Author Archive

Greg Koukl On Pockets Of Agnosticism

The following is part of a meditation by apologist Greg Koukl that has been a companion of mine over the years. I always find myself coming back to it now and then, as a reminder that my experience of what he describes is not unusual. Perhaps others will feel the same.

I mentioned a little while ago that I was challenged by a thought made by a professor of mine, and the thought had to do with the notion of pockets of agnosticism in our lives. He simply made the observation that all Christians have pockets of agnosticism in their lives.
Now agnosticism simply is uncertainty, lack of knowledge. Technically speaking, an agnostic when expressing his world view says, “I don’t really know whether God exists or not. I don’t know what the structure of the world is. I am withholding judgment.” In a broader sense it is simply, in people’s lives, uncertainty about those things which are true. And the point that he was making is that all of us as Christians, and you can expand that to all of us as human beings, regardless of what it is that we happen to believe in, have pockets of agnosticism in our lives. We have times of uncertainty. We may have a conviction about a particular thing–about God’s existence or about His non-existence, for that matter, but we have times when we are pressed, and we get to reflecting, and we are just not quite sure.

First of all, I want to say I think if we are honest we would all acknowledge that that’s true. No matter what it is that we happen to believe in or disbelieve in, we’d all have to acknowledge that that’s true. That one has pockets of agnosticism is not necessarily a negative reflection on his belief, whatever it happens to be. This is not a reflection on any particular belief that there are problems with it, or uncertainties associated with it. This is a problem of knowledge in general. There is no system of belief that you will ever have that is going to answer all of the questions all of the time in a way that is coherent and satisfies all of your thinking. It seems that the nature of reality and the limitations of knowledge are such that there are going to be things that we’re just not certain about. And so in a sense, we have to place our bets with the best hand.

Read the rest.

Wanted–A Man

Brett and Kate McKay, the geniuses (IMHO) behind The Art of Manliness, share an excerpt from a motivational book published about a century ago. Thankfully, I can say that I am not so shaped by the cynicism of our culture that it did not move me. Maybe some of our readers will feel the same.

If the youth should start out with the fixed determination that every statement he makes shall be the exact truth; that every promise he makes shall be redeemed to the letter; that every appointment shall be kept with the strictest faithfulness and with full regard for other men’s time; if he should hold his reputation as a priceless treasure, feel that the eyes of the world are upon him that he must not deviate a hair’s breadth from the truth and right; if he should take such a stand at the outset, he would . . .come to have almost unlimited credit and the confidence of everybody who knows him.

What are palaces and equipages; what though a man could cover a continent with his title-deeds, or an ocean with his commerce; compared with conscious rectitude, with a face that never turns pale at the accuser’s voice, with a bosom that never throbs with fear of exposure, with a heart that might be turned inside out and disclose no stain of dishonor? To have done no man a wrong; to have put your signature to no paper to which the purest angel in heaven might not have been an attesting witness; to walk and live, unseduced, within arm’s length of what is not your own, with nothing between your desire and its gratification but the invisible law of rectitude;—this is to be a man.

Psychology And The Christian Difference

Below are some comments a friend wrote, reflecting on issues raised by Ed Welch‘s book Blame It on the Brain. The thoughts on the significance of original sin especially, seemed important to me:

Welch’s basic map is actually very useful. The question is one of subjectivity and agency. Modern psychology is generally, though not entirely, under the spell of the “hard” sciences, which means, mechanistic figuration. This means that much of modern psychology will tend toward an impersonalist, materialist account of human behavior- not just abnormal behavior, but normal behavior too. As Welch notes, there are in fact basic physical injuries or imbalances which lead to behavioral abnormality, and for which the person is not culpable. And there are in fact conscious decisions which, however sneakily or self-deceivingly executed, are the person’s full responsibility. But then there is a vast range of things which are neither one nor the other exactly, and many of these are impressions and habits of soul which predate age of reason or full moral agency, that is, date from childhood exposure to traumatic circumstances when the person is still very plastic and impressionable, and deforming responses developed to such trauma can be very compelling and experienced almost as “nature”, rather than habit. Too, even in adulthood, certain kinds of trauma can strike a person’s heart so profoundly that pre-conscious deformative responses are developed in reaction. And these deformations can create certain specific dispositions to sin, though, as Welch notes, barring real insanity, we have to assert that the person is not compellingly determined to sin by these complexes.

The problem with Freud, of course, is that although he described “neuroses” with great acuity, he regarded the human person as epiphenomenal to a mechanical (he liked hydarulic metaphors) libido which was “channeled” this way or that by stimuli, rather than seeing neuroses as responses of the whole person, though at levels which seem or feel pre-conscious or unconscious. But the truth is that “neurotic” responses are in fact responses of the whole person, though we cannot identify the whole person with the fully “conscious” ego which we habitually regard, in reflection, as the “self”.

Thus far, any philosophical psychology can and should go, and in this regard, I recommend highly the works of JH Vandenberg and the other phenomenological psychologists of the 20th century.

What then is the specifically Christian difference? There must be one, by Brunner’s Law, because this isn’t math or physics or carpentry. This has to do with the image of God and his God-ordained path to blessedness. The problem with many “Christian” approaches is that, as the Dooyeweerdians rightly note, they work with a picture of a “spiritual” man who is basically an angel in flesh, but ahistoric and simple. Thus, there is a tendency to want to reduce all psychotherapy to either a) exorcism, or b) church discipline. This is an enormously stupid mistake. In reaction, we now have Christian counseling which, although it might be fine philosophically (meaning, personalist and non-materialist), is hardly Christian at all, though in a secularist and materialist age, philosophical rectitude is already *so* different from the prevalent model that Christians can mistake it for being specifically Christian. So what is the Christian difference?

I’d say that in part it lies in pointing out the sinful nature of deformative responses even if they aren’t per se sin or conscious sin. The old distinction between original and actual sin is useful here. If I’m bullied badly as a kid, and no adult steps in to restore justice, I might develop some really ugly wrath-responses which, although quite intelligible as self-defense maneuvers, derive from my fallen heart’s supposition of scarce, merely general, or even nonexistent Providence (not knowing truly that God is my Father), and ignorance of unity of man and the divine law of charity. And most specifically, the fallen heart is ignorant of the fact that God’s Son has absorbed and quenched in His flesh all sin, not just of man against God, but of man against man. Or I might develop fear-introversion responses; but the roots would be the same- original sin, by which I am totally depraved. Merely philosophical psychology runs aground here precisely on questions of constitutional depravity, and also of theodicy, and here, it has to be informed by Christian revelation in order to be of final use to people.

We cannot bypass the specific personal history and habituation of persons and reduce their problems, if they are genuine, to abstract “sin” categories, though those categories are certainly relevant to the consideration. The complexity and depth of original sin is, as it were, transpersonal; and grasping the historicity of persons is essential in getting to the cure of them. But must also insist that life in Christ, although not a magical abolition of problematic history, is indeed redemptive of it, and not just in the abstract. The concrete ways it is so can be shown in particular cases.

With some qualifications, I recommend the the works of Tournier as exemplary.

The Nature Of OT Laws

I just today found some thought provoking work done by my friend Brad Littlejohn a couple years back on the nature of some OT case laws. More specifically, he is, in various ways, fielding arguments from the perspective of Reconstructionists and theonomists (though also to some degree from people outside those camps, such as Christopher Wright and Umberto Cassuto) which suggest that many laws, especially several of an economic nature, were not enforced in Israel. They were considered as moral exhortations without legal force. Littlejohn argues ultimately that this is an anachronistic imposition of modern liberal legal perspectives onto the Torah.

Three posts on the subject: 1, 2, 3.

And his main essay: The Heart of Torah: Understanding Law, Justice, and Mercy in the Old Testament. [Since the direct link didn't seem to work, to find the essay, go here and scroll to the very bottom of the page: Writings]

Class War Is Mutual Destruction

I’ve been slowly ploughing through Emil Brunner’s Justice and the Social Order. Soon, I hope to have some more extensive thoughts on it to share. It has been an encouraging experience. For the moment, though, I’d like to offer one passage I just read that, I think, demonstrates Brunner’s insight into the connection between the created order and our everyday realities.

The capitalist or employer who regards his workers merely as “factors in production,” as “hands” whom he can dismiss whenever he finds it more profitable, who feels no common bond with them but his immediate interest in profit, repudiates the bond of common service with them. He regards his workers in the same way as a bad general regards his men as cannon fodder. The Marxist worker, on the other hand, for whom even the employer whose attitude is totally different, and who has a full sense of responsibility, is only the exploiter, denies the community of labour and rends asunder what belongs together by order of creation. The primary wrong has to be laid to the charge of that kind of capitalist, but the secondary wrong, arising as its result and hence more pardonable, is not less disastrous. On both sides the class war is the mutual destruction of the community of labour. And yet economic life is precisely the field in which the mutual bond, the mutual dependence of the responsible chief with the authority vested in him by the matter in hand, and the worker submitting in confidence of his own free will, exhibits most clearly the difference of kind and function and the equality of personal dignity established in creation. (192)

On Becoming Machines

Nicholas Carr relays a profound warning from Joseph Weizenbaum in his fascinating book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains:

What makes us most human, Weizenbaum had come to believe, is what is least computable about us— the connections between our mind and our body, the experiences that shape our memory and our thinking, our capacity for emotion and empathy. The great danger we face as we become more intimately involved with our computers— as we come to experience more of our lives through the disembodied symbols flickering across our screens— is that we’ll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines. The only way to avoid that fate, Weizenbaum wrote, is to have the self-awareness and the courage to refuse to delegate to computers the most human of our mental activities and intellectual pursuits, particularly “tasks that demand wisdom.” (Kindle Locations 3526-3532–and yes, I recognize the irony).

Of course, we’re in no danger of doing that…

Bruce Winter On 1 Corinthians 7:17-24

I want to engage briefly with an argument regarding 1 Cor 7:17-24 Bruce Winter has put forward in Seek the Welfare of the City. In that text, Paul commends Christians to remain in the calling (Winter argues this should be translated “class”) they were in when they were converted. He then applies this to several specific cases: (1) removing circumcision; (2) becoming circumcised; (3) being released from slavery; and (4) becoming a slave.

Winter’s suggests that general reason Paul opposed changing classes in these cases was that the motive behind doing so was to increase social status. This would imply Paul did not approve of desiring increased social status.

To add a bit more detail to his case (see chapter 8 of the book, “Social Mobility”, for the full case) In the case of removing circumcision, being circumcised was often looked down on by Gentiles, and thus removing all traces of Jewish ancestry could indeed help one to be upwardly mobile. On the matter of becoming circumcised, Winter argues (more specifically in regard to Galatians 6:12, but says it applies here as well) that Gentile Christians could be tempted to do this in order to attain the status of religio licita, which would obviously be an improvement for someone who could not worship the emperor but had no legal exemption from doing so (the precarious position of many Gentile Christians). On being released from slavery, Winter emphasizes that this was a concession, and that Paul also that Christian slaves should not be anxious about their status. On becoming a slave, Winter notes that some forms of slavery available in the Roman empire could actually lead to improvements in status for some free people. He also notes that becoming a slave normally included an act of implicit idolatry, swearing by the genius of the paterfamilias. (more…)

A Study In Contrasts

James K. A. Smith put up an interesting post the other day, responding to a pointed question about his ecclesiology: Response to Deroo: Whose Church? Which Ecclesiology?

I basically just want to use this post to set out a contrast. Smith’s position is nicely outlined in the post itself:

Can I begin in a negative mode by identifying what the church is not? When I speak of the church, I am not thinking of the “one, true denomination” and certainly not thinking of my denomination—or some other denomination or communion that I romantically think is “the” church. I’m also not primarily thinking of a local congregation, though local congregations are necessary instantiations of the wider body of Christ. Furthermore, nowhere do I suggest the two definitions that Neal articulates (“those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God…” or “those who have the Holy Spirit inside them”) would be adequate to define an ecclesiology.

So what do I mean by “the church,” then? Let me try to improvise in response to that question. Neal is right to see my understanding of the church is “institutional” and bound up with “Nicene orthodoxy.” He also rightly highlights that I see the “the church” primarily as a community of practice, which I would articulate in the MacIntyrean sense.[2] As a community of practice, the church would be informed by a narrative and a tradition that specify and substantiate the “standards of excellence” for that community of practice (without which there is no community of practice[3]).

So perhaps I could say that the church is that trans-national community of practice (a “body politic”) rooted in the biblical narrative as specified by the “catholic” tradition of both the creeds and the liturgical heritage.[4] In the history of the church, our language for “standards of excellence” has been “canon.” As William Abraham helpfully emphasizes, the “canons” of Christian orthodoxy include more than “the canon”; they also include “ecclesial canons” which “comprise materials, persons, and practices officially or semi-officially identified and set apart as a means of grace and salvation by the Christian community. They are represented by such entities as creed, Scripture, liturgy, iconography, the Fathers, and sacraments.”[5] This is what it means when we confess the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.”

So the church is an international community of practice, a body politic, normed by the ecclesial canons of documents (“in which the very ‘canon’ of Scripture is a product of the canons of the ecclesia”), persons, and practices that have come to be part of the bedrock of Nicene Christianity.

In contrast, I’d like to quote from Peter Escalante, summarizing the magisterial Protestant position on what the church is: (more…)

A Meditation On Music

Apropos of nothing in particular, I want to consider the significance of music in the creation. Especially in the modern world of iPods, car radios, and high-tech stereos, music is ubiquitous. But I think even in previous days, it’s probably likely most or many people would at least whistle or hum a tune to pass the time. Music is a part of what it means to be human.

Daniel J. Levitin in his now famous This Is Your Brain On Music, expresses his belief in the idea that we are born with an innate capacity to learn any of the world’s musical languages (109). At the same time, he notes that “Just how this structure [in sound] leads us to experience emotional reactions is part of the mystery of music. After all, we don’t get all weepy eyed when we experience other kinds of structure in our lives, such as a balanced checkbook or the orderly arrangement of first-aid products in a drugstore (well, at least most of us don’t),” (109).

I don’t propose to have a certain answer to this question. Nor its related question: what is the purpose of music? Why do we live in a universe where music has this effect on us at all? But I may have some inkling of a suggestion. Firstly, Bono makes this comment in his meditation, Psalm Like it Hot: “Anyway, I stopped going to churches and got into a different kind of religion. Don’t laugh. That’s what being in a rock ‘n’ roll band is. Showbiz is shamanism, music is worship. Whether it’s worship of women or their designer, the world or its destroyer, whether it comes from that ancient place we call soul or simply the spinal cortex, whether the prayers are on fire with a dumb rage or dove-like desire, the smoke goes upwards, to God or something you replace God with — usually yourself.” Listening to music, and even moreso, being a part of a musical event with other people, often produces this numinous feeling. Consider the lyrics (and the reactions of the concertgoers) of this rendition of the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong”:

Bono is right to note that it can be directed at various different objects. But there is undeniably something about music that takes us out of the merely animal, either moving us in the direction of the angels, or that of the demons.

Secondly, John W. Kleinig has argued that 2 Chronicles 29:30b should be translated “So they sang praises until there was rejoicing, and bowed down and worshipped.” In other words, the Levitical musicians and the writers of scripture recognized that music had this incredible power that humanity has recognized since time immemorial. And they exploited this function of music to shift the minds of Israel towards God in his grace, and to direct them to worship. Now, there is nothing here that suggests the effects of music are the same thing as experiencing God, as some people, both ancient and modern, have suggested. But it leads me to wonder, at least, if one of the main reasons God has given us music is to prepare ourselves for his presence. In other words, and perhaps this is obvious, but is the primary purpose of music to raise our minds above the merely mundane, to open us to something outside of us? And perhaps it is because it has this purpose that it can have all kinds of other wonderful effects on us?

Empire And The Responsibility To Protect

I just finished reading Christopher Bryan’s Render to Caesar, and a selection from the Pliny’s letters he quotes near the end of the book made me think of contemporary discussions of the “responsibility to protect”. Pliny:

Again, and again–yes, I have to repeat this–you must remember the title of your office and understand what it means: you must remember what it is, and how great a thing it is, to establish order in the constitution of free cities. For what is more important for a city than ordered rule, and what more precious than liberty? (Letters 8)

And from the wiki entry on R2P:

Following the genocide in Rwanda and the international community’s failure to intervene, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan asked the question, when does the international community intervene for the sake of protecting populations?

The Canadian government established the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in September 2000. In February 2001, at the third round table meeting of the ICISS in London, Gareth Evans, Mohamed Sahnoun and Michael Ignatieff suggested the phrase “responsibility to protect” as a way to avoid the “right to intervene” or “obligation to intervene” doctrines and yet keep a degree of duty to act to resolve humanitarian crises.[6]

In December 2001, the ICISS released its report, The Responsibility to Protect. The report presented the idea that sovereignty is a responsibility and that the international community had the responsibility to prevent mass atrocities. Economic, political, and social measures were to be used along with diplomatic engagement. Military intervention was presented as a last resort. R2P included efforts to rebuild by bringing security and justice to the victim population and by finding the root cause of the mass atrocities.[7]

For those who are not pacifists, we at least have to consider: might there not be situations where “imperialism” could actually be a beneficent thing? I have difficulty, at least, completely ruling out every conceivable version of it.