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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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“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).

08/4/17

Not a Ghost in the Machine

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There is a story told about René Descartes, that he traveled with a life-sized mechanical doll he named Francine, after his illegitimate daughter. Francine died tragically when she was five. The doll was supposed to be so lifelike, that it was virtually indistinguishable from a real person. One source said he constructed it “to show that animals are only machines and have no souls.” His biographer, Stephen Gaukroger, said Descartes kept the doll in trunk beside him while he slept. Supposedly, on a voyage over the Holland Sea, the captain of the ship quietly stole into Descartes’ cabin one night and opened the trunk. Horrified to see the mechanical monstrosity, he dragged the doll from the trunk and threw her overboard.

In Descartes: An Intellectual Biography, Gaukroger said there is no truth to the tale; that it was likely a piece of propaganda in the eighteenth-century struggle against the materialism that grew out of Descartes’ philosophy. In his essay on Descartes for Galileo Goes to Jail, Peter Harrison said Descartes could be the most maligned and misunderstood philosopher who ever lived. “Indeed, there seems to be something about Descartes’ person and his philosophy that invites slander and simplistic mischaracterization.” Both Gaukroger and Harrison pointed to another misconception, that Descartes initiated the radical separation of mind and body, which then had disastrous consequences on Western philosophy.

Descartes did make a mind-body distinction. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy said one of the most lasting legacies of his philosophy is what is now called mind-body dualism.  He argued that the nature or substance of the mind (a thinking non-extended thing) was completely different from that of the body (an extended, non-thinking thing). Harrison noted where the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle derisively referred to this Cartesian doctrine of mind and body as “the myth of the ghost in the machine.” Such dualism, according to Ryle, was “fundamentally antiscientific.”

But there is a technical point missing in this portrayal of Descartes’ thinking. He considered the body and mind to be distinct substances. “A substance is something that does not require any other creature to exist—it can exist with only the help of God’s concurrence.” As a consequence, each could exist without the other. “However, this does not mean that these substances do exist separately.” Harrison said Descartes carefully rejected the kind of separation implied by Ryle and others.

In fact, Descartes took pains to deny such a separation, asserting that mind and body are “intermingled” so as to form a “unitary whole.” Mind and body, he insists, form a “substantial union.” He also unambiguously states (pace Dennett) that the mind is not in the body “as a pilot in his ship.” . . . In fact, the doctrine of a radical separation of mind and body is one that should more properly be laid at the feet of Aristotle or Plotonius, rather than Descartes.

Some commentators have suggested the interaction of mind and body was so central a concern for Descartes that it is misleading, to a certain extent, to refer to him as a dualist. He sought to understand the world in terms of three basic kinds of entity—matter (extended material things), minds (thinking things) and persons (mind-body composites). Correlations between mental events and bodily movements are merely natural properties of this body-mind complex. “The relations of mind and body, on this account, are explained in terms of psychophysical laws that constitute our very nature as embodied beings.” Harrison then gave this summation.

In sum, Descartes’ views about mind, body, and their relation are subtle, sophisticated, and complex. They bear little resemblance to the simplistic caricatures that often pose as authoritative accounts of his work. Descartes gave a central place to the emotions in his psychology, and he took very seriously the embodied nature of human beings. Because of Descartes’ insistence that the mind-body amalgam was a real entity, some commentators have gone as far as to suggest that he no longer be numbered in the ranks of the dualists.

Writing for BioLogos, philosophy professor Edward Fesler said to the extent that this separation and conception is seen as “an abstraction from concrete material reality, and not the whole of material reality,” there is nothing wrong with it. However, there must be a clear acknowledgement of its limitations. “It captures only those aspects [of reality] that are susceptible both of mathematical modeling and of detection vie experimental techniques by which the models may be tested. But anything else falls short.” Unlike Harrison, Fesler does see Descartes as responsible for many of the philosophical problems that came after his conception of mind and matter.

This bizarre re-conception of human nature—man as a “ghost in a machine,” as Gilbert Ryle famously parodied it—opened up a host of philosophical problems which persist to this day. The materialist “solution” to the problems has been to reject one of Descartes’ reified abstractions (the res cogitans) while keeping the other, the material world conceived as if the equations of physics exhausted its nature. Unsurprisingly, this has led to theories of the relationship of mind to body which seem implicitly to deny, rather than to explain, the existence of mind, consciousness, meaning, and free choice.

The materialist resolution of the mind-body problem raised by Cartesian philosophy, subsuming the mind as an extension of bodily neurological functions, raises a problem for a biblical understanding of human nature. While there is a clear sense of a kind of dualism in Scripture, Christians cannot assume such a materialist position. Biblically speaking, humans are material and immaterial, body and soul. Fesler’s suggestion is to reject Descartes’s abstractions and rediscover the human being “as an irreducible psychophysical whole,” with our mental and physical as two aspects of one thing. There is both unity and distinction—what theologian Anthony Hoekema referred to as a psychosomatic unity of body (soma) and soul (psyche). See “We Are But Thinking Reeds” for a more in depth discussion of this idea.

But there is a third kind of Cartesian entity to consider—the mind-body composite of personhood. It is an essential aspect of human existence as it makes possible the relationship between individual humans, between embodied thinking things. An it makes possible a relationship with God. So it cannot be easily dismissed as merely a ghost in the machine.

Abeba Birhane offered a revision of Descartes for Aeon that adds a community aspect to Carteasian thought. Drawing upon Ubuntu philosophy, she said selfhood is acquired over time. She illustrated this concept by quoting the Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” Note the rephrasing of Descartes’ famous quote: “I think, therefore I am.” Birhane said we know from everyday experience that personhood is partly formed in community. Who we are depends upon many others—family, friends, culture, etc. She quoted a Zulu phrase, saying it was a better and richer account of personhood than Descartes cogito argument: “A person is a person through other persons.”

Biblically speaking, human personhood is also the result of being created in the image of God. Humanity, “being made in the image of God, was made to have a personal relationship with him.” In Escape from Reason, Francis Schaeffer said that when speaking of God to modern humans, it is important to emphasize that the Bible speaks of God as both a personal God and an infinite God. This is the kind of God who is there; who actually exists. And He is no ghost in the machine.

07/25/17

Keep on Knocking

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The first sentence for the Step Eleven essay in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions succinctly says: “Prayer and meditation are our principle means of conscious contact with God.” Bill W. went on to say there were some who recoiled from meditation and prayer “as obstinately as the scientist who refused to perform a certain experiment lest it prove his pet theory wrong.” Yet for those who made regular use of prayer come to see it as necessary for their survival as air, food or sunshine: “We all need the light of God’s reality, the nourishment of His strength, and the atmosphere of His grace.”

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11)

In verse 7, there are a series of commands: ask, seek and knock. All three are in the present tense, which suggests we are to persist when we come to God in prayer. We should petition God “with an expectant attitude,” according to Craig Blomberg. In verse eight, we have a repetition of what to expect when we pray: all who ask receive; everyone who seeks something will find it; when someone knocks on a closed door, it will be opened. But it would be a mistake to use this as a kind of incantation with which we can petition and receive from God whatever we desire.

Bill W. astutely noted that when we ask for specific solutions to specific problems, and for the ability to help other people as we think they need to be helped, “We are asking God to do it our way.” We should consider each request carefully to see its real merit. His advice when making specific requests was to add a qualification: “ . . . if it be Thy will.”

We discover that we do receive guidance for our lives to just about the extent that we stop making demands upon God to give it to us on order and on our terms.

Not too long before this passage in Matthew was Jesus’ counsel to not pray like the hypocrites or use empty phrases (Matthew 6:5-15). Instead, we should pray humbly to our Father in Heaven, asking for His will to be done; for our daily bread (needs); for our debts to be forgiven; and to keep us from temptation. This passage, of course, was on the Lord’s Prayer. So when we self consciously acknowledge God as our Father in heaven, and seek for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, we can trust that He will provide for our needs. So we can confidently, ask, seek and knock. And when we ask according to His will we will receive; we will find what we seek; we will open what was closed to us when we knock.

The rhetorical questions in Matthew 6:9-10 imply a negative answer: of course a human father would not be so obtuse when responding to the requests of his son. He would not give a stone when asked for bread or a serpent when asked for a fish. Bread and fish would have been common foods for the people listening to Jesus give the Sermon on the Mount, again pointing back to relying upon God for our daily needs.

There is also a possible allusion to a sense of trickery—bread can be shaped to look like a stone; snakes can be mistaken for a certain eel-like fish catfish in the Sea of Galilee.  If a human father can be trusted to give good things to his son, can’t we place even greater trust in God the Father? Jesus is reasoning from the lesser to the greater here. If such trickery or obtuseness would be unthinkable in a human father, “how much more” can our heavenly Father be trusted?

So the lesson of the passage is that we can trust God to answer our prayers. When we ask according to His will, we will receive. When we seek our daily needs, we will find them. And when a door appears closed to what we ask or seek, if we knock it will be opened for us. Here the call is for hope and perseverance. We are to continue asking, seeking and knocking until the seemingly closed door to us is opened, because we can trust God to meet our needs.

This call for persistence in prayer also applies to those who have tried to give up drugs and alcohol but failed repeatedly. There is a sense of dread that overcomes the person who has made repeated attempts to stay abstinent and failed. They begin to think there is no hope for them; that they are “constitutionally incapable of recovery.” This is a mistaken belief about recovery and relapse. In his booklet Mistaken Beliefs About Relapse, Terence Gorski said: “A mistaken belief is something that you believe is true and act as if it were true when, in fact, it is false.”

Continue trying to establish and maintain abstinence. Ask for guidance; seek help; keep on knocking (persist in asking and seeking) until you obtain it.  Because you won’t be tricked or be given something that won’t meet you needs (a stone or snake).

This is part of a series of reflections dedicated to the memory of Audrey Conn, whose questions reminded me of my intention to look at the various ways the Sermon on the Mount applies to Alcoholics Anonymous and recovery. If you’re interested in more, look under the category link “Sermon on the Mount.”

07/14/17

Myth of Newton’s Clockwork Universe

photo from Wikipedia: “The Clockwork Universe” by Tim Wetherell

In his book The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins turned the watchmaker analogy, used by William Paley to argue for the existence of God, on its head. Paley said if we were to find a watch in a field, even if we didn’t know how it came into existence, the “intricacy of design” in the watch would force us to conclude that it had a maker. Since the natural world shows even more evidence of design than a watch, its existence implies an even greater intelligent Designer or God. However, Dawkins asserted that we now know that natural selection, “the blind, unconscious, automatic process … is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life.” Since it has no mind, vision or foresight, “If it can be said to play the role of the watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.”

Dawkins placed his finger on the necessary assumption in Paley’s argument: there must be a cause for the observed order in nature. Deny this, as Norman Geisler pointed out in the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, and the teleological argument failed, “for the alleged design (if uncaused) would be merely gratuitous.” Despite his affirmation of natural selection and rejection of a causal agent for the evidence of design in nature, Dawkins still recognized the persuasiveness of an argument from design.

Natural selection is the blind watchmaker, blind because it does not see ahead, does not plan consequences, has no purpose in view. Yet the living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with the appearance of design as if by a master watchmaker, impress us with the illusion of design and planning.

Rather like the ball in a tennis match, the notion of a clockwork universe has been batted back-and-forth to both support and undermine the belief in a Creator and/or Sustainer of the universe. Outside of Christian apologetics circles, where Paley’s watchmaker is a favored form of the teleological argument for the existence of God, the clockwork universe analogy is used to deny the belief in a sustaining Creator God. It has even been woven into a myth referred to by Edward (Ted) Davis as the “Newtonian Worldview.” Examples of this Newtonian myth of a clockwork universe are plentiful.

In an article celebrating the 150-year anniversary of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Johnjoe MaFaddon said while Darwin had destroyed the strongest evidence for the existence of a deity, “Two centuries earlier, Newton had banished God from the clockwork heavens.” In his essay on the myth of Newton’s mechanistic cosmology for Galileo Goes to Jail, Davis quoted from Sylvan Schweber’s 1989 essay, “John Herschel and Charles Darwin.” “The metaphor of the mechanical clock in Newton’s construction of the heavens and its legacy illustrate the power of metaphors in the development of scientific thought.” In an earlier essay, Davis quoted the following from the fourth edition of Thomas Greer’s A Brief History of the Western World:

With Aristotle’s laws of motion overthrown, no role remained for a Prime mover, or for Moving Spirits. The hand of God, which once kept the heavenly bodies in their orbits, had been replaced by universal gravitation. Miracles had no place in a system whose workings were automatic and unvarying. Governed by precise mathematical and mechanical laws, Newton’s universe seemed capable of running itself.

But as Stephen Snobelen pointed out in “The Myth of the Clockwork Universe,” the metaphor of a mechanistic, clockwork universe originated with medieval monks. “The myth of Newton’s clockwork universe is one of the most persistent and pervasive myths in the history of science.”  The idea of a “world machine” can be found in the astronomical works of Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253), Johannes de Sacrobosco (1230), and Nicolas of Cusa (1401-64). Copernicus used it in his seminal work, On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres. But it was Nicole Oresema (1325-82) who compared the idea of a world machine to the clockwork universe.

In these early theological contexts, the clockwork analogy has two essential features: God as creator of the clockwork and God as sustainer of the clockwork. Thus it differs from eighteenth- century, nonprovidentialist deism that is committed only to the first element.

Both Davis and Snobelen convincingly demonstrated how Newton himself did not hold to what has been portrayed as a mechanistic, Newtonian worldview. The early advocates of the clockwork universe were “pious, believing Christians;” and if Newton had used the clockwork metaphor, he would have likely used it like the “Christian natural philosophers who went before him.” Snobelen said not a single unambiguous example of Newton referring to the universe as a clockwork system has been identified. Davis noted where Newton’s belief and understanding of God’s dominion “shaped the metaphysical perspective in which he placed his science.”

Deistic, “nonprovidentialist” thinkers like Gottfried Leibniz and Rene Descartes refused to allow God to exercise dominion over creation. According to Davis, Newton saw the Cartesian concept of matter as a path to atheism. Descartes believed matter and extension (space) were necessarily indistinguishable. He thought all motion took place in closed loops; all changes in motion were caused by direct contact, and not by forces acting at a distance (i.e., God’s sustained actions in nature). “Newton claimed that matter ‘does not exist necessarily, but by divine will.’” Snobelen quoted Leibniz, who like Dawkins, turned the clockwork analogy on its head to refute the sustaining acts of God:

Sir Isaac Newton, and his Followers, have also a very odd Opinion concerning the Work of God. According to their Doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his Watch from Time to Time: Otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient Foresight to make it a perpetual Motion. Nay, the Machine of God’s making, is so imperfect, according to these Gentlemen; that he is obliged to clean it now and then by an extraordinary Concourse, and even to mend it, as a Clockmaker mends his Work; Who must consequently be so much the more unskilful a Workman, as he is oftner obliged to mend his Work and to set it right.

Snobelen said Leibinz’z idea of a perpetual motion machine implied an idealized Platonic clock, which he contrasted with an unreliable clock that needed frequent rewinding, “the kind of clock that would have been familiar to the original readers of this debate.” Because of the reliability of modern timepieces, we miss the slur Leibniz made here in his use of the clockwork analogy. Before the introduction of the balance spring or pendulum in the late 1600s, watches were very unreliable—sometimes losing minutes or hours of time in a day. It was only after the invention of the balance spring that minute and second hands became standard issue with all watches. So God’s sustaining work in creation was like a clockmaker winding, cleaning and mending his clock.

Newton has been co-opted by some as a “proto-deist” or the person who set the stage for a new rationalism that “set the stage for Enlightenment philosophies to remove God” from the ordering of things. But Snobelen said no deist would accept biblical prophecy as a revelation from God that has been and will be fulfilled in history. But Newton did. Davis said if we ignored the vast theological gulf between Newton and the philosophers who reinterpreted his physics, “we encourage the very opinion the Enlightenment deists wanted us to share: that theology and modern science are fundamentally at odds.”

A biographer of Newton said few things would have angered him more than the belief that “the Principia contained the framework of a universe in which God was no longer vital, or even necessary.” Correspondence between Leibniz and a friend and disciple of Newton’s named Samuel Clarke, which occurred during the last year of Leibniz’a life (1715-1716), explicitly rejected his caricature of God having to wind up His watch from time to time:

The notion of the world being a great Machine, going on without the Interposition of God, as a Clock continues to go without the Assistance of a Clockmaker; in the Notion of Materialism and Fate, and tends (under pretence of making God a Supra-mundane Intelligence) to exclude Providence and God’s government in reality out of the world.

Nevertheless, modern biblical Christians cannot follow Newton into all his theological beliefs. He rejected the doctrine of the Trinity; Davis thought he was an Arian. He also rejected the doctrine of the immortal soul, a personal devil and literal demons. But confusingly, when concluding his above linked essay, Snobelen said:

A careful reading of Newton’s massive corpus, both published and unpublished, reveals that he was, without question, committed to biblical Christianity—even if not always orthodox—and understood his own work, particularly his physics, in providentialist terms, reflective of his theistic and prophetic understanding of the cosmos.

Newton’s anti-trinitarianism is not disputed, and that alone would have him seen as heretical by most of Christianity. So it is unclear why Snobelen would say Newton was “committed to biblical Christianity.” In another essay, he clearly said: “Isaac Newton was a heretic.” He observed that Newton never made a public declaration of his beliefs, knowing that if he did, he had a lot to lose. Newton was aware he had enemies who would pounce upon any revelation of “doctrinal waywardness” to discredit him; he realized how the charge of heresy could damage his reformation of natural philosophy. “Fear of this sort of public relations disaster must have been one of Newton’s greatest deterrents to open preaching.”