ALVIN PLANTINGA, BARACK OBAMA, JONATHAN GRUBER AND THE HEART OF AMERICAN DARKNESS

It is not often when I’m reading a tome of analytic philosophy that I am stopped in my tracks by a passage that reads like a penetrating diagnosis of what’s wrong with contemporary America. But that happened recently, and I have not been able to get the passage out of my head. The passage appears in Alvin Plantinga’s 500+ page volume Warranted Christian Belief in a chapter where he is discussing how sin distorts our ability to see the truth.

Prior to the passage that arrested my attention, he noted that it is a matter of common sense that we are naturally disposed to accept the idea that there is such a thing as truth. Moreover, the notion of truth assumes a certain sort of relation between our beliefs and the way the world actually is. The truth accurately depicts a world of objective reality.

Unfortunately, however, some environments can be so toxic that our notion of truth can be smothered and squelched to such an extent that we end up with no concept of truth at all. Plantinga went on to give a concrete example of this phenomenon, and this is the passage that left me pondering for days.

“It is said that one of the most serious results of the long Communist tyranny in eastern Europe was just such a suppression of the idea of truth. The truth was officially perverted so often and so cynically (for example, the official organ of the Communist party devoted to the dissemination of propaganda was ironically named Pravda, i.e., truth) that people came to lose the very idea of truth. They were lied to at every level in utterly shameless and blatant ways; they knew they were being lied to, knew that those who lied to them knew they were lying and that those to whom they lied knew they were being lied to, and so on; the result was that the whole idea of truth tended to evaporate. One said whatever would be of advantage; the question of whether it was true no longer arose” (Oxford University Press, 2000, p 216). Continue reading

Josef Pieper on True Leisure and Festivity

As the fall semester winds down and the holidays draw near, I thought it fitting to offer a couple of book recommendations for the upcoming season of leisure and festivity; books about, well, leisure and festivity!

In Leisure the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper argues that Western society has virtually abandoned, to its great detriment, the practice of genuine leisure, defined as time spent in contemplation of higher things. There has been a great shift, he says, in the conception of mankind and the meaning of man’s existence towards a bankrupt philosophy of total work. In this view, man “is essentially a functionary, an official, even in the highest reaches of his activity.”  But this worker-of-the-state life cannot contain the whole of human existence, one which includes activities that are valuable for their own sake. For example, reading and discussing great works of literature, philosophy, theology, and poetry; the quiet consideration of a beautiful painting or live landscape. These are the things that highlight the meaning, truth, and beauty in what Pieper calls “the whole of creation.” They are activities that are worthwhile even if they aren’t “for” some pragmatic end. True leisure prevents us from being “half-hearted men with flat souls,” as Fr. James Schall would say.

Pieper’s assertion about the necessity of true leisure resonates with our intuitions, conscious or not, about the nature of things, including ourselves. The lynch pin of his thesis, nota bene, is the metaphysical assumption it is based upon. After all, a creator God must exist for the idea of “the whole of creation” to be coherent, for there to be any transcendent, immaterial truths to serve as objects of contemplation. “Philosophy…is not the loving search for any kind of wisdom; it is concerned with wisdom as it is possessed by God,” he argues. Furthermore, man must be more than a material entity for true leisure to occur and have significance. The increasing secularization and materialism of Western culture is at the root of the current dysfunctional relationship between work and leisure and the misconceptions about the essence of the latter; yet, Pieper spends little time discussing this. In some ways, he addresses it implicitly, but the reader is left wishing Pieper had pressed this point much further, and had more powerfully contrasted the meaning found in theism with the alternative: the nihilism of godlessness.

With that said, Pieper’s In Tune with the World serves well as a supplementary companion text, particularly because he fleshes out this crucial element a bit more. He explains that true festivity, genuine festivals, are dependent upon worship of the divine; otherwise “the root of both festivity and the arts is destroyed…Nietzsche says that all festivals are nothing but ‘spectacles without spectators, tables full of gifts without recipients.’”  “Can we festively celebrate the birth of a child” Pieper asks, “if we hold with Jean Paul Sartre’s dictum: ‘It is absurd that we are born’?”

Our deepest convictions about ourselves and our desire to celebrate meaningful things causes a mental revolt against such hopeless nihilism, and the only absolute, final solution is God. Because of what we are by virtue of the divine grounding of the world, there is objective meaning and value in humanity; birth, life, love, and death are not absurdities, but sacred elements of an inherently precious human existence.

“Was Jesus The Promised Messiah?” – a debate coming up @ HBU

“WAS JESUS THE PROMISED MESSIAH?” a debate between Craig A. Evans and Rabbi Tovia Singer — sponsored by Christian Thinkers Society, Confident Christianity, and Houston Baptist University. For more information and to REGISTER NOW click here: http://goo.gl/teJZcwSinger-Evans-Flyer

 

Merciful Justice, Shakespeare!

I have a little homecoming ritual that I practice at the end of most weekdays. I walk in the door, and greet my three girls who are ecstatic at my arrival because they, too, have a part in the homecoming ritual. We walk together to the kitchen and the baby is already yelling, “Can-ee! Daddy!” Upon reaching the kitchen, I open a very high cupboard and measure out a few candies for each child. Should I accidentally (or not) give an additional jellybean to a younger child, my oldest daughter is sure to point out my transgression. To her demands for equal treatment under the candy law, I reply, “Life’s not fair. Have another candy.” I don’t get into a long treatise on justice with her. She’s so transparent: her cries for justice are nothing more than a ploy for more candy.

But at some point in her life, she will probably cry out for justice in a very different way. All of us do. I recently read Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure with my undergraduates and was struck by the nuanced account of measuring justice. In the first Act, Duke Vicentio decides to leave Vienna in the hands of Angelo, his deputy, giving him power to enforce the laws as he sees fit. Angelo is a swift judge when presented with Claudio, who has fornicated with the now-pregnant Juliet. Angelo brings down the full weight of the law against Angelo and sentences him to death. Ostensibly, Angelo wants to reestablish the law of the land by making Claudio an example.

Claudio admits he has broken the law, but Shakespeare includes several extenuating circumstances. Most importantly, Claudio and Juliet were engaged, but could not marry for want of a dowry. While this reason may seem antiquated to the modern reader, the dowry was no small matter to the Elizabethan audience and real cause for delaying marriage. In comparison to the rampant sexual immorality displayed by comic characters like Pompey, who regularly visit brothels, Claudio’s sin is mild. He loves Juliet, is faithful to her, and plans to marry her. Continue reading

What should be the Christian response to suffering?

Suffering is never a pleasant thing. Yet, all of us will experience personal suffering to different degrees, in different manners, and some of us will experience it more often than others. What should be the response of the Christian when s/he experiences suffering? Michael Licona provides some suggestions in this 3-minute video: 

Wonder and Awe from London

My husband and I recently returned from a trip to London. We really loved the city and its atmosphere, even though it rained for a little less than half our time there. As I’m sure many Houstonians can relate, we were a bit saddened when upon return to our city the heat and humidity were already raging!

Westminster Abbey and me!

Westminster Abbey and me!

While in London, we saw a lot of the places that our friends told us were “must-see” places: Windsor Castle, the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the British Museum, the British Library, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, to name a few. We had a tour guide, Robert, who was a local Londoner. I could tell that our guide loved the city; especially its architecture and history. He didn’t just tell us facts and scoot us along to the next big thing on the list. Instead, he gave us pointers for how to engage in experiencing each site in a meaningful way. I remember him saying, “As you walk along, have a look at the ceiling, a marvel of architecture and stonework. Pause for a moment and think about what it must have taken to create this great structure.”

A few times, we got to talk with Robert when we were en route to a location. I asked him a question about the people and the culture in the city. I was astounded by the vast history of London and I wondered about the people who currently lived there. Did they appreciate and wonder about all that had happened in their past? Were they fascinated by these same places that tourists visited from all over the world? Continue reading

We Are On The Winning Team

Normandy1Over the weekend, we commemorated the World War II D-Day invasion of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944, exactly seventy years ago. On that fateful day, the Allied Forces went against a formidable foe in Nazi Germany. More than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded in that epic battle. It must have appeared as though Nazi Germany was gaining the upper hand in the battle, but that wasn’t the case. Adolf Hitler’s troops were defeated. France, and then all of continental Europe, would be freed from the clutches of Nazi Germany.

We live in a day when evil dominates the news. If you did not know any better, you would think that the forces of evil were gaining the upper hand, but they are doomed to fail. How can we be so sure? We can because the Bible has given us a sneak preview of the final scene, and we know that victory is ours.
Continue reading

Jesus and Mighty Works

Jesus and Mighty Works

Last week I traveled to Arlington TX to B. H. Carroll Theological Institute (bhcarroll.edu).  Founded in the 1990s, the institution exists to provide graduate-level theological education for men and women who are called to serve Christ in the diverse and global ministries of His church.  My professor, Dr. Bruce Corley, was founding president and continues in retirement to help direct the effort. I can’t begin to describe how influential he has been on a generation of scholars and church leaders. B. H. Carroll is the second largest seminary in Texas with students around the world in Russia, Cuba, Vietnam and China.  They have a great model for how to do education in this technological world.  They keep overhead low and are making a difference in the lives of many people.

Every spring BHCTI holds a colloquy for its PhD students.  There have been many times I have wanted to attend but final exams and grading have typically interfered.  But this time I got a special dispensation to turn my grades in just a wee bit late.  Thanks to my dean.

In addition to sharing with these pastors and church leaders about The Voice Bible project, I had the privilege of listening and responding to Dr. Craig Keener, professor at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky. 

The topic for the colloquy was “Jesus and Mighty Works.”  Much of the discussion has centered around Dr. Keener’s two volume work Miracles: The Credibility of New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011).  It is the best book available on miracles as a modern phenomenon.  Dr. Keener brought together a staggering number of accounts from the modern world about miracles that are taking place now in order to help us understand the miracles in the Bible.  Keener said that these two volumes (1100 pages) began as a footnote in his Acts commentary regarding eyewitness accounts of miracles. Some people (known as cessationists) have claimed that miracles stopped centuries ago when the Bible was complete. Dr. Keener offers ample evidence to the contrary.  Others are skeptical about miracles because they have never seen one, but Keener finds easily over 200,000,000 people who claim to have had direct experience with ‘extranormal’ events. He interviewed scientists, doctors, and eyewitnesses from several continents.

 In the 18th century David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, argued that miracles are impossible because they violate natural law and are only testified among uncivilized and uneducated folks.  Keener does a masterful job at deconstructing Hume’s argument and showing that his perspective is based on an ethnocentric bias against non-whites.  Essentially, Hume rejected the testimony of the majority of people in the world because they were not educated in western culture.  He then declared that “uniform human experience” tells us that miracles do not occur.  Apparently, the “us” Hume was referring to were Scottish professors living in the 18th century. “Uniform human experience” only applied to Hume and his friends.  

If you are curious whether miracles are still happening today, you will be amazed at the evidence Keener produces.  Not only are miracles still happening but they are more common than you think.

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C. S. LEWIS OR JOHN PIPER?

CS Lewis-1john-piperAs anyone knows who has even remotely been paying attention, Calvinism is alive and well in the contemporary church.  Indeed, the Reformed movement has been aggressively on the march in recent years, led by a number of young, theologically articulate pastors.  However, the godfather of the movement is undoubtedly John Piper, a senior scholar-pastor who has written numerous books and is a passionate preacher and oral communicator.  No contemporary leader has shaped the movement nearly as much as Piper.

 

While there is certainly much to admire about Piper, I think some of his central theological emphases pose severe difficulties when carefully examined.  Indeed, there are some deep problems and confusions in his theology.   Unfortunately, most of his young followers are not equipped to detect or critique these confusions, partly because they involve distinctions with which they are not familiar, and partly because these confusions are obscured by his powerful rhetorical skills.

 

I recently explored some of these problems in a lecture I gave at a conference at Azusa Pacific University.  I did so with the help of a number of passages from the writings of C. S. Lewis, who offers a profoundly different account of divine sovereignty and human freedom than Piper espouses.  But the deepest issue at stake in this debate is not human freedom, but the very character of God.  How do we understand God’s love and perfect goodness, and what truly brings him glory?

 

Here is the link for my lecture.

 

STERLING, SILVER AND NIETZSCHE: A GLIMPSE INTO THE AMERICAN SOUL

NietzscheAny time a fifteen minute conversation between the owner of a sports team and his mistress is a national news story for several days running, you can be pretty sure the story gives you a telling glimpse into the American soul.  A week ago, it is safe to guess, hardly anyone outside serious basketball fans (and even relatively few of them) could tell you who owned the Los Angeles Clippers.  But no longer.

As everyone knows by now, Clippers owner Donald Sterling was fined 2.5 million dollars by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and banned for life from the league for racist comments he made to his mistress in a phone conversation she recorded.  His derogatory comments about blacks, in addition to being deeply offensive, were also highly ironic since his coach, along with most of his players, are black, not to mention that his mistress is half black!  Indeed, the overwhelming majority of NBA players in general are black.

Now what is striking about this story, but altogether predictable, is the unanimous, passionate condemnation of Sterling’s comments.  Everyone from Charles Barkley to Bill O’Reilly and virtually everyone else in America is in agreement that Sterling’s comments were outrageous and indefensible.   Americans, like most westerners, can be counted on to roundly reject and condemn racism any time it rears its ugly head.

But what is really interesting is the depth and zeal of the moral condemnation that is elicited by the attitude Sterling conveyed.  Indeed, the reaction seems to flow out of the deeply grounded moral conviction that such attitudes are egregious and profound violations of standards that must be upheld.  It is not just that Sterling’s comments are distasteful or personally offensive.  The severity of condemnation and the punishment exacted suggests that Sterling did something that is deeply WRONG, in the strongest sense of that word.

In other words, it suggests that Americans believe there are real moral truths, truths about things that are objectively right or wrong, and not just matters of personal opinion or perspective.  And if you asked WHY racism is wrong, you would likely be told that everyone is equal, that differences like skin color have no bearing on a person’s value or dignity.   It is deeply inscribed in our national DNA that that “all men are created equal,” and that racism is a glaring violation of this self-evident moral truth.

Here is where Nietzsche joins the conversation.  He viewed the modern idea of equality with disdain, and as anything but a self-evident moral truth.  Indeed, he saw the idea of equality as a dishonest and sentimental product of Christian morality that began in a “slave revolt” led by the Jews.  This “slave morality” was fundamentally opposed to the aristocratic morality that valued strength, power, domination, and beauty, and looked down on those who lacked these things as inferior beings.

Nietzsche put the matter like this: “The doctrine of equality!…But there exists no more poisonous poison: for it seems to be preached by justice itself, while it is the termination of justice….’Equality for equals, inequality for unequals’—that would be the true voice of justice: and, what follows from it, ‘Never make equal what is unequal’” (Ellipses in original).

As he saw it then, the notion of equality is a fiction invented by the weak to protect themselves from the strong,   It has no basis in reality.  And certainly, if you try to make the case for equality on empirical or scientific grounds, it is a hard case to advance.  All people are most certainly NOT equal in strength, ability, talent, intelligence, health, beauty, and so on.  That is the reality that was recognized and exploited with no sense of shame by the aristocratic morality that Nietzsche celebrated.

Of course, many Americans might appeal to the larger context of those words I cited above from The Declaration of Independence, namely, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We are all created equal by God, it might be urged, and He has endowed us with certain rights, and THIS is why equality is not merely a sentimental or patriotic slogan.  We are equal in dignity and value before the Creator of the universe and that is far more profound reality than any differences that can be measured in terms of strength, intelligence, beauty, and so on, not to mention even more superficial differences like skin color.

Certainly the idea that we are CREATED, that we were deliberately designed to exist by an intelligent Being who is perfectly good, provides a powerful resource to ground human dignity and equality.  Such a God is better equipped to endow us with rights and dignity than any merely naturalistic process of evolution guided by nothing more than impersonal forces of natural law.

However, a serious appeal to a Creator comes at a price.  For any Creator worthy of serious belief must be acknowledged as far more than a guarantor of human equality.  More specifically, any God worthy of belief will ground other moral obligations as well as the obligation to oppose racism.

And here is where our divided soul is painfully obvious.  Our culture is deeply relativistic on many, perhaps most moral issues, ranging from abortion to marijuana use to extramarital sex.  Indeed, part of the irony in the Sterling story is that the person who made public the tape of the phone conversation is Sterling’s mistress!  Now the fact that this woman is allegedly having an extramarital affair with Sterling, who is still married, is not even an issue.  That does not even register a blip on our moral radar.

Indeed, the mistress culture is part of the norm in the NBA, where many players are notorious for having multiple children with multiple mistresses. Moreover, the mistress culture is arguably itself a version of domination and exploitation by the powerful.  Every now and again, there is a story about this, but it hardly raises an eyebrow. Worse, we are a nation that tolerates late term abortions, including partial birth abortions.   But let some public figure utter racist sentiments in a personal conversation, and it will create a national furor, and the condemnation and punishment will be swift and severe.

Again, what makes this so ironic is that Nietzsche is one of, if not THE, main fountainhead of the moral relativism that is so prevalent in western culture.  His radical rejection of Christian morality, and his claim that morality is very much a historically conditioned phenomenon with a thoroughly human “genealogy” is a widely entrenched belief in contemporary secular culture.   Nietzsche urged “free spirits” to throw off the yoke of traditional morality, and heartily indulge their natural instincts, whether the instinct to fornicate or to dominate the weak.

Here in a nutshell is the divided soul of western morality. It wants no moral restraint on the first, but absolute moral restraints on the latter.  The question is how long we can sustain our moral outrage for selected issues, while lacking a principled reason for doing so.

Nietzsche would chide contemporary culture for affirming the instinct to fornicate, but lacking the courage to affirm the instinct to dominate.  He poured his scorn on his fellow modern Europeans for rejecting belief in Christianity, while holding to all or parts of Christian morality.  He was convinced that the two stand or fall together, and it was only a matter of time until the moral principles which seemed so self-evident to them would lose their luster.  He wrote: “When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality….If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole thing  to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one’s hands.”

America is still a nation of selective moral passion.  We can still get worked up about certain issues.  But it’s much less clear how much moral substance we have left in our hands.

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