Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Esperanza del Mañana

For someone who spends an awful lot (too much?) of my time thinking, reading, writing and teaching about worldview issues, I certainly was surprised and shocked when confronted with the tangible reality that my own worldview has been woefully inadequate and incomplete. My wife and three of our kids just returned from a five day trip to Monterrey, Mexico with Back 2 Back Ministries and I am still left a little speechless by it all. (You can read the story of this ministry in Beth Guckenberger's new book: "Reckless Faith")

We met with, played with, served, and did construction at three different locations with some of the most destitute people on Earth. These are orphan kids whose entire day consists of wondering where their next meal will come from; kids who have been wounded emotionally and physically in some of the worst ways imaginable. Yet they want nothing more than a piggyback ride, or a hug from people they have never laid eyes on before. They want to sing worship songs and play soccer or baseball with my boys. They simply want to know that someone cares that they exist.

We watched as their eyes lit up because they were given a backpack with a notebook and some pencils in it so that they wouldn't be the only kid in school without one. We watched as a 6 year-old folded his school clothes and put them in a bin labeled with his size, so that the other kids his size could share them. We watched as little Brian spent the afternoon chasing a chicken around his mostly dirt yard, catching and petting its squirming body, then letting it go so the whole game could begin again -- each chase ending with the same exclamation, "Yo tengo, Yo tengo!" ("I have it, I have it"). We watched, when it was time to leave, as little Brian repeated another phrase -- "Por qué te vas?" ("Why are you leaving?")

I could go on and on but frankly, my descriptions cannot begin to convey the intensity of the experiences we had over the last 4 days. The pain and misery of these kids is overwhelming. But still they smile. Most actually seem content with their physical situation. The only thing these orphans seem to lack is hope. They have been devastated by the fact that they don't have a family to love them and help heal their emotional wounds. As a result, three teens attempted suicide the week before we got there.

And that is the real mission of Back-2-Back -- offering hope to replace the hoplessness you cannot see. Yes, they smile and laugh when you show them love, but each little instance of happiness is a frighteningly small deposit in a bankrupt psyche that has been created within them as a result of being abandoned.

On a wall in the meeting room where our days began and ended was a large mural titled, "Esperanza del Mañana" -- "Hope for Tomorrow." Though I have no delusions about the tiny impact our little family trip may have had on them, I can only pray that it is part of a much larger deposit into those accounts that many more will give. I would encourage anyone who reads this to consider being one more depositor.

I have often heard people say that a mission trip like this "changed their lives" and, to be honest, I have wondered about the sincerity with which I have heard it said by people who really seem no different on the outside. I have been cynical about the claims of those who have gone to serve, and ignorant about the severity of the suffering that goes on with those who need to be served.

Shame on me.

As our plane left the runway in Monterrey yesterday morning, I gazed out the window through a steady rain. I realized that the kids I had been singing with the afternoon before, then lay in a muddy shanty trying to sleep and I was brought to tears by the thought. I don’t know that anyone will be stunned at the sudden, radical transformation they will see in me. But I can tell you this: My four days in Monterrey will never allow me to look at our world the same way again.

If my life has been changed, it is only because I have been given a tangible realization of how blessed I am and how negligent I have been about the plight of those who suffer daily in this world.

If my life has been changed, it is because I can no longer claim ignorance about that fact. I no longer have an excuse. I am obligated to do something to affect my little sphere of influence in some way that offers hope for tomorrow to those who have no idea that such a thing is possible.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Beyond Frustrating

In the final installment on this topic I want to quickly address the logical end to which the relativistic morality I've been discussing leads.

Most who claim such a view are seriously confused in their ability to follow these arguments through and realize their faults. They are either parroting someone they've heard or read, or they have never really tried to consider their view in depth.

Another common tendency of people who think like this to get very angry and offended if they believe you are saying they can't be moral. I don't blame them for getting upset if they think we are saying they "can't be moral." I actually believe that atheists can be just as moral as any theist could ever be -- maybe more so, I don't know. The problem is that they cannot defend the "oughtness" of their morality based on their own view. Their view doesn't allow for such a thing. So when they do claim to know objective truth or morality, they are actually stealing from the theistic worldview they claim to reject!

So, to reiterate from the first post, I am not saying they can't be moral. I am saying they can't ground their morality. And that leads to some pretty scary stuff. Some of these folks are not confused. These are the ones that go beyond frustrating to scary and sad. Because they do realize that calling things wrong or immoral under their worldview is incoherent, they will go to great lengths to refuse to do so. What happens when you push them to that end is pretty extreme.

In this case I contended that that we don’t need a written standard to know certain things are wrong -- things like murder, slavery or torturing babies for fun. The truth is that only a sociopath would require an explanation for the immorality of these actions — or someone who is just deliberately trying to be belligerent. Here's what I got back:
SLAVERY: How have you determined slavery wrong? I’ll keep repeating myself. WRONG FOR WHO!? In what way wrong? To what degree wrong? WHY WRONG!?

BABIES: Where does the bible say that torturing babies is wrong? Why is it wrong?

MURDER: What is murder? Is capital punishment murder? Why not? It is premeditated ‘retribution’. Is that murder? Is all killing murder? Clearly you would say No. Is all murder wrong? Well, you’re going to have to describe every instance. If a suicide bomber is shot by a sniper saving the lives of 100s, is the sniper a murderer? What if I accidentally kill someone? What if I aimed to shoot a person with a gun, missed and the bullet went into barn, caused the animals to stampede, trample and kill the person I was trying to shoot in the first place? Is that murder? It was an accident and completely not my intention ... What makes it malicious? What is innocent human life? I thought we’re all guilty of sin. None of us are innocent, so what are you talking about?
There you have it. It is my contention, in saying that objective truth and morality are really "out there" as part of the fabric of the universe, that you don’t need a Bible or me to explain to you why these things are wrong or true. Notice that the writer keeps insisting that I am basing these things on the Bible. I am not. I am saying that even those who have never even seen, let alone read, the Bible would know that these things are wrong. They are inescapable.

Yet he insists that I must defend the idea that slavery, torturing babies for fun and murder are wrong. Anyone who really believed that such a thing requires explanation would be a sociopath -- someone who has no moral conscience -- someone who really did not know right from wrong.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think the commenter is really a sociopath. I think he knows full well that to admit these things are objectively wrong is to undermine his entire view of the world. None of us would go down easy on such a challenge. I only hope he considers the consequences of holding to it.

And I think he does. Why? Because this was his final response:
So I’m a sociopath for asking you to explain yourself? Very nice Bob. As they say, put up, or shut up. Put up some evidence as to absolute objective morality standards.
This response tells me that his indignant response to the suggestion that he is a sociopath is an admission that there are objective standards of right and wrong he thinks I have violated. He thinks I'm wrong to call him such a thing and he wants evidence to support my claim.

Never mind that I have just spent several days offering evidence. The fact that he claims to want to base his view on actual evidence is encouraging. The fact that he still recognizes objective reality (even if he claims not to) is too.

One can only hope.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Of Amish Recluses and iPods

Last time I used the analogy in the title (above) to try to illustrate what it like talking to atheists about morality. I said it is frustrating to no end. So now I'm going to prove it. If you feel the need to pull your own hair out, go for it. I do it all the time.


Below are some comments (names removed) by atheists I have conversed with online at different times and places. I will give their unedited comments so you can see for yourself how these folks think and, most importantly, the logical conclusions to which their worldview takes them.
we are getting to the reality of ethics/morals… RELATIVITY. Something that is bad or ‘evil’ for one being, can be good for another. “Who determines what is evil?” Beings themselves ... My point is that we are talking about choice. Evil doesn’t exist in and of itself. It is not some cloud-like gas floating out in the universe. Evil is determined by the individual being. What hurts mankind must be 'evil,' in terms of mankind ...
First, "Relativity" is a physics term referring to Einstein’s General or Special theories. "Relativism" is quite a different thing. I don’t say this to be condescending but many people believe these are synonymous and that we are therefore free to say "everything’s relative!" Nothing could be further from the truth.The scientific concept of light’s velocity being constant regardless of the frame of reference from which it is measured has no similarity to the philosophical claim made here: That moral questions are only decided by "being’s themselves." That claim is a relativistic claim and all claims to relativism are self-defeating and incoherent. In saying this we would have no way to differentiate the morality of another person’s actions. We would have no right to judge Hitler's actions as being "wrong" or, as this commenter claimed prior to this, no framework by which she could label God as a "malevolent monster." Both God and Hitler just do what they do because, "Something that is bad or 'evil' for one being, can be good for another." The commenter wants to define his own morality and is quite adamant about the fact that is his prerogative to do so ...
Naturally, I think you’re wrong. You keep trying to establish “oughtness” as the basis of all things, as though the universe could not operate without it…and yet it does, every single day. “Should” is an opinion; “ought to” is an opinion. The only thing that is objective are the facts; everything else is an opinion. Morality is a personal choice; whatever source we take it from is no more objective than any person or circumstance we apply it to.

I didn’t say morals don’t exist. I said they are relative. I can make any moral judgment I please. There is no absolute moral standard for relative beings. As I said earlier, I have moral/ethical beliefs.

I don’t believe in objective “morality,” so I don’t adhere to the “shoulda woulda coulda” rationale. However, if I were to qualify a set of guidelines by which I prefer to adhere as “morality,” then I would say that I construct those guidelines based on what is most effective towards reaching my personal goals, which primarily consists of the happiness of myself and others.

These are from different folks but carry the same message -- one that deserves comment. The view they hold is completely self-defeating in this sense: They claim that morality and truth are relative to the individual or group who chooses to adhere to them. That being the case, their truth and morality would hold no more weight than my truth and morality. Neither of us could claim to be right or wrong under their standard of establishing truth or morality. Yet, in the same breath, they say things like "I think you are wrong."

Now, there is nothing wrong (no pun intended) with saying that on my view. But on their view it is completely incoherent because on their view no one can claim to know whether anyone's claim to know the truth is valid. Their statements about these things defy the very claims of their own worldview!

I try to approach this problem by asking a simple question: "Do you think I am wrong to say relativism is false?" If they say I am wrong to say that, they are admitting to an absolute truth claim about the proposition. If they say I am not wrong, they are admitting that relativism is false. Either way, relativism ends up being false.

And this is why it is so frustrating. The reasoning they have to resort to defend themselves is maddeningly circular. You can go on and on like this until you are ready to scream. But scream you cannot. If you get angry, you lose. If you get them angry, you lose. Unfortunately, I have lost far too often in both ways.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Materialist Morality

It is my experience that speaking to atheists about morality is like speaking to an Amish recluse about an iPod. If you can imagine how completely frustrating and fruitless such a discussion would be, multiply it by about 1000 and you will get close. I will share some specific details from such a discussion on my next post, but for now I just want to attempt to point out why it is so difficult an endeavor. Sam Harris gives a hint in his Letter To A Christian Nation:

Assertion: {p. 8}
Questions of morality are questions about happiness and suffering. This is why you and I do not have moral obligations toward rocks. To the degree that our actions can affect the experience of other creatures positively or negatively, questions of morality apply.
Response: Notice the premise of Harris' argument -- that morality is about happiness and suffering. If that doesn't quite sound right to you it's because your mind does not think in anywhere near the same kinds modes as an atheist like Sam Harris. The reasons for this are philosophical. Sam Harris doesn't believe in the objective reality of things like you do. That is a loaded concept but it is foundational to the atheistic perspective. In a nutshell, atheism does not allow for the objective reality of truth or morality. Atheism denies that the truth or rightness or goodness of something exists independently of whether or not we believe in it. This is called the "grounding question" by philosophers who try to determine where things like "good" and "right" come from.

Notice that asking if there is such a thing as "good" in and of itself is a different question than asking how we know what is "good." This issue it crucial to the discussion. Atheists like Harris are content to accept morality as a product of either individual choices (in the most radical form), or cultural consensus (which is more commonly accepted). Because of their belief in a purely mechanistic universe where physically observable matter and energy are the only things that can be real, atheists are relegated to see morality as something that different parties agree to observe through their common evolutionary mission to survive.

OK, let's grant (I don't, but play along for a minute) them that evolutionary forces, operating over eons to promote survival, have led us to see some things as helpful to that mission. These things are called "good." Things that are detrimental to survival are then labeled "bad." We know good and bad by consensus. Evolution has taught us what they are. But notice that even if this explanation tells us how we know good/bad or right/wrong, it cannot tell us what constitutes actual goodness.

How we know things is called epistemology. What things are is called ontology. Epistemology and ontology are two very different things. As an example, consider the force of gravity. Ontologically, gravity is the impersonal force of attraction that exists between material objects in the universe. But our epistemological understanding about gravity comes from scientific observation and experimentation. The ways we know about gravity are very different from what gravity actually is. But notice that our belief or understanding about gravity has absolutely no impact on whether gravity actually exists. If you stop believing in gravity, you won't float off into the stratosphere, nor will you be able to step off tall buildings without consequence. Gravity is built into the fabric of the universe -- and moral realists believe that morality is no different.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Turek - Hitchens Debate: You Be The Judge

Got 90 minutes?

If so, I invite you to watch the following debate (or at least some part of it) between Dr. Frank Turek (of CrossExamined fame) and Christopher Hitchens (of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything fame). Because I am biased, I will offer no comment of my own ... for a little while anyway. I invite you to listen and evaluate the debate for yourself:

  1. Who makes the more compelling case in their opening remarks?
  2. Who answers the others' questions more completely?
  3. What points do you think were strong/weak and why?

Please feel free to watch and post comments here about the debate. I will be glad to do my best to answer -- or expose my incapability at answering -- any comments you might have.

Enjoy ... Click Here to begin ::

Turek vs. Hitchens Debate: Does God Exist? from Andrew on Vimeo.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Don't Think, Just Send Money

If you think the so-called "new atheists" pose a problem for thinking Christians, I contend that a more difficult problem may exist within Christianity itself. I say that because the insidious nature of the problem has rendered it either invisible or unrecognizable to far too many of us. As proof, I offer two glimpses into the philosophy of one man who represents our faith. The first was uttered during the annual Fall "Praise-a-thon" on TBN:
The apologists - I'm telling you they could make falling off a stool difficult. You'd have to go to college to learn how to fall off a stool if you were an apologist ... So, I'm not impressed with the apologist any longer. And I may as well get it out - I used to be one! And God forgive me, and I promise not to ever do it again.
The second (which describes the actions of the exact same man who said this) shows where just such an attitude can lead:
[He] turned to the pastor in the white suit, sitting in the audience and asks innocently, “Do I have a few more moments?” Well, not surprisingly, the pastor agreed. It’s a good thing, because as it turns out, [he] had a whole new doctrinal revelation to tell us about: the doctrine of reverse entrapment. If you’ve never heard of that before, that’s because God just showed it to him right there. Reverse entrapment is when you put a gift to [him] on a credit card and outsmart the lenders who are trying to get rich off your debt. When you put a gift on a credit card, I quote, “something happens in the spirit world.” Here he tells everyone how to have a credit card breakthrough. Turns out [he] has a way for you to get rid of your mortgage debt. All you have to do is to give him a gift the size of your house payment and God will see that your mortgage gets paid off right away. If you don’t have a house, $500 will do nicely for future debt. [He] assured us that it worked for him.
It doesn't take much imagination to see why this individual might not appreciate apologetics or the idea of thinking about how one's faith relates to the real world. Those who might do such a thing would pose a serious threat to his income stream.

This is nothing new. We have always had charlatans among us. But I believe the mindset at work here is one that is more prevalent than we might imagine in the pews (or chairs) of our churches and that it threatens the Christian faith for more practical reasons. Too many of us, when asked why we believe in God, or why we trust in the reliability of the Bible, will respond that we "just have faith." And I am not throwing stones here -- I used to say the same thing. But my point is that such a response is not good enough, not just for worldly reasons, but for Biblical ones.

From the world's point of view, and as evidenced by the writings of the "new atheists," thinking people and faithful people represent mutually exclusive categories. Richard Dawkins is well known for asserting that religion is nothing but wishful thinking engaged in by weak people who accept their religion blindly. If you accept his premise, there is no reason to even consider the claims of Chrisianity. They just don't matter. They are no better than anyone else's claim to believe in "The Flying Spaghetti Monster" (for some weird reason this is a favorite character among the atheist blogs and websites I have encountered) or leprechauns that hide under your bed. For that reason, any compulsion we might have toward evangelism is thwarted before it begins.

Sure, the evangelistic endeavor could attempt to appeal to felt needs, or guilt, or awe, but if these can't be grounded in a reality that corresponds to the way the world actually is, our attempts at each of these falls on deaf, or ambivalent, ears. Practically then, apologetics allows reason to get us an audience with those who demand it. If that means we have to "go to college to learn how to fall off a stool," so be it. Some people need to get pushed off the worldly stool they've been sitting on.

Biblically, as someone once said, God doesn't give us brownie points for being stupid. A little harsh maybe but the point is well taken. Jesus told us to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength." It is notable that Jesus didn't make this line up on the spot. He is quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 ... sort of. The Deuteronomy passage actually only includes heart, soul and strength. Jesus added "mind" for some reason. Is that significant? Think about it (no pun intended), the addition doesn't prove anything but it makes you wonder why he felt the need to modify the Old Testament Scriptures for his more modern audience. Maybe he was anticipating the mindset we are dealing with today.

This example does not stand alone. Peter told us to "always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." Paul told us to "demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ."

Apologetics in other words, is not optional ... especially when you are dealing with folks whose "new doctrinal revelations" are really self-serving tools to line their own pockets. We ignore apologetics at our own peril. Apologetics can save us from looking silly. Apologetics honors the commands and character of the God we believe in. And if apologetics doesn't appeal to the charlatans in our midst, maybe that is further confirmation that we need it more than ever.

{*picture from: www.democracycellproject.net}

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Separation of Reason and State

Remember all the bluster about the "separation of church and state" that we are subjected to in the hysteria surrounding: the teaching of Intelligent Design; the mission to keep prayer and (God forbid!) the Bible out of the public schools; the rigid denial of allowing religious views to inform the abortion debate or (God forbid!) have a role in overturning Roe-v-Wade; and on and on and on ...

Remember also that this hysteria is invariably brought to us by those on the political left who are: champions of women's rights, defenders of political correctness, and proponents of a secular culture that abhors any attempt to legislate morality in any way.

Remember all that? Well, check this out ...

In Britain, one of the most politically-correct, left-wing societies on planet Earth:
Islamic law has been officially adopted ... with sharia courts given powers to rule on Muslim civil cases. The government has quietly sanctioned the powers for sharia judges to rule on cases ranging from divorce and financial disputes to those involving domestic violence.
The folly of this move is almost beyond comprehension -- especially in a society that prides itself on championing the issues mentioned above. For the record, here are some of the views that may come into play in "Muslim civil cases" considered under Sharia Law:
  • Many interpretations of Islamic law hold that women may not have prominent jobs, and thus are forbidden from working in the government. This has been a mainstream view in many Muslim nations in the last century, despite the example of Muhammad's wife Aisha, who both took part in politics and was a major authority on hadith.

  • A woman's inheritance is different from a man's, both in quantity and attached obligations. For instance, a daughter's inheritance is half that of her brothers, Sharia law requires family members females or males to support each others as needed.

  • In instances of rape some interpretations of Sharia law require for an allegation to be validated, victims must have four witnesses to the crime or else the victims risk being charged with fornication or adultery making a rejected allegation a potential death sentence for the victim

  • Homosexual activity is illicit under sharia, however the prescribed penalties differ from one school of jurisprudence to another. For example some countries allow the death penalty for sodomy though not for other homosexual activities.

  • Sharia does not allow freedom of speech on such matters as criticism of Muhammad and that such criticism is considered blasphemy against Muhammad ... There is no dispute that anyone who curses Allah is killed and that his curse demands that he be categorized as an unbeliever ... The judgment against those who harm Allah and His Prophet is more severe -- the death penalty.
That's enough, I think. You get the point.

It is ironic that the most precious allies of the political left who adopted this policy are those who will suffer the most under its imposition. For that reason it is astounding that this has been allowed in Great Britain. The ideology that brought this to fruition has been led by its own demands to come face-to-face with the logical conclusions of that ideology. The consequences will be dire for a free, democratic society. We can only hope that an eventual realization of that fact will show, to those who are willing to be shown, that ideas have consequences ... and that the consequences they will eventually be forced to endure are the result of some very, very bad ideas.