In Need of No King

“Gondor has no king. Gondor needs no king.” – Boromir of Gondor

This statement was made in pride, but it was made with a people in mind who considered themselves so much a people of rich culture and law that they needed no supreme leader.
The driving lore of Tolkein’s country was that a good king would return to lead the people.

It has been remade

In the first chapter of The Hobbit, Thorin talks about what a dragon is. He describes dragons as creatures that take everything of value that others produce and heap it up under themselves as nothing but a bed to lay on. He says they can’t use one piece of it, nor fix one scale of armor, nor value a beautiful work of art over a shoddy trinket. They are the devourers and hoarders of the work of the hands of others. That is, they are what the prophet Samuel warned the Israelites a king would become. Tolkein understood the mythology of kings- everything they could be and the extent to which they could be corrupted and devour everything they were meant to protect.

In the Bible, we see twin themes of God raising up good kings and of a people who were to need no king. God’s people were originally designed to have no human king, to have God as their king directly. His rule came through faith and law, and it was renewed by the prophets, moral judges and voices of renewal. The Israelites were to be a people of the law who trusted God. A good people who obey a just law need no king. God supplied law and even leaders to judge disputes about the law, as well as prophets to preach the law so the people wouldn’t forget it. But from the beginning, God knew it wouldn’t be enough. In truth, there should have been no human king. The fact is, though, that people will always ask for one. And so, the same law that told them not to have a king also regulated the role of king (see Deuteronomy 17:16-19).

1. They are not to accumulate gold or women for themselves.
2. They are not to lead the people back into slavery.
3. They are to revere the Lord and obey the law.

Not exactly what you think of when you think of a king is it?

The leaders of the people were the prophets and the priests, people who could tell the nation what was right and wrong and who could connect them with God’s truth. They did not, however, have the executive power to make them obey. The people were to obey it on their own spontaneously, even in punishing the evildoer or in gathering to fight for their survival. This was the original design, a good people of law that have no need of formal and centralized government.

Smaug_by Tim and Greg HildebrandtWhen the people rejected this, God warned them about the results of giving up the freedom of being a people of clear and unchanging law based in moral truths, in order to become a people who are protected by a centralized authority. This famous passage is found in 1 Samuel 8. Before God answers his people’s demand for a king, he commands the prophet Samuel to tell them why this is a terrible idea.
He will take the best of everything that belongs to you. He will become corrupt and please only himself. He will take the best of your achievements, the best of your goods, the best of your produce, even the best of your sons and daughters for himself. You will make a king to protect yourselves, but who will protect you from him?

To put it in the famous words of the American founding fathers, he who gives up liberty for security deserves neither. There is no substitute for good men and a culture that requires individual and public-spirited morality and justice. This is the fundamental human problem with government: no government is good enough to lead an irresponsible and wicked people, and any government is good enough to lead a good and responsible people.

The social problem of politics is that not only do people want to avoid individual morality, they also wish to avoid individual public responsibility. For the individualist, this means a small government that affects very little. For the socialist, this means a large central government that affects everything. The one avoids responsibility by making the government nothing, the other by making the government everything.

This is the corporate picture of what is wrong with the world. Gondor does need a king, but most kings are not Aragorn. They become Smaug, the typical Dragon, that heaps up the productivity of all men in a pile of accumulation to be owned but never used, possessed but never appreciated, existing as goods but never doing good.

When we as Christians forget this, it not only makes us politically naïve, it makes us people who are either tricked by lesser solutions than Jesus or seduced by visions of greater utopian solutions than are possible, both of which have colossal consequences.

Perhaps the most fundamental consequence of this error is that when our view of sin is too small, so will be our view of the Savior, and we’ll never see exactly how astoundingly profound it really is that he will someday come as the true and perfect King.

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Gun Control: Missing the Constitutional Point

Following the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting, it seemed we were doomed to have the gun-control conversation all over again. The tragedies between then and now have only intensified the debate, and I don’t believe we will ever be free of this, because it is a conversation about balancing values, and the empirical evidence for how each value functionally works varies widely, even year-to-year.

Very little good data exist on the affect of the presence of guns on the decrease of crime or the protection of citizens. Some studies seem to claim that guns make quite a large positive difference; others seem to dismiss this claim. And the number of shooting deaths of innocent people and the degree to which the media publicizes these deaths vary from year to year.

The way that our news functions also plays a role in this. Bad news makes for good newscasting, and since a very large percentage of newscasters hold a particular political ideology, they tend to report when people use guns badly. For example, very few Americans know that an off-duty cop with a gun helped defend citizens from a gunman in a Salt Lake City mall in 2007. Five people were killed in the attack, and there’s no way of knowing how many people were saved.

There is a cultural narrative about the badness of guns, and circumstances that confirm the narrative tend to get reported while others don’t. Plus there is the more empirical problem that when guns stop crime, there is no news. For example, when crimes don’t happen because of the potential that a gun exists in a home or in a vehicle or on a person, there is literally nothing to report. Crime was stopped, but there are no data to tabulate. The presence of guns creates an unknown number of false negative data points. It enables the perceived notion that guns make no difference, when in fact they do.

One can argue that the unknown data of false negatives are very small. That’s possible. But we can’t argue as if we know. And it doesn’t seem crazy that in a country with 90 million armed citizens, there may be a false negative that exceeds a handful of events, even offsetting the argument from the deaths in the recent school shootings. There is an empirical problem here that’s very difficult to sort out.

In another sense, all of this is entirely beside the point.  The right to keep and bear arms in American culture comes from a political notion of the maintenance of freedom. We easily forget this since most of us haven’t taken American history since about the third grade. The founding fathers included most of the amendments in the Bill of Rights to ensure that government tyranny, similar to that of colonial Britain, would never have the advantages it had during our revolution. We have freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, the right not to be unreasonably searched, the right not to quarter soldiers – and of course, the right to keep and bear arms.

Keeping and bearing arms has three political purposes:

1. It gives us the right to maintain our own lives. The government cannot force us to hand over the right to defend our own lives, therefore each individual has the right to keep and bear arms.

2. It allows the maintenance of liberty and pursuit of happiness. Guns are kept in order to resist an outside force that would seek to take away our liberty or ability to pursue happiness. This force may be another citizen, but more likely it would be a foreign government or our own domestic government.

3.  It supports the sovereignty of the individual states.  In the second amendment, it was understood that the American military would be primarily formed through state militias, supplemented by a Continental Army that was federal in nature, though supported voluntarily by the states. Each state would have its own army, and each state Army would be generally comparable to the Continental Army of the federal government. The militia system would mean that the federal government would never have sufficient military force to impose its will on the states without their consent. The state militias therefore stood for the freedom of the nation to repel foreign attackers, but also stood for the maintenance of state sovereignty if the national government exceeded its constitutional authority laid out in the Constitution’s enumerated powers.

Therefore, concerning the third political purpose of the second amendment, we have confused the issue when we move toward a professional military and away from state militias, and we undermine the Constitution’s understanding of how a military should be constituted in a nation made up of united states rather than a single national Commonwealth. Forgetting this has made the relationship between the phrases of the second amendment “difficult to interpret.” Once we made this confusion and the federal government, as opposed to states, started raising armies, the whole reason for the second amendment got confused, and that confusion has been accelerating ever since.

Even aside from the discussion of a militia in the second amendment, the three political purposes of the second amendment remain. None of these purposes go away because somebody misuses gun rights to kill others. That is a crime, and we need to seek constitutionally valid methods for preventing, limiting, prosecuting and punishing crime. The only other valid option is for us as a nation to amend our Constitution, something I certainly do not support.

Once we understand the historical purposes of the second amendment, two things can be discerned.

1. None of these three purposes have changed in the present world.

2. Citizens need not only the right to hunting rifles but to arms of military capacity.  (I know this second point is controversial, but it follows deductively and clearly from the second amendment’s purposes. If we are to bear arms to resist an internal or external military, then our arms should be military capable.)

Concerning the first point, it does not seem time has lessened the maintenance of personal defense or the need to be prepared for an internal or external attack on our liberties. Personal behavior in the United States seems to be getting more volatile, not less. Economic times are difficult, and the incentives to commit crimes are increasing, not decreasing.

Further, there is political fomenting towards class warfare, which often results in inter-class violence. In protests about different kinds of legislation in the past few years, especially on the political left, the revolutionary language of the ’60s, and even of the communist and socialist movements, has been repeatedly invoked. So far, this has not resulted in significant violence. The protests have been very angry, but also very peaceful. However, it is very easy to overlook the capacity for violence in peoples who would seem otherwise peaceful. The step from angry protests to actual violence is a short one for the human spirit, and this should be obvious to all of us unless we plug our ears to the repeated voice of history. We are no more domestically safe than anyone was in 1780.

External to the United States, we have many potential foes. Our standing army is quite small in comparison to the standing army of China, for example. When you add in unknown possible alliances within Asia and the former Soviet bloc, it seems very unwise to me to believe that our standing professional army would be immediately up to the task if we ever had to defend our homeland against a massive attack. Such attacks are always “inconceivable” until they happen, and so the argument that such an attack is inconceivable is easily rebutted through the testimony of history. Even in the present we are struggling to provide enough personnel to cover two small wars, and the present political discussion is to further decrease military funding, not increase it.

In the homeland, our government has never been larger, nor has it ever had more authority. Our laws have never been less objective, and we’ve passed an increasing amount of legislation giving certain groups rights over other groups without reference to the impartiality of law. Our laws are becoming increasingly more complex, meaning that almost everybody can be prosecuted for something, offering the government an enormous amount of control over people’s lives through explicit or implicit blackmail. It does not seem obviously plausible to me that we should be increasingly trusting of our federal government (run by either party) to respect our rights. I’m not saying the government will take our rights, but the status of our rights in relationship to our federal government is not in a better, more trustworthy position than in 1780. If we understand a) human nature b) the momentum of bureaucracies, and c) the political implications of the general belief that government should “create a better life for us,”  giving them a mandate to structure and engineer our lives, then it seems quite foolish to believe our liberties will be respected in the “progressive” engineering of the “good society.”

This is not to say that the Connecticut shooting and others like it are not important. They are important. They are tragedies.  Yet attempting to prevent such tragedies by removing something extremely important to the maintenance of liberty was a price our founding fathers were not willing to pay because they had seen the greater tragedies of tyranny and war. This is the reason there is a second amendment, and this is the reason many millions of Americans own firearms that aren’t for hunting. And relinquishing this right is a price I am still unwilling to pay, nor will I ever be so long as human nature remains as addicted to power as it is to safety. And neither the emotional pleas of legislators nor the self-important demagoguery of jurists will intimidate me from the obvious demand of duty in the maintenance of human freedom.

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Behind the Scenes of Skepticism

I did an interview a couple of weeks ago. It was about a political subject, but we spent most the time talking about this basic point: if people don’t relate on the basis of truth, the only thing that’s left is power.

As Christians, we are deeply committed to truth not only because Jesus is the truth, but because we know that if we falter, the only other option is the idolatry of power. But why does this happen? Why, at certain points of human history, to people seem to turn from the idea the truth is noble and live more pragmatic lives focused on the utilization of power and maintenance of pleasure?

A couple years ago, R.C. Sproul did a talk at the Desiring God conference in Minneapolis. He did an interesting survey of the earliest Western philosophy we have on record going back to the pre-Socratics. He went all the way back to Thales of Miletus, from about 500 BC. Thales is sometimes referred to as the father of modern philosophy and science. After him came Parmenides in Heraclitus. These philosophers and their contemporaries were trying to simplify the world. They were trying to understand its most basic truths by identifying its most basic elements and by determining whether being or becoming is the most basic reality, whether things were constantly changing or constantly staying the same.

Thales of Miletus

The drama began when these men couldn’t agree. They saw the truth, but they couldn’t agree on the truth. Sproul talked about what happened between these men and the philosophers everyone knows about: when the truth is elusive, skepticism and cynicism begin to arise. Humanity’s response to ignorance in the face of sustained effort is usually to give up.

After this, there was a period of skepticism until a new line of philosophers came on the scene: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. They were able to get past the dichotomy of being and becoming by attempting to form a new philosophy taking both into account. Aristotle’s version of this ended up with the “unmoved mover,” a God who reigns but doesn’t rule. These philosophers took philosophy forward, but they eventually got stuck themselves, and a new age of skepticism arose.

The Stoics and Epicureans were born. They were rivals, but they were both skeptics. They both believed that one could not ultimately know the nature of truth or being, so both focused on “useful things” like rhetoric and persuasion. Their focus was on the pragmatic – things that work. The main question they faced was the question of how to be happy. They were seeking “Atoraxia,” freedom from anxiety. The Epicureans refined hedonism into the most systematic way of getting pleasure and avoiding pain. They developed the hedonist paradox, the realization that if you don’t meet desires you’re frustrated, but if you get what you want you’re bored.

The Epicureans saw that there must be a perfect balance of meeting and holding onto desires – what they called hedonism – and attempted to live life by the sort of calculated pleasure-seeking that accounts for the hedonist paradox. Although this pragmatic philosophy was complicated and perhaps psychologically helpful, it was a full resignation in the search for the nature of truth, and therefore being. They had given up on metaphysics and given themselves to the philosophy of tactics.

This is the Athens in which Paul arrived, and to which the early apologists like Justin Martyr spoke. It was not a people in the Golden Age of philosophy. It was the pragmatic people of the nation of Rome who had become a people of idolaters and philosophers of novelty. They called Paul a “seed picker,” but Luke tells us that they themselves, “spend their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:19). Notice that he didn’t say they sat around talking about the best ideas. They sat around talking about the newest ones.

The point is that when knowledge in philosophy stalls, people become pragmatic. It has happened through all of human history. But pragmatism doesn’t conquer the human heart’s desire for truth about life and doesn’t satisfy our need for truth about our being. Though we gobble up pragmatic answers to questions of living, there is a part of us that still deeply desires the truth about who and what we are. Heap of Pragmatism

When we encounter skepticism and cynicism, this should not surprise us. It is evidence of a stagnation of truth and a normal pessimistic turn toward the ‘practical’ or the novel. It is actually a good environment in which to preach the gospel. It is one that Paul embraced, the early Christian apologists embraced, and that we must embrace in our age of skepticism, cynicism and pragmatism. We do not face a new phenomenon in the present moment. The gospel has outlived this many times. Our age of skepticism is one in which the gospel is often found more relevant, not less.

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Misunderstanding Ecclesiastes

A great number of the historical interpreters of the book of Ecclesiastes have seen it as a profoundly pessimistic book. And in one sense it is. It’s claim is precisely that those who worship wisdom will be greatly disappointed and made terribly unhappy.

It is the perfect book for Solomon to write, especially as a sequel to his book of Proverbs.

The word translated “meaninglessness” in the NIV, and “vanity” in the KJV is the Hebrew word that literally means “vapor” or “breath.” Its figurative use points to something that is insubstantial and transitory. In some contexts it means something like “morally absurd” and in others “boring and unstimulating.” It also can point to something that is fleeting, meaningless, ephemeral, the negation of what ought to be on the basis of reason and human longing, or an action that lacks real significance when related to truth and eternity.

Vapors

This is why this Hebrew word is the perfect thematic word for the entire book. It has so many specific uses under one general metaphorical scope. It has the capacity to bring together all the ways we can be disappointed by “wisdom” or the pursuits of human understanding by observing (sight) and analyzing (thought) everything “under the sun.”

Solomon’s life is a testimony to the fact that wisdom and science can be extremely fruitful in their relative capacity to increase human happiness. His life is also a testimony to the fact that they can never produce ultimate meaning, remove all felt absurdities, achieve all our desired ends or produce human happiness. And when we use wisdom and science for such inappropriate ends, we end up beyond miserable.

One example of this is found in Chapter 2. In the early verses of the chapter, he gives himself to pleasure and ambition. And he admits in verse 10 that he actually really enjoyed himself. He didn’t refuse himself any pleasure, and more importantly, he took real pleasure in the work of his hands. This he calls “the reward for all my labor.” His reward was that he enjoyed doing it.

Yet in verses 11 through 16 he analyzes his life on the basis of wisdom and realizes that the achievements of wisdom and work cannot produce ultimate and assured success. Wisdom is relatively better than folly because it has some light to walk in. But sometimes fools come out on top, and both fools and wise people die. Wisdom can’t change that.

And there is a very telling result of that realization when one puts his or her hope in wisdom (2:17-18):

So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?

That was an apt question, since he did leave everything to his son Rehoboam, who the Bible demonstrates was a great fool, and destroyed his father’s work immediately.

His preliminary realization in verse 24 is that worrying about ultimate meaning and legacy on the basis of human wisdom and science only produces anxiety, anger and immense unhappiness. He says in verse 24, “a man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see is from the hand of God, for without him who can eat or find enjoyment? To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness…”

A few verses later he states in 3:11b – 14:

He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil – this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.

That is, God has intentionally built a certain kind of futility into wisdom and science. He has intentionally created them so that they cannot replace him. And in so doing he has built into them certain boundaries that they don’t have the capacity to cross. They do not have the capacity to completely fulfill human longing nor answer the human questions that give meaning to everything. He has done this so that men will revere him.

One of the great ironies of our interpretation of Ecclesiastes is that the teacher is not interested in his overt demonstration of the absurdities of life, as much as in demonstrating the absurdity of thinking that wisdom and science can explain life’s meaning. Their limitations produce an intellectual grief and pain necessary to humble those who would seek to make them gods. Wisdom and science can expand our view of the world, but they can also cramp the expanse of our soul.

This is not a strange thing. It is true of all of God’s gifts and every part of reality. But we need this book, because wisdom and science will always be one of the great candidates sinful man will seek to deify. And we must learn that doing so destroys both wisdom and science as well as our own happiness. God forces this on us both so that we might revere him, and the gift within that is that we might be satisfied.

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Is Religion Really the Problem?

It’s very common today for people to say that religion is the biggest problem in our world. They argue that it produces violence, hatred, judgment, acceptance of the status quo, and so on.

How is this possible when the religions of the world teach such radically different philosophies? Is it simply the belief in a higher power that does this? I don’t think so. Some people would argue that it is the absolutizing of things that religion produces that is so bad. There is something to that. You get emboldened when you think God is on your side. But we have seen this in atheistic ideologies as well; communism and fascism were sufficiently emboldening for the killing of millions. Giving oneself license to be cruel in an absolute way apparently does not require belief in a God for many human beings.

ChaplinReligion

But there are a few dynamics that do produce this, and they can be found fairly consistently in religion. However, the reason they are found consistently in religions is because religions are consistently believed by humans. The common denominator is not religions, as many modern people think. The common denominator is humans. Look throughout world history for cruelty. Is the demographic responsible for all of that cruelty “religious people”? No, it is broader than that. It is “people.”

This is because moralism, belief in the inherent moral superiority of oneself, is at the heart of the aggressive nature in violence, oppression and prejudice. Religion is one possible means of self-justification. However, human beings have never wanted for a justification of their own superiority. We seem to be able to create them well enough, and have no trouble believing in their absolute legitimacy. And it seems to make little difference whether we believe it is because of our faith in a particular God, a particular doctrine, or a particular political philosophy or racial ideology.

The scientific question is always, “Which interpretation explains the most data?” The question we have to face is, what is the cause of so much human judgmental-ism? What causes us to be so mean to each other? What causes us so consistently to think we are better than those we don’t even know? And the answer is not religion. Religion can only explain some hatred, not all. And furthermore, religion is often found where this human degradation is most absent or most resisted. Religion is not a reliable explanation.

But moralism is. Moralism has two components. First, it must have at least one criteria by which a person can be considered morally superior, and that criteria cannot apply equally to all human beings. For moralism to  survive, it must first provide some standard for differentiating humanity and demonstrating that some people are better than others. Second, morality must then be seen as the basis of significance, worth and dignity. When a set of moral criteria is absolutized and used to differentiate, moralism and its oppressive outcomes always settle in.

This can happen in religion and often does. But objectively speaking, it can be seen as a clear perversion of Christian faith, if not of some other faiths as well. Because Christianity has always taught that every human being is created in God’s image, that every human being is damnable because of our sinful condition, and that every human being has been died for in the death and resurrection of Jesus, morality is maintained while moralism is destroyed.

And this is the real reason why you shouldn’t go to a superior, hypocritically judgmental and mean church. The problem isn’t the presence of the Christian religion;  the problem is the absence of it in its true, biblical and Christ-given form.

Now that doesn’t mean you should hate every church that confronts you morally. The life-giving good of true morality is not the same thing as the dignity-differentiating prejudice of moralism, but that is a topic for another time. Another time we will also talk about the emptiness and uselessness of relativism as an alternative to moralism.

The point here is simply that thinking religion is the problem is failing to think clearly, psychologically and scientifically about why people hurt each other and feel self-justified in doing so. This is why the term “self-righteousness” has always been an apt one.

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The Empiricism Problem of Brain and Mind for Christian Faith

Empiricism, a focus on investigating things empirically, demonstrates the brain is both generally reliable and generally unreliable in predictable ways. Many thoughts can be verified externally and therefore trusted after they have been empirically verified. Some thoughts are not empirically verifiable or falsifiable, at least not when we want to verify and falsify them. One example of this would be the theological beliefs of Christian faith. How do we verify the proposition: “God is there”?

Brain science informs us that the brain is a survivalist. It favors that which will achieve survival over everything else, even if it isn’t true, i.e. “good self-deception.” Evolutionary theorists have posited that this explains why humans gravitate towards beliefs that aid in  survival, yet are not verifiable in terms of their truth.

Religions, or at least certain forms of religions, aid survival and yet can’t be verified or falsified in normal empirical ways. So one of the questions people have to ask therefore is, “Why not suppose that religious belief is a false construct of the survivalist brain?” And therefore, “Why suppose religious belief requires any further explanation than that?”

It is sometimes additionally added that the most survivalist part of the brain is the part most interested in things like religious belief. And therefore, science comes from our more advanced brain and religion from our more primitive brain. This is a conversation I had with someone recently who had held to evangelical Christian faith until he majored in chemistry and read some postmodern philosophy.

So how does a Christian answer this? I would like to offer a number of thoughts:

  1. If one can ask, “Why should religious belief require any further explanation than that it is invented by our survivalist brains?” then the astute empiricist might also ask, “Why shouldn’t it?” Just because we can offer an explanation for religion by appealing to empirical brain science doesn’t mean we’ve explained it. In fact, there is no empirical way to justify that explanation. So, why is explaining away religion through an unempirical philosophical claim any better than believing in a religion that is an unempirical philosophical claim? Perhaps this line of thought only presumes a prejudice against religion. There is nothing more unempirical than that.
  2. Why believe religion is produced by more primitive brain functions? There is no evidence that our most ancient ancestors held religious beliefs. The most ancient evidence is only about 30,000 years old, hardly a blink into evolutionary history. And although the empirical method as we commonly use it now came into its adolescence around the time of Locke, there is evidence that a certain amount of empiricism exists even in animals. Religion, as it is believed by many humans, is extremely abstract and counter-intuitive in terms of mediating survival. Not only that, but this answer does not offer explanations of religion’s permanent nature. It might actually be argued that religion is the height of the brain’s evolution, that it developed later than our empirical capacity, and that empiricism took off not because our brains developed better in the 1500s, but because we developed a printing press which allowed for the continuity and explosion of knowledge and therefore the scientific age.
  3. Postmodern philosophy is often very terrible philosophy. There is some really good stuff out there, but much of it should hardly classify as philosophy. Most of it is vaguely philosophical rhetoric focusing on modern insights. Classification is actually important.
  4. If the brain is generally unreliable, then all of its thoughts that cannot be directly empirically verified have to be seen as somewhat equally unreliable, even if we think they might point toward survival. Empiricism is like sheer deduction; it can prove things beyond a shadow of a doubt, but usually proves things we actually already know. Empiricism – just like all abstract thinking including the inductive method, social science methodologies, and analytical philosophy – relies somewhat on the brain’s ability to seek truth and be coherent. If you rule out religious thought on the grounds that it is not empirically verifiable, you must also rule out almost every other interesting way of thinking. There is therefore no non-hypocritical way to do this, and there can be no truly empirical motivation for this rejection.
  5. Why believe that because something is primitive it is false? The most “primitive” part of the brain is most definitely the brain stem, the area of the brain which controls breathing, the heartbeat and other involuntary functions. And while it is the most primitive area of the brain, and I would argue it is also the most reliable and trustworthy. Simply saying that a part of the brain is primitive doesn’t make the thoughts or actions it creates inherently less trustworthy.
  6. Brain science also tells us that our survivalist brains seek selfish outcomes. There is nothing more selfish than a brain’s rebellion against religious ideology that leads towards selflessness and love. If we don’t trust our brains in embracing religion, why would we embrace our brains in the rejection of religions that point to things we don’t like? This is a brain distrust double standard.

Ultimately we have to face the same facts that the ancients did concerning the brain: there is no getting behind it. We have to learn the wise and difficult disciplines of trusting and distrusting our thinking appropriately. It would be great if there was some empirical solution to this through which we could avail ourselves of the cold hard realities of the world that is, and never fall into soft sentimentalities of the world that isn’t. But it turns out that the hard-minded often end up being the small-minded, unwilling to foray into the world of abstract thought that is not immediately empirically verifiable. The only problem is that it turns out that this is where most of life is lived and fought and where most of our convictions have to be hammered down and lived out.

Or as J. Budziszewski said about his time as in empirical nihilist:

When I fled from God I didn’t do any of those things: my way of fleeing was to get stupid. Though it always comes as a surprise to intellectuals, there are some forms of stupidity that one must be highly intelligent and educated to commit… It was also agony… St. Paul said that the knowledge of God’s law is “written on our hearts, our conscience also bearing witness.” The way natural law thinkers put this is to say that they constitute the deep structure of our minds. That means that so long as we have minds, we can’t not know them. Well, I was unusually determined not to know them; therefore I had to destroy my mind. I resisted the temptation to believe in good with as much energy as some saints resist the temptation to neglect good. For instance, I loved my wife and children, but I was determined to regard this love as merely a subjective preference with no real and objective value. Think what that did to my very capacity to love them. After all, love is the commitment of the will to the true good of another person, and how can one’s will be committed to the true good of another person if he denies the reality of good, denies the reality of persons, and denies that his commitments are in his control?

Visualize a man opening up the access panels of his mind and pulling out all the components that have God’s image stamped on them. The problem is that they all have God’s image stamped on them, and so the man can never stop. No matter how much he pulls out, there’s still more to pull. I was that man. Because I pulled out more and more, there was less and less that I could think about. But because there was less and less that I could think about, I thought I was becoming more and more focused. Because I believed things that filled me with dread, I thought I was smarter and braver than the people who didn’t believe them. I thought I saw an emptiness at the heart of the universe that was hidden from their foolish eyes. Of course I was the fool.” The Revenge of Conscience, pg. xv

The problem with empiricism is not what it can or cannot tell us. The problem comes when we think empiricism can tell us everything there is to know. Empiricism, or as we normally know it, science, can tell us things that lend themselves to being discovered through the empirical method. These are myriad, interesting and helpful things, but they are not everything there is to know, or even everything we need to know, even to live out the next 10 minutes.

Christianity has resources for dealing with the problem of the human mind that make a spiritual empiricism possible, a helpful and accurate way of dealing with the problem of being a mind functioning with a brain. But it can only help us if we avail ourselves of its revealed resources.

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An Understanding of Global Islam

Thabiti Anyabwile is a former Muslim and is now pastor of First Baptist Grand Cayman. He cut his teeth in ministry in Washington D.C. And has a lot of familiarity with the issues involved. I think he’s a trustworthy voice. In my studies on Islam, my understanding in very much in keeping with his.

I saw this talk in person, and it is still one of the most balanced and yet informed and serious talks on the subject I know about.

http://www.desiringgod.org/conference-messages/thinking-for-the-sake-of-global-faithfulness-confronting-islam-with-the-mind-of-christ

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The Creeping Mold

Sometimes being in ministry is a little like becoming a clairvoyant with all the effectiveness of Cassandra of Troy- the Greek figure gifted with prophesy but cursed to always to have her warnings be disbelieved and dismissed. You just see the same story played out so many times.

I think one of the reasons is that the thing that kills us isn’t an oncoming train, but a creeping mold or a slow unseen leak. It is slowly growing. It’s a problem, but it’s manageable- until it reaches a tipping point and takes us down. It is always a disaster that in hindsight proceeded predictably, but in foresight was always obscured by our unwillingness to see it.

I wish our faults were obvious to us, and I wish I could make them obvious to people. But as the devil Screwtape once said, “The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” (C.S. Lewis)

That’s not only true of the final damnation of souls- but of all the destructions that come upon us because of the blindness, delusion, weakness and obliviousness that results from un-confronted sin. This is not merely a Christian observation, but a human one. The Greeks formed many plays around the “tragic flaw” of the hero. It is defined as: “That flaw of character that brings about the downfall of the protagonist.” The great classic stories, whether Greek of Shakespearean all pointed not to human failings that were idiosyncratic and uncommon- but that were universal and that confront us all. It is the same reason Catholic monks had students memorize the “Seven Deadly Sins”. They’ll kill anyone that doesn’t confront them all.

Yet this reality of human nature has fallen out of memory: that small failings in character will become tragic flaws that will make our lives tragedies instead of comedies- causing great pain not just to ourselves, but to our families and kingdoms.

One of the great tortures of my work is to see these flaws and their looming fruit, and to not be able to make those I serve see the ends to which they inextricably lead.  The broken friendships, the cold and ultimately dissolved marriages, the wayward children, the personal bankruptcy, the underachievement, the lost chances, the squandering of real potential for the harnessing of trivial potential.

What is yours? What won’t you see? What is the creeping mold of your own destruction? What slow path, with gentle slope and without signposts lulls you to sleep? What deadly sin festers unresisted? What Cassandra like prophet tells you of some doom of which you will not hear?  How have you like Macbeth and his wife convinced yourself that you can by boldness transcend the realities of human nature?

Whatever it is, it is more dangerous than you think- and it will burst into its final flames without final warning. It’s finality inescapable and it’s momentum unbridled.

Use whatever means necessary to win the battle for character. It is not that Grace does not allow redemptive things to arise from flames, it is that there are still flames, and some good and beautiful things is burned to ashes. It is the creeping things that kill. It is the odorless fumes that are the most dangerous. It is the predictable sin that is unnoticed. It is the ancient sin that brings new destruction.

It is why the Bible says in Romans 8:13-14 “For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live,  14 because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”

It is why John Owen, the Oxford dean said, “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”

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Bryan College Engage Conference- Resources to Understand the Church

What is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. (Book written by a pastor of millennial’s dealing with the common confusions related to what the church’s actual mission is – and what is the fruit or outcome of the church’s mission. He helps explain why the great commission is the center of the church’s mission – and that if we are faithful to it it will produce shalom and actions of mercy, compassion and social justice- but that these aren’t themselves the mission of the church. Chapters 6-7 are on ‘social justice’- a good condensed summary of the Bible interpretation and its implications.) Audio Talk from Sovereign Grace Ministries (1hr 4min). DeYoung’s Talk at Desiring God (38 min).

The Dearest Place on Earth by C.J. Mahaney (a series of audio talks that are a biblical doctrine of the church- why you should believe the church is the truest and most beautiful place on earth)

Being the Church in our Culture by Tim Keller (about an hour long talk that is a holistic description about how to be a fruitful church – both faithful and successful – in the modern city. Worth watching about 10 times- I’ve watched it about 30)
Download audio watch video Tim Keller’s resurgence page

The Church: The Gospel Made Visible by Mark Dever (a book like theology of the local church by someone who is been thinking specifically about the church for a couple of decades.)

Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel Centered Ministry in Your City by Tim Keller (this is Keller’s magnum opus – essentially his textbook on doing Church in the modern city in the world. It’s very substantive, but it can be read in chapters.)

The Church and its Worship by Nic Gibson
Answers: “why on earth do we get together and do this every week?”
It focuses on our profound need to do Christian spiritually together – especially in the form of worship
(this is a series I did on worship that focuses a lot on the doctrine of the local church. These four talks are part of why I got invited to give these talks at Bryan College.)

To listen, go here and click on January 2013. The four sermons in January 2013 are the four sermons in this series.

More advanced sociological theology: (that probably sounds intimidating, but these have been some of the most helpful books I’ve ever read!!!)

By David Wells:
No place for truth will
God in the wasteland
Losing our virtue

by James Davidson Hunter
The Death of Character

Defining and understanding Social Justice
Michael Novak Article
See also chapters 6 and 7 in DeYoung and Gilbert book above.
Nic Gibson sermon on Justice: A people for others- Sermon here on 10/30/11

Missional Church by Tim Keller (article)

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When talking about our relationship with God actually hurts how we relate to God

Since sometime in the mid-’50s American evangelicals have been talking about Christian faith as a “relationship with Jesus” or a “relationship with God.” Previous generations had often considered religion something that didn’t really happen in the first person. As a result, their worship songs tended to be more declarative than personally expressive. They would happily sing, “a mighty Fortress is our God” as worship, and it would never occur to them that this is not worship because they didn’t say, “a mighty Fortress are you God.” That is, worshipful reference to truth about God was worship to them.

I’ve had at least two conversations this holiday season with people getting frustrated with the fact we are singing mostly Christmas carols. Their argument isn’t that they’re sick of them, or that the carols themselves are bad songs. Their criticism is that carols “aren’t worship.” That is, carols are declarative and descriptive, not personally expressive in the first person. We sing, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” not, “I’m listening to your Herald Angels sing.”

On one level, I actually totally agree with this. When I sing worship songs, I mostly like them to be addressing God, since that’s who I’m worshiping. And since the Bible tells us that God is a person, not just an abstract object, it makes sense that our songs should be addressing someone rather than simply describing something.

Yet there are many ways in which the evangelical emphasis on our relationship with God actually makes it more difficult for us to biblically relate to him. This shows up in the way we seek guidance in “hearing from God.” One of the frustrating things in Christian ministry is when people won’t respond in obedience to God’s explicitly revealed will in Scripture, and will then spend long periods of time and much energy in anguish trying to discern “God’s will for their life.” For example, many a Christian teenage girl will be mean to a girl at lunchtime, and then piously anguish over her future trying to “hear from God” about what she is to do for a living.

Notice how the apostle Paul talks about discerning God’s will:

1 Thessalonians 5:12-23  12 Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you.  13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.  14 And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.  15 Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always try to be kind to each other and to everyone else.  16 Be joyful always;  17 pray continually;  18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  19 Do not put out the Spirit’s fire;  20 do not treat prophecies with contempt.  21 Test everything. Hold on to the good.  22 Avoid every kind of evil.  23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In almost every case, he is simply applying the essential ethic of God’s commandments (love God with everything, and then your neighbor) through God’s explicit biblical commandments into real life. There is no mention here of anything particular to any specific individual person. There’s nothing personalized or individual about God’s will for you in Christ Jesus, at least not in this passage. And there is very little teaching about subjective, personalized or individual revelations of the will of God in the Bible.

Now, that is not to say that personal, subjective and individualized revelations from God don’t exist. I actually think they do. My concern is that they’re not nearly as important as the objective, revealed and universal will of God that he actually canonized in the Scriptures and demonstrated through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and for which the Holy Spirit was explicitly given.

But in a world focused on the therapeutic (being healthy and happy rather than being right and good) and the personal (the most important thing about a philosophy is that it’s individualized), we can too easily focus on the personalized and individualized internal, subjective feeling of God’s leading and ignore the objective, revealed and universal will of God for your life. We can’t neglect the clear for the more mystical and opaque. Stop doing the one until you’ve actually taken seriously the other! Stop and be nice to the girl at lunch, respect your parents and be a good friend and neighbor, and then worry about whether you’re supposed to be an accountant, a nurse or a missionary.

However, I find that people don’t respond to this very well. They are already too committed to what they think is important in the relational metaphor. And so they have trouble talking in moral and objective categories. The problem with this is that relationships are moral and function in relationship to moral categories. Would you want to be my friend, or would you find it easy to love me if I didn’t obey any of the rules of love and friendship? What if I lied to you? What if I didn’t show up when I said I would? What if I ridiculed you in front of other people or didn’t stand up for you when others were attacking you? What if I didn’t listen to you and only talked to you? What if I didn’t take any of your ideas seriously? Would you find me easy to love or a friend you really wish to be around? Would you want to obey me when I gave a command or follow me if I lead somewhere? I reckon not.

One of the questions we have to ask ourselves and others within the relational metaphor is: if you say your life is based in your relationship with God, then, within that relationship, what is God allowed to tell you? Can you say you have a deep, meaningful and intimate relationship with the one who’s clearest written communication you don’t attend to or take seriously? How can you say you listen if you don’t listen to that? How can you say you love the one whose moral vision you hate or disregard?  How can you beg for communication from the one whose communication you don’t attend to? How can you ask for advice from someone whose advice you will not take?

It’s a little bit of a different tactic, but remember: you can talk about the moral and the objective within the relational metaphor. If you develop a language for this, you’ll be able to talk about holiness, godliness and real Christian discipleship without having to fully deconstruct the relational metaphor and people’s dependence on it. If you can demonstrate that they’re using the relational metaphor selectively, then you can make some progress – with yourself, or anyone else willing to listen.

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