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

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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.

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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

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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

Which Golden Rule?

A lot of people think the “golden rule” should be the way we live, whether we are secular, religious, spiritual, or something else. Everyone knows what the golden rule is. You’re supposed to only do to other people what you would want them to do to you. But what happens when there’s a conflict of interests?

There are the extreme examples of people who we would categorize as sociopaths, where they desire pain and misery on themselves (for one reason or another) and therefore will desire to inflict these things on others. If you take the golden rule to be axiomatic, and all by itself, then you really can’t refute the reasoning of these people.

Thankfully, the golden rule as Jesus presents it (who was the first to put it in a positive, instead of negative way), it’s not thrown out by itself, and is rather connected to His other teachings. In Matthew 7:12, we read “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” This isn’t the only time that Jesus mentions something that sums up the Law and the Prophets (a common way to refer to the Old Testament), and similarly to His usage of the phrase in Matthew 22:40, His using it here is not an accident.

However you interpret doing unto others what you want them to do to you, it must be in sync with everything in the Old Testament. This is helpful when the examples aren’t as extreme as the ones listed above too. For example, I want people to try my ideas by fire. I want iron to sharpen iron, and I enjoy debate and discussing things in heated ways. However, most people don’t usually want something that intense (something I keep forgetting). So what I have to keep in mind is that while those things aren’t necessarily bad in themselves, there are deeper truths those point to, and ultimately this is usually not how people in either the Old or New testaments deal with things.

I’ve been reading a book about communication, and one of the things the author talks about is how certain Biblical authors, Paul in particular, would frequently write to churches and take a great deal of time talking about his joy in what the believers there had been doing correctly, and then moved on to some correction. I think this has huge apologetic ramifications. In most situations I just jump right into correction, without realizing that most of the time, people won’t respond well to that. As apologists, dealing with Christians in particular, what would be the better path is to point them to the truths that you both hold in common, or things they understand well, and then move on from there. I’m still learning a lot in this regard, and this is a bird’s eye view of my thoughts recently, but I would just ask that you keep this in mind in your interactions with people. Also, pray for me that I make progress in this area too. I would seriously recommend the book mentioned above. It’s been super convicting to me, and I’ve only started.

My prayer is that I/we live thoroughly Biblical lives, and that includes everything in the Bible, not just bits and pieces in isolation.

SDG

Are You Happy?

I’ve been thinking for the last month or so on the idea of happiness, and after having gone over several different things relating to this, I’d like to share my thoughts.

There’s a scene in the movie Tombstone where an actress asks Wyatt Earp if he’s happy, and after stammering for a bit he asks her the same question, to which her response is “I’m always happy…unless I’m bored.” and I think this just might be our culture’s response too. The idea that boredom is somehow linked to happiness, such that if you can cure boredom you should be happy, is a fascinating idea, and one that I think has some consequences.

File:Smiley.svg

For a while I found it interesting that people seemed incapable of defining what happiness was. It was always linked with other things, which made it seem like they were simply attaching the notion/emotion of happiness to those things, rather than seeking happiness itself. Of course, you see this sort of thing all the time, what with all the “They say money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you ___ , and that’s basically the same thing.” memes floating around.

So what is happiness? Well, I think it’s a temporary emotional/mental state that can be caused by all sorts of things. It’s the temporary aspect of it that interests me most, because I remember reading somewhere that an effect of the fall (read Genesis 3) is that we can’t remain in various “good” states. I’ll leave the theological aspect of that statement aside, but when combined with the following quote from C.S. Lewis, it really got me thinking: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

With those things in mind, I settled on a further definition of happiness, not only is it a temporary emotional/mental state, but it is also the shadow of joy. The idea of joy, to me, seems like it is more grounded than happiness. I think you could think of joy as being happiness mixed with contentment. The Bible has a lot to say about joy, and while sometimes it does seem to be used synonymously with happiness, I think most of the time it’s pointing to something more than that. This contrasts greatly with the secular society’s definition of happiness.

I think before we go further, it might be helpful to look at why joy is lacking from the secular world, and instead there is nothing but a mad rush for happiness. Happiness, isn’t bad in itself, but when it becomes an idol, it is. Just do a quick search through Amazon for books relating to the word “happy” and you’ll see that happiness is big business. Everyone wants to sell the secret to happiness, and especially lifelong happiness. We have a society that is driven by the next, new, thing. Therefore, you won’t be happy until you have the new thing, so you really don’t want someone to be happy for a lifetime, since that might lessen their desire for your product. Ravi Zacharias has a great quote to this end: “The driving force behind our thriving marketing industry and the sovereignty of technopoly (to use Neil Postman’s phrase) is to create new hungers to help us forget old ones.”

But there is something deeper here as well, and I think it has to do with the idea of purpose or meaning. Here, again, Ravi is on point

“Every now and then I am tempted to ask the speaker in an academic setting what he or she means by the statement ‘I have found meaning in life.’ Is there an agreed-upon unit of measurement by which we can all exclaim ‘There it is!’? Or are we condemned to wallow in culturally relative quotients, ever changing the point of reference and relegating meaning to a sense of happiness or to how one feels at a given moment? More often than not I fear, this is, indeed, the level to which any treatment on meaning is reduced; why else would a nation consider the pursuit of happiness as fundamental to its existence?”

I will leave the issues of whether or not the pursuit of happiness has been misused to those who know more about law than I do, but I think the quote is quite potent nonetheless. In order to not invoke a sense of transcendence for meaning in life (a point I’ll get back to later), secularism has to ground meaning in humanity somehow (since evolution is, they admit, purposeless). You see various social systems (marxism, communism, etc.) wrestle with how this works, but basically, feeling good is the greatest way to have purpose in your life, and however that looks for you, then go for it. This can take any number of forms, not all of them bad, but this does leave the eventual end of all things a rather glaring problem with trying to ground meaning in happiness.

Christianity has another answer to the question of how to find meaning in life, and it has to do with joy. As we looked at earlier, joy seems to be a good mix of happiness and contentment, but where does joy get its contentment from? The ancient philosophers talked about “the good” and how certain things in life can be traced back to it. And while there are large conversations to be had on the pros and cons of their analysis (see Plato and Aristotle on the subject), there is a different direction to go than they often went.

Christians maintain that God is good. It is an aspect of His character, and therefore is the grounding of all goodness that is experienced or found in this life. And since He is the grounding of all goodness, than this is where we find the grounding for joy (contentment + happiness). This is why Paul could say that he had learned to be content in all things (Phil. 4:10-13), and why rapper KB can say that “life isn’t breathing, life is knowing God”.

Happiness comes and goes, and as such it points us to the grounding of happiness, joy, contentment, and goodness, and that is God. Seek Him, while He may be found. (Isaiah 55:6)

SDG

The New Legalism

What comes to mind when you hear the word “legalism”? For me, I think of old, hard things. A big list of do’s and don’ts and a set of rules that you have to live by very strictly. The pictures that come to mind are stone-faced people who never laugh or smile or have any fun. If you’re not a Christian, that word might not make any sense, but you’ll at least get a connection to the law (legal) some how.

In my experience with different Christian people, the term ‘legalism’ also has a different meaning. If someone is a legalist, it means they’re very concerned with things that aren’t all that important, like using specific or technical terminology, or having a certain knowledge of something or holding to a certain position etc. Technically, the word as it’s used in the Bible refers to people who thought they could earn salvation by following/doing certain things that were written down in the law. The law did refer to the 10 commandments, but it also was used to refer to the Old Testament as a whole.

For a lot of Christians, when the word ‘legalism’ comes to mind, you might get a picture of the 10 commandments etched into stone tablets, and maybe the wrath of God comes to mind or something along those lines. Something like this:

Surprisingly, I think the two pictures in this blog have a lot in common. My generation grew up under the teaching of certain Biblical truths that I think are precious, but I think they have been over-stressed at the exclusion of some other ones. The things that were stressed were things like these:

    • God is more concerned with the heart. (Acts 15:8, Luke 16:15)
    • Don’t judge. (Matthew 7:1-5)
    • Love is the most important thing. (1 Corinthians 13:13, 1 Corinthians 13: 1-2, Matthew 22:37-39)
    • It’s more important to do, than just to say/think. (James 1:22-25)
    • God wants a relationship with you. (John 3:16, 1 John 4:19)

There are more, but these are a few good ones. How does this relate to legalism? Well, legalism revolves around works, or our doing of something. The technical term has salvation as its end, the more modern understanding has some sort of obeying laws or using the right terms etc. as their end. I think these lead to the same thing, works or doing something to achieve a certain end.

There is truth in all the bullet points listed above (I won’t go into all of them), but when they are stressed to the exclusion of, or detached from, other Biblical truths, then we start to get into bad territory. Smarter people have defined this as “legalism lite”, and while that is an accurate way of describing it, I don’t think it really gets the feel of what this phenomenon is. I think it’s better to say that it is a lifestyle legalism.

The reason for this is that one of the mantras that came out of church culture in the 90’s was “Christianity is a relationship/lifestyle, not a religion”, and this idea of lifestyle is the driving force behind the new legalism. Lifestyle Legalism still stresses “do this, don’t do that” , but it’s sneakier and goes undetected because it’s nicer. Think of it this way, would you rather go listen to a lecture on ethics or watch a video on youtube about being a real, loving, good Christian? The two might have identical content, but one sounds boring and cold, while the other sounds happy and welcoming.

To make it more explicit, I’m going to list out some of the commandments of lifestyle legalism, without the more happy context.

    • Be real
    • Do not be fake
    • Do not be hypocritical
    • Don’t get drunk
    • Don’t swear
    • Wear conservative clothing
    • Be loving, kind, and nice
    • Don’t judge others
    • Love people
    • Don’t gossip

Those sound almost just as cold and law-like as the 10 commandments, don’t they? The idea that comes from this sort of teaching is that you have to live your life around doing or not doing so many things, that by doing them, you will be living the Christian life. Unfortunately, we too often get people who call themselves Christians, but are basically just nice people. The wonderful truth about the gospel is that we are free from being under the curse of the law, so that we may live as unto Christ. James makes it perfectly clear that good works flow out of what Christ has done for us and what the Holy Spirit is doing in us, , but they do not earn us anything. Salvation comes by grace alone, and we cannot add anything to the completed work of Christ. Sanctification and holiness are things God love and demands of us, while bringing us through it, but our own efforts lead only to law, and to death.

Whether the laws sound cold and hard, or they are the happy, nice, lifestyle laws of today, they do not save anyone by people doing them. Let us always be looking to Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, to give us the strength to live our lives to glorify Him, and to become more like Him, and to rely on His strength, not our own.

SDG

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