Worship Wars; or, praise malaise

occhiovivo / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

One of the most e-mailed NPR stories of this past week caught my eye: “Modern Hymn Writers Aim to Take Back Sunday.”  Songwriters Keith and Kristyn Getty feature prominently.  They are well known for writing the Irish-inflected hymn “In Christ Alone.”  Keith Getty issues a gem of a quote on what I would term the contemporary “praise malaise”:

“I think it’s to the church’s poverty that the average worship song now has so few words, so little truth,” he says. “[It] is so focused on several commercial aspects of God, like the fact that he loves our praises.”

This resonates with me.  My formative worship experiences were with Lutheran hymns.  Compared to the vapid choruses of today’s jangly ballads, traditional worship songs offer a rich textual landscape.  They are heavy on rhyming and light on repetition.  They paint a strong narrative revealed in patterned stanzas.  And they draw from a vivid, diverse lexicon, producing images which the worshiping mind can continually engage with and readily grasp.

Not so for most contemporary praise songs.  I am not at all trained in music, but when it comes to wordsmithing, I will throw my two cents in.  Some praise choruses drag the worshiper through a lyrically parched salt flat.  Sometimes it seems as if one can go for a couple of Power Point screens without seeing a polysyllabic word.  Another regrettable phenomenon of praise songs is when the subjects and objects are predominately pronouns (I/we/you/me).

There are ubiquitous words that, for better or worse, have little impact on a congregant like myself:

fire
flame
grace
great
hands
love
mercy
sing

Worship music is supposed to cultivate a worshipful mood.  But those who are more abstraction-oriented than affective need to chew on the specific reasons for praise.  These words help:

atonement
banner
blood
Calvary
crowns
diadem
foe
majesty
might
prince
wretch
scepter
tempest

I guess there is a little bit of a martial strain in this list.

To put it all out there, here are some praise songs that I find textually deficient:

Blessed Be Your Name
Consuming Fire
Happy Day
Your Grace is Enough

And here are some hymns that I think could bear to be studied by today’s songwriters:

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name!
Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty
Loud Rushing Planets
O God, Our Help in Ages Past

I’m not totally set against contemporary worship music.  I like to sway to drums and feel the guitar solo as much as I like to rattle off baritone.  But it would be great if more contemporary songs could be just as textually rich as the great hymns.

Greenfield’s theology; or, Does everything happen for a reason?

Decent people agree that deadly disasters like the tornado that ripped through Moore, Oklahoma are tragic.  We all feel to some degree that this is not the way things should be.  Regrettably, columnist Jeff Greenfield compounds the tragedy by propagating unsound, incoherent reflections about the realities of life.

His latest column begins by citing a common, often offensive, response to tragedy: “This is all part of God’s plan.”  Greenfield contrasts this with an answer he prefers instead.  Once, he asked a priest whether John F Kennedy Jr.’s tragic, early death was part of God’s plan.  The priest responded candidly, “Oh, no . . . this sucks.”

Hold on a second. Why think these two views are at odds?

Greenfield complains about another attribution to divine will.  You might hear this upon the death of a child: “God must have wanted another little angel.”  The columnist confesses that he would not “sign up” for a God who works like that. I’m not particularly fond of such angel-acquisition schemes either. Not because it’s distasteful to me, but because it’s not true!

The columnist treats the appeal to divine purpose merely as a means of consolation.  He claims that most serious theologians have moved on from the “simplistic” notion that “everything happens for a reason.”  This is just not the case.  With the minor exception of Open Theism, Christian theology still describes a sovereign God, who either causes or permits everything to happen for a reason.  Whether a specific reason is knowable is another question.  But core Christian doctrine does not change on the charge of simplicity or any other whim.

The only explanations Greenfield accepts are naturalistic or psychological: either the random physics driving thunderstorms and plate tectonics, or personal phenomena like greed, anger, and mental illness.  This mixing of natural and personal causes ought to gives us pause.

Are emotions like greed and anger really knowable causes, in the same way as weather patterns or plate tectonics?  On the deterministic worldview of materialism–precisely where the writer is coolly headed with his criteria for explaining tornadoes and earthquakes–there is no causation outside of the laws of physics.  Greed and anger aren’t real.  Mental illness is merely an unconventional arrangement of molecules.  There is even a subset of philosophy of mind that operates on these metaphysical assumptions.  It’s called eliminative materialism.  Some will go to great lengths to avoid the idea that there might be ultimate purpose in everything.

No one slighted by the harshness of reality–nor anyone, for that matter–can have it both ways.  Ultimately, either chance or design is king.  Ravi Zacharias has often quoted a poem by Steve Turner to great effect:

If chance be the Father of all flesh,
Disaster is his rainbow in the sky,
And when you hear
State of Emergency!
Sniper Kills Ten!
Troops on Rampage!
Whites go Looting!
Bomb Blasts School!
It is but the sound of man worshiping his maker.

There are two candidates in the running to ultimately explain reality: chance or design.  Greenfield approaches the question based on who he would sign up for.  But how is ultimate meaninglessness in any way more palatable than a perfectly purposed cosmos?

One god less

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Have you encountered the “one god less” rhetorical appeal before?  It goes something like this: “You don’t realize it, but you are an atheist too.  You already reject thousands of other gods.  I just believe in one god less than you do.”

Never mind that the correct grammatical form is “fewer,” not less. The slogan is clever but a poor truth claim. It treats the existence of deity as a quantitative rather than a qualitative issue. The appropriate question is not whether any number of deities exist, but is deity a quality of any part of reality?

In his debate with Alex Rosenberg last February, William Lane Craig laid bare the absurdity of metaphysical naturalism, which I identify here with materialism.  On such a view, science cannot find God.  But neither can it find persons!  Craig highlighted eight problematic implications of materialism.  Among them: first-person perspectives are illusory, individuals don’t persist through two moments of time, and no one actually thinks.  This last one follows from the premise that material cannot exhibit intentionality; it can’t inherently be “about” or “of” anything.  The conclusion contradicts our everyday experience; we think about things all the time.  The reality of mind is at odds with materialism.

Rosenberg deflected Craig’s metaphysical critique during the debate.  However, being more candid in the post-debate exchange, he did address a relevant chapter of his popular book, The Atheist’s guide to reality. The chapter is titled “The Brain Does Everything Without Thinking About Anything at All.” It recalls a book by Floyd Ferris, a fictional government scientist in Atlas Shrugged.  That work is amusingly titled, Why Do You Think You Think?

When it comes to building a worldview, the materialist is confined to a set of insufficient explanatory options. I’ve recently found that Thomas Nagel and Alvin Plantinga, each coming from very different places, seem to be saying as much in their own respective works (Mind and Cosmos and Where the Conflict Really Lies).

Indulging the mystique of exotic sciences like quantum mechanics and brane cosmology, lay materialists illicitly attribute intelligence, awareness, and causal potency–hallmarks of personality–to their favorite model of reality.  No amount of quantitative work can make up for a lack of qualitative analysis.

Back to “one god less.”  Why should it not follow that belief in a negative number of gods is more true belief in zero gods? If the materialist seriously entertains this question on a qualitative basis, she runs the danger of believing the existence of one God more.

The Sheeple’s Judge: on the Moral Monster

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To call others “sheeple” is to dismiss their beliefs with a broad brush.  Taking this rhetoric at face value is genetic fallacy.  That some people may not think through the belief thoroughly does not make the belief untrue.

Reading the lively comments following Caroline’s fairly recent two-part post, “Judging Our Judge,” I was encouraged.  The participants, as long as they remained open to discussion, had not succumbed to the sheeple fallacy.

A few weeks out, I’d like to see if I can add some value to the conversation.  I propose to work with this statement: “In the Bible, God is a moral monster.”  By “moral monster” I mean “evil.”  The other day I heard JP Moreland supply a definition of evil: when something is not as it ought to be.  Feel free to lodge a qualification, but focusing on the statement for this post will allow, as Dennis Prager says, clarity over agreement.  After all, agreement is impossible if we mean different things.

Reading evil

Concluding that God is evil from reading the Bible is a literary exercise.  On postmodernism, there is no “naked eye” to read the text; we all come to it with our own interpretive lens.  Fortunately, we can evaluate an interpretation by what informs it.  Knowledge of cultural context, a plausible understanding of the characters, and a moral ontology are some things that necessarily inform a reading of God as Moral Monster.

The need for historical and cultural context is self-evident.  Relatively late in church history, some Christians mistakenly began to read the Bible in light of “plain truth.”  Moral Monster replicates this error.  For the most part, people have read the Bible critically, employing contextual aids and contemplating for years on the consistency and coherence of its content.  Scholars, theologians, and lay people have built a tremendous body of interpretive resources.  To supply an off the cuff reading that doesn’t even try to engage with those resources is hasty.  At least, the reading must fare well against authoritative scholarship.  Not the popular works of physicists or geneticists, but peer-reviewed scholars of literature or divinity.

What is the moral standard?

The reading is also informed by its moral ontology.  This is the set of values and obligations that constitute a moral system or standard.  A moral system lays out not just whether any given act, object, or circumstance is good or bad.  It also can stipulate who owes what to whom, and if its conditions are absolute or situational.

The obligatory nature of a moral system requires it to be objective.  Subjective or relativistic systems are practically meaningless if they are not independent of personal belief.  Morality, if it exists, must be necessary, not contingent.  A supernatural being who is all powerful, all knowing, and all good remains by far the most credible explanation for objective morality.

Consequently, to say “In the Bible, God is a moral monster” is really an in-house debate between theists.  A Muslim or a follower of Baha’i might raise the moral monster critique meaningfully.  But a naturalist or materialist who invokes the reality of evil needs to explain why what he calls morality is not merely subjective or illusory.

Justice and the Supererogatory

In appealing to what ought to be, Moral Monster is a claim to justice.  If God is good, he must be just.  Critics focus on the fact that evil is committed in the temporal world, the part of creation in space-time.  But justice is done when all debts are paid on the flip side of creation, in eternity.  That which not ought to be is erased.  The NIV translation of Revelation says of the righteous, “He will wipe every tear from their eye.”

Still, the question remains, why does God allow any evil at all?  At this point the critic needs supply a reason why goodness needs anything more than justice.

But Christian theology already supplies one.  Prior to creation, God was perfectly good.  He decided to do something extra that was meaningful.  He created moral agents who have no rights except to not arbitrarily suffer injustice.  They, who freely rejected him and became subject to justice, have a second chance to enjoy him in his full goodness for eternity.  This is the supererogatory act: doing not just what’s required of him, but going beyond it.  Some call it grace or mercy.  The critic is free to offer an alternative account of good and evil that is a more compelling fit for reality.

Conclusion: the stakes of evil

Cashing out one’s own views on evil will move one closer to theism and away from atheism.  One who is a theist, or who supplies an objective moral standard, can critique the God of the Bible.  However, well informed readings of the Bible find God to be not merely just, but merciful as well.  This is the best fit for our real experiences of good and evil.

No objective morality without God

Hi cogitators, this post is coming out of an existing comment thread on the relationship between God and objective morality on my “About” page.  I’m moving it here for tidiness and greater visibility.

To get you up to speed.  It started with a comment I made at blogging compatriot A Reasonable Faith: “What basis does the work of clay have to judge its Maker?”

I received a response from a third blogger that “a work of clay can judge its maker if it’s better than its maker.”  While denying God’s existence, the blogger continues:

There are indeed objective standards for morals, in that they are those that allow civilization to move along smoothly e.g. the ideas of property and laws about the handling of it, the ideas of individual freedom, etc.

In turn, I characterized these as subjective:

Laws and customs about personal liberty and property rights, as you’ve mentioned do exist, but are only “subject” to limited enforcement. If for some moral duty a person can evade the long arm of accountability, then the moral duty is properly characterized as subjective.

In the subsequent reply, my fellow blogger defined objectivity:

If a law is uniformly found by humanity to be advantageous and can be demonstrated as such by facts, then one can call it objective, not beholden to personal beliefs that are not supported by facts.

Now we’re caught up.  This use of the word “objective” circumvents the conventional definition.  In Merriam-Webster Dictionary defintion 1b, “objective” is descriptive of something “having reality independent of the mind.”  Basing morality on laws “found by humanity” depends on mind twice, first to recognize it, and then to codify or normalize it.  This is not objective, but subjective, completely subject to human minds.

Besides this, restricting moral duties to what is advantageous to humanity is an arbitrary distinction.  Why not extend the limit to all animals, or even lichen?  Or, why not restrict it to only those humans in your halpogroup?  And what is “advantgeous” has been and will continue to be highly controversial among the ranks of humanity.  Say if the People’s Republic of China successfully spread the practice of one-child policy so that it was “uniform” throughout the world, would it then become right?  Finally, I am interested to know what specific moral values and duties are uniformly found to be advantageous?

What my fellow blogger is describing doesn’t quite get to the crux of objective morality.  He is focused on the epistemology of morality, that is, how we come to know moral values and duties. But the ontology of morality, the question of whether morality itself really exists, requires a logical grounding.  Otherwise, morals cannot be more than a subjective illusion.  After all, values like charity and fairness are immaterial, and “facts” themselves are incapable of pointing to their reality.

Speaking of facts, there is another distinction.  Right and wrong are descriptive of duties, while good and bad are descriptive of values.  An action that is right entails moral obligation.  No set of facts derived from observation of the material world can tell you what you are morally obligated to do.  In this sense facts are morally neutral.  But most people will affirm the reality that some actions we ought to do, regardless of the circumstances.  That which is deemed advantageous to humanity is at most a value but not an obligation, and thus fails to meet the full, common experience of morality.

Escaping subjectivity and achieving objectivity is indeed a high bar.  Moral values and duties are immaterial things that can’t exist in the natural world.  The only way objective morality might exist is supernaturally.  If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

*****

Now in the course of this post I will need to address some challenges from my fellow blogger, but these stand apart and are not necessary to support the above argument.

Challenge:

I’m guessing you think that your god enforces laws with no limit. That would be a good response *if* you could show that this was the case and that your god existed *and* did something. There is no evidence for this or any other god being a law enforcer. Thus, your claims of objectivity coming from god fail.

Response:  If God exists, he is the maximally greatest being.  As such, he is among other things perfectly just and omnipotent.  Whatever justice you do not see delivered in this world he is perfectly capable of administrating in eternity.  Obviously, he is very capable of “enforcing laws,” or our moral obligations, without limit in eternity if not here and now, as he often does through the providence of governments, natural disasters, and other things in his creation.

To show that God exists, I will build on the above premise about objective morality.  This is a version of the moral argument used by William Lane Craig.

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

3. Therefore, God exists.

I have laid out some reasons for premise 1 prior to the challenge section, and you, my fellow blogger, have assented to premise 2 twice already.

Challenge:

I need to see that you can show me that the Christian god exists and is the only one responsible. Can you do that? You seem to have ignored my point that most, if not all religions, make the same claims, that their god/gods created the laws of mankind. This makes your claim simply one among many. Do you understand the weakness of your position?

Response: I just offered arguments for God’s existence through the moral argument above.  Are there other Gods?  Occam’s razor advises us not to multiply causes beyond necessity.  One deity is sufficient to cause our existence.  The one triune God has revealed himself through the Bible, which includes multiple, reliable historical narratives attesting to the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, fulfilled prophecies concerning the messiah, and is internally consistent.  It’s clear in this body of evidence that there is only one real deity.

Challenge:

If there were any objective laws from your god, then why did we have Christians on both sides of the slavery debate? Which side was on your god’s side? Why do we still have Christians who cannot agree about women’s issues, homosexuality, etc?

Response: Through the noetic effects of sin, the ability for all humans to know truth accurately has been impaired but is not without recourse.  That Christians, or anyone for that matter, may not apprehend objective morals with accuracy doesn’t affect the reality of objective values.  You have also assented to objective morality, so you share a similar burden to the Christian in justifying your specific stance on morality in contradistinction to the many others on the table.

Challenge:

I suspect you will invoke “free will” and claim that those Christians who disagree with you are not Christians at all and that your god is allowing them to make the mistakes they make. Again, this requires you to show me that your version is the only true version, and that your god exists at all.

Response: Free will is irrelevant to disagreements within the church.  There has been a recognizable pale of Christianity throughout the church’s history, sometimes captured by the idea of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.  There does exist a “true version” though it is obviously impossible for a human to know all its detail fully and accurately.  God’s grace is sufficient for a church whose constituents hold varied beliefs on secondary issues.

Mourdock’s “God intends” comment; or, Much ado about sovereignty

A new abortion/rape gaffe broke out this week, this time from Republican senate candidate Richard Mourdock.  His offending words:

I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.

As with an earlier comment by fellow GOP senate candidate Todd Akin, unmitigated outrage poured from certain corners.  But Amy Sullivan, at The New Republic, is to be commended for at least taking some time trying to see through the liberal cloud of anger.

Sullivan is charitable and sympathetic to Christians of various stripes.  But clearly, her beliefs about God are not orthodox.  And like the anthropologist who reported with amazement on a strange tribe called “Evangelicals,” she’s addressing an audience to whom the basic tenets of Christianity are alien and confounding.

We see this most clearly in her disagreement with “the understanding of God as an active, interventionist deity.”  She also believes that Christians often misread scripture, in a way that leads to frustration at God’s unfilled promises.  Now this is a valid observation and an appropriate concern.  We’d do well to heed apologist Greg Koukl’s advice, “Never read a Bible verse.”  The implication is to not read a verse in isolation by itself, but in context, including with an appreciation for the genre of literature being read.

Sullivan illustrates her concern using part of Jeremiah 1:5 where God states, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”  Her take is that God is describing his own intention as specific to Jeriamiah alone, and that Christians are applying it, without warrant, to their own lives as well.

Later in the piece, she challenges the idea of a sovereign God who is strongly concerned with each of his created beings, proclaiming “it is hard to square this interpretation of Jeremiah 1:5 with miscarriages or stillbirths or fatal birth defects.”  This is leaning hard on the problem of natural evil.

But on Christian orthodoxy, it is true that God “loves you and has a plan for you” despite any natural evil that may befall “you.”  And surely, bodily death will befall us all, whether in the womb or after a century of walking around on this Earth.  At least, God’s salvific intent is clear when Jesus speaks to a broader audience of the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to find the one (Matthew 18:12-14).

Still, there are those who can’t reconcile that “God intends” much of anything given the fact of evil.  Take Open Theism.  On this view God is winging it, with no certainty of how things will wrap up in an eschatological sense.  But holding this belief robs the Gospel of its power.  Despite God trying his best, Christ’s faithful might still end up in Hell, or ultimate justice might go undone.  We might as well be Vikings stoically anticipating the defeat of the gods.  Contrary to this, we know better as to what “good news” is supposed to mean.

A strongly sovereign God is much more consistent with the Christian message than a weak God who either doesn’t care or isn’t able to act on evil.  Simply combining God’s omniscience and perfect benevolence means he does know each of us in the womb, and has a positive intention for each of us.  It may not be what Aunt Edna saw in her quiet time last Tuesday, but surely, it’s there.

Sullivan’s dismissal of the classically sovereign God paves the way for her pro-choice policy view.  She’s entitled to that view.  But to chalk the orthodox understanding of God up to a widespread, long-running exegetical error seems incredible given the moral stakes.

Democracy of the dead

What is democracy of the dead?  No, it has nothing to do with zombies voting Democrat.  Although recently a dead dog did receive a voter registration form.  What I’m referring to comes from that emir of aphorisms, G.K. Chesterton.  Consider this idea from Orthodoxy (also available as a free PDF):

Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.

That those many souls who came before us might not have been complete fools is a refreshing perspective in our age of progress for progress’ sake.

Chesterton–himself now among the dead–enriches our idea of tradition with literary wit.  Meanwhile, Thomas Sowell  provides us a more rigorous understanding, by way of broad philosophical survey in A Conflict of Visions.  Looking to English arch-conservative Edmund Burke, Sowell posits “the constrained vision” : a philosophy that directs human society to seek “cultural distillations of knowledge” within the confines of a “tested body of experience.” The idea is not a mere impulse to conserve tradition, but an acknowledgement that wisdom flows down naturally and systemically through culture, from one generation to the next. Between Chesterton’s democracy of the dead and Sowell’s constrained vision, we glimpse what may be the most appropriate definition of conservatism.

Not everyone is so fond of tradition. There are those invested in seeing each generation break free from the tyrannical chains of its ancestors. Consider this inscription at the Jefferson Memorial:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

Progressives should be quite fond of Thomas Jefferson’s thinking here. He speaks of humanity’s “progress” and how it will “advance” from a “barbarous” state.  Just as he took scissors to his least favorite parts of the Bible, there are those today all too eager to make their own redactions to the traditional moral fabric.  Take New Atheist Sam Harris.

In a 2011 debate on the foundations of morality, Harris dismisses the God of the Bible as a mere “Iron Age god of war.” His epochal delineation recalls the popular formulation that certain Abrahamic belief systems may have been tolerable enough for goat herders or a pastoral society, but are utterly unsuitable for our modern age.  A bit later in the same debate, Harris insists that anyone today could come up with a moral code superior to the Mosaic law if given five minutes’ thought.  So much for his estimation of past wisdom.

Whether inspired by the Enlightenment or the New Atheists, there’s no question modernist arguments hold serious sway over the contemporary mind.  But postmodern sensibility won’t tolerate the sweeping assumptions.  For all the aspersions the modernist might cast on the dead of generations past, the postmodernist would be right to call him “judgmental.”

The critique is rooted in history.  From gas chamber genocide to the threat of thermonuclear annihilation, the distinctives of the twentieth century disabuse us of the naivete that mankind is steadily rising above some past state of barbarity. To characterize people long-gone as “barbarous” or less thoughtful than those living today is to ignore a twin loss of epistemic and moral confidence the world has yet to recover from.

Where does that leave us?  We were never without hope.  Harris’ debate opponent, philosopher and Christian apologist William Lane Craig insists on the way: backward, not forward.  Modernity is overly confident in its presuppositions.  Postmodernity is quite useful at deconstructing worldviews, but not so helpful with building up a shared body of knowledge.  If we want to access the lasting truths about human existence, how to live, and how society was meant to be, we need to recover a premodern worldview.

Just think.  We’re all here kicking and alive today.  All those dead and buried folks of past generations must have gotten something right.

Paul Ryan, Ayn Rand: Can a brother shrug?

In the past few weeks, Paul Ryan has been the prime bogeyman of liberals and progressives.  His proposed Federal budget plan trims entitlement growth more than Democrats would like.  Supreme Keynesian Paul Krugman has accused Ryan, a father of three from Wisconsin, of being an Ayn Rand fanatic.  The Congressman has played down his affinity for Rand’s egoistic philosophy of Objectivism.

Liberals’ groaning over Ryan intensified after he delivered a policy speech at the Catholic Georgetown University last week.  Here he hoped to justify his policy decisions in terms of a personal understanding of his Catholic faith.  Invoking church doctrines creatively and boldly, he suggested that the moral obligation of solidarity with the poor might best be served by a prudential application of subsidiarity.  In layman’s terms, our society can help the poor better by learning from history and subsequently devolving aid responsibility from the highest offices of power to the smallest practicable unit.

Ryan’s speech was thoughful and provocative, but perhaps too threatening to the Georgetown faculty’s belief that Catholic social teaching is an automatic endorsement of unmitigated big government.  Ninety of the school’s faculty signed and sent Congressman Ryan a scathing epistle rebuking and encouraging him to bone up on the doctrines he cited.

So recently, Ryan has aggrieved his fellow parishioners and has been linked with one of the grumpiest, most selfish atheists of yesteryear.  Is he just a glutton for punishment?  No. If we heed Mr. Ryan’s call to look at history and experience, we’ll find that his Christian faith and Rand’s Objectivist philosophy furnish common ground for resisting America’s decades-long progressive drive toward cultural and fiscal oblivion.

In Ayn Rand’s most influential work, Atlas Shrugged, we get to see a worldview shaped by the author’s firsthand experiences of two historic catastrophes: Russia’s Bolshevik revolution and America’s Great Depression.  The first impressed her with man’s capacity for coercion, and the second his capacity for incompetence.  And it’s this second lesson that remains pertinent to us today.

We can trace the more salient markers of the the progressive quest for social equity: FDR’s New Deal entitlements of the 1930s, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society of the 1960s, and lately, Barack Obama’s budget-busting program expansions.  The unending accretion of altruistic programs has done more harm than good.  We’re saddled with triplicate and quadruplicate bureaucracies that don’t produce results.  A little empirical evidence demonstrates just how ineffective Federal social programs have been for the past half century.

Progressivism, the worldview that drives the long leftward march, prefers central planners to do the thinking of everyday life rather than families or individuals. The result of such a society is what Rand’s Atlas warns against: a world where people exchange the virtues of thought and creativity for pity and manipulation.  Among the classifications she assigns to the degenerate denizens of the Atlas world: “moochers” and “mystics.”  People who’ve stopped working and stopped thinking.

It’s in vigilance against such a fate that Christians share with the Randian cause.  Apologist and philosopher J.P. Moreland warns us against the sensate society, where people make decisions less with their brain and more with their gut.  One of the central truths about humanity is that each of us bears Imago Dei, God’s image.  We resemble him in our ability to reason and to create.  Even these two activities are at the core of Ayn Rand’s Nietzschean pursuit of existential necessities.

How do we turn back from a world where centralization has elevated entitlement and choked out incentive?  Atlas only offers the dramatic cataclysm of a Capitalists’ strike.  But fortunately, in the real world, Congressman Paul Ryan encourages us all to re-think our march off the cliff of uncritical, state-driven altruism.  If we can get around the Left’s pipe dreams, maybe America can jettison the vice of entitlement and recapture the values of reason and creativity.  Then we will have a truly compassionate and just society.

In light of abundance

I caught this Facebook conversational snippet originally as another reblog. I talked about it briefly with my wife, which yielded some clarification. That’s more oft the result than not :-)

(Update: for your convenience, here’s the conversation from the original blogger.  Pardon the language.)

 

The literal devil’s advocate here has mistakenly assumed that Satan gave humans our moral and rational faculties. But I think God created Adam and Eve with those faculties already in place.

 

William Lane Craig recently defended the Abundance theory of creation on his Reasonable Faith podcast. According to this idea, God created man to extend the opportunity to partake in the kind of loving relationships that the persons of the Trinity were engaged in. And in order to love, you need some sort of ability to make moral choices.

Indeed, God’s mandate to not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil precedes the snake’s challenge of temptation.

And inasmuch as the the snake was able to persuade Eve through words to eat the fruit, she must have had some pre-existing rational faculty.

So Satan did not usher in for man the ability to think critically or know right from wrong. What he did do is help humanity commit it’s first sin, it’s own act of rebellion.

With the fruit eaten, man’s overall knowledge did grow. But not all knowledge is equally helpful for persons to know. Some truths are quite damaging to our souls.

 

D’Souza strikes (out again) on problem of evil

Dinesh D’Souza was on Michael Medved’s radio show a couple of weeks ago, promoting his new book God Forsaken.  From the unabridged (and unwieldy) title of the work, you’ll see it’s intended as something of an apologetic on the problem of evil.  Normally, I’d be positively inclined toward such a volume. But in the course of the interview, I found myself taking exception on a couple of counts.

The first foul stems from the author’s missed opportunity to affirm one of the most basic tenets of the Christian worldview.  Medved, the host, asked D’Souza and the call-in audience, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” A serious Christian theist can’t dance for long around that question before issuing the clarifying rejoinder: “Who is good?”

Indeed, Paul’s letter to the Romans makes it clear “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  It baffles me that D’Souza, a prominent defender of Christianity, could talk of how “bad things happen” without saying that God does not owe sparing us the consequence of our rebellion.

So then how does D’Souza sell his book in the course of a commercial radio hour?  On the oversubscribed basis of pop science and pop psychology.

Uninterested in traditional theodicy, that is the defense of God’s existence in light of evil, he tries to get people on board with God’s existence by a cursory dismissal of the New Atheists.  He explains away their fervor with a back-of-the-napkin psychoanalysis of the late Christopher Hitchens’ unpleasant childhood.  For all we know, psychology may play a major role in the New Atheist community, but the interviewee seems to lack the tact to avoid a borderline ad hominem attack.

Interestingly enough, Mr. Medved had previously been skeptical of D’Souza’s earlier work, The Roots of Obama’s Rage.  In one sense, that whole book was a pop psychology ad hominem writ large.

Back to the interview.  Once D’Souza establishes that God exists but people are just angry at him, he moves to science, suggesting that certain findings justify the necessity of natural evil, as distinguished from man-made evil.  That means chance calamities like earthquakes and disease, rather than suffering that results from human volition.  So as chilling as they are, mountain lion attacks must be racked up as natural evil.

With this focus on science, the author makes some nifty declarations: life on Earth couldn’t develop without plate tectonics.  If we couldn’t face the consequences of defying gravity, we wouldn’t have true free will.  But these kind of arguments don’t persuade materialistic determinists or skeptics inured to the anthropic principle.  Especially not after you’ve insulted them.

In an hour of radio, the author manages to insult atheists, avoids affirming the fallenness of man, indulges popular appeals to science and psychology, and fails to offer substance for the weighty question of evil.

Yes, he is a former fellow of the Hoover Institution, and the current president of The King’s College in New York City.  And the respectable Evangelical biographer Eric Metaxas gives glowing praise for God Forsaken, so the book may not be a wash.  But considering his previous sketch on Obama, his radio interview, and his second-place finish in last year’s Intelligence Squared debate, I have some doubts as to whether Mr. D’Souza is an effective apologist for Christians or the American Conservative movement.

Good public discourse is not built on sensational psychology or svelt scientific findings.  Whether it’s Dinesh D’Souza or Richard Dawkins answering life’s big questions, we deserve from them solid epistemology and a coherent metaphysics.  We shouldn’t expect less from our top-shelf minds.

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