Friday, March 28, 2008

Myth Buster

Last night I got to hear and shake the hand of a man I have admired for many years. Phillip Johnson visited a local university and spoke on the status of the Intelligent Design movement and where he thinks it is headed in the future.

What a treat.

Though Dr. Johnson has suffered a series of strokes since 2001 and has some physical difficulties on his left side as a result, his mind is as clear and analytical as it has ever been. The format of his presentation was an interview (that allowed him to be seated throughout) but his answers to the questions posed were long and lecture-like. He also had no trouble injecting some humor into his assessment of the Darwinist "priesthood" and the reasons for its virulently nasty response to ID. One need only compare the venom of the "priesthood's" response to this gentle man to consider who is more confident in the strength of their case.

For those who may not know him, Johnson graduated from Harvard in 1961, received his law degree from the University of Chicago, was a law clerk for Chief Justice Earl Warren, and taught law for 33 years at the University of California, Berkeley. During his time there, Johnson started reading various critics of Darwinism -- many of whom were evolutionists themselves -- and realized that there were giant holes in the theory that was being touted as "fact." So, in good lawyer form, Johnson set out to put Darwin on Trial in 1991. His book (by that title) was so devastating to the Evolutionary paradigm, and so well written, that several closet critics of Darwin took note and contacted him about it. It was from those original meetings that the Intelligent Design movement was born.

If you are interested in reading more about Phil Johnson I would recommend Darwin's Nemesis, a book that looks at his contributions to the Darwinist-Intelligent Design debate by several of those who have joined him in the cause.

In that first book Johnson proclaimed that:
My purpose is to examine the scientific evidence on its own terms, being careful to distinguish the evidence itself from any religious or philosophical bias that might distort our interpretation of that evidence ... The question I want to investigate is whether Darwinism is based upon a fair assessment of the scientific evidence, or whether it is another kind of fundamentalism.
That is all he has ever done since.

I approached Dr. Johnson after the event to thank him for all he has done in his pursuit of truth and open scientific inquiry. It truly was an honor to meet him. He is a meek and humble gentleman whose age is wearing on him. But as I stood waiting to introduce myself to him I couldn't help contemplating how many of us, who try to add our own trivial input to this debate, may not realize what a giant of a man it takes to have each of us stand on his shoulders.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Global Smarming

Well, at least the Catholics and (some) Protestants can agree on something. Unfortunately that something leaves much to be desired. The Catholic church, in its ongoing attempt to show its relevance to modern culture, has chosen to "update" its list of Deadly Sins. Though the original list (pride, envy, lust, anger, sloth, greed and gluttony) seems adequately all inclusive to me, apparently the Church doesn't consider it sufficient to encompass new terms that are more politically correct. The Vatican reports that:
The new deadly sins include polluting, genetic engineering, being obscenely rich, drug dealing, abortion, pedophilia and causing social injustice.
Maybe I'm just a little slow but, given the definitions of the "old" deadly sins:
Pride is excessive belief in one's own abilities, that interferes with the individual's recognition of the grace of God. It has been called the sin from which all others arise. Pride is also known as Vanity.

Envy is the desire for others' traits, status, abilities, or situation.

Gluttony is an inordinate desire to consume more than that which one requires.

Lust is an inordinate craving for the pleasures of the body.

Anger is manifested in the individual who spurns love and opts instead for fury. It is also known as Wrath.

Greed is the desire for material wealth or gain, ignoring the realm of the spiritual. It is also called Avarice or covetousness.

Sloth is the avoidance of physical or spiritual work.
... it seems to me these new ones would fit nicely into the previously established categories:
  • Genetic engineering fits nicely under the demonstration of humanistic pride.

  • Being obscenely rich sure does seem to sound like greed, but one would think that the Vatican geniuses who came up with this list could understand the difference between having lots of money (being rich) and having an attitude that just wants more money (greed). Who defines "obscenely rich" anyway? And what about "obscenely rich" folks who give most of their wealth away to, say, the Catholic Church?

  • Drug dealing obviously breaks human laws that are not in conflict with Scripture (which is, we might note, one definition of sin in general) but also works nicely with sloth and lust.

  • Abortion not only demonstrates the prideful tendency to "play God" but also ignores the clear teaching that we should respect life because all human beings reflects God by bearing His image.

  • It doesn't seem difficult to see pedophilia as just one more way perverted way to be lustful. Surely, a group of Catholic priests should recognize that fact.

  • Causing social injustice is a nebulous term that is too easily manipulated into including anything the liberal wing of the church chooses as its pet cause. But even ignoring that, can this not be included under the umbrella of pride, envy and/or greed?
Finally, polluting is thrown in to placate the environmentalist mantra concerning "global warming." And here we find the connecting point between the Catholics and their Protestant brethren. Not to be outdone, the Southern Baptists have also weighed in on the issue. In their similar declaration they chastise those who don't believe the sky is falling for their ...
" ... cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence [that] may be seen by the world as uncaring, reckless and ill-informed. We can do better."
Please notice that their fear here is not that we are in danger of ignoring an actual objective truth claim. Their fear is about how they "may be seen by the world." Why are church leaders so concerned about how they are seen by the world? Yes, the church needs to be relevant but being relevant does not entail capitulation to the standards and language of the world. It seems to me that they have things backward. They are critiquing the church from a cultural point of view instead of critiquing the culture from a Biblical point of view.
The Rev. Rich Cizik, Washington director of the National Association of Evangelicals, [has become] a prominent environmental advocate, trying to persuade conservative Christians that global warming is real.
Sorry, but if global warming was so obviously real, it wouldn't take such a concerted effort to "persuade" us. There are thousands of scientists who disagree with the dire warnings about global warming. They don't dissent for religious reasons but for scientific ones. Those who so readily accept the popular view seem a little gullible to me. Take Jonathan Merritt for instance, a student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary ...
Merritt, 25, son of former convention president James Merritt, [who] began rallying denominational leaders ... said a theology class had inspired him. His professor had compared destroying God's creation to "tearing a page out of the Bible" ... "That struck me. It broke me," the younger Merritt said in an interview, "and that was the impetus that began a life change, a shift of perspective for me."
Merritt accepted global warming in a theology class! If this is all it takes to "break" you, I submit that you are not thinking with your brain, but with your emotions and feelings -- an all-too-common practice these days.

But, for the sake of argument, let's assume they are correct. Let's assume that the planet is warming. Maybe it is. But there is virtually no proof that it is doing so because of the actions of human beings. Claiming that man can affect or control the temperature of the massively complicated system that is the Earth just sounds a little prideful to me.

This is not to say that we should not take care in how we treat our environment. We should. For those who believe in the Bible this is a moral imperative. For those who don't believe in the Bible it just makes common sense. But one must observe the motivations of those who want to blame man for an alleged global temperature rise. Those motivations are not Biblical but they are theological. They have their basis in the religion of Environmentalism.

These people see global warming as a political tool that can be used to control and confiscate wealth from what they consider to be an "obscenely rich" United States so that it can be redistributed in the name of "social justice." They are "greedy" and "gluttonous" in their pursuit of power and influence. They are "prideful" in their claim to know the unknowable and control the uncontrollable. They are "angry" at those who have the audacity to disagree with them based on the actual scientific evidence.

The issues are new but the results are as old as the humanity that promotes it. Sounds like a deadly, human-centered combination to me.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Train Up A Child

This story (Francis Schaeffer's son: Dad 'worse' than Obama's pastor. Charges black minister's 'anti-America' rhetoric mild by comparison), sent to me by a good friend earlier this week, really got me going for two reasons. First, it is textbook example of the fallacy that goes with believing that Proverbs are promises. Second, the self-righteous, pseudo-sincerity in it is exceeded only by the complete lack of logic it demonstrates.

The second topic first. Frank Schaeffer is the infamous son of one of the greatest philosophical minds in history, Francis Schaeffer , a man whose teaching and writing on the philosophical foundations of the Christian worldview and analysis of the trajectory of human thought are not only required reading for anyone interested in thinking clearly about the Christian faith, but concise and deadly accurate in its predictions about where the humanistic philosophy would take us as a society. His influence on contemporary Christian thinking has been profound. In short, the elder Schaeffer got it right when it came to assessing the philosophical underpinnings of our moral and cultural decline. He was a giant in the area of worldview analysis and his writing has stood the test of time. Yes, there have been those who have taken his views to extremes but we could say that about anybody -- including Jesus Christ. Having said that, please don't let us judge any philosophy or religion by those who choose to corrupt it.

Unfortunately one of those who has chosen to corrupt it is the author's own son.

There isn't room to defend the elder Schaeffer's record here. Others have done a better of that than I ever could. But what I cannot stomach is the deliberate mischaracterization and twisted accusations his son has stooped to for his own left-wing political purposes. Don't get me wrong, Frank Schaeffer has no obligation to agree with or defend his father's views. But to distort them in the way he has in this article is an Obamanation I feel compelled to call out.

For starters, Frank ...
Schaeffer, writing in the Baltimore Community Times, charges "the far-right Republicans and the stop-at-nothing Clintons are using the 'scandal' of Obama's preacher to undermine the first black American candidate with a serious shot at the presidency."
and then goes on to claim that:
"Every Sunday thousands of right-wing white preachers (following in my father's footsteps) rail against America's sins from tens of thousands of pulpits," Schaeffer writes. "They tell us that America is complicit in the 'murder of the unborn,' has become 'Sodom' by coddling gays, and that our public schools are sinful places full of evolutionists and sex educators hell-bent on corrupting children."
With this he makes the ridiculous claim that reporting the actual words of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's racial rants makes those who do so racist themselves. They do so, Schaeffer says, only to undermine the first black American's legitimate presidential candidacy. The utter foolishness in that claim requires no further discussion. My ten-year old could see how vacuous it is. But the parallel attempt to compare Wright's words to the preaching of a Bible-based morality has to be a deliberate effort to twist the truth. There is no other explanation for it.

Wright denounced, and asked God to damn, America for being a society just like the one the "right-wing white preachers" describe. But what are the characteristics of that society? In his own words it is one that sees abortion, homosexuality, idolizing the creation over the Creator, and pushing aberrant sexuality on children as each being "sinful." Never mind that each of these is defined as sinful in the Bible and has been for the last, oh, 4000 years!

Please note, this is not to claim the veracity of any of these. It is not even to defend the truth of Christianity. That is another subject. The point is that the Bible itself claims that each of these is wrong. There is no denying that. For those that hold Christianity to be true, to teach each of these is simply to articulate their faith. Whether Frank Schaeffer agrees with it or not, it is completely disingenuous to put a defense of the clear teaching of Scripture on par with the outrageous allegations made by the "Reverend" Wright. Is claiming that the Bible calls homosexuality a sin even remotely similar to claiming that the U. S. government deliberately injected the AIDS virus into black men?

C'mon, Frank. Argue your politics all you want, but please don't try to have us accept nonsense like that.

And that brings us to the first topic. It is a common misunderstanding that the Book of Proverbs contains promises that all of us can claim. But proverbs are not contracts we make with God. They are simply the wise sayings of wise, godly men. They represent good ideas that are smart to practice if we hope to live our lives in godly ways. They aren't promises. One has to believe, based on the demonstrated faith of Francis Schaeffer, that he knew them and put them into practice. In this specific case, it is safe to assume that Francis Schaeffer probably believed it was wise to "train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it."

The actions of his son are living proof that the practice of this particular proverb guarantees the parent nothing whatsoever.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter: Marketing Nightmare

A couple of weeks ago a co-worker and I were navigating through blizzard conditions in the Midwest when I said something like, "Wow, it sure is weird to think Easter is right around the corner."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm just saying that when your running around in a snow storm, it's hard to believe it'll be Easter Sunday in less than two weeks."

"Are you serious? When is Easter anyway?"

"It's on March 23rd ... Sunday after next."

"Holy crap. I'm flying that day. I didn't even look at the calendar when I bid for my schedule."

The conversation went on but here's my question. Can you even imagine the average American (let alone the average Christian) not realizing when Christmas was?

Yes I know that the date for Christmas doesn't change on us every year and that makes it harder. But that's not the real problem. Easter is by far the most significant Christian holiday (holy day) because it memorializes the linchpin of the faith -- the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. As Paul put it, "... if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins (1 Corinthians 15:16)."

Your faith is worthless without Easter and yet Easter has become a second-rate holiday. The Christmas marketers start in the stores in October (around here anyway). It's in your face everywhere you go. Easter, on the other hand, gets a row dedicated to it in the greeting card section and an aisle of pastel candy colored candy at Kroger.

The real problem with Easter, you see, is centered in that three letter little word at the end of Paul's statement: s - i - n. Nobody likes that word. Madison avenue can deal with the holiday that revolves around gift-giving and its direct correlation to shopping. But the concept of Easter and its relationship to sin doesn't lend itself well to the modern feel-good culture that would try to market it.

Sin doesn't sell.

That notion was brought home for me in the March 20, 2008 issue of USA Today (Life section) in the article titled "Is Sin Dead?." There, this question was asked:
... as Easter approaches, some pastors and theologians worry: How can Christians celebrate Jesus' atonement for their sins and the promise of eternal life in his resurrection if they don't recognize themselves as sinners?
Sin is "the word that shall not be spoken" from far too many pulpits in America these days. In fact, maybe the most popular preacher in the nation, a man with a vast TV following and several best-selling books to his credit, Joel Osteen, admits that he never mentions sin in any of those media.
"I never thought about (using the word 'sinners'), but I probably don't," Osteen told Larry King in an interview. "Most people already know what they're doing wrong. When I get them to church, I want to tell them that you can change."
Apparently, Mr. Osteen didn't get the data presented elsewhere in the piece about what WHAT AMERICANS CALL SIN:
• Adultery: 81%

• Racism: 74%

• Using "hard" drugs, such as cocaine, LSD: 65%

• Not saying anything if a cashier gives you too much change: 63%

• Having an abortion: 56%

• Homosexual activity or sex: 52%

• Not reporting some income on your tax returns: 52%

• Reading or watching pornography: 50%

• Gossip: 47%

• Swearing: 46%

• Sex before marriage: 45%

• Doing things as a consumer that harm the environment: 41%

• Smoking marijuana: 41%

• Getting drunk: 41%

Source: Ellison Research, August 2007, based on 1,007 adults through a representative online panel ad adjusted to be demographically representative of the USA Margin of error: ±3.1 percentage points.
Apparently folks don't know what constitutes sin -- or at least, according to these numbers, about half of us have no clue. A question for Mr. Osteen. Which behaviors are your followers going to change if half of them think most of this stuff is OK?

It is no small irony that the culture we live in finds it more reprehensible to point this out (i.e. be "judgmental") than to actually exhibit the sinful behavior itself. The worldliness that sin promotes is in itself a comfortable denial of standards that exist outside our own little spheres of happiness and personal fulfillment. As David Wells puts it in his classic, "God In The Wasteland,"
Modernity is worldliness, and it has concealed its values so adroitly in the abundance, the comfort, and the wizardry of our age that even those who call themselves the people of God seldom recognize them for what they are.
Christmas plays to that theme. Easter upends it. So it is no surprise that the latter gets conveniently, even if unintentionally, forgotten.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

"I'm Dreaming Of A White Easter ..."

We had a foot of snow where I live just a little over a week ago. Today it's a little warmer (and all the snow is all gone) but it sure doesn't seem like we should be celebrating Easter, for goodness sake. What is up with this early date for Easter anyway?

I have to admit that the easy answer sounds awfully pagan. The date always changes because it is tied to the Spring Equinox. More precisely, it falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.

Got it?

It's confusing but just describing it that way leaves an awfully lot out of the story. Why the Sunday after the full moon after the equinox became the designated day for Easter is the important thing. As always, there is more to the story -- a definitive reason for its being that way -- and the reason is profound. It has everything to do with deliverance and redemption -- the concepts behind our need for a Savior.

Why Sunday? This seems blatantly obvious. Jesus' resurrection was on "the third day" after his death on good Friday, hence Sunday. What is more significant is that the Jewish Sabbath was on Saturday (shabbat in Hebrew) and this was the day that held such significance for the Jewish people. It was one reason that Jesus got himself in trouble -- he had the audacity to heal, and work, and ... whatever on the Sabbath. The fact that Jewish believers changed their holiest day to Sunday (the "first day of the week") after Christ is one of the strongest indicators that something very significant happened on that first Easter Sunday. Religious traditions don't just change willy-nilly -- and this offers strong apologetic support for the claim that the resurrection wasn't just some group hallucination. It was a real event that forever altered the course of humanity in general, and the church in particular.

Why the tie to the full moon and the Equinox? The answer is rich in Jewish history and can be summarized with just one word: Passover. The Jewish people celebrated Passover on the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. It was, and is, a celebration to remember the events that led them from their slavery in Egypt to their freedom to become that nation God meant them to become -- a nation from which a savior would emerge to save all men. Passover was celebrated in family homes. Its themes were those of redemption, freedom and deliverance. And if there is any doubt about that, one need simply read a description of the Passover Seder to recognize its ties not only to Christ's mission on Earth, but to the significance of the Last Supper.

So yeah, it's 35 degrees and the flurries are flying on the day before Easter. But let's not blame it on the pagans. Let's just honor the more significant ties to the prophetic foundation of Christ's connection to the Passover and all that it meant to the Jewish nation and its promised Messiah. In that light, you can read this story about the date for Easter and realize that its slippery date is the least of our worries. The most debilitating aspect of Easter to our faith has nothing to do with eggs and bunnies and rot-your-teeth-out candy.

The worst thing about Easter these days is that it doesn't seem to matter at all.

More on that tomorrow ...

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Yahweh In The Sky With Diamonds?

In its ongoing mission to try to discredit any religious belief as the deluded imaginings of a of people who cannot deal with reality, the scientific community has a new "theory" to promote. This Reuter's story cites:
Benny Shanon, a psychology professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, who [wrote] that the ancient Jews may have been high on a hallucinogenic plant when the prophet delivered the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai...
And what is the psychology professor's basis for this claim?
Shanon wrote that he was very familiar with the affects of the ayahuasca plant, having "partaken of the ... brew about 160 times in various locales and contexts."
In summary, we should not believe the Biblical texts because they may have been written by someone who simply used mind-altering drugs to induce psychedelic hallucinations. But we should accept this hypothesis, despite having exactly zero evidence to support it, because it is being promoted by an individual who readily admits that he has used the very drug to which he refers.

Very convincing.

This harkens back to a book I read several years ago, Faith of the Fatherless, in which Paul Vitz argues that "projection theory" cuts both ways. Freud criticized belief in God as being untrustworthy on this psychological basis. In his The Future of an Illusion, Freud argued that ...
... [all religious beliefs are] illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind ... As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection -- for protection through love -- which was provided by the father ... thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life.
Religious believers have "projected" onto their fear of nature the illusion that a divine Father will protect them from it. But, Vitz argues convincingly, this is an ad hominem attack that can also go the other way. He spends the rest of the book showing that many of the most prominent atheists in history have had missing, absent, or abusive fathers. This fact could just as readily explain why the empty regret of having no father-figure in their lives could offer a psychological explanation for disbelief in a father-figure like God.

Touche.

Vitz's point, unlike those who dismiss religious belief for psychological reasons, is not to write off atheists as just being psychologically defective. What he shows is that arguing either way does not address the actual evidence, or lack of evidence, for God. Either argument is a way to avoid the evidence by simply attacking the person making the claim. Both ways may be interesting to those who agree with a particular point of view, but neither way proves anything about whether God actually exists or operates in the real world.

Which is why we have no reason to accept the drug induced theory offered by Dr. Shanon. When it comes to the reasonableness of believing in God, psychologists are not very reliable or productive in their contributions to the debate.