Category Archives: Wrestling with Worldviews
Everyone is believing a story by faith. Everyone is letting that story shape their life. What’s the better story? Believe that one.
Jarod Diamond is an evolutionary Biologist who spent some 30 years in and out of the jungles of Papua New Guinea. A question asked by an indigenous tribal person sparked a decades long research project that culminated in the writing of this book. The Tribesman asked Diamond why the white people came to his Island with the big ships and amazing inventions, and not the other way around.
Why did some people groups remain locked in the stone age while others advanced into the modern era, ultimately using their superior technology to dominate, displace and in many cases all but exterminate less developed peoples?
It’s not biology — The gap in advancement between Eurasian peoples and the primitive cultures they conquered should not not be explained by means of slower evolutionary development, or anything that might construe biological inferiority. He cited all sorts of scientific data to push the reader away from such superior race conclusions, he also used many personal anecdotes from his time with tribal peoples. Diamond is absolutely convinced that “primitive” peoples minds are not less evolved than his own, in fact, he argues, to the contrary. The real question to ask, according to Diamond, is how intellectually inferior Europeans managed to invent so much stuff! Time and time again in the jungle it was the natives intellect, know how, and savvy that kept him alive. But even still, why hadn’t they figured out how to move beyond the use of stone tools and hunting and gathering as their way of life?
Location, Location, Location — Diamond is convinced that Eurasian peoples, were predisposed for success because of their environment. Diamond realizes that many a judgmental finger will be raised at this point, cursing him for his “environmental determinism”. He is quick to point out that geography is only the primary cause. Many other less deterministic causes played roles as well, but those roles must be considered secondary.
Domesticate or die — To advance, a society must be able to domesticate seeds and learn to mass produce food. Having regular crops allow a society to settle down into permanent places. Sedentary life-styles with reliable food supplies mean more population, more population increases power and the potential of invention. The domestication of animals also provides a huge leap forward in productivity and sustainability, all creating more space and time for innovation. The cold hard facts, according to Diamond, is that South and North America, Australia, and Africa simply did not have the same number of domesticable seeds available to them. In some cases, like Australia, they didn’t have any domesticable seeds at all! It also turns out that some animals can be domesticated and some can’t. The above mentioned continents just had bad luck with animals. The Eurasian horse can be tamed, the zebra cannot. The Asian bovine, from which all modern day cattle come from is domesticable, the African water buffalo and the North American bison are not. All large possibly domesticable animals went extinct in Australia giving the early inhabitant’s only the kangaroo to work with! The llama in South America was domesticated but it use pales in comparison to that of the horse. Diamond imagines how history would have been rewritten if African tribes had managed to domesticate the rhino and use it with mounted shock troops to wreak havoc all over Europe, but, alas, a rhino doesn’t take kindly to being mounted and will not be mastered.
Germs are nasty! — The possibility of sickness through germs increased as populations grew and began to cluster into cities in Europe and Asia. Natural trade routes established themselves on Eastern and Western lines and germs were free to travel. The germs that caused black death and countless other plagues ravaged Europe and Asia in the middle ages, but the old adage “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” certainly proved true. The unprepared immune systems of largely isolated populations of North & South America and Australia were vanquished by the germs inflicted upon them by European explorers. In some cases entire populations of indigenous people were exterminated.
Belief does impact behaviour — Indeed, one of the greatest misfortunes of the wide acceptance of Darwinian evolution is the assumption made by industrialized countries that they must be farther along in the evolutionary process and thus superior. Just like Cro-Magnon exterminated, the Neanderthal, so to must those of the modern age, destroy those of the stone age. In the last 250 years countless millions were subjugated to unspeakable atrocities on the slippery footing of these evolutionary assumptions. Diamond halts to speak of right or wrong because as an evolutionary biologist it is really difficult to speak of morality with any sort of authority. For him things must remain a matter of fact. But the facts, according to Diamonds research, prove there is no connection between intelligence and industrialization and thus any sort of racial or developmental superiority should be done away with. The harsh conclusions of inferiority levelled against less developed people have happily fallen out of favour in the main stream, however, Diamond laments that even so, these prejudices remain deep in the psyche of many moderns.
As a Christian person this is one of the reasons I am not overly thrilled to embrace wholesale the origin theories of evolution. Whenever, “lesser humans” factor into our story, there is precedent to destroy them. This of course, become more difficult, if one has the perspective that all humans are created in the image of God and thus intrinsically valuable.
The sad story of Christianity’s conquest — Unfortunately, not all who claimed Christianity as their world view developed a perspective that valued human life regardless of the state in which it was discovered. Such was the case with the conquest of the Incan empire by Pizzaro.
The story is remarkable: With brilliant trickery, superior weapons, and incredible bluster for being so totally outnumbered Pizarro and 168 soldiers defeated over 30,000 Incan warriors in one day. On that day of battle they managed to capture the Incan king and kill thousands of his soldiers without sustaining a single fatality of their own.
Several of the first hand accounts of the events remain. In them we discover a spirit of gratitude, there is thanks to God for his grace and mercy in allowing such a miraculous conquest. They sincerely believed a great victory for Jesus had been won that day. Why? Because now the infidel hordes would have a chance to learn about the love of Jesus. They would be prevented from carrying out their terrible human sacrifices, and they would learn their place, for no infidel should be in a position of authority over a Christian. What happened to Atahualpa the Incan King? After using him to extort vast amounts of gold from his people. They condemned him for conspiring against Spanish rule and sentenced him to death. However, if he converted, he would avoid being burned at the stake and receive the lesser sentence of strangulation. He converted, was baptized, and then sent to his reward in heaven. Somehow, there had to have been a better way to bring the “good news” of Jesus to South America 😦
The curse of unity — European city states, constantly fought each other, constantly competed. This forced them to innovate, to develop, to incorporate new ideas. China on the other hand was unified and authoritarian. The emperors word was law. One or two bad idea’s by a Chinese emperor could prove to have enormous negative consequences such was the case with shipbuilding and iron smelting, China was the world leader in these two areas long before the Europeans were. But the emperor decreed that nothing good could come from the outside, so he had all of China’s ocean going ships burned and all designs destroyed. As far as iron development was concerned, the emperor, didn’t like the burgeoning middle class that was resulting from iron innovation, so he decreed all iron developments to cease and so it was. In Japan a similar situation happened. Thanks to early Portuguese exploration, Japan acquired guns. Immediately Japan saw the potential, and quickly developed advanced weapon technology, that is until the ruling class Samurai, offended that commoners could wield such deadly power, outlawed guns. An so it was.
Of course we eat humans — Diamond is so matter of fact in his writing style. In Papua New Guinea we discover cannibalism. This is easily explained. There is a lack of protein because there are no large mammals so naturally humans would eat each other. So there you have it. And so it is, with the natural world. We do what we must to survive, some people win and some people lose. Gun’s germs and steel came to Europeans and Asians because they were able to domesticate seeds and animals quicker. Asians & Middle Easterners fell behind for secondary reasons, so Europeans took over the world.
In my heart I long for more than just naturalistic explanations for what is and I find myself wanting to believe in something that transcends the natural world and gives ultimate hope. Why do I feel that way? I won’t find that answer from Diamond, but even still his explanation for why New Guineans didn’t colonize Europe, is very convincing.
A workaholic, and sub par husband and father get’s an invitation to dinner. The invitation is signed by Jesus. It must be some kind of a joke, but it intrigues Nick enough to go to the high end restaurant in search of dinner with Jesus. Sure enough Jesus is there.
I settled in for what I thought would be a humorous, intriguing and provocitive conversation. The whole idea seemed so creative to me. However, by the end of the book I was not sure if Nick had sat down with Jesus or Josh McDowell. Essentially, after that first chapter had set everything up so nicely, the booked devolved into an overly simple and straightforward apologetics textbook. Nothing wrong with that of course, I have loads of those kinds of books on my shelf, but I was hoping for something more, like a real story where I could be drawn into the characters lives, where genuine wrestling for faith could happen through a compelling story line.
Instead Jesus effortlessly slices and dices through all of Nicks objections to God and Christianity. In almost bullet point form Jesus solves all of Nicks struggles with faith. By the end of the night Nick has learned from Jesus that universalism is a bad idea, Buddhism and Islam are bogus, Christianity is not about keeping the rules, hell is a good idea, suffering has a purpose, and that Scripture is reliable. The bullet point argumentation is only broken up by brief descriptions of the food and drink they are consuming as they chat.
It’s an ok book, if you want to learn basic ways of arguing apologetics with someone who might be easily convinced. Since that’s not what I was looking for, the book was more a disappointment than anything.
I already know that the theology police are not super happy, their citation pads are out and they are furiously scribbling down infractions. What has them so upset? The Shack is now a movie. It’s not just the theology police either, I imagine the theatrical police have their issues as well. It’s always difficult for actors to depict convincingly for the screen spiritual struggle. I will leave the varying theological and theatrical policing blogs to do their necessary work. As for me, I only want to comment on how I believe the movie managed to capture powerfully the big ideas of what it means to be a Christian person connected to God in the midst of grief.
A Christian person — To be a Christian, is to get to a point where you agree with God that he is good and to be trusted. Jesus, God in the flesh, is the vital link in getting us to that place. We are told, that when you’ve seen Jesus you’ve seen God. You must walk with Jesus to avoid sinking into the black abyss of guilt, shame and bitterness. In this movie Christianity is portrayed simply as being friends with Jesus, trusting him. It’s not about religion, or keeping a list of rules, or paying for past sins. Both Mack and his older daughter blamed themselves for the death of Missy. The older daughter was fooling around in the canoe. In her mind it was her irresponsibility cost Missy’s life. For Mack he was sure that this unspeakable tragedy was the result of his own past sins. Both their lives became stuck in the quicksand of guilt and shame. Because of Jesus’ love and sacrifice they both came to believe that the time for blame and guilt was over. Bad stuff happens, our hearts break, we suffer, great sadness occurs, but we don’t get stuck, we trust that through it all God will do what is good and right and true. That’s what it means to be a Christian.
Connected to God — God is depicted as a trinity so that we can see that the Christian God is fundamentally relational. Love is possible only in relationship and the Father, Son and Spirit have that in bucket loads. God’s invites us into this love. In the movie God reminds Mack regularly that he is especially fond of him and all humans. That was a tough one for Mack to accept, and it’s a tough one for all humans to accept. We all must suffer and we all must die. Reconciling human suffering with God’s goodness is not a new conundrum, and this movie offers nothing new in resolving that tension, except in this movie God gets to answer directly the charges levelled against him. I found God’s explanations in the context of this movie powerful and helpful. All three persons of the trinity, are shown to feel our pain. That’s the reason all three have nail prints. God changes his appearance in order to help us understand that he knows what we need when we need it. God is portrayed as all knowing, but yet keenly interested in our lives. And though God loves all his children, he is not disinterested in justice either. In the end we are told that God will make right judgements upon his wayward children, however, we are also told in compelling fashion, that this job of ultimate justice is better left with God. The perpetrator is never caught, justice never served in the movie. Even still Papa wants Mack to “remove his hand from the throat” of this terrible predator. Forgiveness is the only way forward, but by forgiving Mack is also entrusting himself to the judge of all the earth who will judge rightly.
In the midst of Grief — When we suffer, we have to realize that we don’t have the complete perspective. We can only see through the “knothole of our own grief.” The garden in the movie is an absolute mess from Mack’s perspective, but when the shot pans out and you see the garden from the air, mess turns into beauty. God is not the ultimate source of evil, human free will prevents that conclusion, however, God is actively working in and through evil to bring about a greater good, good that we can’t always see, but must learn to trust is there.
I think if every person walked away from this movie, having taken into their hearts the above conclusions about Christianity, God, and grief. The world would be an infinitely better place.
Christopher Moore in his afterword reminds his readers “The book you’ve just read is a story. I made it up…I am not trying to present history as it might really have been, I’m simply telling stories…This story is not and never was meant to challenge anyone’s faith; however, if one’s faith can be shaken by stories in a humorous novel, one may have a bit more praying to do.”
The book is definitely irreverent, which is why Moore feels compelled to make the above statements. I wonder if Moore will ever decide to write a book about “Hank the childhood pal of Mohammed” — not likely, the life insurance policy would be to expensive. The religion of grace is always easier to pick on.
What is the book actually about? Biff takes Jesus on an epic trip of self discovery for about 20 years through Afghanistan, China, and India. On this trip there are Yeti’s, Monks, lots of wisdom learned, evil spirits vanquished, daring escapes, people rescued, discipline learned, miracles practiced with varying degrees of success, and lots and lots of sex, not for Jesus though, his father in heaven had told him “no sex” and he was going to obey. Biff had no such prohibitions coming down from heaven however and so was free to indulge. The benefit to Jesus with having such a promiscuous friend is that he was able to learn all about sex through Biffs detailed recounting’s but yet still remain blissfully pure as the son of God. — Lovely. I’m not sure if there was a single chapter that was free from this tireless crusade to educate the son of God on all things sexual. Eventually Biff and Jesus make their way back to Judah just in time for Jesus to gather up a bunch of misfit disciples, bring in the kingdom of God, rekindle old romances with Mary Magdalene and die on the cross. Biff is not at all for Jesus’ death, and tries to prevent it, with all manner of cunning and deception. He fails, Jesus dies. In a fit of sorrow and rage, Biff tracks down Judas, kills him, then commits suicide. This inglorious end is the reason why the disciples of Jesus wrote Biff out of the official story recounted in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Is sin real? Moore never excuses or justifies the actions of Biff. Biff is impulsive, careless, foolish, proud, and selfish but Jesus loves him anyway, but not with an “It’s all good” kind of false love. Jesus, with masterful patience genuinely speaks into Biff’s life with authority. There is a right and a wrong, and Biff finds himself regularly on the side of wrong, but Jesus’ ever faithful arm is always there gently pulling him back, but yet giving Biff the freedom to make his own choices.
Who is Jesus? Jesus’ humanity comes out strongly in this book, Jesus is confused at times, unsure of himself, unsuccessful, and wanting to hear from God more than he actually does, however the author without hesitation communicates Jesus to the reader as God in the flesh. This was one point that I was surprised at, through all of the twist’s and turns of this story there is never a doubt, Jesus is God enrobed in flesh here on earth to save the world through his own death and resurrection. This beautiful high ground that has actually changed the world is present in this book! One just has to wade through a lot of swamp land to get there.
Who is man? Biff loves Jesus with all his heart, his fierce loyalty is commendable but his constant use of unwholesome traits to protect and shield Jesus from the dangers of this world, not so much. Biff is decidedly human, all of us can relate to him, but we are not left feeling comfortable with that. Sure, Biff’s escapades create lots of laughs, and at times leaves the reader shaking his head saying “really?” But in the end, It’s obvious that Jesus’ life not Biffs is the life we should long for.
Do all paths lead to God? Not hardly. Moore does not present a universalist understanding of the worlds religions. I thought for sure as Jesus traveled into the Buddhist and Hindu worlds I would be told that the Jesus way that was being developed would essentially be a repackaged version of what already existed. The tired old mantra that “all religions are the same” would inevitably come forth. It didn’t. Instead Moore has Jesus carving a new way forward in contrast to the eastern religions. Moore’s Jesus is radically anti caste. He is at his most aggressive in resisting the scourge upon humanity that has Brahmans on one side and untouchable’s on the other. He is very critical of karma and the justification of doing nothing to help your fellow human as a result of it. Jesus is gracious but firm, meditation is over rated, and the perceived wisdom of nebulous guru’s is fraught with hypocrisy and pretension.
The book is entertaining, and it contains some food for thought. Moore is certainly a clever writer, but sadly he resorts to the familiar “must use sex and sensation to sell” motif. I wish Moore would use his talents to produce a substantive work of literature.
But we prayed to our God and guarded the city day and night to protect ourselves. (New 4:9)
“God we need your protection, but I have my sword here straped to my side, so that you can answer my prayer through it’s blade.”
As in the days of Bastille, the gates are being stormed again. What is to be set free this time? The notion of sin. Unlock it, let it fly away, let it be gone from us forever.The concept of human depravity, the archaic belief that we are somehow systemically sinful needs to suffer an extinction.
The human is good we are told, based on what? We don’t know, we are just supposed to believe it’s true, bad things that happen all have reasonable explanations.
Environment, illness, and unfortunate circumstances are all much more civilized explanations for bad behaviour then this black heart theory.
David knew better. He looked into his own heart and he saw the blackness that was there.
What did the acknowledgment of his own depravity do?
It made him humble — in this passage there’s not a trace of pride or arrogance, he was painfully aware of his sin
It made him grateful — God had chosen to bless him in spite of his depravity. Everything he had was more than he deserved
It made him worshipful — his heart overflowed in love for God because of his good fortune
. He was unworthy, but loved anyway.
Without human depravity the natural tendency would be for
- Humility to become pride
- Gratitude to become a demanding of my rights
- Worship to become self exaltation
Human flourishing does not occur when these trade offs happen
“What more can I say to you about the way you have honored me? You know what your servant is really like.”
I Chronicles 17:18
“I find it fascinating how relativists who say they love the idea of tolerance ultimately reveal themselves to be among the most bigoted”
I must say, I can confirm the veracity of this assertion many times over in my own personal life.
It’s for this reason that Ravi Zacharias gives a blood earnest response to the intolerant vitriol of popular atheist Sam Harris.
The inconsistency of new atheism.
Atheists, Voltaire, Sartre, Nietsche and even Russel were honest and consistent in their views, they wanted liberation from God and a certain form of morality but they understood the bleak horizon that their world view presented them. Voltaire put it well:
What is the verdict of the vastest mind?
Silence: the book of fate is closed to us.
Man is a stranger to his own research;
He knows not whence he comes, nor whither goes.
Tormented atoms in a bed of mud,
Devoured by death, a mockery of fate.
They knew what they were getting into, the new atheist doesn’t want to think about this. He wants to make absolute moral claims and create meaning and hope on a grand scale, but that’s incompatible with atheism’s framework. Foucault lived the atheist dream, and as he lay dying, his body ravaged by AIDS he said, “there are no solutions, there are no answers, only that it is forbidden to forbid.” at least he was honest.
If your going to belly-ache about evil remember where it leads
It seems to me that most Christian apologists these days are zeroing in on how morality is not compatible with atheism in any meaningful way. Ravi is on to this like a bull dog on a bone! For example Harris comes unglued on Christianity, blaming Christians for everything from slavery to the holocaust leaving just enough room to toss people like Mother Teresa under the bus for their contributions to evil.
Ravi gives no quarter to this talk. He masterfully deconstructs the historical fantasy Harris is engaged in but more than that he evaluates the inconsistency of Atheisms’ moral rant. “I can see no moral frame-work operating in the world” says Harris, we are all just neutrons and protons, just stuff and then he turns around an says “what I see in Christianity is morally condemnable” Well you can’t have it both ways and remain consistent. Noted atheist Bertrand Russell in his day, was pressed with how to distinguish between good and evil. He said that he distinguished the difference between blue and yellow by seeing, and the difference between good and evil by feeling — for Russell it came down to preference. The interviewer then asked him
“Mr. Russell, in some cultures they love their neighbours; in other cultures they eat them. Do you have a personal preference, and if so, what is it?
Russell was unsettled, his inability to proclaim a moral absolute was a troubling reality to him, at least he was honest. Modern atheists like Harris and Epstein will usually retort to this with some sort of comment about morality being a matter of common sense, or self-evident truth. Is it? I’m not convinced history gives any support to that view. For Ravi, to assert evil you must assume actual good. if good and evil truly exist, than you must assume moral law and if moral law is true than there must be a moral law giver. In framework where matter alone exists its impossible for there to be objective morality. Objective moral values exist only if God exists. Objective moral values do exist. — a point every atheist concedes when they reject God because of all the evil they see in the world. Therefore God exists.
Problems that don’t go away
The more books I read on apologetics the more I see that there are the same basic arguments that just don’t seem to go away, in addition to the problem of morality, atheist’s struggle to find convincing answers for the following:
- The problem of origins. Science teaches that something doesn’t come from nothing. The Christian concludes that there must be a self existing non-physical state that got everything going. But that’s unreasonable for the atheist so the fruitless hunt for an explanation continues.
- The problem of chance. So what are the odds that life is the random product of time plus matter plus chance? With the full use of science we are told that the probability is beyond measuring.
- The the absence of ultimate meaning and hope — they don’t exist in the atheist framework. But yet we are wired for them.
- Evolution is not a deal breaker — Belief in a creator does not hinge on how he created.
A better story
Christianity has a better explanation for origins, meaning, morality and hope. That is not in question. The question is could Christianity actually be true? Yes, there are countless reasons to support that conclusion. The problem however, is that when Christianity is embraced one is no longer able to be the centre of their own universe and that is infinitely undesirable for some and so they reject the better story for reasons that will have to suffice.
A look into the future
Zacharias is utterly convinced that “secularism simply does not have the sustaining or moral power to stop Islam” He believes that in the not to distant future America’s choice will have to be between Islam and Christianity! What can be said about this? Is it true? Who knows, I guess we will find out.
The church is evaporating: Christianity is not overcome by siege, rather the end comes from within. The church is not destroyed; it is emptied of its essential truths, becomes a mere shadow and eventually disappears. Kind of like the fall of the Roman empire.
This kind of thing has happened before: In the early 20th century, in the face of pervasive modernism, the church was faced with the choice, do they maintain their core beliefs which embraced the miracle stories or do they nuance them? Modernism and miracles simply could not coexist peaceably. So if the church wanted to remain culturally relevant, if it wanted to remain a respected institution in society. Then what was previously thought to be historical fact, would now need to become myth literature. The archaic beliefs of resurrection, walking on water, and the virgin birth became a smile and wink kind of affair. “We all know the stories are not true, but the enduring principles remain.” This effort at cultural respectability resulted in the emptying of liberal churches, it didn’t take people long to realize that if the stories were false, there was no point in keeping up with all the traditions and commitments. The principles (which amount to “be nice”) you could take with you to the beach on the weekends. Secularism owes a great debt to liberal theology.
The church is the bad guy: Orthodox churches remained strong as Liberal churches haemorrhaged. But now according to Sayers, even orthodox churches are disappearing at alarming rates. Why? Churches today are imbibing a system of belief built upon post Christianity’s four fundamental truths: individualism, hedonism, consumerism and relativism. The basic pre-suppositions of the post Christian world are as follows:
- The highest good is individual freedom, personal happiness, & self definition.
- Any system of belief that restricts point one, needs to be reshaped or destroyed.
- Affirm all forms of self expression, intolerance is justified for any who don’t.
- Deconstruct existing institutions, traditions, morals and beliefs, accepting only those that fit you.
Those who once guarded the moral commands are the new enemy to be demonized and defined against; in their place the maverick, the rebel, and the releaser are the new elite.
Groups who continue to operate from a moral code during a revolution of release are tarred with the brush of being controllers. In these eras, including our contemporary revolution of release, anyone who holds to external religious truths, who submits to moral commands and traditions, will be automatically tarred as controllers, repressive and oppressive.
No church likes to “be the bad guy” but that’s what’s happened. Christianity is the “cultural straightjacket”, the impediment to freedom, pleasure and progress. Churches are desperately trying avoid falling under the disapproving glare of the broader culture. But is it possible to remain “cool” to thrive as a church working within the new system which is defined by individualism, hedonism, consumerism and relativism? — In short, Sayers says no, but the problem is, countless churches are willing to try, not just because of external pressure but, because they have employed individualism, hedonism, consumerism and relativism into their practices and belief.
The church growth movement as well as the health and wealth gospel are built upon these very frameworks. “Its all about you church” is the mainstream regardless of theology. Church is almost exclusively a consumeristic enterprise now. Sales pitches to get crowds, slick marketing campaigns, and the embrace of “on to the next shiny thing” mentality within our churches betray what we are really believing. In addition legions of churches are quietly tweaking their views on sexuality to be more embracing of today’s mood. They are moving from a particularist view of Jesus to a universalist one with soft quiet steps. Whatever the public doesn’t want to talk about, the church is silent on. The authority of Scripture is a very nuanced conversation now. The church has become just another fragrance of selfishness in a culture of selfishness. The church as yet has not embraced full throated hedonism, but certainly half hearted-hedonism, we gently and regularly caress the sins of the mind, taking comfort in their promise to protect us from the palpable sting of consequence.
These efforts to keep the church relevant, says Sayers, will ultimately result in the church being swallowed up and digested into the broader culture.
The world in which we live: I’ve inserted an extended quote into this review as I think it gives us a very good glimpse of the western world of which we are at part.
Rorty felt that many philosophers, in particular the Europeans, got too worked up over the fact that there was no meaning in the world. Instead of mourning the loss of meaning and heroically staring down nothingness, Rorty advocated, in the words of Peter Augustine Lawler, an “easygoing, sentimental, ‘nice’ culture.” Instead of religion, instead of philosophy, instead of trying to work it all out, Rorty advocates pragmatism, that we should simply accept our mortality and go about the business of creating a pleasant life for ourselves.
This was what Allan Bloom called “Nihilism without the abyss.” The late Richard John Neuhaus wrote that Rorty’s secularist thought essentially stated, “Make it up as you go along; take ironic delight in the truth that there is no truth; there is no home that answers to our homelessness; definitely (but light-heartedly!) throw the final vocabulary that is your life in the face of nothingness. And if your neighbour or some inner curiosity persists in asking about the meaning of it all, simply change the subject.”
This is a culture in which we believe that ultimately, life is meaningless, but we are insulated from the full horror of such a belief by the distracting and anesthetizing qualities of our public culture. Our existential angst is drowned out by cooking shows, discount airfares, smartphones, and celebrity gossip. But what of those who still cling to desires for something more, a yearning for a transcendent belief, centred on more than just a tolerant society?
Rorty does not advocate that those who believe should be expunged from society altogether, rather such people need to keep their spiritual and metaphysical longings to themselves, or be joshed out of their beliefs. See them as nuts, roll your eyes at them, and if they continue in their belief, walk away. Let government, education, and corporations, led by educated, nice, sophisticated individuals, reeducate them or at least their children into the “easygoing atheism” of the beautiful world. The hope of our culture is that dissenting believers will eventually be reeducated as all minorities and distinctions dissolve into a sea of Western, materialist sophisticates. The beautiful, public sphere of our culture is the architecture of our disbelief. It soothes us, gives us vain hope, and distracts us, all while our private world becomes more fragile.
What’s the church to do? Sayers suggestions were loosely scattered over the book, and I am not sure how helpful they are. “Become a creative minority”, he says, become a “extremophile” or “retreat and return”(?). He calls us to “revisit the ancient paths”, he warns that “crowds are overrated”, and encourages us to “view church involvement as a spiritual discipline not a commodity”. He laments that “too much choice hasn’t been helpful for Christianity”. All valid point’s but these conclusions lacked depth and direction. However, one of the greatest nuggets in this book is Sayers observation that freedom comes at the expense of community. The more free a person becomes the more disconnected he also becomes. This trade off has led to the collapse of marriage, the fracturing of the family, the fraying of the social bond, the partisanship of politics at a time when national interest demands something larger, the loss of trust in public institutions, the buildup of debt whose burden will fall on future generations, and the epidemic spread of loneliness. In short the western world is beautiful but it is also a mess!
This presents an opportunity for the Christian. People who are shorn of collective responsibility, traditional moral guidance, and binding relationships, are finding freedom a scary minefield of risk. The more freely and intensely people live the more they lament at how difficult life is. Our culture is a beautiful apocalypse. Everything falls apart while looking beautiful. We as a culture know these things, yet we seem collectively powerless to move beyond them. I think, that it is in these moments of longing and vulnerability that a Christian can speak. Freedom is not so free after all, it’s very expensive, and the return on investment is not so great, maybe there is a better way, a completely counter cultural way that involves total disobedience to the overriding principle of our day. The highest good is actually not individual freedom, personal happiness, & self definition it is something else entirely.
Several people from hell climb aboard a bus destined for the valley of the shadow of life. It is the land on the fringes of heaven. All who want to stay and go further up into heaven can. The solid people of heaven (mostly relatives and former friends of the travellers) come down from the mountains to invite them in. The shock of the book, is that in the end, very few choose to stay. These travellers view the fringes of heaven, as a damnable place. Their ever shrinking, translucent, slowly disappearing bodies don’t like the light and the grass is much to hard to walk on, heaven can only be worse they think.
Make no mistake, the inhabitants of hell are absolutely miserable and getting more so every day. There is no peace in hell, only fights and separation, darkness and loneliness, but they cling on to their misery. You see, all the inhabitants of hell are self absorbed. They are the centre of their own ever shrinking, ever disappearing, ever solitary universe — but in the end, they want themselves more than joy itself. When confronted, they lash out, blaming others for the fix they are in. Some are interested in God, but only as a means to an end, God is a useful tool to better ones on reputation, or to gain someone or something. For others heaven is seen as a place to become a shining star, in every case, when the people of hell realize that they can’t get what they want out of God and heaven, they become disgusted with it. Disgust for the heavenly spirits grows even more when the ghosts of hell realize the earthly failings of some of the heavenly people they get re-aquainted with. Self righteous hatred tries to spew itself on the people of heaven, but darkness cannot over take the light of heaven, not even on it’s fringes, so instead there is only laughter, light, joy, and the call for the ghosts to repent and start up the mountain where they will experience painful but purifying cleansing. They won’t have it, back to the bus they go.
Many religious people find themselves in the town called hell in this book. Lewis offers a poignant warning:
“There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God himself…There have been some who were so occupied in spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ… it is the subtlest of all the snares'”
When self-exaltation is the driving force of ones life, when “me” is at the centre, it doesn’t matter whether the life pursuit is noble or not, heaven and eternal joy itself will actually become inhospitable and undesirable.
Lewis’ ability to capture the true darkness of a human heart, is quite unsettling. The hell in all of us is revealed with convicting accuracy. The foolish choices we make in order to hang on to ourselves, at the expense of true joy hit really close to home for the honest reader.
Men without Chests:
Lewis has a bone to pick with some modern educators. With British politeness and civility he sets out to destroy their arguments. What’s the trouble? These English teachers are spreading a philosophy that removes moral law. Someone isn’t truly “bad” for example, badness is the feeling that I have happened to attach to them because that is how their actions have made me feel. In the end these teachers create a world that is just facts without actual value and feelings without actual truth. Things are as they are, and feelings are what they are and that’s it, there can be no actual rightness or wrongness attached. He calls the “intellectuals” who attempt to dismiss moral law as “men without chests”. The reason of the mind remains, and the instinct of the gut remains, but the chest, the heart, the rightness and wrongness that makes a man and gives him courage is gone. Lewis calls this state a tragic-comedy as modern man continues to clamour for the very qualities they have rendered impossible.
Lewis argues that a moral law exists, just like natural law, it has existed forever in every culture, he refers to it as the “Tao” of course within the Tao there is lots of debate over which and how these moral absolutes fit in individual cultures and whether or not there is a deity connected, but outside the Tao there is no ground for criticism of it. You can’t “righteously” lob grenades at the idea of Tao, from a position outside of it. To make moral judgements against the system that allows you to make moral judgements while at the same time standing outside of it is utterly self contradictory. Lewis rejects the “innovators” who attempt to debunk the concept of absolute morality. It simply cannot be done, for example, care of offspring, is both instinctual and rational, therefore there is no need, say the innovators, to say that this kind of care is the “right” thing to do. Lewis is extremely dubious of our instincts being our moral guide and equally so our reason. When it comes to inventing new sources for value Lewis says: The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky to move in. For Lewis, This Tao we must treat as an absolute phenomenon like any other, and leave off this nonsense that it doesn’t exist.
The Abolition of Man:
Lewis says “When “it is good” has been debunked, only what says ‘I want’ remains…I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently.”
Man seeks to dominate nature by figuring everything out. We can see through things to the real thing which is raw nature, purely natural explanations for everything. The trouble is when man chooses to treat himself purely as raw material, raw material he will be. Lewis’ concern is that in our efforts to conquer nature, we ourselves become conquered by nature. We just become stuff, and the strong and smarter stuff wins, and what harm is there in that? Outside the Tao, nothing.
Lewis, who was eminently qualified leads us on a fascinating bit of history. It was not as some have said that the magic of the middle ages was replaced by the applied science of later centuries. Lewis argues that magic and applied science are twins. The middle ages knew relatively little magic, they were concerned more about gaining knowledge (mind), practicing virtue (strengthening the heart) & discipline. (controlling the instinct) In the 16th and 17th centuries men began to seek for ways to subdue reality in order to do as they wished. Magic failed, and died off, because it doesn’t work at subduing nature, but science lived on and thrived, of course, the good scientists were searching for truth before power, but the motive for science was contaminated from the start. When the Tao is reduced to a natural product, the cost to humanity becomes very heavy. If truth/morality is not actually a thing, a reality, it will always just be manipulated by games players who want control.