Thursday, July 20, 2006

Taking Obama's Challenge ... Further

On July 10, 2006 Barack Obama spoke the truth when he proposed that politicians need not abandon religion. Obama must be commended for what is a politically incorrect attempt to allow faith a serious place in the realm of political discourse. It is a vitally important topic that has, as Obama notes, unnecessarily driven a wedge through our society – a wedge that needs to be extracted. In the face of political leaders who treat religion as the new third rail of politics, Obama should be applauded for his challenge. He takes a political risk in making it. But, if his challenge is to be taken seriously, there are a few holes in it that need to be plugged.

Obama appears to be letting subsidiary political issues and stereotypes override the foundational presuppositions from which they flow. He does this to the detriment of the goal he is honorably pursuing and, in doing so, threatens to lose credibility with his traditional opponents when he says things like:
the single biggest gap in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, between red states and blue, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don't … This gap has long been exploited by conservative leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who tell evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their church, while suggesting that religious Americans care only about issues such as abortion and gay marriage.
Beside the ad hominem nature of this statement, it is wholly unfair to characterize Msrs. Falwell and Robertson as “conservative leaders.” To do so is an obvious attempt to disparage the conservative voice by equating it with some of the outrageous public comments that have come out of the mouths of these two gentlemen. This cannot be accidental. Mr. Obama knows that Robertson and Falwell do not represent mainstream Christian thought. When it comes to reconciling faith and politics, it would be a much more constructive if he would avoid defining the debate from the fringes. Surely Mr. Obama would not allow his political opponents to claim that his point of view is fairly represented by “liberal leaders” such as Jesse Jackson or Louis Farrakhan.

In fairness, however, Mr. Obama does accurately call extremist “liberals” to account for their equally harmful tendency to …
dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, thinking that the very word “Christian” describes one’s political opponents, not people of faith.
… but then offers a backhanded slap in the face to those very political opponents when he says …
If progressives (emphasis mine) shed some of these biases, we might recognize the overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the direction of our country
I would digress if I were to delve into the questionable practice of labeling those who strive to uphold the status quo in terms of specific policy issues (Social Security education or medical insurance reform etc.) as “progressive,” while those who seek 21st Century solutions to such problems are belittled as Neanderthal conservatives. That is not the issue. The issue is the project of bridging the so-called division between “religious” and “secular” people. I would contend that there is no such division because there are no secular people.

Everybody has a religion. Even the most antagonistic, in-your-face atheist subscribes to a religion that defines his worldview – that gives him a means for understanding the human condition and the methods he proposes to improve it. The so-called secularist’s religion is a human-centered one that proposes humanistic solutions to society’s problems. In that sense, it accepts no transcendent deity. It is a religion in which man becomes the final arbiter of all questions of value. This is the great obstacle in striving for respectful political debate where it comes to the question of values and faith. Those who dare call themselves “religious” today have subscribed to objective moral realism while the “secularist,” by definition, must subscribe to subjective moral relativism. Acknowledging this leads to the realization that secular values, because they have no objective foundation, become moving targets – the personal choices of those who offer them. Any attempt to offer rational support for why others must subscribe to these values demands that those who propose them borrow objective moral standards from the very religious folks they so deplore. Both believe in the separation of church and state but understand it in different ways. When Obama proposes that …
the separation of church and state in America has preserved not only our democracy but also the robustness of our religious practice. After all, during our founding, it was not the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of this separation; it was the persecuted religious minorities concerned that any state-sponsored religion might hinder their ability to practice their faith.
… he must recognize this conundrum. The secularist wants to keep God out of the discussion altogether. Religious folks simply want to keep the government out of their church. But neither can avoid the practical reality that they both allow their religion to inform the policies initiatives they propose.

It follows that the conflict that arises is not one about allowing faith and values into politics. We’ve already done that. The controversy becomes one about whether or not we will allow objective moral realism to inform the debate. American culture, steeped in modernity and the Enlightenment mindset on which it is based, defines faith as a purely personal matter that is, and must remain, totally disconnected from the realm of reasoned political discourse. Mr. Obama’s rejection of this mindset is spot on. The question is, how does he intend to mend the rift? Based on his comments, it would seem that he has tacitly accepted the philosophical tenets that have led to the very breach he aims to repair. Mr. Obama proposes an acceptance of objective moral realism in offering a view of faith that …
shapes [his] values, but applying those values to policymaking must be done with principles that are accessible to all people.
Or that …
… democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. If I am opposed to abortion for religious reasons but seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.
It is interesting the Mr. Obama uses abortion as his example here. I would suggest that he visit the Life Training Institute to do just what he suggests. There he will find an intellectually rigorous defense of the pro-life position that bears no dependence on the teaching of any specific church. But to return to his argument: If Mr. Obama is consistent with the position he proposes here, and if those who share his political views are to join him in accepting his challenge, they must all realize that the invocation of “universal values” demands that accepting their existence entails an admission that, by definition, they cannot be compromised. This is the definition of “universal.” They apply to everyone. Instead, Mr. Obama retreats from his own proposal by suggesting that …
religion does not allow for compromise. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime; to base our policymaking on them would be dangerous
Why is this “dangerous”? If we admit that such values are universal, it is intellectually inconsistent to suggest that subscribing to those values is somehow dangerous. Mr. Obama wants his objective realism without the logical entailments that descend from it.

Mr. Obama’s call to action is noble and long overdue. Politicians who claim that religion is not already informing their policy solutions are kidding themselves into believing that, whatever their worldview, their religion is not mightily at work within their politics. Mending the faith/reason split in our country is a task that can readily begin with an acknowledgment that every Christian, Jew and Muslim in this country accepts the validity of major portions of the Old Testament (including the Pentateuch and the Psalms) as the inspired word of God. Within those Biblical books we find an anthropology that defines the origin and nature of our humanity and the purpose for the creation in which we find ourselves. Therein lay the universal foundations for which Mr. Obama is searching. I applaud him for taking the first step toward allowing them an open voice in the political arena. I hope that he, and others, will find the courage to hear what that voice is saying.

It Is About The Bike

My friend Tim is a physical therapist and a tri-athlete. The guy is not only in the best physical condition of most anyone I know, he helps fix people who are trying to get that way. More importantly, Tim is a husband and father who loves his family deeply because he loves his God sincerely.

Six weeks ago Tim felt lousy after a bike ride. He was anxious about work and moving to a new house so he attributed his worn out feeling to the stressors in his life. He was tired and weak. The next day he was feeling even more out of sorts. His wife told him to go for a run. Afterward he felt worse. That night he was running a fever with a temperature of 104.5. The next day he went to the doctor who gave him some antibiotics and drew some blood. Three days later Tim was diagnosed with ALL (acute lymphoblastic leukemia).

Many of us may have fallen into a deep depression and asked, “Why me?” Tim didn’t have time for that. For several days he was mentally and physically out of it, coping with severe pain, an incessant cough, and nausea. His body was being destroyed from the inside out. He was miserable. He felt like he was being poked and prodded by every doctor and nurse who happened to pass by his door. At one point a doctor sat by the side of his bed discussing the treatment plans and protocols that were in store for him. That was fine … until she began to rattle off a string of percentages about how many people make it through this course or that, and their survival rates at each stage of treatment. Tim had had enough. He leaned forward and, with a piercing determination in his voice said, “I don’t care about all your statistics. Just tell me what I need to do. I’m going to beat this thing.”

A few days later, still reeling from the chemotherapy that was racking his entire system, and with blood counts that had all dropped to near zero, his wife Missy arrived at the hospital to visit him only to find his room empty. She asked the nurse if he had been taken somewhere. No, he hadn’t.

Now Missy was getting anxious. She began searching the hallway knowing that Tim hated being trapped in his hospital bed; thinking he had escaped to just go move around a little. As she walked a little frantically down the hallway, she began to hear a rhythmic squeaking sound emanating from a room up ahead. Missy approached the door and peaked into an area she hadn’t seen before. There was Tim, his blue hospital gown draped over his pumping legs. Next to him stood a drip stand from which intravenous medicine flowed through tubes connected to his neck. Tim was peddling a stationary bike for all he was worth.

Six weeks later Tim is in remission.

Tim’s story is not only remarkable; it also has everything to do with the issues I have been discussing here. Yes, Tim’s caregivers are brilliant people. The science behind their ability to diagnose and treat him is beyond what most of us can comprehend. That is not debatable. God equips us with the intelligence and reasoning capacities that allow us to discover such things and we have every obligation to use them. But many receive the same treatment from the same doctors and don’t make anywhere near the progress Tim has made. What’s the difference?

The difference is that Tim got on the bike.

Naturalists would describe Tim’s powerfully positive actions in evolutionary terms. They, by definition, have no other way to understand such things. Every action must be understood to be the result of a relentless deterministic process, beginning with the accidental emergence of first life, and continuing toward a purposeless end. To the naturalist, Tim’s motivation is a consequence of the “survival of the fittest” mechanism that drives those who best adapt to the environment by obtaining a competitive advantage over evolutionary challengers. But intuition tells us that the naturalistic explanation cannot be totally true. There is more to the story. Tim’s attitude is what got him on that bike.

Attitude is a state of mind – a mental inclination. But what are states of mind or mental capacities? Surely they are not things that can be physically weighed or measured, or touched, or seen, or heard … In other words, they are not things for which the naturalist can provide an explanation. The naturalist would not even allow that they are real. Any such explanation requires that the non-physical “emerged” from the physical. But to someone who denies metaphysical reality in the first place, it seems incoherent to say that non-existent, non-physical entities could emerge from physical matter. The question of metaphysical reality is naturalism’s most glaring deficiency. But there is more to Tim’s attitude than that.

C. S. Lewis talks of the joy he got from hearing and reading children’s stories and from other childhood experiences – a thrill that, later in life:
had produced a longing … which had flowed over from the mind and seemed to involve the whole body. That walk I now remembered. It seemed to me that I had tasted heaven then. If only such a moment could return! But what I never realized was that it had returned – that the remembering of that walk was itself a new experience of just the same kind. True, it was desire, not possession. But then what I had felt on the walk had also been desire, and only possession in so far as that kind of desire is itself desirable, is the fullest possession we can know on earth; or rather, because the very nature of Joy makes nonsense of our common distinction between having and wanting.

Lewis, in his “argument from desire” for the existence of God, claims that our sense of holiness and the desire for joy itself exposes the reality of the supernatural – of a higher spiritual level to which his early experiences had been pointing him. As Louis Markos points out in his book, Lewis Agonistes, the fact that “he [Lewis] continually desired something that the natural world could not supply suggested that another, supernatural one existed that was the origin of his desire.”

I think Tim might tell you that that desire – that longing for the joy that is rooted in his God and that he shares with his wife and kids – was the source for the attitude that got Tim on the bike. It is not completely explainable otherwise. The joy of worshipping his Creator, the joy he experiences with his family, and that he embraces for life itself – each of these have given Tim a peace that passes all understanding.

Please pray for Tim. He still has a long row to hoe; but he also has attitude, and joy, and hope, and the power of love on his side. Those are what got him on the bike and, knowing Tim, he won’t be getting off.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

We don't have souls?

This week I heard someone say that we humans don’t have souls. It’s the kind of statement that shocks you into paying attention to what this guy is getting at. It sounds weird – maybe even heretical – until you think about it and realize that he’s right.

We don’t have souls. We are souls.

We have bodies. To say that one has a soul infers that it is something you can discard. But you can’t get rid of your soul. You can’t leave it at the office and go back to pick it up later. If you go to sleep, or are knocked unconscious, your physical body is not able to respond to the physical world around you … but you continue to be you. When you wake up, you are still the same person you were before you went to sleep.

Your soul is what makes you who you are. It is what defines your personhood. It is what continues to make you, you – even as all the cells of your body die and are replaced every 7 years. Naturalistic scientists and philosophers have to explain how this can be. If your mind is just the physical gray matter that sits between your ears, and the cells that make up that gray matter (as well as the rest of your physical body) are constantly in flux, how is it that you continue to be the same person you were last week, last year, when you were a little kid, or when you were in the womb. Your soul is what makes you eternal.

This is not to say that the Christian view of the body demeans its importance. To the contrary, the body is the means by which we interact with God’s creation. In that way it is the physical expression of our character and therefore a reflection of our faith. It is the way the world knows whether, and what, we believe. It cannot subsist without the soul – it separates from the soul at our physical death – but somehow, in a way we cannot fully comprehend, orthodoxy tells us that it will be resurrected in some sort of glorified state in the new creation. The body is an incarnation, inextricably linked to the soul to form a human person made in the image of God.

We get ourselves in trouble when we exalt either aspect of our personhood to the detriment of the other. The Gnostics and Greek dualists of old, and their modern New Age descendants, deny the importance of the body. The naturalists deny the existence of the soul. Both diminish a complete view of our humanity.

The notion of authenticity of the soul is not just some fascinating concept to wrestle with. It is a claim of metaphysical reality. As such, it is a challenge to the naturalistic worldview that dominates the power structure of our culture. If the physical world is the only thing that is real, we have no basis for grounding our morality or ethics, and no hope for the future.

I don’t think we can live in the real world accepting that assumption to be true. It goes against what we intuitively know about how the world works. It goes against what we know in our soul to be true.

That soul that we don’t have …