Squaring the Culture




"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

02/05/2010 (9:46 am)

It's a Religious War

avatarnoblesavagesOne of my readers posted several reviews of Avatar in response to my posting RedLetterMedia’s slasher review yesterday (thanks, dullhammer), and one of them struck me as crucial to the cultural debate. In it, Jonah Goldberg finally, finally articulates something that I knew but could not prove — that at its core, what we incorrectly call “liberalism” in America is actually anti-Christianity. The culture war is a religious war.

The central thesis of Goldberg’s review was the starkly religious tone of the culturally-normal “noble savage” message of the film:

…the most relevant point was raised by John Podhoretz in the Weekly Standard. Cameron wrote “Avatar,” says Podhoretz, “not to be controversial, but quite the opposite: He was making something he thought would be most pleasing to the greatest number of people.”

What would have been controversial is if — somehow — Cameron had made a movie in which the good guys accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts.

Of course, that sounds outlandish and absurd, but that’s the point, isn’t it? We live in an age in which it’s the norm to speak glowingly of spirituality but derisively of traditional religion. If the Na’Vi were Roman Catholics, there would be boycotts and protests. Make the oversized Smurfs Rousseauian noble savages and everyone nods along, save for a few cranky right-wingers.

I’m certainly one of those cranky right-wingers, though I probably enjoyed the movie as cinematic escapism as much as the next guy.

But what I find interesting about the film is how what is “pleasing to the most people” is so unapologetically religious.

He then proceeds, unfortunately, to base his opinion on a recent book by one Nicholas Wade entitled The Faith Instinct, in which the author posits that human beings are hard-wired to believe religiously, because believing confers real survival value to a social group that natural selection preserves. I find Wade’s thesis half-right, but silly and insulting. Yes, religion is universal human behavior, and yes, it confers survival value, but approaching religion as a purely sociological thing implies that it’s not truly important, merely a social characteristic of the animal. Furthermore, it seems singularly unlikely that real survival value might be conferred by an imaginary belief; if religion does confer survival value (and it clearly does,) that would suggest that its core assertions conform better than atheism’s to the universe that is. Reviews of the book over at Amazon.com confirm that it’s mostly cultural socio-babble not really rooted in any sort of genuine research.

However, Wade’s half-baked explanation is peripheral to Goldberg’s core argument. The point is that the core of the culture war is a centuries-long wrestling match between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Martin Luther. This explains the clearly religious nature of so much of what leftists say as well as their stubborn refusal to allow facts to sway their preconceptions; they behave like True Believers because they are True Believers. It also explains why it is that so many leftist initiatives seem aimed at the heart of some core, Christian concept, like the modern effort to unmake the nuclear family, to regard human beings as something far less than the Crown of Creation, to make Caucasian, Christian Europe into The Devil, or to selectively sequester Christianity from the public square.

This point sits at the core of Goldberg’s interesting book, Liberal Fascism. It’s not the greatest book ever written, but it does lay out the religious roots and branches of American progressivism pretty clearly. Liberal Fascism actually accomplishes what I had hoped that Ann Coulter’s Godless would do — explore the religion of progressivism. I recommend the book, not as a means of calling leftists Hitlerian (Goldberg becomes almost tiresome in the book in his repeated efforts to prevent people from doing this,) but as a means to understanding how modern liberalism is the direct descendant of religious social meddling like Prohibition. His history is robust and sound.

It’s true that many conservatives are not religious, and that some liberals are. That’s incidental; the ideas that lie at the root of both conservatism and liberalism are religious ideas, whether the current adherents recognize them or not. Modern conservatism represents the historical stream of Protestant thought. Modern progressivism represents the historical stream of Rousseauian thought, which is why we’re still watching films touting the myth of the Noble Savage.

It’s also true that Rousseau and his stepchildren mostly don’t believe in God, and many of them would insist that that means they’re not religious, but rather anti-religious. That’s like saying that when they say it’s sunny outside, they’re not talking about the weather, but about the absence of weather. Progressives hold deeply-felt presumptions about the nature of the universe in a dogmatic manner, and those notions inform their reasoning in systematic ways regarding how humans should live. If it waddles like religion, and quacks like religion, it’s religion.

01/11/2010 (12:09 pm)

Life On Wings

Eagle

Welcome to 2010. This is my first post of the New Year: I honestly don’t know why I’ve been dormant for the past 2 weeks. Call it a time of preparation and reflection.

A friend sent me an old sermon by a great man of God named Ern Baxter that I knew back in the 1970s and 1980s, and I felt moved to publish it here. During the Healing Revival days of the 1950s, Baxter was preaching pastor for William Branham (before Branham fell into heresy.) During the 60s and 70s Baxter pastored the largest Evangelical church in Canada, and in his last days he wrote for New Wine magazine and preached by invitation. The people I know who are familiar with Baxter’s ministry think of this sermon as his signature.

The year 2010 is the beginning of a time when it will be crucial for Christian believers to get their asses out of the chairs in their churches and start fulfilling their potential as Christians. For historical reasons it is common in American churches for adults who have been believers for 30 and 40 years to sit passively, listening to some Professional Christian teach them things they’ve heard hundreds of times before, and consider that normal. But the world has changed, and now the safety and ease of the American lifestyle is about to pass into history.

If modern, American Pastors knew how to lead the Church into a vibrant expression of Christianity that would restore the spiritual moorings of the culture, they would have done it by now; they don’t know how. If our current expression of Christianity were capable of engaging, reaching, and changing the surrounding culture, it would have done it by now; it does not work. Unlike the days of the American revolution, pastors of churches have not risen up en masse to oppose the coming tyranny, and they will not know how to respond when the national economy collapses. That knowledge will come to ordinary believers, to us or to our friends sitting on our right or on our left. The church is just a building, and the pastor is just a random guy; you and I are the Body of Christ. It is time that the sleeping American Christian wake up and become what God intended Christians to be all along. We’re born as eagles; we need to learn to fly like them.

So, for our introduction to the decade of Real Change (not the imaginary Obama kind), I give you… Life On Wings.


Life On Wings

Since the beginning of man’s record of himself, the challenge of flight has captured his imagination. The conquering of the air in our own generation has produced a wave of awe and romance unequalied in the annals of man’s existence. Somehow the ability fo fly has epitomized the longing of man to rise above the natural limitations of earth-bound mortals and soar into the realm of the supernatural.

God has made provision in His kingdom for man to have this spiritual need met, and yet few believers ever find the satisfaction of knowing fully what God has alloted to them.

How can a man break into the realm of the supernatural in his walk with God? In one form or another this question seems to be one of the pressing concerns wherever I travel. Rather than embarking on a heavy dissertation, I want to look at a beautiful illustration used by the prophet Isaiah.

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew theirength; they shall mount up wiht wings as eagles; they sall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. [Is. 40:31]

This passage speaks of the eagle. As the lion is the king of the beasts, so the eagle is the king of the birds. The Holy Spirit has likened us and our Godward aspirations to the aspiration of being like the eagle.

As I watched the eagles in the Columbia Basin near Portland, Oregon, I began to understand why they have represented throught time the Godward thrust of man; power, freedom, beauty, the lord of their environment through their ability to master the air. They move in regal splendor, for they are born as kings. As the eagle is born with the divine right of kingship, so we come from the new birth with the inherent potential of soaring into the very presence of God Himself. The fact, however, that eagles are so equipped does not necessarily mean that they will ever get off the ground.

Deuteronomy 32:11 has some interesting information about eagles: “As an eagle sirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreading abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings.”

All eagles begin as eaglets and before these unseemly, squalling fledglings take their palces with royalty, they must be trained in the ways of the king of birds. This little verse is the Flight Training Manual of student eagles and earthbound Christians.

The Eaglet’s Lesson

Picture with me two little eaglets snuggled cozily in a down-filled nest, high on an eyrie ledge on some remote mountainside (Chrisitans often find themselves born into equally precarious circumstances.) Everything is just wonderful; mother eagle sallies forth daily and brings back choice tidbits for those ravenous appetites. During the cold mountain nights she settles over the nest and the eaglets snuggle securely under those warmn, soft wings and look out at the stars not very far away. They are newly born and baptized in the Spirit. Hallelujah! Life is wonderful and being a Christian sure makes like easy — no more problems! God knew what He was doing when thought up this arrangement!

One day Mom begins to act very strangely. Rather than landing on the nest, she hovers momentarily, beating the air with those great wings. As Junior watches her, he thinks, Mom sure has powerful wings! That is exactly what Mrs. Eagle wants Junior to know.

Then she does something downright crazy. She grabs a piece of the nest and drops it over the side of the cliff. Then she returns for another chunck, and another, and another. The little eaglets are beginning to think Mom has lost her marbles! By new the framework of the nest is pretty shaky and that nice soft down that made Junior feel so secure is at the bottom of the canyon. Nest life is becoming a standing-room-only situation on what is left of their home.

Can you see what the mother eagle is doing? She is preparing her young for the first stage in the eagle training. After our Lord received the Holy Spirit and the declaration of His holy sonship, the Scripture says that He was led of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the Devil. I have written in the margin of my Bible at this point, “Is this standard operating procedure?” I believe that God’s modus operandi is to begin to confront us as soon as possible with the necessity of maturing into something other than nest-bound believers.

Paul told the Corinthians that he could not talk to them as mature men because they were as babes (see I Corinthians 3:1). He did not say they were babies, but that they were like babies. When a baby slobbers its pabulum down its little chin and milk runs into its little ears, we all laugh and think it is cute. But when a twenty-one-year-old man slobbers his food down his chin, then he is like a baby and this is sickening. God does not mind a Chrisitan going through the pabulum stage; it is a part of growing up. But it is tragic in God’s eyes when we never grow out of infancy.

Interestingly enough, the discomfort of our bewildered eaglets has been deliberately caused by the one who loves them most. How often when we have a streak of trouble do we cry out, “The Devil is attacking me!” Are you positive it is the Devil? Maybe the One who loves you most is stirring up your nest.

Like many believers, the little eagles conclude that standing on that windy ledge is at least tolerable and they can make the best of it. But dear old Mom has more in mind than just a nest stirring. She catches one of the little fellows in her powerful beak and nudges him toward the edge of the ledge. The poor little guy wonders what is happening now. His little heart is beating faster and faster, and as he is pushed closer to the edge he thinks, No, it can’t be! Mother wouldn’t do this to me. But she does.

With one final push he starts to plummet toward the bottom of the canyon — he is sure this is the end. Then out of nowhere there is a swoosh of Mom’s mighty wings and Junior is heading for the safety of the ledge on her powerful back, quite relieved. The first time God kicks us out of the nest and catches us before we hit bottom, we gasp, “Oh, thank heaven! I was sure God had let me down that time.”

Back on the ledge our would-be king is just getting over being dizzy when Mom starts pushing again. “Not again,” he moans as he starts his second tumble. “What if Mom doesn’t make it this time?” But she does. Several trips later Junior begins to get the feeling that Mom is trying to get a point across. Bewteen rides he suddenly remembers Mom’s huge wings hovering over the nest. He looks at his own straggly wings and thinks, I wonder if… If she does that again, I’m going to give mine a try! Rest assured he gets another chance. Mom will not stop until Junior finds the gumption to try his own wings.

Little eagles are gangly creatures, wobbling shakily on untested wings. But each desperate plunge brings a little more mastery of his wings. One day he spreads those wings and rather than falling, he finds himself rising up and up and up, riding the mighty air currents far above his ledge home and the nest that confined him. No longer a fledgling begging for tidbits, he is learning to become one of the eagles — he will be a king.

Ministers and evangelists often make becoming a Chstian as being born on a satin pillow with a cordon of angels wafting us through life and depositing us at the foot of the celestial throne. Only after we are well settled in our nest do we learn that God is intent on the production of character than the provision of our comfort.

Mounting Up On Wings

The Bible land knew two types of eagles: the golden eagle and the imperial eagle. The golden eagle speaks of us as partakers of the divine nature, and the imperial eagle speaks of us as kings. In the Scripture, the two go hand in hand.

Our divine right is to reign as monarchs in our own lives. The circumstances that confound and befuddle the world become launching pads to new heights in God. Satan and his henchmen become the snakes, which an eagle bisects with a slash of his mighty talons or drops from dizzy heights to be crushed on the rocks below. This is our inheritance.

Some years ago I was managing a campaign in Cleveland. Upon departing the city for a few days, I told one of the committees, “Get a plot of ground where we can pitch a tent for about three thousand people and we will take care of the expenses later.”

When I got off the plane upon my return, the charman met me and said, “We have a wonderful place for the tent.”

“Wonderful,” I said. “How much did you have to pay for the land?”

“Fifteen hundred dollars a day.”

“What?” I gasped. (Back in those days fifteen hundred dollars was like fifteen thousand today.) (Webmaster’s note: and fifteen thousand in what Baxter is calling “today” is more like fifty thousand today, in 2010.)

We had decided not to make a big thing of money, so there was little we coud do but trust God. After the first day and a half we were five thousand dollars down — a rather awkward place to be.

That afternoon I preached on Romans 5:17, which says that we reign in life by Christ. As I finished I said,”Now as you meet one another for the next few days, address each other as ‘King so-and-so.’ You may address me as ‘King Baxter.'”

That night I was handed an envelope addressed to “King Baxter.” I opened it and read a delightful note. “Dear King Baxter: My wife and I have a feeling that our fellow king has a need. Out of our royal treasury we wish you to accept the enclosed check for five thousand dollars.” I may not always have it, but there is money in the royal family.

The writer of Proverbs said that among those mysteries of the universe that were too hard to understand, one was the “mystery of an eagle in the air.” The symbolism of this passage is the Christian’s inexplicable potential, which is like the eagle’s, which can fly higher than any other bird and never wiggle a wing. What do I mean by “wiggle a wing?”

Did you notice that the psalmist said that eagles “mount up,” and not “flap up?” Eagles were not made to go flapping about — they were created to soar high and free. Eagles learn to fly without struggling because they understand the air currents. An eagle will perch on a rock and wait, testing the winds. When the right wind is blowing, he lifts into the air with a royal scream. Herein is one of the eagle’s secrets in being able to mount up — waiting. Those who wait, says the scripture, will be the ones to mount up. “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.”

Something in an eagle demands he fly higher than all the other birds. He often flies well beyond the view of the naked eye.

He rises past the telephone wires, where the crows screech, “Cawwww, Cawwww, stop and we’ll give you the latest on the Sunday shcool superintendent, Cawwww, Cawwww.”

But the eagle calls back, “I’m not interested! I’m going up beyond the clouds, where I can look full into the face of the sun.”

Even though an eagle flies high into the blinding sun, he is equally adapted to dark mountain valleys. He has two sets of eyelids. With his earthly eyelids he can see perfectly well at ground level, or he can roll down his heavenly ones and play in the glaring glory of the sun.

Christian must know how to walk on the earth as well as fly into the glory. It is possible to become so spiritual that we cannot see reality in our daily lives.

As the eagle mounts high above the clouds, he sails those great air currents into the very presence of God. You and I are not fashioned for the dirt and pollution. We were not born to be dirty crows on a telephone line. We are appointed to the pure worship of God, to climb into the rare atmosphere of the holy of holies.

Some ask, “How far can I go, Baxter?”

“Enoch walked with God: and he was not: for God took him.” (Gen. 5:24) That eagle flew high! One day he flew so high that God said, “Enoch, it is closer for you to come on up than to go back.”

How high? George Mueller was once told by a captain of a ship on which he was a passenger that the ship could not make New York on schedule because of dense fog that had set in. “We’ll see about that,” said Mueller. As Mueller prayed, the fog lifted and the boat hastened toward his waiting appointment in New York.

People can say, “I don’t believe that God lifts fogs!” They will stay in a fog, but God lifts fogs for people who have the faith to have fogs lifted.

God has made us eagles like Himself and He wants us to fly! All the experiences that we become so excited about — our conversion, our baptism in the Holy Spirit, the spiritual gifts — are but a part of our introduction to the supernatural life that demands us to become God-like, because we are partakers of the divine nature.

When Eagles Die

Every eagle will have his downtime. He may be sick or molting, but he never panics. He finds a rock and sits there, letting the healing power of the sun do its work. If you find a low place in your life, do not start running around trying to find God — for the poeple will say to you, “Here is Christ; there is Christ,” and it will bring frustration. David said, “I waited patiently for the Lord” (Ps. 40:1) God often has a work to do and all we are asked to do is to wait. There will again come a time of mounting up on wings, but the waiting must come first.

Every eagle knows when his time for death has come. He finds a high rock where he can watch the setting sun and settles down to wait, and then dies watching the sun.

There is only one picture on my study wall and it is that of my saintly maternal grandmother. When I was a very young child, Grandma took over much of my rearing. My earliest memories are that of toddling up to the picturesque little picket fence in front of her home on a Saturday morning, looking forward to all the delicious smelling goodies that she took from the cavernous depths of her vast old-fashioned oven. How I loved her.

Because of the religious confusion that was in our home, I walked in rebellion as a teenager, but Grandma never let go of me. She was living in our home by that time, and I can remember well stunbling into the house at three or four o’clock in the morning and seeing her light shining under the door. I could hear her sobbing, “Oh, God, oh, God!” Even though I usually felt like kicking the door down, I knew that it meant something.

The time came when God got me. I had dissipated my life until I was a moral, physical, and spiritual wreck before He found me. Using what musical talent I had, I set out in the Lord’s work and soon found myself in the ministry.

Grandma ended up moving with us to Vancouver, British Columbia, where I had my first important charge. She came to every service and sat in the front row and just smiled at me. (I don’t think she ever heard a word I said.) She was saying, “You answered, Lord. You answered.” She was nearly eighty and had the most beautiful white hair you ever saw.

Every day for four hours Grandma would sit in her old rocker and rock out an anthem of praise and supplication to God for me. Her prayers sustained me in a way that I was to realize only after she was gone.

One day when I was with her, she suddenly said, “I’m going home.”

“Home?” I asked. “Home where?”

“I’m going home to be with the Lord,” she replied, as if it were something quite ordinary.

“Oh, Grandma,” I objected, “Don’t do that!”

“Yes,” she insisted, as though she and the Lord had talked it over and it was all settled.

A little unsure of what to make of it, I asked, “What are you going to do?”

Quite positively she answered, “I am giving notice on my room. I will go back to the prairies to spend Christmas with the children, and then I am going home.”

That is exactly what she did. With Christmas only three months away, she went back to the prairies for the holiday, wrote her Christmas cards and put everthing in order. When she was ready, she called all the children together and did all the decent things one does when one dies. She called for the pastor and had him read her favorite Psalm (she was two verses ahead of him by memory) and told everyone good-bye. When she had attended to everything, she turned her face toward the sun and slipped into the presence of God.

Grandma was an eagle. She died as eagles die, looking into the sun. Somehow I think this is how saints were meant to step into eternity.

There is great reward in God for those who will dare to be eagles and learn to soar into what God purposed us to be. God is calling us to press into Him and rise higher in Him. He is calling us to new heights of divine awareness, new decisions, and a new set of prioities. He is calling us to be eagles.

This article was published in New Wing Magazine’s Anniversary Edition in June 1984. The original sermon was delivered in 1973. Baxter has since passed on, and New Wine Magazine no longer exists. but the ministry that published it morphed into Integrity Music, which still produces quality worship music and materials from its headquarters in Mobile, Al. I do not have formal permission to publish this sermon, but I am contacting Integrity Music to find out if it’s ok to leave this here. The eagle illustration at the top of the article was published in the June 1984 magazine. Most of the drawings from that magazine were by Mark Pie’, but I do not know if this particular illustration was his, so I cannot attribute it with confidence.

11/25/2009 (7:46 pm)

An American Christian's Obligation

There’s a discussion going on in a Christian-oriented Yahoo group to which I belong, over whether American Christians have an obligation in Christ to resist tyranny, as described in the Declaration of Independence. For those who are not immediately familiar, the Declaration identifies the core rights of free citizens as established by God, and declares that government draws all its right to rule from the consent of the governed. It then makes it a duty of free citizens to identify whether a government has “a design to reduce them under absolute despotism,” and when that occurs, a duty “to throw off such government, and to devise new guards for their future security.”

The title of the thread makes reference to Romans 13, a passage that begins “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities…” Many American Christians regard that as the key passage defining their role as citizens of any nation. I argued briefly in the discussion that in America, we, the people, are the governing authority, and that entity which we call “the government” is actually our slave. It is the government, I said, that owes American citizens obedience per Romans 13, not the other way ’round. We may feel guilty about “rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” but in America, we, the people, are Caesar, and the government is not.

In response to that, some who are of a different mind posited a few passages that they claim define what Christ wants us as Christians to do with respect to the government. These were:

(1) “I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” I Timothy 2:2.

(2) “No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier.” II Timothy 2:4, by which this fellow meant that in serving Christ, he feels it is a distraction to entangle himself in temporal matters, which truly do not matter in the Kingdom of God.

(3) “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.” 2 Corinthians 10:4, by which he means that our battle is not with things of the earth, but rather with spiritual forces.

smugbobMy response to this was long, but a pretty comprehensive argument explaining why I believe Christians in America have a deep-seated obligation in Christ to resist tyrants, and to resist the current, incipient tyrant in particular. The rest of this post is what I argued.

First a definition: I spend most of the discussion talking about the “Kingdom of God.” To understand what I mean, you have to think of God as ruler of all universes, and then think of Earth as territory in rebellion against God, and being held against Him by spiritual forces with human complicity. God invaded this hostile territory from the outside in the person of Jesus, and established a beachhead for Himself through all those who obey Jesus. When I say that our purpose as Christians is to manifest the Kingdom of God, what I mean is that we are to widen the beachhead, extending the territory in which God’s will is done consistently. Since God’s intention for humanity is health, peace, prosperity, righteousness, and joy, those things should be plentiful wherever God’s Kingdom manifests. This is why, for example, Jesus spent so much time healing people when He walked the earth — He was extending the influence of the Kingdom of God. I frequently abbreviate the phrase “Kingdom of God” down to “KoG.”

This will be my Thanksgiving post, since what the Leydenites (they called themselves Pilgrims) were attempting to establish here on this continent was a manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth. This is my tribute to them. Read on…


As Christians, what is our purpose here on earth? To get to heaven? Nonsense. Heaven is an effect, not a goal. We’re already in heaven, in part, and the completion of that transition is inevitable.

Is our goal to be perfected? Yes, but surely firm obedience in the tasks to which He has put us in this life is part of the process by which we are perfected, right?

Is it to convert a lot of people to Christianity? Partly, yes, but Jesus did a great deal more than merely convert people, he taught them, healed them, delivered them, encouraged them, fed them, clothed them…

I see our task here on earth reflected in the following:

“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6:10

The purpose of Christianity here on earth is to bring God’s kingdom into manifestation among men. We’re not here just to learn, nor just to be examples, but to produce the fruit of the kingdom of God wherever we are. That’s why the message is, and always was, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

Now, that creates an interesting conflict, because so much of what goes on down here is truly inconsequential. Christianity is not a political system, nor is it an economic system. Likewise, Christianity is not a self-help program, a mental health tonic, a get-rich-quick or get-rich-slow scheme… although there are truths available in the Kingdom of God that will affect your prosperity, your mental health, your self-esteem, your economics, and your politics. Different tangible matters here on earth have different relevance to the kingdom of God, and it becomes our task as His servants to discern correctly which are central, and which peripheral, and to behave accordingly.

For example, when Peter visited the Centurion at Caesarea and converted his whole household, the Centurion was not commanded to resign his military post. Why? Because military service, a secular and temporal task, is not incompatible with serving the Kingdom of God (KoG.) Most orders a Centurion would carry out would have been of little importance to the KoG, except insofar as the Centurion performs them with moral excellence (something God definitely requires of us whatever our station.) Some — say, the matters in which this Centurion was friendly to the local synagogue — may have been positively beneficial to the KoG.

However, it was certainly possible for that military commander to have received instructions that were flat-out contrary to the Kingdom of God — say, the murder of all male children in the region under the age of 2, or the murder of all Christians — and in that case, the Centurion would have had to refuse the order and accept the consequences, which would probably have been death.

We all have the same balance to strike. We all serve the Kingdom of God while performing temporal tasks that matter very little in eternity. I used to install system software at large corporations. Nothing I did impacted the KoG directly that I could see, but insofar as I was providing for my family, supporting the Church, representing Christ accurately among my co-workers, and performing my duties with honesty and excellence, I considered that I was doing what God wanted me to do.

But occasionally there are secular things with eternal importance, and as Christians, when we encounter them we have to stand firm and do what is right. If your employer is stealing, you have a responsibility within the secular system, but that responsibility also matters eternally, both with regard to your eternal soul and your employer’s. There’s no specific scripture that says “You must report your dishonest employer to the FBI,” but you most certainly have a Christian obligation to do something like that. If you just say “Sinners will be sinners” and turn a blind eye, do you really think God will be indifferent to that? I say not; I say, God demands that we be part of the solution. That’s what we’re here for — to undo the destructive works of satan among men on this lost planet. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth…”

So, what does that say about Christians and American politics?

wrybobAll of us who live in America accept, as an obligation of enjoying the benefits of a free society, the responsibility to participate in its leadership. This is no different from “If a man will not work, neither let him eat.” II Thessalonians 3:10. If you enjoy the benefits of citizenship, you should pay the price of citizenship. That means participation in the body politic in whatever ways are required to ensure the continued peace and safety of the nation. No, you don’t have to volunteer for Ward Chairman if that’s not your thing, but you do need to stay abreast of current events and vote intelligently regarding them. Far too few of us take this responsibility seriously, and yes, I do think God notices.

It’s given that different people will see their responsibility differently; that’s part of what “free society” means. So what if you’re a Democrat and I’m a Republican? So long as we both participate honestly, civilly, with excellence, and in good conscience, we should be able to work out our differences, and even if we can’t, each of our conscientious activisms fulfills our Christian duties. In most political things, where the requirements of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth are either irrelevant or disputable, Christians may participate on either side, and God’s purpose is served by either.

But what if a political party in the US adopts as its core philosophy something that is utterly contrary to the Kingdom of God? not just a specific plank or bad policy, but a central philosophy? What if, for example, a party adopted the central goals of satanism, and used as the central theme of its platform “Be as satan, and Do As You Will?” spreading that theme through law, education, government, and civil society? What if a party stood primarily for the evangelistic spread of Islam throughout the US, intending to establish Sharia in place of the US Constitution and reducing all non-Muslims to “dhimmi” status? What if one adopted a theme of “Grasp for whatever you can, and to hell with the needs of others?” Does the combination of your devotion to the Kingdom of Christ and your citizenship in a citizen-governed system, confer on you a Christian duty to resist that which is explicitly ungodly in that party’s platform? I say that it does — and not only does this not constitute “serving the wrong kingdom,” the failure to judge this rightly and take appropriate action constitutes a failure to serve Christ properly. For our job here is to bring the KoG to earth, and resisting the spread of demoniacal systems is certainly part of that job.

What I perceive in modern America is that one party has been overtaken by a demonic philosophy that perfectly expresses the will of the serpent in Eden: “You will be as God.” It perfectly expresses the spirit of man at Babel: “Let us make a name for ourselves.” It perfectly expresses the vain notions of kings mentioned in Psalm 2: “Let us break [the LORD’s] chains, and throw off [His Anointed’s] fetters.” That philosophy is the philosophy of Utopian control — total control to produce a perfect society. I can imagine no better expression of satanic will for humanity, nor a better vehicle for him to destroy humanity. We saw this philosophy in motion throughout the 20th century, in Italy, in Germany, in Russia, in China, in Vietnam, in Cambodia, in Cuba… and watched it murder hundreds of millions of its own citizens. And everywhere it went, it systematically and specifically murdered the Church, because the spirit of this system is anti-Christ.

madbobAnd even though we Christians, as American citizens, are the government, and have a civic responsibility to maintain the peace and safety of the nation, some here are telling me that they think the Christian has no obligation, as a Christian, to stand against this horror and say “It will not come here.”

I say “Crap.” No obligation could possibly be clearer. And no, I’m not serving the wrong kingdom. I’m serving the only kingdom that matters, the Kingdom of God. Because satan has moved through deceived men and women to increase his hold on the minds and hearts of men, to demolish their prosperity and safety, to increase their misery, to take their liberty and their lives. He’s doing it in a recognizable form, one whose effects we already know all too well. It behooves me as a servant of the living Christ to stand firm against it.

Notice what I have not said, because some here will mistakenly accuse me of saying them. I have not said that the Republican party represents the perfect reflection of Christ, or even that it reflects Him in any way. I have not said that every Democrat is a demoniac. I have not said that Christians cannot be Democrats, nor that Democrats cannot be Christians. I have not said that the US Constitution is the Perfect Christian Document. I have not said that we have leave to treat human beings in the deceived party as though they were less than human beings. I have not said that warfare in the spirit is an inconsequential part of this activism. I have not said that there are no other Christian imperatives in politics to which a Christian might, in good conscience, apply him or herself.

But what I have said is, there’s a distinctly ungodly philosophy afoot, centered in a political movement, and as citizens of the Kingdom of God who happen also to be citizens in a citizen-governed republic, we have a Christian obligation to stand up to it and defeat it decisively.

That’s my argument.

11/11/2009 (4:39 pm)

I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist: Are Miracles Possible? Part III

In previous installments I’ve established

  • that there’s a need for explaining why Christianity is the most reasonable position for an educated, skeptical individual to take (see the post here);
  • that there exists such a thing as absolute truth, and that truth claims may be made about religion just as they can about any other topic (see the post here);
  • that using the Cosmological Argument, the scientific fact that our universe had a beginning establishes that something like a Theistic God must exist (see the post here);
  • that using the Teleological Argument, the anthropic principle establishes that the universe was designed for life, which requires a designer something like a Theistic God (see the post here);
  • that using the Moral Argument, the fact that we all recognize that some things are more morally acceptable than others requires that a universal moral standard exists outside of ourselves, requiring a moral God (see the post here);
  • that the summation of the Cosmological, Teleological, and Moral arguments gives us a composite picture of what the theistic God must be like, and that that composite picture is remarkably similar to the God of the Christian Bible, but not quite similar enough for a positive ID (see the post here);
  • that if God exists, then miracles are neither impossible nor disproved nor violations of nature (see the post here);
  • that Hume’s objection that we can never accept any event as a miracle proves too much, and leaves us questioning every event in history (see the post here.)

This installment will discuss under what conditions we ought to call an event a miracle, and consider why miracles occur.

When Are Miracles Credible?

So, are miracles credible, then? Not so fast.

We cannot dismiss miracles out of hand simply because they are rare. Moreover, there is no particular reason to refrain from calling events “miracles” just because Naturalists, who discount the possibility of miracles a priori, will not accept that label. However, we also cannot accept every miracle claim as equally probable.

We have already met a couple of reasons why a report of a miracle might not be credible: the reporters might be untrustworthy, or the scientific principles surrounding the event might not be understood. We can add to this that some followers of great men seem painfully eager to attribute astounding acts to them in order to justify their devotion, or to draw attention to themselves, or just because they like a good story. So, certain types of claims automatically raise our suspicions. (We should also note, though, that some opponents of great men seem painfully eager to discredit them, a characteristic of modern skeptics to which far too little attention has been paid.)

Examples of these occur among all of the world’s religions, including Christianity. Today, some Buddhists associate miracles with the Buddha’s birth and parts of his life. In one such story, after his own enlightenment, Gautama rose into the air, shooting out flames from the upper part of his body, and streams of water from the lower part his body, and walking in the sky.(1) However, since Gautama’s own teachings argue that craving the power to perform miracles constitutes entrapment in meaningless, temporal matters, it seems unlikely that he would have used such displays of power to impress his followers. Furthermore, since Gautama never claimed either deity or any special connection to deity, it is difficult to understand how “enlightenment” produces power to perform such feats. The most likely explanation for these stories is that later disciples added them to embellish their own devotion, although it is not impossible that something unusual occurred (more about this in a moment).

Some Muslims, likewise, report miracles associated with Mohammed; for instance, some haddith (tradition) suggests that Mohammed split the moon to convince some unbelieving people to believe in him. The problem with a report like this one is that many, many people from Mohammed’s day watched astronomical events, some of them from the same part of the world, and they would have recorded a remarkable event like the moon splitting if it had occurred. Also, the Qur’an reports Mohammed himself claiming to perform no miracles, saying “Signs are with Allah only, and I am only a plain warner.”(2) Consequently, the best explanation for the moon-splitting is that later disciples added the account to enhance Mohammed’s reputation.

And to be fair, there are many, many similar stories within Christianity. One such tale claims that a volcanic eruption ceased miraculously when several pagans ran to the Sepulchre of St. Agatha and held up the burial cloth that covered her tomb.(3) It may be impossible to verify this account, but the best explanation seems to be a combination of superstition and coincidence. The Catholic Church, understanding the eagerness of some to attribute miracles, sets a very high standard of proof before actually calling an event a miracle (however, not as high as Naturalists set it.)

Winfried Corduan, in his article “Recognizing a Miracle,” explains how certain stories have greater explanatory power than others depending on the context.(4) For example, he considers a cup of coffee sitting next to him as he writes. How did the cup get there? He offers several theories:

  1. His wife set it there next to him;
  2. A Boy Scout, doing his good deed for the day, sneaked into the house and placed it there;
  3. A scientist on the other side of town, who is experimenting with teleportation, transferred the cup from his own laboratory;
  4. Aliens placed it there, laced with a drug that will cause him to be transported to their ship;

…and so forth. The first explanation obviously has better standing than the others (Anthony Flew would like this explanation). However, what if Corduan is a bachelor? Suddenly, the “wife” explanation has no better standing than the others. The standing of an explanation varies depending on the context.

When establishing that a miracle has occurred, then, context is everything. For example, if I were to receive an unexpected check in the mail in the amount of $4,395.16 from the estate of a relative I did not know I had, I would be mystified and pleased, but I would not call it a miracle. But what if I were doing volunteer work at an orphanage, and the orphanage had defaulted on several months’ worth of mortgage payments, to the effect that they were facing foreclosure due to arrears of precisely $4,395.16? And what if I had been praying to Jesus, along with the rest of the staff at the orphanage, for that specific amount of money? Suddenly the explanation “Jesus answered our prayers” gains a great deal of credibility. I would not call this proof that a miracle had occurred; however, I would call the “answered prayer” hypothesis the best-fit explanation. In a case like this, the explanation that says “Jesus answered our prayers” possesses what Corduan calls “prima facie presumption.”

Prima facie presumption for a miracle only occurs in contexts where people have reason to expect a miracle. This might include instances where a prophet is making unusual declarations, and the miracle would confirm his authority to make that declaration. It might include instances where people who are identified with a God have needs that only that God can meet. And, it might certainly occur when someone claiming to be the real God appears among men as one of them, and makes claims that He has authority to perform miracles and to raise Himself from the dead. In those circumstances, if an event occurs that lacks a sound explanation, “miracle” is an explanation that holds great explanatory power. In some settings, “miracle” has to be the prima facie presumption when no immediately obvious explanation can be found.

However, even when we have established that an unusual event has occurred, it might not be of a type that we should call miraculous. If a horse mysteriously appears in my living room, it would be very strange, but I would not call it a miracle – unless I had specifically been praying for a horse. Reports of Hindu shamans capable of remarkable works of power are common. Some claim to be able to walk on water, while others walk barefoot over hot coals without being burned, and still others lie on beds of sharp nails but suffer no puncture wounds. These feats have been performed on camera. Interestingly, these men do not regard their own feats as miraculous; they claim to achieve them by their own concentration, and would be dismissive of claims that they are using any power other than what is inherent in themselves. Assessing what these might be is beyond the scope of this essay, but it should be enough to say that if the people performing these acts do not claim that God is involved, we have no reason to claim it, either. The occurrence of such events should be confirmable, but might not be considered miraculous, just inexplicable. If the practitioner is not claiming deity or any particular authority, and there is no reason to infer the presence of deity, “miracle” should not be the prima facie presumption.

So, now we have come back to the question of what constitutes a miracle. Just saying “unusual event, not conforming to the pattern of nature” will not do. There has to be some connection to God, or at least to something holy, before we would ordinarily call an event a miracle. And in order to assess that connection, we need a sound understanding of the character of God, in order to assess whether “God” is even plausible in the picture. However, once we have established the connection to God, confirmed that we are in conformity to His character, established that the event actually occurred, and confirmed that we know enough of the natural circumstances to rule out natural causes, we have sufficient basis to call an event a miracle.

So, let’s revise our definition of a miracle in the light of that more complete understanding:

miracle: an event in nature for which the willful intervention of God is the best-fit explanation, the occurrence of which does not conform to the expected and well-understood pattern of events in nature, and which produces an effect that is consistent with the understood character of God.

There, that’s better. We do not have to call ghost stories, levitation of shaman, or every healing of a farmer’s goat in response to prayers to the Blessed Virgin, miraculous. We do have to call Jesus rising from the dead miraculous, if the evidence is sufficient to establish that he did, in fact, rise from the dead. The particulars of that claim are examined in the writings of Gary Habermas and other Christian apologists.

And if that miracle occurred, there might be others – including the healing of certain goats, perhaps. We just have to examine the circumstances and the evidence.

Why Do Miracles Occur?

Miracles in the New Testament are referred to using the Greek word semeion, meaning “signs” (from semaino, “to give a sign,” “to make known.”)(5) So, at least one of the major reasons why God performs miracles is as a sign; that is, to confirm the authority of a person or group of people, to indicate something that He is doing. In particular, we notice that the Apostle Paul claimed that Jesus “was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead.” (Romans 1:4) Paul assigned to himself the authority of an Apostle by reminding the Corinthian church, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles.” (II Corinthians 12:12) By these, we confirm that at the very least, miracles served the role of identifying God’s appointed messengers in the early church. We should keep this in mind when, later in this series, I post material confirming the accuracy of Old Testament prophecy regarding the Messiah, for instance, or the evidence supporting the claim that Jesus’ tomb held his corpse at one point, but later was empty.

However, to say that miracles occur solely as signs is incorrect. The Incarnation was miraculous. The primary purpose of the Incarnation was that someone of sufficient worth could atone for the sins of all men, which cannot be called a sign of anything. The Incarnation also gave us an example of what sort of people we are supposed to be – again, not a sign, an example. Also, the resurrection, while it certainly did occur as a sign of Jesus’ deity, also serves as the means by which converted believers are separated from their sins (see Romans 6:1-13). Consequently, we have to add that miracles may achieve God’s purposes, whatever those happen to be. Consider:

… God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16

If the basic purpose of the miracle we call the Incarnation was for God to express His love by redeeming us from destruction and making us eternal, then it follows that God may perform whatever miracle He needs to perform in order to fully effect our redemption. (Paul actually says something very similar to this in Romans 8:32.) That would include signs that convince us, but might also include healings that restore us, prophecies that encourage us, or really, any other act we may or may not be able to imagine, so long as it effects our redemption.

A difficulty occurs when we admit that God may in fact do anything He likes, any time He likes, so long as it is consistent with His goal of redeeming us. The question becomes not, why does God perform miracles, but rather why does He not perform more of them? There is not one of us who might not benefit from a miracle at some time or other. We don’t want Mom to die so soon, or we don’t want to die ourselves. We don’t have the money to replace the car, so we don’t want it to break down, even though we have not maintained it so well. We haven’t earned enough to pay for the home of our dreams, but there it is, the home of our dreams; can God do a miracle and let us have it?

An immediately obvious answer is that our convenience does not necessarily effect our redemption. Perhaps letting Mom go is the outcome that will produce the most holiness for the largest number of people; if the goal is the redemption and maximum holiness of as much of humanity as possible, then we must defer our particular needs to the sovereignty of God, who sees everything and works all things according to His will.

The revealed pattern in history is not so full of miracles as we suppose. The miracles in the Old Testament occur in clusters, one group surrounding the Exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Palestine, another other surrounding the ministries of Elijah and Elisha in the Northern kingdom of Israel, and yet another surrounding the ministries of the prophets. There are certain miracles that occur in isolated places and times – a donkey rebuking a prophet in human speech, a city destroyed by fire from heaven, a battle prolonged by the sun being suspended in the sky – but these are rare and episodic.

However, this is not the way of the New Testament, which is full of miraculous events, and limiting the miraculous seems inconsistent with the character of God, who longs to draw all men into fellowship with Himself, and who created nature ready and waiting for God Himself, nature’s husband and master, to implant it with miracles, like a bride’s womb.

Another way of asking why there are not more miracles might be this: if redemption is the goal, why does God not perform such miracles as to convince even the most hardened atheist, so that all of them will be redeemed?

The correct answer to this conundrum is that miracles may not be the best way to convince the unbelieving. Miracles are impressive, true; but in practice, the miracles God performed in Egypt, as documented in the book of Exodus, did not convert Pharoah or the Egyptians. They were impressed, but they were not saved. Nor did those miracles bring any of the nations that heard of them into obedience to God. The surrounding peoples heard of the events, but among them, only Rahab and the Gibeonites approached Israel asking for mercy and inclusion; the rest resisted, and perished.

Human beings are stubborn creatures, and unbelievably adept at self-delusion. Every event in our natural world is either directly or indirectly an act of God, but it is not just atheists, it is Christians who wonder why we cannot see God. One might answer, where might you look that you cannot see Him? But we go on refusing to see. And if we cannot see God in the expected events of nature, what makes us think we would we see Him any better in unexpected events like miracles? Does the mere fact that the event is unexpected, necessarily mean that we will see what we choose not to see?

It does not. In fact, the previous installment in this series discusses the philosophical works of David Hume and Anthony Flew, to the effect of establishing what they consider credible reasons to look directly at any miracle of God and declare, “I do not see the hand of God here.” Miracles truly only convince those who are already available to be convinced, which makes a further point: redemption is for those who are willing to be redeemed, and those who are condemned, are condemned because they have chosen condemnation. God does not overrule free will, even the will to be damned.

Jesus establishes that the choice to refuse to see the miraculous constitutes a basis for judgment against people in some cases:

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Matthew 11:21

Some imagine that Jesus is condemning them for failing to recognize the Son of God, but that is not what He says; He says the miracles would have been enough to produce repentance. God pronounced judgment on those who did not recognize the miracles and respond to them. If the appearance of miracles prefaces a possible judgment, and people actually deceive themselves in such a manner as to make them impervious to miracles, then perhaps God withholds miracles in order to give people more time to repent.

Many people say they would like to see a miracle. It would probably be closer to the truth to say that many people would like confirmation that their lives matter to God, but that these same people are terrified beyond words that God will demand something of them they are not willing to give. They are correct, but not in the way they think; God does not demand, but the circumstances of our world are such that unless they repent, they will perish, just as a natural consequence of their condition. It takes grace to change, and grace is available for the asking, but most will not ask – and probably, most will never see a miracle, either.

Miracles are possible. Nature is designed to receive them, and God is able and willing to produce them. None of the reasons suggested by skeptics are sufficient to dissuade Christians from calling events “miracles” that fit the proper definition of a miracle. Not every claim of a miracle is believable, but in some contexts “miracle” is simply the best fit to the facts. We might have more of them if we were more holy, ourselves, but ultimately, God is the one who decides when a miracle fits His plan of redemption, and uses neither our curiosity nor our convenience as the criterion to determine when a miracle is called for. He performs miracles to point to authentic messengers, but ultimately, He performs whatever acts will best achieve our redemption, including, if necessary, miracles.

We’ve arrived at the end of the theoretical arguments about God. Next, it will be time to consider whether the God that we’ve proved to exist has actually performed miracles in our world, in such a way that we can use them to determine which of the various theistic positions is the most correct.

Next time, we begin examining the question, “Is the New Testament true?”

Notes

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miracles_of_Gautama_Buddha.
(2) Surah 29:50.
(3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Legend#Miracle_tales_of_relics.
(4) Corduan, Wilfried, “Recognizing a Miracle,” in In Defense of Miracles, Geivett & Habermas, eds., InterVarsity Press, Downer’s Grove, IL, 1997, chapter 6, pp. 108-109.
(5) Online Bible Greek Lexicon, http://www.onlinebible.net/, copyright 2009, Larry Pierce, Winterbourne, CA.

10/23/2009 (10:45 am)

Toleration and the Crown

Earlier this week Kenneth Feinberg, unelected agent of King Obama tasked with managing the executive compensation of subjects of the Crown, announced severe cuts in pay for highly paid employees at those companies that have still failed to pay back money forced on them by the King. At the same time, the Federal Reserve, a board appointed by the King and ruling with no authority except that obtained by its power to lend funds to banks, announced plans to review and approve the compensation plans of member banks, even those who received no funds from the King.

Before the rise to power of King Obama, compensation for employees of publicly-held companies was determined by the owners of those companies, expressing themselves through their boards of directors. The concept of private property, which is the cornerstone of a self-governing republic, demanded that only those who owned the company could speak to its practices, allowing only those laws that were necessary to protect the peace and safety of the American people an additional voice. Of course, the number, power, and intrusiveness of laws “necessary to protect the peace and safety” have multiplied like aggressive, carnivorous rabbits, eating more and more of the nation’s substance as they overran free trade. But still, there were limits.

But the government became part-owners of those companies by lending to them, an action not contemplated by the authors of the Constitution from which administrations prior to the Obama administration drew their legitimacy by obeying its strictures. And I have seen no effort on the part of the Crown to limit its intrusion into the operations of these companies based on a fair evaluation of the numbers of shares they hold in each; no, it seems that when a firm accepts a dollar of public money for any reason, that firm becomes a wholly-owned subsidiary of the US Treasury Dept., and must obey its every command.

And by similar measure, Congress created the Federal Reserve in 1914, exercising authority it did not possess and forcing banks to become members. Now the Federal Reserve is exercising authority not specified by Congressional act, claiming the power to approve or disapprove the compensation structure of banks that were coerced to become members.

This brings to mind a vital distinction that was made in the century prior to the establishment of the American republic. It was in the years of Queen Elizabeth I, I believe, when the British Crown decided to extend its toleration to religious dissidents, choosing not to prosecute those Catholics and Protestants who refused to join the Church of England. Implied, and clearly understood by all, was the claim that Crown had every right to demand obedience, that it could, at any moment it chose, revoke that benign toleration and arrest and prosecute those dissidents. The fact that subjects of the Crown exercised liberties did not mean they were free; it only meant that for the time being, the Crown chose to grant them liberty. They were still subjects of the Crown. This same concept of toleration covered every other aspect of subjects’ liberties in England; they were free because the Crown granted them liberty, but the power to grant or revoke liberty remained with the Crown.

When the American republic was established, it instituted a new and revolutionary concept for the first time in the planet’s history: namely, that the government had no powers at all other than those specifically granted by the people. Religious liberty, economic liberty, political liberty — the government did not grant them, they inhered to the people. What belonged (and still belongs) to the English people only by toleration from the Crown, belongs to the American people by birthright. At least, it did before King Obama.

Simply by claiming that he has the right, Obama has made himself King over America. It is he who holds all rights, and he who grants, or tolerates, the liberties of the people. He reserves for himself the power to revoke liberties wherever and whenever he chooses, limited only by Congressional cooperation. Rights no longer inhere to the people; now they are all held by the President, and we all live by his benign toleration, just like subjects of the Crown.

There are plenty of valid objections to these ham-fisted measures to limit executive compensation. I predicted months ago (here and here) that top executives would flee from companies subject to pay restrictions, and this is already taking place as the smartest people in the industry anticipate the inevitable and find safer havens from which to earn what the market says they are worth. I also noted (here) that partisanship inevitably affects measures controlled by the government, and sure enough, the compensation caps are not going to affect the King’s favorites at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, who were permitted to repay their TARP loans (not all recipients of the King’s largess were so lucky.) In all his major policy moves, King Obama picks winners and losers from among the largest firms — and the winners are always supporters. Curious. And finally, it is crucial to remember that the Fed, which is claiming urgency to control compensation because that’s what caused the meltdown a year ago, is itself the body most directly at fault for the meltdown, having created the housing bubble by its aggressively low interest rates in the wake of multiple shocks to the economy in 2001.

The real objection, though, is that President Obama (he’s not really King… yet) is busily erasing the core distinction between American liberty and the monarchies that preceded it — he asserts, by bold action completely devoid of Constitutional empowerment, that the liberties of a free people exist only by his toleration. He grants us liberty to continue free trade in some small measure — for now. By his actions, he indicates that he reserves for himself the power to revoke those liberties at will. We, the people, do not own those liberties; King Obama does.

Many individuals in the nation applaud these limits on executive compensation, exclaiming that such levels of pay are “obscene,” that they are “unjust,” that the fact that even the poor in America live at a standard unheard of through most of the world through most of history does not justify the extraordinary wealth of the most productive and effective among us. They should look to themselves; for if the Crown can tell executives how much they are entitled to make, then the Crown can also tell anybody how much they are entitled to make. Tyrants obtain the power they desire by setting precedents against the unpopular, and then taking the power granted against the unpopular and using it against everybody else. The super-rich have become unpopular here in America, and by controlling their pay, Obama is establishing his Sovereign Right to control the pay of all. He wants the right for a reason, and you can be sure it is not to prevent riches; he’s not limited his own pay, nor the pay of his “Czars,” has he? Most likely, his goal is to prevent riches among his opponents, and to give himself the power to reward his supporters. That appears to be the one, guiding principle under which this King operates.

We are so screwed…

10/14/2009 (2:34 pm)

Progressivism, the Religion

I’m in the first chapter of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, and I’m delighted to find that he’s accurately identified the religious character of American progressivism.

The one thing that unites these [variously fascist] movements is that they were all, in their own ways, totalitarian. But what do we mean when we say something is totalitarian? The word has certainly taken on an understandably sinister connotation in the last half century. Thanks to work by Hannah Arendt, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and others, it’s become a catchall for brutal, soul-killing, Orwellian regimes. But that’s not how the word was originally used or intended. Mussolini himself coined the term to describe a society where everybody belonged, where everyone was taken care of, where everything was inside the state and nothing was outside; where truly no child was left behind.

Again, it is my argument that American liberalism is a totalitarian political religion, but not necessarily an Orwellian one. It is nice, not brutal. Nannying, not bullying. But it is definitely totalitarian — or “holistic,” if you prefer — in that liberalism today sees no realm of human life that is beyond political significance, from what you eat to what you smoke to what you say. Sex is political. Food is political. Sports, entertainment, your inner motives and outer appearance, all have political salience for liberal fascists. Liberals place their faith in priestly experts who know better, who plan, exhort, badger, and scold. They try to use science to discredit traditional notions of religion and faith, but they speak the language of pluralism and spirituality to defend “nontraditional” beliefs. Just as with classical fascism, liberal fascists speak of a “Third Way” between right and left where all good things go together and all hard choices are “false choices.”

The idea that there are no hard choices — that is, choices between competing goods — is religious and totalitarian because it assumes that all good things are fundamentally compatible. The conservative or classical liberal vision understands that life is unfair, that man is flawed, and that the only perfect society, the only real utopia, waits for us in the next life.

I’ve been saying for decades that the current version of what we call “liberalism,” which its adherents are calling “progressivism,” feels like a religion, and its adherents exhibit all the characteristics of True Believers. These Believers take as axioms — as dogma, really — the inherent virtue of radical egalitarianism, multiculturalism, and moral relativism, dismiss all other views of truth as hopelessly backward, and ultimately celebrate the ascendancy of the enlightened apex of human development, namely themselves.

Understanding that progressivism is a religion explains lots of things. It explains why progressives consider holding their political position the apex of moral virtue, and holding contrary positions, the depths of moral vice. It explains why progressives are impervious to reasons, statistics, or sound arguments that do not support their point of view. It explains why they feel perfectly justified in controlling even the smallest decisions of the populace. It explains why they feel no compunction of conscience while breaking every conceivable law or rule of civil behavior in the pursuit of power. It explains the fervor with which they pursue political power. It explains everything: they’re True Believers.

I produced a decent definition of “religion” in my post on Darwin Day this year:

…“theism” is not a useful definition of religion: there are major, recognized world religions that contain both many gods (Hinduism, Shintoism, Buddhism) and no gods (Confucianism and Taoism.) A better definition of religion would be “a dogmatic set of cohesive ideas purporting to explain the nature and purpose of the universe, and from that to derive how Man should live.”

Progressivism is nothing if not dogmatic; you can’t even raise questions about their presuppositions without getting scoffed at. They definitely have ideas regarding the nature of the universe, and they not only have derived from those ideas how Man should live, but consider themselves the rightful executors of the power to make them live that way. Oh, yes, progressivism is a religion, alright, and a highly coercive one at that.

Some will object that they can’t be religious because they do not believe in God. I’ve had that conversation with atheists of various stripes; they want me to get it through my head that Atheism is not belief, but the absence of belief. That’s like saying that on a sunny, warm day we are not experiencing weather, but the absence of weather. If the topic is “What is the universe, and how should we live in it,” the answer may or may not include God, but all answers to that question are addressing the same topic. The answer that says “We must work together under one Government to create a world without racism, sexism, homophobia, or unfairness” is as much religion as the answer that says “Fear God, and keep His commandments, for such is the whole duty of man.”

1apunchAs with all True Believers, their cognitive dissonance runs deep. They can hurl the most incredibly vicious racial epithets at black conservatives like Sowell, Thomas, and Rice (remember Clarence Thomas as a lawn jockey?), and then claim that conservatism is the source of all racism without the slightest awareness of the irony. They slur conservative women with utter, unrestrained viciousness (Katherine Harris “applies makeup with a trowel” and Michelle Malkin is “a mashed-up bag of meat with lipstick”) but consider conservatism the bastion of sexist hate and suppression of women. They ruminate about conservative talk show hosts “blowing up like a blimp” and fabricate out of thin air racist quotes to accuse their opponents, but wonder how conservatives can be so mean-spirited. They cannot even watch Sarah Palin on TV without screaming curses at her, and regard capitalists and conservatives as evil incarnate, but lecture us about tolerance and getting past our differences. Because they are The Good Ones, it is simply not possible that they could do evil; because their beliefs are the very definition of tolerance, open-mindedness, and multicultural harmony, what they do simply cannot ever be considered intolerant, bigoted, or vicious.

Adherents engage in a pretense of intellectual discussion among themselves because Reason sits high in their panoply of gods; but it is pretense only, and impervious to serious engagement from outside its own circle of self-congratulation. Ask any conservative what it takes to get a progressive to engage them in reasonable conversation; every one of us who has tried can count on one hand the number of times we have succeeded in getting a cogent, polite response to a sincere intellectual challenge. I’ve been trying for at least 25 years, and still know only a handful of progressives who can talk politics with me without hurling insults. Conservatives can play drinking games betting on how many words it will take before the progressive resorts to sneering: my record is four words. I’m not kidding; a friend asked me “Why Iraq?” and he interrupted with a sneer after “What was intended was…” When Rush Limbaugh gets a call from an acknowledged liberal, he times how long it takes before he gets called a derogatory name; it’s invariably less than 2 minutes. Ask any conservative how many times he’s been called “Nazi,” “fascist,” “racist,” or various shades of “imbecile” simply for offering a contrary idea to one held by a progressive. In my experience, there is no connection between the idea offered and the accusatory response; “fascist” is a definition. To the progressive, intelligent conversation begins with “are you a believer?” If the answer is “no,” then it’s simply an article of faith that what follows is “fascist,” “sexist,” “racist,” or “greed,” and can have no merit.

And then, there are the Christian progressives. These are becoming increasingly common, as the shaming and fault-finding directed by the culture at large toward Christians for remaining faithful to an “outdated” sect take their toll. Increasingly, devout Christians are succumbing to the lie that using other peoples’ tax money to engage the government in programs for the poor is somehow a Christian act. Theft is never Christian; and the notion that the government can force righteousness on a people is as demonic a notion as ever infected a Christian mind. More to the point, though, the dogmatic assumptions of progressivism are biblically unsound; man cannot be perfected through political activism, it is no virtue to make all outcomes equal regardless of performance, and showing love to people of different races and cultures does not imply that all practices are of equal moral worth. By committing to the progressive Utopian vision, no matter how well-intentioned or filled with Christian-sounding endorsements, Christians are serving among the legions of a foreign god.

One must remember when engaging progressives that one is most likely engaging what I would call a Brittle Fundamentalist. Brittle Fundamentalists can only see the world in black and white; they can accept no grays. Consequently, they will resist with intense fervor any effort to move them from serving the goals of progressivism, and simply disbelieve any fact you produce that does not fit their picture of the world. But, like all Brittle Fundamentalists, there is a breaking point; if the preponderance of the facts from a trusted source at any time forces them to acknowledge that they’ve been wrong on any subject, the entire house of cards can collapse in a matter of days. They can quickly become conservatives if they ever permit themselves, even once, to let a contrary thought in. Their faith is inflexible, and that makes it breakable.

The fact that Western civilization has been overtaken by a non-Christian — I should say an anti-Christian — religion, it is clearer than ever that the path to saving Western civilization is not political, but religious. The culture will not be turned by winning a series of elections; the culture will be turned by religious revival, and by nothing else.

09/24/2009 (9:45 am)

What's Wrong With This Picture?

The video to the left is from the recent sting operation by independent reporters regarding the Baltimore office of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. We all know the story by now; the reporters pose as pimp and prostitute, the workers give them advice how to game the tax laws. (You can read about how the project came about here.)

Yesterday, ACORN filed suit in Circuit Court for Baltimore City against Andrew Breitbart, the owner of the Big Government blog on which the films were presented, and against Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe, the two reporters who posed in the video. They seek punitive and compensatory damages for their ruined reputations, and they seek an injunction to stop the circulation of the videos. Good luck with the latter — they’re on YouTube and they’ve gone viral.

The two employees who were captured on video have been fired by ACORN. The organization has frozen hiring until an investigation is complete. Congress has cut off federal funding for the organization. ACORN claims damage was done to its reputation, and claims also that the two employees, Thompson and WIlliams, suffered “extreme emotional distress” as a result of the video. Also, the lawsuit claims that O’Keefe and Giles violated Maryland law by taping audio without the consent of the people being taped.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Put yourself in the place of a legitimate citizen organization. You’ve been visited by a hostile team of reporters who are aiming at ruining your reputation. They’ve discovered a pair of rogues working in one of your offices, and broadcast the video of these two clowns violating your organization’s clear intent and helping criminals establish businesses that hide their crimes and steal from the taxpayers. Your reputation has suffered, your donors are running for the hills, and you want compensation.

Why the hell are you concerned about the “extreme emotional distress” of the two human sewers that the reporters discovered? These two are the reason the reporters were able to ruin your reputation! You should be suing them! Sure, it makes sense also to sue the reporters to get compensation for the damage, but you should be suing these employees for every penny they earn for the rest of their lives, for bringing their garbage into your legitimate place of business and making your organization look like a criminal enterprise. You should be spreading memos throughout the organization with pictures and descriptions of those two, saying “If you do what these two did, expect to be fired, jailed, folded, spindled, mutilated, and have teams of flesh-eating lawyers gobbling the income from your estate for the rest of eternity.”

CNN’s story on the matter cites a relevant falsehood (without identifying it as a falsehood.) It says:

ACORN — the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — said O’Keefe and Giles also attempted to capture similar videos at ACORN offices in other cities but failed.

What they do not say is that O’Keefe and Giles claim exactly the opposite — that they visited exactly five ACORN offices, and obtained exactly five videos of employees helping them break the law. They had no trouble finding ACORN employees to help them, because that’s what ACORN does: it helps people break the law.

So why is ACORN listing the pain and suffering of these employees in the lawsuit? Simply because the lawsuit is not aimed at producing justice. They know other employees are engaged in precisely the same activity. They hire them to do that. If they went after the employees like a sane organization would, they would lose all their employees overnight. So they can’t do that.

The purpose of the lawsuit, frankly, is to discourage honest people from attacking ACORN, so they can continue to operate without scrutiny. They want people to think twice before blowing the whistle on their criminal enterprise. And the purpose for listing the pain and suffering of criminals in the complaint is to throw more mud on the wall to see what sticks. If they manage to get a judge to award them compensation for the suffering of these two, all that much more pain for the reporters who dared to cross them. It can’t hurt their lawsuit, so they do it.

The lawsuit is not about justice, not even a little. The whole picture does not look like a legitimate organization seeking redress of real grievances. It looks like a criminal enterprise engaging in warfare.


ACORN has the right in the United States to sue in court to seek compensation for damages. That’s the legal side, and the rights of individuals, regardless of how vicious or immoral they might be, must be protected equally, or none of us are safe. Courtesy of one of my commenters, allow me to quote a conversation from the 1966 film A Man for All Seasons, between Sir Thomas More and his son-in-law to be, William Roper:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

Having said that, I want to be clear: I believe that what these reporters did was morally right. I believe that ACORN is a deeply corrupt organization, from top to bottom. I believe that ACORN’s employees were doing precisely what they were hired to do, and that they were fired solely for appearance’s sake. I do not believe any other conclusion is possible.

And I believe this lawsuit is an evil act.

The phrase that comes to my mind is from the prophet Isaiah, where he condemns the Israelites for fasting with wrong motives: he says they pray and fast in order to “strike with a wicked fist.” (Isaiah 58:4, New American Standard Version) That’s what ACORN is doing here. They got caught doing what they do. They are using the laws of the land to punish the righteous for exposing them, to make sure nobody else ever exposes them again without thinking twice. They want to perform their evil deeds in the dark, as evil people always do. So they use the laws to punish the righteous.

wrybob1This is not, by far, the only sort of misuse of the system we call “Justice.” Research has established that one of the greatest contributors to the costs of medical care is what we call “defensive medicine,” medicine that serves no purpose other than to protect the doctor, and more to the point, the insurer, against lawsuits. This has become necessary because people use the courts, not to get justice, but to get rich. They sue if the doctor makes an error (which is common enough, since doctors are human,) or if nature deals them a bad hand and they can blame the doctor somehow. They reason, “The doctor has lots, and I have only a little, so why shouldn’t I get some of it?” The sort of thinking that says “I should only ask for what is just” has vanished from our culture. So has the sort of thinking that says “I should offer what is just,” because lawsuits have driven that sort of thing underground. One does not admit error, because that puts you at risk in the lawsuit. We have become corrupt, and our corruption has broken the system of justice.

I’ve begun a series of articles reviewing theological thinking about politics in the American colonies before the American Revolution. It’s a bit boring, but the reason I’m doing it is so I can wrap my mind around what it might take to build, from the ground up, a society that honors God’s laws, that rewards righteousness and discards wickedness as though it were garbage. The current American system does not do that; it rewards wickedness, and protects it.

The system actually protects righteous people if the people are, on the whole, righteous. The reason the system protects wickedness is that the land is full of wicked people. We have become corrupt, and have earned our demise. We need to resurrect righteous thinking; we need to mark the money-grubbing that abuses the system as the evil that it is, and we need to resist that sort of thinking when it arises within ourselves. We need to call corruption by its name, and we need to root it out from among us, “…each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1)

The cure begins in the mirror; each of us bears the responsibility to become righteous, and the responsibility to learn to think, speak, and act like righteous men and women. The only version of this that will bear legitimate fruit is the version that relies on God, Himself, to build righteousness in us. No counterfeit will produce anything worthwhile. The mere fact that one calls oneself “Christian” (or any other denomination) does not produce what’s needed. It’s just as easy for a Christian to get greedy or foolish as it is anybody else. What we’re after is not religious words, but godly behavior; not church attendance, but decency.

There can be no other foundation for a righteous nation; the laws that defend liberty, defend wickedness where wickedness is common. The only solution is to make wickedness uncommon.

John Adams’ name has risen in esteem recently, as historians rediscover the mark he left on the fledgling nation, so I’ll end this by recalling his warning issued to militiamen of Massachusetts in 1798:

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.

We are no longer a moral and religious people, so ACORN is free to strike with wicked fists against the righteous who expose their criminality. This does not have to be, but the cure begins right there where you sit.

09/16/2009 (11:47 am)

Messianic Jews in Israel

This video, a 9-minute newscast from Israeli TV, is particularly meaningful to me, as these Jewish believers in Yeshua (Jesus) are taking a leap that I took, myself, almost 40 years ago. I did have the option of continuing to call myself Jewish, and in fact I do at times, but I decided back then in 1973 that no truly valuable purpose was served by drawing attention to myself, making a huge issue among the Christians of the fact that I was raised in a Jewish home.

The situation of Israeli Yeshua-believers — Messianic Jews, they’re called, Jews who believe the Messiah has already come — is different from mine, though. Israel is predominantly Jewish with an attitude. Jews who welcome Jesus in any form are open to the charge of cultural treason. I faced a little of this, myself, but these folks don’t have a large, non-Jewish population into which they may escape.

Watch:

As Christians go, I’m steadfastly and deliberately aloof when I encounter talk of the end-times, the branch of theology called Eschatology. Attempting to predict the future based on arcane prophetic utterances strikes me as an enormous waste of time, given that the batting average of man’s attempts to interpret prophecies before they have come to pass is .000. When people ask me what I think about the topic, I paraphrase Luke 12 at them: “Blessed is that servant whom the Master finds so doing when he comes.” I figure so long as I do what God commands me to do right now, and keep doing that, I’m as prepared as I can be for His return, and that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.

That being said, the appearance of a Messianic Judaism in Israel is a remarkable event, and does comport with Biblical predictions about the end of times. Take that for what you will.

All four of my children attend a Messianic congregation in Philadelphia called Beth Yeshua (“House of Jesus.”)

I recognized only a handful of the songs in the video. The last one is not Messianic; it’s a traditional hymn from the Sabbath service, added, I’m sure, to emphasize that these Jews maintain traditional practice. I always liked that song; it welcomes the ministering angels on the Sabbath:

Peace unto you, ministering angels, messengers of the Most High, the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

May your coming be in peace, angels of peace, messengers of the Most High (etc.)

Bless me with peace, angels of peace, messengers of the Most High (etc.)

May your departure be in peace, angels of peace, messengers of the Most High (etc.)

09/15/2009 (1:26 pm)

TFJR: Sebastian Castellio and the Origin of Liberty of Conscience

tfjr-final-21In this installation in the series exploring the theological foundations of a just rebellion, I depart for a moment from considering political sermons of the American revolutionary period to highlight the originator of the notion of Liberty of Conscience among European Protestants. The originator was a little-known writer named Sebastian Castellio, a student of John Calvin who later became one of his adversaries.

John Calvin, one of the most influential forces in the Protestant Reformation (his Institutes of the Christian Religion remains to this day a mainstay of Reformed theology,) established a unique Theocratic government in the city of Geneva in 1541, using his theology to guide the city’s political leaders until his death in 1564. Calvin considered it a Christian’s duty to conform to civil government regardless of how oppressive; he also considered all possible governmental forms (which, to him, included monarchy, autocracy, and democracy) to be consistent with scripture, which he considered the final rule of all questions.(1) Within his city, citizens were required to attend weekly sermons; dancing, lewd songs, theater, and inordinate displays of wealth were forbidden; and adultery, blasphemy, and heresy were punishable by death.

It was the execution of a famous heretic named Michael Servetus in 1553 that first prompted Castellio to oppose Calvin. Servetus, a forerunner of Unitarianism, apparently felt that the doctrine of the trinity, in particular, prevented Jews and Muslims from accepting Christianity, and since it was both incomprehensible logically and not particularly well-supported by scripture, ought to be abandoned. For this and other innovations, he was accused of heresy by Catholics and Protestants alike. Fleeing from a trial in France where he stood accused by Catholic leaders, he stopped in Geneva and was recognized while attending a sermon by Calvin; he was detained there and tried on a bill of particulars listing 40 separate charges by the city of Geneva. Though he was not a citizen of Geneva and thus technically not under their laws, the government, in consultation with governments of surrounding districts, found him guilty of heresy and burned him at the stake. Calvin himself plead that Servetus be beheaded rather than burned for mercy’s sake, but was rebuffed by the Geneva Council.

Calvin explained the then-common sentiment that heretics should be killed in these terms:

Whoever shall maintain that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them makes himself an accomplice in their crime and guilty as they are. There is no question here of man’s authority; it is God who speaks, and clear it is what law he will have kept in the church, even to the end of the world. Wherefore does he demand of us a so extreme severity, if not to show us that due honor is not paid him, so long as we set not his service above every human consideration, so that we spare not kin, nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for His glory.

He published a defense of his burning of Servetus in February of 1554. A few weeks later, a well-known publisher in Basel, Switzerland released a pamphlet entitled De haereticis, an sint persequendi (“Whether heretics should be persecuted,”) 180px-sebastiancastelliocontaining excerpts from 25 Christian writers both ancient and contemporary — including Calvin himself — defending the notion that differences of theological opinion should be tolerated. It was published under the pseudonym Martinus Bellius, but it was soon determined that the collector and author was Sebastian Castellio.

Castellio had already introduced the notions that filled De Haereticis in the dedication of his Latin translation of the Bible to Edward VI, the young, Protestant king of England. In it, Castellio had argued that religions make slow progress, and that in the pursuit of change, Christians accuse each other of outlandish heresies mostly for the sake of gaining ground — while at the same time, they accept Turks and Jews, who disagree with the faith in far greater severity than any heretic. This mild ironic criticism is now considered the very first manifesto to religious toleration.

Castellio’s pamphlet De Haeriticis begins with a benediction addressed to Duke Christoph of Württemberg, in which he argues forcefully that the energy of Christian disputation constitutes disobedience to Christ and is spent on unimportant things:

If thou, illustrious Prince, had informed thy subjects that thou wert coming to visit them at an unnamed time and had requested them to be prepared in white garments to meet thee on thy coming; what wouldst thou do, if, on arrival, thou shouldst find that instead of robing themselves in white they had occupied themselves in violent debate about thy person – some insisting that thou wert in France, others that thou were in Spain; some declaring that thou would come on horseback, others that thou would come by chariot; some holding that thou would come with great pomp, others that thou would come without train or following? And what especially wouldst thou say if they debated not only with words but with blows of fist and strokes of sword, and if some succeeded in killing and destroying others who differed from them? ‘He will come on horseback.’ ‘No, he won’t; he will come by chariot.’ ‘You lie.’ ‘No, I do not; you are the liar.’ ‘take that’ – a blow with the fist. ‘You take that’- a sword-thrust through the body. O Prince, what would you think of such citizens? Christ asked us to put on the white robes of a pure and holy life, but what occupies our thought? We dispute not only of the way to Christ, but of His revelation to God the Father, of the Trinity, of predestination, of free will, of the nature of God, of angels, of the condition of the soul after death, of a multitude of matters that are not essential for salvation, and matters, in fact, which never can be known until our hearts are pure, for they are things which must be spiritually perceived. (2)

Castellio described a general evil in the Church wherein Christians engage in all manner of personal sin, but dispute with each other over matters of theology: questions of baptism, or free will, or the nature of God. He argued instead for Christians to look to their own character, and amend their moral conduct, and to stop shedding the blood of those who disagree — most notably, of heretics. He spends a great deal of time discussing what a heretic is, exactly, noting that in many cases a heretic is merely one who disagrees. However, he concludes that heretics do exist, and he calls them “obstinate ones,” men who cannot be persuaded of the truth. He cites the parable of the tares in Matthew 13:24-30, in which the master advises his servants not to attempt to separate the wheat from the tares (weeds that look like wheat in their earlier stages of growth) lest they root up good wheat along with the weeds, and says that the angels will come at the end and separate them. He cites St. Augustine, who concluded on the basis of that passage that “…the office of collecting the tares to be burned belongs to another, and no son of the Church should think it his business.” And he quotes Calvin from the 1536 edition of his Institutes, advising that excommunicated Christians should be persuaded with “…exhortation and teaching, clemency and mildness, [and] prayers to God” rather than with violence, even as non-Christians should be persuaded:

Far be it that we should approve of the means which many have employed hitherto to force them to our faith by denying them fire and the common elements and all the offices of humanity, and [by] persecuting them with the sword and arms. (3)

Castellio concludes that it is better for Christians to reach each other by means of persuasion and love, to downplay their differences, and to set aside squabbling over non-essentials.

Let us who are Christians not condemn one another, but, if we are wiser than they are, let us also be better and more merciful.

These ideas all seem obvious to the modern mind, but they were striking and astonishing notions at the time, and a number of clerics reacted to his ideas harshly, including Calvin. So Castellio published another book anonymously, entitled “Contra libellum Calvini in quo ostendere conatur haereticos jure gladii coercendos esse” (“Against the book of Calvin which calls for coercion of heretics by the sword.”) In this, Castellio presents what may be the first argument for separating the power of civil enforcement from the offices of the Church.

Castellio wrote:

To kill a man is not to protect a doctrine, but it is to kill a man. When the Genevans killed Servetus, they did not defend a doctrine, they killed a man. To protect a doctrine is not the magistrate’s affair (what has the sword to do with doctrine?) but the teacher’s. But it is the magistrate’s affair to protect the teacher, as it is to protect the farmer and the smith, and the physician and others against injury. Thus if Servetus had wished to kill Calvin, the magistrate would properly have defended Calvin. But when Servetus fought with reasons and writings, he should have been repulsed by reasons and writings.

Castellio’s argument seems to me to introduce three separate claims that are noteworthy:

  1. That Christians ought to meet differences of opinion regarding religious matters with reason, kindness, and mercy, and persuade rather than coerce;
  2. That matters of personal vice, like covetousness, greed, slander, hypocrisy, lying, foolishness, or unchastity, are at least as damaging to one’s Christian practice as are errors in doctrine concerning baptism, justification, faith, and so forth;
  3. That the state should not carry the sword to carry out the opinions of religious leaders.

The second of these is still a matter of dispute when one encounters modern disciples of Calvin. The first and the third, however, are the earliest precursors I have seen in the Western world to the modern notions that men should be free to speak their mind without fear of retribution by the government, and that government should not carry out the express opinion of the Church. We owe to Castellio a debt of gratitude for articulating, even pseudonymously, Christian notions essential to human liberty.

Notes:

(1) Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, Volume 8, chapter 13, http://www.bible.ca/history/philip-schaff/8_ch13.htm, 1910 edition reproduced and edited by the Electronic Bible Society, Dallas, Tx, 1998. See http://www.ccel.org/s/schaff/history/About.htm for a complete table of contents.
(2) Excerpted from “Spiritual Reformers of the 16th & 17th Centuries,” by Rufus Jones, published in 1914. Found at http://www.christasus.com/History/SebastianCastellio.htm.
(3) Quoted by Curley, Edward, “Sebastian Castellio’s Erasmian Liberalism,” University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, at http://www.sitemaker.umich.edu/emcurley/files/castellioerasmianliberalism.doc.

08/13/2009 (5:19 pm)

I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist: Are Miracles Possible? Part II

In previous installments I’ve established

  • that there’s a need for explaining why Christianity is the most reasonable position for an educated, skeptical individual to take (see the post here);
  • that there exists such a thing as absolute truth, and that truth claims may be made about religion just as they can about any other topic (see the post here);
  • that using the Cosmological Argument, the scientific fact that our universe had a beginning establishes that something like a Theistic God must exist (see the post here);
  • that using the Teleological Argument, the anthropic principle establishes that the universe was designed for life, which requires a designer something like a Theistic God (see the post here);
  • that using the Moral Argument, the fact that we all recognize that some things are more morally acceptable than others requires that a universal moral standard exists outside of ourselves, requiring a moral God (see the post here);
  • that the summation of the Cosmological, Teleological, and Moral arguments gives us a composite picture of what the theistic God must be like, and that that composite picture is remarkably similar to the God of the Christian Bible, but not quite similar enough for a positive ID (see the post here);
  • that if God exists, then miracles are neither impossible nor disproved nor violations of nature (see the post here.)

This installment will examine the most common argument modern philosophers raise against believing that miracles have occurred.

Can No Miracle Be Believed? Hume and His Friends

Though modern skeptics who have not studied philosophy tend to claim miracles are not possible, modern philosophers usually take a more clever position. They don’t claim miracles are strictly impossible; they simply say that we cannot know when one has happened. There is no circumstance, according to this argument, in which we might actually declare an event a miracle. This was the approach taken by David Hume in the 18th century, and updated more recently by Anthony Flew. This argument is the most generally-accepted argument against the possibility of miracles.

The argument is based on uniformity of experience. Hume’s version begins by establishing that humans base their knowledge on experience, and gain experience by repetition. But miracles are events that have not occurred in normal situations and are never repeated, observes Mr. Hume, so they can never be established by experience. So, when a wise person hears of a miracle, his uniform experience says that it could not have been a miracle, it must have been something else. This, Hume regards as the only wise conclusion, even as proof. Norman Geisler abbreviates Hume’s argument like this, using Hume’s own words:

  1. “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature;”
  2. “Firm and unalterable experience has established these laws;”
  3. “A wise man… proportions his belief to the evidence;”
  4. Therefore, “the proof against a miracle… is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined.”

Hume concludes, “There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against any miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation.”(1)

Anthony Flew produced an updated version of this argument in his entry entitled “Miracles” in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He observes that Hume was concerned, not with whether miracles occurred or not, but with evidence. He then observed that the very characteristics that would cause an observer to call an event miraculous, are the same characteristics that would cause an historian or a scientist to discard them out of hand. Though miracles may logically be possible, scientifically or historically they are not,

“…for it is only and precisely by presuming that the laws that hold today held in the past… that we can rationally interpret the detritus of the past as evidence, and from it construct an account of what actually happened.”(2)

Like Hume, Flew asserts that since knowledge is based on uniform experience and repetition, miraculous events, which occur only once and are not repeatable, can never achieve a level of credence that would make a reasonable observer accept that a miracle had actually occurred.

Both Hume and Flew prove far too much. If we are to take their arguments seriously, most events in the past disappear along with miracles, because most events studied in the past are singular events that have occurred only once. What if I were to say that a single, highly motivated individual not even 20 years old could conquer pretty much the entire known world in fewer than 10 years, traveling only on foot or on horseback? None of us have ever seen it done. Poof! Alexander the Great just disappeared, because uniform experience mitigates against believing that his achievements are possible. Which of us has ever seen a universe appear out of a singularity, containing time, space, matter, energy, and laws of nature? It has happened only once that we know of. Poof! The explosion that began our universe just disappeared, because uniform experience mitigates against believing that such a thing could happen. Which of us has ever seen life spring spontaneously from a pool of complex chemicals, and begin the process of evolution? Poof! Life on earth just disappeared, because if such a thing ever happened, it happened only once, and uniform experience mitigates against believing such a thing could happen. And so forth.

Ah, but miracles are even less believable than those, which are events that occurred in nature, says the Flew-Hume skeptic. The skeptic has just begged the question; there is no particular reason why anybody not already believing the presuppositions of Naturalism or some other science-promoting philosophy should regard miracles as uniquely improbable. If God exists, miracles are no less probable than any other rare event. No, Hume and Flew based their arguments on experience, and it is to experience that we must stick. All events that humans have not experienced recently are equally improbable in this view (without begging the question), and by their arguments, overwhelmed by a uniform flood of contrary examples, and not to be believed.

In order to see where these folks go wrong, consider the following numbers: 02, 05, 28, 33, 54, and 30. According to the web site of the Pennsylvania lottery, those were the numbers that won the Powerball sweepstakes on August 2, 2009. (3) The odds against those numbers appearing in that order in any particular trial of the Powerball lottery are a trillion to one; in practical terms, that is a probability of zero. We may fairly call that “improbable,” and note that uniform experience mitigates against those particular numbers appearing. Yet, none of us have any difficulty believing that those numbers actually occurred in the PA lottery on August 2, 2009. Why not?

The answer is, we have experience with official state web sites and with state lotteries, and we know they usually report accurately. Though most of us have never visited the Pennsylvania Lottery web site nor heard anything about it, we still have no trouble believing that this one-in-a-trillion event occurred because our experience with official state web sites and lotteries generally suggest that the reported results are trustworthy. If we wanted to verify the result further, we would find a copy of the August 3, 2009 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette or the Philadelphia Inquirer at the local library and look it up. The experience that we use to assess the evidence is not of our experience of the event, which in itself is highly improbable, but of the reliability of the witnesses and circumstances surrounding the event.

Hume and Flew, and many, many others, make the mistake of confusing the principles of study with the object being studied. They claim we should doubt the EVENT (the object being studied) because it is rare. In practice, we gather experiences about the way people and objects behave in ordinary circumstances, and then we apply them to the evidence supporting the reports of the events in the past (the principles of study). We have experience with coinage, for example, and we know that nations strike coins with the faces of famous men on them to identify those coins as official. We know that ancient governments did the same, and put the faces of emperors on coins. So, when we find an ancient coin with the face of Alexander on it, even if we have not heard of Alexander otherwise, we infer there was an emperor named Alexander. We also know that histories are written by ancient authorities intending to record events accurately, so when we find accounts of a conqueror named Alexander by Plutarch and Arrian, we believe them, even though the account has him conquering more than it would seem possible for a teenage general to conquer in a mere 10 years. We have experience with historians generally, we can evaluate the sources from which these historians drew their facts, and we can examine artifacts from the various parts of the world Alexander’s armies were alleged to have visited. The fact that Alexander accomplished things that were unbelievable makes us more suspicious about the accounts, but we verify them in the usual ways accounts are verified; we don’t dismiss them out of hand merely because what they report is rare. It is not the experience with the one, singular event that determines whether the event is believable or not; it is the repeatable experience with the sources and the types of evidence.

Geisler offers the additional example of the SETI project, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. SETI researchers scan random background radio waves looking for a pattern demonstrating intelligence. They are looking for other species of intelligent beings, which, I think it is fair to say, are less likely to exist than is the theistic God. And yet, even a single radio-wave transmission demonstrating a non-random pattern will be sufficient to prove that they exist. Why? Is it because we have vast experience of extraterrestrial beings? No, we have no experience of such beings whatsoever; but we have uniform experience with messages, and we know that they come from intelligent minds. Thus if we find a single message in the background radio signals, we have proved that mind exists, no matter how improbable that might seem. (4) What we evaluate is not the rarity of the event being studied, but the evidence for the event, based on our common experience with the elements in the evidence.

Persisting in the Hunt for Natural Causes

So, Hume and Flew are wrong simply to discard evidence of miracle claims because miracles are rare. Flew’s version of the argument adds another error, though, in that it observes that even if the evidence points to a miracle, researchers continue to look for natural causes rather than accept it. Flew’s argument focuses specifically on the scientist’s attitude toward miraculous events, saying that the scientist will always be looking for the natural law at work regardless of whether the event seems inexplicable or not. He claims this excludes the possibility that any event could ever be called a miracle.

In addition to the error already noted with this approach, and discounting for the moment the fact that most scientists will simply ignore a single, non-repeatable event altogether, we should note that science is a specialized and limited field that deliberately focuses solely on nature. The fact that a scientist might continue to look for a natural cause for an event that would otherwise be called a miracle is not sufficient reason for the rest of us to refuse to call that event a miracle, because by doing so the scientist is not making a judgment about the believability of the miracle. After all, the scientist does not, by omitting all facts outside of nature, make the claim that nothing exists outside of nature; he simply declares that he is not professionally interested in what does not. By looking for the natural cause, he is simply doing his job. Just because the scientist practices Methodological Naturalism, does not mean the philosopher must do so as well. Methodological Naturalism as a professional practice does not support Metaphysical Naturalism as a philosophy. Philosophers, who concern themselves with a wider set of data and seek all truth, could easily go on to call an event a miracle while the scientist continues in his professional demeanor.

In truth, the unending quest for natural causes is sometimes improper, because we can know a miracle wherever we understand the workings of nature. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains:

“… the miracle is essentially an appeal to knowledge. Therefore miracles can be distinguished from purely natural occurrences. A miracle is a fact in material creation, and falls under the observation of the senses or comes to us through testimony, like any natural fact. Its miraculous character is known:

  • from positive knowledge of natural forces, e.g., the law of gravity, the law that fire burns. To say that we do not know all the laws of nature, and therefore cannot know a miracle (Rousseau, “Lett. de la Mont.”, let. iii), is beside the question, for it would make the miracle an appeal to ignorance. I may not know all the laws of the penal code, but I can know with certainty that in a particular instance a person violates one definite law.
  • from our positive knowledge of the limits of natural forces. Thus, e.g., we may not know the strength of a man, but we do know that he cannot by himself move a mountain. In enlarging our knowledge of natural forces, the progress of science has curtailed their sphere and defined their limits, as in the law of abiogenesis.” (5)

Thus the greater knowledge of science makes the knowledge of miracles possible. The better we understand sperm and egg, the better we can establish whether a natural cause was involved in a pregnancy. The better we understand the medical side of life and death, the better able we are to assess a resurrection claim. In cases where the limits of nature are known, the continuing quest for a natural cause is often nothing more than a faith-driven assertion of Naturalistic bias.

Geisler notes many additional problems with Hume’s and Flew’s arguments against miracles. He notes, for example, that Hume evaluates the believability of evidence by adding it together rather than weighing its importance. He observes that the evidence supporting the rare event often overwhelms that for the common event. He notes both Hume’s and Flew’s eagerness to use arguments that can actually be used against their own particular worldview. And, he notes that both engage in a sort of special pleading for the naturalistic worldview.(6)

For this reason, if an event occurs that clearly fails to conform to the ordinary pattern of natural events, and if the evidence supporting the occurrence of that event is sound enough, we can believe that the event occurred. If the circumstances are right to suggest that the source of the event might be deity, we can call it a miracle.

Next time, I will examine a bit more closely under what conditions we should call an event a miracle.

Notes

(1) Geisler, Norman L., “Miracles & the Modern Mind,” in In Defense of Miracles, Geivett & Habermas, eds, Intervarsity Press, Downer’s Grove, IL, 1997, p. 74-75.
(2) Flew, Anthony, “Miracles,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards, New York, McMillan, 1967, p. 350, as quoted in Geisler, op cit., pp 76-77.
(3) http://www.palottery.state.pa.us/news.aspx?id=124306
(4) Geisler, Norman, “Miracles and Modern Scientific Thought,” http://www.origins.org/articles/geisler_miracles.html
(5) Catholic Encyclopedia, “Miracle”, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10338a.htm
(6) Regarding rare events that have better evidence than common events, note that among astronomical bodies, the occurrence of bodies on which human beings can walk unaided by whole-body shields and breathing apparatus are extremely rare, but the evidence that at least one such body exists is rather overwhelming. See also Geisler, “Miracles & the Modern Mind,” op cit., chapter 6 for additional examples and arguments.

« More Recent PostsOlder Posts »