Apologetics Basics

The world of apologetics is a big place, and it can be kind of daunting to someone who is new to the whole thing. In the next few paragraphs, I hope to lay out some basic do’s and don’ts for where to start.

Before you start trying to figure out what everybody else believes and how to counter it, you need to first be solid on what it is that you believe. I can’t stress enough how important it is to know your Bible. In 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul charges Timothy to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” and as an apologist, I can tell you that the Word of God is the greatest tool at your disposal. This takes a lot of time, and I strongly suggest that you are sitting under sound teaching, so that you are learning from someone who is farther along in the way than you are. In fact, you should be surrounding yourself with mature Christians, who are willing to talk about the Word with you, and work through the difficult passages. Every Christian apologist needs to be able to answer the following biblical questions:

  • What is the Bible?
  • How do we know it came from God?
  • Who was Jesus?
  • How do the Old Testament and the New Testament fit together?
  • What is the gospel?
  • How can someone be saved?
  • What is the Trinity?
  • Where can the Trinity be found in the Bible?
  • Can we trust the Bible?

These questions are deep, and the more you know about them, the more you will be able to apply them to the different worldviews that you encounter. This will take work, but hopefully you will have friends and mentors who can help make the work a bit more doable. Also, ask other Christians in your life for solid preachers, apologists, or ministries that have helped them. One of the great things about Christianity is that we have a long history. There are millions of people who have gone before us, and have thought about these things, so we do not have to start from scratch. Read/listen/watch what these people had to say, always making sure to check that against the Bible, and then build from there.

Next, I would try and find an area that particularly interests you. You don’t necessarily have to pick only one area and stick with it for life. You can be a jack of all trades, but you may already have some subjects that you are passionate about, and there’s nothing that makes doing the apologetics heavy lifting easier than matching it with your passions. Here are some questions that you should be able to answer, grouped be area, and a list of people/ministries to familiarize yourself with:

Science:

  • How old is the earth/universe?
  • What is evolution?
  • What do the first three chapters of Genesis mean?
  • Is science against religion?
  • What is science?
  • How does science and the Bible fit together?

Ministries/People:

  • Answers in Genesis (Ken Ham, Jason Lisle) (young earth)
  • Reasons to Believe (Hugh Ross, Fazale Rana) (old earth)
  • Intelligent Design (Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, William Dembski)

Philosophy:

  • What is truth?
  • What is logic?
  • How do we know things?
  • What is a worldview?
  • How can you make a good argument?
  • How can you identify bad arguments?

Ministries/People

  • Reasonable Faith (William Lane Craig)
  • Stand to Reason (Greg Koukl)
  • Alvin Plantinga
  • Vern Poythress
  • Francis Schaeffer

I just chose two examples, among countless others, and your googling and wikapediaing can find you any number of things to choose from. Once you start doing these things, you need to also start reading the other side. This means people who disagree with you inside Christianity, as well as those who have completely different worldviews than you do. What are the Atheist arguments against Christianity? How about Islam, Mormonism, and Liberalism? You need to know what the counter arguments to your arguments are, and how to respond to those. Plus, as an apologist, you will make a lot of ground when the person sees that you are actually trying to understand, and accurately represent, what they believe. Sit down and talk to people who disagree with you, and talk to them in such a way where all you are trying to do is figure out what they believe and why. People don’t like being set-up for an argument they don’t want to have. So don’t talk at people, but rather, try to form a relationship, and actually care about them. This is where that whole “gentleness and respect” part of 1 Peter 3:15-16 comes into play.

Speaking of conversations, it’s important to develop and study how you can do apologetics in a casual, conversation setting. I have a tendency to study how I would do things in a debate format, and that doesn’t transfer to a coffee shop conversation well. The person I am talking to just feels like I’m there to fight, and am trying to trap them. This will rarely lead to an opportunity for sharing the gospel. Ultimately, we do apologetics because we want people to come to Christ. If we want to do this, we need to be winsome in our conversation with others, even if we adamantly disagree about important things. Here are some books, people, and ministries to help with the area of communication:

    • RZIM (Ravi Zacharias)
    • C.S. Lewis
    • Tactics by Greg Koukl
    • Sean McDowell
    • Apologetics.com
    • I Beg to Differ by Tim Muehlhoff

 

On a connected note, I think it’s important that we not be jerks. We learn about logic and argumentation because we want to bring glory to God, not to us. Things will get heated, because we are passionate about these things, but do not resort to demeaning another person’s position. By all means, debate with everything you’ve got, but we need to show the character of Christ, even in our intense disagreements. Lines like “You believe in a young earth? You must hate science, and I would like to see you and a flat earth believer fight.” , “You believe in an old earth? You must believe in secular evolution instead of the Bible.” are not going to get us anywhere. Do not treat people like they are stupid, or are simply a project for you to test out your latest arguments on. It is possible to win an argument, but completely turn off a person to Christ. That will be quite the failure, even if you had the best arguments.

Finally, if you choose to become an apologist in any capacity, you will face resistance in many forms. Obviously, you’re going to be on the front lines and talking to people who believe differently than you, but you will also be facing confusion from Christians. There are people who feel that apologetics is actually something that blocks people from coming to Christ. Even if they are not adamantly against apologetics, they may not see it as something which is important, and are confused as to why you spend so much time studying it. You will hear things like “you know, you can’t argue someone into the kingdom” and verses like Matthew 7:1-5, Colossians 2:8, and 1 Corinthians 8:1 taken out of context, and thrown at you. These are very discouraging, and it can seem like nobody is on your side. But rest assured, that you are doing what you are called to do as a Christian, and you are following in the footsteps of great people who came before you. From people of today all the way back to the beginnings, and no less than Christ Himself, there have been people who see the importance of apologetics, and use it to the glory of God. While not everyone should be an apologist, everyone does need to know some apologetics, and you can help build up the body of Christ with the knowledge and experience that you will learn.

I hope this was helpful and encouraging to you. I hope you have fun with apologetics, and that God blesses it. Take comfort from the fact that it is God who saves people. So even if you mess up, God is still sovereign. Always seek to be aware of your weaknesses, be accountable to others, sit under sound teaching, and stay grounded in Scripture. To adapt a C.S. Lewis quote:

Further up and further in!

SDG

That’s Not Fair!

Fairness is almost a buzzword these days, particularly when it comes to hot-button issues. It occurred to me the other day that I think we may be quite confused on what we’re talking about when we are quick to shout “that isn’t fair!” toward issues. Hopefully I’ll be able to explain what I mean in what follows.

I don’t have any children, but the graphic above is easy to understand. I have certainly seen instances where one child receives something and the other one instantly wants it as well, and will complain about how it isn’t fair if they don’t receive it too. Interestingly, I have seen one child decline something, only to want it a lot when the other child takes it. There is much to say on that in children, from original sin to the grass is always greener saying, but children aren’t my focus. I think there is still a knee-jerk reaction in adults to want a perceived fairness, even when we don’t necessarily understand what fairness is or why we want something.

A short post I wrote a few years ago on the difference between revenge and justice shows this confusion on the part of adults. We see a problem, and then get the solution almost right. In that context, we see a problem and then want to seek revenge (thanks Hollywood) when in realty, what we want is justice. In the context of fairness, we see popular slogans on a range of issues about how some people have certain things and others do not and we immediately think that it isn’t fair or that discrimination is somehow in play. Do you remember all the hullaballoo surrounding the Occupy Wall Street movement? The 1% are getting all the money! The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer! Warren Buffett says that he pays less in taxes than his secretary! Everyone hopped on the fairness bandwagon in wanting something to be done, namely that everyone should be equal, financially. Suddenly, we all became experts in economics, even though we had never heard the names John Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman before. All that has blown over, and all the outraged people have long since ceased caring about “economic equality” ; but the cry of fairness is still used to rally people toward any number of things.

The thing about the fairness charge is that it is an emotionally charged super-word that can be used to get a bunch of people behind a cause without actually requiring them to know anything about said cause. Everybody wants to be seen as being on the side of fairness, and if you can do that without people stopping to think about the issues, then you’ve won the argument. In most of the cases you hear about in the news where fairness is brought out, it would seem that what everyone wants is for everyone to receive the same things/opportunities as everyone else. However, upon further reflection, it becomes obvious that nobody wants that, at least as a blanket reality. If it was a blanket reality (or categorical imperative, for you philosophers), then everybody would be saddled with debt, on death row, have terminal illnesses, be a millionaire, and the president.

Put in silly terms, it makes it obvious that nobody would want that. But what about the hot-button issues where the fairness charge is used? Surely they aren’t nearly as silly. (of course I’m serious, and stop calling my Shirley). Women can’t be pastors? Unfair! Homosexual people can’t get married? Unfair! Well, let’s calm down a bit before we start throwing out accusations. The media is structured to sensationalize everything, and only present things in such a way as to get views. Just like the parent may have reasons why one child gets a toy while the other doesn’t that the children don’t understand, or how economists may have reasons why one system of wealth generation or economic strategy works better than another while the population doesn’t understand, so there are reasons for these other issues as well. In terms of pastors and marriage, it would be important to figure out what a pastor is, or what marriage is, or what rights are, and where they come from. That is a lot of work, and it takes time to back away from the emotionally charged arguments in the media, and dig down to the grounding of things. But the payoff is rewarding, because it gives you a more thorough understanding of issues, and hopefully you will be able to work towards furthering the discussion or coming to a resolution. However, it is possible to do all that work and still come to a disagreement. What then?

Well, this is where the idea of tolerance comes into play. It seems like we’re confused about fairness because we’re also confused about tolerance. The redefinition of tolerance has lead us to believe that a tolerant person is one who holds all views to be equal, and celebrates or defends that truth. The exception to this definition would be whenever anyone disagrees with this philosophy. At that point, the proper way to proceed is to mock and ridicule the other point of view into either silence, conformity, or obscurity. The only thing that is fair, then, is what/whomever conforms to this idea of tolerance, which in turn, stands on the idea of all truth being relative. But if the relativization of truth is a foundation of sand, and it cannot stand, then we need to start to also question our understanding of tolerance. (I would highly suggest watching D.A. Carson discuss just that, here.) If tolerance means that you fully understand the other person’s point of view, and still disagree, and are ok with disagreeing without hating one another or trying to injure or silence one another, then you can make progress on issues. Then you can move into the real meat of what fairness is and what it would mean in each particular situation. Perhaps fairness needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis on the grounds of what is objectively true, truthfully tolerant, and in service to what is good.

As a Christian, I go further than this, but I feel like that is a place where people need to get to in general. As a Christian, I know that “There is a way that seems right to a man,
but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12), and that ultimately the goal is the glory of God. This requires us to do even more thinking, and to be deeply immersed in the Scriptures, so that we know how to apply the whole counsel of God to each situation.

In a society where the media has made everyone content with rallying behind hot-button issues and erecting sandcastles, only to be washed away by the next big thing, we need to be different. If the media can outrage you with a single word, there is no reason to suspect that you cannot be controlled by a single speech. Let’s do the hard work of building real castles of stone and steel. Let’s talk truth, tolerance, and fairness, as they were originally intended. Let’s get to thinking.

SDG

Thoughts from the Mill

For those of you that who don’t know, I am currently working in a sawmill. While I don’t intend on being there for a long period of time (prayers appreciated there), there is a few things I’ve been thinking about while I am still there.

There is a pervasive attitude among the workers that seems intuitively ok, but I’ve learned to be skeptical of my intuition on a number of things. The attitude is fairly expressed in the chorus of the hit Michael Jackson song “They Don’t Care About Us.” There are a number of things that a few of us have been considering to remedy the issues that are pervading the place, but that is not the subject of this post. The attitude that I’ve been considering is one that views that since the leadership doesn’t care about the workers, then it is therefore ok for the workers not to care about their job.

As a Christian, there are more variables to consider in this situation than some of my secular coworkers. For example, Colossians 3:23-24 states that “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” Immediately I ask myself what that means, in terms of my job. What does it look like, practically speaking, to do my work heartily, as unto the Lord? In one sense, it would be easier, since He wouldn’t do ____ , but isn’t that the point? If it were easy, there wouldn’t be a need to mention it.

Now, in context, this verse is referring to slaves, but there is broader application. If you work for a boss that acts in certain, bad, ways, there is a way to respond that is expected or “fair”. But if you act instead as if you are working for God, doing things that the employer may not deserve, that sends a message. I am fully aware that the idea of someone coming up and saying “gee, you’re different. Why?” is largely an evangelism fairy tale, but I think there is room for interjecting things like “yeah, but I don’t ultimately work for the boss/company” into conversations that will lead in evangelistic directions.

On the other hand, I don’t think it is correct to use the above passage or the “turn the other cheek” passage to mean that we should just be doormats. In the context of slaves, they were unable to change their situation. In a job situation, there are steps to take that can potentially change the situation for the better. As Christians, we are called to do what is right, and if there is injustice that is happening, and steps can be taken, then they should be taken.

I think the path to take in bad employment situations is to work diligently, being neither slothful nor disrespectful (see complaining/gossiping) while also taking any necessary steps to do the right thing. I’m currently trying to figure out what the right thing is to do, and there are a number of areas that I need prayer. In an environment where everyone complains and gossips, it is a hard thing not to do, and one that I do not always succeed at avoiding.

The Christian life is to be lived coram Deo. What does that latin mess mean?

TO LIVE CORAM DEO IS TO LIVE ONE’S ENTIRE LIFE IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD, UNDER THE AUTHORITY OF GOD, TO THE GLORY OF GOD.” – R.C. Sproul

This is difficult, especially in a stressful work environment where it seems like injustice rules the day. But we are to live to a higher calling, and while we fight for what is right, we realize that ultimately, justice is something that is in the hands of Him Who judges justly. Our reward is in Heaven, and our Lord told us that this life would not be easy, nor should it be, lest we get attached to this world.

Do what is right. Honor the Lord. Live coram Deo.

SDG

What about the Multiverse?

So if you’re a nerd, like me, you’ve probably heard the term “multiverse” thrown out there. For the rest of you, I’ll try and explain what it is, and why I find it to be problematic, at best. Warning: This may get philosophical (and by may, I mean will).

There’s an idea in philosophy and physics that in order to explain the existence of our universe. You see, the big bang proves that space and time had a beginning, and since there’s some obviously theistic implications of that, the multiverse is a sort of materialistic way of explaining both the origin of our universe and the fine tuning/design of it (or apparent design, if you’re an Atheist). There are various ideas as to how one universe comes from another one, but sufficient to our conversation will be to assume for the sake of argument that there is a way to do it.

The argument is that if there is a potentially infinite amount of universes coming into existence, then the anthropic principle dictates that eventually a universe will pop up with the exact cosmological constants (things like gravity, the strong/weak nuclear force etc.) that our universe, and so it’s simply a matter of math and not evidence for a Creator. With an infinite amount of time and matter to work with, eventually every possibility will exist. So our universe is no less special, or “finely-tuned” than any other universe. It’s sort of like how every single hand in a card game is in one sense just as unlikely to get as another, given one deal.

They say that this takes away the need for a God to be used to explain the apparent design of our universe, and even takes us down a few notches in knowing that we’re not the center of attention. While I definitely appreciate humility (boy do I struggle with pride), I just don’t think it is a compelling theory of origins, for several reasons.

Firstly, one of the things the multiverse is supposed to explain is how it is that the time and space that make up our universe came into being, but using the multiverse in this capacity doesn’t really work. If the multiverse is not itself infinite (having no beginning/end), then all you’ve done is pushed the problem of origins back a step. If the multiverse (or the thing that generates universes) existed only a finite time ago (regardless of how long ago that was), then where did that come from? However, if the multiverse is infinite (both in the past and in the future, relative to us), then you face the problem that we can’t possibly be here. If there is an infinite series of past universes, then you will never get to the present, because your “starting” point is an infinite distance away. You can think of it in terms of numbers to make it easier to understand.

If you take 1 and divide it in half, you get 1/2. If you divide that in half, you get 1/4. How far can you continue to divide it in half? An infinite number of times. If you are trying to get to zero, you will never actually arrive at it, however close you might come. To put it back in universes talk, we would be like the zero. If the multiverse is infinite in the past, then we could never possibly arrive at our current one, even if you give an infinite amount of time, and a different combination of laws for each universe.

Another problem with the multiverse is that it seems to get sliced up by Occam’s Razor. Without getting too technical, this idea (when applied to origins/God,etc.) means that you don’t posit more causes than are necessary. So if you are in a house with 4 people in it, and a light comes on, it is probably best to assume that one person turned the light on. It may be possible that all 4 people somehow flipped the switch together, but that would be completely unnecessary. So if you are trying to compete with the idea that God created the universe (1 cause), by positing a multiverse (many, upwards of infinite causes) to explain the creation of our universe, Occam’s Razor would say that the latter is completely unnecessary, and the former should be taken for its simplicity.

It seems far more likely to me that there exists a being that is outside of the universe, that is powerful enough to bring the universe into existence. There’s much more to be said about this, but for the time being, I’ll say that the idea of a being outside the universe that is powerful enough to create it sounds awfully familiar.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” – Genesis 1:1

SDG

David Meets Richard Nogod

Persons of the dialog: David, Richard Nogod

Setting: Outside the lecture hall

———————————————————————————

David: Professor! My name is David, and I attended your lecture on science and reason and found it very interesting. You are a gifted speaker.

Richard: I appreciate that, young man. It is my hope that by holding events like the one tonight, I can help to erode away some of the blinders put on this nation by christianity, and other faith groups.

David: In your presentation, you mentioned that many of the arguments for the existence of God amounted to arguments from ignorance, or a “God of the gaps” argument. It seemed like you were saying that there have been so many advances in the field of science that trying to use logic and reason to support God is a failed endeavor, and that reason would be better used in other ways, is that correct?

Richard: I’m glad you picked up on that. I’m willing to grant that there have been people in the past that are considered intelligent that have used their reason to attempt to argue for the existence of a god. However, this is largely because they lived in times when Atheism was taboo, and could have cost them a great deal. Were these people living today, I would have no doubt that they would be Atheists.

David: You mentioned how the church, particularly in the middle ages and earlier, stifled scientific advancement. In your opinion, do you believe that this be part of the reason that these people wrote specifically Christian material?

Richard: Absolutely. It’s a basic fact of human nature that we will do what we have to do in order to survive. If these men would have come out in support of scientific advancement that went against some of the dogmas of the church, they would lose their job, their livelihood, and probably their lives.

David: During your presentation, you attempted to give naturalistic understandings for many of the arguments that you believe were gaps in our knowledge in the past that people used to justify needing God to explain. I think there were a couple important omissions that I was hoping I could get your thoughts on. First, how do you account for the fact that nature is understandable to us? For example, we can understand scientific and mathematical laws.

Richard: It seems you have things exactly backwards, and I’m beginning to suspect that you have had the unfortunate experience of wasting your time with the so-called apologists for christianity.

David: I do my best to listen to or read multiple perspectives on issues to get the best understanding that I can.

Richard: Be that as it may, it is patently false that we need to posit a god in order to explain how we understand nature or the laws of science. We evolved from nature, as did all life, so of course our brains would evolve to “understand” nature. The things we call the laws of science or math are simply human inventions or explanations of what we see nature already doing.

David: I see. So you would use that same line of reasoning to explain how we can reason at all, or how the laws of logic came to be?

Richard: That is correct. The so-called laws of logic were simply a way of understanding how we worked in conjunction with how nature works. While being a remarkable discovery for that time by Aristotle, it was not a discovery of something that needed a god to explain. He simply observed the way things work, and the way we work, and was able to put the two together in an eloquent way.

David: But is it not true that natural selection is “blind”? Meaning that it doesn’t so much select for truth value, but rather on what works towards the advancement of a particular species?

Richard: There you go again, trying to smuggle in ideas without proving them. What you refer to as “truth” is simply saying that natural selection works, and we apply the term truth because it is an easy way to communicate human ideas.

David: Allow me to explain what I mean. Let’s suppose that a man is in the woods and sees a grizzly bear. In his mind (for some odd reason) he doesn’t feel fear, but views the bear as a big, warm, soft, animal that would be a good candidate for a hug. Also, in his mind, the best way to acquire a hug from this animal is to run as fast as possible and to get away from it at all costs.

Richard: No human being could possibly think that.

David: Perhaps not, but this could be a more primitive man (to use your terminology) or even a child, and this is some sort of a game. That part of the story is not important. Supposing that the man manages to escape from the bear, he will live to be able to pass on his genes. Natural selection, then, will have selected him for his fitness, survivability, or at least his ability to pass on his genes, even though his reasoning for his survival is ludicrous.

Richard: I suppose so, but I don’t believe I see your point. Like I said before, natural selection simply works. The reason for the man surviving has nothing to do with his beliefs, even if those beliefs were the reason for his survival.

David: That is exactly my point. If natural selection simply selects on survivability or “what works” as you say, then I don’t know how we are able to trust what our brains tell us about anything. It seems like, on your view, that if what we call the reasoning process or the laws of logic are simply mental constructs that make living easier, and are ultimately the bi-product of a mechanistic system, then there is no point in trying to make truth claims or moral judgments of any kind.

Richard: My dear boy, I think you are entirely missing the point. Evolution may not be as comforting as a sky god who is a father to you, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. We don’t need a god to tell us what logic is, as I’ve been trying to tell you. The laws of logic or science and math are our way of describing how we work and how nature works. They aren’t objective to us. They are considered “laws” because they work, and we are able to function if we assume them. The whole issue of truth is really a distraction. As I pointed out in my lecture, our reasoning processes should be devoted to things that advance society, things like science, and not in service of things that hold society back, like religion. We got here because natural selection works, and we have evolved to this point. It is actually a privileged position because we now have sufficient brain growth to be able to influence change at a very fast rate. If we continue to work toward the betterment of our society, we will continue the process of natural selection, in the sense that we will continue sharpening the idea of what works. That is our goal.

David: Even if I were to grant what you say is true, it would seem to be pointless, on your system. If what is true is simply what works, then I don’t see any reason to promote or strive for the continuation of our species. Surviving for the sake of surviving seems to be like a hamster running on a wheel.

Richard: Again, this may not be as comforting as the fairy tales that religion tells people, but these are the simple facts of life. But I can see that this conversation is not getting through to you.

David: Well, I thank you for your time, and I hope that we are able to talk again in the future.

What’s the Deal with Cults?

I would guess that everyone has heard of the word cult before, and probably even has some idea of what they might be. You may have an image in mind like the one above, all sinister and mysterious. Or perhaps you have an image of a bunch of people getting together and “drinking the kool-aid” and then dying. My goal is to provide a brief intro into what the word means, and some helpful signs of how you can identify a cult or a group with cultish(cultic?) leanings.

In the classic work on the subject, Walter Martin quotes Dr. Charles Braden in saying “By the term cult I mean nothing derogatory to any group so classified. A cult, as I define it, is any religious group which differs significantly in one or more respects as to belief or practice from those religious groups which are regarded as normative expressions of religion in our total culture.” and while that has some helpful elements to it, I think it’s most helpful in that phrasing to sociologists, and not so much to the every day person.

One very important thing to stress is the fact that I, along with Braden, don’t mean anything derogatory or offensive when I use the term cult. I think oftentimes the word “cult” gets confused with the word “occult” and is therefore thought that people who are in cults are doing things like blood rituals to Satan or sacrificing goats etc. But this is not what I mean when I refer to cults, and actually another element from the quote above is closer to the truth. Basically, when I’m talking about a cult, I’m talking about a group whose beliefs and or practices differ significantly from the realm of orthodox Christianity. By including both beliefs and practices, it encompasses groups that are different in name (LDS, Jehovah’s Witnesses) as well as groups which might seem to be just another church in their beliefs, but are out of step with orthodox practices of a healthy church.

An example of how this looks in conversation is a meeting I had with some Mormon missionaries. In the course of our conversation, one of the things they mentioned was a frustration with people referring to them as a cult. They felt this was a hurtful designation, and felt it was unfair, as they were basically just another Christian denomination. Through a series of clarifying questions, I was able to explain to them that the reason people would label their church as such is because they had a fundamentally different understanding of some of the core tenants of Christianity. For example, Christians believe that the Trinity is one God in three persons, whereas Mormons believe that the Trinity would be three separate beings or gods. After explaining a few of these examples of where we disagreed, they were able to understand how people could view them as a cult, even if they still felt it was a word which carried a negative connotation.

However, there is another classification of cults that are slightly harder to spot because they might entirely agree with orthodox beliefs about Jesus and the Trinity or the path of salvation. Where they differ significantly is the sort of atmosphere they create for the members of their church, or perhaps the mindset they instill in people. Interestingly, this may be harder to identify, but tends to be more in line with the stereotype that some people might have when they hear the word “cult”. To quote a friend of mine,

“What separates a ‘cult’ from more legit expressions of religion is a distortion of governance and discipline. The organization of a cult is deliberately around 1 person (or a small group of people). His word is law in most everything and there is no check on his power.
In terms of discipline, it’s usually invasive, extensive and intended to isolate its object from family, friends and other support. Former members are often shunned, not merely excommunicated as a means of ultimate restoration, but totally ejected from the society of all members. This includes family members and friends, who in a healthy church might be the means of the restoration of the lost sheep.
In other aspects, you may not be able to differentiate it from any other independent church. It may even preach the Bible most of the time, except in some peculiar areas. You may find /pointed/ sermons, where the offenses of a certain person or family in the congregation is highlighted in a not-so-veiled way.”

These sorts of things can be very subtle, to the point where an outsider might not even be able to pinpoint what is wrong with a sermon, other than that it “feels” wrong. For example, a sermon might be centered on the love of Christ, and how there is a willful submission on His part to the Father. While that is certainly orthodox preaching material, the sermon may throw in a lot of references to the pastor’s life and how we should be willing to love our pastor and to willfully submit to him. It’s something that could possibly be ok in the right context, but could also be very easily taken into some strange waters.

Other examples might be some strange requirements put on congregants, like that they must work in a business that is owned by the pastor, or that they can’t associate with people from outside the church, unless it is an intentional outreach event. These things certainly wouldn’t be phrased in ultimatum terms, but would be stressed more on how the people can help their family and their pastor/church if they do/don’t do certain things. In this case, it might be compared to gang behavior, but it becomes a bit more dangerous in one sense due to its mixing with Christian teaching.

This is where an understanding of the truth of the Christian worldview can become very important, because if you are only passingly familiar with the Bible, then you might be easily swayed into believing whatever a charismatic or powerful leader is saying. For example, there are various places in the Bible which deal with church discipline, and as a last resort, members are to be removed from a congregation. If there’s a charismatic, powerful, church leader telling you that if someone decides that they want to change churches or refuses to work in a certain business etc. then they are to be cut off from the people of the church. If he came out and told people to shun them and not to associate with them in public, it might seem weird, but if he were able to make it sound like they were doing damage to the family or that the Bible supported this action (by passingly referencing the church discipline passages) , then it becomes easier to understand how it could slip under the radar. If you are more familiar with the Bible, you may notice that even these examples of church discipline can be used to restore people, but how can that be possible if the pastor is telling you to simply never associate with them?

You might also realize that while a close community of believers that functions as a family can be a healthy, good thing, if disconnected from the Bible, it can quickly become unhealthy. Ultimately, everything must be done to the glory of God alone, and not to any church leader or organization. Anything or anyone that becomes the focus of the Christian life, apart from God Himself, becomes idolatry and is dangerous to your physical/mental health, and disastrous for your soul.

How do you know if your church or a church in your area is a cult? Study the Scriptures, to fully understand how a church is to function and how Christians should relate to one another, both inside and outside church. Also, talk to other Christians in your church and outside your church, who may be able to see your situation with fresh eyes. There are also a number of helpful websites like 9 Marks, which deals with how to identify healthy churches, and CARM, which is an apologetics ministry that has a big section dedicated to cults.

SDG

Augustine on Beauty

To continue our exploration of beauty, we come to Augustine, who was another giant in church history. While he had similarity with the former Plato and the Latter Aquinas, there are some important differences that I would like to highlight. These are things that I think will get us closer to answering some of the questions I asked in the first post in this series.

He did indirectly list some qualities of beauty like unity, equality, number, proportion, and order, and then connect them to other things like rhythm. However, he didn’t necessarily set out to define beauty abstractly, but rather, he viewed things which had these qualities as beautiful only so much as they helped point to how God created them. This is similar to Aquinas, but Augustine went further because there was a reason why God created things a certain way. For Augustine, all things were created to reflect God’s ultimate beauty in some way. This is demonstrated from the following quotes from his classic work Confessions:

“Belatedly I loved Thee, O Beauty, so ancient and so new, belatedly I loved Thee. For see, Thou wast within and I was without, and I sought thee out there. Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things Thou hast made. Thou wast with me, but I was not with Thee. These things kept me far from Thee; even though they were not at all unless they were in Thee.”

“But what is it that I love in loving Thee? Not physical beauty, nor the splendor of time, nor the radiance of the light—so pleasant to our eyes—nor the sweet melodies of the various kinds of songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers and ointments and spices; not manna and honey, not the limbs embraced in physical love—it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet it is true that I love a certain kind of light and sound and fragrance and food and embrace in loving my God, who is the Light and Sound and Fragrance and Food and Embracement of my inner man—where that Light shines into my soul which no place can contain, where time does not snatch away the lovely Sound, where no breeze disperses the sweet Fragrance, where no eating diminishes the Food there provided, and where there is an Embrace that no satiety comes to sunder. This is what I love, when I love my God.”

If God is ultimately beautiful, and the source of all things that are beautiful to us here on earth, they must only be so as they reflect the beauty of God in some way. This has a further connection to us with the famous quote from the same book “our hearts are restless until they rest in you” because it demonstrates that our hearts seek rest, but are also fickle in trying to find that rest in things other than God.

While discussing this with some friends, one happened upon the idea that there are certain qualities that people can have that are universally liked. While it is easy to see that an arrogant jerk, who is antagonistic toward everyone for no reason will be avoided by all people in all cultures across time, there are also qualities that are quite opposite those. Some people may have different senses of humor (which may be inherently beautiful, or perverse) or tastes in what art they like, but there are certain qualities that everyone enjoys. For Augustine, the universally appreciated qualities are immutable, and not linked to taste, because they are how God created/intended us to be, and that is because those qualities ultimately reflect His beauty.

Augustine realized that there was a proper order to this though, because it is possible to simply chase after things that are beautiful, but because we are sinful people, we could turn them into things that are sinful, instead of placing them in the proper order. For example, we can enjoy the beauty of nature and search for how it reflects the beauty of God, and that would be the proper order. But we can also refuse to acknowledge the God that lies beyond the reflection of nature, and we can try and make nature an end in itself, and this can become idolatry which is unhealthy for us in a number of ways.

So what are some of those qualities which are universally enjoyed by all people in all cultures across time? Well, the proper thing to do would be to search for them in God’s Word, and to corroborate this by our own experience. These are the things which we can delight in because they reflect the beauty of God.

“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desire. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” – Galatians 5:19-26

“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” – Romans 12:9:-18

There is a treasure trove of things which are objectively beautiful qualities in these two passages alone. Why do we find these qualities objectively beautiful? Because God is holy, just, loving, wise, forgiving, faithful, good, powerful, righteous, merciful etc. and these qualities that we find beautiful are reflections or shadows of their fulfillment in God. I would highly recommend doing a Scriptural study of the attributes of God. There are several books that are accessible (here, here, here) as well as some systematic theologies that are fantastic for digging into things deeper (here, here, here). Whether you choose to use those or not, it will be beneficial to you to study the attributes of God, as it will get you closer to discovering those qualities of creation which reflect the beauty of God and are therefore inherently/objectively beautiful. This will help us to cultivate a refined taste for beauty.

SDG

Aquinas on Beauty

This week I would like to focus on some key elements brought about by the theologian Thomas Aquinas. He was a giant in the theological world, and so it’s only appropriate to take a look at what he had to say about beauty, and see what we can learn from him.

Aquinas was heavily influenced by Aristotle, and so there are some similar ideas, but ultimately, Aquinas sought the glory of God, and his study was to that end. Like Aristotle, Aquinas found three qualities that a thing must possess in order to be considered beautiful. However, for Aquinas, these qualities were integrity, proportion, and clarity.

By integrity, Aquinas meant that thing which gives something its essence. In other words, what gives a table its table-ness, or an apple its apple-ness? In fancy philosophical terms, what is it that gives something its ontological reality? As a Christian, Aquinas believed that God created everything, and as such, there was a certain way that God had intended things to be. For example, we know that an apple core is not considered beautiful, because we know what a whole apple is. In order to give an apple its apple-ness, there needs to be wholeness or completeness. In other words, all the parts that make up a whole apple need to be there. In connection with this is the second quality, that of proportion.

We tend to automatically notice things which are out of proportion, and for Aquinas, that is one of the hallmarks of how we know where beauty lies or does not. In other words, when God created things, not only did He give them a certain amount of parts, but He also gave them particular proportions that would be fitting for them. In our apple example, it would not be something considered beautiful if it had all the required parts, but had a 3ft stem. It would likely seem comical to us, and that is because we recognize how it differs from its original state. Both these elements are fairly easy to understand, and are also fairly Aristotelian, but the third element is where he made a clean break from Aristotle.

The third element that is needed for an object to be objectively beautiful is clarity. In this, he meant that we must not only be able to tell if something has all its parts, and in the right proportion, but we must also be able to say what a thing is, or what its purpose is. To use our apple example, it is pleasing to our senses, and is used for eating, as it nourishes us. It completes its purpose, and when done by an animal in nature, it will naturally get the apple seeds transferred to another location. In other words, God created things for a reason, and when that reason is clear and easy to understand, then it can be considered beautiful.

Ultimately, these three things need to all be present for a thing to be considered beautiful. Aquinas believed that God had created things a certain way, and in order to understand what objective beauty is, even if we interpret that through our subjective senses, we are to get beyond preference and try and get back to the way God intended the thing to be.

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” – Philippians 4:8

SDG

Plato & Aristotle on Beauty

This is part 2 in a series of blogs which is more or less following my search for how to describe what beauty is. If you haven’t read part 1 yet, go here and check that out!

This is going to be brief explanation of some thoughts that Plato and Aristotle had on what beauty was, based primarily on Hippias Major and Metaphysics II. It is often said that Plato was an idealist, while Aristotle was a realist. Philosophically speaking, this means that Plato thought things had to be grounded in ideas, and that those ideas had primacy over the physical “stuff” that we experience. This is where his ideas about the Forms came from, and this explains where he gets his ideas of beauty. As a realist, Aristotle was more concerned about the physical stuff that we encounter than he was about ideas (in the sense explained above). He was critical of Plato’s ideas about the Forms, and his ideas about beauty are more grounded the physical stuff around us.

In Hippias Major, Socrates is talking with Hippias, a guy known far and wide for being really smart on everything. In typical fashion, it’s a dense dialog that ends up showing the superiority of the questioning of Socrates. There is movement in the discussion about labeling what is objectively beautiful. Originally, Hippias simply states things which people usually don’t argue with being beautiful, but this soon falls into a problem. In saying that a maiden or a horse is beautiful, one has to acknowledge that there is greater beauty still in the gods, or that even a certain type of wood ladle would be more beautiful to use than a golden one. From there it’s postulated that what is beautiful is whatever is appropriate, or at least that something becomes beautiful when it is used appropriately. However, is it the appropriateness of something that makes it beautiful, or is it beautiful once it becomes appropriate? Is appropriateness itself more beautiful than beauty? And has that really answered the question?

SPOILERS: They never actually come to a resolution on what “the beautiful” is. However, there are points where Socrates manages to get Hippias to realize that whatever the beautiful is, it must transcend something that we simply find to be beautiful (like gold), especially since there are instances where things we may find beautiful in one setting, we find ugly in another.

In contrast, Aristotle believed that whatever is beautiful must be in the substance of things we encounter. He didn’t exactly get rid of the idea of the Forms (or the Ideals) altogether, but rather, that the beautiful must be in the substance of the Ideals just like it must be in the substance of, say, gold. While there was some confusion between “the good” and “the beautiful” in the Hippias Major dialog, Aristotle is clear to make the distinction between the two. The good, he says, always implies conduct, whereas the beautiful can be found in motionless things. Aristotle lists three essential forms of beauty: order, symmetry, and definiteness. This comes from the fact that his realism was somewhat rooted in the field of geometry (think of the “golden ratio”).

Beauty, he said, transcends mere usefulness or personal preference, and exists in the fabric or substance of reality. The physical and mathematical stuff that makes up what we experience in daily living. However, because most of his observations about beauty were mathematical in nature, he talked a lot about beauty being the relation of parts, one to another. A tree has both a trunk and leaves, and these things can be analyzed mathematically. The beauty of the tree is intrinsic to the fact that there are mathematical relations between its parts.

So, while he didn’t exactly say that order, symmetry, and definiteness were themselves beauty, he did say that they are basically signifiers to what beauty is or where to find it. In other words, if you find these things, you will find something beautiful.

The two main things I’ve taken from this are similar to points we talked about in the first part. That beauty is both objective (and therefore transcendent) to human ideas and physical reality, while still existing in the created order (including us) and interpreted subjectively. So while we are getting closer to the answer to the original question of what beauty is, I think we still have a long way to go. Next, we’ll take a look at some theologians who thought about beauty, and while they were influenced by Plato and Aristotle, they had ultimately different ideas about what beauty is.

“Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.” – Psalm 50:2

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Thinking About Beauty

UPDATE! So I’m going to try and push myself to blog every Friday. Hopefully I can stick to that, and while they may be short at first, I hope to develop some stronger blogging muscles in the process.

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Living where I do (here) has allowed me to observe the beauty of creation on a daily basis, and recently I have started thinking about what beauty is. I feel like the idea of truth or goodness, is something that I can grasp and define, but beauty seems a bit more fuzzy for me.

I’ve had some discussions on this with friends and it seems like I’m not alone in being slightly confused as to how to define beauty, or God’s beauty in particular. I’ve gotten everything from “just ask Him to show you” to “the expanse of special energy deeply intertwined at the most microscopic level which makes our soul breathe in awe and a largeness, more than light years, which makes our eyes stretch in curious need for understanding.”  Needless to say, this is a topic which, if anything, doesn’t have an answer which is widely agreed upon.

I know that truth is objective, and grounded in God, and I think beauty has a similar parallel, and so that stated getting me thinking. Beauty must be objective, and ultimately rooted in God. This seems to contradict the widely held belief that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Thankfully, I have some very smart friends who have offered me a lot of insight into this issue, and I will try and summarize some things they said below.

Things which are truly beautiful are those things which accurately reflect the beauty of God. While our perception is always subjective, we can cultivate “good taste” by studying and understanding the truly beautiful. In other words, we can learn to recognize true beauty. However, it is also possible for us as fallen people to claim something as beautiful , or even find delight in it, when it is actually ugly or sinful. This doesn’t give any weight to the idea that beauty is relative, but it does point to the fact that we are fallen and sinful.

How do we cultivate a true taste for the objectively beautiful? What have thinkers of the past and present said about beauty? What does the Bible have to say about beauty? I’ll be exploring these things in the coming weeks, and hopefully this will be an edifying experience for you, as you’ll be learning right along with me!

“One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple.”
(Psalm 27:4 ESV)

SDG

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