Cultural Doggie Bag: Cloud Atlas and Natural Law

Cloud Atlas is one of those movies I have a love/hate relationship with. I love it because of the complex and well-crafted storyline made up of interwoven time periods and because this craftsmanship itself is there for the sake of underscoring the film’s message. On the other hand, I disagree with most of that message because of my own views on natural law, and on top of that, the movie even inadvertently disagrees with itself before it’s finished.

Towards the beginning of the film, a question is asked: If God made the world, how much of it are we allowed to change? In other words, it raises the question of ordinance—is the world supposed to be a certain way by design, and if so, to what extent? The film explores the issue through a series of narratives that take place in different times and involve different characters, but are nevertheless connected by reincarnation, historical continuity, and a familiarity of circumstance in which a person or people is oppressed by “the way things are.” The narrative in the 1800′s deals with slavery, the one in 1930′s Scotland with homosexuality, 1970′s America with misogyny and corporatism, present day England with the marginalization of the elderly (though the purpose of this thread seems mainly to be comic relief), 22md century Korea with the subjugation of androids, and a post-apocalyptic 23rd century dealing with religious superstition. In each narrative, the harm and injustice the protagonists experience are brought about and rationalized by people’s belief that such things are simply moral ordinance—the nature of things that cannot be changed.

Each narrative also involves the protagonists breaking free of this oppression by changing the perceived ordinance in favor of a new one, “From womb to tomb, we are all connected,” a phrase that’s repeated more often in Cloud Atlas than “With great power comes great responsibility” in a Spider-Man film. This interconnectedness of humanity is further emphasized by the interconnectedness of the different time periods as the story progresses. For this reason humans (and androids) band together to help one another and free themselves and their neighbors from whatever oppression they happen to be facing (usually personified by Hugo Weaving). They overthrow each ordinance in favor of a singular ordinance which the movie portrays as more fundamental. In effect, the film’s answer to the initial question seems to be that the only real ordinance is love.

But can love really be the only ordinance? If so, then what is love? It is at this point that the film cheats on its own message, for all of its examples of love are incarnate within ordinance. The emotional impact of the film is not generated by evoking relationship as such but by evoking specifically loving relationships that fit a natural order. The good guys behave in ways consistent with being husbands, fathers, friends, wives, daughters, and so forth while the bad guys interfere with those relationships. The film would have you believe that it’s moral gravitas hinges entirely on “From womb to tomb, we are all connected,” but its narratives would not be compelling at all unless some connections were more loving than others. But if some connections are more loving than others, then that implies the existence of other unstated ordinances.

Nowhere is this more clear than in 1930′s Scotland, which ends up being the most disjointed narrative of the group precisely because it alone eschews reliance on typical ordinance. Robert Frobisher is a homosexual composer who leaves his lover to pursue his artistic vision. This piece of the story is tied together by Robert’s narration of letters to his lover as he describes the trials and tribulations of his attempts to compose and publish the Cloud Atlas sextet. Their love is portrayed in typical romantic fashion as something that is too pure and noble for this cruel world—just like Robert’s artistic vision, for which he runs himself ragged and then kills himself when finished. But what is it that makes Robert’s relationship loving besides the glowing self-description in his letters? He sleeps with his boss’s wife out of convenience to his ambition while he assures his original lover that it doesn’t have anywhere close to the deep spiritual meaning their own liaisons had. He attempts to sleep with his boss as well, but his boss is uninterested and demands credit for the Cloud Atlas in exchange for keeping his homosexuality a secret. Robert flees to a run-down hotel room to finish his composition on his own. The narrative reaches its climax as Robert’s lover, upon learning that he is in trouble, desperately searches for him. Robert knows this and even watches his lover’s desperation from the shadows with a smile on his face, but intentionally avoids him, only to go back to his hotel room and kill himself, thus ensuring for himself his fame and the credit for his music. In the end, what does the audience have to make them think that Robert actually loved his pen pal? He isn’t faithful to him, or even terribly considerate of him in general. He abandons him twice purely for ambition, and never expresses any concern from him outside of the text of the letters themselves. In other words, it commits the literary sin of telling instead of showing because it has nothing real to show. Without ordinance, love is an abstraction that never touches the real world.

Having abandoned natural law and the God who authorizes it, Western society has been seeking a new basis for morality for some time. But however hard they try, they eventually need to absentmindedly rely on the very natural law they eschewed. The person who says “you can do anything you want as long as you don’t hurt anybody” has said nothing at all unless he and his audience know what “hurt” means. In the same way, “from womb to tomb, we are all connected” is a catchy phrase, but is meaningless unless “connected” is defined. Unfortunately, the more seriously the audience takes Cloud Atlas, the less it has to say.

Posted in Culture, Natural Law | Leave a comment

The Cultivation of Shame

“You need to hold your temper.”

It was a phrase I heard from my dad on numerous occasions when I was growing up. At the time, of course, I did not get the blacksmithing reference—the ability of metal to retain its shape and edge when under duress. But despite that, I did get the message: anger is natural, but you can’t just lose your cool over every irritation that you encounter; you need to learn self-control.

So was my dad trampling all over my feelings? Was he scarring me for life? Was he emotionally manipulating me just to get me to behave? Was he tearing down my self-worth or devaluing me by foisting temperance on an intemperate little boy? Of course not. He was merely doing me the fatherly service of civilizing me—of training virtues where none had yet formed.

Anger is indeed a natural emotion, but teaching self-control is not emotional manipulation—it is emotional cultivation, for no young child knows well how to discern what kinds of things are worth being angry over. Neither was it detrimental to my self-worth, for no young child has an adequate sense of proportion. I can remember one episode when I freaked out over a popped balloon to the point where I wanted revenge on the one who accidentally popped it. Granted, that was one incredible balloon; but the perspective granted by maturity shows how childish and destructive my reaction was—not because of a loss of childlike wonder at simple things, but because of a gain of respect for family and neighbors. Indeed, what kind of sense of self-worth could I have had if I had never acquired that perspective? This kind of maturity does not simply happen—it is a gift from our parents that we receive through the way they raise us. Thankfully, very few people would ever advise a parent that they should never tell their child to hold their temper.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of other phrases I heard from my parents. I believe, for example, that I heard “shame on you” from my mom from time to time. Now that I’m rapidly approaching the life stage that triggers unsolicited parenting advice, I’ve begun to hear that this is something one should never say to a child. Why not? Because it tears down their sense of self-worth. Because it is emotional manipulation to get them to behave. Because it scars children for life by trampling all over their feelings and by imprisoning them in social conformity. However, I don’t believe this is true for addressing feelings of shame any more than it is true for anger. On the contrary, removing the phrase from a parent’s lexicon can prevent maturity and the formation of virtues.

Like anger, shame is a natural emotion that everyone experiences, and we all experience both emotions for the same reason: Sometimes the moral law written on our hearts bumps up against reality. Though a child’s sense of right and wrong is unrefined, it exists from the earliest ages. Anger is triggered by perceived injustice, while perceived justice triggers feelings of magnanimity. Likewise, feelings of shame are triggered by perceived transgression while doing what we perceive as the right thing triggers feelings of pride. By itself, feeling shame is not right or wrong—it simply is. Shame is certainly a less pleasant emotion than anger is—righteous anger is something people are generally very comfortable with—but that does not mean the feeling must be avoided. It does, however, mean that shameful actions must be avoided. Like pain, shame is actually a good thing because it exists as a hedge against self-destruction.

But just as young children lack discernment when it comes to anger, so also, few young children have a good grasp on what kinds of things are shameful. This is something that parents must train and nourish. As a child, I did plenty of shameful things. Most of these I figured out for myself or caught on with some simple parental instruction. Other times, I needed to be straightforwardly told when shame was appropriate, and so I heard “shame on you.” Accordingly, far from resenting my mom for “shaming” me, I’m grateful to her. Where would I be if my sense of shame was left uncultivated? Would there even be any real significance to the feelings of self-worth possessed by an emotional barbarian who has no grasp on how to delineate sources of pride from sources of shame?

The consequences of negating shame can be easily seen in the area in which shame has been most intentionally negated: sexuality. Men and women are increasingly becoming sexually barbaric. Monogamous marriage having decades ago given way to successive polygamy (or, as it is less accurately known, serial monogamy), successive polygamy is quickly giving way to simple hook-ups—spontaneous sexual encounters with no spoken expectations of continuity. In other words, like a typical squirrel, smelling good and looking good during mating season is pretty much all there is to it for many young men and women. Though this is erroneously considered by many to be liberating, it has a remarkable tendency to inadvertently sound very unpleasant even as it is being extolled. This atrophy of chastity, though bad in and of itself, is accompanied by other types of harm: disease, depression, deliberate barrenness, children deprived of a stable home, and the murder of the inconveniently conceived. These changes in cultural attitudes toward children are particularly barbaric, for children represent the continuity of civilization.

Unsurprisingly, most of civilized humanity has therefore historically recognized such behavior as shameful. Nevertheless, many sex-positive feminists and others have spent a great deal of effort trying to erase the feelings of shame that still tenaciously cling to contemporary sexual license. And yet, shame is a part of human nature. It cannot be entirely expunged no matter how much effort is devoted to the task. Unsurprisingly, studies show that such sexually barbaric behavior still tends to produce shame. Given that the sexual revolution was already old by the time today’s youth were even born, the go-to explanation that this persistent shame is a result of culturally entrenched sexual taboos is increasingly implausible.

Even where people seem to shamelessly embrace shameful behavior, it is usually the case that shame has been diverted rather than removed. Younger generations—young women in particular because of the way they are targeted by feminists—have been trained in some very peculiar kinds of shame.

One of the most common is shame at being ashamed. As the thrill of hooking-up wears thin and the emotional wounds deepen, many women end up forcing themselves to continue participating in that culture. After all, they have often been told that being a strong, independent, and sexually liberated woman depends on such participation. Anything else is prudish or puritanical—some of the worst kinds of insults that can be leveled today. And so it becomes a kind of responsibility. One of the reasons these hook-ups are so often drunken is not that drunkenness leads to irresponsibility, but that alcohol is needed as an anodyne against naturally occurring feelings of shame—not part of the fun, but a tool to be exploited. And so shame becomes inverted. Like a deadline that forces an industrious worker to drink coffee as she pulls an all-nighter, hook-ups become a responsibility that people are ashamed of not living up to, even if they need liquid encouragement.

Another common diversion of shame is shame over the provocation of shame. “Slut-shaming,” for example, has drawn a great deal of fire. Some of this is in response to instances of bullying and manipulation, and such instances are indeed wrong simply because they are bullying and manipulation. At the same time, however, many are accused of shaming simply because they have expressed the value of chastity or reminded someone of the existence of sexual morality. Such reminders may make the unchaste feel ashamed just as reminders about courage may make the cowardly feel ashamed or reminders about temperance may make the intemperate feel ashamed. Nevertheless, these reminders are not “shaming” in any negative sense. They do not bully; they civilize. They do not manipulate; they cultivate. They do not denigrate anyone’s humanity, but help transform immature humans into mature humans. And so, when these shame-provoking reminders are themselves shamed away, civilization and cultivation do not happen.

Expectations of chastity having been denigrated because they were perceived to be burdensome, the corresponding shame which reinforced them was therefore attacked and displaced. The result was simply trading a sensible burden for an incoherent one. Young millennial Kristina describes the experience in a recent Rolling Stone feature. Because she became disillusioned with relationship prospects as a freshman in college after her experiences with “frat bros,” she trained herself to act like one of the same frat-bros that disillusioned her. Now she describes herself as a “sexual vulture” and before circling carcases, she “pre-games with a water bottle full of vodka tonic before moving on to the rugby house, where the sporty all-American type of guy that Kristina favors should be in abundance.” It is a story in which manufactured moxie blends with an undercurrent of despair to form a very convoluted confession. She rebels against the “douches” who are just “looking for someone to bang” by conforming to their expectations instead of the allegedly burdensome expectation of chastity. Though she now finds even the idea of dating and boyfriends distasteful and has given up on a sweetheart she’ll be with forever, she nevertheless wistfully hopes that servicing 29 guys and counting will turn out to be a great way to get the big wedding she’s always dreamed of. After all, she says of herself and her peers that “We’ll be so experienced in all the people that we don’t want, when we find the person who we do want, it’s just going to happen.” Behold sexual liberation: drugging yourself up to service unwanted guys, hoping against hope that your empowered no-strings sexual encounters will eventually lead to the strings you actually wanted in the first place.

Though my examples have been from the area of sexuality, a cultivated sense of shame is of broad human value, and its breakdown bears other consequences. The practice of shame-shaming has recently grown to include laughable attempts to ban words like “bossy” and even “sorry” because apparently all users of that latter word owe the world an apology, and they had better offer it or else. And so two extremely unpleasant personality traits are being extolled as virtues. Likewise, the diversion of shame creates bizarre expectations. There was a time when the typical salt-of-the-earth blue-collar Americans—men in particular—were ashamed of government handouts because of the expectation that a man should be able to take care of his family When various New Deal programs were first introduced, many who were in need refused for this very reason. This kind of shame, consistent as it is with male nature, had a great deal of utility, for it accepted charity only as an absolute last resort and promoted diligence, hard work, and perseverance. The various attempts to expunge this shame over the years have resulted in the expectation of charity as a legitimated way-of-life and a loss of the expectation of self-reliance from which most actual self-reliance ultimately sprang. Nowadays, shame is more often encouraged over attempts to curtail harmful social welfare programs. A cultivated sense of shame helps us make sense of expectations so that we can sort the wheat from the chaff. Without it, people are easily manipulated, whether by a teenager’s expectations of no-strings sex, an office-worker’s expectation of obedience from peers, or a by welfare queen’s expectation of a handout.

Shame is a part of human nature, and it will be a necessary one for as long as we are prone to shameful behavior. As a result, whether or not we feel shame will never be optional for us no matter how much effort we devote to the task. What is optional is whether we cultivate that sense of shame so that it can accurately discern the shameful from the benign or let it grow wild and unkempt, making emotional barbarians of future generations. The ill-advised social experiments of the last century have borne their results, and ignorance is no longer a valid excuse for continuing them. It is time we get over the outdated notion of being ashamed of shame.

Posted in Chastity, Culture, Ethics, Feminism | 4 Comments

That’s Just Your Reading Comprehension

Any Christian who has ever argued theology with people has probably, at some point, heard the phrase, “That’s just your interpretation” in response to a citation of what God actually teaches in His Word. It’s the “whatever” of the literary world—an end to discussion without an acknowledgment that any salient points have been made.

Many postmodernists have long conceived of “interpretation” as though it were a barrier between a person and the true meaning of the text. They take examples of static in the transmission of a text’s meaning from one person to another, cannot see a way to resolve it, and finally conclude that the real text must therefore be forever closed off from us. Instead, all we have are our own interpretations of the text rather than the text itself. Debates over what the text really mean are therefore irrelevant—all these arguments really consist of are two different but equally valid interpretations attempting to occupy the same social space. They have nothing to do with what is written, only with personal thoughts.

Of course, wise people know that this is an incoherent kind of dodge. If it works intellectually at all, then it can be applied to anything, including the views of the postmodernist. Any disagreement could be immediately resolved in one’s favor by “interpreting” everything said by an interlocutor as agreement with one’s own position.

“I completely disagree with everything you just said.”
“Well, I’m glad we’re in agreement.”
“But I’m disagreeing with you!”
“That’s just your interpretation. My interpretation is that you think I’m brilliant… and good-looking.”

Ridiculous, of course, but no more so than its more typical applications. The fact that even postmodernists keep on talking about texts as if their words make sense to other people indicates that they don’t really believe interpretation is an airtight barrier between us and the text, no matter what they pretend when it comes to subjects like theology and philosophy.

In reality, interpretation is simply our reception of the text—a part of who we are as readers. Far from being a barrier, it is not a third thing between us and the text at all, but our very act of reading the text. When talking about Scripture, a better term than interpretation would be a skill called “reading comprehension.” Accordingly, the popular rejoinder of “that’s just your interpretation” should be more accurately expressed as “that’s just your reading comprehension.”

Of course, if the matter comes down to reading comprehension, there is no immediate sense of “my view is inherently just as valid as yours.” On the contrary, it’s quite clear that some people comprehend writing better than others. This is why children are taught to read—so that they can comprehend texts well rather than poorly. This is why most forms of standardized testing have a component for reading comprehension (under various monikers) and why some students do better than others. When reading comprehension is challenged, it is not a dismissal of the subject. It is instead a question of who is comprehending the text better, the resolution of which steers us back to the text in question (often more of the text than was originally cited)—the very last thing that’s-just-your-interpretation guy wants to actually read.

One of the clearest signs that a person’s reading comprehension skills are poor is that they have determined what a text is allowed to say prior to reading it. Take, for example, the Bible’s teachings about homosexuality. Most pro-homosexuality activists are honest in that they openly do not care what the Bible says on the subject. For non-Christians, the Bible is relevant only when it intrudes on their lives in some fashion. The same true of theological liberals who, though less honest because they falsely claim to be Christian, are nevertheless open about seeing the Bible as a product of its time whose value is always subsidiary to modernistic “enlightened” opinions. Sometimes, however, there are people who want to belong to orthodox Christianity—who want to believe that their religion is actually true—but do not want to believe some of the inconvenient details. They cannot dismiss the text as non-Christians do, nor can they completely subject it to the Spirit of the Age as theological liberal heretics do, but they believe they can categorize some Biblical teachings as coming from an “interpretation” rather than from the text itself.

According to these individuals, the Biblical passages about homosexuality are true and applicable to Christians, but are not referring to homosexuality as we understand it today according to their own interpretation. Moses was just talking about acts of dominance that are more like rape. Paul was just talking about Greek pederasty and homosexual promiscuity. None of them were talking about the (supposedly) monogamous and faithful homosexuality we encounter today. If this is my interpretation, than the opposing orthodox view must be the other person’s interpretation—not a teaching a Scripture. Add a dash of misunderstood Sola Scriptura, and the rationalization is complete: our modern kind of homosexuality must be permitted because everything not specifically condemned by Scripture is permitted.

But what happens when we remove the “interpretation” dodge and treat the contention as a matter of reading comprehension instead? Well, then we have to ask, “how do we know that these Bible passages aren’t about homosexuality as we encounter it today?” Here the answers diverge, but I usually only see variations on two general themes. The first is that we know this because our loving and monogamous form of homosexuality is only a modern discovery; so ancient prophets couldn’t possibly have been talking about it. The second is that because our kind of homosexuality is good and loving, and a good and loving God would never condemn something good and loving, so He must have been condemning something else—something sort-of-homosexual that isn’t good and loving.

There are plenty of historical and logical reasons why both of these “how do we know” answers are dubious, but here I’d like to focus on what they mean for reading comprehension specifically. In neither case does one actually need to look at the text itself to see what Scripture actually says. In both cases, the outcome is determined apart from the text. If ancient prophets couldn’t possibly have been talking modern homosexuality, then they couldn’t possibly have been talking about it no matter what the prophets actually say. If God would never condemn something one sees as good and loving, then His words will always mean something other than that no matter what they are. At this point, one does not even need to read the Bible to find out that homosexuality is just peachy as far as Scripture is concerned. In the end, the fact that one’s reading comprehension doesn’t actually involve reading is always indicative that it is very poor indeed.

The example I used is about homosexuality, but it applies to all sorts of subjects anywhere from wifely submission to whether the Sacraments actually do anything (i.e. whether “Baptism now saves you” is just my interpretation of “Baptism now saves you.”) People try to avoid all sorts of teachings for all sorts of reasons by shifting focus from the text to interpretations. The more industrious seek out various creeds, confessions, and writings of the Church Fathers to show that their interpretation is part of the historic church. But as valuable as such documents are to help us refine our Biblical reading comprehension skills, they can never be a stand-in for reading the text itself. When two Christians disagree over what God is teaching them, the problem is not interpretation—the problem is at least one of the two Christians.

Posted in Apologetics, Theological Liberalism, Theology | Leave a comment

Domesticated Camels in Genesis not yet Confirmed by Science

At least, that’s how a more objective headline regarding the recent findings of two Israeli archeologists might read (though I suppose one could quibble about the “yet.”) Instead we get headlines like “Is Camel Discovery the Straw the Broke the Bible’s Back?” and “Camels had no Business in Genesis.” I suppose Christians should be used to the spin applied by liberal reporters slavering for license to encourage the disregard of parts of God’s Word that they don’t like. But what did these archeologists actually discover? Have they really disproved the Bible?

The American Friends of Tel Aviv University summarize the findings this way:

Camels are mentioned as pack animals in the biblical stories of Abraham, Joseph, and Jacob. But archaeologists have shown that camels were not domesticated in the Land of Israel until centuries after the Age of the Patriarchs (2000-1500 BCE). In addition to challenging the Bible’s historicity, this anachronism is direct proof that the text was compiled well after the events it describes.

That is certainly a bold claim. What evidence do they present? Well, the archeologists examined an unspecified number of ancient copper smelting sites in a specific area of Palestine: the Aravah Valley. Here they found an unspecified amount of camel bones buried in various layers of soil. Most of these bones showed signs of wear-and-tear consistent with having frequently carried heavy loads. The earliest of these bones (11th to 9th century B.C. according to carbon-dating) is well after the time of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob who, according to Genesis, used domesticated camels. There were older camel bones that were also discovered, but these did not have the same signs of wear-and-tear, leading the researchers to conclude that they were wild. From this, they speculate that domesticated camels did not exist in Palestine when the Bible talks about them, proving that these were, at best, later additions to the text by an ignorant people who thought camels had always been there.  At worst, of course, these later ignoramuses simply made up all the stories for the sake of political expediency.

Well, that is one explanation of the findings. But is it the only one, or even the best? In a way “findings” isn’t really an accurate description because the conclusion hinges entirely on what was not found.  It is unfortunate that highly educated individuals need to be reminded that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” but this seems to be a clear case of such forgetfulness. One of the reasons that this is a good proverb is that there are often many reasonable explanations for why you did not find what you were looking for.  After all, there are almost always more places that you did not search than places that you did.  Indeed, it is not difficult to find alternate explanations for the lack of bones in this case either.  Off the top of my head, it is possible that:

  • The operations at these sites did use domesticated camels earlier, but these particular bones haven’t been uncovered yet.
  • Camels were used elsewhere in Palestine, but not in these particular copper operations.
  • Camels were only used sparsely in Palestine at the time of the Patriarchs, but more heavily later on leading to a disproportionate likelihood of finding later bones.
  • Abraham’s camels were brought from elsewhere (he was, after all, not native to the area.)
  • The older camels that were found were indeed domesticated, but used more lightly (After all, the sites either were or were not regularly active that early. If they were not, one would not expect to find bones related to the operation. If they were, it seems odd to me that wild camel bones would be found there.)

And these don’t even consider any possible difficulties with radiometric dating or other potential technical errors in these findings.

Devotees of Scientism, of course, would not have cause to consider these alternatives because science has not yet supplied evidence for any of them. They are only allowed to acknowledge a belief in whatever has been offered up through official use of the scientific method. However, those with a longer view of history will recognize how often academic findings are overturned—particularly when it comes to claims of Biblical inaccuracy.

Take the Gospel of John, for example. Due to a lack of evidence, a presumption of legendary material, and speculation about the amount of time needed for legends to develop, the academic consensus for many decades had been that the Gospel of John was written no earlier than 170 A.D. This, of course, all changed in 1934 when somebody unexpectedly found a fragment of it dating to around 100 A.D. tucked away in a library in Manchester. As it turns out, it wasn’t that no early copies existed—it’s simply that they had not yet been found and identified. Interestingly enough, no revision was made to the academic presumption of legend—they simply adjusted downward their speculation about how long it takes legends to develop.

Episodes like this serve to illustrate that an ounce of evidence is worth a pound of speculation & presumption. In the case of the domesticated camels of the Patriarchs, however, lack of evidence and speculation is all the archeologists are really left with. The only thing that was found was nothing, and the search was hardly exhaustive.

To be sure, it is not unreasonable for these archaeologists to conclude that domesticated camels were a later introduction to the area than what the Bible indicates. For those who already think the Bible is bunk, there is not yet any good reason to believe camels were present any earlier. The alternative explanations I offered are simply maybe’s which themselves have no evidence. At the same time however, claiming that their findings amount to “direct proof” is a gross overstatement at best and entirely fallacious at worst. A newly discovered lack of evidence does not rise to the level of proof one way or the other. Consequently, it is not at all unreasonable for those who already believe that the Bible is actually true to continue believing so. After all, we do have a good reason to think there’s another explanation. After all, we have the testimony of a Book accredited by the Son of God Himself. Whatever the headlines suggest from day-to-day, wisdom and history suggest that the Biblical view will eventually come out on top.

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An Extraordinary Failure

I have, for the past few months, been teaching a comparative religion class at my church, and just this past Sunday, we began our final topic—the twin-headed religion of Atheism and Secular Humanism. Whether this is truly a religion or not has been debated ad nauseum, but what is undeniable is that many modern atheists behave religiously in many respects. They proselytize and encourage others to do the same. Many have even begun organizing quasi-churches immediately followed by practicing the time-honored tradition of schism.

One subject I intend to bring up in our next session is Carl Sagan’s famous contention that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In other words, anyone who wants to suggest something that doesn’t fit into the naturalistic box needs to come up with evidence far beyond what would be required for any other type of claim. This is a favorite saying of some of the lazier atheist apologists, as it allows one to avoid defending his own beliefs and instead sit back and claim that no amount of evidence offered in favor of God’s existence is sufficiently extraordinary. This frees them up to instead focus on the task of provoking volitional doubt in the believer.

This “Sagan Standard” can trip up Christians because it is one of those statements which seems like common sense at first glance. After all, few people would need much time to come up with an extraordinary claim that they would not believe unless extraordinary evidence were offered. Nevertheless, the closer one looks, the less sense it makes. It has at least three critical failings when applied to the existence of God.

First, the statement as a whole simply isn’t true in a broad sense. Not all extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidences—only some do. The reason for this is that many extraordinary claims are compositions of entirely ordinary claims. Take, for example, the Resurrection of Christ. A man coming back from the dead is certainly extraordinary. Nevertheless, a claim to a resurrection is really made up of two simpler claims: first, that a man was dead at a certain point in time, and second, that the same man was bodily alive again at a certain (later) point in time. These are about as mundane of claims as one could possibly come across; they only become extraordinary when paired together. And yet, establishing a resurrection requires nothing more. It is therefore entirely possible for extraordinary claims to rest on ordinary evidence.

The second critical failure is that claiming the existence of God is not in any way extraordinary for most people. Despite the pretense of modern intellectuals, atheism most certainly is not the default for humanity. The vast majority of people have believed, do believe, and will continue to believe in some kind of divinity. While extraordinary in the mind of the atheist, such belief is quite ordinary for everyone else. As it turns out, there is a strong subjective element to the concept of “extraordinary” that Sagan and most atheists pass over. What metric shall we use to measure it? Atheists seldom volunteer one. This ambiguity is of great utility to the atheist who needs to rhetorically pass judgment that God’s existence is extraordinary and that the evidence thereof is not. As long as nobody asks and the metric is imposed by unspoken assumption, an atheist’s job is much easier.

Finally, there have been points in time at which God has demonstrated his existence in extraordinary ways. As an historical event, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (as we already noted) is by most accounts quite extraordinary. Likewise, Jesus’ own explanation for this event is quite well-known to involve God. Extraordinary or not, however, it is something that actually happened—a well-attested fact of history. Neither does the Resurrection stand alone. Though it is the best attested of God’s miracles, it is hardly the only one. Even if extraordinary claims required extraordinary evidence and the existence of God were an extraordinary claim, extraordinary evidence is still readily available unless one dismisses it a priori.

Like much of modern atheism, Sagan’s oft-quoted contention derives its force from a presumption of atheism that has characterized our the intellectual culture of the West for the past century or two. When approached by an atheist, there is no good reason for Christians to play along with that presumption.

Posted in Apologetics, Atheism | Leave a comment

Giving Marriage the Old College Try

I have a new piece up at the Federalist.  Long story short:  those of us who believe that marriage is essential to civilization need to do a better job of encouraging it–not to strangers through legislation or mass media, but among the children whom God has entrusted to our care.

It would be foolish of parents who so value a college education to content themselves with telling their little children that they’ll come across the right college someday and feel in their heart that it’s the right one when it happens. They wouldn’t disregard their high school students’ academic indicators, content that the right college won’t be shallow enough to care about such things. They would hardly resign themselves to passively watching their offspring occasionally audit classes that look fun or sign up for a correspondence course from time to time, remaining silent except for the occasional passive-aggressive comment at Thanksgiving dinner that it would be nice to see them settle down with a nice B.A. program. If parents think of college as extremely important, avoiding this uninvolved approach would be a no-brainer. It’s too key to a child’s future to approach the goal so casually.

It is therefore a stark contrast when we compare parents’ dedication to getting their children into a good college with their dedication to getting their children into a good marriage.

You can read the whole thing here.

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Cultural Doggie Bag – Arrow & Indiana Jones

Sometimes I watch a movie or TV show that I want to write about, but it turns out to not have enough substance for a full blog post. At the same time, I don’t want to just throw away what I wrote either.   And so, just for the opportunity to post something a little more fun for the holidays, I’ve put together a couple of these leftovers into one Tupperware.

Oliver Queen is a Serial Killer

I’ve recently begun watching Arrow, the WB’s CW’s latest iteration of Pretty White Kids with Problems, this time based on the DC comic character, Oliver Queen (aka the Green Arrow.) Oliver was a spoiled trust fund teenager until his yacht sank, his father sacrificed himself to save him, and he became stranded on a not-quite deserted island for five years. He eventually returns home with a bow, a grab-bag of combat skills, and a list of people to hunt down who have harmed his city in a variety of vague ways.

Superheroes have traditionally refrained from intentionally killing their foes for many reasons—a moral boundary to their questionable vigilanteism, culturally imposed comic codes, the opportunity for recurring villains, and so forth. I’m only about a half-dozen episodes in, but so far it seems that Oliver eschews this convention in favor of his preferred method of dealing with villains: 1) immediately kill all of their bodyguards, 2) give them a choice between atoning for their crimes or death, 3) embroil them in some scheme that usually involves atoning for their crimes and death.

At first, I thought the casual murder was just a lazy way for the writers to make things gritty. But a few episodes in, they seem to become conscious of the moral discrepancy. As it happens, one man on Oliver’s list installed faulty smoke-alarms in low-income housing, and Oliver responds in the only sensible way: kill a dozen of his employees and extort money to donate to fire victims. But before Oliver can murder him, another assassin shows up and beats him to it. This assassin, of course, provides an opportunity for Oliver to look in the mirror and examine the morality of his own mission.

Oliver embraces this opportunity without any angst whatsoever because he immediately realizes that unlike himself, the assassin does his work for money. Oliver, on the other hand, already has all the money he’ll ever need and then some, which he spends primarily on weapons to extort money out of bad guys in order to help the poor. Oliver also observes that unlike himself, the assassin follows no code of honor—after all, just like that other famous DC hero, the Joker, Oliver usually gives his victims a gruesome choice before releasing one last arrow. These two differences are enough to ensure that Oliver never wavers in his conviction that he is totally different from this assassin whom he immediately sets out to kill.

The ethical hilarity continues a few episodes later when he hooks up with another vengeful DC hero, the Huntress. Oliver tries to instruct her on the finer distinctions between justice and vengeance, which, as it turns out, are twofold: murder needs to at least be Plan B and justice uses bows while vengeance uses guns. I wish I were joking about that last one, but apparently bows require more discipline and are therefore less vengeful than firearms. Curiously enough, this is the first episode where Oliver actually tries to take out henchmen using non-lethal force. Maybe he was afraid to look like a self-righteous hypocrite in front of his new girlfriend. For the viewer, unfortunately, it’s already a lost cause.

Indiana Jones and the Nuclear Fridge

I received Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures for Christmas this year. This box set contains all three Indiana Jones movies along with another amateur film involving communists and aliens made by some novice computer animators. They did somehow manage to get Harrison Ford to reprise his role, which is nice, but it might have been a better effort if it had been made by fans of the original movies.

All kidding aside, there’s been no shortage of commentary on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s deficiencies, and so I’ll pass over any further mention of nuclear fridges, terrible CGI, and Shia LaBeouf and proceed to one reason for the movie’s lack of soul that I haven’t seen explored yet:  its deep secularization.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana begins with a practical, no-nonsense approach to searching for the Ark of the Covenant. When Marcus expresses his concern about the search because the Ark is unlike anything he has gone after before, Indy laughs it off and responds, “I’m talking about a object of incredible historical significance, and you’re talking about the boogeyman” before packing his gun. By the end of the movie, he’s witnessed the Ark’s unspeakable power and is frustrated because the government bureaucrats he hands it over to don’t understand the significance of what they have. Though it begins as a mere treasure hunt, the movie eventually dabbles in a spiritual dimension as well.

The same transformation occurs in Temple of Doom. After selling off a priceless artifact to a gangster in some shady deal at a nightclub (you know, typical archeologist stuff), Indiana lands in India (through a series of events that were, frankly, more ridiculous than the whole fridge thing). His hosts tell him about an evil cult that stole the sacred Shankara Stone from their village and beseech the aid of Indy and friends who they perceive were sent by Shiva because they fell from the sky. Indy helps for the sake of their kidnapped children, but dismisses the whole Shiva/magic rock stuff as legends about fortune and glory. Nevertheless, by the end of the movie, he’s accusing the villain of betraying Shiva and after all is resolved, ultimately tells the village elder that he now understands the power of the Shankara Stone.

Indiana must regress on more mystical matters fairly regularly because the same thing happens yet again in Last Crusade. After the intro sequence is finished (in which Indy recovers a cross purely for the sake of putting it in a museum,) the movie proceeds to the classroom. Professor Jones lectures his students about how “archeology is the search for fact, not truth… We cannot afford to take mythology at face value, we don’t follow maps to buried treasure, and ‘X’ never ever marks the spot.” He then proceeds to refute his own lecture point-by-point for the remainder of the film. Midway through the movie, Indy’s father reminds him that “the quest for the Grail is not archeology; it’s a race against evil” and by the end when Indy has learned to let the grail go (i.e. realizes that it doesn’t really belong in a museum), Henry Jones Sr. explains that even without possessing the physical grail, he still found “illumination.”

None of these three movies are really religious in any coherent sense, but Indiana’s archeological adventure is nevertheless always caught up in some kind of cosmic struggle between good and evil. Like your average American, they’re spiritual but not religious. This facet is entirely missing from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which followed purely secular themes. Indiana searches for aliens and their artifacts, a discovery that is important because it tells us about our history and could potentially alter the balance of cold war political power, but nothing more. The movie is about an object of incredible historical significance, but not really of any cosmic significance. Just like Lucas reduced the Force to microscopic organisms called midichlorians in the Star Wars prequels, he reduces Indiana Jones’ brand of archeology back to the search for fact, not truth. Sure, Indy discovers that the aliens’ treasure is knowledge, but it comes off as nothing more than a feel-good aphorism.

When souls are irrelevant to the film, it’s no wonder that the film feels like it has no soul.

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The Fisherman’s Choice

I was pondering a modern parable recently. I can’t remember where I first heard it, but the gist of it is this:

Once upon a time, a rich businessman and his entourage visited a harbor examining some ocean-front property to buy and develop. Their business concluded, he was about to return to his helicopter and take off when he noticed a plainly-dressed middle-aged man sitting on a chair near the docks, smiling and looking out over the ocean.

The businessman approached the other and asked him what he did for a living that allowed him to simply sit back and relax even though it was only early afternoon. He replied that he was a fisherman, and that he had already caught enough fish for the day, so he was just relaxing and taking in the view.

The businessman pointed out that he could go back out and catch even more fish and make more money. The fisherman asked what that would gain him.

The businessman pointed out that he could save up enough money to buy an additional boat & crew and catch even more fish and make even more money. The fisherman again asked what that would gain him.

The confused businessman replied that he could build an even larger fleet and hire captains & managers to run it. Once again the fisherman asked what that would gain him.

The businessman told him that then he would be able to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ocean. The fisherman smiled and replied, “But that’s what I’m doing now.”

The parable came to mind as I read a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. In “Are Boys Irrational,” James Taranto analyzes an issue brought up in an earlier article by Kay Hymowitz: why are men increasingly opting out of higher education, career advancement, and raising families? Ms. Hymowitz concluded that a lack of father figures in their lives was causing these men to act irrationally and miss out on these important parts of life. Mr. Taranto, on the other hand, suggests that these men are not necessarily behaving irrationally at all. He writes:

Except perhaps in very conservative communities, men with sufficient social skills can find sex and companionship without need of a matrimonial commitment (and for those who lack social skills, a willingness to marry is unlikely to provide much compensation). The culture’s unrelenting message–repeated in Hymowitz’s article–is that women are doing fine on their own. If a woman doesn’t need a man, there’s little reason for him to devote his life to her service. Further, in the age of no-fault divorce, “reliable husbands and fathers” not infrequently find themselves impoverished by child support and restricted by court order from spending time with their children.

As for education, the story of Joshua Strange ought to be enough to give any sensible young man second thoughts about enrolling in college. And work? Not all jobs, including those that require a college degree, are as rewarding as writing for an intellectual magazine (or, we hasten to add, a newspaper). Men traditionally sought to “better themselves” not because working in an office or on an assembly line was itself a source of delight, but because being a workingman enabled them to earn respect and made possible the joys of domestic life.

So why did this make me think of the fisherman’s tale? The point of the parable is presumably to question the wisdom of the kind of masculine ambition that leads a man to build, advance, and produce more than what he needs for himself, but the far more interesting question is this: where does this ambition come from and what is its purpose? Consider: if you think about the characters in the parable, it is not hard to guess which of the two men is more likely to be married. The businessman would certainly be a better catch in the eyes of most women, and the fisherman isn’t scaling back his hours to spend more time with a wife and kids. His highest aspiration is to simply relax and enjoy life whenever he is able. We are just speculating here, and it is certainly possible that the fictional businessman is just in it for greed, but even then, it is interesting that family is the single most likely factor to determine whether or not his ambition is truly greedy.

Mr. Taranto’s analysis of the matter is essentially that these underemployed young men are making the fisherman’s choice. Sure, sitting on the beach is replaced with casual sex and video games, but the principle is the same: for a man without ambition, the fisherman’s choice is not really irrational.

But there is a point at which the fisherman’s choice does become irrational, and it is probably this realization that has been alarming many people like Ms. Hymowitz. What makes good sense on a personal level can make less sense on a societal level. Civilization depends on the tendency of men to produce more than they consume for themselves—it depends on that masculine ambition. In the parable, the fisherman feeds himself. Following the businessman’s ambition, however, could mean feeding himself & his workers, along with any family they might have. His ambition could be a huge boon to society. Take that away, and you have a bunch of men doing what they need to do to stay comfortable, but nothing more—nothing for any women or any increasingly hypothetical children.

This leads some folks to call the disinterested men lazy and shame them on an individual level into manning up to provide for society. However, if the irrationality is at a societal level, perhaps the critique should also be leveled at society. Permanent and chaste marriages along with the legitimate children they produce are a social feature that traditionally cultivated masculine ambition by rewarding it and channeling it towards benevolent ends. Men tend to love their wives and children, take satisfaction in working on their behalf, and used to gain commensurate social respect for doing so.

And yet, this kind of marriage is precisely what has been taken away from men in our society. Instead, our elites have sought to structure the family around child support instead of marriage. The mother has custody of the children, but she receives much of the necessary resources from elsewhere. This could be from her husband, but it could just as easily be from her ex-husband, her boyfriend, or the taxpayer. Where it comes from doesn’t matter so long as the child has resources and the woman is freed from any moral or social obligation towards these men.

This rickety new system has sort-of worked so far, but only on inertia. While it may not matter whether the resources come from a husband, ex-husband, boyfriend, or taxpayer, the system does hinge on there being husbands, ex-husbands, boyfriends, and taxpayers who are producing more than they consume for themselves. Men have done this so far because that’s what’s been expected of them, but more and more are realizing that they have no incentive to do so. Sure, they could try to marry and start a family, but half of marriages end in divorce, a supermajority of divorces are unilaterally inflicted by wives on their husbands, and the wife is all but guaranteed custody of the family along with most of its property and a large chunk of the husband’s future earnings. This is a pretty big hurdle to jump, and a man can hardly be considered irrational for declining the risk. The more that men are alienated from their families, the less stake they have in society or future.

Mr. Taranto concludes his article: “Boys and young men are no less rational, or capable of adapting to incentives, than girls and young women are. They are, in fact, adapting very well to the incentives for female power and independence–which inevitably also serve as disincentives to male reliability and self-sacrifice.” In a way, he is entirely correct. Strong independent women in control of their own lives need no men and offer men no incentive to an ambition that benefits society. However, if that independence were as real as people pretend, there would be no alarm over men giving up those ambitions. Truly independent women would not need all the welfare, alimony, child support, paid maternity leave, government sponsored daycare, and so forth that other people (men) are supposed to provide for them. But if society truly does need such things from men, perhaps society should also honor and reward men for their contribution instead of pretending they are unnecessary. Perhaps they should make their ambition rational again. Reigning in the ability of women to take a father’s home & family away from him by reintroducing permanent and chaste marriage would be a good start.

Posted in Culture, Ethics, Feminism, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Three Kinds of Doubt

Not all doubts are created equal. Dealing with doubts is part of the nature of Christian apologetics. Reasonably answering intellectual challenges to Christ’s teachings is a God-given responsibility (1 Peter 3:15). Fulfilling that responsibility well hinges on recognizing the different kinds of doubt and responding accordingly. There are probably many ways to categorize doubts, but what follows are the three categories I find most helpful.

The first kind of doubt is emotional doubt. This is when a person experiences feelings of uncertainty about his faith. These feelings may be momentary or may persist for months or even years. They may be triggered by any number of causes—sometimes intellectual and sometimes personal. For example, a father might lose his young child to disease and have no idea where God is in the face of such tragedy. He has no argument against Christianity per se—he is simply grappling with his anguish and wonders how a good God could allow such a thing to happen to him. Such circumstances call less for apologetics and more for general pastoral care—mourning with those who mourn and reminding them of God’s goodness which has been overshadowed by their evil circumstances. Philosophical answers to the problem of evil are not high on the list of needs in such a situation.

The second kind of doubt is reasonable doubt. This is the kind of doubt which occurs when a person encounters new information that gives him a reason to question his beliefs. This may be accompanied by emotional doubt, but remains distinct from it. For example, a college student might hear his professor mention that there are hundreds of thousands of manuscript discrepancies in old copies of the New Testament. If he was raised with a relatively shallow understanding of Biblical inerrancy, this new information might lead him to start questioning whether Christianity is really true.

Here, the task is primarily an apologetic one. Rather than telling him that his feelings of doubt will pass or reminding him of God’s goodness, we help him understand the new information he’s received. We tell him that though there are many variances in the ancient manuscripts, the majority of these are simple typos, transposed words, and so forth. We tell him that the number only seems high because we have orders of magnitude more ancient manuscripts for the New Testament compared to any other work of antiquity; if one manuscript says the Greek equivalent of “teh” instead of “the,” and the other 6000 do not, that’s 6000 discrepancies right there. In short, we help him understand textual criticism, the fact that this abundance of evidence gives us incredibly reliable modern copies of the Bible, and that the variances do not get in the way of understanding what God has told us.

There is a certain measure of intellectual responsibility to entertain reasonable doubts. There are limits to this, for intellects come in all different sizes. No matter what the subject matter, no human is capable of answering any and every question, and we have no cause to be troubled when we encounter some questions that are simply beyond our ability or expertise. At the same time, however, a person who simply closes his eyes to all new information that doesn’t fit into his beliefs is not considered intellectually honest. It is a lazy way out. When this mental sloth is applied to matters of faith, we often call this a blind faith. This is not the kind of faith required by the God who calls us to love Him with all our minds.

Treating reasonable doubt as though it were emotional doubt is irresponsible. One ought not tell a student who is confused by information given to him by his atheistic college professor that he ought to ignore him because he’s an unbeliever. One ought not command such an individual to simply have faith. That might make him feel better (though it probably will not), but it does not deal with the reasonable doubt. Reasonable doubt is best addressed by reasonable answers.

The third kind of doubt is volitional doubt, and it is characterized by choosing to doubt even when one does not have a reasonable cause. This is the kind of doubt on which most forms of modern and postmodern skepticism depend. Rather than new information, volitional doubt is built on an assortments of maybe’s, what-if’s, and unanswerable questions designed to confuse and undermine beliefs.

For Americans, the distinction between reasonable and volitional doubt can perhaps be seen best in the courtroom. The accused is supposed to be considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Say there’s a video that shows the accused shoplifting. A good lawyer might raise the reasonable doubt that the video never shows the accused’s face clearly. A bad lawyer might raise the volitional doubt that the figure in the video might be a shape-shifting alien or a hitherto unknown evil twin. This bad lawyer wants the jury to choose to doubt his client’s guilt, but has not given them a reason to. Is it possible that there’s a shape-shifting alien in the video? Sure. But we have absolutely no reason to believe that this is actually the case. How can you be sure shape-shifting aliens don’t exist? We have no real way of testing this, but we don’t need to test it because we have no reason to. Accordingly, such a doubt should never trouble the jury because it is unreasonable. Intellectual integrity does not require anyone to entertain volitional doubt.

The success of professional skeptics hinges on their ability to rhetorically conflate reasonable and volitional doubt. The Bart Ehrmans of the world, for example, will tell Christians that we have no idea what Jesus said because we cannot trust the New Testament to report his teachings accurately. Why not? Copyists make mistakes. Translators make mistakes. Any given word in your copy of the New Testament might be the result of human error rather than divine inspiration. Therefore, no intelligent person could possibly think that it is trustworthy. The doubt introduced by such an argument is volitional because its force is in the “maybe.” The core of the argument is not the fact of specific errors (though such facts are usually thrown into the mix as well for rhetorical effect) but rather the possibility of generic errors. No specific error bothers us, but anything could possibly be an error.

The rhetorical twist of the knife comes in with the “no intelligent person” bit which can be phrased in any number of ways. Though the doubt is volitional, the passive-aggressive insult is an attempt to tie it into the intellectual responsibility to entertain reasonable doubts—this is why unwarranted accusations of fundamentalism or close-mindedness are so common from skeptics. Both our desire to be thought well of and our desire to be intellectually responsible are tugged at, and many people end up concluding that they have an obligation to doubt. When they cannot answer all the questions or account for every potential variable, they then come to believe that their beliefs do not stand up to scrutiny.

The apologetic response to volitional doubt requires additional work. Because volitional doubt is often accompanied by pieces of new information, the apologist must still be able to properly understand, explain, and augment that information. However, he must also be able to expose volitional doubt for what it is and delineate it from the reasonable. This requires identifying the maybe’s and challenging the skeptic to either put up or shut up. If someone wants me to doubt the transmission of those parts of the Bible that talk about the Resurrection or the forgiveness of sins, or any other part of essential Christian theology, they need to actually point me to the manuscripts that say something different. Nine times out of ten, they’ve got nothing. It is reasonable to doubt the story of the woman caught in adultery because it doesn’t show up in every ancient manuscript, and when it does show up, it doesn’t always show up in the same place. It is not reasonable to doubt the accurate transmission of those Biblical narratives with abundant manuscript evidence. It just so happens that 99.5% of the New Testament falls into the latter category, and the details of the other .5% don’t affect any significant doctrine or history.

My examples have focused on textual criticism, but volitional doubt can show up in most intellectual challenges to Christianity. Did the Resurrection happen? Maybe Jesus just swooned. Maybe the disciples were hallucinating. Did God mean what he said about homosexuality? Maybe Paul was talking about something else. Maybe it was just a reflection of the culture of the time. Regardless of the topic, the task of the apologist is the same: expose it for what it is. You show me your evidence for your maybe, I’ll show you my evidence for my belief, and we’ll see whose prevails.

So when our brothers and sisters in Christ are beset by doubts, it couldn’t hurt to listen to them for awhile and figure out just what kind of doubt they’re suffering. Do we comfort? Do we teach? Do we call out? It’s all part of the practical wisdom necessary to give an answer with gentleness and respect.

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The End of Modern Theology in England

On May 11th, 1959, C.S. Lewis addressed the students of Westcott House, the Anglican theology school at Cambridge. They no doubt found his message to be peculiar. It was, after all the message of a Christian who believed that his religion was actually true delivered to young men being trained in the heresy of Theological Liberalism—the hallmark of which is a belief that Jesus Christ, his work, and his teachings are primarily an inspiring fairy tale. Lewis’ arguments against higher criticism in “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” both were and are worthy of our attention. Today, however, it is the end of the speech that I’d like to highlight:

Such are the reactions of one bleating layman to Modern Theology. It is right you should hear them. You will not perhaps hear them very often again. Your parishioners will not often speak to you quite frankly. Once the layman was anxious to hide the fact that he believed so much less than the Vicar; he now tends to hide the fact that he believes so much more. Missionary to the priests of one’s own church is an embarrassing role; though I have a horrid feeling that if such mission work is not soon undertaken the future history of the Church of England is likely to be short.

The quote came to mind as I read an article from the Telegraph indicating that this ‘future history’ is now. According to the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the Church of England is one generation away from extinction. Why? After all, “it is still the case that people are essentially looking for spiritual fulfillment.”

“So many churches have no ministry to young people and that means they have no interest in the future.”

“So many people do not see the average church as a place where great things happen. To sit in a cold church looking at the back of other peoples’ heads is surely not the best place to meet exciting people and to hear prophetic words.”

So the problem is that church is too cold, too boring, has poor seating, and does too little to pamper the youth. His diagnosis does make the cause of death very clear, though not in the way one would ordinarily expect from a diagnosis. It is like watching an oncologist explain that his patient is dying because his regimen of acupuncture is too lax. One can see exactly why the cancer was never treated even if the doctor cannot. While I cannot help but agree with him that “more gimmicks” are not the answer and that “We have to give cogent reasons to young people why the Christian faith is relevant to them,” it is quite clear that the real problem has sailed over his head. Being as exclusively tied to modernist culture as it is, everything Theological Liberalism has come up with in its roughly two centuries of existence has been a gimmick. Every cogent reason why the Christian faith is relevant to anyone was dismissed as foolishness that no enlightened modern person could possibly believe. But sure… the problem is that they have not made church appealing enough to the youth.

Meanwhile in America, where youth ministries abound, we are beginning to find that they are part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Oddly enough, it turns out that cutting off children from the rest of the body of Christ so that they can be raised in the faith by professional youth workers in a program based on community and entertainment is not terribly effective when you live in a culture that offers better entertainment than one could ever find in a church and forcibly breaks up youth communities when half of them are sent off to college.

But there is one religion that is doing quite well among the youth of England: Islam. British Muslims are expected to outnumber practicing British Christians in the next decade or so. It is not because they have gone out of their way to cater to the whims of youth; it is precisely the opposite. Rather than segregating their young in some kind of children’s mosque, they raise them up as part of the same community as the adults by teaching their youth how they are supposed to behave and believe with respect to Islam and expecting them to actually do it. Say what you will about Muslims, at least they take their religion seriously and expect their youth to do the same. It is hard to do that when a church is beholden to outdated academic traditions that insist that Christ’s teachings be treated with an unwarranted skepticism. It is hard to do that when a church is so desperate for numbers that it is transformed into a place for social clubs and amusements to bring in the crowds.

Though the details differ, the root problem is the same on both sides of the Atlantic. The life of the Church is found in Christ, and he has directed us to find him in his Word and Sacraments. His gifts are the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. We know that these things are relevant to youth and adult alike because we have good reason to believe that our religion is actually true. Christ really is who he said he is and did what he said he did, and unlike Muslims, we have a record of these things that stands up to historical scrutiny. “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain… If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” When we think that God is found primarily in our experiences, our political activism, our worldly success, our excitements, or anything other than where God has promised to be, we make the Church obsolete. Once we do that, how can we blame anyone for leaving her?

It is better that the false churches fall away lest they continue to be confused with the true ones. I mourn the Church of England’s apostasy, but not its death.

Posted in Apologetics, Christian Youth, The Modern Church, Theological Liberalism | Leave a comment