The Straw Man

You remember the movie Wizard of Oz? The classic film has been analyzed to death, and there are a ton of theories about it. I won’t be addressing any of those, nor positing my own, but I would like to talk about one character. Each of the companions Dorothy meets in her journey to the magical land of Oz is lacking one thing, which they will all travel to the Wizard together to acquire. The Straw Man is in need of a brain, and while I don’t know if this was an intentional correlation or not, there is an informal fallacy in logic called the straw man fallacy.

This particular way of arguing or reasoning rears its ugly head in all sorts of circumstances, and is surprisingly easy to commit. When dealing with other people, we have to realize that they have a different view point from ours, and from the groups they affiliate with. This may seem like an obvious point, but perhaps it’s so obvious that it is easily missed.

Communication scholar Tim Muehlhoff talks about how it is important that we create a “thick” view of people, instead of a “thin” one. You can only accomplish this by taking time to figure out some important things:

    • What does this person believe?
    • Why does this person believe this?
    • Where do we agree?
    • Based on all I’ve learned, how should I proceed?

This applies even if the person you’re talking to claims to belong to a particular group, or believe a particular thing that you’ve heard, read, or studied before. Interestingly enough, in one way, the more you study something, the easier it becomes to straw man a person. I’m here making a distinction between every day communication and academic communication. If you are writing an essay on classical Islam, then the more you read and study, the less likely you will be to straw man classical Islam. However, if you are talking to someone who calls themselves a Muslim, and has lived in America their whole life, they may not believe things that are consistent with classical Islam. Therefore, if you proceed based on your study of Islam, you will end up creating a straw man of that person’s beliefs, even if that means they are theologically/philosophically inconsistent with their claimed worldview.

In other words, you need to figure out what exactly each person believes, and argue against that, and not whatever you suppose they believe. As an intellectually-oriented guy, that is a hard lesson to learn. I strive to be consistent to the Christian worldview that I espouse, and so I have a tendency toward thinking that everyone does the same in an academic sense.

Whether you come from the perspective of the academic “I’ve studied that, so you must believe X” or from the layman “I’ve heard that somewhere, or talked to someone who believed that, and so you must believe X” you must guard against using a straw man in your discussions. While all people have worldviews, backgrounds, time periods, and cultures that they come from that color what they think/believe, it is important to find out specifically what each person believes, in each situation. There is nothing wrong with have a store of background information in which you can say things about categories of belief, but while it may inform your discussions, it should never dominate them.

Each person is an unrepeatable soul, created in the image of God, and part of evangelism is loving people enough to find out what they believe. May God help us as we seek to share His truth in a lost and confused world.

SDG

Post-New Atheist Atheists

There have been Atheists as long as there have been Theists, and like every worldview movement, there has been a number of changes and disagreements along the way. You have the oft-quoted Euthyphro Dilemma dating back to 399 BC, through David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Bertrand Russell, all the way up to the New Atheists.

The New Atheists are people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, the late Christopher Hitchens, Victor Stenger, Jerry Coyne and others. The term “New Atheist” is a controversial one, in terms of sociological classification, but I think in terms of the everyday person, it’s a helpful term for identifying them. They came out of the gate with all guns blazing, raging against religion, particularly Christianity, and got to the tops of the best-seller lists for their efforts. They mocked God, berated Christians, and did a lot to raise awareness about how it was ok to be an Atheist, even in a “Christian” nation like America.

However, after 5 or 6 years, the postmodern (metamodern?) masses got tired of them. They realized that they were basically the opposite side of the coin to the religious fundamentalists that they were against in the first place. The postmodern people didn’t like “radical” religionists or fundamentalists, not so much because of their religion, but because of their radicalism. So when people started realizing that the New Atheists were radical atheists, they stopped listening to them as well; not so much for their Atheism, but for their radicalism. What came after that realization was a new brand of Atheists that is a bit difficult to classify.

Do we call them the New New Atheists, Post-New Atheists, or what? Well, there’s a number of different ways of classifying them (1, 2, 3), and with all worldviews, there are different varieties coexisting (see what I did there?) at the same time. The point of this post, though, is to focus on what the third article refers to as the Seeker-Agnostic, or the Ritual Atheist. I would say that the term “Seeker-Agnostic” is a bit misleading, as it would make me think that this person is actively searching out an answer, whereas their definition makes it seem like they are a straightforward Agnostic, but I could simply be mistaken.

I would usually put the idea of a “seeker” in the category of the Ritual Atheist, because it implies (to me, anyway) a sense of looking for answers. According to the article, this group is composed of people who don’t necessarily believe in God, but who don’t wholly discount religion, either. They may have respect for the “profound symbolism” in religion, or think there is something to certain ceremonies and practices. In my experience, these individuals are Atheistic toward particular gods (specifically the God of Christianity), but not necessarily of other metaphysical ideas or entities like fate, karma, ghosts, or even astrology. I think there are certainly more of these type of Atheists than there are of the New Atheist stripe, at least as far as my interactions with people have been.

One result of this new push toward a “religious atheism” , if you will, is the creation of the “Atheist Church” in London, and then around the world. Perhaps someone realized that the “bare bones” Atheism simply wasn’t working, or could be/needed to be augmented. One wonders why that would be the case, but whatever the reasons may be, I find it interesting that the group has already experienced a schism. The article claims that one group wanted to move toward a more “Unitarian Church” style structure, instead of a more straightforward Atheism. As a Christian, I would say that all men suppress the truth in their unrighteousness (Romans 1:18) , and that all men have the law written on their hearts (Romans 2:14-15). It certainly seems like the actions of the Ritual Atheists do lean them in that direction, and I think that is a fantastic opportunity for Christians, in general.

Here is a group of people that is less antagonistic toward your opinion than their predecessors, and so while they might not debate as much, they may be more open to checking out one of your events. For most people, that is good news, as heated debate is usually not what they want. However, while they may not be vocally opposed to Christianity, they are still Atheistic for a reason. They are likely still reacting against the cultural Christianity that they have grown up surrounded by, and so presenting them with nothing but the same version of cultural Christianity that they have reacted to is not likely to be effective.

This is where we need to show Christianity as an entire worldview. Many of the early apologists and theologians wrote about how Christianity was good for society/humanity, and that may be a practice that we would do well to revive. The New Atheists did a lot of damage to the public perception of Christianity, and if nothing else, that deserves to be countered; but I think it would also serve our apologetic and evangelistic efforts as well. In other words, we need to offer these people something meaty. It doesn’t have to be super-philosophical (some people aren’t wired that way anyway), or use big, theological words. It does have to be more than simply what they have heard in the past. Jesus is Lord over all of life, and Christianity is a religion that speaks to all of life. Offer them that. A robust, all-encompassing relationship with Christ that struggles with and answers the big questions of life, and is a source of both true truth and real hope in a world without answers or hope.

SDG

Spurgeon on the Psalms

So I wasn’t able to write a blog yesterday, due to both an extra day of work, and an illness. I have some ideas, but frankly, I’m not feeling up to fleshing them out. That being the case, I’m going to do something a little different. I’m going to basically show you what my devotionals have been the last few days. I took a break from where I was normally reading in the Bible, and decided to read the Psalms, along with the commentary of Charles Spurgeon. If you don’t have this commentary set in your library, I would strongly encourage you to do so.

“Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.” – Psalm 1:1-2

“‘BLESSED’–see how this Book of Psalms opens with a benediction, even as did the famous sermon of our Lord upon the Mount! The word translated ‘blessed'; is a very expressive one. The original word is plural, and it is a controverted matter whether it is an adjective or a substantive. Hence we may learn the multiplicity of the blessings which shall rest upon the man whom God hath justified, and the perfection and greatness of the blessedness he shall enjoy. We might read it, ‘Oh, the blessednesses!’ and we may well regard it (as Ainsworth does) as a joyful acclamation of the gracious man’s felicity. May the like benediction rest on us!
Here the gracious man is described both negatively (verse 1) and positively (verse 2). He is a man who does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly. He takes wiser counsel, and walks in the commandments of the Lord his God. To him the ways of piety are paths of peace and pleasantness. His footsteps are ordered by the Word of God, and not by the cunning and wicked devices of carnal men. It is a rich sign of inward grace when the outward walk is changed, and when ungodliness is put far from our actions. Not next, he standeth not in the way of sinners. His company is of a choicer sort than it was. Although a sinner himself, he is now a blood-washed sinner, quickened by the Holy Spirit, and renewed in heart. Standing by the rich grace of God in the congregation of the righteous, he dares not herd with the multitude that do evil. Again it is said, ‘nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.’ He finds no rest in the atheist’s scoffings. Let others make a mock of sin, of eternity, of hell and heaven, and of the Eternal God; this man has learned better philosophy than that of the infidel, and has too much sense of God’s presence to endure to hear his name blasphemed. The seat of the scorner may be very lofty, but it is very near to the gate of hell; let us flee from it, for it soon shall by empty, and destruction shall swallow up the man who sits therein. Mark the gradation in the first verse:

He walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor standeth in the way of sinners.
Nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

When men are living in sin they go from bad to worse. At first they merely walk in the counsel of the careless and ungodly, who forget God–the evil is rather practical than habitual–but after that, they become habituated to evil, and they stand in the way of open sinners who willfully violate God’s commandments; and if let alone, they go one step further, and become themselves pestilent teachers and tempters of others, and thus they sit in the seat of the scornful. They have taken their degree in vice, and as true Doctors of Damnation they are installed, and are looked up to by others as Masters in Belial. But the blessed man, the man to whom all the blessings of God belong, can hold no communion with such characters as these. He keeps himself pure from these lepers; he puts away evil things from him as garments spotted by the flesh; he comes out from among the wicked, and goes without the camp, bearing the reproach of Christ. O for grace to be thus separate from sinners.
And now mark his positive character. ‘His delight is in the law of the Lord.’ He is not under the law as a curse and condemnation, but he is in it, and he delights to be in it as his rule of life; he delights, moreover, to meditate in it, to read it by day, and think upon it by night. He takes a text and carries it with him all day long; and in the night-watches, when sleep forsakes his eyelids, he museth upon the Word of God. In the day of his prosperity he sings psalms out of the Word of God, and in the night of his affliction he comforts himself with promises out of the same book. ‘The law of the Lord’ is the daily bread of the true believer. And yet, in David’s day, how small was the volume of inspiration, for they had scarcely anything save the first five books of Moses! How much more, then, should we prize the whole written Word, which it is our privilege to have in all our houses! But, alas, what ill-treatment is given to this angel from heaven! We are not all Berean searchers of the Scriptures. How few among us can lay claim to the benediction of the text! Perhaps some of you can claim a sort of negative purity, because you do not walk in the way of the ungodly; but let me ask you–Is your delight in the law of God? Do you study God’s Word? Do you make it the man of your right hand–your best companion and hourly guide? If not, this blessing belongeth not to you.” – Charles Spurgeon (commentary on Psalm 1:1-2)

If that doesn’t hit you like a ton of bricks, I’m not sure what will. It is not enough that we simply abstain from something, as a positive always seems to trump a negative. We need to love the law of God. This doesn’t mean we become like the Pharisees. It means that we’re constantly reading, thinking, and meditation on the Bible. This is not the passive Christianity which comes easily to so many of us, and which is so prevalent in our churches today. Nor is this the hyper-emotionalism that we have created as we reacted against the perceived legalism of our parent’s and grandparent’s generations. This is genuine, Bible-saturated, Christian living. I pray that you will follow this path, as I pray that I do as well.

SDG

David Meets Jacob Freeman

Persons of the dialog:  David, Jacob Freeman

Setting: Pastor’s office, after service.

————————————————————————————————————————–

Jacob: Hey, thanks for coming in David. I understand you wanted to talk to me about my sermon?

David: Yeah, thanks for making time for me. You tackled some tough topics in your sermon, and I was just hoping to get some clarification.

Jacob: The topics of divine sovereignty and human freedom are certainly heavy topics, so I’m happy to help out in any way that I can.

David: I appreciate that. What you said about the responsibility we all have makes a lot of sense. I guess I was just a little lost on the divine sovereignty aspect of it.

Jacob: Ok, where did I lose you?

David: What do you mean by sovereignty?

Jacob: I mean that God created everything, and that He has exhaustive foreknowledge of everything that is going to happen before it happens. It also means that God upholds everything, in an ongoing fashion.

David: It’s those last two that I’m interested in. What do you mean by foreknowledge?

Jacob: I mean that He knows things before they’re going to happen. The Bible talks about God knowing our thoughts and our actions before we think or do them in the first few verses of Psalm 139.

David: That make sense, but how is it possible that God knows things before they happen?

Jacob: Well, I would say that He knows them because He’s God. Also, He is outside of time, so He sees things differently.

David: So, would you say that being outside of time is the aspect of His being God that allows Him to know everything before they happen?

Jacob: That is one way to put it. I think God’s omniscience necessarily includes His being outside time.

Jacob: There is an analogy I heard many years ago that helped me to understand the idea that God is outside of time. Imagine that you are inside a box, traveling down some train tracks. You cannot see out of the box, except for one small circle in it. This circle is fitted with a pipe, about an inch and a half or so wide. From this opening, you can see only a small fraction of what is actually there. You see small bits of scenery moving by quickly, but that is all you know. That is like us, trapped in the universe, inside time. God would be like the person who is seeing the whole thing play out on a screen. He is able to see the entire railroad, the box/pipe contraption, and the landscape.

David: I see. Since God created everything, this includes time and space, right?

Jacob: Right.

David: In your analogy, it seems like God knows everything instantly, because He is outside it, and is able to see it all at once. Am I following you correctly?

Jacob: It seems like you’ve got it, yes.

David: So, did He have this knowledge prior to creating everything? Or did He create everything, and then instantly observe it, and gain the knowledge?

Jacob: That is a good question. I believe He knew everything before creating it.

David: Ok. I’ve heard the view that God knew everything before creation because everything happens via His decree. So He knows things before they happen because He created everything in such a way that they will happen how He wants them to.

Jacob: Yes. That is what the historic reformers believed, but that is not the view that I would take. I believe that God knew in advance decisions that free creatures would make, were He to create such and such a universe, and then chose to create the universe based on that prior knowledge.

David: So that all took place in the mind of God, if you will, prior to creation?

Jacob: Yeah, that’s a good way to look at it.

David: I’m wondering about these free creatures then. So, He chose to create a world based on what He knew the free creatures He would create would do beforehand? That’s confusing.

Jacob: Haha, well we are getting into some pretty deep things. There have been a number of theories proposed as to why He chose to create this world instead of another. I think it has something to do with the fact that this world gives us the maximum amount of freedom, and ultimately brings about the most good or the most people that would come to salvation through faith in Christ.

David: It seems like God’s actions are dependent upon our actions, or at least the actions that we will do as soon as creation happens. I don’t think I quite understand how that works. How is it possible that God has thoughts about what free creatures will do before those creatures even exist?

Jacob: Well, I think God desires that we are free. The passages I used in the sermon demonstrated the freedom that we have. If we take that into account with the creation narrative in Genesis, I think we have a pretty solid biblical foundation for this.

David: If I remember correctly, you used Matthew 23:37, 1 Timothy 2:4, and 2 Peter 3:9. Is that right?

Jacob: Those were the main texts, yes.

David: You mentioned the historic reformers before. I believe they had different understandings of the verses you mentioned.

Jacob: That is true, but I don’t think they are convincing. If everything happens because God decrees it to happen, how are we able to “freely” love God? It seems like we would be forced to love, making us like robots.

David: That’s a good question, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. It occurred to me that we may have a strange aversion to being robots. Why would being robots be bad? I don’t think it’s a fair assessment of the reformed position, from my reading of it. But even if it were true, why don’t we like that idea?

Jacob: Because we know that we are free, and if we were robots, then there would be something controlling us or limiting our freedom. If someone were forced to love, that love wouldn’t be genuine.

David: That’s possible, but would it be a bad thing if the person doing the controlling were perfect?

Jacob: If everyone were saved, and nobody did anything bad or wrong, then that might be ok. Though I would still contend that our lacking freedom would mean that our “loving” God would be insincere. However, the bigger issue would be that if God was controlling everything, then He would be sending people to hell. That doesn’t seem very loving to me, especially since we know from 1 John 4:8 that God is love.

David: Well, I think we have a lot to discuss there. It’s my understanding that reformed people have always understood freedom to mean that you are only free to do what is in accordance with your nature. So, they would say that the idea of God sending someone to hell against their will is an inaccurate picture of their position. In their mind, people love their sin, and are in rebellion against God from the time they are born. So nobody is getting forcibly sent to hell against their will. A helpful analogy would be that there are two groups of people. One group God chooses to save, giving them mercy, and the other group are left to the love of their sin and rebellion, and proceed to hell, receiving justice. In the end, mercy and justice has been displayed, but there is no injustice in God. Does that make sense?

Jacob: Well, so far you have mentioned a lot of philosophy, and not very much Bible. This is why I, and by extension this church, prefer to avoid the terms Calvinist and Arminian. Those terms seem to imply that we are following various philosophies and traditions of men, whereas we seek to call ourselves Biblists.

David: I appreciate the desire to follow the Bible, as I believe all people in this discussion desire to do. I believe the Bible seems to teach compatibilism, which is the idea that the answer to the question “is this God willing or man willing?”,  would be “yes.” You can see this pretty clearly in a couple examples from the Bible, though there are many. The story of Joseph shows the clear intent of the brothers to do harm to Joseph, and to sell him into slavery. However, in Genesis 45:8, and even more prominently in Genesis 50:20, we see that while his brothers intended to harm him, God clearly sent him there to ultimately bring about good. The second example is the crucifixion of Jesus. Used by people on all sides of this discussion as the supreme example of both justice and love, it is also a perfect example of compatibilism. From Acts 2:23, and Acts 4:27-28 we see that Jesus was delivered up to be crucified according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, yet in all the accounts of the crucifixion, we see the people doing exactly what they wanted to do, even going so far as to say that His blood would be upon them and their children , and not Pilate.

Jacob: That may be all well and good, but how does that apply to the issue of free will or love and being robots?

David: I merely wanted to mention that to lay some of the biblical foundation for my earlier statements. If it is true that the Bible teaches compatibilism, then it would be possible for the definition of free will that I gave above, to stand. This would allow God to be completely sovereign, controlling everything, while still giving people the desires of their hearts and not “forcing” people to do things they don’t want to do. We believe that all people are born in sin (Psalm 51:5) , and that unless God chooses to change our nature, to remove the heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26), than nobody will voluntarily choose Him (Romans 3:11). Instead, people are chosen from the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) , before they are born and not based on works (Romans 9:11-13), and God will bring them to the end He has designed for us (Romans 8:29-30). If that makes us robots, then it is by Him who is perfect, and works everything according to the counsel of His will (Ephesians 1:11) , to His glory, while leaving our greatest desires in tact.

Jacob: Hmm. Well, I think there are still some problems in your view, but I’m afraid I have another appointment.

David: Thank you for giving me so much of your time. I hope we can talk more about this soon.

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

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