Thursday, September 29, 2005

Methodological Materialism & The Slippery Slope

Here are some excerpts from yet another post by Jonathan Witt:

The third morning of Kitzmiller vs. Dover found philosopher of science Robert Pennock testifying for the plaintiffs that science is a search for natural explanations of natural phenomena--a limitation known as methodological naturalism (or methodological materialism).
Pennock presented this as the definition of science, and said proponents of intelligent design are “trying to overturn" it, but later he conceded that there was a controversy among philosophers of science concerning whether methodological naturalism was essential to the definition of science.
Interestingly, Miller and Pennock each invoked a counterfactual in their defense of methodological materialism, so in the interest of aesthetic balance, let’s consider their argument. They said an omnipotent designer could have made the universe a few minutes ago and given us all false memories to make us think it was old. Thus, someone could entertain any sort of design scenario for anything and everything. But where would science be if everybody thought that way. The solution they offered? Methodological naturalism.
But this is the slippery slope fallacy: If we let a designing foot in the door, then before you know it our brains will turn to jelly and we’ll be invoking design at the least drop of a hat.
The best cure for one form of irrationality isn’t to flee into the opposite irrationality. The founders of modern science--e.g., Copernicus, Kepler, Newton--were open to evidence of design, and clearly their brains didn’t turn to jelly. Between the unreasonable extremes of hyper-skeptical illusionism on the one hand and unbending methodological materialism on the other lies the path of reason. One can remain open to the possibility of design and go right on being rational and measured, go right on looking hard for new and more elegant regularities in nature that were previously a mystery. In some cases, the researcher will do both at one and the same time, as when astrobiologist Guillermo Gonzalez and philosopher Jay Richards elucidated a cosmic correlation between habitability and discoverability, and from this inferred intelligent design.
Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.

For an even more recent example of the slippery slope at work, check out this post by CelticBear, who accuses proponents of I.D. of "attacking natural sciences" and adds:
We already have a battle of pseudo-science in the public arena with crystals and ESP and UFO’s and Ouija boards and Tarot cards and astrology and other crap. Any of these things which base themselves on non-naturalistic concepts prove to advance science at all? Oh, how’s that Christian Science based belief of prayer is all you need working out? Save a lot of kids with leukemia has it? How’d you like to fly in a plane designed by someone who based his knowledge of aerodynamics on prayer? Or used Biblical knowledge to create an antibiotic? Or trusted in God to give him the knowledge to understand the effects of gravity, solar flares, cosmic radiation, and space vacuums when designing that spacecraft? If all knowledge should be revealed by God as it has been from 4000 BC, then there’s no reason to explore space at all in any case. Nothing out there that can’t be known through prayer and reading the Bible.

Intelligent Design Follow-Up

My post on Good Morning America's coverage of the Dover, PA intelligent design case prompted the following comments (in italics) which I decided to respond to here. Time will not allow me to get into a protracted debate so this may be my last word on the subject. I appreciate all who take the time to read and respond but I can't reply to each comment so please don't feel bad if your comment doesn't become a blog post. 

I wonder, if "biology" is the natural science of biological entities, where does a non-natural alternative fit in? Perhaps in church, or the home, but not in a science class. Call it arbitrary if you like, but limiting the definition of what is "scientific" to "natural explanations" has been what has helped us create medicine and antibiotics, treat cancer, create airplanes, safer cars, disease resistant food, flame retardant clothing, etc ad nauseum.

When we call biology a natural science we mean that the object of study is the natural world. However, one can engage in fruitful study of the natural world without subscribing to a naturalistic philosophy. To suggest, as you do, that materialistic presuppositions are necessary for technological and medical advancements is mistaken. Skeptics frequently charge that theistic belief would somehow bring all scientific exploration to a screeching halt because "God did it" would be offered as the answer for every imaginable problem but the history of science does not support this accusation. 

Far from being an impediment to research, the conviction that the natural world was the work of a transcendent intelligence, and therefore rational and orderly, motivated many of the founders of modern science to investigate nature. Copernicus, for example, who is frequently presented as the poster boy for faith's hostility toward science, went in search of better cosmology motivated by the belief that the universe was "wrought for us by a supremely good and orderly Creator." This, along with countless other examples of how the doctrine of creation spurred, rather than stifled, exploration of the natural world, can be found in The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy by Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton. I also recommend J. P. Moreland's Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation , Del Ratzch's Science & Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective, and Stanley Jaki's The Savior of Science.

One of the hallmarks of science is that a theory must be disproveable. It must be ABLE to be disproved. ID can not, because it would require trying to prove a negative.That is why while many scientists, believe it or not, are faithful and religious, as a scientist they understand the difference between naturalistic evidence and hypothesis and supernatural, and which belongs in the realm of "science" and which belongs in the realm of faith and religion.

I'm curious. How would one go about disproving Darwinism? What evidence would sufficiently demonstrate its being false? For that matter, how would one go about falsifying the claim that the complexity and diversity of organisms is due to completely naturalistic causes? And if that claim is not falsifiable then are we to conclude that it is not scientific?

As to the assertion that ID cannot be falsified, it would appear that one of the expert witnesses testifying on behalf of the ACLU in Dover, disagrees with you. Earlier this week Jonathan Witt at Evolution News & Views reported that leading Darwinist Kenneth Miller (one of those "religious evolutionists") testified both that ID is non-falsifiable AND that it has been falsified:

In friendly questioning from the plaintiff, Miller asserted that the theory of intelligent design was not a testable theory in any sense and so wasn't science. Later, however, Miller argued that science has tested Michael Behe's bacterial flagellum argument and falsified it, by pointing to a micro-syringe called the Type III Secretory System, and arguing that it could have served as a functional step on the gradual, Darwinian pathway to the full flagellar motor.
Did the journalists covering the trial notice the contradiction? Miller tried to provide a fig leaf for it, but the fig leaf was itself a misrepresentation. Miller said Behe's argument was in every respect a negative argument (and, further, that ALL the leading design theorists' arguments he was aware of are purely negative, with nothing positive anywhere). Miller conceded that Behe's irreducible complexity argument was testable, but said Behe's inference to design doesn't follow from irreducible complexity because Behe was committing the either/or fallacy--If not A (Darwinism), then it must be B (design). Miller said there were, in principle, an infinite number of other possible explanations, so jumping from a refutation of Darwinism to design was illegitimate.
Witt goes on to demonstrate the positive argument for ID and concludes his worthwhile post with the following paragraph:
Miller has conceded that Behe's irreducible complexity argument is testable. And we see that Miller's assertion that scientists have tested and falsified Behe's argument is itself false. Finally, we see that Behe and other design theorists like Scott Minnich and Stephen Meyer have offered positive evidence for the design of the flagellum based on standard uniformitarian reasoning, reasoning well established in science. Darwinists like Miller quarrel with these claims and arguments. Behe, Minnich, Meyer and other design scientists respond. It's called a scientific controversy, something Darwinists claim doesn't exist. Now that's what I call faith-based.
(By the way, for those interested in keeping track of the Dover case, Evolution News & Views will be offering select trial transcripts in addition to their analysis of the proceedings.)

I don't think there's any debate whether ID can be presented, even in schools, in the realm of sociology and certainly in homes and churches, but since it holds no qualities of scientific principle, it does not belong in the science classroom. "Science" is just a word that humans have created, as are ALL words, to define a concept. The word "science" is used to define the realm of study of the natural world, and as a believer in God myself, I understand that since God can not be proven or disproven, matters of God do not belong in the realm of science as are ALL non-naturalist studies.Now if ID'ers who adamantly suggest that ID is not Creationism in disguise because it doe not specifically state "God" but just "unknown intelligence," want to agree to focus on that intelligence being extraterrestrials as their definition of ID includes, then it may be of a scientific nature. What do you think?

I think I've said enough already. Thanks for writing.

UPDATE: Thanks to Melinda Penner I just found out about this article about the history of intelligent design theory also by Jonathan Witt.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Business of Winning Souls

Here's an interesting article (link expires one week from today) from an area newspaper about megachurches applying business practices in order to get people in the door. The director of administration of one church that has tried to attract new people by holding rock concerts said, "If you can't get them into your building in one way or another, they're not going to hear your message." That's quite an overstatement but it reflects the commonly held view that the church building is the locus of evangelism. Why does it seem that we're often more interested in getting non-Christians into our sanctuaries than we are in equipping Christians to get the message out?

I.D. in the Morning

This morning's Good Morning America carried a bit piece on the court case over intelligent design in Dover, PA that reminded me of C. John Sommerville's book, How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society. Television segments like this one simply can't get into the depth required to adequately address the issues at the heart of this case. Yet, millions will watch such snippets and come away feeling informed.

In the segment, a high school science teacher spouted the frequently-heard line about Intelligent Design being a clever disguise to get religion into the public schools. She looked into the camera and said very confidently, "In biology there is no alternative explanation to evolution." I think it would have been more accurate to say that there is no naturalistic alternative to evolution in biology but chances are that this woman has so identified science with philosophical materialism that she closes the door on any inference that doesn't fit into a materialistic scheme. 

The same GMA segment included an excerpt from an interview with the Discovery Institute's Vice President, Stephen Meyer, in which he was asked whether the think-tank's major donors are religious. As Meyer was about to answer, the voice of someone off-camera could be heard objecting to the question. According to Discovery Institute's Bob Crowther at Evolution News & Views, the reason for the interruption was that ABC had said that they wanted to talk about the Institute's position on education policy concerning the teaching of evolution and intelligent design. According to Crowther:
Just a couple questions in and the producers asked a question about how we felt about getting all our money from the religious right. I somehow doubt that what students will face in science class when they go back to school is a list of Discovery's funders. So an interview that was presented as being about education policy was a lie, a sham, a chance to get someone on camera and then ambush them with other issues. That's called bait and switch, and it isn't journalistically ethical in any way shape or form.
I agree with Crowther's assessment of this encounter as an instance of bait and switch. Unfortunately, what was aired gave the impression that the Discovery Institute has something to hide, the very thing that the reporter Dan Harris was insinuating and many others have charged. In my opinion, it would have been better if Dr. Meyer had calmly answered the question and pointed out that the issue of the Institute's funding is immaterial to the truth or falsity of the arguments they put forth in favor of intelligent design. Then again, there would be no guarantee that such a response wouldn't end up on the cutting room floor.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Naturalistic Religion Thinks Moral Certainty is Wrong

Beliefnet reports that a fledgling religion known as Universism has named Todd Stricker as its new executive director. A native of Chicago, Stricker has plans to make Chicago the national headquarters. From the article:
University of Alabama-Birmingham medical student Ford Vox started Universism in 2003, saying that Christianity, Islam, and to a lesser extent other world religions are harmful because they attempt to impose their own version of moral certainty on others.
Through the Internet, Universism has recruited 8,000 atheists, deists, freethinkers and others who rally around the notion that no universal religious truth exists and that the meaning of existence must be determined by each individual.
Apparently, Mr. Vox thinks it's wrong to impose one's version of moral certainty on others. I wonder if he's certain about that. And if he is, how is what he and his fellow "believers" are doing different from the world religions they are protesting? In the case of actions taken by some Muslims, I think the charge of trying to impose a certain view on others sticks. However, for reasons I offered in a previous post, I don't think that Christians or other religious people seeking to persuade others of their views constitutes their "imposing" their perspective on others as though by force.

The truth of the matter is that every worldview gives rise to prescriptions concerning human conduct, including Universism. Its premise that no universal religious truth exists leads to the conclusion that each individual must determine the meaning of existence for him or herself. A corollary of this belief is that it is wrong for me to try to get you to adopt my interpretation of life. But that's the very thing Mr. Vox and his associates are seeking to do every time they attempt to convince others that their philosophy of life is superior to others.

You can learn more about Universism at their website.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Thoughtful Praise

Christians are sometimes leery of theological learning for fear that such efforts run the risk of divesting the faith of mystery. But that need not be the case. If anything, our sense of mystery should be enlarged by our study. C. H. Spurgeon eloquently conveyed this in a sermon on Malachi 3:6:

There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. Other subjects we can comprehend and grapple with; in them we feel a kind of self-content, and go on our way with the thought, "Behold I am wise." But when we come to this master science, finding that our plumb-line cannot sound its depth, amid that our eagle eye cannot see its height, we turn away with the thought "I am but of yesterday and know nothing."
Theology, properly pursued, should not only inform our intellects but shape our characters. In other words, it should nurture Christian virtues. Every encounter with material that requires me to mentally reach beyond the level to which I'm accustomed and with which I'm comfortable, is an opportunity to practice patience, perseverance, and self-denial. Taking the time to read and reread something that I initially find confusing and/or irrelevant to my immediate concerns can teach me something of what it means to listen attentively to another in love, not insisting that everything revolve around my concerns. And, as Spurgeon reminds us, far from breeding arrogance, our growth in the knowledge of God should strike us with the awareness of how little we really know.

Related to that point is one that Reformation 21's Richard Phillips made recently about the relationship between the Christian worldview and wonder:
One of the best things about the Christian worldview is that it opens the door to wonder. The reason is that Christianity contains something greater than bare cause-and-effect. Ours is a worldview without a roof, so it not only has room for mystery and glory but it constantly points us towards these wonderful things. It is said that the longer Darwin lived, the less taste he had for music, poetry, and literature. His worldview made his life smaller and smaller. But the Christian can and should see wonder in all things. From something as simple as a leaf, to the baby's cry, to the crashing cosmos, Christians should constantly exclaim in wonder, "O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!"
If our theology does not evoke praise, we have not gone far enough.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Destructive Trends in Mental Health

This extensive review of the new book Destructive Trends in Mental Health: The Well-Intentioned Path to Harm persuaded me to add it to my ever-growing "to read" list. The volume is edited by Rogers H. Wright and Nicolas A. Cummings who have served in leadership capacities within the American Psychological Association (APA) and who refer to themselves as "lifelong liberal activists." That self-description makes them unlikely candidates for editing this volume which sounds an alarm about how political correctness and other elements of ultra-liberal ideology exercise influence over the APA at the expense of scientific research and the welfare of patients. Here are a few interesting excerpts from the review:

The editors of this volume provide compelling arguments for many destructive trends in the mental health professions - most particularly, psychology, but also psychiatry and social work. They demonstrate from an insider's perspective how activism masquerades as science in the APA, and how "diversity" has been redefined into a kind of narrow politicism, where differing worldviews are not only summarily dismissed, but the holders of such views actually punished.
Wright says there are many treatments advocated by psychology with little or no evidence of efficacy - for example, grief and trauma counseling, treatment of repressed memories regarding sexual abuse, as well as the extensive use (or abuse) of medications for questionable diagnoses of depression and ADD/ADHD.
The authors note that there is no empirical data on political correctness because it is "politically incorrect to question political correctness" (p. 22). They post two questions regarding political correctness, and offer a number of hypotheses for potential testing. The questions are: "What psychological functions does political correctness fulfill for the individual?" and "What is the attraction of political correctness to certain personalities?" The hypotheses offered to understand these behavioral phenomena include:
  • Political Correctness Harbors Hostility
  • Political Correctness Reflects Narcissism
  • Political Correctness Masks Histrionics
  • Political Correctness Functions as Instant Morality
  • Political Correctness Wields Power
  • Political Correctness Serves as Distraction
  • Political Correctness Involves Intimidation
  • Political Correctness Lacks Alternatives
A chapter devoted to children called "The Diseasing of America's Children" addresses the myth that childhood behavior disorders are caused by genes, noting that there is no good scientific evidence. Rosemond concludes, "The perpetrators of the disease model of behavior disorders engage in disingenuous misleading arguments" (p.223). He notes that psychologists have confused biological conditions with developmental ones, citing the DSM [Diagnostic & Statistical Manual] criteria for a pathological antisocial condition which he says "perfectly describes the terrible twos!" (p. 226).
This new book provides a window into the American Psychological Association and into psychology in [a] way hithertofore only suspected. The courage demonstrated by Wright and Cummings is unparalleled. Their professional and scientific accomplishments and their positions of prominence in the American Psychological Association, along with their reasoned, evidence-based arguments, make their work essentially unassailable. Though the authors of the various chapters are critical in their judgments, their judgments are supported by evidence and their informed opinions.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Our Morning Worship Will Continue After This Message from NBC

NBC hopes its new reality show, "Three Wishes" with host Amy Grant, will be a hit with Christians. Each week, Amy will travel to a different town to assist families and community groups in need. The NY Times reports how zealous the network is to spread the word:
In advance of the new prime-time television season, NBC sent more than 7,000 DVD's of the show's first episode to ministers and other clergy members, along with a recorded message to their congregants from Ms. Grant. ("At its core, 'Three Wishes' is faith in action," she tells them.) The network has also booked Ms. Grant - a pop singer who vaulted to fame singing Christian songs, crossed over to mainstream radio and recently released an album of hymns titled "Rock of Ages" - for interviews on Christian radio and taken out advertising in small-town newspapers.
Clever move on NBC's part. Based on the positive Christian response to shows like "Highway to Heaven" and "Touched by an Angel" it's clear that all Hollywood has to do to reel us in is use biblical words in unbiblical ways and we'll declare it a victory. I know. The idea of making wishes isn't in the Bible but Amy does say "faith," doesn't she? What more could we ask?

Thursday, September 15, 2005


Inspired by yesterday's suggestion that "Penguins' Progress" might be a new Christian classic, a friend with an equally quirky sense of humor sent me this photo with the caption "Webbed Foot Prints in the Sand."

One Nation Under God (As I Understand Him, Her, It, Etc.)

In response to yesterday's ruling by a California federal judge that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools is unconstitutional, Joe Carter traces the concept of civil religion back to atheist philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and notes the irony that so many Christians appear to be committed to it. He reminds us that
There is a vast and unbridgeable chasm between America’s civil religion and Christianity. If we claim that “under God” refers only to the Christian conception of God we are either being unduly intolerant or - more likely - simply kidding ourselves. Do we truly think that the Hindu, Wiccan, or Buddhist is claiming to be “under” the same deity as we are? We can’t claim, as Paul did on Mars Hill, that the “unknown god” they are worshiping is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Pledge is, after all, a secular document and the “under god” is referring to the “Divinity” of our country’s civil religion. Just as the pagan religion of the Roman Empire was able to incorporate other gods and give them familiar names, the civil religion provides an umbrella for all beliefs to submit under one nondescript, fill-in-the-blank term.

Our God is a jealous God and is unlikely to look favorably upon idolatry even when it is put to good service. While we should be as tolerant of “civil religion” as we are of other beliefs, we can’t justify submitting to it ourselves. That is not to say that we can’t say the Pledge and think of the one true God. But we should keep in mind that this fight isn’t our fight and the “god” of America’s civil religion is not the God who died on the Cross.
Al Mohler offers similar thoughts in his commentary, Is the Pledge of Allegiance Unconstitutional?:
Christians should be careful to think clearly about the Pledge of Allegiance and the current controversy. Secularists like Michael Newdow represent the hard edge of ideological attacks upon all expressions of theistic belief in the public arena. The truth is that the courts have allowed and driven a constriction of religious liberty such that any public reference or acknowledgment of the beliefs common to vast millions of Americans is now considered to represent an unconstitutional establishment of religion by the government.
All this puts believing Christians in a difficult position. After all, the Court has ruled that symbols and references to a divine being are allowable only insofar as those references point to no specific deity. Beyond this, the courts have ruled that the only permissible reference to deity is a reference that so reduces the definition of deity that it appears difficult for all but the most ardent atheist to object.
Because of this, Christians must not defend the presence of the word "under God" in the Pledge as a direct reference to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--the Triune God whom Christians worship as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At best, the presence of this language in the Pledge and similar expressions on the nation's currency represent an acknowledgement of a power higher than the State itself and the nation's dependency upon that power for its safety and well being. Nevertheless, a decision from the Supreme Court that would require the removal of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance would represent a disastrous imposition of official secularism as the nation's public commitment.
It does seem that we're between a rock and a hard place -- civil religion that tips its hat to a vague, non-descript deity on one hand and state-sanctioned secularism on the other. No follower of Christ finds the latter appealing but we have to watch against siding with the former because of its perceived utility in advancing (or at least sustaining) politically and socially conservative goals. In his excellent book Political Visions and Illusions, David Koyzis identifies two principal reasons why conservatives are likely to profess Christianity. The first is that they genuinely believe that its teachings are true. The second is because of the large part Christianity has played in Western cultural heritage. "For those conservatives who are Christians for this reason," he writes, "the issue of the truth of the faith is secondary to the social utility of its ethical teachings."

Some friends and I are reading John Piper's Pierced by the Word. We were all stopped in our tracks by this sentence: "God will not be used as currency for the purchase of idols." Civil religion, while it may use the word "God," sacrifices biblical truth on the altar of a political ideology.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

A Brief Exercise in Comparative Religion

Peter Bogert of Stronger Church asks some interesting questions.

Conservatives Flock to "March of the Penguins"

According to the NY Times, a number of political and Christian conservatives consider the film illustrative of intelligent design, the superiority of monogamy, and even the Christian life. One pastor is quoted as saying "Some of the circumstances they experienced seemed to parallel those of Christians. The penguin is falling behind, is like some Christians falling behind. The path changes every year, yet they find their way, is like the Holy Spirit." 

Might this be the making of a new Christian classic -- Penguins' Progress?

Sanctified Self-Interest

In response to yesterday's post in which I quoted David Wayne's notes from his first day of class with David Powlison, my friend Tony raised a question in the comments section that I thought I'd answer here. In response to Powlison's claim that in our glorified state we will be persons "with no stain or calculation of self-interest," Tony asked:

Does he mean we will have no self-interest at all? Or does he mean that self-interest will be properly placed beneath our interest and motive to glorify God? Isn't it the case that most Christians think of virtue in the sense that all self-interest is bad? I think that's a mistake. I would argue that self-interest is good and necessary, but needs to be placed beneath interest in God's glory issuing in love to our neighbor. Heaven will be a world of love, as Edwards says. We will have self-interest, but we will not be selfish, correct?
Being the good little Christian hedonist that I am, I too wondered in what sense Powlison was referring to self-interest. Having given it some thought, I'm persuaded that Powlison did not mean that we will be completely void of all self-interest such that we will in no sense be motivated by consideration of what will bring us pleasure. I come to this conclusion not only on the basis of my familiarity with Powlison's other work, but also on the basis of the seven points he makes about what it will be like to experience the fullness of our redemption.

Powlison offers these descriptions to entice and enthrall us with the vision of what awaits us. He paints an eschatological picture of what it will be like to be fearless, healthy, happy, holy. Of our relationship with Jesus he says, "I will obey Him and will love every word out of His mouth - it will be my food and drink, the finest river of life and hope for me." In other words, he is appealing to our interest in our own welfare and satisfaction. This would be an odd strategy indeed for someone who believed that self-interest was absolutely wrong. Therefore, I understand Powlison, when he talks about being free from the stain and calculation of self-interest, as having sinful self-interest (what Tony helpfully identifies as selfishness) in mind. Perhaps we can coax David Wayne into posing the question to Dr. Powlison and letting us know how he answers. How about it, David?

I do think Tony is right about many Christians regarding all forms of self-interest as wrong. Reading John Piper's Desiring God years ago challenged my own thinking about the issue. It was eye-opening to see how frequently God appeals to our desire for satisfaction and delight as a motivation for obedience. Yes, we are to deny ourselves but that because we are convinced that walking in God's ways is far better than temporal sinful pleasures. Yes, we are to give generously and sacrificially but such giving is only pleasing to the Lord when it springs from assurance in his promise that this is the path of superior blessing. Calvin makes this point in the Institutes when describing the nature of Adam's sin he writes:
Never would Adam have dared to show any repugnance to the command of God if he had not been incredulous as to his word. The strongest curb to keep all his affections under due restraint, would have been the belief that nothing was better than to cultivate righteousness by obeying the commands of God, and that the highest felicity was to be loved by him (II. I. 4.).
Tony has more on the relationship between self-interest and ethics in his post, The Positive Side of Egoism.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Letters to Newsweek about American Spirituality

Newsweek's recent issue on spirituality in America received a lot of reader mail - so much so that the current print issue devotes an entire page to letters in response to the cover story. Reading them provides further insight into the intellectual climate in which we are called to bear witness to the gospel. If we're committed to that cause, it's imperative that we understand how our peers are thinking and how to respond. Here are some excerpts from the letters and some of my reactions.

One reader from New York wrote:

While reading the articles, I kept thinking that because there are so many diverse religious beliefs, it isn't possible for there to be one "true" religion. There cannot be one right way to worship or one correct set of beliefs. Therefore, the only false belief is one that denies other people the freedom to worship as they wish. There should be a place in society even for those who believe there is no Almighty.
There are a number of problems with this kind of reasoning. First, it simply doesn't logically follow from the fact that people disagree about the answer to a problem that no answer exists or, if one does, that it's impossible for anyone to know it. Take all the debate that's surrounding the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example. The airwaves and newspapers are filled with divergent accounts of who and what are to blame for the countless victims of the storm not receiving aid sooner than they did. But it would be mistaken to conclude on the basis of divergent beliefs about the matter that none can be correct. 

Yet another flaw in this position is that it is self-refuting. Since the writer of the letter says that the only false belief is one that denies other people the freedom to worship as they wish, then he must be claiming that all other religious beliefs are true. Not only does this pose the problem of how contradictory beliefs can all be true, it's also disingenuous because this position necessarily leads to the conclusion that some religious beliefs, even those that do not deprive others of the freedom to worship as they choose, are also false. Here's what I mean. The writer of the letter says that there is no one true religion. That means that any religion that claims to be the one true religion, such as Christianity, is by definition false. But this is a blatant contradiction of the assertion that all religious beliefs are true.

Further, it seems that this Newsweek reader may be confusing rights and reasons. Have you ever noticed that when people are asked to give their reasons for believing something that they often assert their right to believe what they want? If the writer of the letter means that people should not be coerced to worship contrary to their convictions, I'm in full agreement. However, if he, like so many, believes that calling another's religious belief false is somehow denying him of the right to worship as he so chooses, I couldn't disagree more (see my previous post, "Forcing My Religion?").

On the flip-side of the reader who contends that all religious beliefs are true, is the reader who wrote the following in response to a Newsweek writer's claim that "In America even atheists are spiritualists, searching for meaning in parapsychology and near-death experiences":

As a longtime atheist, I can tell you that I am not searching for meaning of any kind and do not suffer the "existential anguish" he refers to earlier in that article. To me the whole concept of faith in some deity is, in a word, preposterous. I choose to stay firmly connected to reality, as established by the scientific method of inquiry. I accept both the beauty and the ugliness on our little planet as the result of millions of years of evolution and don't need a "relationship" with a concocted god to make my existence and the prospect of eventual death palatable.
One couldn't ask for a better illustration of the fact-value divide Nancy Pearcey describes in Total Truth than this. Faith has nothing to do with claims to knowledge or truth according to this perspective. Instead, it deals with the non-cognitive, non-rational realm of personally-preferred values. "Reality," on the other hand, can only be known by means of science. But this assertion rests on the conviction that the natural world is all that exists, a claim that is a philosophical starting point and not a scientific conclusion. Note too that this atheist speaks of the "beauty and ugliness on our little planet" as though beauty and ugliness have objective existence. But this is incoherent with his view since reality is established only by means of the scientific method. Beauty and ugliness are values which, according to his scheme of things, are relegated to the upper story of faith - the realm of the "preposterous."

Following Francis Schaeffer, Pearcey reminds us that humanity's lostness is metaphysical as well as moral:

The tragedy of the two-story split is that the things that matter most in life -- like dignity, freedom, personal identity, and ultimate purpose [and I would add "beauty"] -- have been cast into the upper story, with no grounding in accepted definitions of knowledge. We must never treat the divided concept of truth as merely academic; it produces an inner division between what people think they know (that we are merely machines in a deterministic universe) and what they desperately want to believe.
This can be a soul-wrenching dilemma, and it is illustrated dramatically in the life of the well-loved writer C. S. Lewis. As a young man, Lewis abandoned his childhood faith in favor of atheism and materialism. Yet the bracing new philosophies that tantalized his intellect left his imagination hungry. As he wrote later, "Nearly all that I loved [poetry, beauty, mythology] I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless" (119-120).
The last letter I'll comment on is from someone who was annoyed that Newsweek did not make any reference to 12-step programs in their examination of American spirituality. She wrote in part:
The key aspect that makes 12-step programs the only spiritual way that works for me is the third step: make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understand God. Those last four words are what did it for me -- finally, a form of spirituality where no one else was telling me what my God should look or be like!
For some reason, "American Idol" comes to mind.

Jollyblogger Aids My Sanctification

I'd like to thank David Wayne of Jollyblogger for unknowingly assisting me in disciplining myself for the purpose of godliness. Today David reports on the class he began yesterday at Westminster Theological Seminary (Dynamics of Biblical Change) taught by David Powlison, who just happens to be one of my favorite authors. This will give me untold opportunities to practice contentment, rejoicing with those who rejoice, and resisting covetousness.

David shares his notes from the first lecture in which Dr. Powlison talked about the relevance of our destination as glorified beings to the daily process of change now. Among the seven descriptions he gave of what life will be like when we are raised immortal is this one:

Some day, I will be good. So will everyone else. On the near side of evil is goody-goody, Pollyanna. On the far side of evil is good, a true good that has gone through evil and is truly good. I will be a person with no stain or calculation of self-interest. I will be genuinely living the beatitudes. I will be the person who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, who is pure in heart, who is a peacemaker. Having been persecuted, I will be like Christ.
I read that and marvel, "That will really be me?!" Grace truly is amazing, isn't it?
In addition to his class notes, David offers some exhilarating personal reflections on the glories of the new heavens and new earth as well as its occupants. Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Standing on the Promises of God - Literally

A company in Ohio is marketing shoe inserts with Bible texts printed on them called "In-Souls". You can even purchase a companion journal to record your experience standing on God's word. Can a collection of the writings of John Bunion be far behind?

To get an idea about some of the folks who might have inspired the makers of this line, check out the site's ministry links. [HT: Between Two Worlds]

UPDATE: I just 'stumbled' across this article about "In-Souls" and the woman behind them. According to the article, the inserts are being sold in 25 stores nationwide including two Borders Books & Music stores and, most appropriately, Walk of Faith Christian Bookstore.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Vanhoozer on Doctrine, Life, and the Mind of Christ

Last week I mentioned Kevin Vanhoozer's new book, The Drama of Doctrine, in which he proposes a model of theology that relies heavily on the dramatic arts. The English word "drama" is derived from the Greek word drao which means "I do." A drama is a series of doings both dialogical and physical. It is also characterized by entrances and exits by the cast members. "Dramatic" is an appropriate description for redemptive history because in it God interacts with humanity through speech and actions (as well as through speech-acts, the foremost of which is Jesus Christ). The Bible is not only a record of God's historic acts, however. It is a player in the ongoing drama:

The basic insight is that the Bible is not simply a deposit of revelation but one of God's "mighty acts" -- a mighty communicative act, to be exact. Scripture has a role -- a speaking, acting part -- in the drama of redemption precisely as divine discourse. Scripture not only conveys the content of the gospel but is itself caught up in the economy of the gospel, as the means by which God draws others into his communicative action. Jesus is God's definitive Word, to be sure, but Scripture projects his voice and extends his action (48, here and in following quotations, emphasis is in the original).
Scripture, according to this understanding of redemptive history is far more than source material for building theological systems. It is a script intended to direct the life of the church. If theology is to be consonant with the dramatic nature of its subject matter, it cannot be satisfied with merely repeating doctrinal formulations from the past or with mental apprehension of biblical truth:
The script exists for the sake of speeding the drama of redemption. The ultimate purpose of the divine canonical discourse is to form a new people, the vanguard of a new creation. This is the "perlocutionary" [According to speech-act theory, the perlocution is the effect produced by saying something. This is in distinction from the illocution, the act performed in saying something] purpose of Scripture, its intended effect. Dramas are not devised primarily to convey information but to move us, to persuade us, to delight us, to purge us of unwanted feelings (182).
It's not that intellectual understanding is of no value. As Vanhoozer points out, actors must understand a script in order to render a faithful performance. Understanding, then, is displayed not solely by the ability to repeat the lines, but to live our parts. This requires more than rote recitation of lines and mechanical acting which amount to hypocrisy. Vanhoozer believes that the famed acting teacher and director Constantin Stanislavski has something to teach us. According to Stanislavski's system for learning how to act (referred to as "the Method"), an actor must become his or her role. This encompasses the use of the intellect, yes, but other cognitive factors as well. "What doctrine [understood as theo-dramatic direction] communicates --its 'import'--involves the whole person: cognition, affection, and volition alike" (100).

Many of us bemoan the anti-intellectualism that characterizes much of contemporary evangelicalism. (One of my own pet peeves is that it seems that whenever we sing "Take My Life and Let it Be," we skip the verse that reads "Take my intellect and use, every pow'r as Thou shalt choose.") I think there is due cause for lament. However, I know I have to guard myself against overcompensating such that I neglect the other dimensions of my humanity with which I am to love, enjoy, and serve the living God. Talk about developing a "Christian mind" can easily lead us to think in exclusively intellectual terms. That's why I especially appreciated the following description of theology's ultimate goal according to Vanhoozer's conception:
Canonical-linguistic theology is not simply a hermeneutic, a way of dealing with the text, but a way of life: a scripted and spirited performance, a way of wisdom generated and sustained by word and Spirit. As such, it is as concerned with training performers as it is with understanding the script. Its intent is not merely to inform but to transform minds. Canonical-linguistic theology represents a kind of cognitive therapy that aims to replace distorted patterns of thinking with patterns that correspond to canonical practices, to theo-dramatic reality, and, ultimately, to the mind of Christ

The "mind of Christ" refers not merely to Jesus' intellectual quotient or his stock of knowledge but to his habitus: the distinctive pattern of all his intentional acts--desires, hopes beliefs, volitions, emotions, as well as thoughts. The mind of Christ refers, in a word, to the characteristic pattern of Jesus' judgments--to the way that Jesus processes information and to the product of that process: the embodied wisdom of God. The mind of Christ is the set of moral, intellectual, and spiritual habits or virtues that serve as the mainspring for all the particular things that Jesus does and says (255-256).
In the introduction, Vanhoozer writes, "The hoped-for outcome of canonical-linguistic theology is nothing less than the missing link between right belief (orthodoxy) and wise practice (orthopraxis): right judgment (orthokrisis)" (30).

I am weary of doctrinal debate and discussion that seems to hang in the air, detached from life. That's why I find Vanhoozer's vision so refreshing. There are exceptions, of course, but it seems to me that many of us who are rightly concerned about doctrinal precision are more comfortable in the realm of abstraction and in need of connecting the doctrines we defend and love to the lives we live. Truth, after all, is not only to be known, but practiced.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Survey on Integrating Religious Faith and Counseling

I received an email yesterday from Gregory K. Popcak, founder and director of Pastoral Solutions Institute, a counseling ministry devoted to helping Catholics with personal, marital, and family problems through the integration of their faith and "cutting-edge psychology." Mr. Popcak wrote:

....your site was recommended to me by a reader. The organization I direct is conducting a major study examining Christian (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox) attitudes toward the integration of religious faith and counseling. The study does not assume that respondents have ever been or ever will be in counseling. We are just interested in readers' opinions. These opinions would help church leaders make decisions about meeting the needs of souls in their care.
He proceeded to ask if I would be willing to post a link to the survey with the following announcement:
You are invited to participate in an online study examining Christian attitudes toward integrating religious faith and counseling. The study is completely anonymous. The study does not assume that you have been or ever will be in counseling. The study is only interested in your opinions. It is hoped that this study will help Church leaders make decisions about the best way to provide assistance to the souls in their care. Your participation would make a valuable contribution to this goal.

To qualify for this study, you must be 18 years or older. All information will be kept completely confidential and anonymous. To learn more about the survey, or to participate, please click this link.
Obviously, I agreed to Mr. Popcak's request but that should not be interpreted as an endorsement of his theology or methods. If you've been a reader of this blog for any length of time, you know that the relationship between counseling psychology and the Christian faith is of great interest to me. I'm of the opinion that at least within American evangelicalism, psychotherapeutic concepts and categories have so captivated believers' minds that in many respects we are incapable of thinking biblically and theologically about ourselves and our problems. The acceptance of psychotherapeutic and pop-psychological diagnoses leads to the conclusion that the Bible is largely irrelevant to what ails us. Instead of such uncritical acceptance, what's needed is serious thinking about how biblical themes and concepts might offer alternative interpretations of and explanations for the same symptoms secular counseling theories have diagnosed according to their philosophies of life.

Yesterday I also read an article Robert C. Roberts contributed to the Winter 2003 volume of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology called "Psychotherapy and Christian Ministry" in which he writes:
Whether or not people are actually in therapy, they do learn from therapies to construe themselves as needing higher self-esteem before they can move on to more functional behavior, or as being the seat of certain defense mechanisms, or as having been put out of touch with their perfectly reliable internal valuing process by too much social pressure to conform, or as being victims of inadequate parenting in early life. If we prefer to spread the spiritual influence of Christian reflection rather than an alien framework like the psychology of the inner child or the ideology of codependency, then we have a positive reason for sticking with the psychology of the Christian tradition. As Christian ministers, we want to couch our psychological help as much as possible in the edifying language of the Christian message.
I agree. That said, I took the Pastoral Solutions Institute survey this morning and ask you to consider assisting Mr. Popcak in his research. It will be interesting to see the results.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A Man Must Examine Himself (and the Text): Eating in an Unworthy Manner

The early church originally celebrated what we know as the Lord's Supper as part of a whole meal. But the bread and the cup aren't the only things that have been isolated from their original context. Many Protestant churches have divorced Paul's warnings about eating in an unworthy manner and the need for self-examination (1 Cor. 11:27-28) from the context of his teaching in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. My good friend Jerry tackles a communion tradition with which many of us are familiar and analyzes it in light of the big picture. "Feast" on his reflections at Read With Open Eyes.

The Cost of Being God's Friend

In light of the buzz that has been going on about what it means to have a personal relationship with God and my recent post about theological understanding being displayed in life, this quote I came across in Christianity Today is timely:

To speak of friendship with God can sound so cozy and consoling, as if we are all snuggling up to God; however, there is no riskier vulnerability than to live in friendship with God, because every friendship changes us, because friends have expectations of each other, and because friends are said to be committed to the same things. … Any friend of God is called to faithfully embody the ways of God in the world, even to the point of suffering on account of them. There may be grace and glory in being a friend of God, but there is also clearly a cost. Paul J. Wadell, Becoming Friends
This World Magazine cover story about Christians seeking to be faithful while working in Hollywood, illustrates such costly friendship:
"I will never be home for dinner at 5:30 p.m.," says one of the most successful Christians in Hollywood, Ralph Winter. "In Hollywood, 5:30 is when things are just getting started."
Mr. Winter produced X-Men, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek IV, and this summer's hit, Fantastic Four. But behind the blockbusters are family separation and heartaches. A shoot in Puerto Rico meant being away from his teenage sons for six months. A filming in London coincided with news that his wife's father had died, tragically. He did not go home. "I cannot believe how selfish I was," he said, "how unfeeling I was about her ongoing grief and depression. I was caught up in the excitement of Hollywood and the possibilities of my own career."
Soon after, Mr. Winter was offered a career plum: the chance to direct a new James Bond movie. But production was going to be in England. He realized what his career was doing to his family. He turned down what seemed like the career opportunity of a lifetime—the chance to play with Mr. Bond's weaponized sportscar, exotic locales, and special-effects-driven chase scenes—to devote his time to his wife and kids.
That decision meant he was out of work for six months. Mr. Winter learned that doing the right thing doesn't mean you won't suffer for it. But he was angry at God. Today he sees that God was at work all along. He finally got a chance to work close to home—and with Steven Spielberg, an opportunity he never would have had if he had been filming James Bond in London.
Today, Mr. Winter zealously sets aside time for his family. He also stresses the importance of his church, Bible study, and accountability partners. Without them, he could not remain spiritually and mentally grounded.
The article goes on to explain Winter's involvement as a mentor in Act One, a non profit organization that trains Christians for careers in film and television. Here's how they describe their mission:
Stressing artistry, excellence, professionalism, and spirituality, Act One prepares students to be "salt and light" in writers rooms, on sets, and in studio and network offices. Our goal is not to produce explicitly "religious" entertainment, but movies and TV programs of unusual quality and depth.
I'm always encouraged to see efforts of vocational discipleship like this; people asking and answering questions like "What does being a faithful follower of Jesus Christ look like in this particular sphere?" and "How do I think Christianly about my line of work?" A certain popular Christian book taught believers to pray "Expand my borders." I think the borders that stand in need of being expanded are those of our narrowly-defined conceptions of discipleship. Groups like Act One can aid us toward that end.

The members of Act One have also written a book - Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture.

Monday, September 05, 2005

I'll Give As Soon As....

  • I get that laptop I've been saving for (Fill in the blank with whatever luxury item you're eyeing).
  • I get my next paycheck.
  • I figure out which of the many relief organizations to give to (For the more spiritual among us, this reads " soon as I discern which of the many relief organizations the Lord would have me give to").
  • I get caught up on my bills.
  • I can give more than I can give right now.
These are just a few of the responses I've given myself when confronted by an occasion to give generously to people in desperate need. Certainly, there are more needs than any one of us can give to and there are times when one or more of the above reasons for not giving immediately is legitimate. But I realize that sometimes what I offer as "reasons" are in actuality "excuses."

As I viewed the images of suffering and chaos in the Gulf Coast area over the last week, my imagination worked overtime. What goes on in the mind of one whose home, loved ones, and possessions were violently swept away? What's it like to wade through water containing corpses, chemicals, refuse, and raw sewage? How uncomfortable must it be to have nothing to change into or any personal hygiene products after wading through that foul water? What must it feel like to lose all privacy and be housed with countless strangers in a sports arena? What does that awful stench I've heard so many reporters talk about really smell like? One thing that didn't tax my imagination was thinking about how desperately I would want someone to help.

Last week my family decided to donate to the American Red Cross. If you've not yet given toward the relief efforts for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, I urge you to do so today in whatever capacity you're able. Any amount you give will no doubt seem insignificant in light of what's needed but don't let that stop you. Please use your imagination and your resources to help. Thanks for considering this request.