to be “too liberal” because they don’t hold to certain doctrinal positions. You can Google “Tim Keller” and “critique” to see what I mean. There are articles on Tim Keller’s “false gospel,” his “disappointing” comments on homosexuality and more. He’s been roundly criticized for what he’s said with regard to evolutionary creation. There’s even a book giving “a gracious criticism of some aspects” of his theology.

The satiric vehicle is an alternate reality story that portrays Tim Keller as Elisha in a modern version of 2 Kings 2:23-25. The satiric tone is subtle and laughing. Praying for judgment against his critics is the last thing to expect from someone like Tim Keller. Note also how the Babylon Bee article said Keller “calmly closed his eyes and uttered a prayer” as opposed to Elisha calling down a curse against those who were ridiculing him.

The satiric norm for the Babylon Bee article would be to remind those critics of Keller that they are also, in a manner of speaking, being critical of the God he serves as a minister. I don’t mean that questioning the opinions of Tim Keller is tantamount to debating Paul or Moses on some of their doctrinal positions. But (to use another satirical image), I think they are straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:24). With all the cultural critiques they could be addressing today, they are going after Tim Keller. Really?

10/27/17

Ability to Choose … Within Limits

© Wavebreak Media Ltd | 123rf.com

It’s not too difficult to discover where Sam Harris stands on whether or not humans have free will. We unequivocally don’t. “Free will is an illusion.” In a lecture Harris gave for Skeptic Magazine that was based on his book, Free Will, he added that if the scientific community were to publically declare free will to be an illusion, “it would precipitate a culture war.” Science has revealed that we are “biochemical puppets” and “The universe is pulling your strings.”

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simple not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.

This illusion of free will is based on two false assumptions, according to Harris. The first is that we can behave differently than we did in the past. But since we live in a world of cause and effect, our wills are determined by a long chain of prior causes, “and we’re not responsible for them.” Alternately, what we perceive as free will is the product of chance; and again, we’re not responsible. Or there could be some combination of chance and cause and effect, but still no personal agency. Whichever way we conceive it, free will is an illusion in a world ruled by chance and cause and effect.

The second false assumption is that we are the conscious source of our thoughts and actions. “We presume an authorship over our own thoughts and actions that is illusory.” There is no self, no ego, no soul to generate thoughts and actions, according to Harris. They just emerge in our consciousness. And if we cannot control our thoughts, if we don’t know what our next thought will be until it consciously emerges, where is our free will?

How can we be free as conscious agents, if everything we consciously intend was caused by events in our brain, which we did not intend, and over which we had no control?

Sam Harris is an author, philosopher and neuroscientist who has written several popular books in addition to Free Will. Along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, he has been referred to as one of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism.” The reference draws on the title of a 2-hour unmoderated discussion between the four that is available here on the website for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. They discussed the public reaction to some of their books critical of religion, and some common misrepresentations of them and their beliefs.

Harris’s position on free will assumes the universe is a closed system of cause and effect. Since there are no creator gods, everything that now exists is the result of what has come from “a long chain of prior causes.” The theologian Francis Schaeffer referred to the understanding of science that comes from this view of the universe as modern, modern science—science rooted in naturalistic philosophy. The uniformity of natural causes, which is an essential starting point for scientific investigation, must be understood as occurring entirely within the natural order of the universe. Nature is closed to any causal intervention from outside.

There is no Creator; no First Cause. There is only chance or cause and effect. Not only physics, but psychology, social science and human nature must be explained within the confines of this closed system. The biologist and neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky believes that every bit of human behavior has multiple layers of causality. He said what we call “free will” is simply biology that hasn’t been discovered yet. “It’s just another way of stating that we’re biological organisms determined by the physical laws of the universe.” See “Ruling Over Our Genes” for more on Sapolsky.

In Escape From Reason, Schaeffer concluded this materialist unity of all things leaves us afloat on a deterministic sea with no shore. The only way this unity can be achieved is by ruling out freedom. “The result of seeking for a unity on the basis of the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system is that freedom does not exist.” Free will is therefore an illusory cognitive construct.  The nonmaterial mind or soul is also an illusion.

However, Harris and Sapolsky aren’t the only neuroscientists to ever consider the possibility of free will. Harvey McMahon is a staff scientist and group leader at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. He is also a member of The Royal Society, the world’s oldest independent scientific academy. Past members of the Society have included Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin. Current members include Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking.

McMahon discussed free will in: “How Free Is Our Free-Will?” He opened his essay by noting science has provided evidence that free-will may be an illusion. Yet free-will was fundamental to our sense of wellbeing, and underwrote our sense of morality, our judicial system, and our Judeo-Christian faith. “We may not be as free as we would like to think, but within boundaries shaped by our individual histories, our genetics, and our environment we can make decisions that determine our character, relationships and future.”

He noted the paradoxical nature of freedom. For example, if we marry we limit the relationships we will have with others, while at the same time opening up new avenues of freedom from being settled in our choice of partner. This principle, McMahon said, applies to all our choices. We change our future possibilities by the choices we make today. “Thus freedom is not unconstrained choice, for with each choice we limit our freedom, and in so doing shape our environment and ourselves.”

These constraints are from our culture, our relationships, our jobs and our families, and other influences. Added to these is the subconscious working of our brain, processing cues of which we are not aware. “Thus the brain may even be making decisions for us.” Do we really have a choice? Here McMahon acknowledged Harris’ above noted argument (and book), that free-will was an illusion. But rather than an illusion, he thought it better to say it was constrained by many factors.

Free-will, McMahon thought, “is a cognitive concept, involving the mind.” It is the ability to choose deliberately between options. “It cannot be regarded as the opposite of determinism, where events have cause and effect outside human control.” He illustrated what he meant with the following diagram. Free-will only applied to cognitive processes where we use our minds to make choices—in between the two extremes. Although not stated by McMahon, I’d say completely free choice is only possible within the mind of God.

Human free-will is then not completely determined, nor is it completely free. McMahon suggested free-will occurred within the boundaries of predetermined factors, where there was little or no freedom to choose. These factors could be biological or genetic. They could also be family, culture, or environmental factors. See the diagram below.

Within an outer sphere of predetermined boundaries, lies a continuum of interaction between prior free-will and proximal free-will. Prior free-will is where an immediate decision is constrained by past decisions and history. Going to work on a given day is more the result of a past decision than one made when you woke up that day. You can re-assess the decision and not go to work for some reason, “yet the choice does not have to be constantly re-evaluated.” In-the-moment or proximal decisions can be inconsequential, like choosing between tea or coffee, or involve active cognition, as when we weigh our options. “Both of these give a strong sense of free-will in the moment.”

Plasticity refers to the fact that our brains are moldable. “We are constantly learning new information, meeting new people and acquiring new skills, which all require that our brains are ‘plastic’.” New synapses can be formed or existing synapses can be modified or lost. “At a molecular level there can be changes in the expression of various proteins which in turn influence the excitability of a given synapse or circuit.”

The choices we make influence the behavior patterns we develop, which are laid down as neuronal pathways. In turn, these pathways influence other choices. “So in this sense we are masters of our own destiny… all because we have a ‘plastic’ brain (i.e. not completely preprogrammed).” Although there is difficulty in the process, we can change. If we make certain choices repetitively, they lay down neuronal pathways and turn into learned behaviors.

Plasticity is thus key to the possibility of free-will [see the above diagram]. While memories of past experiences may not be completely eradicated, they can be scaled back by the new experiences that occupy our minds as we choose to dwell on other things.

Jeffery Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding coauthored You Are Not Your Brain, a self-help book that applies the principles of neuroplasticity discussed above. Like McMahon, Schwartz and Gladding affirm the reality of the human mind and the existence of free-will. Dr. Schwartz is one of the world’s leading experts in neuroplasticity. You can read more about him and his books on his web page here.

McMahon said the relationship between this conception of free-will and intentionality is complex. To the extent we willfully choose and can foresee certain outcomes, ”we can be held responsible for the outcome.” However, if we could not foresee the potential consequences of decisions, to what extent can we say their outcome was intentional? Furthermore, what about when reason has been suppressed for some reason, or if it has been erroneously applied (if we haven’t reasonably weighed our potential thoughts or actions), and non-intended consequences result.

Despite the caveats, in general each of us is responsible today for what we did yesterday because these were acts of free-will, or actions resulting from an absence of self-control. The responsibility for evil can be lessened by considering our circumstances but it never excuses us because at some point in the past we have actively participated in shaping who we are today.

McMahon goes on to describe how he believes our brains and free-will interact with each other. He suggested that while individual neurons do not have free-will, “it is an emergent property of neuronal networks.” He suggested free-will sits upon a tripod of past memories, present inputs (combined with the ability to compute and learn) and future predictions and aspirations within the plasticity of the brain.

There is more to read and think about in his article. McMahon also shares his thoughts on how God constrains us and yet frees us. He wrestles with the question of whether free-will is compatible with divine sovereignty. Read more on how he applies the above discussion to this theological dilemma. His conclusions are worth repeating here.

With the above in mind the following definition of free-will can be offered: Free-will is the ability to choose intentionally within limits placed by a sovereign God, with resulting human responsibility. Free-will is not the opposite of determinism: one can have free-will within the limits set by determinism. Indeed our relationships and our decisions are not absolutely predetermined, and this is a reflection of the freedom given to us by being made in the image of God. So, we have the best of both worlds, where we have freedom to make decisions and yet our personal future and that of the world are secure.

The above understanding of free-will indicates we are less free than we may like to think we are at any given moment, because of prior decisions and predetermined factors. And while neuroscience hasn’t extinguished free-will, it does help us see why we do the things we do. So we are not biochemical puppets, but biology constrains us. “We are not determined by our past, but certainly influenced by it.”

10/20/17

Beginning of the End?

credit: Chuck Sigler

According to David Meade, September 23, 2017 was a momentous day—the day that the prophecies written in chapter 12 of the book of Revelation will be evident. He said the world itself was not ending then, but the world as we know it will end. There was to be a series of catastrophic events over the course of weeks afterwards. “A major part of the world will not be the same the beginning of October.” … Still waiting … Anything happening yet?

As The Washington Post noted, the pregnant woman described in the twelfth chapter of Revelation was to appear in the sky on September 23rd. On her head will be a crown of twelve stars. She’ll be clothed with the sun; the moon will be under her feet. The woman represents the constellation Virgo, which will be “clothed in sunlight” and positioned over the moon and under nine stars and three planets. The planet Jupiter will emerge from Virgo, “as though she is giving birth.”

But then Meade revised his prediction, saying that while there were major signs in the skies on September 23rd, but the most important date of the millennium was October 15th, 2017—which would be the beginning of the world’s destruction, the beginning of a seven-year period of tribulation. On his website, Meade wrote: “Hold on and watch — wait until the middle of October and I don’t believe you’ll be disappointed.” You could buy and read his book, but he warned, “You don’t have long to read it.”

Before Meade there was Harold Camping, who predicted the end of the world twice. The first time was supposed to happen between September 15th and 27th, 1994. The second prediction by Camping said it was supposed to happen in 2011. On May 21, 2011, at 6 pm local time, the Rapture and Judgment Day was to take place. Then on October 21, 2011 would be the end of the world. He would later write that while his statements were incorrect and sinful, they allowed God to get the attention of a great many people who otherwise would not have paid attention. “Even as God used sinful Balaam to accomplish His purposes, so He used our sin to accomplish His purpose of making the whole world acquainted with the Bible.”

Meade and Camping are examples of a repeated mistake made by Christians when they fail to read and interpret the visionary texts of the Bible correctly. They often confuse or misinterpret two related visionary genres, prophecy and apocalypse. In How to Read the Bible as Literature, Leland Ryken described visionary literature as picturing setting, characters and events in an imaginary context as opposed to ordinary, empirical reality. This, however, does not mean that the visionary literature of the Bible is pure fantasy.

Visionary literature pictures settings, characters, and events that differ from ordinary reality. This is not to say that the things described in visionary literature did not happen in past history or will not happen in future history. But it does mean that the things as pictured by the writer exist in the imagination, not in empirical reality.

Neither prophecy nor apocalypse is entirely visionary; nor are they necessarily futuristic in their orientation. But they will transform the known world or the present state of things into an imagined reality. “In one way or another, visionary literature takes us to a strange world where ordinary rules of reality no longer prevail.” Ryken said the simplest form of this kind of transformation is to give a futuristic picture of the changed fortunes of a person or group or nation. The motifs of transformation and reversal in visionary literature mean that when interpreting it, the reader needs to be “ready for the reversal of ordinary reality.”

There are several elements or themes within Biblical visionary literature that form its otherness that must be cautiously read and interpreted. There is the portrayal of a transcendental or supernatural world, usually of heaven. This transcendence primarily takes the reader beyond the visible, spatial world and not forward in time. The scope of Biblical visionary literature is cosmic rather than localized. There are supernatural, fantastic agents and creatures. Inanimate objects and forces of nature become actors in the visionary drama.

In the strange and frequently surrealistic world of visionary literature, virtually any aspect of creation can become a participant in the ongoing drama of God’s judgments and redemption. It is a world where a river can overflow a nation (Isaiah 8:5-8), where a branch can build a temple (Zechariah 6:12) and a ram ‘s horn can grow to the sky and knock stars to the ground (Daniel 8:9-10).

The strangeness of such writing leads to a related rule for reading it: visionary literature is a form of fantasy literature in which readers use their imaginations to picture unfamiliar scenes and agents. And the reader must remember that the vision is an imagined reality—different than ordinary, empirical reality. “The best introduction to such visionary literature in the bible is other fantasy literature, such as the Narnia stories of C. S. Lewis.”

The purpose of visionary literature is to break through our normal way of thinking and shock us into seeing that things are not as they appear. The world may not continue on as it is now; there is something wrong with the status quo; or reality cannot be confined to what we can see with our senses. This element of the unexpected extends even into the structure of visionary literature. It has brief, shifting units. There is a range of diverse literary material in the Biblical visionary texts. There can be visual descriptions, dialogues, monologues, brief narrative segments, letters, prayers, hymns, or parables. Visionary elements may be mixed with realistic scenes and events. “Instead of looking for the smooth flow of narrative, be prepared for a disjointed series of diverse, self-contained units.”

There is more that could be said, but this gives us a sense of what constitutes visionary literature in the Bible. Now back to Meade and his prophesied end of the world. He is taking an explicitly apocalyptic text, Revelation 12, and treating it as if it were a prophetic text.  There are specific features of apocalypse that distinguishes it from its literary cousin, prophecy. The Biblical scholar Leon Morris summarized the features found in apocalyptic literature as follows:

  • The vision or revelation is of the secret things of God, inaccessible to normal human knowledge. There are secrets of nature, of heaven, of history of the end.
  • Pseudonymy
  • History is rewritten as prophecy
  • There is a determinism in history ending in cosmic cataclysm, which will establish God’s rule.
  • Dualism (good and evil).
  • Pessimism about God’s saving rule in the present.
  • Bizarre and wild symbols denote historical movements or events.

Apocalyptic is a rather loose category, meaning that texts designated as such won’t always share all the same features. Revelation, for example is not pseudonymous. And the book of Revelation often modifies the apocalyptic features it does have. The golden age for apocalyptic literature was roughly between 200 BC and 400 AD. It is primarily found in Jewish and early Christian texts. Some examples include: Assumption of Moses, 1-2-3 Enoch, 2-3 Baruch, 4 Ezra, Apocalypse of Peter, Apocalypse of Paul, Apocalypse of Thomas, and Ascension of Isaiah. Within the Bible, the following show some features of apocalyptic literature: Numbers 23-24 (Balaam’s oracles), Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah 24-27, 1 Thessalonians 4-5, 2 Thessalonians 1-2, the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21), Revelation. Some scholars would also add parts of Zechariah. With these particular in mind, here is how another Biblical scholar, J. J. Collins, defined apocalypse:

A genre of revelatory literature with a narrative framework, in which a revelation is mediated by an otherworldly being to a human recipient, disclosing a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.

Now let’s turn to the text of Revelation 12 used by Meade in his prediction that October 15th, 2017 would initiate a seven-year period of tribulation, resulting in the destruction of the world. Here is a four-minute YouTube video by Unsealed that illustrates how Meade and other Christians believe September 23rd represents a spiritual sign of the ending of the “Church Age.” On his website, Meade said: “We’re all watching for the September 23 Sign because we know it means the end of the ‘Church Age.’  That is a spiritual sign only.  But it is huge.” Now compare the video to the following verses in Revelation 12 that it interprets.

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne. (Revelation 12:1-5)

This passage in chapter 12 of Revelation is one visionary unit in a series of visions give to John by an angel (Revelation 1:1). After the letters to the seven churches, which represent the Church universal, John looked up and saw a door open in heaven (Revelation 4:1). Then came a series of visions including the throne room in heaven. The scroll and the Lamb, the seven seals, the 144,000 of Israel, the seven trumpets, the angel and the little scroll, the two witnesses, and more. At the sound of the seventh trumpet, the twenty-four elders worshiped God. Then God’s temple in heaven opened to reveal “the ark of his covenant.”

The context of Revelation has many of the characteristics of apocalyptic literature. There is a vision framed within a narrative. It’s mediated by an angel to John, and discloses a series of scenes of what is happening in heaven. Chapter 12 describes the conflict between good and evil; the pregnant woman and the dragon. There was the symbolic representation of the encounter of the woman and the dragon; and what happened afterwards.

Revelation 12:1-5 is a condensed retelling of the story of the gospel using apocalyptic. There will be enmity between the seed of the woman and the serpent. In pain she will bring forth children (Genesis 3:15-16). Jesus is that seed, and the verse in Genesis 3 has been traditionally identified as the protoevangelium—the first gospel. Satan intended to “devour” him, but failed. Jesus was caught up—by God—to his throne at his ascension (Acts 1:9-11). A final clue that the passage is not a prophetic foretelling of a future time to John, namely the September 23, 2017 initiation of the end of the church age, is the parallel here to the Greek myth about the birth of Apollo. Gordon Fee, in his commentary on Revelation related the following.

It is important for the modern reader to know that the whole scene is a common one in ancient mythology as well; thus the first readers of this book, mostly Gentile converts in the province of Asia, could hardly have missed here an echo of the well-known myth from their own history. In that myth about the birth of Apollo to Leto, wife of Zeus, the dragon Python hoped to slay the child (Apollo) but he was protected by Poseidon. When grown Apollo then slew the dragon. But whatever the coincidences that may exist between that myth and the essential Christian story, John’s imagery has effected its total transformation into the basic (historical) story of Christ, who through his cross and resurrection thus defeated the dragon. At the same time, the astute biblical reader will see something of a replay, but in a radically new way, of the scene in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3; but now the woman withstands the snake, and her child is rescued by God, who also protects the woman in “the wilderness.”

The interpretation of Biblical apocalyptic literature is fraught the dangers of misunderstanding and misinterpretation, as Harold Camping discovered and hopefully David Meade will himself acknowledge. In his own apocalyptic narrative in the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24, Jesus said: no one knows the time of his return and the end of the age; not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only (Matthew 24:36). Not even David Meade knows.

10/10/17

Rejecting God in Addiction

© dontcut | 123rf.com

The Bible affirms that every human being has a sense of what is right or wrong. There are moral absolutes which God has clearly revealed, and which we know, regardless of whether or not we live our lives in obedience to his will. There are no circumstances in which a person can ultimately say, “I didn’t know that was wrong.” We all have a moral compass. It is with this moral compass that the alcoholic does his “searching and fearless” moral inventory in Step Four. We are without excuse and cannot deny culpability for our actions before God. Even in our rebellion, God has seen fit for us to know His will. God’s judgment was to give Adams and Eve what they wanted: knowledge of right and wrong independent of God’s revelation.

In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis affirmed the reality of the doctrine of objective value, which is the belief that certain attitudes towards the universe and ourselves are really true, and others really false. Lewis referred to this conception of objective truth in all of its forms, as the Tao; a term he borrowed from Chinese thought. Other conceptions of what he calls the Tao in Western thought are: Natural Law, Traditional Morality, and the First Principles of Practical Reason. This doctrine of objective truth is also found in nonWestern thinking.

In Hindu thought, conformity to Rta (righteousness, correctness, and order found in nature) is human conduct that can be called good. The Chinese of course speak of the Tao, which is the greatest thing; the Way in which the universe goes on; the Way in which every person should walk in imitation of the cosmic order, conforming all activity to that great exemplar. The Navajo spiritual/religious concept of hózhó seems to be their conception of the Tao as a spiritually based, balanced lifestyle. Hózhó means to live in beauty; to observe the Navajo philosophy or religion of living and interacting with the world around you so that your life has beauty, balance, calm, and stability. To be out of hózhó is to be “sinful” to a traditional Navajo.

This Tao is not just one among a series of possible systems of value. “It is the sole source of all value judgments.” If rejected, all value is rejected. Lewis said that in the history of the world, there never has been—nor will there be—a radically new judgment of value. The logic here is that if the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real objective value that proceeds from God’s general revelation, then conjugal fidelity, self control in sobriety and other “objective values” are points on God’s moral compass in his special revelation, the Bible. This sense of a moral compass lies at the heart of the downward spiral of sinful, unmanageable behavior specified in the following passage from Romans:

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:28-32)

Once again in Romans 1:28 Paul said: “God gave them up”, using the same Greek verb tense to communicate past completed action as he did in verses 24 and 26. First note the intensification of the repeated judgment by God. Then notice that “impurity, dishonoring their bodies among themselves, dishonorable passions and doing what ought not to be done” are all consequences of failing to acknowledge God (Romans 1:21).

v. 24 God gave them up (in the lusts of their hearts) to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.v. 26 God gave them up to dishonorable passions.v. 28 God gave them up (to a debased mind) to do what ought not to be done.

The passage reiterates the “root and fruit” association of heart (or mind) and behavior evident in verse 24. Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. Or in this case, they did what ought not to be done. As a result of failing to acknowledge God, and being given over to a debased mind, they were filled with all types of sinful desire. As Robert Mounce said in his commentary on Romans, “When people turn from God, the path leads inevitably downward into degeneracy.”

There is a subtle change in the Greek grammar of the passage that helps to distinguish the wrath of God in giving them up to a debased mind from the sin that came as a result of their debased mind. In essence, the verses say that God gave them up to a debased mind, filling them with unrighteousness, evil, covetousness and malice. As a result, they did what ought not to be done: envy, murder, strife, deceit, and maliciousness. This downward spiral of sin has a root and fruit, heart and behavior pattern: sinful behavior is inescapably influenced by a debased heart and mind.

The unrestrained nature of this downward spiral of sin is illustrated with a further litany of sins from gossiping to ruthlessness. For the most part, they are rarely used terms in Biblical Greek, again intensifying the sense in which it seems that sinful behavior gushes out from a debased heart. The summary here reads like a checklist of character defects for individuals preparing to complete their “searching and fearless moral inventory” in the Fourth Step.

Perhaps the most damning assessment of unrighteous is saved for last. Despite the whirlwind of sin that comes from God giving them up to a debased mind, they still know that these vices are worthy of God’s judgment; they are still capable of recognizing right from wrong. Even in the depths of their depravity, they know their sin and its consequences. What can be known about God is still plain to them (verse 1:19). Yet they encourage others to engage in the same cycle of sin and judgment. They know that by their actions they suppress the truth of God to their eternal damnation; and yet they still encourage others to do the same.

We are not only bent on damning ourselves, but we recruit others to follow in our footsteps.  As John Murray said in his commentary on Romans: “Iniquity is most aggravated when it meets with no inhibition from the disapproval of others and where there is collective, undissenting approbation [endorsement].” So the gathering of heavy drinkers to watch a football game and get drunk; the licentiousness of an out-of-control bachelor party; and an opioid addict shooting up a friend for the first time all find their condemnation here.

I’m struck by the strong parallels in this passage of Scripture to the heart attitudes and unmanageable behavior of active addiction. Beginning with verse 18, the wrath of God is revealed against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who deny (suppress) the truth by their unrighteous behavior. The order of the terms ungodliness and unrighteousness has some significance here, as moral decay (alcoholism and addiction) follows from the rejection (denial) of God. In the chapter “We Agnostics” of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W. wrote: “When we became alcoholics, crushed by a self-imposed crisis we could not postpone or evade, we had to fearlessly face the proposition that either God is everything or else He is nothing. God either is, or He isn’t. . . . Do I now believe, or am I even willing to believe, that there is a Power greater than myself?”

God has revealed His divinity in creation. Unrighteous (addictive) behavior suppresses this truth and seeks to be like God. Ernest Kurtz wrote that “the fundamental and first message of Alcoholics Anonymous to its members is that they are not infinite, not absolute, not God.” Every alcoholic’s problem begins with wanting God-like powers, especially the ability to control their drinking. But an alcoholic cannot control their drinking. At some point in their addictive career, they experience a loss of control over thoughts, feelings and behavior when they drink. Eventually they lose control over the act of drinking itself and will deny or minimize their inability to control it.

Craig Nakken, in The Addictive Personality, suggested that much of an addict’s mental obsession resulted from refusing to recognize the loss of control they experience. Denial, suppressing the truth of the addict’s inability to control their drug or alcohol use, is thus a fundamental part of addiction. Alcoholics Anonymous saw denial as the fundamental symptom and deep core of alcoholism. It is the initial issue addressed by the First Step: “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol [addiction]-that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Recognizing this denial is then an essential part of recovery; failure to do so means that the addict becomes futile in their belief that they can control their drug use. Their foolish hearts are darkened to the reality of addiction. Alcohol or drugs become their God. Narcotics Anonymous simply says: “Isolation and denial of our addiction kept us moving along this downhill path. Any hope of getting better disappeared.”

God gives him what he wants; He gives the addict up to the lust of his heart and to a debased mind; to do what ought not to be done; to pursue the false god of his addiction. He is filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness and malice. He is and does everything noted in verses 1:29-31. This litany of consequences provides a summary of the unmanageability present in the life of the addict and alcoholic. He becomes hopeless and helpless as a result of his rejection of God (ungodliness) and the addictive behavior that results. His only hope is in the God he rejected from the beginning.

If you’re interested, more articles from this series can be found under the link for “The Romans Road of Recovery.” “A Common Spiritual Path” (01) and “The Romans Road of Recovery” (02) will introduce this series of articles. If you began by reading one that came from the middle or the end of the series, try reading them before reading others. Follow the numerical listing of the articles (i.e., 01, 02, etc.), if you want to read them in the order they were originally written. This article is “05,” the fifth one in the series. Enjoy.

09/29/17

Ruling over Our Genes

© kentoh | stockfresh.com

Coincidentally (or not), I was driving home after church one Sunday, when I heard the TED Radio Hour broadcast a program called, Hardwired. It asked how much of who we are as humans is biology; and how much is learned. There was a neuroscientist who argued that there was no such thing as free will. Then an epigeneticist said he believed that between the hard wiring of our DNA and the ultimate results there is space for free will. Although exploring the existence of free will through the lens of a scientist is an intriguing exercise, don’t expect any conclusive answers.

These men were grappling with a question that was beyond the ability of science to answer. Both individuals acknowledged, in one way or another, that they were giving an opinion on an ultimate question—the existence or nonexistence of free will. Yet they came to different conclusions. While there was no speculation why they reached such different conclusions in the TED broadcast, I think it was because they had such a fundamental difference in how they viewed human nature.

How Much Agency Do We Have Over Our Behavior?

Robert Sapolsky is professor of biology, neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University. Although he is a self-described hippie-pacifist, he related a horrifically violent fantasy of what he would do to Hitler if he had captured him alive before his suicide. He said he’s had this fantasy since he was little. “We’re capable of a lot of stuff,” he said. When asked what human nature was, where did good and bad behaviors come from, he said it depends.

When, where, what you had for breakfast, what you had when you were a fetus in somebody’s womb back when; what your culture has been; a little bit of what your genes are; how your brain is wired up; it depends. It depends enormously on context.

According to Sapolsky, we are a confusing mixture of impulses. Every bit of human behavior has multiple layers of causality. Everything that has happened in our lives, what goes on in our culture, and even in our history is potentially relevant. “Everything that happened a second before; to everything that happened a million years before; and everything in between.”

His personal bias is that there is no such thing as human agency or free will. What we call free will is simply the biology that hasn’t been discovered yet.  “It’s just another way of stating that we’re biological organisms determined by the physical laws of the universe.” With each passing year of insight into the biology of behavior, what we call free will gets crammed into an increasingly smaller space. At some point, it may even become nonexistent.

“We are biology all the way down. There is no soul; no Calvinistic self-discipline.” There is no real choice in what we do or say; it’s all conditioned by genetics, biology, culture, or history. We shouldn’t really be pleased when complimented by others. Nor should we be surprised by something a person does—good or bad. But curiously, he then added: “At the same time, I realize I have absolutely no idea how somebody is supposed to really believe that stuff.”

Sapolsky’s understanding of human nature leaves no room for a soul, for free will; for anything outside of biology: “We are biology all the way down.” He appears to be alluding here to a response to the unmoved mover paradox in cosmology. The metaphor uses an anecdote represented by the Earth (which is flat) sitting on the back of a World turtle, which is itself supported by an infinite column of turtles. When asked what the final turtle is standing on, the pithy response is that it is “turtles all the way down.”

Intellectually, he believes that what he understands from neuroscience and biology is true. But it seems he can’t consistently live with that belief.

How Do Our Experiences Rewire Our Brains and Bodies?

Moshe Szyf is a geneticist and professor of pharmacology and therapeutics at McGill University in Toronto. One of his primary research interests is with behavioral epigenetics. He described epigenetics as studying how genes are programmed. He said there is a growing consensus in the field of epigenetics that DNA alone is not sufficient to explain behavior. Szyf believes DNA has two, perhaps three identities. One is the classic sense of inheritance. Another occurs as the fetus develops in the womb of its mother.

He believes from his research there is a third-identity formed with experience, which can lead to long-term changes to the way genes are programmed. The environment is constantly changing our genes, so they have both plasticity and a fixed character. We need both aspects— the immutable and the mutable acting together. “This is the amazing paradox and challenge of life.”

DNA, he said is not merely a sequence of letters; a script of human development. It’s rather like a dynamic movie, where our experiences can be written into the movie. We have some agency, but it is split between several sources: our individuality, our family, our community, our country and the world. And there are interactions between all of these. So where does he see a place for free will?

I think that there is, between the hard wiring and the ultimate results, there is a space where freedom of will is operating. And it is operating on these epigenetic processes. If we understand these processes, tap into these processes, we can be ruler over our genes, by providing the right environments; and that is where we as societies have responsibility.

From his perspective, Moshe Szyf sees room for free will and human responsibility—aspects of what has been called the human soul. It’s not affirmed or described by him, but at least he sees a “space” where free will could be; even if there is no concrete scientific way to confirm it. Szyf’s perspective on human nature acknowledges a potential place for the soul, even as he hastens to qualify it as operating on epigenetic principles.

Robert Sapolsky believes humans are biology “all the way down.” Yet interestingly, he isn’t sure how we are supposed to accept that’s true. He seems to imply that lived human experience challenges the scientific evidence that progressively forces the concept of free will into a smaller and smaller space.

When the question becomes what can neuroscience or epigenetics tell us about free will, we’ve gone beyond the realm of science into what Karl Popper called ultimate questions. “It is important to realize that science does not make assertions about ultimate questions—about the riddles of existence, or about man’s task in this world.” There is a limit to what we can learn scientifically about ourselves and about the universe. The question of the existence of free will and the soul reaches beyond that limit.

The biologist and Nobel Prize winner P. B. Medawar agreed with Popper. He believed it was logically outside the competence of science to answer ultimate questions.  He said: “There is a prima facie case for the existence of a limit to scientific understanding.” This limitation is made clear by science’s inability to answer ultimate questions such as: “How did everything begin?”; “What are we here for?”; “Is there a human soul?”

Doctrinaire positivism—now something of a period piece—dismissed all such questions as nonquestions or pseudoquestions such as only simpletons ask and only charlatans of one kind or another profess to be able to answer. This preemptory dismissal leaves one empty and dissatisfied because the questions make sense to those who ask them, and the answers, to those who try to give them; but whatever else may be in dispute, it would be universally agreed that it is not to science that we should look for answers.

Medawar’s observations here are helpful in reconciling the different conclusions of Sapolsky and Szyf on free will. Sapolsky’s philosophy of science seems to have a rather large dose of positivism. Human nature is completely biological. There is no room for non-biological or pseudo-scientific concepts like free will or a soul. What we call free will is simply undiscovered biology. And yet, he admits to a sense of dissatisfaction or emptiness, by noting he has no idea how anyone can believe it.

For more discussion on free will, read “Ability to Choose … Within Limits.” (soon to be posted)

09/19/17

Aversion to Holiness

© Jorge Casais | 123rf.com

In chapter four of Indwelling Sin in Believers, John Owen began to unpack how indwelling sin is enmity against God. Here in chapter five, he described how this enmity manifests itself as aversation—turning from God and all things associated with God in disgust. Aversation is an older term, with a more intense sense of disgust than the similar modern term aversion. A Biblical example of aversation would be the enmity between the Jews and Samaritans.

The Samaritans believed they were the true descendents of Israel and the keepers of the Torah. During New Testament times, their main religious site was Mount Gerizim. They believed that the Jewish temple and priesthood were illegitimate. They took their name from the Hebrew phrase “keeper of the law.” They believed Mount Gerizim was where both the patriarchs and the Israelites (when they first arrived in Canaan) made sacrifices. The Samaritan version of the Pentateuch also said God’s people should worship him in Shechem, making worship in Jerusalem illegitimate. They also believed that their messiah would be a prophet like Moses.

Needless to say, this made the Jews and Samaritans religious, ethnic and cultural enemies with a strong aversation for one another. This context lays the foundation for the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in chapter four of the gospel of John. John Owen said there is an aversation in the law of sin against everything of God. All reluctance towards religious practices designed to attain communion with God, all carnality and religious formality springs from this root. “It will allow an outward, bodily presence unto the worship of God, wherein it is not concerned, but it keeps the heart quite away.”

Some people pretend they have no aversation towards the things of God. Rather, they believe they have liberty or freedom from these duties. Owen thought this pretended liberty came from “ignorance of the true state and condition of their own souls.” or through a lack of faith and interest in Christ. “It may be, whatever duties of worship or obedience such persons perform, they may, through want of faith and an interest in Christ, have no communion with them; and if so, sin will make but little opposition unto them therein.” It can often be found in the emotions, where there is a secret loathing about any “close or cordial dealing with God.”

Even when convictions, sense of duty, dear and real esteem of God and communion with him, have carried the soul into its closet, yet if there be not the vigour and power of a spiritual life constantly at work, there will be a secret loathness in them unto duty; yea, sometimes there will be a violent inclination to the contrary, so that the soul had rather do any thing, embrace any diversion, though it wound itself thereby, than vigorously apply itself unto that which in the inward man it breathes after. It is weary before it begins, and says, “When will the work be over?”

Aversation is also found in the mind. When we pray we should be able to  “fill our mouths with arguments” to God (Job 23:4). Our minds should be ready to plead for the considerations that prevail with God. What if it starts, but then wanders or fades—“all from this secret aversation unto communion with God, which proceeds from the law of indwelling sin.” Others are so occupied with family or public duties that they have little time for private prayer. This is the source of many foolish opinions and the beginning of many who fall away from God.

Finding this aversation in their minds and affections from closeness and constancy in private spiritual duties, not knowing how to conquer and prevail against these difficulties through Him who enables us, they have at first been subdued to a neglect of them, first partial, then total, until, having lost all conscience of them, they have had a door opened unto all sin and licentiousness, and so to a full and utter apostasy.

Owen said he was convinced that among believers, there were two common ways of backsliding. The first was from a great or notorious sin that bloodied their consciences, tainted their affections or and intercepted all delight of having anything more to do with God. The second was from weariness in contending against “the powerful aversation, which they found in themselves.” The reason for all of this is, that giving way to the law of sin in the least is giving strength to it. Leaving it alone lets it grow. Failure to conquer it, is to be conquered by it.

The best way to prevent the fruits and effects of this aversation is to stay in a universally holy frame of mind. It is impossible to keep the heart in a holy frame of mind for one duty, unless it is done for all of them. “A constant, even frame and temper in all duties, in all ways, is the only preservative for any one way.” Strive to prevent the beginnings of this aversation. Guard against temptations; oppose them. Strive to possess your mind with the beauty and excellency of spiritual things, and so this cursed aversation of sin will be weakened.

As an aside, Owen suggested his readers develop a humble awareness of the presence of this aversation to spiritualness present in our nature. If someone were to recognize its efficacy, what consideration can, be more powerful, to bring them unto humbly walking with God?” Since God delights to dwell with individuals who are “of an humble and contrite spirit,” so it can be effective in weakening the remaining sin within us.

In closing the chapter, Owen urged that we labor to occupy our minds with the beauty and excellency of spiritual things, so that “this cursed aversation of sin” can be weakened. “Let, then, the soul labour to acquaint itself with the spiritual beauty of obedience, of communion with God, and of all duties of immediate approach to him, that it may be filled with delight in them.”

09/5/17

Darwin’s Conversion: Not

© nicku | 123rf.com

Surrounded by family members and in the arms of his loving wife Emma, Charles Darwin died on Wednesday, April 19, 1882. Among his last spoken words was a statement that he was not “the least afraid to die.” Darwin’s hope, and the family’s original intention, was for him to be buried in the family vault in St. Mary’s church at Downe. History intervened, and Charles Darwin was instead interred in Westminster Abbey on the morning of April 26, 1882—not far from the resting place of Sir Isaac Newton. Ironically, although Darwin indentified himself as an agnostic, and said he had rejected Christianity at the age of forty, within two weeks of his burial, there was a sermon preached in Wales saying that Darwin had, “in his last utterances confessed his true faith.” The problem is, it wasn’t true.

Dearman Birchall, his wife and their four children had taken a holiday at the southern Wales resort town of Tenby. On May 7th they head a minister named Huntingdon preach a sermon in which: “He spoke of Darwin one of the greatest thinkers who had in his last utterances confessed his true faith.” The quote was from a diary entry, and can be found in The Darwin Legend, by James Moore. There were other scattered rumors of a deathbed conversion by Darwin over the next three decades, including an 1887 sermon in Toronto by the Reverend John Mutch. This led a reporter for the Toronto Mail to write to Darwin’s close friend and supporter, Thomas Huxley to confirm the truth of Mutch’s statement. Huxley’s reply, on February 12, 1887 follows:

I have the best authority for informing you that the statement which you attribute to the Revd Mr. Mutch of Toronto that “Mr Darwin, when on his death bed, abjectly whined for a minister and renouncing Evolution, sought safety in the blood of the Saviour” is totally false and without any kind of foundation.

Huxley consulted Darwin’s son Francis, who gave Huxley permission to reply to the reporter, denying any deathbed conversion of his father. Yet the question is how such a rumor could have arisen and been repeated by a minister so far away from Darwin’s home in Downe. James Moore convincingly demonstrated the likely source was a British evangelist active in the temperance movement, named Elizabeth Cotton, who became Lady Hope in 1887 when she married Sir James Hope. She reported meeting Darwin in the autumn of 1881, about six months before his death.

However the story of their meeting did not appear in print for thirty-four years. Moore speculated that if this encounter was the origin of all the post-1882 deathbed stories of Darwin’s conversion, it was spread initially by word of mouth among English evangelicals and their American connections. John Mutch could then have heard the story from someone in those circles and repeated it in his 1887 sermon. “Whatever the case, there is no doubt that Lady Hope was making discreet comments about Darwin to her religious friends long before the story was published.”

In August of 1915 Lady Hope was in East Northfield Massachusetts for the annual conference at Northfield Seminary, the girl’s preparatory school founded by D. L. Moody. She approached one of the speakers, A. T. Robertson, and told him her story of Darwin’s conversion. Robertson then repeated it when he next spoke. An editor from the Watchman-Examiner was there and insisted Lady Hope write the story out so he could publish it, giving it “the widest publicity.” Two weeks later, the Watchman-Examiner carried her story under the title, “Darwin and Christianity.”

In The Darwin Legend, Moore quoted the entire story, which can also be found in the Wikipedia entry for “Elizabeth Cotton, Lady Hope.” The story went “viral,” to use a modern idiom, with over fifty known texts identified by James Moore that repeated the Lady Hope legend through 1993, when he published his book. The story happened to take place in the midst of the anti-evolution crusade involving William Jennings Bryan and the “monkey trial” of 1925. See “Structure of an Evolutionary Revolution” for more on Bryan and the Scopes Trial. Bryan did not repeat the story even though he knew of it, saying that using it would only aid the other side in the fight against evolution. But that did not deter others.

Members of Darwin’s family repeatedly and vehemently denied Lady Hope’s story. Darwin’s son Francis, who edited The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, including an Autobiographical Chapter, in 1887, wrote Huxley in 1887 about the Toronto Mail reporter. He said: “By all means answer as you propose. You have my authority that the statement is false and without any kind of merit.” Francis wrote at least three letters after the Lady Hope story was published denying its veracity. In a letter to the secretary of the Protestant Press Bureau, on May 28, 1918, Francis said:

Lady Hope’s account of my father’s views on religion is quite untrue. I have publically accused her of falsehood, but I have not see a reply. My father’s agnostic point of view is given in my “Life and Letters of Charles Darwin,” Vol. I., pp. 304-317. You are at liberty to publish the above statement. Indeed, I shall be glad if you will do so.

Henrietta Darwin Litchfield, Darwin’s third daughter and the eldest daughter to reach adulthood, responded to an enquiry from the editors of The Christian, an interdenominational evangelical weekly, who asked her to confirm or deny the truth of a “highly-colored story . . . going the round of the American papers” about her father’s death-bed. If it was true, then many people would have been glad to learn that “some higher and deeper devotion claimed his soul.” If it wasn’t true, then “the facts should be known.” On February 23, 1922 in The Christian, Henrietta said:

I was present at his deathbed. Lady Hope was not present during his last illness, or any other illness. I believe he never even saw her, but in any case, she had no influence over him in any department of thought or belief. He never recanted any of his scientific views, either then or earlier. We think the story of his conversion was fabricated in [the] U.S.A. In most of the versions hymn-singing comes in, and a summer-house where the servants and villagers sang to him. There is no such summer-house, and no servants or villagers ever sang hymns to him. The whole story has no foundation whatsoever.

Lady Hope died in Sydney Australia on March 9, 1922. She had traveled there for medical treatment for breast cancer. Eighteen years after her death, a professor of biology, S. James Bole, published an undated letter he had received from her in the early 1920s, having promised to keep it private during her lifetime. He had written to her, “asking for the story.” She said Darwin heard she was in his village, holding meetings to discuss the Gospel and Temperance and asked if she would call upon him. She said when she arrived, he had a large Bible open before him to the book of Hebrews, which he said was “the Royal Epistle.” The contents of the letter to Bole are quite similar to the account Lady Hope gave in the Watchman-Examiner.

Darwin is supposed to have commented on some of the great Gospel truths to her, and how Christ was the King, Savior and Intercessor. When Lady Hope asked him about certain doubts that were raised about Creation from what he wrote,

He seemed greatly distressed, his fingers twitched nervously, and a look of agony came over his face as he said: “I was a young man with unformed ideas. I threw out queries, suggestions, wondering all the time over everything, and to my astonishment, the ideas took like wildfire. People made a religion of them.”

So she continued to tell her story until the day she died. But as Francis Darwin said, if his father had had an evangelical conversion experience in the last years of his life, surely that would have become known to his family. They have spoken and were quoted above as saying it never happened.

However, there is an outside chance that some kind of an encounter happened between Darwin and Lady Hope, but it would not have unfolded as she related in her story. Lady Hope was in Downe Village, near the Darwin estate, in September and possibly early October of 1881. Moore said: “The story, though imaginative, cannot be dismissed as pure invention. It contains striking elements of authenticity, to which Lady Hope added convincing new detail.”

For proprieties sake, she would not have met with him alone; and a likely third party would have been Darwin’s wife, Emma, who was well known for her own Unitarian faith. Before they married, his father, Robert Darwin, warned Charles that a husband should conceal his religious doubts from his wife so that she didn’t fear for his salvation. The younger Darwin ignored his father’s advice, revealing his doubts to Emma while they courted. When she was first pregnant, she wrote him that she didn’t feel she could say exactly what she wanted to him. What if she died in childbirth? Would he join her in heaven? It would be a nightmare “if I thought we did not belong to each other forever.”

Emma’s silence on the possibility of a conversion experience by her husband in the final months of his life speaks loudly to the fact that it did not happen. After her husband’s death, the family debated over whether a section of his autobiography, a private narrative originally written only for family members, should be published. In a section on religious beliefs Darwin had wondered how anyone “ought to wish Christianity to be true,” given its doctrine of everlasting punishment for unbelievers. For in those numbers would be his father, his older brother Erasmus, and almost all his best friends. Emma wrote to Francis, who was editing the Life and Letters, wondering how Charles’s religious friends would react to the sometimes-raw honesty of his thoughts. If there had been any legitimate reversal in Darwin’s agnosticism at the end of his life I think Emma would have insisted on its inclusion.

The autobiography was dismembered, the section on religious belief was removed to a separate chapter in the Life and Letters, and only “extracts, somewhat abbreviated,” were printed.

The unedited version of Life and Letters with Darwin’s clear rejection of many basic Christian beliefs would not be published until 1958, almost 100 years after Origin of the Species. Darwin’s unvarnished religious convictions were apparently more of a concern than his scientific ones.

08/25/17

Enslaved by Freedom

© Milan Petrovic | 123rf.com

In the early 1980s, a Christian friend waxed eloquent about the writings and thought of Francis Schaeffer to me. I was a young Christian then and respected this friend’s endorsement, but didn’t think I was up to tackling his five volume collected works which had just been published in 1982. So I bought the smallest book I could find by Schaeffer in the bookstore instead, Escape From Reason. It was so full of thoughtful theology, apologetics and philosophy that I have been reading, re-reading and referencing it since then.

In Escape from Reason, Schaeffer developed a helpful way of conceiving how the modern understanding of humanity came about. But unlike other modern thinkers, he went back to the thought of Thomas Aquinas, over three hundred years before Descartes. See “Not a Ghost in the Machine” for more on Descartes. Schaeffer thought the real birth of modern humanistic thought began with Aquinas’ distinction between nature and grace. According to Schaeffer, Aquinas thought grace was a higher level of existence that included God the Creator, heaven and heavenly things, the unseen and its influence on the earth and the human soul. The lower level of nature contained every thing created—all earthly things, all that is visible, and what nature and humans do on the earth, including the human body.

Similar to the Cartesian mind-body distinction, Aquinas did not see a complete separation between nature and grace—between the human body and soul. However, he had an incomplete view of the biblical Fall, according to Schaeffer. Aquinas thought human will was fallen, but human intellect was not. “From this incomplete view of the biblical Fall flowed all the subsequent difficulties.” In Aquinas, one realm of human existence could potentially be independent of God. Human intellect wasn’t entirely non posse non peccare— not able not to sin—to use Augustine’s description of human nature after the Fall. According to Schaeffer, this meant there was a potential for us to act as if human reason could be autonomous from God.

From the basis of this autonomous principle, philosophy also became free, and was separated from revelation. Therefore, philosophy began to take wings, as it were, and fly off wherever it wished, without relationship to Scriptures. This does not mean this tendency was never previously apparent, but it appears in a more total way from this time on.

When nature was made autonomous by Aristotelian thought in Aquinas, it began to annex grace. Schaeffer stressed that when nature is conceived as autonomous from God, it becomes destructive and it will ‘eat up’ grace. “Nature gradually became more totally autonomous. . . . By the time the Renaissance reached its climax, nature had eaten up grace.” But the Reformation was a counter balance to this autonomy of intellect.

In the Scriptures, God spoke truly about the upper level and the lower level. He spoke truly about Himself and heavenly things, and He spoke truly about nature—the created order of the cosmos and humanity. This is known as the two-books theory of God’s revelation—special revelation in Scripture and general revelation in nature. This was incidentally the starting point for many of the first modern scientists. Francis Bacon (1561-1626), an English philosopher and scientist, is generally seen as the father of empiricism. He said:

God has, in fact, written two books, not just one. Of course, we are all familiar with the first book he wrote, namely Scripture. But he has written a second book called creation.

Scripture also says we are made in the image of God, but fallen because “at a space-time point of history,” humanity sinned. Although the people of the Reformation knew they were morally guilty before God, they were not nothing. “These people knew they were the very opposite of nothing because they were made in the image of God.” And when the Word of God was listened to, the Reformation had tremendous results—in culture and in people becoming Christians.

The Bible tells us God is “both a personal God and an infinite God.” This personal-infinite God is the Creator of all things. Therefore, everything else is finite; everything else is created. This Creator-creature distinction places a chasm between God and all created things—humanity, animals, plants, and the machine. Yet when you come to the side of humanity’s personhood (Descartes’ mind-body composite), we were made in the image of God—created to have a personal relationship with Him. So humanity’s relationship is upward with God and not merely downward with the rest of the created order. Schaeffer pictured this relationship as follows:

On the side of God’s infinity, humanity is as separated from God as the Cartesian sense of machine and the other aspects of the created order. This is the Creator-creation distinction. However biblically, there is a different story on the side of human personality. Being made in the image of God, we were created to have a personal relationship with Him. Here our relationship is upward and not just downward; and there is a difference between humans and the rest of the created order.

If you are dealing with twentieth-century people, this becomes a very crucial difference. Modern man sees his relationship downward to the animal and to the machine. The Bible rejects this view of who man is. On the side of personality you are related to God. You are not infinite but finite; nevertheless, you are truly personal; you are created in the image of the personal God who exists.

Schaeffer said there is nothing truly autonomous from God; not the human mind or reason. There can be nothing apart from the lordship of Christ and the authority of the Scriptures. God made the whole person and He is interested in the whole person. While the modern humanist may have been conceived during the Renaissance, the Reformation provided the corrective to his dilemma. Although dualism in Renaissance thought has contributed significantly to the modern world’s sorrows, there is still hope in Christ. In another of his works, A Christian View of the Bible as Truth, Francis Schaeffer said:

The ancients were afraid that if they went to the end of the earth, they would fall off and be consumed by dragons. But once we understand that Christianity is true to what is there, including true to the ultimate environment—the infinite, personal God who is really there—then our minds are freed. We can pursue any question and can be sure that we will not fall off the end of the earth. Such an attitude will give our Christianity a strength that it often does not seem to have at the present time.

What happened is that rationalism evolved and became entrenched in science. The uniformity of natural causes in creation or nature was gradually closed to any intervention from outside, from God. Nature became a closed system devoid of any intervention from God. The distinction of nature and grace no longer made sense. “There was no idea of grace—the word did not fit any longer.” There was no room for revelation, so the problem was redefined in terms of freedom and nature. “Nature has totally devoured grace, and what is left in its place ‘upstairs’ is the word ‘freedom’.”

At this time we find that nature is now so totally autonomous that determinism begins to emerge. Previously determinism had almost always been confined to the area of physics; to the machine portion of the universe.

This autonomous freedom is one where the individual is at the center of the universe. It is a freedom without restraint; without limitations. Descartes’ conception of the mind as a thinking thing, the person as a fundamentally rational, mind-bound individual, fits well within this freedom. And here we can see the fulfillment of the promise of the serpent in the story of the Fall. Eating of the forbidden fruit opened human eyes and made us like God, with the freedom of knowing good and evil independent of Him. As Blaise Pascal observed: “Original sin is foolish to men” who seek to be autonomous beings.

If interested, you can watch Francis Schaeffer unfold more of his thinking in several YouTube videos. Here is a link to one on “The Flow of Materialism.”

08/15/17

Erasing the Providence of God

© Wang Song | 123rf.com

“One cannot give thought to the Church’s confession of faith in Providence without very soon being impressed by the distance between this confession and modern thought.” With these words, the theologian G. C. Berkouwer opened his classic work, Studies in Dogmatics: The Providence of God. He went on to note how modern scientific and philosophical thought—as well as that of the ordinary person—is engrossed in the question of the meaning of the world and its history and the purpose of human life. A series of revolutionary, catastrophic events have led many moderns to ask: Can life still be said to make sense or be meaningful? “This is now a pre-eminently existential question whose persistence we cannot avoid.”

One of the most eloquent expressions of human insignificance was expressed by the astronomer Carl Sagan in his book, A Pale Blue Dot. At Sagan’s suggestion to NASA, Voyager 1— at a distance of 3.7 billion miles from earth—turned and took one last photographic look at earth before it continued on its journey out of the solar system. Reflecting on the resulting photo, he said:

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

You can watch and listen to a YouTube video with a section from the audio book containing the quote above from A Pale Blue Dot here.

Berkouwer said that when God’s hand presses hard upon life, the question becomes: WHY? Where is God? That question underlies everything happening in our time. It reverberates through the estrangement of humanity from the rest of creation; through our secularization and alienation from God. “God is estranged from man; and man becomes a stranger in His world.” He said the following three motifs play an important role in modern secularization.

The first is the influence of modern science on faith in God. When nature is repeatedly explained through natural causes, the premise of God’s preservation and rule is set aside. For the scientifically-minded person, the doctrine of Providence was “convenient for pre-scientific naivete.” But it is rendered irrelevant by the insights of the scientific method. The reality of God is a relic of the pre-scientific age.

Though many are beginning to talk again about the limitations of the scientific method and though one hears occasional murmurs against its imperialism, the inevitable conclusion of modern science is that it has no room left for God.

The second motif is seeing religion as nothing more than a projection or reflection of human thought. It appears in the writings of several influential thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Karl Marx, Ludwig Feuerbach, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and others. Religion is an opiate of the people (Marx); man’s god is man (Feuerbach); religion as a “universal obsessional neurosis” (Freud); Christianity is “Platonism for the people” (Nietzsche). When religion is a projection or reflection of human thought, it becomes expendable. Here, belief in Providence is dangerous, as it is only “a lust for safety and protection against the threats to our existence.”

The third motif is refuting God’s Providence through catastrophe: “How could an all-loving, all-powerful God allow …” The meaninglessness of a crisis seems to cut off any perspective that reveals purpose. “The Providence doctrine fails to give an explanation of the gruesome reality that holds life in its grip.” Faith affirms meaning and purpose in life. “But where can one point to purpose or reality in the radically ungarnished life of our times?”

Does not honesty tell us to limit ourselves realistically to what lies before our eyes, and without illusions face the order of the day? How can we overcome the catastrophic by a return to a confidence in the meaning of life, when the possibility of meaning itself is in question? Realism and a facing of facts have come to fetter the human heart. The beautiful story of Providence and the Hand of God, it is said, is a religious fancy, and belief in it an illusionary escape from reality.

There is a fundamental flaw embedded in each of these motifs, namely that understanding the world around us—including the meaning of our lives within it—must have a human starting point. This seems to be what Berkouwer meant by secularization; what we see is what we get. Science explains, or will explain, what was previously unexplainable. As the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace said when Napoleon asked him where God fit into his mathematical work, “Sir, I have no need of that hypothesis.” Belief in God then becomes a projection of human thought. Christian faith is mistakenly interpreted as a Christian version of fate or determinism.

When this happens, it means that an abstract concept of sovereignty has replaced the God of revelation. God is construed as a “super power,” a potentia absoluta, which is another God than He of Scripture. Sovereignty “in itself” is a compassionateless concept quite as inspiring of dread as is blind fate. Biblical thinking is always directed to the sovereignty of God, that is, to the real, the true, and living God, the God of revelation.

Berkouwer encouraged his readers to turn to the Scriptures to overcome the modern crisis with the doctrine of Providence. He said as the Scriptures rule our thinking and speaking, as they fill the preaching of the Church, “so the Word of God will speak to the distressed and disordered life of our times.”

J. I. Packer said in the New Bible Dictionary that providence is normally seen in Christian theology as the unceasing activity of the Creator God. In Scripture, it is presented as a function of the sovereignty of God. “God is king over all, doing just what he wills (Psalms 103:19; 135:6; Daniel 4:35; Ephesians 1:11).” Packer said this conviction is throughout the Bible and must be distinguished from the following: pantheism, deism, dualism, indeterminism, determinism, chance, and fate.

Pantheism absorbs the world into God, while deism cuts creation off from him. Dualism divides control of creation between God and another power, where indeterminism denies there is any control at all. On the other hand, determinism imagines a control that obliterates human moral responsibility. Chance denies that the controlling power is rational, while fate denies that it is benevolent. Whenever these views creep into our understanding of God and his interaction with creation, they dilute a biblical sense of God’s providence. Packer said by God’s providence:

He upholds his creatures in ordered existence (Acts 17:28; Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3), guides and governs all events, circumstances and free acts of angels and men (cf. Psalm 107; Job 1:12; 2:6; Genesis 45:5–8), and directs everything to its appointed goal, for his own glory (cf. Ephesians 1:9–12).

When humans deny the continued work of God in his creation through secular views of science and philosophy, they are trying to erase what God has written across creation with indelible ink. As the apostle Paul said in Acts 17: 28: “In him we live and move and haves our being.” What can be known about God is plainly revealed in the creation. Since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived in the things that were made. “So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:19-21).